Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Henry Morton Robinson THE CARDINAL

Henry Morton Robinson – THE CARDINAL

Well, I know nothing about this guy at all. I can tell you that THE CARDINAL was one of the first Reader's Digests Condensed Books, it appeared in the Autumn 1950 volume along with ROOSEVELT IN RETROSPECT by John Gunther, LONG THE IMPERIAL WAY by Hanama Tasaki, and the only volume I've vaguely heard of, YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN by Dorothy Baker (I think this was later a Frank Sinatra movie).

I can tell you it was the number one bestseller of 1950 and the number four bestseller of 1951, which is one hell of an impressive achievement as well as one hell of a cautionary tale – the height of literary fame and how many of you have heard of Henry Morton Robinson?

I can tell you it was later made into a minor Otto Preminger movie starring Tom Tryon (who we've talked about!) as the titular character. Haven't seen it.

I also have this odd fact for you – oddly it's one of the big facts in the short Wikipedia piece on him – Mr. Robinson died when he fell asleep in a hot bath. Not of drowning, mind, but complications afterwards of the resulting second and third degree burns.

Wow. I hate to laugh. But how hot was that damn thing?

As for the book itself – it's harmless. A slice of life novel depicting the inexorable rise of a poor Boston priest to the heights of the Vatican. The kind of novel where a lot of incidents occur but nothing much really happens: our hero's character, outside of a certain naivete that's fully sympathetically portrayed by the narrator until he learns The Real Deal, which is also fully sympathetically portrayed by the narrator, never really advances from where he begins. He starts out as a well-meaning good guy who's serious about his religion and, as far as I can tell (I didn't read the whole thing all the way to the finish) he ends it as a well-meaning good guy who's serious about his religion. It's written in an amiable sort of mushy style that's too bright and chipper to really be called “bad” or even get very angry about, just more evidence that the mediocre of the past was just better than the mediocre of today. (I'm not sure that THE CARDINAL has worn well, exactly, but you can read it without wincing. I'm not sure the same can be said of today's mass novel.)

I do not understand why it was so massively popular. Are there that many Catholics out there? Was it an instance of non-Catholics trying to understand Catholicism and this one came out at the right time? Was it the fact that it “tackled” -- Jesus, what does that word even mean? How about “tried to bring up” a lot of social phenomenon of the time like interfaith marriage and abortion? Would our hero have talked about women in the priesthood if the book had been set in present day America?

I don't think THE CARDINAL is going to tell you anything about Catholicism that you should really trust, and I'm leery anyway of books “that teach you things”, because who really wants that, honestly. If you want to learn about Catholicism go right to the source and talk to a couple of Nuns, they'll clue you in.

All that said there's nothing really wrong with it. It moves along at a chipper pace and while you won't really have any fun reading it, you won't exactly hate yourself in the morning, either. It's just kind of a generic experience. Call it “Book”.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Status Update, or, Where We Are and Where We Will Be

My accumulation of John O'Hara books proceeds apace, and once I get the other two (FROM THE TERRACE is in the mail and I still need to pick up BUTTERFIELD 8, which along with APPOINTMENT IN SAMAARA is oddly the only O'Hara now easily available) we'll start on him. I may post about him in dribs and drabs, as most of his stuff is quite long – we'll see.

But the point about dribs and drabs is that we'll be talking about other authors beforehand and maybe in between there as well. Next up is Henry Morton Robinson's THE CARDINAL which I'm sort of excited about because this is a test case for exactly what I wanted to cover in this blog – I have no idea who this guy is or what this book is, but at one time it was extremely popular.

After that? I think Helen MacInnes, which a commentator suggested to me, is an excellent suggestion and we'll probably do her. Her books are easily available, too, which is a plus. And then? I don't know, though I'm leaning towards either Kathleen Winsor's FOREVER AMBER or some of Mika Waltari's historical novels. I'm in the mood for something like that.

We'll see.

I haven't forgotten about trying to find information on these writers online, I just haven't found much worthwhile to even talk about. Anyone can find the wiki or kirjasto piece on these guys, I've decided, and there's really not much else out there besides that. You know you're in trouble with Levin when you're heading up the Google blog search on him (most everything else is simply obituaries); I can't find anything worth a damn on Armstrong at all. As for Jack Finney, the only really interesting thing out there is the knowledge – here, I'll save you the time – that TIME AND AGAIN is a cult novel, especially, it seems, among women. I'm really not sure why, I find the book absolutely impenetrable, but there you are. I suspect there's a love story in there somewhere (yes, he confessed, he's never even gotten that far into it), which may be part of it. I think there's also a certain cadre out there who romanticizes/nostalgizes (is that a word? Now it is!) New York City. Honestly, I've never been part of that crew, which might be part of the problem here too.

Still, interesting that it's a cult novel. It's a lot harder to become a cult author than it is to become a cult filmmaker, say. Most books languish unread, a select few are read like crazy. To be a cult author or write a cult book you need to attract a certain select audience – and not much more. Usually that happens more on the highbrow end of the spectrum -- Fred Exley's A FAN'S NOTES is certainly a cult book, for instance.)

Since this is turning into something of a miscellany post, let me say I remain surprised and gratified by the readership I do get here. Considering I don't do much linkages, don't have a blogroll, update infrequently despite numerous promises to the cotnrary, cover only what pleases me, and most of the time grouchily at that.

As for what I'm reading currently, outside of this project I've been mainly interested nowadays in classic heroic pulp fiction/adventure fiction.

I've dropped Doc Savage's name here before – these books have been reprinted recently in some snazzy big-form paperbacks from I think Nostalgia Ventures. (Check your local bookstore, I know the local Borders has 'em.) I took a chance on these and like them a lot, although I have to say they're more effective spaced out a bit – these reprints pair two together and while I understand the concept I think if you read them back to back the second one pales quite a bit. Lester Dent wrote exceptionally well for this genre but he still relied a lot on formula and that becomes apparent here.

What I like about Doc Savage is the concept, which points up one of my “things” -- I think Superman is a boring character as conceived. An alien who can do everything superbly and only has one weakness? You're left shoehorning kryptonite into every conceivable story, trying laboriously to give the guy a challenge, or you're left telling the only other story you can really tell about Superman , “I'm different and cannot connect with you, whom I protect.” Now, that's a good story, but how many times can you really tell it?

Contrast with Doc Savage, who's a superman too, but human. That immediately makes him more approachable, plus there's inherently some drama in just being him. Can he do it? Can he maintain his discipline and strength despite these provocations? Etc.

Anyway, as long as you space 'em out they're well worth reading.

The Spider – these are being reprinted by Baen Books – again, check your local bookstore. Most notable for a body count that defies believe and massive destruction all around. The Spider lives in an operatic world where you can almost hear the violin strings moaning as robot men destroy another city block.

The only thing that seems odd nowadays is The Spider's secret disguise, less fearsome and more funny, I think. (He dresses up like a hunchback with fangs, probably Page got it from a silent picture but just stop a moment and try to picture it...ridiculous, huh? ) These books are also pretty hyperbolically written, but if you're reading heroic pulps you expect some of that. This is probably my favorite of these sorts of series, recommended if you can make allowances.

John Buchan – JOHN MACNAB I finally caught up with this one. It's maybe the cleanest written of all the Buchan novels I've read to date, and I can understand why it has it's admirers. I think it suffers in part from being really very slight: the whole novel is hinged on a modest, albeit interesting, piece of psychology, and I'm not sure it really demanded this length to be told. Also, it's particularly an outdoor hunting and fishing book – I enjoy that sort of thing but I'm not sure I do at the length it's presented here. So, not a bad book at all, but not one of my favorites of Buchan's. I recently ordered HUNTING TOWER from Amazon and I have WITCH WOOD still in a pile somewhere.

Harold Lamb – I may talk about him more at some later date. He's probably the closest thing I know of to an American Dumas, and wrote a series of stories set in Central Asia around 1600 that are fairly remarkable adventure tales, lots of sword fighting and double crossings and armies on the march and the like. Also ordered the third volume of Bison's recent collected edition at Amazon.

Sax Rohmer – And I've been reading a lot of Sax Rohmer recently.

I do not consider him especially racist – stereotypical in his portrayal of Asians, to be sure, but not actively racist. Indeed, one of the fascinating things about Rohmer's stuff is that he obviously rather admires Asians, and was obviously sexually attracted by them. (It is impossible to read the long lascivious – well, for the time -- descriptions of women in Rohmer without picking up on it.) Of course you could argue such feelings aren't incompatible with racism, but that's a good way to start forgetting about the books themselves.

I do think his work suffers in part from a “fix it up” quality: a lot of his books started out as independent short stories that were knitted together...and they feel like that. The experience of reading THE HAND OF FU MANCHU is like feeling little peaks here and there – but it never really coalesces into a complete work.

All that being said, there are some real pleasures to be found in his books. Strange Venomous Poisons Unknown To The West? Ancient Secret Societies Devoted To Death? Hidden traps? Hidden dope dens? Mysterious Women on Secret Errands? Strange Death Traps? Beats there a heart so dead that he doesn't thrill to this sort of stuff? Rohmer, at his best, gives you the impression of a whole world lying just beneath the civilization you take for granted, a world frankly much more fascinating than the one you know. It's immensely evocative and frankly, Rohmer is rather criminally unread nowadays, almost certainly for PC reasons. (It's even getting difficult to find Rohmer titles.)