52 Albums, Week 19: Hats (The Blue Nile)
52 Albums, Week 20: Forever Changes (Love)

Sunday Night Journal, May 14, 2017

As you know if you read (or contributed to) the 52 Authors series a couple of years ago, I am a great fan of the mystery writer Ross Macdonald. "Ross Macdonald" was the pen name of Kenneth Millar. Most biographical notes included in the Macdonald books say something like this, from my 1973 Bantam printing of The Wycherly Woman: "[his wife] is now well known as the novelist Margaret Millar." I've been seeing that since I began reading Macdonald in the early '70s, but had never heard her name mentioned anywhere else, and supposed that she had been a sort of pop novelist whose work was no longer read. (I did, however, in the course of writing that 52 Authors piece about Macdonald, come across some signs that a revival of interest in her might be under way.) 

I was mildly curious about her work but had never sought it out. Then a couple of months ago I saw a copy of Wives and Lovers at a library sale and grabbed it. I read it last week and can report that this instance at least of Millar's work is still very much worthwhile.


I started reading the book with low expectations but found myself getting excited: This is sort of interesting...This is not bad...This is pretty good...This is really good. By halfway through I was comparing her to Flannery O'Connor: "Flannnery O'Connor without the faith," I said to my wife. I've learned over the years to distrust my initial reaction, especially initial enthusiasm. So maybe the O'Connor comparison is a little too much, and maybe after a bit, or on a second reading, I'll back off a little from that. But this is not fluff, which I guess is what I was expecting. If nothing else, it is a very well-written novel.

It's what would once have been called a "woman's novel," and though it may not be polite to use it, I think the description is justified. I say that because the book is principally about four women--Elaine, Hazel, Ruth, and Ruby--and their relationships to each other and to the men in their lives. Elaine is married to a dentist, Gordon. Hazel is Gordon's assistant and the ex-wife of George, a restaurant owner (see the jacket cover). Ruth is Hazel's cousin; she has been a schoolteacher but, having suffered some sort of breakdown, is now unemployed and living with Hazel; she also baby-sits Elaine and Gordon's children. Ruby is a rootless young woman who is in love with Gordon, and he with her; George also develops a crush on her.

The story takes place in a small town on the California coast, which is where the Millars lived. Although the men are pretty crucial to the story, it is the women whose character is most thoroughly depicted and exposed. That latter word is the main reason for the O'Connor comparison: Millar is surgically skilled at portraying the ways people attempt to disguise from themselves their pursuit of selfish and malicious ends. She is particularly hard on Elaine, a cold and self-righteous woman who despises her husband and keeps him in line with the skillful exercise of a sort of psychological cattle prod. That may sound like a bit of a cliché, and maybe it is. The book was written in the early '50s and I think there was a sort of pop-psychology fashion at the time for blaming a lot of social problems on emasculating women. Maybe there's even some Freudianism lurking in the background of Wives and Lovers.

Well, okay, thinking about it a bit more, I'll concede that Elaine's malice and hypocrisy are a bit overdone. Still, overall it's a very well executed novel and very much worth reading. Here are a few bits that I marked:

Right was something you were going to do anyway, and if it didn't justify itself afterwards it became wrong.


George was an incurable optimist. Like an alcoholic who needs only one drink to set him off, George needed only one happy thought....[the "happy thought" that follows is completely without factual foundation]


Elaine folded her troubles away in one corner of her mind, neatly and carefully, so that it wouldn't be hard to find them again and unfold them as good as new.


"My land, the things that happen. The things that happen that aren't really anybody's fault." 


"Something must have happened."
"Something always does."


The Republicans have produced a health care plan, and of course the Democrats have immediately denounced it as "the worst, most heartless, most cruel thing on earth, causing untold suffering and death." That's Neo-neocon being sarcastic, but it's really not much of an exaggeration of the Democrat/media reaction. I find the whole thing very depressing. I had had at least a faint hope that the Republicans might try to come up with a truly different approach rather than attempting to patch a crazy mess. In 2009, before Obamacare was even passed, I wrote this assessment of the situation. I know nothing in detail about health care policy, but I think it was accurate then and still is. That's possible because what we've been doing for so long is obviously mistaken in its broad outlines. You don't need to know the details of how an automobile works to recognize that a design that includes wings and propellers is not going to work very well. On this point in particular I was basically correct, except that it proved to be an even bigger problem than I thought:

Among many other problems with the idea is that it would increase the polarization of the country by locking our disagreements about abortion, euthanasia, etc. into a health care system that no one can escape, either as a patient or as a taxpayer.

It didn't necessarily have to be that way. The Obama administration deliberately chose to force that conflict, and it's reasonable to assume that progressives implementing a national system will not let up in that effort. For today's progressives, "divisive" means "you're in my way."

One of Obamacare’s major architects, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, has just co-authored (with bioethicist Ronit Y. Stahl) a major attack on medical conscience in the New England Journal of Medicine. His position is that physicians must abandon their own moral sensibilities once they don the doctor’s coat.

(That's Wesley J. Smith writing in National Review, and I'm including the link for the sake of accuracy, but I don't recommend following it, as their web site seems to get worse all the time for hogging up system resources and generally behaving badly.) 

Also, I would say now that we should be aiming for a system where small, routine expenses are not involved in the insurance system, and that medical insurance should be more like other forms of insurance (with some kind of government assistance for those who can't afford it). The employer as purchaser of insurance needs to be out of the picture altogether. I think it would be hard to overstate the damage this linkage has done and is doing. But if any politicians are trying to move us in that direction I haven't heard about it. At this point I think it quite likely that we will eventually have a government-run health care system, it will be extremely expensive and insanely complex, and, as noted, it will help to perpetuate the culture war. 


Speaking of Neo-neocon: she has an amusing account of her experience tasting a reputedly very high-quality Scotch whiskey. Her quotation from a review of the whiskey amused me. I never really believe connoisseurs of whiskey, wine, and beer who detect flavors like "boggy peat, strawberry jam, and chocolate fudge." "Boggy peat," yes. I have no actual experience of tasting actual peat or peat bog water, but I find it very believable that it tastes a bit like Scotch (which is not to say that I dislike Scotch--it's not my favorite thing but I like it). But strawberry jam? Come on.

I tend to be skeptical of connoisseurs in general, and strongly suspect them of making things up. I consider that the correct sensitivity to various nuances in whiskey, wine, beer, audio, and most anything else is roughly mine. Anything less is cloddish, anything more is probably just a pose. But I once knew someone who believed that those who claim to be able to taste the difference between butter and margarine were lying, so maybe I'm just a clod. 


With the Comey firing and even more with his raving and lying after it, Trump convinces me that I was right last year in saying "Donald Trump is not right in the head." I had hoped he would get better but he doesn't seem to be. 


The gardenias are blooming. It's too bad you can't smell this one. 





Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I've never had Caol Ila but I love the peaty/smoky Scotches. For a newbie, esp. a non-drinker they are most certainly not the place to start, however. It would be like starting on beer with an Imperial Stout or an IPA.

Worse, I would say. Even people who are accustomed to drinking other spirits sometimes dislike scotch pretty intensely. The peaty/smoky thing is exactly what puts them off. I don't buy expensive whiskey myself so have little experience.

Best whiskey I've had recently was the bottle of Angel's Envy bourbon that someone gave me for Christmas 2015. Mmm mmm, that was some good stuff.

The thing about single malts is that even the cheaper ones are expensive relative to the price of blends, bourbon, etc. Having said that, I'm an infrequent enough drinker to where I can make a good bottle of scotch last several months. For me it's much more of a treat than a staple. If I were to have a "staple" whisky it would probably be a mid-level bourbon, like Jim Beam Black Label.

I do have a staple and it's Old Crow. :-) Occasionally Jim Beam standard. But yeah, I think it was at least April before I finished that Christmas bottle of Angel's Envy.

We recently polished off a bottle of whiskey that we received as a wedding gift. Perhaps next year, for our 10th anniversary, we'll get another.

If it wasn't well-aged when you started, it was by the time yo finished.

Craig, my grandfather gave us a bottle of Jack Daniels when we got married and we probably had it for 30 years. Now people who work with Bill give him bottles of good Scotch and whiskey at Christmas, and he drinks them.

Since we are talking alcoholic beverages, for many years I wanted to taste a Mint Julep, but when I did, it wasn't at all what I expected and a bit too stronger, although I do appreciate the effort of the person who make it for me. Well, I just got back from Louisville where my daughter's mother-in-law made me a Mint Julep (in a Kentucky Derby glass) and it was sooooo good.


Sounds great. The few times I've made a mint julep for myself it was a little disappointing. Probably my lack of skill.

I think there's a recipe for a mint julep in Walker Percy's essay on bourbon. Never had one, though.

My go-to summer drink is the plain old G&T, but I like the Dark & Stormy as well -- ginger beer, dark rum and lime. National cocktail of Bermuda, apparently.

My favorite Scotch is unfortunately also one of the more expensive ones -- Lagavulin, which goes for about $85 a bottle around here. Of the more reasonably priced ones I like Highland Park, which is moderately "smoky," and Old Pulteney, which is not smoky at all, but instead very clean and bright-tasting.

To me all the blended Scotches -- Dewar's, J&B, Cutty Sark, etc. -- sort of taste the same, but the one I do like is White Horse, which uses Lagavulin as its base and is thus a little smokier than your typical blend. It's also pretty cheap -- about $15 where I live.

Yes, I've tried Percy's recipe. I don't think it worked out all that well. I think one of the problems I had with that and other attempts at a mint julep had to do with getting sugar to dissolve. Anyway, it didn't seem worth the trouble.

Some years ago one of my children brought me a bottle of some exotic Puerto Rican rum and made D&Ss with that and Reed's ginger beer. That was great, but I've made it since with other rum and it wasn't nearly as good. Made with ordinary ginger ale and ordinary rum it's nothing special at all.

In general I'm not that keen on sweet drinks. I tend to be a slow sipper and by the time I'm halfway through a sweet iced drink it's sort of tepid watery syrup.

I might try White Horse, although it's probably more expensive here.

I like G&Ts except that the tonic water is sweeter than I would like. I spent a while online once looking for a brand that's less sweet, and all I discovered was that I'm not the only one who would like it. I've tried mixing it half-and-half with club soda which is better but then I end up with a bunch of tonic and soda going flat.

Yeah, the D&S has to be dark rum and ginger beer. The regular rum and ginger ale is just that -- rum and ginger ale.

I used dark Bacardi. It was ok but not nearly as good as whatever that Puerto Rican brand was...can't remember the name now.

Ron del Barrilito


Usually the brand of spirit in a heavily mixed drink doesn't matter all that much, but this has a distinctive flavor.

Becky, who made the mint julep, brought some kind of solution with her that must have already had the sugar in it. She called it her juice.


Which reminds me of a pet peeve: "Jack and Coke." I find bourbon and Coke kind of nasty anyway, but come on. You can't tell the difference between a shot of Jack Daniels and anything else after you've mixed it with 6 or 8 ounces of Coca-Cola.

"brought some kind of solution with her that must have already had the sugar in it"

I wondered about that -- whether you could use simple syrup instead of granulated sugar.

Dark rum: I think the "official" rum for the D&S is Gosling's, which must be Bermudan.

"You can't tell the difference between a shot of Jack Daniels and anything else after you've mixed it with 6 or 8 ounces of Coca-Cola."

Ha -- exactly! People order "Crown and Coke" all the time, but you're ruining a pretty decent Canadian whisky by smothering it with Coke. It makes no sense, especially when Seagram's or Canadian Club is so much cheaper.

Oh yeah, I'd forgotten about Crown and Coke. Same thing. For some reason it irks me to an unreasonable degree. I guess because specifying the expensive brand is ostentatious to start with.

I don't see why you couldn't use simple syrup, although you might have to do some experimenting to get the amount right and it would have a certain diluting effect. I may have tried that, can't remember.

When I was in college, I drank bourbon (Seagram's) & coke. I don't know why, except that it was probably the first thing anybody handed me and I just stuck with it. I always thought it was nasty, but I had to be drinking something and it was better than beer. ;-) I'm pretty sure I would rather have bourbon on the rocks at this point or with water, but I usually stick with wine. It doesn't take much alcohol to make me unbearably garrulous.


I don't think Seagram's is bourbon. At any rate I'm sure it wasn't better than beer. :-)

I'm sure you are right.

I have tried and tried to like beer. It just won't work. I finally decided that it would be stupid to force myself to learn to like something with that many calories.


That's an excellent reason to give up the effort. I can sort of imagine not liking the taste. Sort of. I love it. I would take beer over wine any time.

Well then, we will never have to fight over who gets what. ;-)


I haven't had a G&T in years, but I used to love them when I lived where there were very hot summers. I do remember not liking most of the tonic water available. Just found an article that recommends using tonic syrup -- "add a half ounce of tonic syrup for every three ounces of soda water" -- and lists some brands to try.

For a while I drank Tom Collinses, but then I could never find anyone to make them. I think they'd be very nice in the summer.


Thank you, Marianne! I kept thinking, after I discovered so many people wanting a less-sweet tonic, that there was a business opportunity there for someone. I don't know if I'll be able to find those but it's good news that they're there.

You could make your own TC, Janet. I don't think it's real complicated.

Re fighting over who gets what: I think I've mentioned a couple my wife and I go out to eat with occasionally. I drink beer and the three of them share a bottle of wine. Works out nicely.

I have missed this exciting thread while moving (ugh) the past several days.

Bourbon: Wild Turkey is what I buy the most. I like it over ice, or in the form of a Manhattan. Mint Juleps and Old Fashioneds are good too, but they require bartending skills I do not have, making simple syrup, etc.

Makers Mark is very good as well, but significantly more expensive than Wild Turkey.

Mac, Old Crow, really?

Single Malt Scotches are really wonderful. I have never bought a bottle, other than the time we gave Fr. Lucey one the first time he retired (we being the Registrar's Office). Fr. Viscardi gives me some every now and then when I am visiting him. Only priests can afford single malt scotch.

I agree with whoever in this thread stated that blended scotches all taste the same.

If you are mixing something with Coca Cola, buy the cheapest of that brand (then Old Crow is fine!). Of course Coke is going to cancel out any real taste of the booze.

Gin & Tonics: I would not say the same about the gin you use here, or maybe that's just because I make mine sort of half and half. :)

Martinis (gin): are my other go-to drink. Since this drink is mostly gin each brand you use tastes very particular to the gin. As a rule I buy Bombay Sapphire although it is expensive. Any of the premiums are good, though Tanqueray is very strong and better for G&T (probably the best gin & tonic you can have).

Vodka: of course you can mix vodka with anything, make a pseudo martini with it, but I really like to just have a bottle in the freezer to sip ice cold. Stoli is fine, but lately I've just been buying Smirnoff; it's much cheaper and really does not taste half bad.

"I would take beer over wine any time."

Me too, generally speaking, although I do like Cabernet with steak or prime rib, and I always drink white wine with Thanksgiving dinner -- have done for ages.

My bro-in-law is a big Cabernet guy and I've tried many different ones over the years when visiting my sister and him. He recently discovered "Gentleman's Collection," a moderately priced, but very nice one, which has become his "everyday" wine.

For G&T's I do like Tanqueray, but to be honest I'm happy with Seagram's. I've also tried Gilbey's and Beefeater, but don't like either of them enough to warrant paying the extra $$$.

"Only priests can afford single malt scotch."

LOL. Don't know what the prices are like where you are, but up here there are a couple or three pretty good ones you can get for about $35-$40.

You could make your own TC, Janet. I don't think it's real complicated.

That's funny. I think that I only had them at events where there was a bar.


Not sure I've ever had one actually.

Yes, Stu, really (Old Crow). I actually like it better than a couple of next-step-up bourbons like Early Times because it's not as sweet. It's pretty harsh straight but I don't usually drink it that way. With a little water it's not bad at all. Btw see the "Old Crow" piece in the book for background.

I'm just too cheap to buy things like Wild Turkey on a regular basis. Also, I'm obviously just not all that discriminating.

Isn't vodka basically tasteless? So it seems like all you're getting with more expensive brands is smoothness. And glitz--a pretty bottle etc.

Btw Stu you can buy simple syrup in the grocery store, or at least in some. Not wanting to make it had held me off from trying some drinks till I discovered that. I think I paid six or seven dollars for the bottle I have which is probably a year's supply.

Yes, you can get Vodka in a Crystal Skull for about $90. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_Head_Vodka


There's a Mexican restaurant near me that carries that. Shots are probably $15.

Based on an old Russian custom, probably.

I have bought the Crystal Skull vodka, and it is good. Dan Ayckroyd (sp?) owns the company, it is Canadian. No, all vodka does not taste the same.

Now that you mention it I do remember the Old Crow chapter of your book, Mac. Florida is a good place to buy cheaper premium booze, if you happen to be there. :)

My mistake -- what the Mexican restaurant carries is this:


(although they might have the vodka too).

On the subject of Margaret Millar - B&N has her novels for $4.99 each for their Nooks. That would mean Amazon probably sells them digitally for less. Paper versions do not seem to be in print any longer.

Amazon is selling paperbacks of her books in five volumes of Collected Millar; this one, The Master at Her Zenith, has the book Mac reviewed, Wives and Lovers.

What a lot of them there are! I want to try one of her mystery-suspense novels. Thanks.

I'm going to try Wives and Lovers first because the picture on the front reminds me of a restaurant on the end of a pier where we always eat in California, although the pier is not so rickety and the restaurant is not a bar.


I had considered putting a picture of the back cover in this post but was just too busy. It's a drawing of Millar which makes her very much the image of the sophisticated woman of the '40s or '50s, cigarette holder and all.

I feel fairly confident that you will at the very least find Wives and Lovers an interesting read.

I just discovered a comment I had typed and previewed earlier but never posted:

I guess I should check out those Florida liquor prices. I'm only an hour or so from Pensacola.

Here's the jacket picture:


My parents had cigarette holders like that. I used to love to play with the filters.


"I guess I should check out those Florida liquor prices. I'm only an hour or so from Pensacola."

I'm a half-hour from the Ohio line and every once in awhile I'll drive to Steubenville to pick something up, as Ohio liquor and beer prices are considerably lower than Pa.'s.

So you had Sophisticated parents, then, Janet? From now on I'll imagine that your mother looked like that picture of Margaret Millar.

I wonder how the last name is pronounced btw. Miller? MillAHR? It kind of bugs me.

That's sort of bugged me, too. According to this biography of Ross Macdonald, he did it as "Miller" and she seems to have done it as "MillARH":

She pointedly signed herself as "Margaret Millar," underlining the mispronunciation she'd gotten used to at Warners. She like this way of differentiating herself from her husband. He was "Miller", she was Millar. Margaret would insist on Millar for the rest of her life, while he went on being "Miller."

Ha. That fits with stories about the conflict in their marriage, which seems to have included being envious of each other's success.

It's great the way you research this stuff for the rest of us. Thanks.

No, I just think it was something that everyone did, I think. She wasn't sophisticated, but she wasn't NOT sophisticated. Her mother was a bit sophisticated.

I am not in the least, but you probably have figured that out.


At this moment I wish I was, or else didn't give a damn. I have to go to a wedding this weekend and have just spent about two hours trying to figure out which 20-year-old tie and worn-at-the-cuffs-and-collar shirt will go with the cheap sport coat. No matter what I do I will look sort of shabby.

Is there some reason you can't buy a shirt and tie?


If I'd thought about it several days or a week ago, no. But really I'd just as soon be shabby as shop for clothes.

There's a Monty Python sketch in which one of the characters is named Gavin Millarrrrrrrrrrr.

You can just be the shabby, eccentric old uncle.


That's the plan. In the previous generation there was an eccentric Uncle Mac, so I'm proud to continue the tradition.

It's a little surprising that someone of my generation doesn't recognize a Monty Python quote. But I'm pretty sure I've never seen all of their stuff. I always found them uneven, actually.

Yes, they are uneven. But the good thing is, the shows run only a half-hour, so that even when you come across one of the weaker ones you've only lost thirty minutes. And to be honest, even the less successful installments generally have at least a few bright moments.

Every sperm is sacred!

That's one of the low moments. That whole movie was pretty rotten, actually.

Yeah I never thought that was funny. Supposed to be some kind of satire of Catholic I guess but satire has to be an exaggeration not something else altogether.

I have just started reading W&L, and I can't quit think about what my life would be like without air conditioning and how I hope I never have to find out.


"The day may come when we'll all be sitting around munching seaweed, but I don't think it's close."


Well, my grandchildren just got to the house bearing packages of seaweed.



I thought about ac too when I read that scene, but I wondered just how hot it actually was. I.e. were they just wimps?

I just saw Mike Pence give a commencement talk at the Note Dame graduation. He seems sober and level-headed.

I always feel terribly sorry for Pence. I wouldn't have his job for anything.


I just saw that story reported as "Students Walk Out On Pence."

I saw that,too. They did. Someone I asked thought it was about 30. The family sitting next to me walked out.

There were over 3000 graduates.

I just love the media.


Their determination to bring Trump down is further discrediting them in the eyes of a lot of people--Trump supporters, obviously, but also non-Trump-supporters like me.

I really enjoyed Wives and Lovers. The thing is, it is so much like noir detective fiction that even though I knew better, I kept expecting a body to appear at any moment.

She gives you a well-rounded picture of the characters, and just like in real life, they are neither all good or all bad. We even see some cracks in Elaine's nastiness. I wonder is she saw herself as that kind of wife.

No faith and no judgement, I would say except maybe a bit of each in Elaine's case. Millar just presents a picture of people the way that they are. More like some kind of all-seeing mirror.


Yes, that's pretty close to my view. I wondered if it's meant to be in part a follow-your-heart liberation story. But if it is it's not done simplistically.

I had the same thought about the detective-ness of it. Specifically, it's in many ways a *lot* like her husband's writing in its portrait of the minor characters like Mrs. Freeman. She could easily be a person encountered by Archer in the course of an investigation.

Maybe 20 years ago I saw an interview with a Spanish government minister. Asked to account for the massive increase in economic productivity, he said, "That's very simple. Air conditioning. No question. Why are you laughing? I'm perfectly serious."

It's hard for me to imagine that kind of energy-sapping heat, day after day.

The same has been said of the American South, and it's very plausible. I think our heat and humidity are probably worse than Spain's.

The comments to this entry are closed.