Sunday, April 29, 2012

29. Special Deliverance by Alexander Fullerton

Normally, I do not pick up action books that seem to be to military in their nature.  I do enjoy reading about war and the exploits of men and women in war.  But there is a point where a book can become to war-nerdy, with an emphasis on equipment and procedure and very little intrigue or human interaction.  So I was a bit reluctant to purchase this book. But the cool cover and its taking place during the Falklands Islands War—a little piece of history that I could do to learn more about—turned the table.

I'm glad I did, because while this book did have a lot of war stuff, especially sections on the boat where there was just way too much jargon, it was, as they say, a cracking read.  The main character is Andy McEwan, a civilian who gets dragged along on a commando mission in the Falklands to secretly disable a stockpile of missiles that are proving to be quite deadly to the British ships.  McEwan is brought along because the missile base is not far from his family land, where he himself grew up.  He's the perfect insider to help the elite SBS (Special Boat Service, bad ass commandos who deal specially with water and water craft), even though he is estranged from his older brother who runs the farm and who, as we learn later, is a high-ranking officer with the Argentine army.  Even worse, he is married to the woman Andy still has a hankering for.  

So there is lots of human interest stuff along side the military action.  Though the periods on the ship were a bit dull for me, the commando sections were really cool.  These guys are all about getting in and getting out without anybody knowing, even though they could kick everyone's ass if they had to.  They are experts in building hides, camouflaged hidey-holes where they spy on their target.  This book has one of the more exciting scenes of guys sneaking into a compound that I have read in a while. It's the kind of incomplete sentence action writing that doesn't always work for me, but worked splendidly here.  Just super cool with them scaling a barb wire fence in a specific order, one guy covering the barbs so the others can climb over him faster. 

The other thing I enjoyed about this book was that it gave me a new perspective on the Falklands War.  That went down when I was in grade 7 and our teacher had us all bring in clippings about it as a way to teach us how to pay attention to current affairs.  I remember the attitudes at the time being generally strongly anti-British.  They were portrayed as sabre-rattling aggressors in a useless war, not unlike the U.S.'s later invastion of Grenada.  Now Fullerton's book is not jingoistic, but it is certainly pro-British.  However, I did not know at the time that the Argentine government was a military junta, with a history of atrocities, who was using the war as a way to distract their rebelling society from an ongoing economic crisis.  In fact, their loss of the war led to the junta collapsing and Argentina setting up a democratic structure that is in existence today.  Thatcher and her cronies were certainly no good guys and their ushering in of the neo-con shitfest we are struggling through today (the long-term effort to move money from the public to the private realm) was majorly bad.  But despite that, it can perhaps be historically seen that the Falklands War was a good strategic move for the world.  

It looks like Fullerton has written quite a lot.  I will look a bit more into his oeuvre for sure.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

28. Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harry Wheeler

Fail-Safe was a big bestseller during the cold war and one of those books, I believe that everyone was talking about at the time.  The theme is one film buffs will know well from classics like war Games and Dr. Strangelove: out automated weapon systems accidently trigger an attack that will lead us into nuclear oblivion.  Fail-Safe is deadly serious, though, and thoroughly researched.  It all takes place at the very top, with the president, all the top military brass and a few other stragglers as the large cast of characters.

Fail-Safe is the concept where if no action is taken, a thing will return to its safe state.  In this case, there is a fail-safe point where nuclear bombers will automatically turn around unless they get a specific command to go ahead and continue the attack.  In this case, due to a combination of factors (including an equipment malfunction, but not just that) one bomber group scrambling to what was a false alarm, does receive the go-ahead order and continues on its path to Moscow, with enough nuclear power to destroy the city entirely.

The rest of the book is everybody trying to stop it and the president (who is Kennedy, though his name is never mentioned, seen through the eyes of his expert translator) trying to convince Kruschev that the attack is erroneous.  If you think it through, and the book does, you can see the issues at stake.  How do you convince your enemy not to retaliate when you are just about to destroy their most important city?  The problem with the retaliation is that it will touch off a nuclear exchange that would basically destroy the world.

It's a gripping book, with great characters and a pretty intense outcome.  The portrayal of Kennedy was neat, making him seem like the coolest guy, a super badass with a profound humanitarian viewpoint on the world.  This probably represented a political bias of the authors, but whether it is accurate or not, it doesn't get in the way of the delivery of the problems of nuclear stalemate that depends on systems more complex than man.  It's funny, though, based on the foreward, it seems that these authors were convinced an accident will happen.  It never did and I wonder why that is.  How did we hold out long enough so that the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own ideology? Was it just luck?  Did our systems get better?  It would be interesting to know more.

Bonus, check out this topical promotion at the end of the book (click to make big enough to read):

A fine example of the propaganda front during the Cold War

Friday, April 20, 2012

27. Spectrum I edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest

This was the first in the Spectrum series that Kingsley Amis edited.  Though it was published in 1961, most of the stories come from the late 40s and early 50s.  It was a mixed bag.  I really love Amis' spirited defense of (and attack for) science fiction.  There were even more ignorant "literary critics" back then in relation to genre fiction than there are today and Amis must be credited as one of the first people to really go directly at them, especially in the UK.  I don't know who Robert Conquest is, but I should probably give him credit as well, as he co-wrote the intro with Amis and was the co-editor (and it is implied that they had some differences of opinion).  [edit to add that I did a bit of internet research and learned that Conquest was a well-respected Russian historian and poet and wrote two sci-fi novels as well, but—big surprise—the sci fi novels are barely mentioned and though his friendship with Amis is, there is nowhere I can find in any of his biographies the info that he edited several of these Spectrums, even in the Wikipedia!  Astounding.]

The problem is that it could be argued that a lot of these stories fell into some of the very criticisms levied against science fiction (Amis admits this as much).  They are often about the exploration of a concept rather than a good story.  There are a couple of really good reads though.  The best story (in terms of actual narrative) is John Berryman's Special Flightabout a freight ship making a standard, but in this case a rushed and unplanned emergency trip to the moon.  It's really quite a tense story, but focuses so much on the technical aspects.  It was written in '39, which is kind of amazing, and was probably really exciting to engineers who understood air flight and loved to speculate about how that would operate in space.  There is also a hilarious Robert Sheckley story about an offworlder who comes to earth to find love.  Another great concept was from Frederik Pohl's the Midas Touch about a future society where consumption and poverty were reversed and the lower down on the social and economic scale you were, the more you had to consume, with ration books and everything.  Very prescient, given the obese state of our lower classes today.

So all in all a mixed bag with some gems here and there.  But overall, this book gives you a feeling of the positive and imaginative spirit of those early sci-fi writers.  These people are enjoying themselves and so are their readers.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

26. Death Wish by Brian Garfield

The finding and reading of the original Death Wish novel was another interesting and rewarding experience in the used book world.  I had always had a slight distaste for the movie, having been raised in a liberal household in the 70s and 80s.  It represented a racist, right-wing attitude that we were supposed to frown upon.  This attitude was reinforced one afternoon in grade 9 when me and a couple buddies went to the local video store and they were playing one of the Death Wish sequels on the television.  It was the initial attack and rape scene and I still remember standing there watching it while chewing a Wunderbar and feeling profoundly disgusted and horrified while tasting this nougaty sugary chocolate go all nasty in my mouth.  Did not eat a Wunderbar since then.

However, now that I'm older and harder (and a fan and student of publications like Cinema Sewer), I have recently been curious about actually watching the Death Wish series (or at least the first one) and since I have discovered Brian Garfield and learned that he was a poker buddy of Donald Westlake, I definitely wanted to read the novel.

The book is very different than the movie, I suspect, in tone and theme.  This is not a revenge fantasy.  Death Wish the novel is an exploration of the mind of an urban liberal when it is pushed to a breaking point due to a crisis that conflicts with everything it believed in.  There is no gratuitous satisfaction or cathartic revenge in the protagonist's killings.  The attack on his wife and daughter takes place offscreen (and is in some ways that much more disturbing and horrific for all the question marks surrounding it).  Most of the book is concerned with his state of mind and the thought process that leads him to his vigilante actions.  The climax of the book may be Paul Benjamin reading an interview with a psychiatrist in New York magazine about the vigilante killings, where the psychiatrist quite accurately conjectures who the vigilante is and what may be driving him.

I learned that Garfield wrote a sequel called Death Sentence, which was his response to the movie and the reaction it got.  Ironically, that got made into a movie recently starring Kevin Bacon that was supposed to be quite bad. Don't know about its position on vigilantism, but I guess I may have to check it out as well.  Pulp serenade has a good post about Death Wish and Garfield's reasons for writing it.

What I found most compelling about Death Wish was the way New York City is portrayed.  I have friends who grew up there back in those dark days and they did say it was rough, but this book makes it seem almost like a dark apocalyptic future where enclaves (or ghettoes as Paul Benjamin bitterly compares them to at one point) of upper middle class people huddle together, surrounded by dark streets full of junkies and killers.  It's depressing, especially coming after the random and senseless attack on Paul's family.  It sort of gets to you as a reader.

It's a historically important book and a good read.  Check it out.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

25. The Takeover by Richard Wormser

I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I have somehow managed to hit the 50 books halfway mark before a third of the year is over.  It's odd because I had such a slow start.  I guess it's a testament to just keeping plugging away.  I was quite concerned about the double row of books on my on-deck shelf at the beginning of the year, but now I have made a decent dent in it, while remaing so far quite disciplined about not buying any new books.  If I can hold off for the next three months in California and keep up this reading pace, I should be in good shape for the rest of the year.

Memory is shakey, but I believe The Takeover is also from the now legendary Maritimes trip.  You'll notice how similar the typeface and layout is to The War of the Dons and the more blatant "from the publishers of the Godfather" both mark this as being a Fawecett book published in the wave of the Godfather craze. I guess I should read the book that started it all one of these days.

Howeever, though this is a book about corruption, the mafia only play a tangential role.  The story here is about Jerry, the city marshall and the small group of men with whom he works who basically control a city and by extension the midwestern state it is in.  They have converted the boilerroom of the city hall into an informal but highly select meeting room where they decide who will win which election, who will get which contract and how much they will skim off of it.  These guys are corrupt, but from the protagonist's viewpoint (which is not uncynical), they do a pretty good job of running the town.  They allow some crimes like gambling (including a big policy racket) and prostitution to exist, under their control, but have succeeded in keeping drugs and the mafia out and the streets safe.

Jerry's unofficial job is as the guy who actually goes out and gets a lot of things that need to be done done.  He greases palms, hands out fat in the right places and gets favours in return.  He is the right hand man and favourite of the unstated boss Hank Masters.

The problem arises when their attorney general in the state capitol dies suddenly of a heart attack.  His over-eager and reform-minded assistant will by law take over the position temporarily and has a real chance of getting it for the next four years, which would cause all kinds of trouble for the gang in the boiler room.  It's Jerry's job to try and undermine the guy (who also turns out to want a piece of the pie, but too big of one and in a way that would be disruptive to the status quo).  In dealing with this problem, Jerry starts to realize that he has slowly morphed into the main man.

It's interesting, because when I first read the masterpiece that is Butcher's Moon, I loved how Westlake dissected the corrupt political structure of a small city.  Now I see that this was a strong theme in genre books of the late '60s and early '70s.  You see it in a lot of John D. Macdonald of course, but usually as a background.  It is front and center in books like "The Fools in Town Are on our Side" and "All I Can Get".  The Takeover is another fine example of that and goes into even a bit deeper depth of how the city politics can have some level of control over the entire state (though warily so as they take great pains to never disturb or alert the federal authorities).  It's fascinating stuff and I wonder what great reforms went on that we don't have the same situation today?

The story itself is good, but puts the emphasis on Jerry's character development and moral decisions.  The outcome is cynical and quite dark, though a bit obvious and not unexpected, so that it ended up with a bit of a loss of the momentum it had been building up.  But it felt real and interesting and very cynical all the way through.  This is one of those books where political positiions are utterly meaningless, right and left just playing pieces that need to be manipulated so everybody can get paid.  I don't know if it represents the truth, but this vision can sometimes be a respite for the reader.  It absolves one of getting engaged with everything that is wrong with the world because there is nothing to be done about it, but play the game, try to survive and come out on top.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

24. World War Z by Max Brooks

My wife just finished reading this and she stayed up late to finish it, so I thought it would be good for a cross-continent plane flight.  She confirmed and it turned out to be correct as I read the entire book going from Montreal to San Francisco.

The book was a huge hit when it came out and rightly so.  It tells the zombie apocalypse from a global perspective, with a collection of first person accounts of many various players who were involved in the initial stages of infection, through the outbreak, the worldwide collapse, the recovery and then the efforts to clean up the planet in the aftermath.  Because of this structure, with each narrative being a little self-contained story (though also slowly weaving together the bigger story), it is quickly digestible.  This is especially true for fans of the apocalypse, like myself.  There is just a ton of freaky, cool zombie stuff in here.  If that's your bag, you should read this (you probably already have).
But I'll go even further, because I think beyond the visceral thrills and scares and horrors of a zombie invasion, World War Z also speaks to a very specific mindset.  There are some strong socio-political themes in this book and clear criticisms.  Blame is laid squarely at the pharmaceutical industry, the media and our comfortable society.  More broadly, this book attacks conservatism of ideas.  The bad guys here are the people who either refused or were not capable of recognizing what was going on or who even when they did failed to adjust their mode of thinking and acting to deal with it.  The result was much more death and destruction than was necessary.

This book is for people who fear the softness of our society, who worry about a service-based economy where nobody has any real skills any more, for people who recognize (and scoff at) the contradiction of fear-based advertising.  Our response to the anxiety that is shoved down our throats by the media and marketing turns out to be the one that leaves us the most vulnerable when the dead start walking the earth.  We're fat, complacent and selfish.  Every other generation but ours has faced real challenge and instead of taking our freedom and wealth and making a better society, we just stuff our faces and brain with sugar.

Some kind of apocalypse is the simplistic response (or perhaps the only one, given our wiring) and World War Z unleashes it in a most satisfying way.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

23. Help I am being held prisoner by Donald E. Westlake

I can't even remember where I found this little gem from 1974.  It's the story of a lifelong, compulsive practical joker who ends up going a bit too far and gets sent to a prison in upstate New York.  There, he accidentally falls in with a crew of hard types who oversee the gym.  They are extremely suspicious and closed to him until he discovers that they have a set-up that allows them to sneak out of the prison, where they go out on day trips disguised as civilians.  It's a clever idea and Westlake plays it out with his light but effective touch.  Things get complicated for the protagonist on many levels when the gang reveals to him that they are planning to rob a bank.  They have the perfect alibi, right?

Westlake is able to create a criminal world that is at once fairly realistic and yet never seems really truly scary.  The stakes are high and there are real threats hinted at, but somehow the whole book has a friendly, relaxed feel (though that feel does not stop you from wanting to turn the pages).  It also has an absolute classic bank robbery moment that only adds to Westlake's oeuvre on this subject.

Great stuff.  Find it and read it.

Monday, April 09, 2012

22. The Ultimate Rush by Joe Quinn

This ended up being an okay story, but the telling was so layered with endless consumer culture signifiers and jargon that I almost didn't make it to the end.  I guess the characters in this book represent some apex of pre-Occupy San Francisco alterno-hipsters.  I wasn't in the Bay Area in the late 90s and if the heroes of this book resemble in any way youth culture there at the time, I'm glad I wasn't.  Most of the first quarter of the book is the edgy coolness of the protagonist's (Chet Griffin) lifestyle being displayed for the reader.  He's a rollerblade messenger! He's living on the financial edge!  His roommate is a hacker with cerebral palsy!  His best friend is a hot asian boarder who dresses up like a schoolgirl but with devil ears!  He has a huge snake!  He has all these special complex tatoos!  It never seems to stop.

The story, such as it is, starts when Chet gets a special job making these super-tight deliveries to odd places, some clearly connected with a criminal operation.  He digs deeper and then accidently opens a package and all hell breaks loose.  He goes on the run and with the help of his friends has to figure out what the operation is and bust it in order to save themselves.  There is a ton of action and the author doesn't worry about adhering too close to reality, which while sometimes giving a reader pause, ends up being the fun choice.  A lot of cool stuff goes down, but again it's all so burdened with explaining why and how its cool (as well as all the cool things around what's going on), that it rarely gives much of a thrill, until the very end.

As I read this, I realized that my impatience may be due to my complete lack of interest in this period.  The 90s were pretty fucking lame.  Grunge, X-games, shitty internet, movies hadn't gotten cool again yet. Bleh.  I also recognize that a lot of the 70s crime books I read have a lot of lifestyle markers, but they tend to know their place in the book and be kept limited so that the action and ass-kicking can take center stage.  Not the case here, sadly.