Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ten Nights in A Bar Room And What I Saw There by Timothy Shay Arthur

"He loved his mother, and was deeply afflicted by the calamity; but it seemed as if he could not stop.  Some terrible necessity appeared to be impelling him onward.  If he formed good resolutions  - and I doubt not that he did - they were blown away like threads of gossamer, the moment he came within the sphere of old associations.  His way to the mill was by the Sickle and Sheaf, and it was not easy for him to pass there without being drawn into the bar, either by his own desire for drink, or through the invitation of some pleasant companion, who was lounging in front of the Tavern". - Ten Nights In A Bar Room by Timothy Shay Arthur.

Ten Nights In A Bar Room by Timothy Shay Arthur was published in 1854 and it was a very popular novel in its day dealing with the subject of temperance.  Only Uncle Tom's Cabin did better in book sales during the 1850's.  Yet today Ten Nights in A Bar Room has fallen into obscurity.  That fascinates me, once popular books that are no longer read or remembered  I have a number of such novels in my kindle and are they worth reading?  Do they have lessons for modern times?

And so when Ten Nights In A Bar Room begins it is the mid 19th century in the fictional town of Cedarville.  The novel is narrated by a business man whose name we never learn.  His work keeps bringing him back to Cedarville over a ten year period.  Each time the narrator returns he rents a room for the night at the Sickle and Sheaf, the local saloon.  The Sickle and Sheaf starts out as a promising enterprise for the town and its owner Simon Slade.  However as the years go by the Sickle and Sheaf detiorates into a den of vice and corruption which eventually destroys the lives of the owner, his family, the young men who frequent the tavern, their long suffering mothers and wives and pretty much anyone who walks through its doors. 

As the novel progresses a young girl is killed by a flying bottle when she comes to the bar pleading for her father to come home.  Willie Hammond, the son of Judge Hammond,  who is the light of his parent's lives and who is one of the nicest young men around who tne town has high hopes for, develops a drinking and gambling problem.  Simon Slade the owner of the bar gets seriously injured in a bar fight.  His wife loses her wits seeing what has happened to her family.  Their son, sixteen year old Frank Slade, starts out helping his father run the bar and takes up with a bad crowd.   At various points in the novel the subject of temperance is discussed and despite the damage that the saloon is doing to Cedarville, many of the bar patrons are not willing to go there.  As Judge Lynan states:

"The next thing we will have will be laws to fine any man who takes a chew of tobacco or lights a cigar.  Touch the liberties of the people in the smallest particular, and all guarantees are gone.  The Stamp Act, against which our noble forefathers rebelled, was a light measure of oppression to that contemplated by these worse than fanatics".  

Ten Nights In A Bar Room is not shy about conveying its message with regard to the evils of alcohol.  It can be overwrought, particularly as we get near to the end of the book.  On the whole though its decently written and it did cause me to think.  Nowadays the temperance movement looks foolish and fanatical but if you look at the situation from a 19th century perspective saloons opening up in small towns across the country could cause real problems.  When Ten Nights was written for example what could a young man (women weren't allowed in bars back then) do for fun?  This was before television the movies, radio, the telephone, automobiles.  It could get boring and lonely in small towns and saloons were a place of commraderie.  But the book points out that in many of these saloons gamblers would arrive.taking advantage of customers too inebriated to know what they were doing.  Women were hit hard by the saloon culture as well.  If a woman was married to a man who drank what recourse did she have?  Divorce was not an option back then and there were no jobs for women to help feed their families.

So I am glad I read Ten Nights In A Bar Room.  I think its worth reading for its historical value, a window into a different time and why temperance became such a big issue in the 19th century.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin

Boris Akunin is a contemporary Russian writer who currently lives in Moscow and is best known for his Erast Petrovich Fandorin mystery series.  These novels are hugely popular in Russia and internationally Boris Akunin's books have received  acclaim as well.

The Winter Queen published in 1998 is the first novel in the Pandorin series and when the novel begins it is 1876 and Erast Pandorin's supersvisor at the police department, Xavier Grushin, is looking through that day's edition of the Moscow Gazette.  He comes upon a shocking story that reads as follows :

"Yesterday the Alexander Gardens were the scene of a sad incident only too distinctly typical of the cynical outlook and manners of modern youth when Mr N., a handsome young fellow of twenty-three, a student at Moscow University, and the sole heir to a fortune of millions, shot himself dead in full view of the promenading public ... It would appear tnat the fashionable epidemic of pointless suicides, which had thus far remained the scourge of Petropolis, has finally spread to the walls of Old Mother Moscow ... O tempora, o mores!  To what depths of unbelief and nihilism have our guilded youth descended if they would make a vulgar spectacle even of their own deaths?  If our home grown Brutuses adopt such an attitude to their own lives, then how can we be suprised if they care not a  brass kopeck for the lives of other, incomparably more worthy individuals?"

The suicide is particularly disturbing since the young man, Mr N, who shot himself  did so in front of a young woman and her governess sitting on a park bench. He did not know these two women.  Why would he do such a thing?  It also seems like a closed case.  But Grushin is bothered by this story and asks young Erast Pandorin to investigate.  Earst who is twenty and has had only clerical duties to perform is very eager to take on a real case   As the book progresses and Erast Pandorin digs deeper we will see that what started out as a sensless suicide in Alexander Gardens is in reality a much wider conspiracy with international implications.  Our young detective matures a great deal throughout the book as he uncovers plot twist after plot twist and by the time the novel ends Erast Fandorin is not the same naive twenty year old who we began the book with,

I was impessed with the Winter Queen.  Over the years I have read a number of 19th century Russian novels and though the Winter Queen was published in 1998,  Boris Akunin's depiction of 19th century Russia is very well done.  The dialogue, the characters, the whole ambiance rings true.  You feel you are in Moscow in the late 19th century and that is a credit to the author's talent.

I do have criticisms though.  First, Erast Pandorin, our young hero, survives multiple attempts on his life throughout the novel and I began to find it implausible that he could escape both physically and emotionally so many close calls.  I also felt by the time I got to the end of the novel that we were far afield from the suicide that began the book.  For me there were too many plot twists along the way and a resolution of the mystery that I can't see happening in reality.

But I closed the Winter Queen deciding that I would like to give the Erast Fandorin series another try.  Maybe skip to book five or six when our young detective  is older, has more of a personal life and the crimes he is asked to solve a little more straightforward.   One thing is for sure, the author doesn't need gimmicks, international conspiracies and plot twists to move his books along. He is a very fine writer and that alone kept me turning the pages.