Friday, January 14, 2022

1. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I've been meaning to read Burroughs for a long time now, though was hoping to stumble on the first John Carter of Mars.  Instead, I found a cheap copy of this at the great (and thank god still alive) Moe's on Telegraph in Berkeley.  It won't be a big surprise to tell you that this book is racist.  But damn, it's not just racist from 1913.  It's got levels and at times can be kind of difficult to read.  I like to think I'm pretty woke, but also able to recognize historical context and actually read the content.  There is some shit in here though that made me feel uncomfortable, particularily the portrayal of Jane's maid Esmerelda, who I guess was supposed to be a humourous character.  It's the worst stereotype with her eyes rolling around, fainting at every shock and talking in colourful, goofily erroneous language.  Oddly, there is a contrasting moment where the suitor to Jane compliments her and agrees on her calling the jungle lonesome.  Despite that and even though there are super racist portrayals of the African tribespeople (cannibals with sharpened teeth) and even more insane ideology of genetic aristocracy (Tarzan's lineage makes him a gentleman by nature despite his upbringing), it is the portrayal of Esmerelda that I found the most cringey and painful. 

I do understand and even appreciate the core tenet that makes Tarzan so appealing.  It is the fantasy of the shedding of the protective veneer of civilization.  All the scenes of him swinging through the jungle and fighting beasts are pretty exciting (though fuck can we stop killing lions, already!).  I do feel like he doesn't milk it (and none of the movie do either) enough.  When he does return to civilization, he demonstrates his badassedness only twice and they aren't very satisfying.  In the first, the victim is a drunken black guy (racistly described of course), whose wrist Tarzan breaks and then sends packing.  It is described after the event so there is no real thrill.  In the second, he shows a bunch of white hunters how to hunt for real and that is cool, except for the gratuitous lion slaughter.

I am tempted to keep reading them, especially with the truly surprising failure of the romantic ending where he doesn't get Jane.   I also am intrigued by the world building.  I may at least keep an eye out for the second one, but review I read say they get pretty formulaic.  I think this is do for a modern "woke" anti-colonalist re-interpretation.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

2021 Year-end Wrap up

I don't have a whole lot to say about my reading in 2021.  I am suffering from a bit of reading malaise right now and I feel it is biasing my look back at last year.  Also, as I went through the books I read, it feels like each one reminds me of different stages of dealing with covid, as it is so dominating everything these days.  I am proud that I read 74 books but it feels like somehow there was a lot of struggle.  I am not honestly sure how I read that many books as much of the time it felt like I was barely reading or pushing myself to get reading.  I guess the mantra of just getting started and keeping a book open will eventually get the books read.

I read 21 books by women (I thought it was a lot more lol).  This stat was bolstered by great female sci-fi and fantasy authors such as N.K. Jimesen and Robin Hobb (as well as some good old classic mystery authors like Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Charlotte Armstrong).  I also discovered Georgette Heyer this year (thanks Romance twitter) which is a gift that will keep giving.  Still just over a quarter of my reading being by women needs improvement, despite my excuse that my genre of mid-century paperbacks is male-dominated.

Only 10 books by African-American authors (and 5 of those were by N.K. Jimesen so doing double duty on my diversity goals).  Definitely needs improvement, though two strong highlights there with The Spook Who Came in from the Cold and Razorblade Tears.

In terms of paperback collecting the huge find was Where the Money Was by Willie Sutton.  The Q Document, though of no real value, was one of my favourite looking paperbacks that will get a warm welcome on my shelf.

Highlights for me for actual reading were the first two Trickster books by Eden Robinson (the only books I read by an indigenous author).  These are outstanding, a wonderful mix of shit-kicking, B.C. urban grittiness with rich and intense fantasy mythology.  Just excellent.  I also really enjoyed Razorblade Tears.  Both are examples of good old genres being injected with new life and creativity by non-white male authors who are also just damned good writers.  Their existence is heartening to me, to know that the basic tenets of the genres I love are not dependent on old cultures of white male dominance.  Also, they are just hell of fun to read.

I also finally got to some classic authors such as Rex Stout, Earle Stanley Gardner and Daphne duMaurier.  The first two were enjoyable but didn't really stay with me but duMaurier demands that I seek out her other works.

No real lowlights except that god-awful Walker Percy mess.  A workmanlike year.  My on-deck shelf overfloweth, so I must read on!

I hope all of you are well and enjoying your reading.  Here's to a better 2022.  Maybe the shitbirds in power will realize that we need long-term investment in the education, health care and the planet instead of production of consumer goods.

Friday, December 31, 2021

74. The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

Happy new year!  I found this in a free shelf in Berkeley and thought it would be a nice pallet freshener after the last read.  It indeed was.  This was the rare ocassion when I was glad to learn this was part of a series, as it comes in at an efficient 230 pages and leaves you wanting more.  It's very much in the vein of revisionary British period adventures like Fingersmith (though without the sexuality).  16 year-old Sally Lockman is left orphaned when her father dies at sea.  She later receives a strange warning and in following it, goes on a pretty fun London adventure, with an extended colonial backstory that would fit nicely in a Holmes case.  There is a side plot as well of her finding her way as a strong, practically-educated girl in Edwardian London, making friends and running a business.  I found the ending to be particularly touching, as it involves the love of a father for his lone daughter.  I will be looking for the rest of this series.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

73. The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy

Jesus, talk about a contrast.  After the find of the decade, I thought I would push my luck and grabbed this supposedly "brisk thriller".  I'd read The Moviegoer as a young man stupidly in love with the wrong girl who recommended it and found it okay.  I was hoping for an intelligent, interesting adventure book.  Instead, it delivered on neither the cover promise of a thriller nor the intelligent observations of a respected "literary" author.  The base plot was convoluted, unrealistic, uninteresting and false at its premise.  The literary observations were incoherent and vague, basically the empty, malformed musings of some old white guy who people told was smart too many times.  It's worse than just being empty and pretentious and boring; much of his musings range from cringey to mildly offensive to just gross.  There are multiple (and all unecessary) graphic descriptions of child pornography.  The racial politics are basically racism disguised under the veneer of the informed, yet wryly realistic liberal.  His female characters are ungraspable, especially his wife who is only described, has little or no dialogue or activity.

The plot, as it is, involves a doctor returning to his small Louisiana community after being in jail for 2 years.  There are lots of oblique hints as to why he went to jail, leading the reader to believe a full and interesting backstory will be revealed. This never happens. He soon discovers that his few remaining patients have radically different behaviours and personalities.  We eventually learn of a "conspiracy" to put some radiated sodium in the water that makes people less prone to criminal behaviour or something.  The whole thing is preposterous and boring and somehow connected to a school of pedophiles, which gives Percy his excuse to describe it all.  What's super fucking weird and creepy is that the abusers are all re-integrated into society and given jobs at the new institute for the dying (to replace the euthanasia centers; don't ask) which the protagonist puts together in the denouement.

The worst book I've read in a long time.  Took me almost two weeks to get through.  Feels like the editor said to him or herself "well this sucks but I can just stick Walker Percy on the front and we should sell enough."  The reviewers who said shit like "laced with escapes and chase scenes and risky, ingenious detective work" need their license  pulled.  

Friday, December 17, 2021

72. Where the Money Was by Willie Sutton

The paperback find of the year, arguably of the decade!  I've been scouring little libraries and book stores during these covid times, mainly in Montreal and Berkeley and it has been fun but no real mind-blowing  find until this one.  It was at the free shelf outside of Latina  on St-Viateur among a few older true crime paperbacks.  I have had this one on my list since I started the blog after reading that it was a big influence on Westlake's Parker character.  That is an exciting and satisfying moment when you finally stumble upon a real treasure.  One does a slow motion doubletake in one's head, "is this really what it looks like?  IT IS!!!"

I'm happy to report that the book itself is an enjoyable read.  It's surprisingly long.  Sutton spent most of his life in jail so this book actually has more prison escapes than bank robberies.  In the last third, as he gets older and sicker, he uses legal techniques to try and get out of jail.  This part drags a bit but you are invested so much at this point, that you want to find out what happens.  The best part for me are the bank robberies at the beginning.  It does seem like Sutton was brought into this world to heist banks.  He is like the Michael Jordan of bank robbery.  Beyond the anti-authoritarian appeal of the bank robber, Sutton never used violence and was a charming and stylish guy so he became pretty famous (which helped to get him out of jail early).

The description of the prisons are very informative about the corruption and cruelty at that time and how easily the prison-guard relation can turn into (or maybe always is) abuse.  It was just known that when you got arrested in Brooklyn, you were going to get a serious beating as part of your "interrogation".  When Sutton finally gets arrested the beating is insane (the cops are extra mad because he made them look bad).  Was painful to be reading the descriptions of the brutality in Attica and Sing Sing at the same time that Eric Adams just announced he is going to reinstate solitary in Ryker's.

As I say, I am more of a heist guy than prison escape guy, but the escapes in this book are wild.  There is a failed one trying to find the exit of a sewer tunnel that had me almost nauseous with stress.  Sutton just had no fear!  He goes through a 38" wide tunnel that slowly gets higher and higher with shit and piss and medical waste naked carrying a flashlight and a metal pole.  When there is only like a few inches of clearance and he still hasn't found the exit, so he ducks down and tries to swim for it!  

This book needs a reprint.  Still very relevant today for both fiction and non-fiction reasons.

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

71. Money Shot by Christa Faust

I actually "discovered" (sounds weird, thus the quotations) Christa Faust on twitter via some other film noir fans.  Turns out she is an author of several books and graphic novels, aside from having excellent taste in movies.  I found this Hard Case paperback at S.W. Welch (7$!) and jumped in, needing some good old pulp fiction after the my recent fantasy binge.

I am happy to report this is the kind of excellent updating of classic pulp that we are getting more and more of.  It's basically a revenge story set in criminal L.A. except the protagonist, Angel Dare, is a woman, an ex-porn star and now talent manager.  She gets suckered to come in to do a shoot as a favour to an old director friend, ends up getting sucker punched and thrown in a trunk. We start in the trunk. You keep turning the pages.  I won't go into the plot any more than to say broadly that she has to figure out why this is happening to her, get out of it and then go hunt down the people responsible.  

This book is pretty rough, with sex violence and sexual violence.  Punches are not pulled.  What I really enjoyed beyond the basic ass-kicking premise is that you get a realistic, non-moralistic insider's look at the porn industry. It turns the book from what would otherwise still be a pretty entertaining pulp read into an informative and interesting expose as well  Lots of great (in the book, generally quite seedy and depressing in real life) locations, a wide range of colourful and often fucked-up characters all with realistic little details that lets you feel that Faust knows of what she writes.

I don't know what to say about what a book like this says about pulp and gender.  A smarter person than me should do a side-by-side analysis with Megan Abbott's Queenpin.  For me, it is just refreshing to read this kind of fiction from a female perspective where the women have agency and sexuality that is their own.  Good stuff.

Oh snap, there's a sequel with the same character!  I loved how this one ended, without a big explanation, but the nerdy part of me did want to find out how it all played out.  Very happy to add Choke Hold to my shopping list.

Friday, December 03, 2021

70. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

I had to rush out and buy book 2 I so much enjoyed the first one.  I don't have a lot to say to add to that review.  This one gets deeper into the magic and history and we get a clear track on the big picture plot. I had a couple of plot issues around the way they defended their geode home from the colonizing Sanzed (why didn't they just go full orogeny from the beginning and why was the attack of the stone eaters seen as some big surprise?).  I also found more reliance on unsourced anger as a conflict-creating/story-prolonging device wearisome at times.  If Alabaster and Essun would stop arguing and just talk, we would have had most of the mystery revealed in a few days instead of having all this fake anger and not communicating normally.  When the story picks up in the last third, we don't have time for the anger and again it gets really kickass.  Going to take a short break but will probably pick up the third soon.