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I thought I might occasionally mention some of the books I've been reading. If I were more ambitious I'd write individual l essays but I find it hard to put my thoughts, as a reader, into words. Maybe one of these days. For now here are the books I read in May:

The Ministry of Fear -- Graham Greene (1943)
During the London Blitz, Arthur Rowe wins a cake at a fete. What begins as a nostalgic reminder of his childhood soon turns into a nightmare as it appears the cake was meant for someone else, perhaps part of a wartime plot. This atmospheric thriller is one of the books the author described as "entertainments." I found the beginning brilliant, the middle less so, and the ending a bit hard to swallow. But then it's almost a given that when a situation is inexplicable enough (and the most fun to read about) the solution is going to be a letdown. Rowe's unhinged, guilt-ridden mental state, justifies some most peculiar actions which conveniently advance the plot. However, his mental state also lends a surrealistic feeling which, oddly, matches the surrealistic-seeming, but realistic, view of a bombed out city being besieged from the air.

Death of a Harbormaster -- Georges Simenon (1932)
The inexplicable disappearance and subsequent murder of a harbormaster brings Inspector Maigret to a cold, rain-soaked, harbor town where life and work ebb and flow with the tides. The stolid Maigret sets himself the task of mingling with and coming to understand the inhabitants, from wealthy town officials to poor dock workers. and once he does, as usual, the solution to the mystery is clear. The Maigret novels are largely explorations of character disguised as mysteries, but the mysteries are pleasingly puzzling as well. I love Simenon's concise style, at least as it comes across in translation. I regret that I can't read the original French.

A Canticle for Leibowitz -- Walter Miller (1960)
Although I read this post-holocaust novel as a kid I remembered almost nothing about it, except that how I was inspired me to write far too many fragments of stories about monks preserving human knowledge. (Although I hated being dragged to church I guess I saw myself as rather a monk, cloistered with his books, in a world full of ignorance and required gym classes) I'm sure I didn't appreciate all the sly, black humor or fully comprehend the book's melancholy contemplation of history on first reading. A classic, not just of science fiction, but twentieth-century literature.

The Stranger - Albert Camus (1942)
Another classic, short but bleak. This one revolves almost entirely around the young Meursault's decidedly abnormal (supremely disinterested?) mental state, and -- even more so -- other people's reaction to him. A disturbing book. It can be dangerous to see the world from a different (more honest or realistic?) perspective than the average person sees it, or pretends to see it. I've learned that myself, although I'm not quite the stranger Mersault appears to be. (I wonder, would he have l appreciated the Doors' "People Are Strange" as much as I do?) I suppose today this might be labeled "noir."

I Should Have Stayed Home -- Horace McCoy (1951)
Down and out room mates, Mona and Ralph, desperate to become stars, find themselves being introduced to Hollywood society after Mona curses a judge during a friend's trial. A strange little novel, almost cartoon noir. But McCoy, author of They Shoot Horses Don't They, actually worked as a movie writer and, like Ralph, arrived in Hollywood as a young actor looking to break into films, so maybe he knew what he was talking about, sad to say. Real period sleaze. Will Ralph and Mona's dreams of fame and fortune come true or will they be flattened (figuratively) by the Hollywood sign? Gee, I wonder. I won't say anything. I don't want to spoil the ending.

A Hell of a Woman -- Jim Thompson (1954)
Here's the classic noir set-up: "Dolly" Dillon, a flat-broke door-to-door salesman at the end of his rope, sick of the world taking advantage of him, sees a chance at big money and the perfect woman (another Mona!) and hatches a scheme. Sure the book's over the top, but so is life sometimes. Those fifties crime authors knew how to write. Straight ahead. No bloat. Thompson gets his protagonist’s slimy, abusive boss exactly right. I've worked for that slick weasel! Thank goodness I never met Dolly.

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