Thursday, February 28, 2013

8. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin

Another near-masterpiece of science fiction and political speculation, here LeGuin examines two opposing ideals that we know all too well here on earth: the egalitarian collective society versus the hierarchical individualistic society.  I know, it sounds kind of boring, but in LeGuin's expert hands we get a compelling, moving story about the only man who had the opportunity to live in both worlds.  The setting is the planet Urras, similar geographically to earth and its habitable but resource-limited moon, Anarres.  Centuries past, a group of rebels broke off from the society of Urras and instead of causing a civil war, were allowed to go to Urras, where they created a functioning anarchic society.  Both societies mutually decide to break off all contact, except for one rocket ship that goes back and forth with basic trade goods and minimal communications.

Shevek, a physicist on Anarres, has succeeded in getting his theories put on that rocket ship and they are so groundbreaking that they garner him an invitation to Urras.  The beginning of the book is him getting on that rocket and leaving everything he knows behind.  The narrative then breaks off into two threads.  One traces his experiences on this vastly different world (the material wealth alone is mind-blowing, but Urras also has mammals and rich geographical diversity) as he begins to conflict with its political realities; the other thread goes back in time to his own upbringing and the conflicts he faces on hishome planet against its own hidden political rigidity.

Both stories are equally engaging, though it is the present one on Urras (the wealthy planet) that really grabs the reader's attention at first. It reminds somewhat of The Man Who Fell to Earth, though Shevek is not here to plead for anything other than increased communication between the two worlds.  He enters this wealthy place a hero, but soon learns that he is in the proverbial gilded cage.  The government of the host nation (and the wealthiest one on the planet) wants his knowledge as it may be the key to instant inter-galactic communication, thus giving them a huge advantage with the other worlds they have just started to meet.  Shevek tries his best to navigate the choppy waters of this highly social world and badly fails in the book's turning point.

Here the origin story starts to get more interesting.  We are feeling critical of Urras, but we soon see that Anarres has problems of its own.  Shevek's mentor, who controls access to the rocket ship, is jealous and close-minded.  When it becomes known that Shevek may be actually going to Urras, political adversaries mount an aggressive attack against him and his clique.

The ending of the book is not explosive, though it threatens to be.  Rather, LeGuin zooms out and we suddenly see these two worlds from a new perspective and it is quite enlightening, both for the way we think about what we read and for the way we think about our own world.

It's quite easy to see how these two worlds can be seen as communist Russia and the capitalist west.  The parrallel doesn't quite work, because LeGuin is examining these political ideals more abstractly.  Divorced from the realities of our earth, she can push both philosophies to different outcomes - but especially the collectivist one, which works much better here.  It is cool to see how a collectivist, anarchist society could actually work, what the pros and cons would be, especially given significant material constraints.  While I was reading it, I was thinking to myself that I would be pretty unhappy to not have beautiful oceans and mountains and to only eat sweet food once or twice a year.  But as you read on, she does a pretty convincing job of making the positive human elements of this society, the true freedom to pursue what you want while being deeply connected to the greater community, very appealling. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

7. Deadly Edge by Richard Stark

Now we're talking.  The University of Chicago Press edition of Deadly Edge has a great introduction to Deadly Edge, by Charles Ardai, where he points out how the Parker series softens slightly with the four books ending in "Score" and then kicks into a darker, more intense gear with Deadly Edge and the three that follow it (Slayground, Plunder Squad and Butcher's Moon).  He also points out that for many Parker fans one of those 4 is their favourite.  That was definitely the case with me, with Slayground being my favourite (and the first one I read).  With this third go-around, though, I am holding out on naming a favourite until I am finished. Currently, The Jugger is in first place.

But boy does Deadly Edge make a run for the title!  First of all, it starts out with my favourite heist, the robbery of the ticket offices of a stadium during a rock concert.  The idea is just cool in and of itself, but it is also so well realized. Only Westlake could so effectively put together the constant throbbing of the 60's psychedelic rock, the decaying industrial architecture and the tense execution of this heist.  He portrays the side characters so well (the pessimistic heister and the angry security guard) which adds to the tension and the richness of the situation.  Finally, the entire thing is founded on the value of skilled physical labour, with the opening being entirely focused on the logistical details of cutting into and through a stadium roof.  Just so good.  This is Westlake the master craftsman writing about other master craftsmen, both parties at the very top of their games.

And this is only the beginning. Westlake is not satisfied with this perfectly constructed music box.  He needs to jam his pen right into the middle of the mechanism.  In doing so, he also demonstrates that he is more than just a master crafstmen.  He is also a profoundly observant social critic and her he turns his eye to the idealism of the 60s and its sordid demise.  Deadly Edge is Donald Westlake's Altamont.  It takes the form of the two "hippie" characters, one a sexless psychopath wearing fringed leather and talking about "taking it easy", the other an lsd-blasted man-child as prone to glee as to savagery.  They have discovered Parker's heist and are tracking down the participants one by one, torturing each and taking their money.  Their insanity and ruthlessness trumps the skills of the more experienced criminals (there is an interesting generation gap here as well).  Until they get to Parker of course.

There is a lot of other good stuff to mention as well in Deadly Edge  We get to see Claire on her own again and this time she is not quite as helpless.  She shows her inner toughness and smarts in parrying with the intruders long enough for Parker to get back. There is also a horror element here, reminiscent of the grindhouse movies of the same period (Last House on the Left in particular comes to mind).  Finally, despite the utter depravity of the hippie thugs and the reader's desire for Parker to completely fuck them up, Westlake still portrays their relationship with some humanity.  Their ending does not deliver easy satisfaction for the reader.  Westlake was too realistic for that.

Another Parker tour de force.  I'm into the home stretch here.  Next up, the first Parker I ever read and possibly my favourite:  Slayground.  Going to be hard to wait.

Administrative Interlude: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Comments

I just discovered this morning a slew of fantastic comments that I had never approved!  For some reason, Google decided that blogger did not actually want to alert me when I had a new comment (a policy change on which I was not consulted), so they have been piling up there since July of 2012.  My apologies to everyone if you felt snubbed!  Man, there are some good comments there as well.  I will respond to each one on the post in question and pray that you will somehow get alerted.  In any case, my thanks and appreciation to all of you who have been reading and especially to those who have given me some feedback.  You know how it works in this blogger game.

Also, I know I've been a bit lax so far in 2013, but my reading is ongoing.  I actually have a bit of a back-up of posts to write but will start to hack away at them.  Appropriately, one of the comments was "More blogging, less reading!".  From my mother, natch!

Keep turning those pages, people!

Oh and since I have you, let me throw out a recommendation for End of Watch, a 2012 southside LA cop movie.  It's not a masterpiece and the plot when it finally happens kind of gets in the way, but the procedural moments of which there are plenty are really fantastic, a nice mix of crazy situations and rich engaging characters, especially the two cops.  It's kind of like Cops that old television show scripted by Pelecanos on a cocaine binge.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

6. All My Sins Remembered by Joe Haldeman

All My Sins Remembered shares similar themes to the only other Joe Haldeman book I've read (and his most well known), The Forever War:  war and time and how they effect the individual.  In this book, the protagonist is a Prime Operator, an elite agent for a universal peacekeeping force.  He is sent from civilization to civilization disguised as a local with plastiflesh and a personality overlay (which only allows his true personality to come through in moments of crisis).  The book is made up of several separate episodes, interspersed with debriefings, without much of a thread beyond the main character to tie it all together.  Two of the chapters were actually stand-alone short stories in Galaxy magazine. I don't know if he always intended them to be part of a larger narrative or if he went back and stitched them together to get a book.  It holds together fairly well, but more because the concept is cool and the episodes are each quite interesting on their own.  The protagonist's fate feels a bit forced precisely because his internal arc only really moves forward in the debriefing sessions and not in the episodes.  The things that affect him happen in missions that he only refers to and not ones you read about.  The parallel to the Vietnam war and its effect on US soldiers is strong here and I suspect that's what Haldeman was going for.  He doesn't quite get there, but it is still an enjoyable read.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

5. The Magician's Wife by James M. Cain

I'm starting to question James M. Cain's reputation.  This is the second book of his that I have read and while I enjoyed the reading, I found it to be seriously flawed.  I did read some other reviews that considered this part of his lesser, later work so I will withhold such a general judgement for now.  But I am wary.  The reason is that the same flaw that bothered me about Masquerade is the one that makes The Magician's Wife so preposterous: a rigidity and blindness in his approach to sexuality that seems extremely dated.  Cain seems hampered by a morality that he himself can't seem to see.  So instead of talking around sex like many of his contemporaries did, he hides from it all the while that it is the main mechanism that is driving his storyline forward.  It makes for a disconnect for the reader.  You are constantly questioning why the main character is behaving the way he is.

The plot here is quite compelling.  Clay Lockwood is a super succesful meat salesman.  Now I love any book that takes the time to explain the details of a real job and the mechanisms behind this and Cain really does this here.  We learn about Clay's role in the early days of food industrialization, selling pre-packaged meat products to high-end restaurants.  It's fascinating to read about how he has to explain to experienced chefs that they only need to throw the foil packet in boiling water for one minute before the meat is ready.  This is considered the new haute cuisine!  So I was quite psyched when the book started.  In touring one of his major clients, he meets a super-hot hostess, Sally Alexis, who demonstrates impressive efficiency in the way she runs the restaurant.  Circumstances bring them together again and they are clearly attracted to each other.  Unfortunately, she is married.  To a magician!  Not only that, but the magician comes from a wealthy family and they have a young son together.  Clay and Sally fall in love.  She is unhappy with the magician.  He is a jerk.  But she refuses to leave him because in doing so she will cut off her son's chance at inheriting his father's money (currently also blocked by her crabby mother-in-law).  As the book progresses, she reveals herself to be more and more of a psycho, possibly murdering the mother-in-law and then pushing Clay more and more to help her murder her husband.

It's a classic set-up.  The problem is that none of it really rings true.  Clay seems like a rational, focused dude and Sally shows herself to be completely psycho early on. She spazzes out and breaks all kinds of fancy art in his sweet penthouse apartment.  Why would he bother with her?  There is nothing in his character that explains why he would stick with this woman. He is a super eligible bachelor with a fine future.  Furthermore, even if her son would lose his inheritance, Clay is very well off and on his way to becoming even more succesful (he gets promoted in the course of the book and is being groomed to run the whole company).  He could easily support Sally and her son with a wealthy lifestyle.  The only thing that holds it all together is that they had sexual intercourse and that now he is somehow destined to be stuck with her.  Except that Cain never tells us this and never dives into it in any interesting way.  It's just assumed that it's the 50s, if you bone some chick you are going to go all crazy and make a bunch of stupid decisions that will ruin your life because you have to whatever she wants.  It's so weird.  So while I'm reading it, I'm quite enjoying all the situations and the characters but I'm not believing any of it and Clay just comes off like the giantest chump ever (and there are a lot of them).

So ultimately a failure, but not a painful one for the reader.  Also, the paperback edition I found is quite lovely.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

4. The Black Ice Score by Richard Stark

The Black Ice Score is my least favourite of the Parker novels (though this may change with my second reading of the second run).  I believe I am not alone in this.  It's actually a pretty cool story, but the tone is just off.  I feel like Westlake was, for once, a bit mixed in his head about which identity was writing this one. It has hints of Dortmunder in it (the New York location, the cast of different gangs, the slight goofiness).  More strongly, it feels like it came about when Westlake was really getting into Africa as a theme (which would later come out more fully realized in Kahawa and to some extent Humans).  He seems more interested in the nation of Dhaba than in Parker.  We see Parker through their eyes, rather than his own.

But what really knocks this one down a peg for me is all the grinning.  One character in particular, who actually is somewhat of a hardcase (though in a civilized, educated exterior) is constantly grinning.  It just doesn't fit a Parker book in general and in some moments seems utterly out of place.  I hate to say it, but it also has a disturbing stereotypical edge to it, the grinning African with his big white teeth.  Finally the white South Africans are the lameos here and should really get their shit handed to them Parker style.  They get off way too easy for pulling a gun on Parker in his hotel room, kidnapping his woman and generally acting smugly superior.  I note that this is the second book in a row where Parker seems a bit restrained.  Was Westlake working through some issues of his own?  These were written in 1969 and 1970, as the tide started to turn on the hippie movement and America began to truly question itself.  Perhaps Westlake too was demonstrating some thematic doubt with the purity that is Parker.  Or perhaps he is just storing the ass-kicking up in order that he will have plenty to unleash in the wave that comes in the following books.

Not to say that there isn't a lot good in The Black Ice Score.  The character of Hoskins as the international criminal sleazeball is well-realized and his role in the job going sour is pretty classic. The job itself is quite cool, with an intricate setting and plan.  And we get to see a bit more about Claire, who, while remaining a bit of a cypher also demonstrates an inner strength that helps the reader start to understand why Parker might stick around.  The characters' names are, as usual with Westlake, absolutely superlative, somehow both very realistic and yet not mundane.

Friday, February 01, 2013

3. The Stingaree by Max Brand

This was part of my alley way find.  I don't know much about Max Brand, but I think he was a popular western writer, as the cover of this book has its own MB logo on it.  What was neat about The Stingaree is that it is a Northern Western, taking place somewhere in a small northern town in Canada.  The protagonist is a young orphan boy who is both a local terror and troublemaker, but also an adoptee, loved by the entire town.  He lives a rough and tumble life, learning all the skills of the outdoors from local outdoorsmen and Indians while also leading a gang of youths that control one side of the town and battle the gang from the other side.  One day, while in the forest trying to train a half-wild wolf-dog, he stumbles upon an out-of-towner, an impressive man with a remarkable gun accuracy, who appears to have walked from the south.

The boy becomes his ambassador to the town and the reader soons learns that this man has a reputation and a mission.  He is the infamous but honourable criminal, the Stingaree, who has come north to avenge the murder of his partner by one of the more respectable citizens of the town.  The boy is put in a difficult ethical position and forced to make difficult decisions.  He must choose between his own ideals and the people he respects in the town, while also trying to figure out what those things are.  The theme of adulthood and identity are forefront in the book.  There is lots of narrative, there is also a lot of introspection.  It's an interesting stew with a mix of flavours.

The last third of the book veers into a different rhtyhm, as the Stingaree, the boy and his Indian ally make a journey even farther to the north, pursued by the RCMP.  This is a long slow survival chase and puts to the test the friendship between the boy and the Stingaree.

An enjoyable read.