Wednesday, January 16, 2019

4. The Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse by Hugh Trevor-Roper

My friend lent me this book with a strong recommendation.  We both got our bachelor's in history but he kept with it more than I and said this one was really good.  He was not wrong.  It was also nice to be reminded of how funny and rich history is, both the content itself, but also all the crazy back and forth between historians.  I am glad I never went into it professionally as it can be painfully petty and vicious, but from afar it is quite entertaining.

The Hermit of Peking is a really interesting book because the story itself is interesting, but perhaps even more so it is the way that Trevor-Roper structures it that really captivates the reader.  There is a prologue where he explains how he knew of Backhouse but hadn't really thought much beyond his generally understood reputation as an eccentric and scholar living through the most disruptive times in China.  A Swiss diplomat contacted him saying he had an interesting manuscript by Backhouse but one that was quite offensive and he wasn't sure what to do with it.  They meet at an airpot where the manuscript is handed over.  It turns out to be Backhouse's biography but basically x-rated (at least for the 1970s).  This spurs Trevor-Roper to really dig into Backhouse's life. As we go through his research and archival detective work, we learn more and more about Backhouse's life and work.  Each chapter peels away another layer of the onion and things that seemed true and straightforward in early parts get exposed in an entirely different way as you learn more and more.

I won't go into the actual story, as Trevor-Roper does the job extremely well and the fun is in the reading.  To give you some tantalizing hints, Backhouse was seen as a historian and connected diplomat to the Chinese court.  He donated extremely valuable documents to a library in Oxford.  He also lied and forged and pulled several long cons all of which ultimately failed.  Yet he is not outwardly evil, but rather sad and lost (though ultimately a survivor).  Trevor-Roper does an amazing job.  I have two criticisms of his analysis.  Both are probably ones that I am only able to make because of the time period I am in.  First, there is a subtle but nevertheless omnipresent revulsion against sexuality and particularly homosexuality.  It's not hardcore, but rather the slight contempt of the supposedly objective protestant.  Trevor-Roper talks a lot about what a great and creative storyteller Backhouse is, but dismisses his autobiography as basically pornography, with terms like "revolting" to describe the explicit text.  Second, there is zero critique in this book of colonialism.  I mean ultimately, Backhouse could have only pulled off the stuff he did because of colonialism.  It is unstated, but this book really reminds you that the British presence (and the other foreign nations) in China was basically all criminal (and that is putting it mildly).  They destabilized a polity in order to rob it blind and that went on at the governmental level and at the individual level.  For decades, other Europeans bought into Backhouse's lies, partly because he was so good at it, but also because of racism.  They were all too quick to assign any failure or contradictions on Backhouse's part to wily Chinese machinations.  I guess I benefit from decades of post-colonial theory to be able to see those failings so acutely (this book was written in the 1970s).  He isn't excusing of the behaviour of the colonial powers, but also kind of glosses over it all. 

Great book, though.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

3. Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes, I am learning, was one of several popular and succesful female mystery writers from the middle of the 20th century.  It is extremely difficult to find her books today, though there are a few reprints and my library had a volume of three of her books.  Even though my on-deck shelf is full, I took it out out of fear they would get rid of it soon if it showed little activity (the english fiction shelves have limited space).  Now that I finished Ride the Pink Horse, I will return it and take it out again for each subsequent novel in the volume.  I wish I could do it on somebody else's library card.

Ride the Pink Horse takes place, I believe in Santa Fe.  It's some American city close to the border of Mexico on the weekend of a big festival called the Fiesta.  Sailor has arrived on the bus from Chicago in a hunt for The Sen, the corrupt politician/syndicate boss that plucked him out of the south side and trained him to be a smooth gangster.  As Sailor struggles to find a room (he had no idea about Fiesta), we slowly learn of the background of his beef with the Sen.  There is also a high-ranking homicide detective in town (he got a room), friendly with Sailor because he knew him also from the old neighbourhood.  The three of them circle a narrative around the murder of the Sen's wife, but really the story is about Sailor, who he is and what choices he has made and will make.

This is very much existentialist noir.  It is almost surreal, with the Mexicans and Indians representing other worlds, other histories and the Fiesta making all the scenes crowded and frenetic.  Sailor befriends the fat old man who cranks the merry-go-round the kids love to ride, who himself has had a violent path but now seems perfectly content to make the fun ride for the kids and sleep in the park.  These characters and others force Sailor to confront who he is and the journey and what holds you to the book is to see what he learns.

I tend to not go for the symbolic and prefer a concrete mystery (and there is one here).  In this case, the writing and the very real-seeming background of Sailor were strong and compelling and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  This is literature folks and there is absolutely no reason on that merit alone that this book should not be seeing endless reprints as we see today for Chandler, Hammett, etc.  It's a shame.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

2. The Shadow of Suspicion by Emilie Loring

The cutoff top is the book, not my photo
Part of the really great pulp haul from the Bookmark in Oakland, this was really not a very good read.  The premise is cool and it had some potential, but was ultimately undone by obvious plotting, inconsistency and a pretty insipid and uninspiring female protagonist.  It's about a young woman who goes to Maine to support her widowed aunt who must stay in her lumber camp to ensure they cut down enough wood to pay off the debts her husband incurred.  There is trouble at the camp, unrest among the men and other more mysterious whisperings.  The previous manager who was well-liked was killed in a hunting accident (this is the first of the bad plotting: he was shot in the head and it was dismissed as an accident even though they never discovered who did it).

So that all sounds good, but because this is 1955 there has to be some steely-eyed, firm-jawed dude who is actually going to do all the investigation and commanding and stuff.  His character also had potential, a Korean vet who had been imprisoned and now was on the hunt for a commie traitor he had discovered while being released.  He accidently discovers that the traitor may well be at the lumber camp. He is supposed to be this totally awesome dude "whose manners are invariably charming" except when he spazzes out and accuses the heroine of having fallen in love with the dude who drove her up to the camp.  That's like 20 pages in!  I am familiar with the sexual conventions of books of this period, but there is a subtlety even within those restrictions. This book was just weird, with her immediately falling in love with this guy and he obviously in love with her and yet not consummating for no reason other than stilted conversations.  His eyes are always flashing and her cheeks blushing. It's just badly constructed and leaves the reader with zero emotional romantic feelings about them.

I read up on Emilie Loring and she was really prolific.  She also died in 1951 and her family kept publishing under her name using a ghost writer and scraps of her remaining writing.  They did not do a very thorough job here.

Most interestingly, check out this list of other books at the back. This is like an excellent survey of the very specific nurse/female doctor romance/thriller sub-genre from the mid-50s.  You can just feel the tension between the conflicting cultures of traditional female domesticity competing with the dawn of the professional woman ("Has a dedicated nurse the same right to happiness as other women?" "Her ideal of nursing conflicted with her fiancé's ideas of the duties of a wife", "Dr. Gail Benton's rise in the medical profession is threatened by the imperious demands of her woman's heart")

Monday, January 07, 2019

1. Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

I have been looking for a book by Lionel Davidson for quite a while now.  I did not note it down, but I believe that I heard his name the first time via Kenneth Hite (gaming luminary and a genre fiction reader of impeccable taste) in the fantastic Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff podcast.  I finally stumbled upon Kolymsky Heights at Moe's. I see now that this was his last book and the first one he had published in over 16 years, so I clearly still have some searching to do.

I sort of wished I was reading this in the summer, as it takes place mostly in Siberia during winter and you really do feel the insane cold there.  I read it in Berkeley and Montreal in the winter and I still think it helped, as it made me not feel so bad about it being -7 and somewhat windy here.  I am not actually sure it is truly possible to do a lot of the things that happened in the book when it is in the -30s and -40s (like could you really even tighten bolts in that temperature?  Spend the night, even in a super awesome sleeping bag?  Wouldn't you just die?).

The premise of the story is a bit preposterous, even slightly science-fiction.  In a hyper top secret chemical laboratory in Siberia, an old scientist discovers a perfectly frozen cavewoman.  Because of the security levels, he has committed to spend the rest of his life there (as have all the staff, except the native Chukchis who help with some external work because the authorities know they will only return to their reindeer herds).  He manages to sneak out a message to an old colleague that he has important scientific info to share and that he has a way of getting that info out.  He just needs someone to come to him. This someone is Dr. John Porter, academic, eccentric and (as we learn) total badass First Nations dude from northern Manitoba.  Because he is indigenous to Northern Canada as well as being a languages expert, he is the only person who can possibly sneak into the region and somehow access the top secret base.  It also turns out that this guy is super skilled at all kinds of things.  He can fight, he can act, he knows a wide range of industrial manual labour skills (can load merchant ships, drive winter trucks, fix vehicles).  It's all very understated and the details of his actual background are never revealed (he says once he is used to living rough).

What makes the book work are the subtle and complex details of all the spy stuff. How he gets his various identities, how he gets into (and around once there) the region, are interesting, well thought out and really fun to read about.  The location itself is really cool.  I really knew next to nothing about Siberia and here you get a nice look at the industrial and economic engines that drive it, some of the history (how much of it was settled by ex-prisoners of Stalin's camps) and the insane geography and cold.  In the summer, you have to fly everywhere because it's all mushy permafrost.  It is only until winter that the trucks start rolling, across frozen river beds often!  Finally, there are several groups of indigenous people who are integrated into the world there and Davidson portrays the relationship between the Russian state and them in an interesting way.  I don't know how much of it is true or accurate but as a broad portrayal, it certainly made me interested.

I suspect he has better books in him, but this was entertaining and innovative.  Lionel Davidson stays on the hunt list.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

2018 Year-end Wrap-up and Berkeley book haul

Here is what is awaiting me for 2019

Here is what I wrote for my 2018 objectives in my 2017 wrap-up post:  "My fundamental goal is to read 50 books in 2018.  My secondary goal is to try and get past that to whittle away at my deficit.  We shall see!"

I am very glad to be able to write that I did indeed achieve both goals.  I read 57 books in 2018 and have reduced my deficit  down to 63 (that is how many books I am behind to achieve an annual average of 50 books a year).  Though I am crowing now, things did not look so rosy halfway through 2018.  My reading was way down.  I only read a single book in February (probably due to Assassin's Creed: Origins). Surprisingly, I also only read a single book in each June and July.  Once again, it was my August vacation to Vancouver that kicked off the reading.  And then I just started surging.  My new job is going great (I used to be in charge of everything now I am responsible for three things and sharing that responsibility).  My daughter is in school and logistically that is going really well.  Google+ is shutting down and I pulled myself away from that and Twitter big time in the second half of the year.  I basically fell in love with reading again this fall.  I just really got into going through the books on my on-deck shelf and seeing that size reduce to the point that I had to actually find some books to add to it near the end.  Extremely satisfying!  I used to have to hem and haw over whether I should get a book.  Now I go to a bookstore and need to find something. This allowed me to go hogwild in my book buying over the holidays and now my on-deck shelf is full of interesting books I really am excited to read.

Again, my reading went across a wide swath of genres and periods, though mainly anchored by my interest in crime fiction from the 20th century.  I read 15 books by female authors, up from 2018, but still showing a preponderance of white males. I learned a few things: Anthony Trollope is great but not as perfect as I first found him, my tepid opinion of Alistair Maclean did not change after reading two of his books, and my random old paperback purchases were often though not always more enjoyable than I think they will be in the actual reading.  15 of the books I read in 2018 were old paperbacks by authors completely unknown to me, that I found intriguing.  More than half of them were really quite good and only one mediocre (Takeover Bid, which had the coolest cover).

There were no major highlights for me this year, but I have to recognize Daniel Suarez for the contemporary techno-action fun he delivered for me in three books.  I also got deeply sucked in to God Is an Englishman, so much so that I almost wished I had ended the year on it. I would love to find another book by Rosemary Kutalik or even find out more about her.  I hate even to mention it here, but a major lowlight was the piece of shit State of Fear by Michael Crichton.  Fuck that guy.

I was going to say that it was a rocking year of music but that isn't totally accurate, as it was really more like a rocking half-year.  I hope in 2019 to be a bit more steady, consistently reading every month so that I don't have to rush at the end of the year if I really do pick up momentum.  My objectives in 2019 will continue to be to read at least 50 books, to cut into my overall deficit and a new addition, to read at least 3 books a month.

Fortunately, I have a refilled on-deck shelf, with only a couple books that weren't added this december in the very rich book haul I added over the holidays.  Check them out:

Top 3 are from Moe's, bottom 3 from Half-Price Books:

Bookmark Bookstore (run by Friends of the Oakland Public Library):  A Peter Rabe, a Mary Stewart and two Parker paperbacks!  I am joining up as a FOPL.

 And finally the inestimable Dark Carnival: