Monday, May 18, 2020

37. In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy L. Sayers

This book makes me feel slightly sad. It is the last book I found in the free shelf outside of Latina supermarket on St-Viateur which is currently chained closed, I guess by some stupid overreaction in the time of the Coronavirus. I think the way we freaked out here about surface cleanliness instead of wearing masks will prove to be a big mistake, driven by cultural assumptions in the face of incomplete information. We defaulted to our North American obsession with sterility and physical purity and the result is unecessarily locked free shelves. The other thing I liked about this book is that it was already in such bad condition, I did not have to worry about damaging it further and could throw it in my bag or jacket pocked without any care.  Because it was a book of short stories, it has mostly been read while waiting in line, which has been pretty rare, so it took me almost two months to complete.

It begins with a few Lord Peter Wimsey short stories (the first one involving a dentist, thus the title), then several Montague Egg and finally by random little mystery vignettes.  It is kind of amazing to me how not only could she come up with multiple mystery scenarios for novels, she had so many extra they could also be used in short stories.  Many of these are enjoyable but not super satisfying.  I did like the Monatague Egg ones, not so much for the mystery but for the cultural context. He is a travelling salesman of fine alcohols and each story starts with him in a different location, usually at a pub, meeting up with other salesman and reminiscing about past sales.  His life philosophy and detection techniques are based on Salesman's Handbook and it is quite clever and funny how he applies some quotation from it to each mystery.  I could definitely read a few more Montague Egg stories and perhaps even a novel. 
I told you it was beat up.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

36. The Long November by James Benson Nablo

Despite myself, I ended up quite enjoying this book.  I say that because it is written rather poetically and has a lot of philosophizing (though always in small bites), elements that tend to get in the way of the story for me.  Fortunately, there is a story here and I agreed with much of the philosophy and found the stream of consciousness not too distracting.  Reading the forward (which started out as a blog post that attracted the attention of Nablo's daughter and eventually led to the book being reprinted) by the crucial Brian Busby made me appreciate it much more. He argues strongly that this was a much-read book that has since been passively or actively rejected by the Canadian literati and public, most likely because he left to work in Hollywood.

The story is framed by the narrator Joe Mack who is lying on the floor in a ruined house in Italy, just shot in the shoulder by a Nazi sniper.  As he lies there, different smells come to him and each smell recalls a memory from his past. It is basically a picaresque journey of a young working class boy in Ontario in the depression and his path to life and love that led him to become a soldier in WWII.  The through line is his love for upper class Steffie Gibson.  He starts out in high school, going to the dance with her and getting in a fight with the farmboy who was picking on her gay cousin.  We then follow him through interesting episodes as a rum-runner, hobo in Chicago, miner and eventually succesful businessman before he goes off to war. This quick summary does not do justice to how well each of these vignettes captures a period in history.  Even better, the whole thing is infused with a truly Canadian idealistic political perspective: a belief in giving a hand up to the little man, a suspicion of excess wealth, an appreciation of a state that doesn't let that wealth get too excessive.  Ultimately, the theme here is that despite the rough edges, in the end one has to try and do the right thing, no matter the cost.  It's a neat, touching book and I am glad Ricochet press brought it back. 

Saturday, May 09, 2020

35. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

I really am in the mood for epic escapist fantasy but must continue to wait because the books I ordered from Thrift Books have been sitting somewhere in the Canada Post void since April 20th, most likely with those extortionist scumbags at Canada Customs.  Fortunately, I found this book in a box by the side of the road and though I have read too much British WWII fiction in recent months, the subject appealled to me and the first few paragraphs totally sucked me in.  Pied Piper is a quiet, touching at times tense story about a 70-year old British man, Mr. Howard, who naively takes a fishing trip in Switzerland just before the Nazis invade France.  He is less naive than sort of stunned, finding himself unable to contribute in England due to his age and also just learning that his son, a bomber pilot, was shot down over Heligoland Bight.
The book is framed in a neat way.  It starts out with the narrator collecting his mail at the club and noticing the old man stumble over a rise in the carpet.  He and the porter discuss how the carpet needs to be fixed and the narrator ends up in the quiet reading room with the old man.  They get to talking and continue to talk even when the air raid signal is sounded and the placed blackened.  They both agree that they are as safe on the top floor as in the basement. The old man then reluctantly and diffidently starts to tell his tale.  The introductory stumble and the way the old man tells the tale, suggesting that he really did nothing and just sort of made his way back from a vacation suggest the real theme of this book: British humble stoicism and heroism.  With Howard in the mountain resort in Switzerland is the wife and two children of a British attorney at the League of Nations. The parents feel that they must stay on in Geneva and do their jobs at the League but ask Howard if he could take the children back to England with him to stay at their aunt's.  What at first appears to be a simple train ride across France and a ferry trip across the channel soon falls apart as the Nazis advance right into Paris.  Howard finds himself on foot in a parade of refugees with two children in tow.  As they make their way via various means trying to get to the coast, he slowly accumulates more and more children, victims of war. 
The journey is more tense and worrisome than outright thrilling.  The man must constantly make ethical decisions weighed against his and the childrens' survival.  His age, though physically a disadvantage, gives him the patience and wisdom to always benefit the children.  It's really sweet.  Furthermore, we the readers get an informative and rich perspective on France in the first days of the invasion and takeover.  Fascinating and scary as hell.  This was a great read.  Strongly recommended.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

34. A Time To Be Born by Dawn Powell

My on-deck shelf is not inspiring me these days, so I asked meezly if she had anything interesting on hers.  She passed me this one, which I first was quite interested in, then slightly turned off by the prose on the first page.  However, I decided to commit and was happy to find that the style in the beginning was deliberately flourid, representing the state of mind of an introductory but secondary character.  The rest of the prose is certainly not sparse, but much more digestible.  Actually, it's extremely well-written, with funny, scathing metaphors and vivid physical descriptions capturing New York City in the 40s and briefly the environs upstate.  The main stuff though is about the people, their personalities and their relationships.  And wow, what people!  The sympathetic characters are weak and insecure and the rest are absolutely loathsome.  Yet it is all portrayed in such a rich and enjoyable way that you love to loathe them.  Powell portrays upper-class New York (and striving upper middle class) as utterly devoid of any principles in their constant quest for status.  They are almost inhuman.  I mean just really awful people.  I mean I have a strong contempt for the American class elite, especially in  New York City but even I found this portrayal pretty extreme.  She is just scathing.  Perhaps she is not wrong in portraying powerful people as being completely without any empathy, given what we are seeing from the nouveau dotcom billionaire class of today.

The story revolves around two main female characters, the unterfrau of Amanda Keeler, now a celebrity author and married to a media tycoon and her old "friend" Victoria Haven, who comes to NYC to get away from heartbreak in their shared hometown in the midwest.  Keeler is ruthless and only accepts Vicky into her world because it gives her a justification to set up a love nest where she can have an affair. The narrative is really about poor, wounded and so insecure Vicky as she navigates the sophisticates around her and Amanda's power over her.  There are several other threads as well and it is all quite enjoyable, though one has to suspend some disbelief at the extremity of the characterizations.  In Powell's depiction, there is only class striving.  It is not until the end that we get a glimpse of an actual counterpoint, of a character being a little bit normal and real and not making every decision based on how it will be perceived by those of higher status.  It's like adult Heathers.  I did find the ending slightly jarring and simple, as once you pierce the ridiculousness of status (especially with America joining WWII), it pops like a balloon, putting all the previous behaviour in question. 

Since she lent me the book, I will share a link to a review by meezly of another Dawn Powell book, with a nice summary of Powell's career.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

33. A Sour Apple Tree by John Blackburn

My opinion of this book was thrown by misleading expectations.  This amazing cover suggested dry political espionage or perhaps an office murder.  The language and setting was very much in the British mold, with the protagonist being a high-ranking security officer and his top agent and they do dryly discuss past affairs of state.  Then things got a bit too colourful for my taste with a bizarre murder attempt and the agent going full Bond on the first woman he meets.  As I read through, I realized that this is more of a horror, semi sci-fi potboiler that should have had a much more garish cover.  The cover, to be fair, does symbolically represent what goes on in the book.  It begins with the resurgence of an old adversary, a British traitor named John Glyne who went over the Nazis in WWII and did english-speaking radio propaganda against the British.  His method was much nastier and less open to ridicule than the infamous Lord Haw-Haw and there were rumours that he later went into POW camps and somehow brainwashed British prisoners and turned them into traitors as well.

From the beginning, Glyne is described as having this tremendous charisma, so powerful that people feel compelled to follow him after being around him for a few minutes.  The way it is described in the book, it sounds not unlike Steve Jobs famous reality distortion field.  However, as the book progresses, the reader starts to suspect that we are moving into the supernatural territory.  More and more murders are being committed by subjects in insane asylums, ones that had shown no previous signs of wanting to do violence.  What starts as a hunt for an ex-Nazi traitor turns into a potential national murder crisis as the killing starts to infect the sane.  Much of the action is still an investigation and there are some really good regional inquiries and a discovery of a downed german sub.  A very fun, super-pompous old school Navy minister called Admiral Vane adds some fun to it all as well.  By the end, we are in full on Saturday morning matinee telepath battle and I had let go of my previous disappointment.  There were some minor annoying flaws, like one of the characters not phoning in what they were doing in order to make for a more suspenseful ending, but overall it ended up being quite enjoyable.
Nazi eyes make you dead!

Sunday, April 26, 2020

32. The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad

This was recommended to me by a colleague at work who said it was quite weird but interesting.  It took me quite a while to find, so long that I accepted paying $12 for this bagged and near pristine copy, which I believe is a reprint.  The book was written in 1972 and the cover copyright from 1986.  I am happy to say that I managed to read the entire book without adding any significant damage other than it not lying quite as flat as when I pulled it out of the bag. 

It is a weird book!  The concept is that almost the entire book is actually the book "Lord of the Swastika" written by Adolf Hitler.  The about the author just before the title page, reveals that you are in an alternate history where Adolf Hitler emigrated to the US in 1919, became a succesful illustrator of science fiction and fantasy literature as well as a sometime writer and move and shaker in the fandom scene, before writing this immensely popular novel that was published after his death in 1955.  You get this one, fascinating paragraph to tantalize you with this alternate history.  Then the bulk is this insane fascist fantasy novel that is horrifying and yet somehow really fun to read. Then at the very end, there is an afterword that is a critical analysis of the Lord of the Swastika and serves to fill in the broader strokes of the alternate reality where such a book would have been published. 

The novel is really bonkers and deeply disturbing, both because it is somehow so propelling that you find yourself caught up in its momentum while at the same being totally aware of how wrong it all is.  It is basically a simplified, Nazi wish-fulfilled narrative taking place in a science fantasy, post-nuclear world.  Feric Jaggar is a superior true human, raised in the mutant-filled capital of Borgravia because his parents were exiled from their homeland of Heldon.  At the opening of the book, he is finally coming home, filled with disgust at the genetic impurity of the mutants all around him and patriotic fervour at his return.  Things move very quickly and he soon becomes the new leader of Heldon, leading it to greater military glory and genetic purity.  It is basically an allegory of Hitler's own rise to power but with Jaggar as a 6 and a half foot aryan super hero wielding a gigantic phallic hereditary truncheon that only he can lift.  The book is obsessed with uniforms and massive spectacle, as well as constant language contrasting the rigid and fanatical purity of the Heldons versus the putrid, sickening (sometimes pitiable) corruption of the mutants and worse the psychic Zind who control the oil and much of the rest of the world.  Reading this book is kind of like reading Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will in a fantasy world.  It's really a trip.  Because so little is revealed about the world in which Lord of the Swastika is written, you really have no idea of how it will end.  This also keeps you turning the pages.

I won't reveal any of the afterward, beyond saying that it's import in the meaning of the overall book (The Iron Dream, I mean, not the book within the book) far outweighs its few pages.  Spinrad seems to be critiquing a lot here, he attacks the Lord of the Swastika for the simplistic fantasy it is, mocking its sexual pathologies, its obsession with uniforms and massive human spectacle.  Yet, the reader knowing that in the real world (or at least our world), these things led to a horrific conclusion and were actually extremely effective.  He seems to be both revealing the ludicrousness of it all while at the same time underlying how deadly serious it can become, a message all too relevant in today's world.  On a lesser and tangentially related note, he also goes after the fantasy and sci-fi genre, noting that many of the elements taken to the extreme in The Lord of the Swastika have their roots in the classic sci-fi and fantasy tales of lone heroes with phallic weapons imposing their will on the world.  This is another element that is all too relevant today, as the nerd logic and masculine adolescent asperger's culture  which 20 years ago was confined to message boards and convention newsletters has now erupted into one of the most powerful propaganda techniques bringing down western civilization in the age of social media. 

Really interesting book. I shall now go read what others have to say about it.

Monday, April 20, 2020

31. The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

I was very excited about this book.  It may be the first book I have ever pre-ordered, which I did from the lovely Argo Bookshop in downtown Montreal who hand-delivered it to my home because pandemic.  I first experienced Grady Hendrix when he was one of the organizers of the New York Asian Film Festival way back in the day when it was first starting.  I'm sure he did a ton of work behind the scenes (and I know he took my tickets once or twice), but he was best known for his over the top intros before the movies.  Now I took my Hong Kong movies nerd-serious back then and so his emphasis on the wackiness of the movies didn't totally sit right with me, but I had to admire his knowledge and recognize that his enthusiasm was genuine not mocking.  I lost track of him until Paperbacks from Hell came  out, where I started to follow his newsletter, which is fucking hilarious (you can sign up for it here).  I hope he keeps doing them because they bring me great joy, especially during this pandemic, where he is really shining.  So a long preamble to say I was happy to help support his pre-sales and looking forward to reading the book. 

Horror is not really my jam, but groups of non-standard heroes fighting evil is so this book held a lot of promise for me. I was not disappointed.  It's a solid book, quite horrifying at times and honestly moving at the end.  At one point, I got so upset with one of the characters that I had to put the book down and chill out.  This is not necessarily a book you want to read just before going to bed.  The world-building and the innovative and subtle yet complex history of the monster adds a rich depth that also makes the book satisfying.  I found some of the side characters to lack development (I wished that we had a bit more insight into Tilly, who seemed to change from wacky fun person to weirdly conservative), but this is a minor quibble.  The ending lacked a truly satisfying get back at the assholes feeling but that is a question of style than a critique.  I feel like Hendrix kept with a more realistic and thus less easy ending, but I would have enjoyed a bit more simplistic comeuppance for the dick husbands.

The hero of the story is Patricia Campbell, good wife and mother but a bit lost about who she is and what she wants.  Early on, she joins an alternate book club with the less serious wives in town and instead of reading pseudo-intellectual literature they go right into the true crime genre. One of them who is a devout Christian lies to her husband that it is bible study.  The book club is a through line, but much more of the story is about Patricia's tenuous hold on her marriage and her family, which really starts to fall apart as strange but handsome James Harris moves in to his great-aunt's house next door.  Shit gets weird and then gruesome real fast when Patricia stumbles across the great-aunt eating a racoon in her backyard.  This is where I knew we were going to be in good territory.  Hendrix does not pull any punches and it is really fucking gross.  And gets grosser at parts.  This is horror.  Another element that also develops early on is the mythology of the south and the supernatural.  At first, it comes through Patricia's mother-in-law, who lives with them and suffers from dementia.  It's all really engrossing.

I won't go into any more plot details because if you enjoy any of these elements, than you should just read the book.  I will say that there is further depth that elevates this book beyond just a good horror story.  The subtext here is privilege and how the evil impacts you worse the less privileged you are.  Hendrix portrays the husbands, at the privilege pinnacle, scathingly.  You just fucking hate them, especially Patricia's husband.  I almost want an epilogue where terrible shit happens to him as he is exposed to his own ignorance.  The white women's blindness to the situation of Mrs. Greene, who "does" for them is equally exposed.  

One other thing is that as a physical artifact, the hardcover of this book is really beautiful.  When you take off the slipcover, the cover is a sherbert green and the inside a lovely orange, which reflect the peach and leaves on the cover. It also has an embossed faux library seal.  Very well done, publisher and designers!