Monday, June 16, 2003

Writerly blog.

Busy day at work this Monday; things to write, things to read. Lilly: “What do you do at the office, Daddy?” Me: “Read and write. That’s my job.” It could be worse. Much, much worse, even though I’m not reading and writing precisely what I would, left to my own devices.

Been remiss lately in reporting on my train reading — which is the kind of reading I do when left to my own devices. As a daily rail commuter, my transit time is largely spent reading (when I’m not too tired), sometimes newspapers or magazines, often books. It’s the largest block of free reading time I have these days, and one reason (among several) I wouldn’t want to drive to work.

A lot of train reading has come and gone since I last mentioned the subject back in March, when I was reading Back to the Front, a fine travel book with large spools of historical narrative woven in. After that, and perhaps in the spirit of the times, I picked up The Class of 1846, an unusual and very satisfying ensemble biography by John C. Waugh. The ensemble in this case is the class of West Point in that year, which included most famously Stonewall Jackson and George McClellan.

The narrative follows the class from its arrival at West Point, through the Mexican War — in which virtually all of them fought — and on to the Civil War, in which most of them fought. The two stars are Jackson and McClellan, of course, but Waugh doesn’t devote the entire book to them. Much of it describes episodes in the lives of some of the lesser-known and even obscure members of that class, both in war and peace. Even in the chapters on Jackson and McClellan, he talks at length about some of the lesser-known aspects of their lives, or their war service. My favorite was a chapter devoted to Jackson’s daring raids on Union rolling stock, and their capture and removal to Richmond, in the very early months of the war.

Besides being solid history, the author tells some ripping good stories, too. One chapter, the evocatively titled “The Bloody Saddle,” is the end story of one of the class — the book isn’t handy for me look up his name — in the Washington Territory in 1858. Ultimately he dies in battle with Indians, though some of his men barely escape in the most harrowing way imaginable; a fascinating bit of Indian war history that has been completely forgotten.

And then for something completely different. Some time ago, I picked up a copy of A Little Yellow Dog, by Walter Mosley, because I’d heard that he and his character, Easy Rawlins, compared to Chandler and his character, Philip Marlowe. With some difference. Most critically in that Easy Rawlins is black, and only informally a private eye. On the whole, it was a good story, and well written, but no one can really compare with Chandler.

For anyone unacquainted with them, I recommend the Philip Marlowe books without hesitation or reservation, even for people who don’t care for detective or mystery fiction (and I don’t especially, myself). I saw the Bogart film version of The Big Sleep before I’d read any of the books, and that might have inspired me to pick up a used copy of that book in the summer of 1990 in Osaka, when I had a lot time to read. Before long, I’d read almost all of the novels, even buying one or two new, which in Japan meant an outlay of a large piece of change, even for a paperback.

From “…it was Raymond Chandler's Marlowe that would define … [the] who, what, where and why [of a] private eye. Traces of Marlowe run from Paul Pine to Jim Rockford to Ms. Tree to Lew Archer to Spenser. It's all here, from the loneliness, the quick, sarcastic cynical jibes masking a battered romantic, the love/hate relationship with the cops, the corruption that exists in all levels of society. Philip Marlowe, for better or worse, is the archetypical private eye. By the time he wrote his famous essay, ‘The Simple Art of Murder,’ even Chandler realized it.”


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