Monday, January 31, 2005

8. Smoke Detector by Eric Wright

Eric Wright is a Canadian mystery writer, whose main character, Inspector Charlie Salter, works for the Toronto Metropolitan Police. This is the first one I've read, but he's published tons and has a great reputation. The mystery was light, about an antique dealer who died of smoke inhalation in a suspicious fire in his shop. It was well put together and had some interesting characters. What kept me into it more was the Inspector and the life around him. This is a pretty common set up in mysteries, where the detective solves a different mystery each book, but his or her own life follows a greater story arc that keeps the reader hooked. In this case, Salter is on the outs with the force because he doesn't follow the politics well. He also has two boys, including a teenager with whom he can barely relate. He's old school and kind of funny about it. I wouldn't recommend that you run out and buy this book, but I'm going to be keeping my eyes open for any others in the series if I have nothing to read. It's also cool that they take place in Toronto, because I knew a lot of the locations.

7. The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds book pictureI've read a lot of H.G. Wells (I went through a big phase in college while avoiding my thesis), but I was never sure if I'd actually read the War of the Worlds. I knew a lot about it and have listened to Orson Welles' famous radio broadcast many times. What spurred me to read it this time, was a great sci-fi book by a Quebec author that I read last year. It was called La Cage de Londres (The London Cage) and took place on earth after a succesful second invasion by the martians. Now, humans lived naked, enclosed in giant concrete domes where all their food and shelter needs are taken care of. They are "milked" regularily for their blood by the martians. The book takes all the initial concepts in the War of the Worlds to their logical conclusion and it was really great. The author wrote an afterword explaining how he'd used the source material and urging sci-fi fans to re-read the original.

The narrator and his story about being separated from his wife is basically a very thin vessel to hold Wells' speculation on what an invasion from Mars would look like and how it would effect Victorian England. The first half of the book is very similar in structure to many apocalyptic classics, where civilized people first remain ignorant of the danger, then don't take it seriously, then get worried, then totally freak out and revert to a more and more savage state. Wells describes this process by showing small vignettes that he or his brother witness during their escape: crowded train platforms, looting, horses and weapons being confiscated by self-empowered local militias, etc.

Wells is ultimately a scientific moralist and this book fundamentally rests on the notion that man is in no way ethically superior to any other creature. We just happen to have an intelligence that privileges us with perspective. Referring to the martians, he discounts any rancor towards them:

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Constantly, he compares himself and other humans when they encounter martians to how animals must feel when encountering humans.

It's a short book and an engaging read. Wells is a great writer. His sentences are strong. He writes with some of the complexity of the english of his period, but you always sense a direct honesty behind it. War of the Worlds was written in 1898, when they didn't have phones or planes, which makes the details and consistency of his vision even more astounding. His science fiction barely dates.

Monday, January 24, 2005

6. Ces Enfants de ma Vie par Gabrielle Roy

Ces Enfants de ma Vie book pictureGabrielle Roy is one of Canada's better now authors. She was a Manitoba born french canadian who went to Quebec after teaching in Manitoba for 8 years. There she started her writing career. This book is one of her last, written in the '70s and describes her year as a teacher in small northern prairie town during the depression. The first half book is divided into small sections, each one telling the story of a single, remarkable student. I found the first half to be amazing, truly moving and rich. It made me think of how much we have materially and how the children of our society seem to have so much less spiritually. These kids are really poor, the children of immigrants who work non-stop just to survive on their farms. There is a really moving story about a little boy who can't afford to give her a xmas present. When she describes the little bags of nuts and fruit that the kids get from the teachers and how excited and grateful the children are, it's really moving. She wwas definitely a teacher and other teachers would recognize the struggles she has and her relationship with the kids.

The second part is almost a novella and more complex. Here she goes into her relationship with the oldest boy in the class, Mérédic, a wild rebel who rides a horse to school when he does come and causes nothing but trouble. As she learns about the source of his problems, she begins to sympathize with him and they end up getting very close. He's 14 and she's only 18 and there is a lot of erotic and romantic tension. He is half-native and shows her the natural world while she tries to get him connected to studying. There are some incredibly beautiful descriptions of the prairie landscape.

Ces Enfantt de ma Vie has been translated into english as The Children of my Heart and I'd recommend it to anyone, but especially teachers.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

5. The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer

The Thought Gang book pictureThis book was a surprise xmas present from my good friend Robson and his lovely wife Heidi. They left it at my house after staying with me in early December. It's about an alchoholic philosophy don at Oxford who takes off to France and starts robbing banks. It's told in the very post-modern style of today, with super-short chapters and all kinds of segues and diversions. Thematically, though, the book centers around philosophy and the question of existence in our modern age. It's quite well-written and quite entertaining. Especially hilarious is the reaction to the robberies by the blasé french. The robbers become famous and each of their heists is done with a different philosopher as the style of the robbery. The tellers want to get their autographs and are proud to be robbed by them. There is a lot of excessive drinking and waking up naked in strange flats with the police banging on the door. These kinds of books, I find, are ultimately undermined by their lack of a driving narrative. This one is no exception, except that the ride along the way is quite enjoyable and thoughtful and there are some very funny moments.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

4. Sur le Seuil par Patrick Senécal

Sur le Seuil book pictureThis is the first french book I've read this year (and the fourth in my life). It's from the Alire publishing house, a Quebec company that specializes in Quebecois genre writers. Senécal is a fairly popular horror author. I've been searching out Alire books at the used bookstore and this one caught my eye because it was made into a movie that came out last summer. It's about a psychiatrist who is totally burned out on his career and his life. He works in a psychiatric hospital and his complacency and rigid rationality are thrown into turmoil when he takes a famous horror author as a patient. The author in question was found hanging out his apartment window in a catatonic state, having cut off all his own fingers with a paper cutter. As the doctor digs deeper into his case, he uncovers bizarre and supernatural connections between the author's books and real-life tragedies. Of course, these connections can only be explained by the existence of supernatural evil and the doctor's refusal to recognize it leads to more horror and tragedy. I'm not a big fan of horror books and the psychiatrist's stubborness, though quite realistically portrayed, tended to annoy me. In the end, there really is some disturbing stuff. It's not just suggested horror; there's tons of blood, guts, mutilation, necrophilia and devil worship. I'm not sure about this, but his french was stylistically simpler, perhaps even closer to english, than what I've previously read. I found it relatively easy-going. Overall, with caveats for my slow french, I found this book kept me turning the pages and entertained, but it wasn't the richest and deepest of novels I've read.

Monday, January 10, 2005

3. Bangkok 8 by John Burdett

Bangkok 8 book pictureThis book was going around my family last year with much recommendation and my parents ended up giving it to me for xmas. It's a detective story set in Bangkok dealing with the sex industry, heroin and jade. It's a classic policier in structure (and that aspect of it is also fairly well done) but what really sets it apart is the protagonist and his perspective. He's a low-ranking Thai detective, the only honest one in Bangkok, it seems and his approach to the case and the world around him is an appealling mix of buddhist remove and sophisticated modernity. The author is english, I believe, but he's spent a lot of his life in the east. I don't know if it's accurate or not, but he's created a mind set that really makes western notions of capitalism, hard work and morality seem ridiculous. At the same time, he is subtly arguing for an Asian future for the world and the way he portrays this is convincing and interesting. There are even some precursors to cyberpunk ideas in the plot here. He also gives such a rich portrayal of the Bangkok sex industry that I feel I don't really need to go see it for myself anymore. It's a lot of fun, with rich characters and great language. I recommend it.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

2. Put a Lid on It by Donald E. Westlake

Put a Lid on it book pictureI'm a longtime Westlake fan, especially of his Parker books. I picked this one up just because it was cheap and I was going to be travelling. My dad finished it in a day. It took me three, but it's that kind of book. Short chapters, always moving forward and humourously entertaining. Westlake has lost the hard edge that he had in the 70's, but he still has a real knack at knocking the establishment. He also can still pull out the great metaphors. This novel pits a professional criminal against the president's re-election team and the latter comes out looking pretty pathetic. It ends a bit easily, but the ride is well worth it.

1. The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard

The Crystal World book pictureThis is Ballard's fourth book and the last of what I guess is considered his end-of-the-world series. I found each of the first three to be at least interesting (and in the case of The Wind from Nowhere, awesome). The Crystal World is about a doctor at a leper colony in Africa going to some small Heart of Darkness like mining outpost that is slowly becoming crystallized. It's weird though because things don't just harden into crystal. They sort of stay alive and it comes and goes in waves. People become fascinated with the crystal world (as does the narrator). There are only brief hints that this crystallization is worldwide (the narrator reads in a newspaper that Miami has been evacuated) and the story is more focussed on the narrator's personal relationship with the crystals and the women around him. The descriptions are beautiful, but I found the characters' motivations distancing. Still, a pretty cool read. Ballard is really weird.

Credit due to the Lantzvillager for turning me on to these.