Sunday, July 31, 2011

Regional Report: used book hunting in the Canadian Maritimes

I just came back yesterday from an excellent two-week+ vacation in the Maritimes that my wife pushed for and almost entirely organized.  We took the ViaRail train overnight in a sleeper car from Montreal to Moncton (the line is called The Ocean and it is the oldest continuous-running passenger line in North America).  We spent 4 days in Prince Edward Island and then the rest of the trip in Nova Scotia, first in Cape Breton, then Halifax and points south and finally along the Bay of Fundy.

I was somewhat ambivalent about going used book shopping.  My on-deck shelf is near its limit as it is (it's the top of a dresser in my closet, running along the back edge and I don't like it to get much closer than two-thirds or so of that length; currently it is almost nine-tenths, so I have some reading to do).  I also didn't want to distract too much from the sun and sand and sights of the Maritimes.  I also didn't have time to plan much ahead of time, so felt not properly prepared for attacking ill-organized used bookstores.

But of course, once on site, my excitement got the better of me and I ended up with so many books that I had to get a separate box to put them in as my suitcase got to heavy to lug up to motel rooms.  Here is the painful result:

My poor on-deck shelf is going to feel like Mr. Creosote soon!

Also due to my lack of preparation, I did very little photographing of the various bookstores we visited.  It's a shame, because there were a couple of pretty interesting little spots.  My wife noticed one just off the main road in Alberton, PEI.  The place, a beat up old residence that had seen better days, was closed, but the guy had left his phone number in the window. I called but nobody answered.  Happily, the next day he was there, parked in his truck outside the store, reading something.  This place was paperback heaven.  Unfortunately, he was clearly near retirement and the books were suffering from too long not being dusted.  The place was for sale.  

Another amazing find (also spotted by my wife, though this one was in the little Maritimes Used Book flyer that various stores had available in various years) was Amy's in Amherst, Nova Scotia.  This was a bright white, vinyl-sided, windowless rectangle on the main business route (that goes by all the gas stations and Tim Horton's).  Inside it was literally stacked floor to ceiling with books.  They were quite clean and organized, though by author with many large piles that had yet to be organized.  Here I found some serious gems, including The Green Eagle Score in paperback for $3.  The owner was quite friendly and helpful, though edging very close to bitterness in the tough time he was having.  

I would have thought that one of the prerequisites for running a used book store would be a kind of mania for organization and categorizing.  This does not seem to be the case.  Rather, it seems to be the contrary.  Perhaps the job starts to overwhelm one's ability to organize.  We encountered several establishments with pleasant, engaged proprietors who seemed completely and happily oblivious to the insane mess their store was in.  My wife and I were both tempted just to quite our lives and sign on as intern to help put these guys' stores in order.  

Overall, my haul was not mindblowing.  I found a lot of interesting little books and some with just cool covers.  The two big scores were the Parker mentioned above and one you will see below.  Here are some of the more interesting finds:

Here are the Westlake books.  I've never heard of Gangway! and quite curious to check it out.  I've read Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, but loved the cover here (looks a bit like Donald himself, no?) and it was only a couple bucks.  The Green Eagle Score, as mentioned above, was $3.  Terrible condition, but I'm very psyched to have this version in Paperback.  I couldn't help myself and paid $15 for Killtown at a savvy store in Halifax.  They also had The Split in the paperback version with Jim Brown on the cover (it's the fifth image down on the Violent World of Parker site here), which I really wanted, but it was $30 and that was way too much.

For some reason, I also picked up a bunch of mafia crime books, the first two just because the covers looked so cool, but the third one I found (actually the first one in the photo) was the real major score.

I got all excited and nervous that the book seller would realize that he had a gem on his hands and charge me more than the $3 asking for Peter Rabe's War of the Dons.  The cover is stained, but it is otherwise in pretty good condition and I believe a first edition (same edition, I believe, as Louis XIV's, but I suspect he didn't pay $3 for his! ;)).  I note how the cover design, especially for the two Fawcett books, is very similar to Vendetta, which I quite enjoyed.  I guess that was following up on the success of the Godfather?

Here are three other crime paperbacks I found, also dealing with the mafia, though these I picked up mainly because of their great covers:

I did actually buy a few hardcovers as well, though really nothing too exciting.

Both the Margaret Millar and the Gilbert are lowly book club editions, but they are nice looking and I thought would complement the other books on my not-so-full hardback shelf.  The Deliverance does appear to be a first edition, a bit battered, but quite cool-looking.

The other bonus with the Margaret Millar book is that it has a picture of her on the back.  Does she ever look Canadian!

I really don't know how I am going to handle my on-deck shelf, now that it will almost double in length and go far off the edge of my dresser.  I am definitely going to have to get some reading done in the next couple of months, that's for sure!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

44. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

I read 4 books in the first 5 days of my vacation and then spent the next 10 reading The Eustace Diamonds, finally finishing it after we had got home this morning.  It is the epic story of Lizzie Eustace née Greystock who is quite beautiful and charming, but soulless, ambitious and dangerous. She marries a Lord whom she knows is going to die due to his high-living, inherits $4,000 pounds a year and a Scottish castle from him. He also gave her a diamond necklace, a family heirloom worth $10,000 pounds to wear.  After his death, she claims it was a gift to her while his family tries to get her to give them back.  Much hijinks occur, told by Trollope in exquisite, living detail.  I sometimes stop and realize that I am reading a 600+ page book which is almost entirely about human social interaction.  No guns, no crime (although there actually are two really good interconnected robberies in this one), no physical violence (though an exciting fox hunt and some pretty strong emotional and social violence), really not the kind of book I expect myself to like.  But Trollope is just such a great writer and does such a great job of exposing character, that, though daunted by the length at the beginning, I often have trouble putting down.

The Eustace Diamonds is pretty dark, as well.  Though Lizzie is probably the most loathsome character in the book (and even then you often feel for her), she is surrounded by such flawed colleagues that you have trouble ever really liking any of them.  The good ones are often stupidly loyal or weak or misguided.  But it doesn't make the book any less enjoyable, because each character is so rich.  It's also a fascinating exposure on marriage practices among the upper classes in 19th century Britain.  Trollope's big theme, especially prevalent in this book, is the difficulty of being in the between classes: not rich enough to comfortably afford all the things you need to be in society but not poor enough to not have to care about them.  All the principal characters suffer from this affliction and the remedy is marriage.  The problem is that when everyone around you also wants to move up via marriage, it becomes a complex game of negotiations and investigations.  Love is window-dressing at best in this world.

It was really interesting to read this book after having read The Gamekeeper.  That book was about the warden in charge of maintaining the hunting grounds of a lord.  In The Eustace Diamonds, we see a glimpse of that world but from the upper side.  I don't think I would have fully appreciated the costs and difficulties in maintaining their land that was a part of the responsibilities of the landed gentry had I not read that book. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

43. The Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

This was an okay mystery with a great premise that got undermined somewhat by the narrative.  The premise that is so great is the heroine, Amelia Peabody, a feisty and headstrong Victorian woman, who embodies all the values of the British Empire, but is somewhat restricted by doing so in a female form.  She is really a great character and you want to read a bunch of stories with her poking her parasol at men who don't behave like gentlemen or berating poor egyptian shopkeepers who try to get one over on her.  Even better, about a quarter of the way through the book, she befriends a younger, extremely beautiful "fallen" woman and for a while I thought we were going to have a sort of Aubrey-Maturin type series, but with women.

Unfortunately, the mystery they get involved in isn't all that interesting.  It's about sabotage that goes on at a dig for Egyptian relics.  It was okay, but not mindblowing, though the interplay of the various personalities was entertaining.  Even worse, the book ends with Lady Peabody and her new friends situations both being resolved with marriage.  The series does go on, but I guess it is now Peabody and her husband, which seems okay, but, to my mind, kind of undermined the vibrancy of the original premise.  It is a well-loved series and I would be curious to hear if my concerns are wrong.  I wouldn't say no to reading another one in the series.

Why do all of the books I read have to be in series?  It's endless!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

42. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I happened upon the jacketless hardback copy of The Hunger Games at one of the bed & breakfasts we stayed at in PEI.  It was on a small shelf of books that other guests had left, which you could take or add to.  Such a great tradition.  I had been meaning to read a few of this new generation of post-apocalyptic youth fiction since reading a survey article in the New Yorker about it.  I guess the Hunger Games is one of the most popular series from this new wave and they are going to make a movie based on it, which is already getting some buzz.

This was a page turner and a really entertaining read that both me and my wife had a hell of a time putting down.  The only false note was the inner thoughts of the protagonist concerning the various boys in her life. They seemed muddled and unrealistic and at times were slightly annoying intrusions on what was otherwise a tight and exciting ride.

I'm not going to bother with a synopsis, as I suspect we will all be hearing about it when the movie comes out and many of you may have already read the book.  What struck me about it is how much it reminded me of John Christopher's young adult science fiction, in particular the Tripods series.  Both books are about adolescents in an authoritarian society who are forced at a certain age to participate in a competition run by the society's masters.  In Collins case, it is the Capitol.  In Christopher's, the tripods themselves.  In both cases, an exemplary adolescent, who is the protagonist, will end up being the key that will undo the tyranny that rules their world.  I wonder how much Collins is aware of Christopher's work and if we will get any comparisons in the popular media.

These books are short, with big type, so I'll most likely read the rest of the series.  It's possible, though, that with the amount of other reading I have head of me, I may just let someone tell me what happens.  In any case, I approve of these kinds of books being popular and being made into movies.  It suggests a renewed skepticism by the current generation, something the western world badly needs after the betrayal of my own generation X and the lameness that has since followed.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

41. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Since we were in PEI and our next stop was Cavendish (the area upon which the Avonlea of the books is more or less based and now a major tourist center), I rushed through 20,000 Leauges and made sure I'd be reading Anne of Green Gables when I was there.  It turned out to be no problem to finish this book before we even left Cavendish, as it was a very enjoyable read that kept me turning the pages.

I can see why this book is so loved.  It really does grab you at the heart right from the beginning, when simple bachelor Matthew Cuthbert goes to the train station to pick up a male orphan to help with his farm chores and instead finds loquacious, imaginative Anne.  The rest of the book are short episodes of her slowly integrating into the community and the home of the Cuthberts, into their hears and of course into generations of readers.  What I really enjoyed about this book is how the uptight people are portrayed.  They aren't really all that uptight.  Usually, in western literature, whenever we have an overly artistic person in an uptight environment, the uptight people are super freaky and end up winning and we all have to feel tragic about it.  Here, the uptight people are actually okay in the end, but just a bit focused on practical matters due to their rough existence.  Ultimately, they are warm, accepting people and come to love Anne, sometimes despite and sometimes because of her foibles and differences when compared with the rest of the community.  I'm tempted to say that this element is what makes this book so Canadian.  It reminded me why I chose to lean on my Canadian side in life and politics, though I fear with the neo-con cultivation of selfish suburban values, that temperance and fair-mindedness is slowly being drained out of Canada.  We are being sickened by the same disease that is currently ripping America apart.  I recommend a re-read of Anne of Green Gables by every Ontarion that voted Conservative in the last election.

I can also totally understand the Japanese love for this world.  Anne's imagination is so animistic and colourful, where every living thing is actually some conscious creature, that it reminded me of a movie like Paprika or Spirited Away.

I will probably continue to read the series if the next one falls into my lap.  I'm tempted to watch the television series as well.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

40. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

I have read that the popular english translations of Jules Verne's work were quite badly done, with large chunks taken out of them that were not deemed of interest to the english-speaking audience, or possibly even prejudicial.  Nonetheless, I couldn't resist picking up this beautiful old paperback version two summers ago at an antique shop (where I found also The Black Arrow amidst an entire set of these Airmont classics that I felt a bit guilty for splitting up).  It has sat on my shelf for a year and I finally thought our long vacation in the Maritimes would be a good time to read it.

The trip turned out to be perfect as 20,000 Leagues is extremely nautical, as are the Maritimes.  So while I was reading about a fantastical voyage through the world's oceans, I was also visiting seafaring museums, passing famous historical maritime locations and dragging my feet through beautiful tide pools of the southern Prince Edward Island shore.  You can see why Verne's books were so popular among the boys of his time and later. They are true speculative, escapist adventures, but based on what fact they had at the time and more or less reasonable theories of the way things might be.  20,000 Leagues is basically the answer to "what would it be like if we could explore the oceans of the world in an awesome submarine."  There are all kinds of cool explorations and neat little adventures.  They get stuck under the South Pole, get into a battle with giant squids.  They get to look at fantastic ranges of sealife and plants (these sections, done in that 19th century style of science that was mainly concerned with categorizing stuffs, are kind of tedious) as well as cool locations under the water.

There is a more psychological and political theme lurking under the surface of this colonialist adventure and that is Captain Nemo's fierce hatred for the rest of the world.  It frames the book, but is really only touched upon.  I wonder if some of that text is what was lost in these translations?  Ecology is also a bit of a muddle here, where sometimes Verne seems to delight in the wholesale slaughter of creatures and believes the earth's abundance is limitless and other times he laments man's excessive consumption of certain types of species.

I'm glad I've finally read some Verne.  I would like, at some point in the future, to read a proper translation of whatever is considered either his most interesting or most representative work.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

39. The Fourth Durango by Ross Thomas

This is my third Ross Thomas book now, after the masterpiece that is The Porkchoppers and the enjoyable but (for me, at least) slightly flawed The Fools in Town are on Our Side.  I'm very happy to report that while it is still not quite at the level of the Porkchoppers, The Fourth Durango is still a great read and renews my faith that future Ross Thomas books will deliver.

It's funny because for once, both the cover blurbs do a really good job of describing what you are going to get with this novel (and from what I've read Thomas's work in general).  The front cover says "a master of the arabesques of storytelling" (Washington Post) and, if I understand the word arabesque correctly, that is exactly what you get in this book.  The difficulty in describing the plot of a Ross Thomas novel is that it usually isn't delivered to the reader in its entirety until you are about halfway through the book.  He tends to go backward and forward in time, revealing more and more layers of the onion (and given the corruption and criminal histories of almost all of its characters, it definitely is a smelly, tear-inducing onion).  In the Fourth Durango, a once succesfuly state supreme court judge is released from prison after a bribing scandal that ruined him.  His lawyer and son-in-law meets him and they head to the small, forgotten coastal town of Durango, California.  There, through a complex set of shadowy connections (I believe this is an arabesque), they meet the mayor and the chief of police.  The town's economy is basically dead and the two town officials have a thing going where they hide people out for large chunks of cash, which is then pumped into town services.  The mayor has won three elections in a row.  Oh yeah, the ex-judge and his lawyer are clearly threatened due to loose ends left over from the bribery scandal that put the judge in jail in the first place.

The other blurb on the back says "Thomas' heroes are heroic without being good" (USA Today).  This holds very true in the Fourth Durango.  Nobody in Thomas' world is unaware of the corruption and realpolitik that is the reality of politics.  They all have rich backstories, which are quite often a combination of weird life twists and turns mixed with a certain toughness of character that allows them to take advantage of those twists and turns.  For instance, the mayor and the chief of police were actually part of a busload of young hippies who ran out of gas in Durango and decided to stay.  I'll let Ross Thomas fill you in on the rich and sordid details of how they got from that origin to their current positions of power.

An element that I really enjoyed in The Fourth Durango is how 80s it was.  Somehow, I considered Thomas to be more of a 60s and 70s guy and expected some of his perspective to be dated.  I probably should adjust that expectation, because this book, written in 1989, was quietly and convincingly of its time without being stuck in it.  A solid, enjoyable read for grown-ups who like their steak rare.

Monday, July 11, 2011

38. Meet Me at the Morgue by Ross MacDonald

So last week, I read a Margaret Millar book.  She is my new favourite discovery, but I feel I should give some time to her husband as well, Ross Macdonald.  I'm not quite sure how it all works today, but there was a while where Ross Macdonald was one of the biggest writers of detective fiction, often spoken of in the same breath as Raymond Chandler.  I have only read one of his books, that I can remember, and I can't remember that as well.

Meet Me at the Morgue takes place in a town a little ways north of San Diego.  The protagonist is Probation Officer Howard Cross.  He gets involved in a complex kidnapping because one of his clients, the driver for the family whose boy is taken, appears to be the kidnapper.  However, the driver was very close with the boy and the whole thing smells so Cross starts to dig deeper.  The plot is very complicated, but quite well constructed.  What I really enjoyed about the book was that Cross does some real detecting.  He just keeps poking away at people and things until a new path reveals itself and then he goes down that.  Slowly, a bigger picture starts to reveal itself, as well as Cross's competency and character.  He's quite a tough guy, presaging, I guess, Macdonald's famous Lew Archer character.  This is some hardboiled stuff and everybody is kind of flawed and rotten and California is hot and edgy and deadening.
The Neptune Hotel stood in the limbo of side streets between the neons of the business section and the dark waterfront. Its own sign, ROOM WITH BATH, $1.50, flickered and went out and came to life again like a palsied lust.
  I was actually really enjoying the straightforward language for the first third or so and feeling a bit that at times Chandler got excessive with his language, and then passages like the one above started popping up with greater frequency.  At times, it went just a teeny bit too far for my personal tastes.  Another big flaw for me was the forced love interest that develops between Cross and one of the suspects.  I felt like some editor pushed this on Macdonald (or he pushed it on his story in anticipation of the public or some editor).  It didn't ring true and was distracting.  Howard Cross, hard-boiled probation officer is just fine on his own melancholy driven self.  This diversion only took a few pages though and really doesn't damage what is a sordid, engaging tale.  This stuff is the real-deal, though, hard-edged, noir.  I'm definitely going to be reading more Ross Macdonald. 

Saturday, July 09, 2011

37. Banshee by Margaret Millar

I'm so happy to have discovered Margaret Millar.  She is a great writer with a dark side who enjoys going deep into the ugliness and weakness in people's personalities.  She isn't quite as relentlessly pessimistic as Patricia Highsmith and her explorations feel more colourful.  When she is looking at darkness, though, she really doesn't flinch, so though her style and content is more colourful, I really get the feeling they shared a very similar perspective on humanity.  It's too bad that I had to "discover" her, because in her time, she was a very popular and respected writer.  I wouldn't be surprised if she sold more books than Highsmith.  It's funny that Millar isn't getting the same kind of respect today.  She deserves a line of beautifully-designed reprints with fawning introductions.  I wonder if she had moved to Europe would she perhaps be getting the Highsmith treatment today.  Instead, she spent the last of her almost 80 years living happily with her husband Ross MacDonald (for whose success she was in a large part responsible) in Santa Barbara.  Oh yes, she is also Canadian.  So basically pretty awesome.

Banshee is the story of a young girl in a small, wealthy California community whose body is found in the forest near her house after having disappeared for several months.  The book begins with one short chapter that gives us a brief picture of the girl's life before she died, a happy one with two dogs, parents, grandfather and a maid who love her; an architecturally-designed playhouse and a big forest to explore with her older cousin.  The real story of the book begins with her funeral, where the minister, whose wavering faith was finally broken by the little girl's murder, decides to team up with her dad to finish the job the police could not.  There are two narratives here, the investigation and how all the characters around the girl are coping with her death.  There are a lot of damaged, flamboyant and weird characters in this world and some ugly relationships between them. We get to go in deep.  Part of Millar's skill was that she could really lay out a character in a subtle but satisfying way without a lot of text.  A hushed discussion between the well-groomed Mr. Cunningham and his alcoholic mother during the funeral takes two pages and uses a variety of techniques (dialogue, inner thoughts, other character's perspective on them) and the reader gets a lifetime of codependency, guilt and failed expectations.  Quite impressive!

Millar can be manipulative, but she never does it dishonestly or with trickery.  But she does parse out information in such a way that if you are trying to solve the mystery, you can start asking yourself meta-questions, like why she puts a certain piece of info about a certain character in a certain spot.  It makes the reading of the book quite enjoyable, because while you are engrossed in this rich cast of characters and wanting to learn more about their dark secrets, you are also trying to pick apart Millar's structural choices. I guess this is what makes a book like this much more of a mystery than a crime book.  Beast in View is still my favourite book of hers (and I would argue a masterpiece of psychosis), but Banshee is still really quite good and probably my next favourite so far.  Happily, I have several more of her books on my on-deck shelf!

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

36. A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

[Wow, is June ever going to look bad on my year-end graph! I was really on a tear there and then I slammed right into a brick wall known as the Grand Roludothon, a local tabletop gaming convention that was quite fun and got me all fired up for RPGs again. All the time I should have been working on my record-breaking 50 books year these last three weeks, I've been reading rich and interesting roleplaying game texts (especially in the sci-fi realm) and talking about them on the internet. It's good stuff, but I never read them from cover to cover so I can't really justify counting them in my 50 books challenge. I also was stuck on a C.S. Forester book of short stories that I thought was a novel at first. Plus, summer has come and one spends a lot more time outside, socializing and walking the neighbour's dog. So those are my excuses. Now back to your regular scheduled programming.]

I really enjoyed Shutter Island and since then have spent a lot of time keeping an eye open for Dennis Lehane's other books. I was wary, however, of his Kenzie-Genarro series. When I flipped through them, they seemed less focused somehow and more generic. I finally broke down when I found this one for a buck at the always fruitful Chainon thrift shop. Somehow in this current reading drought, its paperback best-seller design suggested to me that I wouldn't be struggling to read it and so I chose it from my now nearly full on-deck shelf to get me back on the virtuous path.

My instincts were correct in both sense. This was an enjoyable book, but not anywhere as special as Shutter Island. It reminded me very much of a lot of detective fiction that I read in the late 80s and early 90s (the Spenser books being probably the best example of that period). It was also very easy to digest and a page-turner.

The main detective is Patrick Kenzie. His partner, Angie Genarro, is hot and tough, but improbably married to an abusive husband. They both come from rough backgrounds and work in Boston. They are hired by a powerful state senator to track down an employee in another senator's office who left with some damaging material. Their investigation leads them quite quickly into the poor, black neighbourhoods of Boston and the criminal element thereof. There is a lot of pretty hardcore violence in this book, several shootouts with automatic weaponry, car chases, beatings. The story is good, with a nice range of places and characters. It lays the social issues on pretty thick. Most of the time, these critiques are woven into the narrative and descriptions, but in a few instances they become blatant and really take the story off its rails (such as when the white Kenzie and his black newspaper editor friend have a racially-charged argument; zzzzz). It was Lehane's first book, so I will forgive him. I assume things get subtler in future books.

The other slight flaw was the character of Bubba, who is sort of like the Hawk character from Spenser, except not intelligent and less central. What he is is a total simpleton badass who hates everybody except the two detectives and thus is able to protect them from any real threat for most of the book. It's a nice fantasy, but a bit too overblown in what is supposed to be a fairly realistic milieu.

But I'm nitpicking. It's an enjoyable read, fast-paced with enough intrigue and character that you definitely want to find out what happens. I'm not rushing to read the next in the series, but if they fall in my lap, I will not say no.