Monday, May 16, 2022

21. The Lottery: Adventures of the Daemon Lover by Shirley Jackson

I found this at the great traveling vintage sale that has started to come to Montreal.  They have very few books, more cloths, furniture and other antiques but this was a nice little find. It's a 1949 paperback original of her collection of short stories and was quite a good seller at the time.  The cover and subtitle is misleading, as if they were trying to sell it to sci-fi and horror fans rather than a more literary set.  The stories themselves are pretty literary, though definitely as unsettling and thought-provoking as those genres.

An aside, reading this book did just give me a clear notion of the definition of "genre".  This is my own way of understanding it (and may well be utterly not original and probably thought over with much more depth by much smarter and more patient people).  Basically, in genre fiction, the primary objective is to tell a story.  Ideas and concepts are delivered with the story, but tend to not be the main focus.  Literary fiction can be story-driven but generally it is the ideas and concepts that are the main objective.  Obviously there is a spectrum and lots of exceptions but broadly speaking this is why I personally prefer genre fiction.

The above notion crystallized in me while reading these short stories because many of them have only the most minimal story structure.  At first, I was mildly annoyed, because despite my objective tone above, I am really not down with the New Yorker/liberal arts university creative writing course mode of trying to impart a feeling or some shit.  However, Jackson is such a skilled writer and the stories so tight and short (and effective) that I got over my irritation.  Many of the stories deal with the anxiety of women in this time period in the northeast, usually with an absent or oblivious husband and a contrast between the city and the country.  There are a couple of stories here that really capture the fear that New Yorkers have of the country and close proximity to the rural working class.  This has been going on for a long time!

My favourite story is The Dummy about two catty women who see a ventriloquist show and react to the dummy.  Really, nothing much happens, almost the small incident one might see going out in NYC that would be a funny anecdote, but it made me laugh and she captures the women's dialogue so well.

I'm glad I read this (and later read up on Jackson's life) because I had only read The Haunting of Hill House, which is good but doesn't give you a good sense of where she is coming from.  I will have a better appreciation of her work now.

Friday, May 13, 2022

20. Planet in Peril by John Christopher

I found this on the shelf at Welch's (I still habitually look for Christopher despite not having seen any of his books for ages) and thought it a nice find.  I guess it was, in that Planet in Peril is quite possibly the worst John Christopher. I don't know what drove him to write it.  Was he trying to emulate some of the succesful American sci fi that dealt with a future of alternative political systems?  Right from the beginning, one is uninterested.  It takes pages to establish any kind of plot and though we are clearly in some future America where a great disruption has ended with a new social and political system called "Managerialism" none of it is explained with any depth and what is explained is not interesting or compelling at all.  It seems that all the world but a small (I guess Arabicish) part called Siraq is organized into different gigantic companies/government departments like Atomics, Agricultural, etc.  The protagonist is somehow also part of United Chemicals.  These managerials compete against each other and there are hints of decay.  Also there is a comet, but it's barely mentioned.  

The story is that the hero after years working quietly in the same lab, suddenly gets transferred and promoted to a location where his predecessor disappeared in a sailing accident.  When he gets to the new office, he meets the resentful assistant, who is also attractive and they hit it off. Then there is a lot of intrigue that you really don't care about, culminating in the possibility of Siraq invading the rest of the world with flying soldiers using heat rays generated from a new diamond energy that only the protagonist was somehow capable of inventing (except the Siraqis already invented).

There were a couple of good bits, such as the airspheres, giant bubbles you can fly around in the clouds, which was very well described and enjoyable to visualize.  There are nice, subtle descriptive moments that remind you what a good writer Youd was.  Overall, though, a dud.

Friday, May 06, 2022

19. The Big Brothers by Irving Shulman

I picked this up mainly for the cover and because I thought it would have some cool writing about organized crime of the period.  I enjoyed The Amboy Dukes, but more as a historical, culturally important book in the genre and was not necessarily looking to read more of Shulman's work.  I am glad I did take it because it was a better book than I expected, on its own merits, as well as being indeed a great look into the syndicate in the late 60s.  Even more fun, the outfit in The Big Brothers that we see is mostly Jewish and this gives it a distinct feel as well as some good background on how these guys came up.  Finally, this is actually the follow-up to the Amboy Dukes as it continues the story of that street gang and how they grow up to become big-time mobsters.

The premise is great.  Three young toughs (and one's moll) are sent by their boss to take over a failed resort and casino investment in Las Vegas.  They proved themselves well on the streets to their boss, kindly but tough and scheming Itzik Yanowitz (a great character!) but it is a bit of a stretch and a risk to ask them to take over a hotel where the previous scrammed with the money and left to ruin.  The book has an interesting pattern of weaving between sections of great detail, focusing on getting the casino set up for instance, then accelerating ahead to the next phases and challenges in their existence.  It makes it somewhat uneven in feeling. Is it a procedural or an epic?  In the end, it goes for the latter and I have to say does also succeed in giving us a lot of really entertaining procedure, both with how the criminals work and how a resort casino was run in that period.

Another element that makes the book somewhat uneven is the writing style. It's not bad, actually quite readable and the content is so rich that I found myself easily turning the pages.  Shulman jumps around from perspective, not just from the characters' minds but going from a detailed description of the muscles on their faces to their thoughts and then to a more objective perspective.  It also gets a bit melodramatic and maudlin at times.  He really bears down on the stress and anxiety and the generally unpleasant price one pays to avoid the rat race and live large as a gangster.  It gets rough at times too, there are two particularly brutal beatings that are hard to read.

It's interesting to read this book written in 1959, written 10 years before The Godfather and yet containing so much material that is now considered the sole domain of Scorsese.  I wonder if he read this book, because half of Casino is in here.  This one is going on the book shelf. 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

18. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

I got the book from the library
A friend recommended this and his enthusiasm and the title misled me somewhat.  He was blown away by the quality of the writing and I was expecting a book with much more history and philosophy and meditations on Arabic culture.  This book really is a long war journal with small smatterings of those previously mentioned things scattered through out.  The bulk of it is a log of Lawrence meeting up with x tribe of y leaders, journeying for days and sometimes weeks in the desert to find a Turkish-controlled train station or bridge and blowing it up.  I'm still trying to figure out why he is such a big deal in our culture.  I am guessing that his book at the time fit neatly as an adult and more sophisticated and questioning equivalent of a British Boys Own type of colonial adventure.  I don't mean to belittle it, because it's a remarkable story on many levels and far from a celebration of colonialism.  I am just trying to understand why it looms so large culturally, beyond that the film is much loved by film school types of the past.

It is Lawrence's ambivalence or rather disgust with his own role that removes the book from pure colonial adventurism.  He ascribes no ambition or idealism on his part but rather it just seems to flow out of his job working for a branch of British intelligence in Egypt that he heads south to Arabia and starts working with the Beduin.  Once there, he realizes how effective they could be in the fight against the Ottaman Empire. He uses the promise of Arabian independence to motivate and unite the disparate and often conflicting groups of desert people against the Turks and he hates himself for this.

He also underplays his own suffering and toughness. He is a small guy and admits to being at a disadvantage in hand to hand combat, but holy shit does he seem tough and stoic.  The list of things I can't and don't want to do are manifold:  riding for days without sleep on a camel, suffering through intense heat, walking barefoot on skin-cutting muddy ice (and dragging a camel), all kinds of horrible insect bites, riding into machine gun bullets, getting tortured and raped by a Turkish officer and his men.  It is all kind of written about with a matter of fact tone.

I'm not sure I would recommend this book to anyone but a student of the Middle East campaign of the First World War.  I did learn a lot and have a better understanding of the geography, but it was a long sometimes repetitive read, although indeed very well written.

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

17. Hammer's Slammers by David Drake

I'd heard about this book at the edge of radar for a while now and stumbled upon it at the Renaissance on Bernard so thought I should probably add it to my reading list.  I believe it is considered somewhat of a classic of military science fiction.  It's a very odd book and I went through a range of reactions as I was reading it.  Unfortunately, I believe the introduction by Jerry Pournelle coloured some of my thinking and I wished I had read it at the end.  He put forth the simplistic, nerdy faux-tough argument that somehow our. soft liberal society has lost the recognition for the professional soldier.  I have always hated the conservative position that by being selfish assholes they are somehow harder and more "realistic" than the progressive position.  I especially hate it when it comes out of the nerd world and it rings gross as fuck right now as we read about atrocities committed by Putin in Ukraine.  That followed by several quite brutal stories that had a similar subtext (war is hell and wimpy civilians and ecosystems need to accept that) made me think Drake was taking a pro-war position.  By the end, though, it gets more nuanced and I also read that Drake himself served in Vietnam (as an interrogator!) and that this book was partly his way of working through his own reaction to his involvement in that war.

This is tough reading and I am still not sure about how I feel about its politics.  The first few stories are not super well-written.  The battle descriptions (not my strong point as a reader, I admit, so combat nerds may have a better informed opinion) confused me and didn't do a lot to move the plot or characterization forward.  There is a lot of cyan and a lot of bodies getting splattered (which was kind of grimly entertaining).  As the stories move forward, though, they get better and better written, with some interesting situations. It is not a novel per se, but a series of situations that happens to this intergalactic squad of super tank mercenaries with little informative essays in between. It does build a picture of a galaxy at constant war and the hierarchical social structures that push poor planetary settlers to join Hammer's crew.  Ultimately, from what I could gather, the main argument here is that humans are going to go to war all the time and that war is hell and the only good thing is the camaraderie and loyalty generated by being part of a politically neutral, highly skilled and powerful military team.  The glee of Pournelle's essay is not here, though.  Rather it is all just grim with genocide, rape and environmental destruction (including wiping out a complete ecosystem).  The only bright spots are brief moments of individuals distinguishing themselves by showing a toughness and inhumanity that means they can be a part of the Slammers.  

Despite the cynicism, the situations are quite clever and the various worlds have interesting geography, flora and fauna and civilizations, all presented with just enough info to get the context to make the story work.  The final story, The Tank Lords, which was added to this later addition, is much richer and enjoyable and I think probably demonstrates an evolution in Drake's writing.  I get why young military nerds would enjoy this stuff.  I am curious enough to want to check out one of the full length novels that take place in the "Hammerverse".

Thursday, March 31, 2022

16. Dead Calm by Charles Williams

I picked up this trade paperback new at Dark Carnival, because I have yet to find an actual used Charles Williams paperback in years of searching.  I chose to read it now because I was confident it would at least be competent and I needed something good after the lacklustre Marion.

It starts with honeymooning couple way out in the Pacific on a sailboat in a dead calm.  He's an experienced sailor and she is learning.  They notice a boat out on the horizon and then soon a single dinghy coming in fast.  They pull in a hysterical young man with a story of a terrible botulism accident, which the reader and soon the man suss out as fishy.  I thought we were going to head into a long period of tension and suspicion, with the couple in conflict.  Instead, Williams delivers action a few chapters in when the man goes to the stranded boat and discovers a couple locked in the cabin.  He races back in the dinghy to his boat, but the kid has already started the engine and taken off with his wife.  A great setup.

The rest of the book is a back and forth between Ingram trying to figure out what happened and get the boat moving so he can follow his wife and his wife trying to deal with this psycho kid.  It's more psychological than action and very tense.  I really am not comfortable on boats and out in the ocean and this book stressed me out.  There was a bit too much technical sailing language, but that is a fault of my ignorance than the book.  Great, fast read. This is what pulp fiction should be.  I understand there is a prequel that narrates the adventure that brought the man and woman together, which I really want to read now.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

15. Marion by John Bingham

I found this in my nice little haul of obscure mediocrity (or mediocre obscurity) at Urban Ore.  I sure love the object, though did not have super high expectations.  There was a lot of marketing hype by publishers back then and most of it on the cover itself.  Here we have relatively unknown author John Bingham getting a way bigger font than the actual name of the book.  My daughter thought the book was called "Bingham". 

Turns out it was not a great read.  It's competently even well-written, as so many of these mid-century journalists turned thriller writers were definitely professionals.  It's just that most of the book (as the title states) focuses on his relationship with his wife (Marion) whom he discovers to have lied completely about her past and is a total philanderer.  There is a thriller plot, but it is bookended and just not all that exciting.  I also felt there was a very real plot flaw with the timing, but was too lazy and uninterested to go back and doublecheck. The book is written from the future and jumps around in time (as if the author is recounting the story, telling us where he went wrong).  At one point, the various time narratives cross over in a way that made no sense, so that the discovery of his wife's infidelity happens before another major plot point that is dependent on him not knowing her infidelity.  I can live with that and I may have misread, but though the backstory revelation of how he discovered his wife's true nature was kind of neat (he goes to her hometown to deliver flowers to her father's grave who isn't actually dead), I was just not that interested in his processing of the end of his marriage.  There was also some weird class resentment thrown in that never got developed.

Looks like Bingham was one of these upper class WWII intelligence blokes who turned to writing.  Maybe this was one of his lesser works.