Now you’re cooking with gas . . . in space

They even put it on buttons.

The expression “Now you’re cooking with gas!”, which has the meaning of “Now you’re doing it right/making progress/on the right track,” had its origins at the end of the 1930s, when it was used on radio shows as a way of promoting the home use of natural gas. Some have attributed it to Bob Hope (or one of his writers) and it apparently does get used by him in Road to Zanzibar (1941), a movie I haven’t seen.

My father liked to use the expression. I heard it a fair bit growing up. I never heard anyone else say it. Whenever I’ve used it I’ve only gotten confused looks. I think it may have been the equivalent then of “Where’s the beef?” for my father’s generation. That’s an ad line that found it’s way into a movie too.

You can imagine my surprise then on reading Miles Cameron’s Artifact Space, which is space-opera SF set sometime in the distant future on board a giant “greatship” that is sailing through the cosmos. When the crew of a hydrogen harvester are unloading their cargo of fuel the captain tells the rookie “Now we’re cooking with gas.” This provokes a questioning response, “We are?”

“It’s an expression,” he said. “Apparently, once upon a time cooking with gas was very . . .” His eyes met hers. “Honestly, I don’t know. Half our jargon is from the old United States Navy and the other half is from the ancient British Royal Navy, and there’s a bunch from early spaceflight operations and some even from Old Terran trucking. Navies are the most conservative linguists anywhere — we preserve even the meaningless terms for hundreds of years.”

I don’t know why the connection is made here to navies, since it’s an advertising catch phrase that started out on radio directed at people using gas ovens in their kitchens. In any event, this may be the first time I’ve ever seen the expression in print, and what a strange place to finally find it!

Top of the world

Going up.

Just over 24 years ago I started what turned into a surprisingly long stint as a freelance book reviewer with a review of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. I think it was the second review I had published, outside of student newspapers and academic journals. Alas, it appeared in a paper that hasn’t had a books page now for over a decade.

I absolutely loved Krakauer’s book, and a couple of months later did a double review for the same paper of a pair of similarly-themed mountaineering books: Dark Shadows Falling by Joe Simpson and Everest: Mountain without Mercy by Broughton Coburn. The latter was a companion book to an IMAX expedition that was on Everest the same time as Krakauer’s team. Apparently I liked the pictures but thought the text “virtually unreadable.” I recently re-read it though, so I can say that judgment was maybe a little harsh. Still, the main draw are the pictures.

I don’t think I saw the IMAX film Everest at the time, but I recently watched it — on DVD, alas, and a small screen — and posted my thoughts over at Alex on Film. I guess after nearly a quarter century this closes that particular circle.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not a mountain climber. Or rock climber. Not at all. Though I do like hiking. You couldn’t pay me enough to get me to go up Everest, though I wouldn’t mind visiting Nepal. The dangerous stuff should probably be left for the professionals.

Maigret: Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters

The Maigret novels aren’t without their moments of humour, but I wouldn’t call any that I’ve read thus far comic. Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters comes the closest, beginning with the sad sack Lognon himself, who I don’t recall appearing before Maigret at Picratt’s. Lognon goes by the nickname Inspector Hard-Done-By and is described as “the most lugubrious individual in the entire Parisian police force, a man whose bad luck was so proverbial some people claimed he was cursed.” Very much a comic figure then, and the book begins with his going missing and Maigret having to make a visit to his wife, a scene which plays out as farce.

There is, however, a dangerous subtext. Another potentially comic character Maigret meets is the café owner Pozzo (this book was published in 1952 and Waiting for Godot premiered in 1953, so Simenon wasn’t writing under the influence). Pozzo initially seems to be acting the clown and even later will look like “one of those old comic actors whose faces have become rubbery from all their contortions.” But beneath that rubbery face, and despite his costume of baggy pants and red slippers, he is a figure of threat, with eyes that remain hard and watchful. The same might be said of some of the gangsters, Americans who come with snappy names like Sweet Bill and Sloppy Joe. And the final gunfight, which is underscored by funny moments like Maigret having a pullet pass through his hat and a tiny French policeman trying to physically constrain a giant American woman.

So maybe this is a comic novel. I don’t even think anyone gets killed, though quite a few are shot and beaten up (including poor Lognon, who is removed from “his” case pretty quickly). The plot involves a bunch of gangsters arriving in Paris and behaving as very poor guests. Maigret takes their presence as a challenge – we know he loves a challenge – and makes their capture a point of national pride. I don’t have to tell you how that works out. He shows them all . . . Absolutely!

Maigret index

The final chapter?

Over at Goodreports I’ve posted a review of three of the books that came out on the last days of Trump: Landslide by Michael Wolff, I Alone Can Fix It by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, and Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Could this be the final chapter of the Trump saga? Trump remains the undisputed leader of the Republican Party but my own sense is that his health isn’t going to hold up well enough to run again. That said, I guess anything can happen. There may be Four. More. Years!

Maigret: Maigret and the Tall Woman

Something about wicked women seems to have got Simenon’s creative juices flowing. Looking back on the books I’ve read in the series, it’s the bad girls who stand out the most. Madame Le Cloagulen in Signed, Picpus was probably the worst, but Madame Serre gives her a run for the money here. Related to this fascination with such women is an instinctive loathing of men who are excessively mothered.  The Flemish House and My Friend Maigret are the best examples. I wonder if there was some psychological projection going on here, as Maigret himself is waited on hand and foot by his wife.

In any event, Maigret and the Tall Woman combines both of these elements into one of the chief inspector’s most enjoyable cases. Enjoyable in part because Maigret himself is having so much fun. Guillaume Serre is actually bigger than Maigret is, which makes taking him down into a special challenge. This will be a heavyweight match-up for the ages!

Had it become a personal matter between him and Guillaume Serre? More precisely, would events have played out in the same manner, would Maigret have come to the same decision, at the same moment, if the man from Rue de la Ferme hadn’t been a heavyweight like him, both physically and psychologically?

From the start he seemed intent to test himself against him.

Alas, that’s not quite how things work out. But the sting in the tail of this one, a doctor’s stoppage almost, is even more satisfying than a knockout.

Maigret index

Hitting the books, again

After a brief hiatus I’m back posting book reviews on Goodreports.net, kicking things off with a review of Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit.

I started Goodreports in 1998, so I’ve been at it for a while now. In recent years, however, I haven’t been updating it as much. This is not, however, because I’ve been spending all my time watching movies. I still read as much as ever, about 100-120 books a year. But my reading has changed.

Most of my reading these days is non-fiction. This is either history or current political events (for the last few years that latter category could be relabeled “books about Trump”). I’ve also spent a lot of time re-reading the classics — fiction, drama, and poetry. Currently I’m working my way through a lot of Milton and Joyce. I haven’t read either author in years and I’m having a great time. But I’m not going to review them!

What I’m not reading, at least in any great quantity, is new fiction. I still cover a bit of SF, but, aside from that, in the past year I haven’t read many new novels or story collections.

I don’t think this is because of anything I’ve got against new fiction. It’s probably more a result of aging. If you only have time for a certain number of books left, why not spend it with the masters? But also, as I get older I find that works by new (that is young) writers have less to say to me. Again, this isn’t a unique feeling. I’ve heard other (old) people express the same feelings.

I’m not giving up, however, and plan on making a commitment to reading more new fiction moving forward. I just need to find some more hours in the day to make it happen.

Maigret: Maigret Takes a Room

Why is Maigret taking a room? Because Madame Maigret is visiting her sister, leaving Jules feeling lonely. Or perhaps just in need of someone to take care of him. So when his favourite inspector, Janvier, is shot in the chest while staking out an apartment building it’s only natural that Maigret himself should take a room in that same building. To find out who shot Janvier? That seems a stretch. More likely he just wants the maternal concierge (“her large breasts wobbling in her blouse like jelly”) to make a fuss over him.

There’s even less detective work than usual here. Maigret solves the crime by just looking out the window of his room and having the truth dawn on him in the usual, wholly inexplicable, way. It’s still an enjoyable outing though, especially in the way the two women who are hiding men rhyme with each other, and in the wonderful description of Maigret’s first visit to Madame Boursicault, where she attempts to lull him to sleep with her voice droning on “monotonously, like a running tap.”

I guess the Maigrets didn’t have any kids. This may help explain his need to find a surrogate family, whether it be among his stable of inspectors (he calls Lucas “son” even though he’s only about ten years older) or with the roly-poly concierge. Given it’s Janvier who takes a bullet here I was a little surprised that we got the gentle, forgiving Maigret at the end, but maybe he was just feeling a bit more fatherly toward everyone.

Maigret index

Maigret: Maigret at Picratt’s

There’s a biographical blurb at the front of this series of Penguin Maigret novels that quotes Simenon:

My motto, to the extent that I have one, has been noted often enough, and I’ve always conformed to it. It’s the one I’ve given to old Maigret, who resembles me in certain points . . . “understand and judge not.”

I don’t like this kind of self-praise (an author creating a fictional hero who he then compares himself to), and what’s more I’m not sure it’s an accurate a description of old Maigret. The chief inspector can make up his mind about people pretty quickly, and isn’t afraid to get rough right away with people he makes snap judgments about. He is also very much a man of his time, and this book was published in 1951.

I don’t believe in applying current rules for political correctness in a rear-view mirror, to punish authors, in Auden’s phrase, under a foreign code of conscience. But you do have to shake your head a bit at the treatment of the gay junky Philippe here. Maigret immediately pegs him as a “fairy.”

“Do you like men?”

Deep down, like all fairies, he was proud of it, and an involuntary smile formed on his unnaturally red lips. Maybe getting told off by real men turned him on?

That’s pretty bad. Even worse, Maigret immediately hands Philippe over for a brutal interrogation, the results of which are later reported back to him by the fellow tasked with the dirty job:

“He’s exhausting, that guy. He’s as limp as a rag doll, there’s nothing to get hold of. Twice I thought he’s going to talk. I’m sure he’s got something to say. His resistance seemed shot. His eyes begged for mercy. Then at the last second, he changes his mind and swears he doesn’t know anything. It makes me sick. Just now, he drove me so crazy I smacked him full in the face. Do you know what he did?”

Maigret didn’t say anything.

“He held his cheek and started whining as if he was talking to another fairy like him. ‘You’re mean!’ I mustn’t do it again. I bet it excites him.”

Maigret could not help smiling.

No, this isn’t one of old Maigret’s finer moments, and it really puts the lie to the idea that he seeks only to understand and judges not. At one point he can’t help exclaiming of the people he’s investigating “What a filthy bunch!” Prostitutes, junkies, killers, drug-dealers, and fairies. Later in the book he’ll even send the “nasty little worm” Philippe – who, I should point out, is really just a junky – out as bait to draw the killer. A dangerous plan, at least for Philippe, though Maigret had done something similar in A Man’s Head. In any event, he really isn’t that concerned about Philippe anyway. “If there is an accident, well, I don’t think it will be such a great loss.”

(As an aside here, in the series of BBC Maigrets starring Rowan Atkinson this is one of the novels they adapted. They kept the antipathy shown toward Philippe by the other characters, and even included a bit of the rough stuff at the police station, but they kept Maigret himself above it all. He puts an end to Philippe’s being given the third-degree, coming into the interrogation room to remind everyone that “He [Philippe] is a human being.”)

A double standard for bad behaviour is in play. While Philippe is roundly despised, a sleazy strip-club owner who has sex with his dancers virtually right in front of his wife turns out to be a pretty decent guy. There’s even a curious point at the end where he and Maigret sit together comparing notes on the case and Maigret thinks to himself that they are “almost in the same line of business. They both had a roughly similar approach, just different styles of working and different reasons for doing so.” A reflection made about a guy who admires the killer for being such an effective groomer of young women!

All of this is disconcerting, but Maigret at Picratt’s is otherwise a solid entry in the series. A beautiful young dancer (as in “dancer”) is murdered, landing Maigret knee-deep in a cross-section of seedy Montmartre characters with shady pasts. Thrilling stuff for the most part, as long as you keep in mind that it was 1951 and they felt differently about a lot of things back then.

Maigret index

Maigret: Maigret’s Memoirs

An odd entry, even by today’s standards of metafiction. But it seems a truism that any serial or franchise that goes on long enough  will take a turn toward, or at least dip a toe into, this sort of playfulness.

The idea here is that Maigret has taken over authorial duties, wanting to set the record straight. This fellow Simenon with his “semi-literature” (a sort of halfway house between pulp fiction and serious literary novels) has done a good enough job, and sold a lot of books, but he hasn’t really gotten inside Maigret’s head. So the chief inspector takes the time here to give a fuller account.

Which means we have two Maigrets, both fictional creations of Georges Simenon, with this one being a device used to comment on the one we’re more familiar with. Except I see the two as basically joined at the hip, and what’s really happening is we’re getting a deeper dive into the same character.

Despite the fact that there’s no mystery, or even plot at all, with the book only providing a collection of biographical notes, I found it quite interesting. Maigret talks a bit about his joining the police as a calling, imagining himself as being like a doctor in understanding and treating people’s lives. And at times this turns into something even more grand:

I had the obscure feeling that too many people were not in their rightful places, that they were making an effort to play roles they were not suited to, and that consequently, the game, for them, was lost in advance.

I really do not want it to be thought that I had any pretensions to one day become that kind of God the father.

But in an earlier novel Simenon had suggested the connection between Maigret’s understanding of the lives of the people involved in a case as being akin to that of God the father. Is Maigret trying to correct this impression now, or is Simenon underlining it? Or both?

Simenon, who we actually get to meet at the start of the book as Maigret gives him a tour of the Quai des Orfèvres, tells Maigret that he isn’t interested in professional criminals or even crimes of passion. Maigret later returns to this, saying that the sorts of crimes “that interest novelists and so-called psychologists, are so uncommon that they take up only an insignificant part of our activities.”

And yet it is those that the public knows best. It is those cases that Simenon has mostly written about and will, I assume, continue to write about.

I mean crimes that are suddenly committed in places where you would least expect them, and that are something like the end-product of a long-hidden period of fermentation.

Yes, that is the sort of crime Simenon is most interested in. But it’s the sort of crime Maigret responds to most vigorously as well. It’s also a bit the same for Poirot, who says at one point that he has no interest in maniac killers, but only those driven by the two main engines of murderous passion: sex and greed. But for Christie mystery-solving is all about unraveling the twists in a crazily complicated plot, whereas for Simenon it has more to do with digging into a character’s past and that long-hidden period of fermentation.

Maigret index

Maigret: Madame Maigret’s Friend

If you thought, as I did, that this was going to be a book where Maigret’s wife (first name Louise, in case you ever get quizzed) was going to play a central role, you would be mistaken. No, she’s still the model housewife here: doing the grocery shopping, cooking Maigret his meals and fetching him his slippers and pipe at the end of the day. But she does do a bit of investigating at one point, wearing out some shoe leather in tracking down an important lead. After which she can go back to making dinner.

The rest of the book is just as disappointing. It’s another one in the series where the villains are mainly kept off-stage, so we only hear about them second-hand. There’s also a messiness to it that’s perhaps the result of Simenon trying to tie two plots together in an awkward way. Some occasional low-key humour helps out, but otherwise I found this to be one of the least distinguished instalments in the series.

Maigret index