Monday, September 21, 2020

55. A New Kind of War by Anthony Price

Anthony Price has been on my radar for a long, long time, dating back to when Louis XIV did an excellent series of interviews with him.  I have held off for all these years because I suspected his books might be not right for me.  I didn't know how but I have enough to read that it did hold me back until I saw one of his book last month at S.W. Welch.  The opening paragraph really worked for me and I was in need of something to kickstart my reading again.

Wow, was this a slow burn.  I mean perhaps the slowest burn of any espionage book I have ever read.  I couldn't even figure out what the plot was until page 300 of 362!   The basic set up is that Fred Fattorini, Captain in the British Army encounters a strange unit in Greece at the end of the Second World War.  He is then sent to join that unit in Germany where they are ostensibly there to study Roman ruins uncovered by recent bombing.  Even figuring out what I just typed there takes pages and pages of dialogue all done in this halting, interrupting style where Fattorini is constantly guessing as to what is actually going on and nobody will tell him anything but the slightest fragments of information.  It is actually quite frustrating and made it hard for me to get through this book, especially at a time when I needed some easy comfort reading to get my stamina back up.

The thing is, it's not bad.  It's actually really quite good.  It feels realistic, with complex and nuanced portraits of how the old boy network and class structure informed the makeup of the British army.  The descriptions of the surroundings are subtle and really give you flashes of a scene in your head (thus the seduction of the first paragraph).  Likewise the portrayal of the allies splitting up and fighting amongst themselves for the intel spoils of war as well as the various ethical and moral compromises that go with that are really well done. This is grown-up espionage, possibly too grown up for me.  You need to know your history and you need to be paying attention. 

By the end, it does all tie together in a pretty cool way.  It's one of those books where the ending is really cool because it sets the groundwork for more adventure in the future, but it doesn't feel like it has to actually tell those stories. Just the potential of it based on what came before makes it cool to read.  

Spoiler here (for my own memory when I go back to read this):  This is in some ways not a real spoiler because you could figure out a lot of it on your own and it is not a mystery per se, it's just that Price puts you in Fattorini's mind and part of the pleasure of the book is learning what the hell is going on through him.  The unit he is joined up with is tasked with finding and convincing German scientists to come to Britain to work with them.  They are rivals with the US and enemies with the Soviets in this task, and it comes out (and this is a real spoiler) that there is a traitor amongst them  The reason they are all so close-lipped and weird is because of this suspicion. Fattorini is brought in from the outside to suss the traitor out but they can't even tell him that directly until they know he is solid.  Ultimately, this book sets the stage for the cold war espionage that will dominate the decades after the war, thus the title.  Oh I see, it really is an origin story as characters from this book (which was written near the end of his career) are the younger versions of themselves in many of his earlier books.  Cool.

Friday, September 18, 2020

54. me and white supremacy by Layla F. Saad

A bit of a step outside my usual reading habits, this book is a work assignment!  We are decolonizing (can't decide if  I should put that in quotes or not) at the organization I work for and one of the tasks we've been asked to do is to read this book and have discussions about it.  I am very much in favour of rooting out racism and discrimination and I as a reader was kind of excited to actually have a book club at work.  We are pretty much full on "radical lefty" anyways, so it's not a big stretch for anybody, though I did hear some grumblings about being assigned homework.  Some may see it as preaching to the converted but there is a real and deep structural problem in the non-profit world where it is pretty much educated, economically comfortable white people in a majority of the roles, especially in management.  On the positive side, there are a majority of women in those roles and I have seen that change over time.

The argument is, and I hope everybody is now aware of this is nothing new, but that we have to look at racism as a structural problem that goes far beyond just individuals being racist.  Even if we can make people not be racist, the way we educate and hire, the way the markets work, all these institutions join together in a social structure that makes it almost impossible to create a racially just society.  The racism gets reinforced sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtly at every step in someone's life journey.  The black kid who is bored in school gets labelled a troublemaker and her parents who work in a low-income job don't have the time or resources to fight back and when they do they are labelled also as difficult. And thus the black kid doesn't get the same education (and are already disadvantaged because they live in neighbourhoods where their schools are less funded).

The target of me and white supremacy is more specifically at how we have internalized racist thinking (white supremacy as she labels it) because of all these structures and cultures around us.  The book is more like a self-help guide where you read a chapter, learn a new thing about white supremacy and then you are supposed to "journal" (that I will definitely put in quotes) and more importantly think and discuss deeply how you are racist and then work to root that out.  Chapters are on subjects like white fragility (how white people freak out when they get called on their racism and make it more about their pain), white silence (being against racism but not standing up when you see it in front of you), the way children are raised, the idea of being "colourblind" and so on.

As you can tell I am very much in favour of the goal of this book and so I don't want to think that the overall mission is not valid.  I also agree that the issues she brings up are real white people need to deal with them.  However, I do have several serious critiques of it. Primarily, it is very simplistic.  Both in the portrayal of the concepts and in the audience.  It really is a self-help book and so I understand why you are will only spend a few pages on what are incredibly rich and complex topics (again, when I say "complex" I don't mean some both sides argument bullshit, but that the history behind them and the mechanics of how they work are multi-faceted and vary depending on context; here is a one-size fits all that starts to undermine the validity of the overall argument).  She also has a very monolithic understanding of the white people she is talking to.  It feels like the only white people she knows are Nancy's she argues with on the internet.  Many of the questions you are asked are of the "have you stopped beating your wife" construction (for instance, "what have you learned about the dehumanizing ways you think about and treat BIPOC and why?").

After a while, it starts to feel like one of those terrible situations in college where you are surrounded by white upper middle-class east coast kids who are denouncing themselves and their bourgeois values, each competing to be more extreme and radical in unpacking their own class and race biases. And then in ten years they will all go on to be currency traders and homemakers in Greenwich, CT (this actually happened).  It all feels very culty.

There is a problem in general with this approach to white supremacy.  It assumes that all of us are already indoctrinated in it and we can't not be.  According to this book, we have all this hard work to do.  But at what point are we doing enough work to be free of white supremacy and who decides?  There is no option here for someone to say that they are doing the work and do not have white supremacist thinking.  So you either wait eternally for an external arbiter and meanwhile you live in constant guilt or you reject the premise altogether.  The first way leads to cult leaders and totalitarian thinking and the the other option makes you at best opt out or at worst be a total racist.  And even saying that would have people on the internet saying "see you are a racist!"

Maybe white supremacy is so deep that this is the only solution, but I can't help feeling there is a better way.  Again, all the concepts here are real and need to be fought against, but I think there needs to be a more nuanced approach and a recognition that there are many white people who are committed to anti-racism and really not approach the world with even the subtlest white supremacy thinking.

I think part of the problem with this book is that it has this unspoken foundation of 60s self-development ideas.  Those are great for some people, but not so great for others. It really wants us all to be in constant self-critiquing and development and to have all these emotional upheavals that help give us new clarity.  My mother is a therapist and her advice and perspective has been very good for me. I believe in personal development, but this method leaves me wanting, to say the least. There are a few sections of actual concrete work you can do to be anti-racist (supporting movements with money and time in the background, creating roles and opportunities in your job or organization, giving voices to BIPOC in situations where you have that power, etc.) and I would have found a book that emphasized those things to be much more helpful for me personally.  Maybe it is smart the way she did this book because she does seem to be going after white liberal women especially in the wellness field (which she mentions specifically several times) and they love that shit.

If you are someone who thinks racism is bad and that you are not a racist but maybe have some tiny doubts or have been confronted with accusations on the internet that angered you but you didn't really have a defense, I would recommend this book for you. Just be ready to not get defensive.  She really lays it out clearly what the issues are in a digestible way and it may open your eyes.

If you are fully on board with Black Lives Matter and all in in understanding structuralist racism and looking to deepen your knowledge and tactics, I would suggest you look elsewhere.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

53. Hitler by Shigeru Mizuki

I am fairly well versed in the Second World War and in particular the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the wars leading up to it.  I studied it in college and then much of my fictional reading and some non-fiction has been in this area.  Not to say I am some expert, but that the reality of Hitler and the Nazis versus the mythology does not come as something new to me.  That is a bit how this book is marketed and I hope that for some readers it would be elucidating in that fashion.

It really is a straight-up history, mostly a biography of Hitler himself.  It's very well done, going into a surprising amount of detail in such a rushed history.  Because it is a manga and there is very little exposition, a lot goes on in a few pages.  I suspect that for people totally new to the history, a lot of it might go past them and many of the character fade in and out. There are two nice little indices, one a roster of characters with illustration and the other a list of endnotes that go into more detail. Somehow, the combination of dark, sketchy, impressionistic but realistic backgrounds with the manga-ish cartoony expressions of the characters (toned down but nonetheless manga style) imparts a strong reality to the story.  The characters seem human.  This is what makes this book so effective.  It "humanizes" what happened, not in the sense that we realize these are complex people with feelings that we should feel sympathy for (there is little of that).  Rather that the rise of Nazi power and fascism in Germany was not some well thought out master plan but a series of complex interactions between the historical context and the individuals involved.  Grounding the narrative makes you realize that it really could happen anywhere, that there is no tradition or political structure so solid that it cannot be undermined or rot from within.

Of course in these times where an authoritarian takeover is happening in the United States right now leads to a comparison of the two situations.  There are so many differences that one feels it may be erroneously simplistic to compare them.  The situation in Germany (coming off of WWI, the crushed economy, the social and class structure not to mention technology) was wildly different than that of the US today.  It's probably more helpful to do broader comparisons of the rise of authoritarian regimes in general. The one big similarity, though, that stands out for me and is highlighted nicely in this book, is the complicity of the elites and business.  Hitler, as extreme and uncompromising as he portrayed himself, often backed down in the early days when faced with the threat of losing support from the big industrialists.  This kept them appeased (at best) and usually brought them onside when they saw how they could increase their monopolies.  Likewise, the upper classes, who detested Hitler's upbringing, consistently acquiesced to his power as they did not see him as a threat to them.  This is exactly what is happening with Trump now.  The editorial positions of the New York Times, normalizing his destruction of structures of American democracy with neutral headlines and constant "both sides" arguments will be seen in the future as one of the tools of propaganda that allowed him and his cronies to go as far as he did.

One thing that I did learn and am somewhat shamed of my ignorance is Shigeru Mizuki himself. He is, at least according to the biography, one of the most important figures in Japanese Manga.  He also did several history books on Japan's rise to the war and one about his own life as a soldier in WWII, where he lost an arm.  I would love to read those as well. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

52. Red Ketchup Integrale vol 3 (books 7-9)

7 Echec au King
This time Red Ketchup gets a new boss as his old is demoted after not being able to contain Red Ketchup.  The new boss is supposed to be one of the best, but it becomes clear quite quickly that he is too ambitious as he uses Red to get dirt on his superiors to gain more power.  He also is desperately in love with a fat trailer park woman and will do anything for her.  This is a theme we have seen a few times in Red Ketchup, the powerful man with the weakness for a woman far down on the social status.  Her thing is reading Amazing Facts, basically a News of the World tabloid and she uses her FBI boss lover to investigate the things she reads about (bigfoot, giant moles and eventually Elvis coming back from the dead).  He in turn sends Red to investigate who does so much damage that these fake stories start seeming real.  It all traces back to an alcoholic writer in the Florida Keys who is behind all the stories.  In some ways, this book is more his story and Red Ketchup is really just the catalyst, although there is also the grad student who comes down to interview the writer and the gallant next-door neighbour of the fat trailer park lady who seems vaguely familiar...

A lot goes on here.  This book reminded me a bit of one of the Parker stories where Parker is a vehicle for other character's narratives.  Come to think of it, you probably could do an interesting Parker/Red Ketchup comparison.  Echec au King doesn't capture the manic chaos of Red Ketchup at his best but it is still an entertaining story and another fun poke at American excess.

8 Red Ketchup en Enfer
(read May 12, 2020 during pandemic) This one was awesome, getting back to Red Ketchup stirring all kinds of shit up, this time literally in hell.  Red Ketchup dies saving some kids from a crazed cult leader in the bayou.  He takes an atomic bomb and runs with it on his back where it explodes.  He wakes up in hell, welcomed by the devil and all his demons.  Satan is so pleased to have Red Ketchup with him, he makes him the head of security for hell, where his extreme mania for order drives demons back to earth.  Meanwhile, Red's sister is sure he is calling to her and her search leads her to Dr. Beaudelaire Hyacinth, a Haitian professor of anthropology at the University of Montreal.   Dr. Hyacinth, it turns out, used to be a power voudou shaman but renounced his use of magic to study science.  Together the two of them head back to Haiti to try and find Red Ketchup and send the demons back to hell.  Even though we get classic Red Ketchup extremism, this is also just a really good story, well-structured and fun.  Dr. Hyacinth is an excellent side character, great NPC for anybody's modern occult campaign.
9 Élixir X
(read August 31, 2020, end of the pandemic summer) This final chapter (at least for now) in the Red Ketchup saga is an enjoyable story with some nice character development. However, it feels restrained and never achieves the chaos it sets up.  The main story centers on the insane Nazi doctor Otto Kunst who develops an elixir of life, which gets released into the public by his young model wife (who looks exactly like his true love the inflatable sex toy).  It makes people young, but also violently aggressive and addicted.  We really had the potential for some Red Ketchup mayhem but the storyline emphasizes Red Ketchup's attempt to find the assassins trying to kill his sister.  There are lots of nice touches and a pretty interesting development with the possibility of his sister becoming a second red ketchup.  A good read, but a bit mellow for Red Ketchup.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

51. Mad Ship (The Liveship Traders Book II) by Robin Hobb

Wow!  This has been the least productive reading month for me for a long time.  Still two days left, but pretty clear that I will fail to achieve my 5 books a month goal.  The last time I went below 5 books was May 2019.  I have many excuses.  The biggest factor is the NBA playoff bubble which was running 4 games a day for almost three weeks in August.  I also allowed myself to fall back into a lot of wasted time on Twitter.  Things will tighten up in September.

My lack of reading forces me to question my phat fantasy strategy.  Mad Ship keeps up all the good stuff from the Ship of Destiny, and because I am so deep into it now, I can read it in snippets.  She packs so much story in each chapter that sometimes I have to take a break.  So it would seem an ideal companion to the NBA playoffs. The problem is that about halfway through the month, I start to feel the pressure of not meeting my monthly goal (and slipping away from the ultimate goal of restoring my monthly average to 50).  It makes it hard for me to truly sit back and enjoy this deep fantasy universe and the enjoyable unraveling of its mysteries.

In Book 2, we get a lot more of the pirate Kennit.  He becomes almost mythical, though it is hard to tell if it is his own insane ego or that he may actually be an important, fated piece in all the machinations going on around him.  He takes Wintrow, the ex-monk to Sa, under his wing and with his consort Etta and their pirate crew, they set in motion several important triggers that will rock the world of Jamailla, Bingtown and the Rain Wilds.  Their piracy of slaveships accelerates the confrontation between Bingtown and the Satrap (with the Chalced States behind him).  On the big magical picture, Kennit pushes Wintrow into a situation where he releases a sea serpent that is key to the story of the tangle in the prologues to each chapter.  There seems to be a lot of destiny going on.  We also follow the storyline of the rest of the Vestrit family as they put the mad liveship Paragon to sea to rescue the Vivacia and her captain.  

The political conflicts in this second book were great, complex enough to make them interesting but not get lost.  Most of the magical backstory is revealed here and it is really cool.  At first, the mythology seemed so different than that of the first trilogy, that I thought they were going to be basically two separate storylines.  Here, at the end, the reveal connects them in a really interesting way that gives you a totally different understanding of the dragons in the Assassin trilogy.  It's very cool.

I overally really enjoyed it, but there is still some balance with Robin Hobb that sometimes makes me have to put the book down in frustration.  Her characters are often relentlessly pessimistic and whiny.  Sometimes it makes sense, but it always seems to get pushed too far.  And you know something bad is going to happen to them before any good stuff, so it can be demotivating.  She also relies on people's stubbornness and stupidity as a plot device and sometimes it really doesn't work. It's a small part, but when Reyn is drinking himself to sleep to avoid the dragon dreams and his brother and mom come to him and he tells them to find Malta, they just ignore him and treat him like a baby.  Yet, they all were raised understanding the danger and power of the old city.  They also know the situation is super dangerous.  They would at least have checked on Malta. I found that really unbelievable and frustrating and it threw me out of the book.

Friday, August 07, 2020

50. Out of Control by G. Gordon Liddy

I found this in one of the free book kiosks in the Mile-End.  I actually hesitated over it for quite a while.  This late summer, my thirst for book hunting knows no quenching.  However, my cup (as in my on-deck shelf) runneth over and I am reading quite slowly because of the NBA bubble.  I was not really feeling very enthusiastic about watching sports this year as it feels like we have much bigger issues in the world right now, but the condensed and accelerated season with all the teams quarantined in Disney World has actually made for some super entertaining basketball.  There are games on from 2 in the afternoon until 11 at night and it really cuts into my reading time.  So I hemmed and hawed on this book and finally took it because I mean come on a spy adventure novel written by one of the Watergate conspirators  How can I say no?  

And during the first chapter, I was rejoicing for my choice.  It starts in media res with a professional thief and safe cracker hiding in the custodial closet at the top floor of a NY office building.  We get a nerdy but very entertaining blow-by-blow of his break-in.  Liddy does not spare the technical details, right up to the brand of the cylinder being different than the brand of the rest of the safe.  Unfortunately, this is a peak and it kind of comes down to earth for much of the middle of the book, rising back up again for a crazy finale.  

Out of Control is an odd mix of almost dull technical and business procedure and then over the top situations and craziness.  There is a lot of 1970s orientalism, most of it made up and wildly inaccurate (though not disrespectful or belittling; just kind of fantastic) which is off-putting.  However, my grade 10 self would have loved it, as there are martial arts masters, secret Tong societies and even a climactic kung fu fight.  The hero is an absurd fantasy, the son of a Nazi Luftwaffe ace (and a pilot himself who still flies a messerschmidt recreationally, which of course figures in the finale), whose dead wife was from a powerful mafia family and whose current girlfriend is connected to a super powerful Tong enterprise.  He is also an expert financier.  The sexual and romantic banter between him and his girlfriend is tiresome and dated, but felt genuine.  We are failing all Bechtel tests here, but he does make her a real person.

I can not recommend this as a good book, but I found it likable, wanting to entertain and succeeding at many points.  There is a lot of self-congratulating business manipulations that went way too far into detail for me, but there are also a lot of great and creative action moments. And it does get genuinely crazy.  If you are a fan of 60s and 70s American crime and espionage fiction, you should check this out.

[Also minor golf clap for having reached 50 books.  My real goal for 2020 is 59 as I will then have achieved an average of 50 books since I started this challenge.  Then we'll have a real celebration!]

Friday, July 31, 2020

49. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

I picked this up for $5 at S.W. Welch in my first post-pandemic book shopping.  A really nice old paperback edition of a book I believe is considered a classic.  I'll research that after writing my review.  I struggle with these Golden Age science fiction books. I want to keep my mind open and try and approach them without the baggage of all the great sci-fi they spawned (in one way or another).  I remind myself that times were very different and we are still today unpacking deeply buried cultural assumptions.  Despite all that, I found myself struggling to enjoy the Demolished Man. 

It's the story of Ben Reich, big-time corporate leader in the 24th century future.  He decides to murder his business rival, D'Courtney.  However, murder is almost impossible in this age, thanks to the existence of espers or peepers.  They are people with esp, organized in a guild with strict ethis and rankings.  The book is about Reich's plan to commit this murder and then the investigation and hunt by esper detective Lincoln Powell.  So underneath all the science fiction stuff, it is basically a cat and mouse detective story.  Some parts of that story were kind of fun to read.  Likewise, as an early imagining of a how a society with psychics in it would work and the mechanics of planning and detecting murder in such a world were somewhat interesting.  However, there were lots of little logical flaws (like on Reich commits the first murder, which is supposed to be so impossible, he suddenly seems to have no trouble committing several others to cover up the first) that took me out of the reality.  The Ben Reich character seems almost hysterical in his desire to murder; his motivations are not convincing.  The final big psychological reveal at the end didn't have enough weight to it because there was nothing in the character to connect to the ending, nor to the reader.  So sort of fun, but I mainly read it to get through it. 

Apologies to those with the perspective that made this book enjoying.  I guess if I were in my 20s in the 50s, this may have been quite mind-blowing.  And it was Bester's first book.  Now to go find out how wrong I am.