Tuesday, December 12, 2017

55. Kim by Rudyard Kipling

I found it for 50 cents at a bazaar
probably the worst cover possible
When doing a 50-book challenge, you must never forget that past performance is no indication of future results.  No matter how much momentum you have going, no matter how many books you are cranking through in a month, no matter how good you are feeling about your long-term book reading prospects, there is always the potential for it all to come undone.

I was project myself into the mid-60s this year, given my excellent summer and fall of reading.  Ah, the arrogance!  A daycare father who works at Ubisoft kindly gave me the new Assassins Creed: Origins game.  I am not a big gamer, but will dive in every now and then.  The second to last Tomb Raider and Stardew Valley were two I really got into in the last couple of years and I was slowly working my way through Rime, an obscure and relaxing exploration puzzle game.  I was not ready to be blindsided by Assassin's Creed, as I thought my days of obsessing over videogames were long behind me.  Oh man, this game has sucked me in.  There is nothing particularly original about it overall.  You play a dude in ancient egypt who has to fulfill a bunch of quests or can just wander around the land, exploring, causing trouble, hunting and so on.  You upgrade your gear, increase your skills and see more territory.  It's just that it is all done so well and richly. The visuals are beautiful and sneaking up on a guard encampent and taking them out with silent arrows is deeply satisfying.  See even in this review of an all-time literary classic, I am indulging myself by talking about this friggin' game.  All this to say, my reading rate has plummeted dramatically at the end of the year.

So thank goodness for my Google+ Roleplaying book club.  I had a commitment to them and it forced me to keep on reading Kim (an activity which would have required zero force a month ago).  What a strange and fascinating book.  I didn't know what to expect except that I knew it was considered a classic work of fiction in the colonial period.  Kim is a young British boy raised on the streets of India, happy in his life.  He meets a wandering Lama from Tibet and decides to be his Chalesh, the boy who begs for the monk.  He is also on the side taking jobs from a horse trader who is an agent in the Great Game.  Much of the first half of the book is Kim and the Lama making their way across Northern India, seeing and interacting with the rich culture.  In the second half, there is a more specific spy mission that he goes on, although even that seems sort of subsumed under the business of his interaction with all the various characters and locations.

I found it hard to read at times, partly because the language has so many references to cultural things from Colonial India that I don't know.  Also because Kipling makes transitions very subtly.  He doesn't tell you when people leave conversations or move to a different location and you have to infer it from the dialogue.  There were also some really great moments, like the amazing description of the Grand Trunk Road and the hilarious insult exchanges between Kim and various locals.

I need to study the history of India more.

Monday, November 27, 2017

54. Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus

I had to keep going with Thongor.  Partly, it's because of my obsessive completist tendencies (why I tried and failed to adher to a non-trilogy or series policy in the first place) but also because the later Thongors did get much more enjoyable.  I particularly liked the pirate scenes in the last book and this one seemed to be all about pirates.  It's the last Thongor book that Lin Carter wrote and this time the pirate city of Tarakus (which weirdly is right in the middle of Thongor's kingdom and they just let it ride all this time) has aligned itself with another escaped wizard who has harnessed another powerful magical/technological weapon from the eldritch past.  The weapon is a ray that makes everybody murderously insane.

Lots of adventure and super-coincidental reunions as usual.  There is a kick-ass princess in this one, who is a love interest but is constantly demonstrating to the dude how badass she actually is, so that was fun.

I note a significant slowdown from my torrid pace in the second half of this year.  This is entirely due to a guy at my daughter's daycare giving me a free copy of Assassin's Creed: Origins a videogame that almost succeeded in taking over my entire life.  This 50 books is no joke.  Distractions can come from anywhere.  Stay vigilant!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

53. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

This was a huge childhood favourite of mine but I couldn't actually remember much about its content or even if I read it myself or if my dad had read it to me.  It's the story of a family on vacation in the lake country somewhere in England.  There are two brothers and two sisters (and a new baby sister who doesn't get to go on the adventures yet), their mum and nurse. The father is somewhere around the world on a ship.

The story is basically of their summer sailing on the lake, in particular a week they spend camping on an island in the lake and the adventures they generate from it.  Really not much happens.  It's really about them working their sail boat, setting up camp, pretending to be pirates, spying on the man on the lone houseboat, meeting some rival pirates their age, navigating the waters and going fishing.  Somehow it is all very absorbing and fantastic.  There is a small subplot of a robbery of the houseboat, but it's not really central to the story. 

I wonder if this book would appeal to children of today.  Kids gets such intense dosages of fantasy both visually and content wise with all the tv shows and books out there, that Swallows and Amazons may just seem to pedestrian.  I think it is an important book to read so I hope that they would still enjoy it.  It teaches so much about independence. The oldest boy is maybe 12 I think.  They sail by themselves and stay camping for several nights.  They do check in back at home to get supplies, but I just can't imagine this kind of independence today.  We stayed at Georgian Bay with my aunt a couple of summers ago and we took some of the kids out in her canoe and it was like the biggest deal. The parents don't let their kids out of their sight.  Really sad.

Another sadder thing was that this book was written in 1929 and many of the plucky kids in this story would probably have been off to use their skills and independence in World War II not so far down the road.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

52. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Got this page turner from meezly who I think got it from a colleague at work.  I knew I was going to devour it quickly because she read it quite quickly and I could see the large type and short paragraphs.

I am warning you now this review will have spoilers.  This book is best read not knowing anything.  So I will tell you straight out that it is a page-turning, enjoyable thriller with a really cool sci-fi premise, though it is ultimately about human relations.  That all being said, it is also very much a mainstream book and so is written in a way that I do not enjoy.  Way too much emoting about everything and constant references to class-conscious material goods (like describing the countertops and type of wine in a kitchen that will all feel so dated in a decade).  Also, the main character has to be kind of wimpy and make not the smartest decisions.  People seem to dig this style, but I can only handle a few of them a year.

So here's the story.  Jason Dessen is a happily married physics professor with a 15-year old son.  Coming back from celebratory drinks with his more successful colleague, he is suddenly accosted by a masked man who takes him to an abandoned warehouse and shoots him up with drugs.  He wakes up in a super fancy lab being applauded by a welcoming committee.   They know his name and treat him with deference and respect, but there is also tons of security and armed guards in the lab.  He escapes and makes his way back to his home, but it's all changed and there is no wife and son.  Really honestly you should stop reading this and just go read the book because the premise is really quite cool.

Actually, I am going to stop there as that should give you enough of an idea as to whether this kind of book is for you or not.  I ended up enjoying it, though with the reservations mentioned above as well as one major logical flaw which I will put down below for the record (again, major spoiler!)











[If he could go to any world from the box, why didn't he just go to a world that already had the quantum technology and explain to them what happened and get them to fix it?]

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

51. Memory by Donald E. Westlake

This book set up expectations that I was worried were not going to be fulfilled but then when they weren't, Westlake had taken it into such an unexpected direction that I found profound and though not narratively satisfying, totally enriching.

It starts off right away with a dude in bed with another man's wife and the husband barging in.  The husband swings a chair at the dude and then the dude is in a hospital bed.  Once again, I am glad that I had zero knowledge other than the front cover (which is literally the action that takes place not just in the first page but the second paragraph, so definitely no spoilers).  Somehow the blow has damaged the memory of the protagonist, Paul Cole.  He has a kind of amnesia where he can't remember who he was but also has trouble continuing to remember new things.  We learn from the cop who found him that he was an actor with a touring stage play.  The tour paid his wages and went on without him (the show must go on). The cop has a strong moral position on fidelity and rousts Cole out of town. Cole has barely any money after the hospital bill, can't remember who he was beyond the ID in his wallet and has only some instinct urging him to go to New York, which has the address on his driver's license. He takes a bus as far as he can afford and ends up in some small, poor town called Jeffords.  Here it becomes a question of survival for this guy, who has a few dollars and no memory. 

I will stop at the storyline here, except to say that it begins with a lot of classic elements of Westlake's early works.  It takes place in the early 60s.  There is an expertly depicted small town.  Some menacing characters, including a very low-level loan shark at a tannery and a very nasty police detective.  Because of these elements (well crafted as usual with Westlake, god he is good), I thought we were going in one place.  That place being a crime thriller with the dude's memory as the suspense.  It doesn't go there, but instead explores in a pretty interesting way ideas of identity as well as subtly critiquing the cosmpolitan smugness towards what we know today as flyover states.  It's pretty sad and dark but also so interesting and compelling (and as always written so straightforwardly) that you keep turning the pages. It was copywrite 2010 but I wonder when Westlake actually wrote it.  The theme and sophistication made me think that it was indeed one of his later books.

This isn't the book that Hard Case Crime sells you on the cover and blurb, but it is a pretty damn good book. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

50. The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White

Blam, did it.  I am quite happy to have made 50 but not feeling like cheering or resting on my laurels.  The challenge is to keep this up year after year and not flake out and build up a huge debt like I did for the last 4 years.  Also, this was perhaps not the best choice for my 50th book.  I have to admit that I read it almost entirely out of duty and not pleasure.  It was like the toughest part of a marathon.  You just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It is ostensibly (at least according to the breathless editors, who seem to dotheth protest too much) the true ending to White's classic The Once and Future King that got partially incorporated into the 4 books series that was actually published but mostly blocked due to wartime shortages and editorial decisions.  It was a decent coda, but most of it was the king as an old man going back to the animal societies he visited as a boy when first starting under Merylyn's tutelage.  Then the animals all argue with Merlyn about various types of statehood and how man compares to other species. If you were looking for a political science debate, this would be a fun one to read.  If you are looking for a conclusion to The Once and Future King, this felt like a lot of repetition.  When it does get to the real narrative ending, it is satisfying but it's only about 30 pages.

I was expecting a story that was really about Merlyn, as he is one of the most interesting characters in the Once and Future King. He is going backwards in time, which would be quite difficult to tell in a book.  I suspect the title was created by the editors and not T.H. White himself for exactly the reason that it would encourage sales.  I lay the blame of my dissatisfaction with this book entirely at the feet of the publishers.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

49. The Life and Tragic Death of Bruce Lee by his wife, Linda

I am a huge Bruce Lee fan.  I would go so far as to say that he is one of my major life influences.  He put me on the path that led me to be the man I am today (for better or for worse).  I first heard about him when I was 8 or 9.  I was part of a crew of little middle-class whiteboy roughnecks running the mean streets of Rockridge in Oakland, California.  We even had a gang name, the Thomas Avenue Terrorists (our symbol was a dagger in a pool of blood), ah, the 70s.  There was a golf course around the block from us and somehow we fell in with this guy who was the caretaker/security guard.  I don't think he lasted very long in the job because he was only around a few weeks (plus we were quite likely the kinds of people he was supposed to be guarding against; we used to wild on that golf course including hiding behind the sand traps and stealing balls as they came on to the green).  Anyhow, one of the times we were hanging out with him behind his bronze sedan, he said "I bet I know somebody you kids are into: Bruce Lee!"  Well, actually I had never heard of him before, but we all pretended like we knew who he was and that we were into him. 

It must have planted a seed because a few years later, after having moved to Vancouver Island, I was a full-on kung fu nerd, trying to suck up as much martial arts books, magazines and videos I could get my hands on.  That was not much at the time.  My friend Mike Tanaka and I used to practice our kung fu kicks on his trampoline (he had much better form than I did) and play all kinds of ninja games.  One of the greatest things ever of my young adolescent life was when the Famous Players theatre at Woodgrove mall had a double bill of Enter the Dragon and The Big Brawl.  This was a mainstream first run classic mall theatre (Arthur was the biggest hit they had and it played for weeks; I still don't understand why that movie was so loved in Nanaimo).  I don't know who was the person responsible for scheduling this double bill, but you did a wonderful thing.  My mom took me and Mike to see it (which also was a wonderful thing).  Mind blown.  I perfected my Bruce Lee growl for hours after that and can still do it quite well today.  Later as a young man I got deep into the Hong Kong movie fandom of the 90s and also did martial arts for pretty much most of my adult life.  I even went to China with one of my schools and visited the Shaolin temple. 

So it was pretty cool to go back and read about Bruce's life from Linda's perspective.  I thought this book was going to be a bit cheesy, but it's really straightforward and seems basically honest.  Linda Lee comes out of a different era and implicit in her love for Bruce was the assumption that she would be the quiet rock who took care of the kids.  She was good at it and their opposite personalities worked well together.  Bruce really seemed to love and depend on her, especially when his fame became so massive that he couldn't even leave the house and couldn't trust that anybody liked him for himself anymore.  She seems like a really solid, intelligent and good person.  You have to feel for her that her husband died tragically just as he was about to launch one of the greatest movies of all time and then loses her son in a film accident nineteen years later.  As they say, it just seems so unfair.  And yes Enter the Dragon is one of the best movies of all time.  Come at me.

Bruce Lee was amazing.  Reading about his life today and he almost seems like a parody of the self-actualizing Hollywood success story.  The truth is that he was insanely gifted, insanely charismatic and insanely motivated.  He called his success years before it happened.  He wrote down things like "I am going to bring Chinese gung fu to America" and "I am going to make x millions of dollars and become the first international asian movie star" years before they happened.  It was also really cool to read about his wild teenage years in Hong Kong.  It reminded me a lot of the opening scenes from Bullet in the Head.  He really was a teenage badass.  He got kicked out of a bunch of high schools and wasn't going to make it into college. Though quite delinquent, even back at that young age he was all about bettering himself and he eventually ended up under the tutelage of Yip Man where he learned Wing Chun.  Because he was born in San Francisco (his dad was a successful opera star and had been touring the U.S.) he had an opportunity to immigrate to the U.S.  There, he translated his aggressive teenage self into a super-focused young man, did well enough at a technical high school in Seattle to make it to University of Washington where he met Linda.

Watch and learn: