The L.A. Times Book Festival

Hitting the Books on Earth Day

I used to go every year to the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, back when it was held on the nearby UCLA Campus. Then I went to the first festival at USC and decided that they didn’t know how to handle it right. For one thing, they haven’t yet realized that the temperature that far inland is generally ten degrees warmer; and the need for shade correspondingly greater. This year, things were better—but I still wish it moved back to UCLA.

I picked up five books at the festival:

  • Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Reputations, by an up and coming Colombian novelist
  • Joan Didion, South and West: From a Notebook
  • Yukio Mishima, Five Modern Nō Plays
  • Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française
  • Dashiell Hammett, The Big Knockover

Some of the prices were great, others were at the publisher’s suggested price. No matter: I plan to read them all, and will probably enjoy them all.

Fortunately the temperature wasn’t too hot today, and we didn’t make the mistake of driving. It cost us only 35¢ each to take the Expo Line train, which let us off right at the back gate of the festival. Else, I would have had to pay $15.00 and walk several blocks each way.

 

L. A. Writers: Michael Connelly

Why Is It That So Many L. A. Writers Are Mystery Writers?

I read five of his novels before deciding that, yes, Michael Connelly is indeed an L. A. writer. It bothers me that so many of the writers I see as L. A. writers are into the mystery genre. That was true of Raymond Chandler, certainly, and also James Ellroy and Tyler Dilts. If I wanted to, and I may in the future, I could add Joseph Wambaugh and a handful of others.

Perhaps there’s something about Los Angeles itself that brings forth so many fictional investigations into the dark heart of the place. When one things of the noir genre, one could just as easily think of New York or Chicago or Miami or—for heaven’s sake—even my own home town, Cleveland, Ohio. But there is something about Los Angeles that is different. I think I put my finger on it when writing about the film version of The Big Sleep in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style: “Los Angeles adds a horizontal dimension to film noir. In place of the looming monoliths and endless urban alleyways of the Eastern cityscape, there is a physical and moral sprawl, a chain of suburbs full of legal and illegal activities linked by wide boulevards and expressways.”

The Concrete Blonde, which I have just finished reading, is about one (or possibly two?) murderers who prey on porno stars and prostitutes. Connelly’s homicide detective Harry (short for Heironymus) Bosch shoots one killer at the start of the novel, and winds up in a long civil suit for having killed an “innocent man” according to the widow and her attorney. And, when the killings continue, it looks as if Bosch could be in the wrong. While attempting to defend himself, the homicide detective concludes that there is a second killer, whom the LAPD christens “The Follower,” who is responsible for these other killings. Bosch frantically attempts to pin the tail on the right perpetrator.

Unlike Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Tyler Dilts’s Danny Beckett, Harry Bosch comes from a troubled background. In Viet Nam, he blew up Viet Cong tunnels. While he was still young, his mother was murdered. He has had difficulty hanging on to girlfriends, because at a certain point they become frightened of  the “black heart” of Los Angeles that he must fight on a regular basis.

To date, I have read the following Connelly titles, all of which I recommend:

  • The Black Echo (1992)
  • The Black Ice (1993)
  • The Concrete Blonde (1994)
  • Trunk Music (1997)
  • The Lincoln Lawyer (2005)

 

Trying to Convince Callicles

Plato Was Perhaps the Greatest Philosopher Who Ever Lived

In the early 20th century, something happened to philosophy: It became ever more remote from the human experience—a matter for trained professionals. Whenever I get chilled by the likes of Wittgenstein, Ayer, Heidegger, or Derrida, I like to go back to the Ancient Greeks, and most especially Plato. His dialogues are probably the height of philosophy. Given their general appeal, it is no wonder that so many of them survived some 2,500 years of war and rapine.

Today, I finished reading Gorgias, which starts on the subject of rhetoric, and which, thanks to the persistence of Socrates, turns into a dialogue on how goodness and morality are more important than hedonism and success. Ultimately, Socrates says, it is better to be the victim of another’s wrongdoing than to perpetrate any wrongdoings oneself. That is because “it takes true goodness to make a man or woman happy, and an immoral, wicked person is unhappy.” [471a]

Something interesting happens in this dialogue. One of the participants, Callicles, refuses to accept the drift of Socrates’s argument. Even when he finds himself agreeing to individual points, he keeps on backtracking in favor of hedonism over morality. He interrupts the conversation between Socrates and Polus to say:

Socrates, may I ask you a question? Are we to take it that you’re serious in all this, or are you just having us on? You see, if you’re serious, and if what you’re saying is really is the truth, surely human life would be turned upside down, wouldn’t it? Everything we do is the opposite of what you imply we should be doing. [481c]

This is a big change from the usual philosophical dialogue, when the recipient of Socrates’s wisdom is reduced to saying “Yes, that is so” or “That’s absolutely inevitable!” Callicles, on the other hand, frequently backtracks and says things like, “Tell me, Socrates, doesn’t it embarrass you to pick on people’s mere words and to count it a godsend if someone uses the wong expression by mistake?” or “You’re not being altogether sincere, Socrates.”

Without losing track of his argument, Socrates keeps trying to get through to his interlocutor, despite his contrariness.

This Socrates was certainly a dangerous man. I could see why his enemies arranged to have him tried, convicted, and executed.

If you’re interested in reading Plato, I suggest the translations by Robin Waterfield.

From Point A to Point B

UPS Freight Jets

There is a growing branch of literature which consists of nonfiction. How is that possible? The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus for her work, which consists primarily of interviews of people affected by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl or the Soviet War in Afghanistan. As for Americans, we have John McPhee, who has written a series of nonfiction works of high literary quality.

I have just finished reading his Uncommon Carriers, which deals, in turn, with long-haul truckers; a place in France where ships’ pilots are trained; boats that tow barges on American rivers; the parcel sorting services of UPS; and mile-and-a-half-long coal trains. In between, there is a delightful essay by the author about retracing the route of Henry David Thoreau and his brother John described in A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers—which I had read when it was first published in the New Yorker.

McPhee likes to take what looks like a boring subject that nobody would write about and turn it into a gem. For instance, there is that tetralogy he wrote about American geology beginning with Basin and Range and ending with Assembling California. One would think that McPhee’s books might be a tad boring, but they never are.

To date, I have read—in the order of publication—the following ten McPhee titles:

  • The Crofter and the Laird
  • Pieces of the Frame
  • Giving Good Weight
  • Basin and Range
  • In Suspect Terrain
  • La Place de la Concorde Suisse
  • Rising from the Plains
  • The Control of Nature
  • Looking for a Ship
  • Uncommon Carriers

There’s not a single boring read in the bunch. Each McPhee I read whets my appetite for more.

L.A. Writers: Raymond Chandler

The Creator of Philip Marlowe

When I started writing this series of posts, I should have started it off with Raymond Chandler. He is, in so many ways, the quintessential L.A. writer. I did not because I mistakenly thought he was British. Look at that picture: Those eyeglasses, that pose—they partake of this prototypical English gentleman. In fact, Chandler was born in Chicago of an American father and an Irish mother. Although he spent many years in Britain, and even at one point became a naturalized British citizen, his writing career was pure Los Angeles.

I have just finished re-reading his fifth novel, The Little Sister (1949), and kept running into passages that screamed L.A. to me. When told he was in love with the beautiful actress Mavis Weld, Chandler replies:

That would be kind of silly. I could sit in the dark with her and hold hands, but for how long? In a little while she will drift off into a haze of glamour and expensive clothes and froth and unreality and muted sex. She won’t be a real person any more. Just a voice from a sound track, a face on a screen. I’d want more than that.

One of Chandler’s LAPD homicide detectives delivers this thoughtful description of the life of a cop in the city:

It’s like this with us, baby. We’re coppers and everybody hates our guts. And as if we didn’t have enough trouble, we have to have you. As if we didn’t get pushed around enough by the guys in the corner offices, the City Hall gang, the day chief, the night chief, the Chamber of Commerce, His Honor the Mayor in his paneled office four times as big as the three lousy rooms the whole homicide staff has to work out of. As if we didn’t have to handle one hundred and fourteen homicides last year out of three rooms that don’t have enough chairs for the whole duty squad to sit down in at once. We spend our lives turning over dirty underwear and sniffing rotten teeth. We go up dark stairways to get a gun punk with a skinful of hop and sometimes we don’t get all the way up, and our wives wait dinner that night and all the other nights. We don’t come home any more. And nights we do come home, we come home so goddam tired we can’t eat or sleep or even read the lies the papers print about us. So we lie awake in the dark in a cheap house on a cheap street and listen to the drunks down the block having fun. And just about the time we drop off the phone rings and we get up and start all over again. Nothing we do is right, not ever. Not once. If we get a confession, we beat it out of the guy, they say, and some shyster calls us Gestapo in court and sneers at us when we muddle our grammar. If we make a mistake they put us back in uniform on Skid Row and we spend the nice cool summer evenings picking drunks out of the gutter and being yelled at by whores and taking knives away from greaseballs in zoot suits. But all that ain’t enough to make us entirely happy. We got to have you.

The “you” of the quote is Philip Marlowe, whom the police accuse of withholding evidence on two icepick murders and waltzing scot-free because of his private investigator’s license.

Chandler’s descriptions of night in L.A. rise almost to the verge of poetry:

I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped-down Fords shot in and out of the traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupés and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on north and west towards home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad. Great double trucks rumbled down over Sepulveda from Wilmington and San Pedro and crossed towards the Ridge Route, starting up in low-low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the zoo.

Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. The homes of screen stars. Screen stars, phooey. The veterans of a thousand beds. Hold it, Marlowe, you’re not human tonight.

Not human? Hardly: No one is more human than Marlowe. He is like the knight in Albrecht Dürer’s “Knight, Death, and Devil,” as shown below:

Knight, Death, and the Devil

Poor Marlowe, he doesn’t even have the friendship of a dog as shown in the engraving above.

An Impassioned Plea for Freedom

Gulag Prisoners in Siberia

Gulag Prisoners in Siberia

Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky could hardly believe his eyes. He had spent four years in a Siberian prison camp and six years in the Russian military in Siberia. His first published works after returning to St. Petersburg were comedies: Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. Now he wrote two short pieces for publication about his experience in the camp. The first was approved by the Tsarist censors; the second, rejected—because it was thought that Dostoyevsky was saying that life in the Gulags was actually quite appealing.

That could not be allowed to stand. Dostoyevsky immediately penned a supplement to that piece, which included the following:

What is bread? They [the convicts] eat bread to live, but they have no life! The genuine, the real, the most important is lacking, and the convict knows he will never have it; or he will have it, if you like, but when? … It’s as if the promise is made only as a joke.

Try an experiment and build a palace. Fit it out with marble, pictures, gold, birds of paradise, hanging gardens, all sorts of things…. And step inside. Well, it may be that you would never wish to leave. Perhaps, in actual fact, you would never leave. Everything is there! “Let well enough alone!” But suddenly—a trifle! Your castle is surrounded by walls, and you are told: “Everything is yours! Enjoy yourself! Only, don’t take a step outside!” And believe me, in that instant you will wish to quit your paradise and step over the wall. Even more! All this luxury, all this plenitude, will only sharpen your suffering. You will even feel insulted as a result of all this luxury…. Yes, only one thing is missing: a bit of liberty! a bit of liberty and a bit of freedom!

This impassioned plea is perhaps the germ of Dostoyevsky’s great works which were to follow: Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov.

The Book Collectors

Antiquarian Book Shows Are Not for Everybody

Antiquarian Book Shows Are Not for Everybody

Today, I went to an antiquarian book show. I used to go to them in years past and succeeded in making a number of finds; but now I find the market has priced itself into the stratosphere. There were beautiful centuries-old leatherbound books, immaculate Faulkners and Steinbecks with perfect dust jackets, and prices ranging into the thousands of dollars.

If I owned a Bugatti or Talbot Lago, I would probably not drive it around town lest some uninsured drunken sot would T-bone it. Likewise, if I spent thousands of dollars for first editions, I would not pull the books off the shelf, read them, and underline the significant passages in ball point ink.

There are half a dozen books I have purchased because they looked really good, usually consisting of titles which I already owned in reading copies. I own a signed G. K. Chesterton, for example, that I would never profane by reading. I have some friends who would never read a paperback book, or who pooh-pooh ever reading an e-book. I am not so fastidious. The only time I would bypass an e-book is if I were reading nonfiction that contained useful maps, illustrations, bibliographies, and indexes. I would probably prefer to read Dickens with the Cruickshank illustrations, or Lewis Carroll with the Tenniel illustrations.

By and large, I am a consumer of books. Many of my best titles are ratty, old, and with damaged spines. Some (shudder!) have been underlined by previous owners. Some are sturdy ex-library editions bound in buckram.

I own a few books that would interest an antiquarian book collector, but generally, they wouldn’t waste their time with me.