Wednesday, December 11, 2019

100. The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann

Colin Dann is my white whale of used book hunting.  I found a later book of his King of the Vagabonds and grabbed it as it fell under my reading area of interest: animal adventure subgenre.  I have looked high and low (well at least in dozens of used bookstores in many major cities in the US and Canada and even a few in Europe) for the last 15 years and have not found a single copy of his books. My guess is that they were not published in large quantities in North America, or that they are in some in-between age category that has since been swept up in the resurgence of YA fiction post-Hunger Games.  This copy that I read was not some great find.  Rather, it has been reprinted as a classic and I found a new edition at Kidsbooks on Broadway in Vancouver.  I believe it was imported from the UK.  So I continue to seek his other works.  Maybe one day a trip to Great Britain will reveal the mother lode.

And thus it is fitting that this should be my 100th book of the year.  I am in a mild state of disbelief about this and I don't want to go on too much about except to record how I got here.   My goal for the last three years, since the crash of 2016 (when I read only 18 books) has been to get my average back up to 50 books a year.  I recognized that with such a significant deficit, this was going to take several years of more than 50 books.  I pushed myself then to read at least 5 books a month, with at least once a week.  Somehow, I caught fire this year and the reading just kept flowing.  There were only a few times when I flagged a bit, but the momentum I had built carried me forward.  There were several changes in my life that allowed this to happen.  I had very little videogame playing, with no game that is really grabbing me.  My daughter started going to elementary school and became a bit more independent (though still wants to play constantly when we are together).  My job has a lot of flexibility and a lot of satisfaction, which I think helped me to cut waaaaay back on useless social media scrolling.  I still go to Twitter almost daily but for minutes now instead of the hours that it had been in the past.  I guess there is a good side to advertising ruining the internet.  Since it sucks, I'd rather be reading!  Anyhow, I am happy with this achievement, but even happier with all the great books I have read.  I'll get into that at my end of year post.

The Animals of Farthing Wood was very straightforward, a little bit too simple for me to really get into.  Despite that, by the end, I was quite moved and felt a real sense of triumph at the completion of the adventure.  The stakes don't feel that high, though in the narrative animals do die and the threat of human destruction and cruelty is very real and depressing.  This was Dann's first book and judging by my memory of King of the Vagabonds, I suspect his work increases in subtlety. 

The story here is about the animals of Farthing Wood, a badger, a fox, an adder, an owl, a kestrel, a toad, a mole and families of hares, rabbits, hedgehogs, mice and voles.  The books starts in a drought and quite soon after the animals discover that their precious pond has been filled in by developers.  (Fucking developers, I hate them already but just typing this and thinking about the emotions this early part of the book brought up gets me stirred up.)  They realize they need to do something and they band together to try and find a solution.  At that point, Toad who had disappeared shows up.  Turns out he had been snatched by some kid and put in a jar and then released quite far to the north.  He made his way home which took four mating seasons.  Learning what happened to his pond (where had been born and raised), he tells the animals that he had discovered a nature reserve and could probably find his way back there.  The animals decided, after some debate, that escape to this place may be there only choice.  Their decision is confirmed the next day when the bulldozers show up.

It is a true adventure journey.  They battle weather, forest fire, nasty farmers, big agriculture, the hunt, predators and traffic.  Every episode is cool and tense, though as I said before, you always feel there is a certain benevolence to the narrative.  This does get undermined once or twice, which made me think I would wait a few more years before reading this to my daughter.  The travail with the fox hunters was particularly thrilling and satisfying.  A great book and a deserved classic.  I hope more kids in North America read it.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

99. Courtroom U.S.A. 2 by Rupert Frumeaux

I was planning on following up the Canadian dog book double rock block with another animal-themed book, but Fifteen Dogs saddened me enough that I need a little break.  What better than to jump into these odd, informative and sometimes entertaining trial books put out by Penguin.  I can imagine in my mind the editors and writers at Penguin coming up with this idea, figuring out they would make a few quid and saying something like "let's give Rupert a swing at this."  Each essay is in some ways like a Wikipedia page on the subject, but more artfully written and structured chronologically.

I found this one to be more engaging than Famous Trials 4.  It focused more on the actual story of the crime and wasted little time on the esoteric contortions of legal theory.  Unfortunately, I still have Famous Trials 5 to read instead of another Courtroom USA.  I actually found this one good enough that I will seek out the first one and any following editions.

There are 4 trials documented here, as you can see on the cover.  All of them were quite famous at the time (the theme of the role of the media in these trials is a constant sub-text).  Only Leopold and Loeb and Alger Hiss I had known roughly about.  The Leopold and Loeb story is really dark.  Several movies and plays were based on it and it is seen as the harbinger of a new kind of crime, a manifestation of the sins of the 20th century:  the crime for crime's sake by an immoral youth.

The Alger Hiss story is also fascinating to read in light of today's new cold war with Russia using cultural disruption tactics on the internet.  Even today, the truth behind the Alger Hiss accusations is unfound and being argued.  He was accused of having been a communist by a pretty sketchy character with super sketchy evidence, yet because it was the height of the cold war, the accusations had to be addressed.  The accuser, Whitaker Chambers, who seemed if not a traitor and liar than at least insane.  And yet after the trial, he ended up becoming a luminary of the American right wing, with Reagan considering him an important mentor.  To my mind, the whole thing felt like the kind of dirty tricks that Nixon did and the fake news strategy of the Republican party today.  Say something until it sticks, even if you are actually destabilizing the country and building up Russia's strategic power.

The Hoffman trial was interesting, though slight compared to the other three.  A projectionist is accused of murdering a woman as he fits the description seen of the man who gave her a ride.  Because he was Jewish, he panicked and tried to make up an alibi and get rid of his gun, which made him seem even guiltier.  He took the risk of appealing his sentence and pleading not guilty and ended up being exonerated by the excellent work of his lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz.  I felt the anti-semitism was underplayed in the telling here, as well as the side fact that the most obvious culprit was the brother of a local Republican official.  I would love to know the rest of the story.

It was the story of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray that really got to me.  As I was reading it, I suspected that it had been the basis of Double Indemnity and it turned out to be correct (also possibly The Postman Always Rings Twice).  Ruth Snyder married an older, succesful man and they moved to a house in the nice part of Queens.  He became quite domestic and she became quite bored.  She ended up meeting Judd Gray, a lingerie salesman, who was actually quite milquetoast.  They had a torrid affair and she convinced him to kill her husband.  It was an argument in the trial, whether he had been the instigator or she, but it really does seem like she pushed him to it.  It's a crazy, nasty murder, messy and amateurish and altogether pathetic.  They collapsed and gave each other up as soon as the slight pressure was put on them.  Both ended up getting the chair.  Her execution was famous because of the hype of the trial, because she was the first woman executed in a long time and finally because a report for the NY Post snuck an ankle camera into the execution chamber and took a picture of her at the moment of death that they blasted on the cover (and probably made a killing, pun somewhat intended).

Nice work, Rupert

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

98. Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

It's a Canadian dog story double rock block!  Fifteen Dogs is written 63 years after The Wild Dog of Edmonton, which was my previous read.  I think that a detailed analysis and comparison of the two would probably yield fruitful knowledge about the state of literature and dogs in Canada.  However, I do not have the time nor the inclination to do more than scratch the surface of this rich topic.

Fifteen Dogs is a winner of a bunch of Canadian awards and was a contestant (and maybe even the winner?) of Canada Reads.  These awards tend to bias me against a book, as I can only guess at the maze of politics and cronyism the author must make his or her way through to get here as well as the even more precarious balance of interesting yet safe content the book itself must contain.  For instance, the blurb on the back calls it "meditative and devastating".  Devastating alone would have been too risky.  And even worse, "Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks."  You can almost hear the anxiety of the editor, "make it super clear that this isn't a genre book!"

So yeah, many strikes against it before I even cracked the cover.  On the positive side, it was recommended by a friend whose opinion I respect and it was printed on acid-free paper from second growth forests here in Quebec.  I do like Canadian things and will support the Canadian book industry.  I just wish it would stop being so insecure and pretentious!

The story here is really clever.  It's basically a greek myth.  Apollo and Hermes are drinking in a brewpub in Toronto (this scene is quite funny: the Gods and Canadian beer) and make a bet that if they give dogs intelligence will they die happy or sad?  They choose fifteen dogs who happen to be staying overnight at a vet near the brewpub and bless them with intelligence.  The dogs quickly escape and most of the rest of the book is about what happens to them.

It's interesting, though I found it much more meditative then devastating.  There is not as much narrative as there is exploration of what intelligence would mean to a dog and what they do with it.  Some embrace it, others reject it and this causes a schism that turns quite nasty.  Alexis does a creative job of imagining how the nature of a dog would mesh with human-level intelligence.  They certainly don't become human.  In the end, as more and more of the dogs die and the bet remains inconclusive, the gods start to meddle.  All the stuff with the gods was really clever and well crafted.  It fit in perfectly with the stories of the Greek gods I loved in D'Aulaire as a child.  It's also kind of a downer.  The book was quite dark and sad for most of it.

Interestingly for such a divergent approach to a dog's life, both Fifteen Dogs and The Wild Dog of Edmonton portray the perspective of the dog on the run in a very similar fashion.  The dogs running around Canadian neighbourhoods, looking for food, shelter and figuring out which humans may provide that while always remaining wary was very consistent across both books. That's as deep as my analysis goes. 

So while I generally avoid "literary fiction", I will give Fifteen Dogs a moderate two thumbs up.  I am not sure if I got anything deep about the human condition from it, but I cared about the dogs and enjoyed the story. 

There is one small yet glaring error.  At the very end, there is a scene in Ralston, Alberta.  It says "It was a late afternoon in Summer. The sun had just begun to cede its ground to darkness."  I don't think Alexis has actually been in Alberta in the summer, because the sun I am pretty sure would be high in the sky in the late afternoon.  Is this not the case across Canada?

Monday, December 02, 2019

97. The Wild Dog of Edmonton by David Grew

I found this at the Value Village southeast of downtown (can't remember the neighbourhood name, rapidly gentrifying) which was packed with people buy Halloween costumes.  It was $7.99 which struck me as a bit pricey.  I also noted that if you are looking for contemporary thrillers, fantasy and sci-fi it had a pretty impressive collection of mainstream stuff.  I should add these to my hunting maps.

The Wild Dog of Edmonton was a great little book. It was written in 1948 for a young adult audience.  There are two protagonists, Dwight the orphan who lives with the hard-working and hard-feeling Brunnels.  They haven't officially adopted him and he is basically there as a farmhand.  Mr. Brunnel is the kind of resentful asshole they are still breeding in rural and suburban Canada, angry in this case because the government is forcing him to send Dwight to School.  Dwight, while tending the barn witnesses the birth of a litter of pups and falls in the love with the first one. He names him Whitepaw and he becomes our second protagonist.  Old Farmer Fuckface Brunnel realizing that the boy loves the dog, does everything he can to force him to get rid of it.  The boy's nice teacher (who also realizes his potential) lets the dog stay with her at least until the end of the school year.  Whitepaws becomes a favourite among the students.

However, when the school year ends, Brunnel, despite the pleas of the nice teacher, reiterates his threat that he will shoot the dog, so Dwight and Whitepaws run away, heading to Edmonton where he hopes to find work.

Thus begins a two-part adventure, first with the two making their way in the winter on a perilous journey and second once in Edmonton, when they get separated and then Whitepaw learns to fend for himself.  Both parts are cool but the book really shone for me when Whitepaws was on his own.  He was a loving, trusting dog, being brought up with nice Dwight, the kindly teacher and all the kids.  Here on the mean streets of Edmonton he learns to sneak, steal and fight.  It's pretty cool stuff.  It moves along at a nice tight pace with nice descriptions of wintery Canada and this strange world from a dog's perspective.

It struck me as reading this that the post-apocalyptic genre and the animal perspective adventure genre share a lot in common.  They both have potential heroes exploring strange lands with whom they have little or no connection or history.  Meaning can only be guessed at, puzzled together by the bits of information they glean from the ruins or Man's world.  Survival is a share theme as well.  Something to ruminate on.

This was a great find.  The fundamental conflict is between the selfish individualism of the farmer, who uses his struggle for resources and labour as an excuse for an ideology of negativity and control versus the liberal spirit of the teacher who recognizes that with education and community everybody can be uplifted.  This conflict is still with us today in Canada.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

96. Slow Burner by William Haggard

I went to Toronto in October to see my aunt's art exhibit (which was really wonderful and moving).  I did some research ahead of time and mapped out all the used book stores I could find.  I ended up hitting quite a few of them.  The results were somewhat disappointing.  Toronto has lost some good used bookstores recently and the ones that remain are all quite nicely appointed, well-managed and often quite pleasant.  They also have this odd BMV chain which I can't tell if it is nefarious or good.  Unfortunately, they do not have a lot of the kinds of books I look for.  Nevertheless, I found a few things, including two William Haggard's at Rereading in the Darlington, which had the best stock of used genre paperbacks in general and made me want to go to what I believe is their sister store Reading.

Slow Burner turns out to be Haggard's first book.  It takes place domestically in England (actually mostly in various government offices in London) and is kind of an "office thriller", in the sense that much of the action is various educated and upper class government officials strategizing and speculating on how to deal with a crisis.  It may sound boring but I love this stuff.  The crisis in this case is that a scientific agency that has developed a form of efficient, transferable nuclear energy called Slow Burner that is being used in several factories to give the UK a competitive economic advantage discovers the same signal that Slow Burner gives off coming from a suburban house in Dipley.  Slow Burner gives off very specific epsilon rays and the security part of the agency constantly monitors the factories to ensure safety.

What does it mean?  How did it get there?  Who lives in the house?  The head of the nuclear agency, a super smart physicist turned administrator has to deal with his overly cautious Assistant Minister, who also hates him.  He works with the head of Security, Russel (a recurring character in Haggard's books) to try and solve the problem while maneuvering around the assistant minister.

There are two things that I find odd in this book.  The first is class.  Every main character is educated and many seem to have separate incomes and have been raised in public schools.  Yet, there is a still more complex layer of class hierarchy behind all their conversations.  The subtlety of political interaction is already incredibly high here.  Every interaction is a possible powerplay, down to the way somebody is greeted.  Somebody says or does something that seems pretty standard and then the other character is suddenly primed for an attack or shaken to the core.  I have dipped my toe in office politics and am thankfully in a role that is almost entirely free of them today.  I can see how when you are actually in politics, in a stratified society with an ancient aristocratic culture like Britain, it would be pretty intense, but this is at another level, much of whose background is lost to me.  I need to read this book with somebody from that world and have them explain it to me.

The second thing is the civil liberties and the deep respect they are given.  I always assumed the British internal intelligence agencies could just invoke the Official Secrets Act and do whatever they want.  Here, they are stymied by this house because they have no legal right to enter it nor to detain its owner.  They do have dossiers on everybody and find out a lot of info quickly but if this was today and some house was emitting epsilon rays, would there not be some commando team surrounding it within minutes?  It makes the book much more interesting and our world much more pleasant when the security forces actually respect the rule of law, but it was a bit of a surprise to me.

The ending was a bit too neat and the physicist character and his romantic arc resembled a bit too closely the career diplomat in The Powder Barrel, but these are minor quibbles and it was his first book.  I have two more Haggard's on deck and those are going to stay there for a while, aging like a fine wine, until the right time to take each one out.

Friday, November 29, 2019

95. The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin

You know things are starting to get weird here at Olman's Fifty when I'm reading bestseller non-fiction books read by business tycoons.  It had actually been on my list for a long time and now that I am reading so much, I have allowed myself the luxury of buying new books every now and then (only from independent bookstores).  I was near Paragraphe here the other day and picked this up as well as two other (gasp) literary fiction novels.

Levitin is a pretty succesful dude and one of those guys who has had tons of jobs.  The rare part about him is that after all those jobs, he ended up quite high in academia.  He started out in the music scene and produced albums for some pretty big names. He rubs shoulders with rock starts and CEOs.  He is also a professor and dean in psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill and KGI (I don't know what that is). 

It is sort of hard to encapsulate The Organized Mind, as it covers a pretty wide range of topics.  The subtitle says "Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload" and this theme was one of the reasons I added it to my list.  I had been struggling myself with distraction and time-wasting on the internet.  This part of the book was really interesting and super helpful for me.  He explains what we understand now about how the brain works and how that impacts the way we interact with the world. I have mostly gotten on top of my internet addiction these days, but I still tend to be very distracted in my work.  It is in the nature of my job to have multiple projects and many little tasks to do as well as longer-term goals.  Much of my work time was spent "multi-tasking".  What I learned from this book is that multi-tasking is actually quite tiring, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for focus uses up a lot of energy switching between different modes.  On the flip side, finishing minor tasks like responding to an email or chat, fires off a bit of dopamine and this becomes addictive.  So you think you are getting stuff done and feeling good about it, but you are actually exhausting yourself.  It's a bit more complicated than this and I am probably getting it wrong, but just understanding this has made me much more conscious and seemed to really motivate me to stick to one job at a time.  It's only been a week and it could be the placebo effect but I honestly have felt much less tired at the end of the day since I stopped jumping around from task to task at work.

I found the other elements in the book to be mostly good, but not so helpful for me.  I am a pretty organized person (and used to be extremely organized before having a family) and I have worked as an executive secretary and office manager, so much of the advice about organizing one's time, home and office was rudimentary to me, likewise most of the technical info about passwords and skepticism on the internet.  He argues strongly for expertise in information and uses wikipedia as an example of where amateurs creating info can go wrong.  This already seems dated, as wikipedia has addressed a lot of those issues, though his central concern was spot on as we see that it has gotten far far worse since 2014 since this was written.  I do think he betrays his own privilege and class position and doesn't take into consideration the profound power imbalances that we see much more starkly in the post-Trump world when he argues that the New York Times is an objective, unbiased source of info.

Far, far worse, are some very snobby (and very typical for a McGill professor, the ultimate in Canadian intellectual elite class) assumptions about fiction where he cites some study that claims that reading "literary fiction" develops empathy much more than reading pulp fiction or non-fiction.  I get and agree with the overall point he is making, that reading fiction allows your mind to wander and uses the unconscious daydreaming mode.  But to make this false dichotomy between two class-based marketing categories of books is just embarrassing.  He claims that literary fiction has subtler characterization and thus makes the brain think more than rote pulp fiction.  This is class-based garbage. There is good literary fiction and there is good pulp fiction.  Likewise, there is a ton of fake high-browed literary fiction that is as boilerplate as any Harlequin romance (another genre that also has a range of quality, to be fair).  Very disappointing.  Otherwise, a pretty interesting read and I am better for it.

Monday, November 25, 2019

94. Highland Days by Tom Weir

I took a bit of a flyer on this book.  I have a romantic fascination with the British outdoors, probably started by reading Swallows and Amazons and the like at an early age, and later nurtured by British adventure fiction.  Who knows, perhaps there is a genetic trace going back to my paternal grandfather's family who came over from Liverpool and perhaps before that the countryside.  Highland Days looked to have some nice discussions about beautiful walks in the countryside, quaint characters and asides about existence.

Well those things were certainly present in the book, but only in very small doses.  The majority of the text is him describing each of various climbs he did as a young man in the Highlands. This is a book for climbers, though thank goodness of the older school.  He doesn't go into the super boring technical detail we would get today and each climb is described in language that makes you wish you could be there.  Nevertheless, this is a book for specialists.  It would kind of be like if I wrote a book in which I went through all the books I read as a young man and how much I enjoyed them (wait a minute...).  And all the place names are in gaelic in Scotland of whose geography I am woefully ignorant. 

Because it was all so pleasant and most of the time he goes out it seemed to be pouring rain (or snowing), it somehow managed to capture my attention better than I would have expected.  It did give me a real desire to go for some nice hikes in the highlands (though not the climbing in freezing rain parts).  He also has a really interesting chapter on keepers, who were men who lived on the land to maintain it for the laird's who would come once or twice a year to hunt. This was a ridiculous remnant of the old aristocratic landholding economy of Scotland and Weir is rightly critical of it.  Though I am not so sure how well his suggestion of logging and other resource attraction would have the end he hoped for of attracting more people to stay in these areas, while not doing to much damage to the environment.

Weir was the vanguard of a new phenomenon which was working-class people being interested in the outdoors for its own sake.  As a child he would take the bus out on his own to get away from the drab tenements (tenements are always described as "drab" it seems).  He later went on to do some important climbs and had his own TV show called Weir's Way that was hugely popular.  You can even get a DVD of his best walks, which I would not complain were I forced to watch.