Sunday, December 20, 2020

66. The Two-Headed Serpent by Paul Fricker, Scott Dorward and Matthew Sanderson

There has been a bit of a slowdown in traditional book reading here at Olman's Fifty.  Normally, I tend to crank it up in the xmas holidays, at I am at my parents which is very conducive to reading (not near my own computer, often times everybody is reading).  This year, having been an exceptionally busy one at work and having xmas at our own immediate family this year and me buying two new videogames, I am just generally taking a break from concentrating too hard.  The Two-Headed Serpent is a campaign for the Call of Cthulu tabletop role-playing game.  So definitely reading, but much easier to consume in small bites, as it is divided up into several different sub-adventures.

Once, when I was starting to really get into gaming (I had just discovered the incredibly rich world of RPGs outside of the big brand name game Dungeons & Dragons), I was at the Compleat Strategist in NYC, which was the big and really only tabletop RPG store in the city at the time.  I ran into a guy who was maybe 10 years older than I was who was asking about a few games.  He told me he used to play, but doesn't anymore but still buys RPG books for "non-linear fiction, you know."  I remember thinking that made a lot of sense, but was also a bit sad as you would just not get the same satisfaction of immersion and interaction from just reading these books as opposed to playing or running them.  And yet here I am, twenty odd years later, picking up game books with the almost sole intention of just reading them.  I do have a tiny hope to run something again.  It's just that there is so much material and so little opportunity and in the end I'll probably just make my own thing up as usual.

I'm not a big Call of Cthulu guy.  I am a huge fan of pulp gaming, though.  Together, they make a very nice mix. The pulp element elevates the Call of Cthulu setting out of its depressing (to me) death/insanity spiral base play and allows the players to go in half-cocked and blasting.  And the mythos world gives an endless possibility of conspiracies and bad things all over the world for pulp adventurers to go investigate and fight.  The Two-Headed Serpent sets the players are being hired by Caduceus, a global philanthropic organization that sends doctors and scientists to help crisis situations around the world.  I won't give any more away in case anybody is going to play it, but of course shit is not what it seems.  Lizard people are involved.


[warning some tabletop RPG nerdery/inside baseball talk in the paragraph below.]

Overall, it is extremely well put together.  It is a beautfully-produced book.  The adventures are in diverse and fun situations (chases through the crammed streets of Calcutta, disease outbreak in the Belgian Congo, mafia wars in NYC, expedition to Iceland and that's about half of them!).  The back story is well thought out and the badguys and other NPCs are a great mix.  My only hesitation to move this from really good to great is that it is all a bit old school.  Absolutely nothing wrong with the old school and while I vacillate, I am probably actually pretty old school myself at this point.  It's just that the overall timeline is basically a railroad.  I know that is hard to avoid with a long campaign in this vein. I just feel like there are innovative ways to present this material so that it is much more freeform and dynamic, which would allow the players more agency in the way things unfold, while still moving the campaign into all the great material provided here.  The few options are presented here as basically if then statements and they really ultimately only shift the order of things somewhat.  Likewise, there is no real connection set up between the material and the players.  So basically, their motivation is "you were hired by this organization to do some stuff".  If I were to run this, I think I would do some kind of hook-building process where I got the players to come up with two connections their character would have to something in the campaign setting.  I just find when they have those things, they tend to be much more motivated (or you just make the main bad guy kick their ass right at the beginning :) ).

Anyhow, really fun to read and would be great fun to play or run one day.    


Saturday, December 05, 2020

65. Le chat du rabbin by Joann Sfar

I am always ready to read anything by Sfar but le Chat du Rabin was always low on the list for me.  My wife bought a copy of the first one in english and it was kicking around the house, so that got me started.  I got the next 7 volumes in french from the library here.  It's hard to pinpoint exactly what this bande-desinnée is about, as it can meander in many different directions. It's more of a cast and characters and a milieu thematically centered on Judaism and the philosophy of religion, with each album taking on a different story or concept and even then not always distinctly.

It takes place mostly in Algiers in the beginning of the 20th century (30s I think?).  The main character is the titular rabbi's cat, though he is more of a commentator, shit-stirrer and court jester.  The rabbi and his friends and family are the characters who tend to have stories and conflicts, while the cat observes or pokes and prods.  He's a real shit-stirrer, this cat, and it is even suggested at times that he may be the devil.  I think these characters may actually be Joann Sfar's ancestors, but I have not confirmed this.  It`s enjoyable reading, though arguments about religious theory are really not my jam and I did skim or glaze over those parts somewhat.  The characters, the milieu and the situations are absorbing and a compelling mix of semi-realistic history and geography and Sfar's slightly fantastical embellishments (such as a cat who can talk).

I have to mention Sfar`s art.  I prefer a hard, solid line, the empiricist that I am.  Sfar`s style is not usually to my liking, but boy does he capture real things in his loose way.  In the third or fourth volume, there is an actual photograph of Bahomet, the real life Sfar family cat that he based the character on and it`s uncanny how he captured the cat.  Likewise, the rabbi's daughter Zbaya just seems super hot to me.  It's almost weird.



Wednesday, November 25, 2020

64. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

I took this book out of the library (which we have been hitting hard now that my daughter is reading; man do I love libraries) because I found an R.L. Delderfield that is a prequel story of the life of Ben Gunn, one of the characters from Treasure Island.  I thought it was just some pirate book by him until I brought it home and read the back.  I had read Treasure Island as a lad and enjoyed it (though Kidnapped stayed with me longer for some reason).  I didn't want to read the Delderfield without really having a memory of Treasure Island.  

I had positive but not elevated expectations of reading Treasure Island as an adult. I thought it would be a fine tale as they say.  It surpassed my expectations.  It's a great book, a tight, exciting adventure that still lives up to its reputation as a classic, beyond its massive cultural influence.  Though it owes much to the popularity of castaway and pirate tales that preceded it, it really is Treasure Island that defined what we think of pirates today. Reading it again, one understands why. It combines innocence and real darkness in a perfect balance that makes it light and enjoyable to read but not trivial. The pacing is masterful, so that you really have a hard time putting it down, yet also let's you take a pause in nice places.  Finally, it is the characters and dialogue that really make it a masterpiece.  Long John Silver and the disturbing father/monster/victim relationship he has with young Jim Hawkins is at the heart of it. Several side characters add richness without getting in the way.  

This is definitely colonial history and its sins are woven into the story and setting.  The obvious racism only shows up at the end since there is really no other characters other than Englishmen.  The jolly class relationships are a tasty illusion that makes the whole thing palatable.  Just pointing these things out, as they should be critiqued, but for the astute reader none of it gets in the way in what is probably one of the best adventure books I have read this year and definitely in the top ten.  I read this to prep for the Delderfield, but I may have to take Kidnapped out of the library now.

Monday, November 23, 2020

63. Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney

I can't remember how we discovered these.  We got one and my daughter was hooked, so I have been taking the rest out from the library over the last few months.  It only take about half-an-hour to read one of them.  I've read them all plus the two Rowley Jefferson side books, so I figure I can count it as a single book (similar principle to a bande-dessinée series).  They are aimed at boys in elementary school.  I am not quite sure what it is about them that so appeals to my 8-year old daughter.  I suspect the format itself is a big part of it. They are books with illustrations with just enough balance of text and images to make them very easy to digest. The pictures themselves are nice, clean solid line drawings that have a lot of humour in them as well.  

Kinney has made a kajillion dollars from these books, so I will leave it to other experts to figure out why they are so popular in any more detail.  I found them to be quite fun and very enjoyable to consume aesthetically speaking (I even stole some of the character images for a presentation for work).  I get a chuckle and sometimes a belly laugh at least once a book and there are a few truly hilarious moments.  Perhaps the standout for me is in book 14 with the epic neighbourhood snowball fight when the weird forest inbred children come and join.  

 The portrayal of the mother is somewhat problematic. She is always both the overly strict punisher in the family and the lone enthusiast who is always forcing them to do "family activities" nobody wants to do. Now, to be fair, I suspect Jeff Kinney grew up around the same time I did and whatever patriarchal structures were in place then and probably responsible, the truth at the time was that a lot of moms really were like this.  However, that has changed significantly and I feel like this series is perpetuating and reinforcing a stereotype that we can all move on from.  The dad is feckless and selfish, but his passivity is never portrayed as being such a negative element in Greg's life. You could also argue that everybody is kind of awful in these stories (except sweet, innocent Rowley), but it still feels like the brunt of the parody is thrust upon the mother character.

Monday, November 16, 2020

62. It by Stephen King

Whew!  Epic!  I have been looking for It for quite a while now, but would only read a used paperback copy.  These are actually quite hard to find, especially after the latest movie came out.  I did finally discover this really beat-up copy (not the ideal cover, but I am not complaining) in the big book dump in my alley last summer.  While I was still looking for it, I made the mistake of watching the first installment of the new movie.  When it came out, I hadn't been that interested in it, but the trailer for the second installment was so good (the one where she is visiting the old lady) that it made me want to give the two films a chance.  That was a huge mistake.  The first movie fucking sucked.  They had all this money and now we live in an era where it is okay (and even desirable) to actually tell the story and instead they ruined it like so many of Stephen King's properties. This one just devolved into tired repetitions of the way clowns could be freaky with only the smallest hints of the true storyline of the kids friendship and the evil that is the town of Derry.

The purity of my reading the book was thus somewhat spoiled by having seen the movie, as it imprinted some imagery, especially that of Pennywise and Beverly.  Fortunately, the rest of it was mostly forgettable.  I had also started reading It right at the end of my big Stephen King phase and then abandoned the book.  I just wasn't interested at the time.  My memory told me that I had only read a few pages before giving up, but I was 100 pages in and still remembering stuff, but couldn't tell if that was from the movie.  Finally at some point, I realized I had definitely not read it and could just enjoy the book.

I consider It to be the last of the early and for me best phase of Stephen King's writing. This could be erroneous, but it felt like after It he started going into more literary territory and doing things like The Dark Tower series.  I was always into his more adventure/sci-fi than his horror books.  Firestarter and The Dead Zone (and of course The Stand) were my favourites.  It is definitely mostly in the horror category but it gets pretty cosmic near the end.  There is a lot going on and it is a long book.  I am too lazy to fully and fairly analyze it.  I will say that I mostly enjoyed it and loved some parts of it enough to remind me why I was so into his books as a teenager. It's a bit long at times, especially in the early part.  There is so much horror in it, that it starts to get a bit not scary.  I am not into horror that much anyways, but I think the gruesome child murders could have been brought out a bit more slowly.  As it is, you are barely a third of the way in and you know there is a killer clown ripping lots of kids apart. The sexual and racial politics are questionable and interesting.  I think we can mostly give King a pass here as he was really trying.  The one black character, Mike the librarian, has some Magical Negro elements, but is also a fully-fledged character (though still getting somewhat second billing in the final action given his importance to the plot).  Beverly is really great as a kid, but somewhat weird as an adult, the abuse victim pattern doesn't feel entirely realistic (though the abusive husband does and is one of the scariest characters in the book).  There is also a super weird part in the end when they are kids that I am just not smart enough to unpack but seems somehow very wrong to me.  

Overall, though, the portrayal of this nasty town takes this book to the next level.  Stephen King knows America and though the evil here is from elsewhere, the manifestation it takes in Derry, Maine is all American and all too relevant today.  The real evil here are the racists, the bullies, the abusers and worse of all, the people who look away when it is all going on.  King describes the history, the geography, so many people, the establishments, the weather, everything to such a degree that I feel like the town should be findable on Google Maps and Wikipedia.  And he just savages it.  One wonders about his own childhood. He seems to know the darkness in small town America all too well.  And this is Yankee Maine!

As I mentioned when complaining about the shit movie, It is fundamentally about childhood friendship and before it gets really weird, this is the second-strongest part in the book. Each character and their confused perspective on their world is well written and when they start to find some salvation in each other, it is really quite moving. The part where fat Ben escapes from the bullies and meets Bill and Richie and then helps them build a dam and is blown away when they ask him to come and hang out with them is especially touching.  

Accomplishment achieved and thoroughly enjoyed! 

Now that is a well worn paperback!

Friday, October 30, 2020

61. Famous Trials 5 edited by James H. Hodge

This is the last of the Famous Trials Penguin paperbacks that I found at the Concordia book fair and bought almost out of pity and because they were just so beautiful.  Now, having finished this one, I find I am surprisingly pleased by their contents as well.  I would pick up any others that I may find in the future.  I can see why they were so popular.  Each one contains an essay, retelling of 4 or 5 famous trials.  They have a fairly consistent structure, beginning with a narrative of what actually happened, the ensuing investigation and then the trial.  They conclude with the author's thoughts on some social, legal or philosophical aspect of the trial.  Basically, they are true crime for the discerning reader (said in a slightly self-mocking snobby voice) and interesting and enjoyable at their base just for the retelling of these various disturbing and sordid human tragedies.  It is the various authors' voices that elevates these essays to sometimes quite enjoyable reading places.

Famous Trials 5 has 5 essays and I will give a brief summary of each, mainly for my own future reference. Overall, this was pretty enjoyable, highlighted by the last essay that had particularly rich writing and some nice critique of British moralism.  A bonus was that there were several Canadian connections in these trials.  Quite a lot of poison and drug use as well.

Thomas Neill Cream
Cream was a ne'er do well doctor who studied at McGill at the end of the 19th century and then went to England. His thing was hooking up with women, trying to get them to take pills that he claimed were to abort any potential pregnancy but would usually kill them. He would then send anonymous blackmail letters to some other well-known person claiming that he had evidence that they had poisoned the person.  It was all incompetent and kind of crazed, driven I guess by money needs, due to his addiction to "morphia" and his own misogyny.  

Neville George Clevely Heath
This charming fellow was recently demobbed and met two different women and horribly sexually tortured them then murdered them.  What was weird about his story is there was nothing in his past to indicate that he might become a sexual sadist. He was, however, a total cad and career criminal, getting kicked out of several armies and involved in many petty crimes.  This was one of the least interesting essays because it went on for pages and pages about how to define if someone is criminally insane (as his defense tried to do) and when to use it to excuse the death penalty.  As an empiricist, I don't really care about these kinds of arguments, though I recognize their value in making life or death decisions.

John Watson Laurie
Two young men meet on holiday in Scotland and go on a hike where one bashes the other with a rock to the head and then takes his stuff.  This was another truly incompetent murder where the killer returned home wearing the victim's clothing, among other sloppy actions.  This was more interesting for the history and geography of the Isle of Arran, which sounds incredibly beautiful.

Dr. George Lamson
A drug-addicted (and thus money desperate) doctor poisons his poor crippled 18-year old brother-in-law to get his inheritance.  This one was really quite sad because the boy, who was confined to a wheelchair because of a spinal defect, was quite loved by his housemates at a boarding school. He already had a tough row to hoe but seemed to keep up good spirits.  His death was agonizing and took hours.  The uncle once in prison and off the dope later realizes it was the addiction that drove him to do it and though not truly remorseful, you do get a feeling that it was just a shitty business all around.  

Rattenbury and Stoner by F. Tennyson Jesse
This essay was the gem of the book, so I add the author's name in case I should run across it again. It was written in a particularly enjoyable style. The author really had fun with it, including a hilarious letter from Benjamin Franklin (see image below) on the advantages of having an affair with an older woman.  The story here is that Mrs. Rattenbury, a woman in her thirties and married to Mr. Rattenbury, a wealthier man in his sixties, starts to have an affair with their 18-year old chauffeur, Stoner.  The latter becomes infatuated and kills old Mr. Rattenbury by hitting him in the head three times with a mallett.  It was portrayed in the media at the time as a classic affair murder and initially Mrs. Rattenbury tried to take the fall for young Stoner. She was aquitted and he did life but she killed herself not long after the trial by stabbing herself in the heart six times (!).  The essay is very sympathetic to her and portrays her as a bit unbalanced, but actually very loving. According to the author, the arrangement itself while the affair was going on was not even that bad of a situation.  Mrs. Rattenbury was very kindly and loving the Mr. Rattenbury, who was more concerned with his business and his nightly bottle of whiskey. He didn't seem to mind the affair. It was just the melodramatic nature of an 18-year old working class boy suddenly thrust into a grown-up love affair that turned it deadly.  Everybody suffered.  Quite sad, but very enjoyably written.

I draw your attention to the Fifth point

Monday, October 26, 2020

60. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (Robin Buss translation)

Found this hefty tome in one of those neighbourhood free shelves.  I had been wanting to read it since I saw the Jim Cazaviel movie (actually before that, but the movie cemented it from a fancy to a determination) and was happy to find this nice Penguin edition.  It turns out to be the most recent (and possibly most complete) translation in English.  I could probably have read it in french, but only if I were myself imprisoned in the Chateau d'If for 14 years.  As it was, the english edition of 1,243 pages took me almost 3 weeks!  

As the translator states in the introduction, Count of Monte Cristo is one of those books that was so popular that almost everybody knows something about it, without actually knowing it all.  The basic story is so compelling, that its impact is felt without needing the entire text (and reinforced by past incomplete translations and the many TV, movie and theatre adaptations).  I myself had a few misconceptions.  I was trying to figure out why it was so long, when he gets out of the prison within the first 200 pages.  The parts that I was most interested in, the endless training and self-improvement montage, are actually quite curtailed and even absent from the book.  He does educate himself mentally and gets a bit of aristocratic bearing while in prison, but the origins of all the combat skills, poisons, finance and the myriad other abilities that make him almost god-like are never explained beyond that he spent ten years in "the orient".  Much of the book is the more complicated narratives of the social and political lives of the families of the men upon whom he is seeking revenge and the slow, delicious unraveling of the count's revenge plot.

I got a bit confused in the early part of that, with several daughter's and wives who at first are not well distinguished as characters.  As the plot moves forward, though, and things get stickier, I figured it all out.  It's a real page-turner.  You can imagine when it was serialized how people would have awaited anxiously for the next chapter.  A lot of shit goes down and it gets quite dark and nasty.  There is even a cool lesbian cross-dressing escape from the constraints of Parisian aristocratic society.  I have to say, as well, the French really were fucking bonkers.  Their class system and its obsession with shame and duelling and all that really do make the 19th century British seem kind of staid and boring.  I guess the revolution and all the turmoil that followed it contributed to that.  This book definitely made me want to better understand that period of history.  It's just so complicated, Jesus, with so many revolutions and restorations and everything open to interpretation of the time.  No wonder historians still argue about it today.