Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Cause for Alarm (1938) by Eric Ambler

Book Review
Cause for Alarm (1938)
 by Eric Ambler

  The modern "spy thriller" is forever linked to the politics of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, but its genre roots predate that conflict.   The first novel to be widely acknowledged as a spy novel is the The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Erksine Childers.  That book took place in the North sea, and the plot revolves around a couple of English gentleman seafarers who unwittingly stumble upon nefarious German activity.  Conrad's The Secret Agent, published in 1906, is widely known, though its literary quality sets it above the common genre work of most later spy novels.   The clear inspiration for The Riddle of the Sands is the "adventure novel," popular in the 19th century.   In Riddle, the spy/espionage element seems almost happenstance, merely an additional element dreamed up by an author looking for novel incident for his sailing  adventure story.

  The spy novel as we know it incorporated the crime/hard boiled fiction of the 1920s and 30s with the political upheaval of the 20th century.  In this sense, Cause for Alarm, written almost a decade before the outbreak of the Cold War, is the first "true" spy novel in the 1001 Books list.  The story concerns an English engineer who is suddenly put out of work in his native land and, out of desperation, accepts an assignment as the representative of an English machine tools company in Fascist Italy, stationed in Milan.

  He becomes embroiled in the kind of international geopolitical machinations familiar to any reader of later spy novels.  So unformed in the genre at this point that one of the main characters is an American working FOR the Soviets against the interest of the German/Italian Axis.  Cause For Alarm is a fast paced thriller, and will appeal to any fan of the genre.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Caught (1943) by Henry Green

Book Review
Caught (1943)
by Henry Green

  This is the fifth Henry Green novel in the 1001 Books project- he is obviously a favorite of the (mostly English) people who made the book.  I think you could very much argue that an "American" version of the 1001 Books project would feature maybe one or two of Green's quiet, well observed novels.  Caught, for example, isn't even in print in the United States.  I had to get my copy from the Cal State San Marcos library via the Circuit library request process at the San Diego Public Library.

  Caught is about the London Fire Brigade during World War II. It certainly sounds like an exciting time to be in the Fire Brigade, what with the constant bombing and so forth.  The plot, such as it is (thin plots in Henry Green novels) revolves around the friendship between an upper class guy and a lower class guy.  The lower class guy has a sister in a mental institution, and much of the incident involves either his attempts to abscond to see her (and subsequent consequences) or various social escapades during their off days (2 days on/one day off schedule.)

  I can safely say that, so far as I'm concerned, Caught by Henry Green is NOT actually a book you need to read prior to death.

Doctor Faustus (1947) by Thomas Mann

Video description of 12 tone music

Example of 12 tone music

Book Review
Doctor Faustus (1947)
 by Thomas Mann

  Doctor Faustus is the fictional "biography" of a syphilitic German composer, based loosely on Arthur Schonenberg, who may or may not have sold his soul to the devil. (alternatively, he may have hallucinated the entire transaction in a syphilitic fit.)  The narrative jumps backward and forwards in time, and also deals with the attractions and ultimate moral bankruptcy of National Socialism/Nazism.  Mann wrote Faustus while he was waiting out World War II in Los Angeles, and the scope of erudition as it pertains to the development of modern music is frankly astonishing.  I'm talking about in depth, theoretical discussions about the evolution of "classical" to "modern" music in the 20th century, and as a layman, I could barely keep track of what the characters were talking about.

  The Faustus is Adrien Leverkuhn.  He starts out as a divinity student in early 20th century Germany, but becomes obsessed with the aesthetic qualities of music.  Somewhere along the line he contracts syphilis, then maybe he sells his soul to the devil, then he spends the rest of his life writing a gran Apocalyptic work of music that is both transcendent and misunderstood.

  Sound familiar?  Any working musician or interested party would find Doctor Faustus of interest.  It's the most musically sophisticated novel of any that I have read in my entire life, and it's worth reading simply for the discussion of the development of "modern" "12 tone music" in a fictionalized format.

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