Friday, February 17, 2017

The Love Seekers by Jay Carr

This vintage 1963 paperback might once have been described as “sleaze.” Sleaze is now called “erotica” which is the academic community’s way of applying manners to frank discussions about the horizontal bop. It’s all about sex, complicated relationships, and more sex. The cover artwork appeals to the testosterone crowd and generally gets across the book’s theme. Published by Beacon-Signal, whose phallic lighthouse logo was an indication of the lively prose one would find in their books, The Love Seekers is far less explicit than you might expect. The Love Seekers is about three girls in a boarding house – Nina, Joyce and Jerri – and the ignited passions they experience with Eddie and Martin, the two very lucky males who, if you’ll pardon the expression, come onto their radar. I think “boarding houses” must also be a thing from the past. I don’t know of any boarding houses any more (essentially, cut-rate dormitory style hotels). After reading The Love Seekers you’ll want to hitch-hike across the country, check into a cheap boarding house, and frolic with girls like Nina, Joyce and Jerri. There are worse things you could be doing with your time. Books like The Love Seekers are about desire, physical and emotional, and the trouble it causes under certain circumstances. Nina is the granddaughter of the boarding house owner and involves herself with men out of boredom; Jerri is a wealthy heiress also bored with life who finds excitement giving herself to men; and Joyce is married but unfulfilled. Martin and Eddie find themselves saddled with some unique problems in addition to their own wacky lives. The tag line makes it all clear: “An intimate glimpse of life as it is really lived behind the respectable facade of a down-at-the-heels rooming house.” Sounds like a good place to check in.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Need More Road by Stephen Jared

Every time I read one of Stephen Jared’s books I come away from the experience impressed by his insight into human nature. He knows people, and he understands their foibles, idiosyncrasies, desires and dreams. His fiction is dramatic, adventuresome, and infused with real emotion. I can never guess how the plot will turn out, but I am compelled to turn the page. Need More Road is a heartfelt story about Eddie Howard, a bachelor with a lonely life. He takes pleasure in movies because there’s not much else to do in post-war Barstow, California. Working as a bank clerk, his life changes when a knockout blonde doll with movie star looks walks into the bank to set up an account. The tension builds inexorably, and the woman, Mary Rose, is part of a plan to rob the bank. I will say no more regarding the plot, except that Eddie and Mary share a long and winding road together. This is a short novel, and the pacing is even. The circumstances Eddie and Mary Rose find themselves in have an existential feel to them, which by its literary application involves the characters experiencing confusion in our absurd world. This is not blatant, but rather a feeling I had reading the book. Hollywood is part of the background, but greed and desire drive the plot which lends a film noir feel to the narrative. I don’t know if Jared intended that, but the tone is the direct result of Eddie and Mary Rose’s actions. Eddie sometimes struck me as a Walter Mitty type, and in one brief scene he imagines making love to Mary Rose in Paris when he’s actually at a dismal gas station. His relationship with Mary Rose after the robbery is surreal. Stephen Jared is a splendid writer, and the prose flows seamlessly. I enjoyed Need More Road, as I have enjoyed all of his stories. Jared has a natural born talent, which is complemented by his career as a professional actor in Hollywood. Kudos!

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

Titled Les Racines du ciel in France, the novel won the 1956 Prix Goncourt, a prestigious literary award administered by the académie Goncourt.  The book was translated into English by Jonathan Griffin and published in hardcover as The Roots of Heaven in January, 1958. Shown here is the second paperback edition (September, 1958) featuring Errol Flynn and Juliette Greco on the cover although their names never appear anywhere on the book. This edition coincided with the release of the Twentieth Century Fox film. Director John Huston and producer Darryl F. Zanuck are named on the book’s cover. For vintage paperback collectors this is the Pocket Books Cardinal Giant GC-61 and priced at 50 cents upon its release. The page count is 389 pages which was thick for a traditional pocket paperback. Gary’s novel is quite good, although my assessment is obviously based upon the translation. The protagonist is Morel, who is described as a man who exceeds loneliness and is quoted as saying: “People feel so damned lonely, they need company, they need something bigger, stronger, to lean on, something that can really stand up to it all. Dogs aren’t enough; what we need is elephants…” There are enough motifs and themes in all of post-World War II French literature to keep an academic elbow deep in analysis for a lifetime, and these ideas are sprinkled throughout the narrative, although I discerned nothing that was blatant other than Gary’s intent that Morel represents an “allegory of ideas.” His fixation on elephants drives the plot. Readers are free to infer what analogies they may as the adventure unfolds. The supporting players are a diverse lot and add substantial texture. This includes Minna, a German girl had had lost her innocence when Berlin fell to the Allies; A brainwashed American officer named Johnny Forsythe; a photographer, a gunrunner and various hangers-on who cross the path of the idealist Morel. The subject matter is typical of a post-war novel and stated implicitly throughout the narrative: “…the elephants were only a pretext, a useful means of propaganda, the symbol of the exploitation of African natural resources by foreign capitalism. They knew of course that colonialism had implanted itself in Africa because of ivory, before turning to more lucrative sports. The elephants were also a convenient image of African power on the march – a power that nothing could stop…they were an anachronism, a weight tied to the legs of a new, modern, industrialized and electrified Africa. They were a survival from a tribal darkness.” (p.213) Morel’s fate is inextricably tied to the elephants and the encroachment upon Africa of an industrialized age. The Roots of Heaven itself is stylistically removed from today’s clipped journalistic prose, even among the French, and its vast array of characters and monologues all combine for an enlightening reading experience for any anyone willing to tackle the book. I enjoyed it, and I took my sweet time reading it to allow its ideas to resonate. It’s easy to see why John Huston was attracted to the material, and while it’s true he said later that he disliked his own film, The Roots of Heaven has its merits. I agree that the film is meandering, and Huston never fully came to grips with Morel’s character and the impetus behind his actions. But Trevor Howard as Morel is wonderful, and the great Errol Flynn, in a brief and watered-down version of the Forsythe character, turns in a superb performance as an aging alcoholic.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

This riveting and superbly told tale is highly recommended for historians and armchair scholars alike. Douglas Preston has written a true-life adventure story that is layered with a texture of history, wild characters, dangerous situations, and exotic locations. There is intrigue, suspense, and notebooks of facts and figures, and it all flows into a compelling and unforgettable story. To his credit, Douglas Preston never presents himself as a hero of any type; in fact, quite the opposite. He paints himself as an impartial but excited observer. The Lost City of the Monkey God is Preston’s chronicle of a series of events commencing in 2012 when he joined a team of scientists and visited a remote Honduran archeological site which turned out to be the sprawling remnants of a lost civilization. I couldn’t put this book down. You’ll meet the diverse and talented team that includes Steve Elkins, the late Bruce Heinicke, Chris Fisher, Andrew Wood, Bill Berenson and so many others. Douglas Preston acknowledges their hard work with respect and admiration. The tale of this lost city involves several historical figures, and Preston gives each his attention. The ghosts of William Duncan Strong, Sam Glassmire and Theodore Morde haunt the story, as readers will discover. The historical events leading up to this expedition involve heroic exploration, wild adventure, deceit, deception, legends and lies. Taken together, the tale of Ciudad Blanca, the “White City,” reads like a pulp fiction adventure story, except it’s all real. Preston also documents the public criticism of the expedition, which he handles fairly. You’ll get a taste of the academic community’s seamy side and wonder how such allegedly educated people can wallow in greed and egotism. This is my perception, not Preston’s who handles the matter diplomatically, although you won’t have to guess what his opinion is. The sobering facts at the conclusion are an eye-opener involving the transmission of certain diseases, and the importance of Preston’s story wasn’t lost on this reader. There are several pages of photographs, but I would have preferred a few more photos. I highly recommend The Lost City of the Monkey God. Douglas Preston has told an amazing story that you won’t want to miss!

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Long Night of Winchell Dear by Robert James Waller

My friend David DeWitt gave me this book in Los Angeles in 2009 where we had come to celebrate Errol Flynn’s centenary at filmmaker Jack Marino’s home. I began reading it on the flight back to Chicago. The Long Night of Winchell Dear is both a novella and a Modern Western, two categories that generally don’t elicit excitement. Waller’s blockbuster best-seller, The Bridges of Madison County, quickly made him a fan favorite of the literati, but the mainstream critics too often dismiss him. Waller has been criticized for being sentimental and romantic. Yes, he is, but why is that bad? Waller is a superb storyteller. His stories are compelling, the characters believable, and the prose is alive with the sights and sounds of the world around us. My only complaint about Robert James Waller is that he doesn’t publish enough which is a purely selfish criticism on my part. The Long Night of Winchell Dear is a really fine story. I know it sounds cliché, but I couldn’t put it down. A tale of the past, the desert and the intersecting lives of several people, I found myself captivated by Winchell Dear, a Texas gambler living in the desert. His life is suddenly connected to that of the Indian Peter Long Grass and a Mexican woman named Sonia Dominguez. Hurtling in their direction in a Lincoln Continental are two killers intent on their special mission. Something evil is blowing in on the night wind and Winchell Dear senses it. The prose is lush, charged with a foreboding sense of terror, and readers will be challenged to read this one slowly. I’ve read The Long Night of Winchell Dear twice now. Obviously I’m quite fond of this book. I recommend you check out some of Waller’s other books including Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, Puerto Vallarta Squeeze and High Plains Tango. A tip of the Stetson to David DeWitt who traveled a long way himself to give me this book.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Death is My Shadow by Edward S. Aarons

I’m a fan of the Sam Durrell thrillers that made Edward S. Aarons a best-selling author, but he also wrote the occasional stand-alone mystery. Death is My Shadow is one of those, published in hardcover in 1957 and reprinted in paperback by McFadden in 1965. I don’t think it’s his best book by any stretch, but Aarons was good at his craft in so many different ways that I’ll still recommend this one. Peter Byrum, a Navy man released from service after an accident that haunts him, returns home to New Orleans to pick up the pieces of his life. His girl, Clemi, is waiting for him, and his pal, Steve Dulaney. Byrum learns that his pal Steve has been accused of murder, and his involvement with the blonde giant of a man named Rudge and Serena Thayer lead Byrum down a road of deceit, seduction and death. The plot is complex, at least in its presentation, but once you peel back the layers the true level of skill employed in crafting this nifty thriller will be apparent to all. The New Orleans mob will not be happy with Byrum by the end of this one, but he’s a man with confidence and inner strength. While the action sometimes feels rushed, I still enjoyed it. Aarons is infinitely enjoyable. What he does with fourteen chapters and 128 pages should be a lesson for suspense writers who these days take way too long to tell their story. I gave up on the padded and overlong novels flaunted as “best-sellers” specifically for that reason. Aarons gets right to it, and when its over you’ll feel like one of his heroes – a little worn out but tough-as-nails and happy to have survived the thrill ride.

Friday, January 13, 2017

I Spy: Message from Moscow by Brandon Keith

This 1966 Whitman hardback was a vital book for a generation that came of age watching the television show. It has since become one of Whitman’s highly sought after 1960s TV tie-in titles that collector’s love. I Spy: Message from Moscow is a pedestrian book, of interest today only because the television program it was based on has become a cult classic. What’s lacking in this story by author Brandon Keith is any of the pizazz and charm that actors Robert Culp and Bill Cosby instilled into their performances. It reads like the flat, exploitative product that it is, and even the artwork by Al Andersen, Ernie Kollar and John Miller fails to evoke any nostalgia associated with the famed TV show. I was thrilled to own this book in 1966 even though it failed to charm me. It is a collector’s item solely based on its appeal as a cultural artifact from the 1960s. Nostalgia is a part of its appeal, and that alone may account for some high prices I’ve see tagged onto this book. This book was written for young readers. I’m not saying the writing is bad, but it’s flat and uninteresting. This is a book that I’ve always wished was better than it is. The book’s physical merits lie in its cover design and endpapers which emulate the TV show’s opening montage. Later, I’ll post something about the I Spy paperback series, written for adults by Walter Wagner under the pseudonym John Tiger, and which are much better. I Spy: Message from Moscow is a must-have book for the I Spy fan and collector only.