Thursday, September 25, 2008

43. Hombre by Elmore Leonard

Hombre pictureI've heard a lot of good stuff about Elmore Leonard's westerns. He wrote them at the beginning of his career and they did fairly well but he moved onto crime at some point and never looked back. I was told that his westerns are quite easy to find, but it took me a trip to Winnipeg!

Hombre is about a final stage coach run from an outpost where the coaches are shutting down because the train has made them obsolete (doing the same to the little towns that used to service the coach stops). It's not actually a stage coach, but a "mud wagon", a smaller vehicle that was usually used by the coach company to bring supplies out. It's less comfortable but more versatile. The final run is forced upon the company by various people who need to make the trip and it is this varied cast of characters, and one in particular, Hombre, that drive the story.

There is the boss of the outfit, his assistant who is the narrator, a younger woman who had been captured by Apaches and a couple, the husband of whom was a Station Agent, responsible for administering trade with the natives. A tough cattle hand shows up at the last minute and forces an ex-soldier out of the coach. And then there is Hombre, who is seen only through the eyes of the narrator. Over the course of the beginning of the book, we learn that he is a white man who had lived in Mexico and then with the indians and ended up as a deputy on the reservation. He had "gone native" and is often mistaken for an indian. He says little, just enough to let it be know that he has an issue with the way the natives are treated. He ends up sitting outside on the mud wagon with the boss and driver because of objections by the Station Agent.

The setup is this little cramped wagon in the middle of the desert seething with racial and sexual tension. The four people inside are crammed knee to knee and it is suggested that the wife of the Station Agent is too young and not faithful. It's actually quite rich and subtle stuff. And then shit happens and we learn a lot more about everybody. It's all done very subtly, though, with a light touch. The narrator himself is young but its written from the perspective of someone looking back and trying to figure it all out.

When I read this, what come to mind was Cormac Macarthy. Unfortunately, what should happen is that we read Macarthy and then Elmore Leonard comes to mind. And probably a few other western authors. Because Leonard did this stuff first and did it well, if not better. This is a dark and realistic look at a very mean wild west, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between the whites and the aboriginals. It is very sympathetic to the latter group, but ultimately moves beyond to damn us all. Nobody wins in this book and there is no real justice. Just a tiny slice of bravery and sacrifice that makes everyone else look even worse than they already did.

Also only took 188 pages to do this and do it effectively. Great stuff.

Friday, September 19, 2008

42. The Canadian Bomber Contract by Philip Atlee

The Canadian Bomber Contract pictureI found this little gem at Nerman's in Winnipeg. It was in the Action section (the existence of which gives me hope for the world) among a bunch of other Philip Atlee books featuring Joe Gall. I was only aware of them because Lantzvillager had asked me to find a specific one (The Green Wound Contract, which I later did find, but in the Vintage section and under the title The Green Wound). All the covers looked interesting, but I picked this one because of the Canadian content. Hell, the inner blurb reads "Joe had seen plenty of violent cities, but in Montreal, sudden death, maimings, stabbings and bombings seemed to be part of the scenery." so you know I had to get it.

Most of the book takes place in Montreal, Quebec City and the Niagara Falls, with a brief trip to Toronto. Atlee seems to be one of those adventure writers who writes because he went somewhere. He spends a lot of time describing specific details, either geographical or cultural, that you get the strong sense he actually witnessed. Though I was only 2 in 1971, and his perspective was very much the anglo outsider, he seems to have captured Montreal very well. The following passage confirmed this to me:

"While I was walking through the dawn streets of Toronto toward police headquarters, I reflected that the town might be the financial headquarters of Canada, but that in comparison to Montreal it was an ugly and dowdy place, lacking both charm and beautiful girls..."

Some things never change.

It's a fun, quick read because of the location and the crazy sexism (he basically tells women what to do and they do it, for the most part). But the plot seems like an afterthought, plopped on like a shovelful of wet cement. And the final reveal was so stupidly obvious and preposterous that I had guessed it about halfway through but couldn't actually believe he would try and go through with it. Despite that, it's not a terrible read. The protagonist is a tough guy and deals out summary justice for the CIA, but he's actually kind of liberal, sympathizing with the draft dodgers (the ones who apply themselves to society but are just against war) and deserters and arguing with his boss about these issues. The badguys and the druggie hippie barefoot rebel crowd among whom they insinuate themselves are quite entertainingly portrayed. The writing can be flip, which sometimes is distracting and other times puts forth darkly humourous little gems like this:

"I had been married shortly once, but it went bad when I discovered my wife in the sack with a neighbor, whom I beat to death immediately with a small portable radio. That's not as hard as it sounds; those little plastic jobs have some good handholds on them."

Excellent use of the semi-colon there.

This is something like #19 in the series, so I suspect that Atlee was mailing them in a bit, delivering just enough location, sex and patriotic violence for his audience. I read that early in his career while convalescing in an Oregon hospital bed, after a Korean war wound, he was approached by the CIA. They offered him money if he would put certain biases in his books, which he refused to do. I'd never heard of that practice. It bears looking into.

I'll read another Joe Gall, but probably look towards the earlier books.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Regional Report: Winnipeg is for lovers...

...used book lovers that is! I went to Winnipeg for the first time in my life for a wedding. I just had this feeling ahead of time that Winnipeg would be a town with some good book stores. I don't know exactly why I felt this way, a blend of the general theory that the poorer parts of the first world tend to have better used bookstores and thrift stores, combined with some vague notion that Winnipeg is a seat of a lot of old school labour and lefty activity (those commies tend to read a lot; dangerous activity, that). I did a bit of googling ahead of time and the results were promising. I had prepared myself a little map and was happy to discover that a lot of the stores I found were within walking distance of the hotel we were staying at. Even better, the way the wedding weekend was structured gave me a lot of free time during the crucial shopping hours on Friday and Saturday.

We started out on Friday morning and the very first bookstore we went into immediately kicked ass. It's called Red River books and was in a beautiful old warehouse. Their mystery section was a bit thin, but their sci-fi was excellent and their prices even better. They had a lot of paperbacks for $1.00, something you just don't see much anymore. They also had some used gamebooks, new and used comics and all kinds of other dusty things. It was one of those places you could just poke around in for hours. The proprietor was almost nearly deaf and we had to write some questions down that we had for him.

I later learned from the groom that the place was run by a father and son team who won the lotto big time several years ago. He said you can see them riding around town on their bikes. I guess the bookstore is their labour of love and maybe that explains the old-fashioned low prices on their books.

I also found their a brochure labeled EAT! Bistro presents Winnipeg's BOOK WALK. It unfolded to a sweet little walking map, detailing "The Book District", in which I happened to be right in the middle! There were several places that I hadn't found on google so this was a real bonus. I also found a great little comic store (where I got not one but two "nice shirt!"'s for the Car Wars shirt I was wearing; geek cred baby!). These guys knew there stuff. They had the entire run of Kamandi which I was seriously tempted to get, but really all I want is the map in issue #32.

So the Book Walk ended up taking me most of Friday, with a lot of good little finds here and there. If you are going to Winnipeg, you can find the brochure at any of the participating bookstores, including Red River, which is linked above. They don't have a website, but there is an email to contact, so if you are heading out there and want this info, post a comment and I'll send it to you.

Near the end of the afternoon, Meezly couldn't keep up the pace and I had to send her back. At the last store on the brochure, the small but organized Bison Books, I found another brochure! This time it was the Book Hunter's Map of Winnipeg 2008-09 edition, sponsored by the members of the Winnipeg Assocation of Secondhand Booksellers. Except for Bison Books, every single store in this new brochure had not been mentioned in the Book Walk brochure! The difference was that almost all of these were outside of the downtown area. The friendly clerk explained to me that this second group were all paying members of the association and that for whatever reasons, the more centrally located groups did not feel the need to belong to that association. All the info in the second brochure can be found on their website.

I didn't have a car but had a bit of time and decided to take a bus to Black-Letter Books & White-Light Psychics which also happened to be not too far from the only game store in town. It was not a mistake! A fantastic little store, way up on a very empty part of Main street with very nicely organized and easily accessible shelves. They had a very nice sci-fi collection and some excellent collectibles (including some sweet original REH paperbacks). I only found one thing there, a beautiful hardback of The Snake by John Godey (writer of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) for $6. This store also had a psychic and a really friendly dog. Great place.

I visited several stores on Saturday, but the highlight of the trip was Nerman's the last place I went to (and making me late for the party on Saturday; no worries, though I made up for it). Holy crap. This store was amazing. They have an excellent selection of sci-fi, mystery and action (yes, that's how kickass Winnipeg used bookstores are, they almost all had an Action section), all in paperback. I found stuff I was looking for in those sections, including two books on Lantzvillager's list (that's always a coup!). But the shelves kept going and guess what, they had a massive "Vintage" section. And it was no joke! Books just kept piling into my hands. I found Journey Into Terror by Peter Rabe and a first edition Parker (The Man with the Getaway Face, but the cover was ripped and I have it already). I really could have spent a lot more time here, but time I didn't have. Still an extremely satisfying stop and I strongly recommend those of you in this game to try and get a chance to check out Nerman's. He also has an incredible collection of children's books, including tons of old british classics. I barely got a chance to look at that, but it was promising to swallow me up.

I ended up coming home with 23 books, swelling my on deck shelf to its very edges. For used books, Winnipeg kicked ass. To summarize, my three favorites were Red River Books, Black-Letter Books and Nerman's Books. Really truly satisfying and everywhere I went I had a little conversation piece in the sweet paperback I was carrying. Also, the locals at the wedding were impressed that I had taken the bus and gone off the beaten path a bit. A satisfying weekend all around, but extremely satisfying for the bibliophile.

(note, I have some more social and cultural comments about Winnipeg on my other blog if you're interested.)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

41. The Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

The Watchmen cover picture

From the Wikipedia entry:

Watchmen is set in 1985, in an alternate history of the United States where costumed adventurers are real and the country is edging closer to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union; throughout the books, the Doomsday Clock is shown gradually ticking towards midnight. It tells the story of a group of past and present heroes and superheroes and the events surrounding the mysterious murder of one of their own. Watchmen depicts heroes as real people who must confront ethical and personal issues, who struggle with neuroses and failings, and who—with one notable exception—lack anything immediately recognizable as accepted super powers.

I really won't be able to do a thorough analysis of this masterpiece in a blog post, but please allow me some observations and memories.

I first discovered the Watchmen in grade 9. I discovered it along with re-discovering comics in general. I went to my friend Jeff's backyard to hang and he and my other buddy of the Lantzville trio, Lantzvillager himself (currently of Mt. Benson Report fame) had gone to the comic store and come back with a bunch of cool-looking comics, bearing mature themes. I think Scout was there and Mister X, possibly even the first Dark Knight. This, I now realize, was the period when the comic book scene was getting re-born with all kinds of ill shit and somehow these two cottoned on to it (I'll have to ask them about what motivated them to go to the comic store). It started us on to years of serious collecting. These comics just looked different than the superhero stuff we were used to (and weren't all that interested in, though I had gone through a big phase of war comics a few years before).

One of the comics that was procured was Watchmen #4. It really looked different. The whole thing was, cover to cover, was "designed" and there were no advertisements. I didn't really get what was going on in that issue, but I was intrigued and we eventually ended up getting all of them. For whatever reason, the 11th and 12th issues (the last two) took forever to come out, almost a year I believe (which also happened with The Dark Knight #4; why?) and I remember feeling a bit disappointed with the conclusion. I think that year of waiting (and the awesomeness that came before) built up my expecations to unreasonable heights.

In college, I bought the collected graphic novel and read it again, but it wasn't with fresh eyes. This time, with the movie coming out and the references to it in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I really wanted Meezly to read it so I bought her a copy. While she was reading it, I kept wanting to read over her shoulder and realized that it had been so long that I had forgotten a lot of it (except of course for some of Rorschach's famous lines, which I'll never forget) and that reading it again could be a rewarding experience. It had been over 15 years.

This time, the ending was not a disappointment. As a collected whole, I don't think I'm being too pretentious when I call it a masterpiece. It's easy to look back at it through all the revisions the superhero has gone through in recent years and to see the way Moore deconstructed the superhero comic as being a bit obvious. But when it came out, the last major evolution of the superhero was Spiderman having human problems (and maybe Cerebus). Moore just blew the doors off the whole genre with the Watchmen. Really, where we are today, with movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight are the direct result of The Watchmen (credit has to go here to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight, but now I see clearly that Miller's simplistic righteousness is all encapsulated and critiqued in the character of Rorshach alone; Miller was only foreshadowing and possibly celebrating the neo-con fascism born out of Reagan's 80s, while Moore was doing so much more).

But it also stands on its own, as an exploration into power, ethics and history and as a moving tale of flawed humans who made some idealistic choices. You close this book and you want to talk about it. Who is the bad guy? What's the point of the pirate comic within a comic? I have many more specific things I'd like to talk about, but doing so would entail revelations that would spoil the reading for those of you who haven't yet done so. I will say that I think this is both a profoundly pessimistic vision of humanity and yet also a deeply caring one. My sense (and this could well be just my own worldview reflecting back at me through the shifting ethical complexity that is The Watchmen) is that Moore thinks were fucked, but that the human relations that go on between us are still powerful and important.

There are other things that make this book so great. The alternate history is fantastic, thoroughly thought out (with Nixon heading into his third term as president) on the historical level, but also the aesthetical. Small touches, like the weird helmets some people wear and the cigarettes with little spheres on the end make it seem different without being unrealistic and thus very plausible. All the little motifs that run throughout the book (like the blood stain on the smiley face, the shadow of the two people embracing) serve to lock all the plotines together like little hasps and bolts, while underlining the themes (a tear, love in the shadow of atrocity). They are also why The Watchmen is a comic book. It does things that can't be done in any other narrative medium. Dave Gibbons, the artist, put a lot of these touches in on his own, unbeknownst to Moore. Finally, while there isn't a lot of action, The Watchmen still has some of the most badass moments in comics, that single frame of Dr. Manhattan taking out some heisters still gives me a little shiver (not to mention the one of him in Viet Nam). And Rorschach. I mean, come on. I leave you with this in the hopes that it inspires you to go out and read The Watchmen ASAP.

None of you understand. I'm not locked in here with you. You're locked in here with me.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

40. Warriors: The New Prophecy: Book 1: Midnight by Erin Hunter

Warriors Book 1 pictureI was gripped by some insane frenzy while in California and purchased several new "trade paperbacks", including this first book of a series of cat fantasy books for young readers. I'm a big fan of cats and fantasy and had been curious about these when I'd seen them on the shelf, but they are so clearly commercialized from the start and there are so many of them, that I had never planned on actually reading them. But somehow I decided to take the plunge. I got #1, but it wasn't until I was about a quarter of the way through and totally mixed up about the characters, that I figured out this was the first book of the second series! This is why you shouldn't buy books like this on the spur of the moment! Let that be a warning to you, my friends.

This is the kind of book that has 2 maps (one from the cats' perspective and one from the humans), including logos for each clan, as well as several pages of characters, organized by clan and rank. I like that kind of stuff, but every single cat's name is a compound noun, like Tigerclaw or Whitepaw or Cedarhart or Russetfur and there are so many of them and they are thrown at you so quickly, without any real characterization that they just all become a blur. I finally started to distinguish most of the main protagonists about halfway through the book, when they had split off from the homelands to go on a quest. I think this wouldn't have been such a challenge if I had started from the first series (or if I were 11 years old and was into obsessively memorizing lists of facts, as I used to be).

For me, the appeal of fantasy cats is that it opens up the world around us and reveals it as a place of wonder and excitement. The cleft of a tree becomes a cozy shelter, a deserted shed becomes an ambush site, a tractor a devouring monster and so on. The best animal books capture this (Watership Down obviously, and the works of Colin Dunn of which I need to read more). These Warrior books, once you finally figure out who is who, are not bad and by the time I finished this book I was kind of tempted to get the next one. But ultimately, they are a bit thin for me and with so much else on deck, I probably will only pick these up if some confluence of events puts me with a lot of time and limited reading choice. But if I were stuck on a desert island with only the Warriors series, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world either.

Friday, September 05, 2008

39. Rats by Robert Sullivan

Rats pictureEverybody loves to hear about rats and it's surprising that a book of this nature wasn't attempted before. Basically, the author decided to sit in a New York City alley for a year and observe the rats. I am always intrigued by the idea of these kinds of books (Salt, Cod, etc.), the idea that you can read a single, relatively light volume and have a nice general overview of the subject. But I can rarely actually bring myself to read them. The subject matter here convinced me to actually take the plunge. Rats got a lot of fanfare when it came out and I've been looking for it for a while. In a fit of consumerist frenzy, I bought it and several other trade paperbacks new at Dark Carnival! I don't know what's come over me. Perhaps it's the giddiness as I seem to be potentially capable of achieving my goal this year.

However, this book also confirmed for me that my instinctual aversion towards these kinds of books was correct. I don't actually like them. There are two problems with these kinds of books. One is that it gives the author the opportunity to take all these little side trips into history and science and whatever, often trips that are tangentially related at best to the subject at hand. Two, is that they then attempt to tie it all up with some grand theme or symbol or something. I guess because they are writing for a general audience, they feel the need to have an overarching (or several) idea to replace the satisfaction of the narrative. It's very sloppy history and makes for distracted reading.

My understanding of Rats was that it was about the guy sitting in the alley, observing and getting to know the rats. But actually only about a quarter of the entire text covers that. He describes the basic behaviour of the rat as science understands it in the beginning chapter and we learn nothing more after that. I was hoping for a profound examination of their lives in this alley. I wanted him to get to know specific rats, to describe all their activities, maybe following them everywhere, eventually even into their lair. There is none of that. He basically watches them in the alley a few times and then all of a sudden launches into a history of the guy who started the garbageman's union, or the guy who was responsible for some riots in the American Revolution. Some of the asides are interesting and entertaining, particularly the ones where he meets exterminators and other rat experts. But overall you get the feeling he never really committed properly to being in the alley and ended up padding his book with all kinds of other irrelevant material.

There are some nice little rat stories in here and one of his points is that everyone has one, but you could find those on the internet. So, yes, I was let down from this book and wouldn't recommend it.

But I will share one of my rat stories with you! I was at a rooftop party one summer on the Lower East Side. After it wound down, several of us hung around and we ended up just leaning over the roof, talking and drinking. It was at least 3 in the morning. We started to see some rats walking around on the deserted street below. After paying attention, we realized that it was teeming with rats, and some really massive ones. They would go in and out of doors, gutters, whatever. We spent about an hour oohing and aahing, ("hey look at that massive one by the car!"). Eventually, we decided to break it up and head home and that's when we all realized we were going to have to go out through that street! We decided to do it as a team, making a lot of noise and sticking together until we got to a less isolated street. We survived but that moment of realization was a pretty funny one. We were genuinely scared.

Monday, September 01, 2008

38. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao picture
I had read a couple of Junot Diaz's short stories in the New Yorker, but his Pulitzer Prize winning novel had completely slipped under my radar until my sister told me about it and then brought me a copy. Thanks, sis, because this is a fantastic book, easily the best book of 2008. Perhaps more significant for me than just its qualities as a novel, it also signals a new beachhead in the cultural invasion of geeks into the mainstream. Diaz is one of us, it seems!

The titular character is the main character and it is around his life that the book is built. He's a rarity, a Dominican nerd, an extreme one at that. But the novel tells the story of his entire family and the history of the Dominican Republic in the 20th century that eventually pushed them to America. We learn about his mother, his great-aunt (who raised his mother when her parents were killed by the Trujillo regime), his sister, his grandparents and a few other interesting characters. It's a rich, entertaining tale, made even more complex by the gradual revelation of the identity of the narrator. Actually, in its structure, it is not dissimilar to David Chariandy's Soucouyant (which I read recently), where a situation in the present-day Americas is slowly peeled back to reveal the complex colonial layers underneath.

But the voice here is so much different. So alive! Diaz uses all kinds of ghetto slang, several forms of spanish and spanglish and a hardcore nerd lexicon the likes of which you can barely find online these days, let alone in a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. He drops obscure game references, uses hit dice (not just hit points!) to refer to the injuries someone takes after a beating from the Dominican secret police, refers to John Christopher, even! Most impressive. While there was a lot of the spanish I didn't know, for most people there is probably just as much, if not more, nerdly vocabulary that would be completely foreign to them.

I'm not going to go into it much more than this beyond saying that I read the entire book in a day on a long flight from the west coast, laughed out loud several times, even once when I couldn't stop and I think the people around me in the waiting gate thought I was a little crazy. It's an amazing book and if it is to be written about anymore, it should be done properly, which I'm not prepared to do. There is a podcast here where Diaz says some really interesting things about the book, which I recommend you should listen to when you have finished it, if you are interested. Otherwise, just get this book and read it