Tuesday, May 29, 2012

41. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

There is something about being in the Bay Area that really brings out the nerd in me.  Ever since I've gotten here, I've wanted to read more and more sci-fi and possibly even fantasy.  Given a choice, I will generally lean towards crime or action over sci-fi.  But in the last week or two, I've been scouring the local used bookstores, as well as the two excellent sci-fi and fantasy bookstores (Dark Carnival and The Other Change of Hobbit) and feeling the desire more and more to delve into other worlds and concepts.  This desire has gotten me to thinking about the Bay Area and the west coast in general.  I think this is a very sci-fi part of the world.  First of all, California really feels like "planet earth", in the sense that you can often see the moon in the middle of the day (reminding you that you live on a planet floating in space) the plants are weirdly alien and that many (probably most) sci-fi movies and television shows were shot in California (Star Trek, Planet of the Apes).  Second, California and the Bay Area in particular is the rich center of nerd history.  And it makes sense if you think about it.  It's the west, where first settlers came, people who were brave and curious and wanted (or needed) somewhere new to live.  It's also the point where many of the GIs shipped off to the Second World War and, coming back, decided they liked it here.  Think of what a lot of those guys reading material was back then, manly adventure and sci-fi stuff.  Plus, a lot of them were engineers, who are interested in gadgets and building cool stuff.  I don't know, could be all a bunch of hoo-haa but I'm going to take advantage of it while the spirit is in me and get some good classic sci-fi reading done.

I believe that Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness is a pretty classic piece of sci-fi literature.  Having stayed up late to finish the last 100 pages last night, I would have to agree and add that it is also a cracking good adventure story (at least the second half which is basically a gripping 800-mile trek through an ice planet's freezing northern pole).  I guess, other than a few short stories, this is the only book that takes place in the Ekumen universe.  It's a shame, because it is such a rich concept for a series (so says the guy always complaining about excessive trilogies and series).  The Ekumen represent a loose federation of planets.  Their mission is to find other planets with sentient life and to ask them to join them.  Their mandate is non-aggressive, mainly managing communications, fostering trade and organizing data (services which are much needed where ideas can be shared much easier than actual stuff due to the time involved in travel).  They first send investigators who study the planet in secret.  When they decide it has potential, they send a single Envoy, whose job it is to find the best way to approach the polity (or polities) of the planet and make the Ekumen's offer.  Obviously, this is quite complicated and potentially dangerous in practice. 

In this case, the planet is Gethen or Winter and it is basically a frozen planet with a ring of civilization around its equator.  The people are hardy, stolid and have a very different method of reproduction than us.  They are basically asexual except for a period of a week where they go into kemmer, become sexually active and then either take a male or female form (not quite sure how they decide this) and get it on.  What's interesting sociologically, from the Envoy's perspective, is that because of this set-up, sex is not really present in Gethenian culture.  They get right into it when it is the kemmer, but the rest of the time, because there are no genders, no sexual hierarchy and no sexual frustration or dominance, it makes for a very different society.  The other factor is the cold.  Everybody is fighting to survive and if you transgress, punishment is to be exiled and turned away, which almost always means death in the cold.

So you can see how in 1969 when this book was released, it caused a bit of a stir.  I imagine it was probably an exciting read for a lot of young nerds not sure about their own gender preferences.  What I really enjoyed about it in today's post-feminist environment was how reasonably and thoughtfully LeGuin addresses the subject.  This to me is where science fiction is the best.  She isn't telling us what should be or what is good, simply what is (and she goes into this in an annoyingly cutesy 1976 introduction).  By maintaining an outsider's perspective (that of the Envoy) as well as creating a richly-imagined, logically-consistent world, she gets us to question our own perspectives and beliefs most effectively.  It's very elegantly done.

Though the gender theme is what made this book famous, I think it is actually much more of a story of a friendship and about two people from very different cultures trying to bridge the differences between them.  The overarching storyline is about the Envoy trying to make his way among the machinations of the governments of Gethen, almost the entire second half of the book follows the Envoy and a disgraced politician as they make an epic journey across the planet's icefields.  It's a thrilling outdoor adventure, especially cool because they do have some great tech with them, but it is still a harrowing, survivalist affair.  It is also about the two people (one is a man and the other a Gethenian) coming to understand each other and becoming friends.  It's quite touching.

So in short, super cool book and deserved sci-fi classic.  I note also the LeGuin was born in Berkeley!

40. Look Back in Anger by John Osbourne

This is the play that really started the whole Angry Young Men movement that took place in Britain in the 50s and brought us such classic movies as This Sporting Life, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (also known as Kitchen Sink cinema).  This is the story of a couple and their friend who all live on a small working class flat.  The husband, Jimmy, is lively, intelligent and bitter with resentment to the point that he is almost constantly abusive to his upper-class wife (who married him against her parents's wishes).  They live with a third friend, Cliff, who is a simpler, calmer soul and puts up with Jimmy's tirades against the upper classes, society in general, Alison, her family, her friends.

As a stand-alone story or theatre piece, I wasn't really sure what to make of it.  In context, with my limited knowledge of the period and the books and films that came out of it, I get what is being conveyed here.  This play launched a new voice and a new representation of what England was going through at the time and it caused a lot of controversy.  But by itself, it did seem just kind of depressing.  The guy is such a jerk!  I mean, I get his frustration and the shittiness of the system and the culture in Great Britain back then.  But he has an attractive wife who irons and makes tea and all he can do is shit on her because her parents are socially uptight.  I guess that's just my modern perspective speaking.  There is also a strange element where Jimmy is constantly railing against the rich and is a total jerk, but of course gets the hot upper class babe and then gets her friend as well.  And once he gets them, all they do is iron and make tea and try and understand and tolerate why he is treating them like shit all the time.  The 50's - they were bugging.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

39. The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard

Once again, my expectations are surpassed.  I picked this book up for a quarter against my better judgement.  I was a bit burned out on Ballard at that point and I am always reluctant to read an entire book of short stories.  I planned to read stories from this one in between other books I read, which I mostly did.  But the first story was so cool that I kept going and ended up reading these in chunks of stories between other books.  There were a couple of false starts here, but most of the stories were really cool, either dark and quite disturbing or mind-blowing in the concepts Ballard presents (and often both together). 

What was also cool about this was that it demonstrated that Ballard really does have quite a range.  He has such a powerful voice and often has repeated themes across his works that I got sort of too used to him and the last few books of his that I read all kind of felt the same.  Reading these stories reminded me that he can do introspective psychological fiction as well as big-picture high-concept sci-fi.  I'll describe just a few so you can see the diversity.

The first story, Storm-bird, Storm-dreamer, is very classic Ballardian post-apocalyptic, about a guy in some wasteland england where the birds started to grow to be huge and a menace.  All he does is fight them off and stare at this weird lady who is out collecting something from their bones.  As you can see, a lot of similar ideas from his PA quartet, but the descriptions of the giant birds and their dead bodies are pretty astounding.

The second story, The Concentration City, takes place in some human civilization that seems very much like earth until you realize that non-space is infinite, meaning that space exists only as it is carved out of the rock that surrounds everything.  The "planet" is a huge, possibly endless city, divided up into districts in the millions.

The third, The Subliminal Man, is an absolutely terrifying vision of a hyper-consumist future where everyone is kept ragged buying the latest consumer item, replacing their TVs, radios, cookers etc. every few months.  It reminded me a lot of Frederik Pohl's The Midas Touch from Spectrum I .

As you can see, quite a mix of interesting speculative ideas, executed with typical and effective Ballardian unease.  In some ways, these stories might be a better introduction to his work as in large doses he can be a bit depressing.  I'm quite glad I read these.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

38. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

My brother-in-law discovered this interesting little crossover of post-apocalyptic and high literature and gave it to me for xmas.  It was a really interesting, though at times challenging read.  The book is written by Riddley Walker, who is a 12-year old boy in a post-nuclear Britain.  Though he is 12, he is basically a man and the book starts with his father getting crushed to death by some machine they were digging out of the mud.  Society has regressed to a world of fenced in villages with a mix of limited agriculture and mining for iron, which means digging old dead machines out of the ground.

The whole book is written by Riddley, in his voice and language, which is a devolved, phonetic english.  At first, it's tough to figure out even what the hell he is talking about, but after a while, you start to slowly pick up meaning (by context and hearing the sounds in your head and sometimes by Riddley explaining things).  On top of that, this primitive world has developed its own complex worldview, religion and history that the reader has to pick apart like an anthropologist.  This special language, plus the truly grim and hardscrabble lives these people lead reminded me of Cormac McCarthy at least in the feeling I got when reading it.  What Hoban is going for here, though is much more ambitious and complex than The Road.  It is also the part that made it a bit challenging.

There are various higher-up roles in the society here, including two men who go around from town to town and do a puppet show.  They are more like religious figures and the puppet show is an opaque parable that requires interpretation, which everybody seems to be doing.  Given the state of affairs, these are an amazingly introspective and philosophical people.  Maybe you have to be when your ancestors almost destroyed the world and left you in the mud.  There is a "connexion man" in each village whose job it is after the puppet show to share with the rest of the village a thought or idea. Riddley Walker's dad was the connexion man but when he dies, Riddley takes over and that's when things start getting weird for him.  He soon finds himself on a path that will change their society for ever as well as force him into new levels of introspection and understanding.

That was where the book bogged down for me.  There were pages and pages of Riddley thinking things through, trying to figure out how his mythology jibes with what is going on around him and the new mythology he learns.  It's all quite cleverly done and if you enjoy that sort of philosophical/anthropological mind puzzle, you will probably really get into this book.  It is probably the most succesful PA book that I've read that really seemed to capture realistically what might happen to human culture and language in such a situation.  The philosophizing parts just went on a bit too long for my simple, narrative-addicted mind.  I would say that if you are a student of the PA genre, you have to add this to your list for sure.

Friday, May 18, 2012

37. The Man who Killed Houdini by Don Bell

Don Bell was a chronicler of Montreal and a bookseller.  He had a regular column, I believe, for a while in a weekly and he wrote "Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory" which is a collection of short stories capturing places and people in Montreal back in the 60s.  He is also my mother's cousin, part of the big Belitzky clan that came over at the turn of the century (the one before the last one) with the rest of the Jewish diaspora from eastern Europe.  Their stories and myths that I heard as a child were a lot of the reason I was so drawn to Montreal and ended up moving here.

The Man who Killed Houdini was his last book and published posthumously by the valuable Vehicule Press.  I have had it since its launch, started it but got kind of bogged down in the middle.  The premise is excellent.  Houdini was killed in Montreal, after a performance at McGill, punched in the stomach by a student.  Most people know this story, but as Bell discovered, the actual information on the incident and the participants is very scarce.  He set out to find out who was the man who delivered the punch and what happened to him.

As others have said, it does tend to meander in the middle. Bell takes us on the exhaustive journey he took trying to track down anyone who had any connection with the incident and the people.  At times, it gets so far afield from the original quest that the reader feels a bit lost and not so interested.  But I'm glad I stuck with it, because he pulls it back again and though there is no definitive solution, you learn a lot about what actually happened and the man who did actually kill Harry Houdini.  It's a fascinating and real story of the complexities of human existence and reality.  J. Gordon Whitehead was his name and he ended up dying of malnutrition living on his own in a downtown apartment where he had allowed nobody else to enter for decades.  Yet he had started off as an athletic, intelligent and interested person.  What had happened to him?  How did his life end up this way?  Was it connected to Houdini's death?

The journey of research and exploration also tells another story, that of the strands of immigration and human history connected to the english speaking community in Montreal.  It's a rich tapestry and justifies the meandering in the middle chapters.  This is the kind of book that may make you think twice about the weird old neighbour that freaked you out as a child.  Who was he as a young man and what was his story?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

36. River of Gods by Ian McDonald

I'm really surprised that this book and Ian McDonald himself only came upon my radar recently (that was thank's to Pechorin's Journal).  I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, but I keep my ears open and I really should have heard about this book. It's probably the best new science fiction novel I've read since the Cryptonomicon.  An engrossing, at times thrilling, thoroughly satisfying near future epic that mixes the good and bad of technological development with social and political issues that resonate very much with the present.  River of Gods takes place in India in the year 2047, the 100th year of its independence.  Except India is now divided up into several smaller nations after a civil war that is never fully detailed.  Bharati is one of those new nations and it has become a haven for certain higher-level artificial intelligences after they were outlawed by the U.S. government.  There is a wide cast of characters and the book is structured through them, with each chapter until the end being devoted to each character.  As their stories converge, the greater narrative starts to reveal itself, which I won't reveal but just say that this work is definitely a descendant of Neuromancer.

It's very well written, the kind of science fiction book where you feel a bit worried at the beginning that you are not going to be able to figure out what is going on.  It's not just the passing references to new technology that is taken for granted by the characters, but also the use of a lot of Indian cultural references and language.  However, you become quickly immersed in the world as the characters and whatever the hell they are up to become interesting.  And what a great cast of characters.  Standouts were Nandha the detective whose job it is to hunt down and "excommunicate" rogue AI's with his gun that uses avatars of various Hindu gods and goddesses to do its work and Taj the "nute" a person who has augmented their body so that they no longer have a gender.  The world, too, is just awesome. What I enjoyed about it was that it had a nice mix of optimistic and pessimistic about the future. Climate change is real (one of the serious problems for the nation is the lateness of the monsoon), but there are also many believable options of renewable energy.  So you get lots of neat little instances of day-to-day technology that are the kind of little candies nerds like me love to read about.  But it's all mixed up in a very rich, busy, diverse economy and society where there are still tons of poor people who follow their age-old traditions.  It makes for a very neat mix. 

Ultimately, I can't say that this is a work of art.  It is so well-crafted and slick that it almost felt like it lacked a teeny bit of soul.  I think that is a mean thing to say and probably inaccurate, because I don't think it was created in any way from a cynical motivation.  It just all went down so smoothly for me, like a top-notch summer blockbuster with actual intelligence behind it. I kind of knew how it was all going to go down and nothing in the end blew my mind or touched my own soul (the way Neuromancer did, for instance, though I was 15 when I first read it).  However, I still frickin' loved every page of it and could barely stop reading it at night.  Check it out.

35. The Green Eagle Score by Richard Stark

I just realized about a month ago that I have delayed for quite a while my ongoing re-read of the Parker books.  The reason is that I have been systematically going through my on-deck shelf from left to right and they are ordered by size, smallest on the left and biggest on the right.  I have a preponderance of traditional paperbacks and the new Parkers are in that larger "trade" paperback format.  I normally try to read a new Parker once every 3 or 4 months, as my wife has created a tradition of getting me 3 or 4 new ones from the U of C reprint library for my birthday every year.  So basically, I have a bit of catching up to do and it starts with the masterpiece that is the Green Eagle Score.

How many masterpieces are there in the Parker series?!  Christ, I'd forgotten how great The Green Eagle Score is.  It has vaulted into my top 5, possibly top 3 of the series.  I'm going to need to sit down and think about how it ranks, but there is no doubt that this is one of the good ones.  The heist is just great, the characters rich, the antagonist deliciously hateful, the Alma also hateful and maddening and the little insights into Parker's character are crucial as well.

The setup here is that Parker gets an invitation to participate in an audacious job in upstate New York to hit an air force base and rip off their payroll.  The touch comes from Marty Fusco, an old colleague who got sent up.  When he gets out, he finds his ex-wife shacking up with a young dude called Stan Devers.  It is Devers who points out the job to Fusco.  Parker is skeptical at first (as usual), but with some scouting starts to warm to the job.


Almost every book in the Parker books has two elements, that I refer to as the Mal and the Alma.  The Mal is the antagonist, the person or group that you as the reader just really hate and can't wait for Parker to fuck up.  Often, it is the Outfit.  It can be a wide range of other characters as well (such as the sheriff in The Jugger).  They are an interesting character to look at, because they give insight into who Parker is and some of the themes that Westlake addresses in the series.  The Alma is the lame character whose emotional weakness spells disaster for the heist.  You always hate them for being so lame, but you also understand that they are weak losers who can't help themselves, unlike the Mals who deliberately choose to cause trouble.

In the Green Eagle Score, the Mal comes from a suprising source.  It's the psychiatrist who is treating Fusco's ex (and Devers' current), Ellen (who is herself quite clearly the Alma here).  She is a messed up individual, with all kinds of fears and insecurities and to help herself, she is in analysis.  It is there that she begins to talk about the planning of the heist, as much of it takes place in her home (and is a source for a lot of her anxieties, reasonably so as her last husband went up because of such an undertaking).  What makes this book so delicious is the slow way that Westlake reveals to the reader that the psychiatrist may be interested in the heist itself.  I really wish I was reading this for the first time or had my mind wiped, so it would come as a surprise to me at what point I would realize that the psychiatrist was fishing around.

His role is a fascinating one.  Often, I feel that in the Parker books, Westlake is taking a shot at certain segments of society.  He hates middle-men, people who control and make decisions without doing any real work.  In many ways, Parker is a true working class hero.  Here, the psychiatrist plays a similar role in that he isn't doing any real work.  He waits and listens and plans to take advantage of other people's labour.  Is that the ultimate sin in Parker's world?  And I wonder how much of a shot is Westlake taking at the practice of psychiatry in general?

There are also a couple of other really cool moments.  I love the introduction of Kengle, one of the heisters who is going to be brought on to help with the job. Westlake spends the better part of a chapter describing the struggles this guy is going through since he got out of jail, trying to sell encyclopedias door-to-door, living in a fleabag hotel.  Then he gets a phone call.
The voice said, "Jake?"
Kengle recognized it, and a heavy weight seemed to lift off his back.
So great!  In some ways, this moment encapsulates why we read these books in the first place.  Westlake takes us into Parker's world and takes the heavy weight of mundanity and the straight world off our back for a moment where rulebreakers are the ones in the right.

Finally, Ellen speaking to the psychiatrist becomes a vehicle through which Westlake can explore the Parker character.  When probed about her fear of him by the psychiatrist, she says:
He's cold and ruthless and he doesn't care about anybody, but that's because he cares about things. Not even the money, I don't think. It's the plan that really matters to him. I think the thing that counts is doing it and having it come out right.
 Again, I think this plays into the notion of Parker as a working class hero.  What is important to him is the job, how well it is done and that it is completed correctly.  He is always fighting against individuals and groups who are either incompetent for a variety of reasons or want to take advantage of his hard work.  The target here, the Air Force, is portrayed as being basically pretty useless, just a lot of bureaucrats with nothing to do but keep each other busy uselessly now that there is no actual war on.  It's ironic that Parker is a criminal, all of whose hard work is done outside the law, but he seems to be someone with a profoundly protestant working principle. 

The way the book ends is just perfect.  Perhaps this little quote captures perfectly Parker and his world (and is a good lesson for us all):

Devers said, "Thanks. This isn't the way I had it planned, but what the hell."
"That's right," Parker said.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

34. The Crime on Cote des Neiges by David Montrose

  This is the second in the Ricochet line of books put out by Vehicule Press reprinting some classic old crime paperbacks from Montreal from the 1950s.  This edition has a forward by Brian Busby, Canadian publishing history expert (and sometime commenter here).  I can't say again how much I appreciate the work of Vehicule press in putting together this collection.  These books are cool in and of themselves, but they also represent a thin slice of Canadian culture that would have otherwise disappeared.

This second book is just as convoluted a mystery as the first (I say "second", but I'm not actually sure of the order; it's the second one I've read), however it starts out in a much more straitforward manner.  This time, instead of an omniscient opening, everything is seen through the eyes of private detective Russel Teed.  It's pretty classic private eye stuff.  He is invited up to the house of a wealthy woman and given the case of finding out if her daughter's now disappeared husband had a secret first wife.  This leads him to one then two than many more murders and a complex case involving the heroin racket, past sins and gang subterfuge.  I felt very similar about this book as I did Murder over Dorval.  It was enjoyable, but a bit too convoluted.  After about the third twist, I did appreciate the cleverness that Montrose must have summoned to make it all work but I didn't really care all that much.  Sometimes the writing was really great and other times forced. It is a time capsule of Montreal when it was a great, roaring city, but it really only feels like a time capsule of Westmount. It's amazing how much of this city was able to be ignored by the english-speaking minority at the time.  Even the rare uses of actual french are highly questionable (though he does write a great french-canadian accent).  It made me think of a book from a few years later, The Stringer, which is in many ways quite similar (the underbelly of Montreal, everyone is drinking all the time), but took into account all of Montreal, even if it was seen from the eyes of an anglo.  I guess this is just another example of the two solitudes.

One minor nitpick about this reprint is that the colours on the cover are off.  As you can see compared to the original, the black is so dark that the chair has almost disappeared (this isn't just an artifact of the web, it looks like that in real life) and the softness of the blue and yellow in the original become a harsh yellow in the reprint and it looks a bit cartoonish.  But a minor nitpick for what is a very commendable effort that you should all invest in.

Monday, May 14, 2012

33. The Happy Return by C.S. Forester

I found this beautiful paperback at S. Welch's and finally got through to it on my long (but shortening) on-deck shelf.  It turns out this is the first of the Horatio Hornblower books (and the fourth chronologically).  It's neat, because it isn't obvious that this is the first book in the series.  A lot of references are made to Hornblower's younger days and one might think (as I indeed did while reading it) that those references were to actual events in previous books (which they may well be).  So far, I've read Commodore Hornblower and Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies.  This one is possibly my favourite.  I found the story straightforward as well as the historical context around it, so I could just enjoy it for what it was without trying to figure out what the hell was going on.  It delivers on all the great characterization, locations, intrigue and sea battles that makes this series so well-loved.

In it, Hornblower is sent with a frigate on a secret mission to Central America where he is to aid a local baron and landowner in his efforts to foment revolution against the Spanish government.  When he gets there, he finds that this baron has turned into an insane and cruel cult leader, who calls himself "El Supremo".  Hornblower, trapped between the reality of the situation at hand and the political exigencies of his masters far away, is faced with moral and strategic quandaries that would best even the most capable of leaders.  On top of all this, he has to take on a passenger, the lovely and well-connected Lady Barbara Wellesley.  Forester serves up a delicious stew of everything the fan of adventure on the high seas could ask for plus a big dollop of romance.  This is great stuff and further cementing my appreciation of this series.

Monday, May 07, 2012

32. Serenade by James M. Cain

This book has been sitting on my shelf for almost two decades.  A guy lent it to me at the first job I had out of college.  He stressed repeatedly how he wanted it back and then proceeded to question me daily on if I had read it yet or not.  Of course, I ended up not reading it and not returning it to him. I feel kind of bad about it, which is why it has stayed with me all these years.  I finally got to it on my on-deck shelf and wasn't entirely sure that it truly was the copy I had borrowed back in the day.  But sure enough I found my old business card in it (possibly the first of my career).  So if you are out there, Paul (I think that was the name), I've still got your copy of Serenade and will gladly mail it to you.

And now on to the book.  Cain was very successful as a writer in Hollywood (he did The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity) and this was one of his later books.  It's the first of his I have ever read.  It's the story of a down and out singer, John Howard Shore, in Mexico who meets a beautiful native prostitute in a bar and steals her away on a whim from the toreador she was with.  They decide to open up a brothel together, but on their way to Acapulco they get stuck in a church together during a long rainstorm and end up getting it on.   Somehow, this repairs his voice (we learn as the narrative goes on that he was at the top of the game until his voice stopped working due to some unspoken traumatic event in Paris and he fell and kept falling until he ended up broke in Mexico) and he changes his plans and decides to return to America, with the girl and get his career going.

In order to discuss this book, I have to give away some of the stuff that happens.  In fact, I already have as the narration is continuous and steady so that you don't really know what the main premise of the book is going to be until you are well into it.  So be warned, spoilers here.

He is truly talented and his renewed voice, after some struggling, indeed takes him back to the top.  He gets a regular radio show with a good sponsor, a couple of movie deals and then finally onto Carnegie Hall.  Back in New York, he meets that guy who was his bandleader and inspiration before he cracked up.  It seems like it should be a good reunion, but Shore is super edgy about the whole thing.  The guy, Winston, is super wealthy and obsessed with music and quickly insinuates himself back into Shore's life and career.  For reasons that don't get revealed right away, Shore hides Winston's existence from his Mexican wife.  When they do meet, she totally freaks out and then it all comes out in the wash.  Perhaps it was more obvious for audiences of 1937 when this was written, but I never would have guessed that the whole thing was because Shore had gay feelings for Winston.  Somehow, the gayness made his voice stop working.  He had to get it on with the hot indian mexican earth mama to get it back.  This revelation is well into the book, but there is still a climax  to be played out (which spoiler alert is portrayed on the super '80s photographic colour-tinted re-enactment cover of the edition I have). 

Serenade is quite odd.  I can't tell if Serenade is an advanced cultural critique of homophobia or simply a reflection of the simplistic cultural homophobia of the time. I believe that it was banned in many places when it did come out.  I can't say I loved the book.  There is a lot of talk about music in it that I found pretty boring, because I don't like writing about music in general and I am pretty ignorant about both classical music and what was popular music at that time.  At times, it went a bit too far (like when Juana produces her breast for him to suck on as if it was restoring his heterosexuality) but overall it's an interesting read with some pretty ripe, rich stuff going on.  My guess is that I will prefer his more straight-up noir thrillers.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

31. Bang for a Buck by Catherine Roman

Here is an odd little find, picked up for a buck itself (possibly less) at S.W. Welch's annual sidewalk sale.  It was the canlit, in particular the seamy underbelly of 80s and 90s Canada that intrigued me and Bang for a Buck didn't disappoint. It's the autobiography of a pretty wild woman who led a pretty wild life.  Her story is amazing, as are the situations and people she encounters along the way.  It's bizarrely written, though.  The entire book is so full of one-time idioms, unique turns of phrases and random references that it almost becomes like a stream of consciousness poem.  At times, it's even hard to understand specifically what she is talking about.  That's the thing, most of the book is narrative and the story just keeps charging ahead, so despite the excessive language, I had no trouble turning the pages.  By the end, I found myself somewhat caught up in her style, sympathetic to her and quite possibly understanding a bit of her inner psyche, which is I guess one of the end goals of poetry.  However, at times it was just too much, like she didn't have the confidence to simply tell the story.

And what a story.  This woman lived through a lot.  She started out in rural Ontario, starting out with a semi-functional nuclear family but eventually getting bumped from relative to relative, many of whom were already a part of the criminal element.  She just starts to get in to worse and worse situations, at least from society's perspective, finally ending up as a prostitute in a rural, mobile brothel up north.  While she gets beaten, sexually assaulted, kidnapped and constantly harassed, much of her life seems more like an adventure to her (and her real life) than some descent into badness.  There are some truly horrific situations, including getting kidnapped by this psycho french-canadian in the employ of the RCMP, where she is locked in his north Montreal house and forced to play shut-in wife and victim to his weird sex games.  Very scary.

It's hard to know what drives her.  I think a psychologist would recognize symptoms of mental dysfunction in her, both from abuse as a child possibly just innate.  The book ends without any real resolution, except perhaps that she has moved into a new stage of her life (though that is only hinted at).  She's only in her early-20s by the end and one must imagine that she got her life together enough to be able to write a book and get it published.  I'd be curious if today she is living a more stable life.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

30. The Doomsters by Ross MacDonald

True to my promise to read more Ross MacDonald, I picked up this early Lew Archer novel (the cover is painfully, stupidly '70s but the book was actually originally published in 1958.  In this one, Archer is woken up by a strapping, well-spoken young man who has snuck into his garage way too early in the morning.  He turns out to be an escapee from the loony bin, with a story to tell about an evil doctor who had him put away.  Archer feels some pity for him but tries to convince him to go back to the institution.  On the driver there, Archer learns that he is from a fairly wealthy family from the agricultural town of Purissima, that his father was a senator and that his brother and wife are conniving to take his share.  It's hard to know how much of it is true, as the kid is pretty wound up and does indeed seem a bit crazy.  At the last moment, just before the gates of the institution, he jumps Archer, knocking him out and stealing his car.

Archer gets involved, driven by sympathy for the young man and some belief that he wasn't entirely wrong in is suspicions.  The reader is introduced to another broken, twisted, hateful California family and the corrupt town that grew up around them.  It's a dark, sordid journey that also goes deep into Lew Archer's own psyche (the reason the young man came to him was because he had escaped with a heroin addict who used to be a protege of Archer's).  MacDonald sometimes tries a bit too hard with the psychologizing and the moralizing, but it's all in aid of a good story and a nasty expose of nasty people.  The bodies really pile up in this one, too!  Good stuff.