Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Blondes and Brunettes

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes  ~ But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Anita Loos

I recognized Anita Loos's name when I came across this book a few months ago, but until I read it I had no idea how successful and famous she was, as a playwright, screenwriter, and author.  She wrote scripts for Douglas Fairbanks and Jean Harlow among others, as well as one of my favorite melodramas, 1939's The Women.  These two short books (combined in a Penguin edition) were runaway best-sellers in the 1920s, reprinted again and again, and translated into at least 14 languages.  Loos later helped adapt Gentlemen Prefer Blondes into a stage musical that would become a big hit for Carol Channing, which became the basis for the 1953 film starring Marilyn Monroe, that quintessential blonde.

I didn't know any of that when I took the book off the shelf, intrigued by its period cover (which you can see here).  But I was completely captivated from the first page:
March 16th: A gentleman friend and I were dining at the Ritz last evening and he said that if I took a pencil and a paper and put down all of my thoughts it would make a book.  This almost made me smile as what it would really make would be a whole row of encyclopediacs. I mean I seem to be thinking practically all of the time. I mean it is my favorite recreation and sometimes I sit for hours and do not seem to do anything else but think. So this gentleman said a girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think.  And he said he ought to know brains when he sees them, because he is in the senate and he spends a great deal of time in Washington, d.c., and when he comes into contract with brains he always notices it. So it might have all blown over but this morning he sent me a book. And so when my maid brought it to me, I said to her, "Well, Lulu, here is another book and we have not read half the ones we have got yet."  But when I opened it and saw that it was all a blank I remembered what my gentleman acquaintance said, and so then I realized it was a diary. So here I am writing a book instead of reading one.
(I didn't immediately catch "encyclopediacs," and "when he comes into contract with brains.")

The author of this diary is Lorelei Lee, a young woman who escaped Little Rock, Arkansas for a brief career in Hollywood before settling in New York.  She has a "gentleman friend," Gus Eisman the Button King from Chicago, "who is interested in educating me, so of course he is always coming down to New York to see how my brains have improved since the last time."  On these visits, "we always seem to have dinner at the Colony and see a show and go to the Trocadero and then Mr. Eisman shows me to my apartment."  But in between Mr. Eisman's visits, Lorelei meets other "gentlemen acquaintances," many of whom also show an interest in educating her, in between shows and dances and shopping - Lorelei's favorite activity, as long as someone else is paying.  The attentions of one of these gentlemen make Mr. Eisman so nervous that he sends Lorelei off to Europe, with her friend and kindred spirit Dorothy as a chaperone. 

The two rampage through London and Paris before setting off for "the Central of Europe" on the "oriental express."  Lorelei doesn't think much of London, where "they make a fuss over a tower that is not as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock..."  But Paris is a different matter.  Not only do they have the Eyefull Tower there, which is devine, but buildings with "all of the famous historical names, like Coty and Cartier."  All along the way Lorelei and Dorothy find gentlemen (including a veecount) more than happy to take them to lunch, to dinner, for drinks, on sight-seeing tours, and sometimes even shopping.  But as Lorelei famously remarks,
So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever.
I kept thinking what a very different trip this was than the one Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough wrote about in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay - but then they didn't get to the Central of Europe.

I loved Lorelei's diary, but Dorothy is my favorite character, and not just because she is a brunette.  Lorelei is constantly lamenting that Dorothy is not as refined and educated as she is, because she spouts slang and one-line zingers. 
So when I got through telling Dorothy what I thought up, Dorothy looked at me and looked at me and she really said she thought my brains were a miracle. I mean she said my brains reminded her of a radio because you listen to it for days and days and you get discouradged and just when you are getting ready to smash it, something comes out that is a masterpiece.
I can just hear Jean Harlow's voice whenever Lorelei quotes Dorothy.  And in fact the second book, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, is Dorothy's story.  Narrated by Lorelei in her own misspelled way, it takes Dorothy from her childhood in a traveling carnival to the heights of the Ziegfield Follies in New York. Though I enjoyed it, I don't think this book has quite the life of the first.  Even the misspellings start to seem a bit contrived, and I would much rather have had Dorothy tell her own story. 

Still, in the end these are both great fun, and laugh-out-loud funny in spots.  As Regina Becerra notes in the introduction, Lorelei and Dorothy are con artists: "they dazzle, they confuse, they indulge the willingness of their audience to suspend disbelief."  In her books and in her film scripts, Loos brought a new type of female character to life, a combination of "savvy, skill, and shamelessness", not helpless innocents, but not fallen women or whores either.  I'll be looking for Loos's memoirs, Kiss Hollywood Good-by and A Girl Like I.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

I have to admit, I felt a real sense of accomplishment last night as I read page 1243 in my Penguin edition and finished this novel.  I loved it, but it's been quite a while since I read a book this long, and I did start to wonder if it wasn't some version of The Never-Ending Story, with pages being added in the night.

Though I have read and re-read The Three Musketeers, I have never tried any of Alexandre Dumas's other novels.  Reading his son's autobiographical La Dame aux Camélias last year made me more curious about Dumas père et fils, and then Helen's post about The Count of Monte Cristo inspired me to add it to my reading stack immediately. 

According Robin Buss, who translated and edited the 1996 Penguin edition I read, The Count is one of those stories (like The Prisoner of Zenda) that have entered our collective cultural consciousness.  Even those who have never read the book, or seen one of the many adaptations, know the story.  In this case, I was an exception.  All I knew, from references as diverse as A Little Princess and The Shawshank Redemption, was that this is the story of a man unjustly imprisoned for many years.  A great part of my enjoyment came from discovering this story, not knowing where it would take me, and especially how it would end.  There are surprises in the twists and turns of almost every one of its 117 chapters.  (I kept changing my mind about the Abbé Busoni, for example, right up to the end of his story.)   To my mind, that's how it should be read for the first time, and those who haven't yet met the Count should avoid spoilers, including back cover summaries.  On the other hand, I'm already looking forward to re-reading it, less for the excitement of "what happens next," and concern for the Count's eventual fate, more to admire how Dumas winds the many, many threads of his plot together.

The part of the story that I already knew involves Edmond Dantès, a young sailor from Marseille, who is imprisoned on a false charge of treason in 1815.  He is the victim of a plot by three men, one of whom envies him his career, another his fiancée, and the third who fears being implicated in true treason.  While in prison, Dantès meets a fellow prisoner, the saintly Abbé Faria, heir to a fantastic fortune hidden centuries ago on a speck of an island near the Italian coast, to protect it from the rapacious Borgias.  If I had only known that this story turns on buried treasure!  When Edmond finally escapes the notorious Chateau d'Ilf, he in turn becomes heir to the treasure, the discovery of which will allow him to take his vengeance on the three men who sent him to prison, as well as rewarding those who helped him, or tried to.  It is immensely satisfying to watch the serpentine, even byzantine means by which he accomplishes this, particularly as we learn that each of the men has committed further crimes that make this a greater matter than a personal vendetta, Justice rather than mere revenge.  And if the hero initially intends that the sins of the fathers should be visited on their children, in the end Justice is tempered with mercy, as it should be.

My enjoyment of this story was doubled when I realized how much the Count of Monte Cristo reminded me of another count, M. le comte de Sevigny.  Like Dorothy Dunnett's great hero, Francis Crawford of Lymond, Dantès is imprisoned for political reasons on trumped-up charges.  Lymond escapes the galleys as Dantès the Chateau, and both have to re-make their lives.  Both are consummate sailors, completely at home in ships, drawn to the sea.  Both have a distinctive appearance, though Dantès lacks Lymond's physical beauty, and both have a charisma that inspires deep love and loyalty in their friends and even employees.  Both are at home among thieves and smugglers.  Both have a Greek mistress and a devoted African servant (though Ali is a Nubian where Lymond's Salablanca is an Arab).  Both are masters of languages, of sword-play, of disguise, and above all of planning.  Their devious minds weave complicated schemes that play out like clockwork, endlessly adaptable as circumstances change, funded by apparently limitless fortunes (here Dunnett's Nicholas de Fleury also comes to mind, an even greater plotter than Lymond).  Both use the ostentatious display of wealth to great effect.  I did start to worry that even the fantastic fortune of Monte Cristo would run out, until I learned that he had invested so wisely and safely that he could spend only interest, not principal - a homely practical touch in such a fantastic story.  But then Lymond while accused of every crime imaginable is at least never compared to a vampire, as Monte Cristo is time and again.  I had not realized how pervasive vampires were in popular culture even before Bram Stoker wrote!

I don't know if Dorothy Dunnett even read The Count of Monte Cristo or if it influenced her creation of Lymond, but the similarities to one of my favorite characters in all of fiction definitely made me appreciate Dumas's Count even more.  I will admit though that there where a few times when I almost lost patience with his wandering tale, written originally as a newspaper serial and then published as an astonishing eighteen-volume book edition.  There are stories within stories here, and an extended sequence set in Rome during Carnival that seemed to drag on too long.  Then I realized that as with Dunnett, crucial clues are hidden in seemingly-irrelevant details, so that a waistcoat that disappears in Chapter 82 makes a sudden dramatic reappearance in Chapter 97.  Like Dunnett, like Anthony Trollope, Dumas knows what he is doing, and in the end I just surrendered to the story.  I will also be looking for more of his stories now.  Helen mentioned a novel, The Black Tulip, about yes, tulips, which sounds like it should be next on my list (after the TBR Double Dare finishes, of course).  But in the meantime, I am in the mood for something very different.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

And the winner is...

Not quite as big a deal as the Grammys - but Cat of Tell Me a Story has won the copy of John Mullan's What Matters in Jane Austen?  Thank you all again for helping me celebrate my blogging anniversary!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Two years and a day

Yesterday was the second anniversary of TBR 313, which is hard to believe - both that it's been two years, and that I managed to miss the actual date again this year.

I really had no idea what I was doing when I started (as my early posts confirm - please take my word for it, there's no need to read them!).  I just knew that I wanted to talk about books.  It's been a wonderful two years of figuring out how I want to do that, inspired and informed by other great blogs and by comments here.

I've toyed with the idea of changing the name to "Drunk on Words," from my favorite Dorothy L. Sayers quote up on the header, which to me perfectly captures the the intoxication of reading and of talking about reading.  On the other hand, while the TBR stack has shrunk to 287 (at least today), it's still there - and I'm still trying to whittle it down.

But I do love adding to other people's stacks, and I love giving books away, so I'm going to imitate the Hobbits, who "give presents to other people on their own birthdays."  In this case, it's a copy of John Mullan's What Matters in Jane Austen?, which I'm thoroughly enjoying.  It's available through the Book Depository, so the offer is open to everyone.  If you'd like to put your name in, just leave a comment below, or email me, before Saturday, Feb. 9th, and I'll draw a name the next day and contact the winner for a mailing address.  (My email address is down in the "About Me" section.)

Thank you again for reading along!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Meeting Mrs. Tim

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, D.E. Stevenson

I first heard about D.E. Stevenson through the Georgette Heyer listserv I belong to, but I never came across any of her books until I noticed a shelf of them at a friend's house.  Lisa generously offered to loan me one (proving she is a better person than I am, because I will buy someone a book rather than loan mine out).  I have no idea which one I chose, but I remember I didn't get too far before returning it, and after that I mentally classed Stevenson as "not my type."

Since I started blogging, though, I've seen her books reviewed again and again, by some of my favorite bloggers.  I figured it was fate that I came across Miss Buncle's Book so soon after reading Teresa's review of it, and when I learned that Mrs. Tim is Claire's favorite among her books, I added a copy to my TBR stacks.  Fortunately, at least some of her books are available again, through Bloomsbury and now Sourcebooks (who, just to bring this full circle, have been reprinting Heyer's novels).

When packing became too stressful, I remembered comments about Stevenson's books being good comfort reads.  I started with Mrs. Tim because it's in the form of a diary, and as I think I've mentioned before, I love reading diaries whether historical or fictional.  From the introduction I learned that this novel is a bit of both, drawing on Stevenson's own diaries from her years as an army wife.  Her heroine, Hester Christie, is married to a captain, and the mother of two young children.  The story opens in January and covers six months of her life, as she copes with the usual upheavals of married life and parenthood, as well as social life in the regiment.  Then comes the news that her husband has been appointed "adjutant of a territorial battalion" in Scotland, which means house-hunting among strangers and then the upheaval of moving - with which I sympathized deeply, even though the Christies only had two packing-cases' worth of books.  The last third of the book takes place in the Highlands, where Hester spends a holiday with a friend she met in her new home (this section was originally published as a separate book).

This book felt rather familiar to me, and I decided that's because it reminded me of Diary of a Provincial Lady (which when I first read it brought to mind the Dowager Duchess's diary in Busman's Honeymoon).   Both share a telegraphic style, and a humorous, sometimes rather acidic narrative voice.  Both diarists have two children, a boy at school and a girl at home with a governess, in addition to a rather preoccupied husband and a sometimes chaotic domestic staff.  The two books aren't carbon copies, of course, and I enjoyed Mrs. Tim very much.  I was particularly interested in its army setting, since to this American reader the British Army organization and ranks are a little confusing.  I found Hester good company.  She has a quiet charisma that draws almost everyone she meets to her.  Women want to befriend her, men fall in love with her.  Among the latter is her husband's brother officer Major Tony Morley, whose attentions are clear to everyone else (he even turns up in the Highlands during her holiday).  Sometimes his conversation takes on overtones that make Hester uneasy, leading to a quick change of subject, but she seems completely oblivious to any wider implications.  I found her naivete rather unconvincing and even a bit irritating at times.  But that is only a minor quibble in a very entertaining book.  I'm looking forward to Hester's further adventures in the three books that follow (and thanks to Stevenson's own introduction to this one, I have a good idea of where the story takes Hester, Tim and even Tony).