Category Archives: Books

The James Bond Books by Ian Fleming — Live And Let Die

Live And Let Die is the second of Ian Fleming’s legendary James Bond novels. It is also frankly the most problematic. Written in 1954 about a Caribbean crime boss wreaking havoc from his lair in Harlem and obviously penned by the most English of mid-century Englishman this side of Churchill, the writing often invokes cringe-worthy instances of political incorrectness for the modern reader. For example, while the dangerous and supremely intelligent super villain Mr. Big is erudite and possesses a genius level intellect, there are many bits of dialogue spoken by his African American underlings in rather unfortunate “Yassuh, Boss” dialect. This may reflect Fleming’s efforts at portraying colloquial English accurately but 60 years on it does not exactly hold up as the author’s best moment, not to mention Bond calling those henchmen “clumsy black apes” or the use of rude British seaman’s slang as the name for shallow coral reefs once the action shifts to Jamaica (hint: rhymes with “biggerhead”). At best the offending language is terribly dated and at worst it is extremely condescending and racially insulting.

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But if we can forgive Fleming for being a man of his time and for his very English mid-20th Century views on race relations and insensitive language (which is probably much easier to do if you’re not a person of color, to be fair) then what we get when putting aside those jarring racialisms is a massive improvement in Fleming’s writing style over Bond’s debut in Casino Royale, though the latter was published just a year prior. Bond’s character has much more depth, humor and élan than in the first book and the action and adventure is crisper and more sustained, not mention the book seems much better edited so that Fleming’s more repetitive ticks have been largely jettisoned. While Casino Royale was already a very good effort, especially as a debut, Live And Let Die proves that Bond has real staying power as an iconic super spy through his character’s increased toughness and ingenuity. And certainly one doesn’t go into a Bond novel — or most of the films, for that matter — looking for a treatise on racial or feminist enlightenment. As the more modern movies would come to acknowledge, Bond is a dinosaur, a man of thoroughly 1950s outlook on women and minorities. If you can’t get over that — and it’s fine if you can’t, of course — essentially none of the original Bond novels is going to work for you. They are a guilty pleasure best enjoyed as old action books and not viewed through a modern prism any more than you would, say, a Sam Spade, Mike Hammer or Philip Marlowe adventure.

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After recovering from injuries both physical and emotional sustained during the course of the brutal Casino Royale affair, Bond is summoned by M., head of MI6, to investigate the flooding of gold coins dating from the notorious privateer Henry Morgan’s era onto the black market. With the spymaster’s typical well-reasoned logic, M. theorizes that a Russian agent of Haitian descent, Buonapart Ignace Gallia, a voodoo practitioner who keeps a criminal empire running on fear and murder, aka “Mr. Big,” is pulling the strings on the elaborate plot to launder the old pirate’s treasure for nefarious ends. For Bond, who has sworn personal revenge on the Soviet assassin’s group SMERSH for their evil deeds in the Royale caper, the chance to take on Mr. Big, their key man in America, is too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Quickly, Bond finds himself in New York City, where Fleming’s love of all things American (except for the lousy coffee and fast food of the era) is ever apparent in his evocative descriptions of the fast-paced big city. Staying at the luxury St. Regis hotel in Midtown, Bond is quickly reunited with his pal from the CIA, Felix Leiter, who is to team with Bond on the Mr. Big case. (Never mind that the CIA is ostensibly prohibited from operating within US borders…) The two secret agents make the journey up to Harlem and unsurprisingly, as two extremely square, extremely white gentlemen they are quickly spotted by Mr. Big’s pervasive underground network. This leads to Bond and Leiter being captured while looking for clues at Mr. Big’s lurid exotic club, “The Boneyard.” The men are separated and Bond finds himself alone and face-to-face with the fearsome Mr. Big.

As with nearly all of Fleming’s villains, Mr. Big is something of a physical monstrosity: 6’6″ tall and 280 pounds with an enormous, oversized bald head, gray skin and bulging yellow eyes. Bond concocts a story of coming to America to aide the US Treasury in tracking the mysterious inflow of ancient gold coins but Mr. Big, as a key member of SMERSH, already has intelligence hinting at Bond’s broader plans and his Double-0 status. Mr. Big asks his kept woman, the beautiful Creole psychic Solitaire, to corroborate Bond’s cover story by reading the Tarot cards. To Bond’s surprise she does so, while also sending him unmistakable signals of alliance. As a parting warning, Mr. Big directs his henchman, the fearsomely gleeful Tee-Hee, to snap Bond’s pinky finger. Coming to after blacking out from that pain, Bond is warned by Mr. Big to go back to England and stay away from his affairs. The next time they meet, the theatrical and megalomaniacal SMERSH agent will have Bond killed in as artistically satisfying way as he, the great Mr. Big, can devise.

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So begins the first third of Live And Let Die and it only picks up steam from there, with a furtive train journey down the East Coast to Mr. Big’s secretive operations in St. Petersburg, Florida; a deepening relationship between Bond and the now-fugitive Solitaire; and mortal danger for Bond, Leiter and the beautiful Creole telepath at every turn. Culminating with a masterfully tense and brutal showdown at Mr. Big’s aka Baron Samedi’s secret island hideout in Jamaica, Live And Let Die ratchets up the considerable thrills of Casino Royale with an even more sensational plot, graphic violence and detailed attention to the intricacies and dangers of spycraft by Fleming. The characters are sharper, the villain bigger and better and the second novel also introduces the globe-trotting change of locales that would come to be a hallmark of the series, both literary and filmed. If the 1973 movie Live And Let Die, Roger Moore’s debut in the iconic role, cleverly incorporated elements of the pulpy and then-popular Blaxsplotation genre, as well as inaugurating the more high-concept, sometimes wacky action era of Bond in cinema (see that speedboat chase in the bayou as well as the redneck sheriff and army of crashing police cars), the original book is more focused on finely honed observations about the power and history of voodoo, how a huge criminal enterprise might successfully operate in the United States under cover of small time crime and the ingenious and ruthless methods deployed by the criminal mastermind involved. In short, it’s a ripping yarn full of dynamic changes of pace, hard-nosed detective work, camaraderie in the face of danger and memorable bursts of ultra-violence. Fleming’s gift for the sudden shock and the unexpected upping of stakes continues to evolve nicely, leaving one primed and ready for the apocalyptic possibilities of his third Bond adventure, Moonraker. Tune in next time to see how that one stacks up.

The James Bond Books by Ian Fleming — Casino Royale

We’ve all seen every James Bond movie multiple times and have our own firm opinion on who is the best Bond — Connery? Moore? Craig? Brosnan?? But how many have read the original Ian Fleming novels? Well, if you’re a true Bond aficionado you really should check them out. And if you’re looking for enjoyable, action-packed summer reading it’ll be a win-win. While the films jump off to an entirely more fantastical level and become their own distinctly grandiose vision of 007, the stripped-down genesis of the Bond phenomenon is in the books. There isn’t close to the gadgetry in Fleming’s original conception, although there are some impressively explosive high-concept climaxes, and the bon mots are a little more subtle. Bond himself tends to be more grim, fallible and vulnerable and less of an glibly unstoppable killing machine than in the films. He comes across as a diligent, well-trained espionage professional with above average self-defense skills and an expert with firearms, a top agent with a sharp, opportunistic mind and a cold reserve covering up signs of doubt and melancholia. It’s a definite key to Daniel Craig’s success that his Bond hews more closely to Fleiming’s original dour conception.

Ian Fleming's own early drawing of Bond

Ian Fleming’s own early drawing of Bond (pic from Wikipedia)

The first novel in Fleming’s massively successful opus is the notorious Casino Royale. I say notorious primarily because the film rights were tangled up for so long that it was the only Bond novel not to make it to the big screen… in recognizable form — the very poor 1967 Woody Allen-David Niven parody shares only the name. It took more than half a century for it to be properly adapted for the cinema via 2006’s explosive blockbuster, Craig’s excellent debut and a film many Bond fans consider one of the best in the franchise. Coming as it did after the ever more elaborate and bloated Brosnan films (although one could see some darker foreshadowing in his last, Die Another Day, where Bond is subjected to harsh torture at the hands of the North Koreans), it was no accident that finally having secured the rights to Fleming’s elusive first work, Broccoli & Co.’s franchise reboot would also try to stay true to the elements that made the start of the Bond story so special. But Casino Royale was also notorious when it was published in 1953 for its violence and sexual content, as well as the very frank and graphic way Fleming approached both issues, with many critics lining up to deride it as pornographic garbage. More than 60 years on it’s Fleming who has the last laugh because his debut novel still holds up very well.

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In Casino Royale the novel we meet Bond for the first time, a WWII naval veteran (presumably an ex-commando) and now an agent in England’s Secret Service with a Double-0 classification, which, as we all know, is a license to kill on behalf of the British government. Continue reading

Documentary view — Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007

Everybody has a favorite James Bond movie and a favorite actor who played the legendary British secret agent. But today relatively few have ever read Ian Fleming’s original books. Fewer still know the story of the men behind the myth and their herculean efforts to get Bond to the screen and keep him on top throughout the decades. 2013’s superlative documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 brilliantly fills in the blank spaces and inside history for both the casual 007 enthusiast and the hardcore fanatic.

With unprecedented and officially sanctioned access to the key players in Bond’s creation and remarkably enduring success as a cinematic staple for generations, Everything or Nothing delves into Fleming’s biography to show how his conception of James Bond was forged by his work as an intelligence officer for the British Navy during WWII. A cunning planner of sabotage operations, Fleming was nonetheless primarily a desk man who had to live the action vicariously through the exploits of the men “playing Red Indians”, his colorful term for Special Forces commandos operating behind enemy lines. After the war and with a new Soviet enemy to face, Fleming kicked around a bit before finally finding his calling with the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953. Wonderfully informed with details from his wartime espionage experience if somewhat crudely written in a potboiler style, Casino Royale struck a cord and was an immediate success. This enabled Fleming to devote his energies to writing new adventures for his super spy to please an enthusiastic public if not always the hot-and-cold critics. Between 1952 and his death in 1964, Fleming cranked out twelve full-length Bond novels and two collections of 007 short stories.

James Bond’s exploits were inherently cinematic and almost immediately various film and television producers approached Fleming with ideas for adaptations, with very mixed results initially. Continue reading

Motorsport Books — The Limit: Life and Death in Formula One’s Most Dangerous Era by Michael Cannell

The winter interregnum between the major American and European motorsport seasons is the perfect time to wet one’s whistle for the upcoming action by catching up with the best books on racing. Easily qualifying for any serious fan’s motorsports library is Michael Cannell’s 2011 The Limit: Life and Death in Formula One’s Most Dangerous Era, which chronicles the epic battle between Ferrari teammates Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips for the 1961 F1 World Championship. While it relies heavily on the period reportage and essays of the great Robert Daley and those passages may be familiar to anyone who has read his seminal The Cruel Sport and Cars at Speed, Cannell’s volume still stands on its own merits. By focusing on the divergent personalities and biographies of the two friendly rivals and the common motivation that drove them to compete and succeed at the very highest level of the sport, a finely limned portrait emerges of not just the men but also the highly charged era in which they performed. And of course that charge came from the constant and absolutely genuine threat of crippling or fatal injury at every Grand Prix.

Phil Hill, 1960

Phil Hill, 1960

Phil Hill grew up a frail and insecure boy in Southern California, one who’s low self esteem was reinforced by a domineering father and an admitted incompetence at team sports. He only found his calling when an aunt gave him a Model T Ford to tinker with. As a teenager Hill quickly evolved into a prototypical hot rodder and he began getting paid to race, winning nearly every open sports car competition in California. Wolfgang von Trips was the heir to a noble German family who nearly lost everything during the cataclysm of World War II. When his family mansion near Cologne was occupied by American soldiers after Germany’s capitulation, von Trips became obsessed with the GI’s Jeeps and trucks. Eventually he would acquire a series of ever more powerful Porsches, which he raced with reckless abandon, earning him the nickname “Count von Crash.” Despite his proclivity to overstep the limit, or perhaps because of it, von Trips still managed to attract the attention of the Machiavellian Enzo Ferrari, founder of the greatest marque in motorsports. Hill, having left the oval racing-obsessed US to try his hand at European road racing, also managed to be pulled into Ferrari’s orbit by his early success with the Jaguar team. By the late 1950s both men were driving sports car races for the Prancing Horse and in line for a top-level factory Ferrari drive in Formula 1.

Wolfgang von Trips, 1961

Wolfgang von Trips, 1961

While graduating into the Ferrari F1 team may sound glamorous today, back in the classic era this was mainly achieved by having the drivers currently occupying those seats dying in action. Continue reading

Documentary view — Salinger

One of the literary world’s great mystery men, J.D. Salinger famously disappeared from public view in 1965, when his last work was published and 14 years after the release of The Catcher in the Rye, arguably the most influential novel of the post-World War II era. Immensely private almost to the point of mania, Salinger’s opaque personal history and life in seclusion have fascinated generations of fans, literary peers, critics and the media. Shane Salerno’s 2013 documentary Salinger, which can be viewed via streaming with a Netflix membership, attempts to “find” the reclusive author by investigating and fleshing out his pre-fame life and examining the motives behind his self-imposed exile after achieving literary immortality. For the most part, it succeeds extremely well at this daunting task.

Not a great documentary but a pretty damn good one, Salinger features interviews with lifelong friends and acquaintances dating back to his pre-WW II days in New York City when he was just an aspiring writer striving for success and any sort of recognition. Significantly, it explores his engagement to the fetching debutante Oona O’Neill, Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, who eventually dumped Salinger for the much older Charlie Chaplin. Shortly thereafter Salinger was sent to Europe as a combat soldier in the Army. Salinger saw action on D-Day, in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Hurtgen Forest and was at the liberation of one of the Dachau concentration camps. The documentary posits convincingly that it was these twin traumatic experiences, particularly his harrowing war service, which informed all his future work and lead to his compulsive focus on unspoiled youth, eventually driving Salinger to seek to create and control his own private universe.

It also chronicles how he was constantly submitting to and being rejected by his dream venue, The New Yorker, before during and after the War, even as he achieved modest success in the so-called “slick” magazines. He finally found a sympathetic figure at the The New Yorker in fiction editor William Maxwell, who agreed to publish “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, which became a major success. It also introduced the world to the brilliant and strange Glass family through its troubled eldest son Seymour Glass, a shell-shocked war veteran. The history of the Glass family would later become Salinger’s lifelong obsession. But before that detour, several more short stories were published by the New Yorker, including “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut”, which Salinger eagerly optioned to Hollywood for a film version. The result, a Dana Andrews-Susan Hayward romantic vehicle retitled My Foolish Heart, was so unfaithful to his original story that Salinger never again allowed a film version of his work despite his obsessive love of cinema and constant entreaties from producers, directors and actors.

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But if Salinger was smarting over Hollywood’s betrayal he put that anger to good use, channeling his rage at the “phonies” into the archetypal youth novel, The Catcher In the Rye. Continue reading

What we’re reading — The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

If at this point in your life you have still not read The Sun Also Rises there’s no need to berate yourself. The great thing about great books you have not yet read is that you are in for a treat when you finally do get around to them. After all, if we had already consumed every iconic novel we might be awfully accomplished but it would also take away that magical frisson that comes from the first-time discovery of something really special.

Of course, if you have read Hemingway’s first full-length novel before you’ll know that it’s well worth revisiting, as we here at MFL do nearly annually (especially in Spring/early Summer). With his revolutionarily sparse prose and frank descriptions of human weakness, sexuality and folly, as well as the beauty and honor aspired to and attained by doing something skillful honestly and well, The Sun Also Rises ushered in a new era of American fiction and spawned a million imitators. Memorably capturing the post-World War I zeitgeist in expatriate France & Spain, where the strong American dollar in the 1920s could enable even struggling artists and writers to live very well, the novel follows wounded veteran and journalist Jake Barnes, embodiment of the so-called Lost Generation, as he consorts with the upper class dilettantes and salt of the earth residents who made Paris and Pamplona such fascinating milieus. Continue reading

Motorsport Books — The Cruel Sport by Robert Daley

The companion piece to Robert Daley’s seminal Cars at Speed, The Cruel Sport is ostensibly more of a coffee table picture book. With its oversized dimensions featuring beautiful black and white photos of Formula 1′s golden era taken while Daley was a correspondent for the New York Times in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, The Cruel Sport captures the romance and danger of Grand Prix motor racing during its mythic past. Shots of the greatest drivers of the era — Phil Hill, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Dan Gurney, Jackie Stewart, et al — doing what they do best make up the bulk of this great tome with the text secondary and spare.

Scene from 1964 GP of Holland (Photo by Robert Daly)

Scene from 1964 GP of Holland (Photo by Robert Daley)

The fantastic record of the state-of-the-art cars of this era — thin, gasoline-filled aluminum monocoques surrounding the driver like a casket with a giant engine newly moved to behind his back — pay tribute to the beauty of the Ferraris, Lotuses, BRMs and all the other land rockets of the pre-safety, pre-downforce era. Interspersed throughout are brief profiles of the drivers and circuits written in Daley’s inimitable wry, Hemingway-esque prose. Showing through, as in all his writing on motorsport, is the paradoxical ambivalence of at once being highly attracted to the derring-do of the men’s wondrous achievements as pilots and revulsion at the wonton waste of life inherent during this era of Formula 1, when the death of drivers and spectators was nearly guaranteed several times a season.

Death of Lorenzo Bandini, Monaco, 1967 (Photo by Robert Daley)

In fact, the footnotes to the photos in the closing “Photo Identification” section are practically another book unto themselves, with detailed ruminations about the deaths of Graham Hill by plane accident in the 1970s and Jim Clark at Hockenheim in a Formula 2 race in 1968, among many other anecdotes. And Daley’s quietly devastating recounting of the death of Lorenzo Bandini in a Ferrari at the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix and his journalistic need to photograph it (the horrifying shot of Bandini trapped beneath his burning Ferrari is the fitting endpaper of the book) makes for essential reading in and of itself as a shattering piece of self-reflective journalism, motorsports notwithstanding. In short, along with Cars at Speed, The Cruel Sport is a must have volume for any serious racing fan and anyone who cherishes the bittersweet history of Formula 1 and the men who lived & died it in its most glorious years, as told by its finest, most clear-eyed chronicler.

Check out more of Robert Daley’s life and work at his website, robertdaleyauthor.com.

What we’ve read this summer– From Here to Eternity by James Jones

It’s no coincidence that on the last day of August we’ve only just finished our summer reading of From Here to Eternity by James Jones. The text of this seminal 1951 military novel clocks in at a whopping 896 pages. And yet it rarely fails to captivate.

Set in and around the Schofield Barracks near Diamond Head in Honolulu, Hawaii in the months leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, From Here to Eternity tracks the lives of several soldiers and their women in this last peaceful period before WWII. Principal among them are Private Robert E. Lee Pruitt and First (“Top”) Sargent Milton Warden. Pruitt is a poor Kentucky boy who enlisted in the Army after escaping the mining town that consumed his parents and bumming around during the Depression. His aim is to be a “30-year-man”, a career soldier, because he loves the ideal of the Army, the camaraderie of the men and the art of soldiering. It is really the only true home he’s ever known. Continue reading

Motorsport Books — Cars at Speed by Robert Daley

Arguably one of the greatest books ever written on auto racing, Robert Daley’s “Cars at Speed” covers the Golden Age of the early to mid 20th century’s grand road races and nascent Formula One scene.

As a correspondent for the New York Times, Daley covered Grand Prix racing in Europe and around the world from 1958 to 1964 and the book was published in 1961, right at the crossover period between front and rear engined Grand Prix machines.  Along with Carroll Shelby, Daley is largely credited with helping to introduce the thrills of twisty circuit and street racing to the broader United States’ public, which previously only had interest in Indianapolis 500 and stock car-style events.

In “Cars at Speed”, Daley recounts the death defying years before seat belts, fire suits or big money, when men raced for glory and their own strange need to live on the edge and when drivers and spectators died with brutal regularity.  In this book, you’ll find stories of Phil Hill & Dan Gurney, Jean Behra and Juan Manuel Fangio, Alfonso de Portago & Stirling Moss and many others.  You’ll find tales from the Targa Florio, the Mille Miglia and Le Mans.  In this book, you may learn more about the history of road racing than you thought you knew and discover a lifelong passion for motorsports and admiration for the men who take the risks.  That’s how it worked out for me, anyway.

In a style heavily indebted to Hemingway, Daley’s wry, brutally honest tales are both funny and horrifying.  And always but always exciting and immensely enjoyable.  Along with his slightly later, larger photo-centric book “The Cruel Sport”, “Cars at Speed” may go in and out of print but belongs in every racing enthusiast’s library, casual or fanatical.

You can get nearly new copies through used book dealers on Amazon starting at around $4. Not a bad price for a lifetime of enjoyment.