Sunday, December 31, 2006

2006 wrap-up and looking forward

Well I did not make the 50 books this year, barely made 32 considering that most of the "books" I read this year were actually comics (albeit fairly long ones; I read up to Thorgal #27). But I have my excuses. My french comprehension has improved a lot and my love for bandes-dessinées even more, so I will definitely continue to delve into the comic section of the library. But I am also inspired to continue my catch-up on classic sci-fi (thanks in no small part to an excellent xmas present from the Mount Benson Report). There have been several books that I am interested in on other 50 book blogs as well. So I am going to shoot for 50 books this year, both french comics and english regular books. I may try to see how long it takes to read a Maigret in french as well.

The overall blog posting has slowed down this year among our little group, as I am sure it has across the internet. But keep posting and keep reading everyone. Your updates give me great pleasure. Good luck for '06 everyone!

32. The Corner: a Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood by David Simon and Edward Burns

The Corner cover pictureI took this fat hardback (576 pages) out of the library to read during the xmas holidays. I am totally hooked on the Wire (without a doubt the best show on television), but what blew me away was an interview with David Simon where he just tears into America. It's a podcast on the HBO website. They start out by asking him a question about his "passion" and he says "I don't think it's about passion. I'm angry." and then he proceeds to rip into the government, bureaucracies, and us, criticizing the current situation in America with such vigour, honesty and intelligence that I was wondering if he was really American. He mentioned his book "Homicide" as if it is was well known, where he says some of these ideas are discussed. So I went to look for it and came away with his newer work, "The Corner" instead.

The Corner is an amazing work of journalism. Simon and Burns (an ex-cop and current teacher) spent four years just hanging out in the worst drug corners of inner-city Baltimore. They and their involvement are almost entirely transparent in the course of the book, but they explain their process in detail in an epilogue. The Corner follows the lives of a shattered family, a husband and wife who are both junkies and their son, a sometime dealer and street tough. Each has a distinct personality and a distinct role in the shooting galleries and corners of West Baltimore and through their roles we get a look at the drug market, the community of addicts, the schools, the hospitals and the cops. The majority of the book takes place in the world of addicts, hanging out in abandoned rowhouses, scoring and shooting, recuperating, hunting out scams for a bit more cash to score and shoot again.

If you watch the Wire, this is Bubbles' world. And even then, it is far less glamourous than anything in the show. The violence, when it occurs, is workmanlike. The dealers come off more like fast food employees (though they make a lot more money), basically working hard every day, serving customers. And the addicts scams and money-making schemes are small-time, pathetic, industrious like rats at best. They strip copper wire from old houses, switch vials of heroin for ones filled with water, borrow and beg from relatives. Lying and scheming is a given.

The book is so thorough and treats the main characters with such depth and care, that as you work through it, learning about the drug trade, about the failure of institutions at every level (driven by our unwillingness to see the problem as a human one), you really get into the story of the family. It's so sad because the patriarch was one of the thousands of black men who came to the north after the war with nothing in his pocket and was able to find good work, marry a woman, buy a nice house and become part of a poor but warm and thriving community in Baltimore. Now he and his wife are surrounded by dealers, fearing getting shot or having the house burn down because of the abandoned building next door, cops breaking the door down looking for their grandson.

I could write about this book for a long time. For me, it did nothing to change my opinion because I share the opinion of the authors. I taught at a school with some kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, but it seemed like Mayberry compared to this book. Just getting these kids to even come to school is basically impossible. But for anyone else who is still labouring under the withering american myth that everybody has an opportunity to succeed if they only work hard and apply themselves, The Corner should be mandatory reading. Simon and Burns pull no punches. If you grow up in this world, you are fucked. And we don't care. He compares convincingly our attempts to solve the problem with our strategies to win the Vietnam war, and he predicts (so far correctly) that we will fail. Except this time, the enemy is us.

A great book. I'm definitely getting Homicide as soon as I can lay my hands on it.

31. What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markoff

Dormouse cover pictureI bought this book for my dad last xmas, after hearing a great interview with the author on the podcast Berkeley Groks. My dad liked it so much, he pressed it on to me to read, which I did on the way home for the holidays. I've read the two other classics of computer history "The Soul of a New Machine" by Tracy Kidder and "Hackers" by Steven Levy and my father was on the peripheries of it while it was going on, so I have a decent general idea of the history. What the Dormouse Said makes explicit and emphasises the idea that the radical changes in society and thinking that transformed America in the 60s strongly informed the ideas of the people who started the computer revolution as well.

It's an interesting idea. Markoff lays it out by going through the lives and personalities of many of the important players, first showing the development of their ideas and values and then their impact on the computer world. Most of the action takes place at Stanford's SAIL laboratories and later at Xerox PARC. He has done excellent research and tells a fascinating story. These engineers and programmers really were freak. Even the earliest pioneers, the 50s guys wearing black ties and white short sleeve shirts, were participating in organzed LSD experiments while building some of the earliest network machines whose software backbone (ftp for instance) and hardware concepts are still with us today, buried deep in the structure of the internet.

I have trouble reading histories that have a lot of players and particularly during the first half of the book, I got kind of confused. The organization becomes clearer in the second half as it focuses on fewer characters. Things also get really wilder at that point, as the 60s heat up with social and political conflict reaching a head. The programmers found themselves caught between the angry forces of the anti-war movement and their own desire to change the world through technology, technology which was generally funded by the military-industrial complex. At the SAIL labs, things were really crazy. Programmers were smoking dope downstairs while engineers were working on helicopter bombing simulations for the Vietnam war upstairs.

What the Dormouse Said is a rigorous book. Markoff doesn't pull punches and isn't afraid to show where mistakes were made. In fact, one of his stronger theses is that no matter how succesful a wave of technology is, there is always another one on the way that will completely undermine the previous one and cannot be predicted by the riders of the previous one. The leaders at PARC were driven by the idea of shared computing. They thought the idea of an individual personal computer was frivolous (though they were all aware of Moore's law at the time). The guys at Xerox Parc were a little more hip to it, but it was individual hobbyists who blew the whole thing wide open. They borrowed lots of tech and ideas from their predecessors (the mouse, windows) but ended up going off in an entirely different direction, leaving Xerox's entry into the computer industry as a famous failure. Interestingly, today, we are seeing the pendulum swing back, as the internet and shared apps start to take hold. Who knows where we will go from here, but Markoff's emphasis on the poor judgement of contemporary pundits on the future is a lesson we should not forget.

This book is an important read. The irony of the computer revolution is how so many of its leaders were against corporations and capitalism and were looking for ways to make the world a better place through radical social change (obviously, this doesn't include Bill Gates). They ended up creating the wealth engine of the 20th century. I still believe that there is a role for technology to help make the world a better place beyond just increasing production and trade, but we humans need to get past our short-term greed and social fear for that to happen. The tools are there and this book is a reminder that some very smart and hard-working people created these tools so we could attempt to do that.

30. Red Lights by Simenon

Red Lights cover picture
As Buzby, who lent me this book, predicted, I read it in one day. It's almost a novella, but I see that a lot of Simenon's books were short like that. Makes me feel guiltier for not reading him in french. Red Lights takes place in Long Island on the eve of a long weekend. A bickering husband and wife drive out to pick up their daughter from camp. The husband keeps sneaking drinks, first at home and then at rest-stops. The tension in the car explodes into a marital spat and the wife walks out of the car. The man continues on his drunk and bad things happen.

I was expecting a more drawn out story, more of an adventure and perhaps some mystery. But the events are actually revealed and wrapped up quite quickly. I realize looking back that the story climaxes with the husband's bender. While I was reading it, I was thinking that was the build-up, so I was off the rhythm a bit and it seemed to end abruptly.

Despite my expectations, it was a great read. Simenon captures the combination of hospitality and guardedness of 1950s northeastern America. The sense of forward motion, of darkness, of highways full of closed cars all going in the same direction is palpable. Finally, he digs right into the flawed heart of a weak man and it is quite painful.

Judging from Red Lights, Simenon is a great writer and I will definitely be reading more of his books.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

29. Les Enragés by David Chauvel and Erwan Le Saec

Les Enragés is the story of a retired professional hitman who against his better judgement comes back to do a final job. Of course he gets screwed by his employers and while on the run, crosses paths with a tough Chicano gangbanger who is also over his head in his own crime world. They are joined by a young woman killer who was sent to get the original hitman. The three of them travel across America, escaping from the badguys, fighting with each other and eventually coming to respect one another.

Les Enragés is very much in the french tradition of respecting and emulating the American gangster genre. The portrait of the ghetto and the cops all has a slightly off feel (though this may be emphasised because they are speaking french). But it's not off in a bad or obviously false way, just sort of foreign. Both the hitman and the young gangster are pretty badass characters. The story overall is also really cool. It's a testimony to outsiders and you root for them the whole way.

Les Enragés cover picture

Friday, December 29, 2006

28. Les Maitres de l'Orge by Jean Van Hamme and Francis Vallès

I read this BD at the beginning of the year and it was actually one of the titles that inspired me to really dig into the Belgian comic scene. I saw it on display at the library and it really blew me away. As you can see from the cover, the subject matter appears to be about as far from the expected contents of a comic book as you could imagine. It looks more like a european telenovela. And in fact, that's basically what it is, albeit epic in scope (running through 3 centuries and several generations) and a bit more sophisticated, with its inclusion of history and economy.

The title translates into "The Masters of the Barley" and the arc of the story follows a small Belgian brewery that grows into a vast multinational beer empire and the family, the Steenforts, that runs it. Each of the 7 albums is centered around a single character, representing that generation of the family. You can see the covers in order here. Each album starts with an intro page that has a précis of the history of that generation and the current state of beer development and the beer industry. It also has a two page spread showing the town where the Steenforts live (and their main brewery is found) from the air. Each album, you can see tiny changes in detail (as well as large ones) as development and history changes its geography. It's quite fun to look around and see the changes that actually happened in the previous album.

It is a rich, complex story, starting with the extreme poverty of the mid-nineteenth century. The man who becomes the patriarch of the Steenforts breaks away from indentured labour in another brewery and slowly struggles to start his own. Eventually the new brewery takes hold, using new processing techniques. There are conflicts, romances, thefts of trade secrets, conspiracy and all that good stuff. It is definitely a big soap opera, but one that maintains its narrative integrity. There are no strong themes, besides the importance of beer and the foibles of human weakness. It is very clear that the author loves and respects beer. Perhaps this reflects a Belgian characteristic. If this were translated into english (which it should be), it be a fantastic gift for the beer aficionado in your life (and I can think of one brewmaster who would appreciate this).

A great, rich, engrossing comic.

Les Maitres de l'Orge cover picture

Thursday, December 28, 2006

27. L'Echangeur by Marc Vlieger

L'Echangeur is a single volume bande dessinée, much more in the format of a graphic novel as we in the west know them. I don't know if it was ever published in the more traditional BD form, or serialized. It's the story of a giant apartment complex in France that is just up the hill from a gas stop on a major autoroute. These are the projects of France, a little farther out of town than the banlieu that exploded in riots last summer, but peopled with the same population: North African immigrants and their children. The drawings are clean and open, almost dusty, reflecting their empty surroundings.

The story is about the prodigal son returning home, a favorite uncle and son who managed to break free from the constraints of race, class and poverty. All that is known about him since he left are the series of exciting postcards he sends home, from all over the world, each one relaying all kinds of adventures. His young nephew idolizes him and is totally overjoyed when he comes back again. Why he has returned home and what he has actually done is a mystery, but he is still full of life and energy and crazy stories of adventure.

The cracks first start showing when the nephew, by bragging, gets his uncle caught up in a drag race with the local drug dealers. The reader begins to see that the uncle may have exagerated his driving skills and experience. Things get even more tense when a couple of toughs from Paris show up, looking for the uncle. In a rousing scene, that shows the unity of the projects, despite the earlier menace of the racing drug dealers, the Paris toughs are set upon, beaten up and driven out of town.

As the story progresses, and the uncle's lies slowly become more apparent, L'Echangeur portrays the life and struggles of his nephews, their dreams and desires and how they both thrive and are suprressed by their environment. The comic becomes a lot more benign and touching than it initially promised. The truth of the uncle's life is almost comical when it is finally revealed. Despite the change of tone, or maybe because of it, L'Echangeur ends up a profound and moving portrayal of an underclass community.

L'Echangeur cover picture

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

26. XIII written by Van Hamme drawn by Vance

XIII is one of Van Hamme (and Europe's) most succesful bande-dessinées. It is a story about a young man who wakes up on a New England beach with no memory, except for a fine physique, extreme skill at kicking ass and a tatoo of the roman numeral for XIII. It takes place during the 60s, mostly in the United States and each album peels back another layer in a conspiratorial onion surrounding a complex plot to assassinate the president. XIII is Van Hamme's fantastic interpretation of the Kennedy assassination.

XIII left me a bit cold. It has some cool storylines and captures that pre-Nixon paranoia quite nicely, but the conspiracy is so deep that it just started to become a bit preposterous. The main character, XIII, finds out that he is actually a totally different person than he previously thought he was at least 4 times! It's quite clever the way it all works, I think, because it seemed to hold together. But it just became too confusing and I started to stop caring, after the the third badguy leader of the conspiracy was revealed and vanquished.

They made a video game out of XIII and I think there might be a movie. If you are interested in the period and the conspiracy genre, than XIII definitely has to be included in your research. As a comic, I found it below the level of Van Hamme's best work such as Thorgal and Les Maitres de l'Orge.

XIII cover picture

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

25. Les Voleurs d'Empires by Martin Jamar and Jean Dufaux

Voleurs cover picture
I found this bande-dessinée in a version intégrale. It came out originally in a six-volume series that ran from 1993 to 2002. It takes place in the late 19th century France, during the downfall of Napoleon III, the Prussian invasion of France and the Paris Commune. The history of this period is the foundation of the story and plays a significant role in driving the events, but the primary narrative is a tale of supernatural horror.

At the beginning of the comic, a young girl waits by a tree in a field for a skeleton in a napoleonic officer's uniform. She swears her love and allegience to him and he sends her off to do his bidding. I don't know if I am missing some backstory or mythology, but the skeleton seemed to be the devil or at least some form of evil. The main story then begins, which takes place in a fancy boarding school in the country that has been taken over as a residence for Prussian officers. The boys are still there and supposed to be going to school, but they chafe at the invaders. The matron of the school is trying to hold all this together. The wrinkle is that the girl who met the devil is living upstairs in her apartment and is a total psycho, doing all kinds of freaky shit. Her wealthy parisian parents pay a hefty sum for the matron to take care of her, but she is making friends with rats, sewing medals onto corpses, seducing the prussian officers and generally behaving in a pretty disturbing manner.
small skull picture
The story is complex, with some of the students escaping the school and making their way to Paris. All of the other significant characters whose paths crossed at the school also end up in Paris, including the psycho girl. It is a winter of terrible famine as the Prussians hold the city in siege. I am still not sure exactly what the role of the devil girl is but I think the idea was that evil thrives off of human chaos and this period was a fecund one. The story climaxes in the attack on the Paris Commune.

This was a significant event in French history, one that I always knew was considered a cornerstone of modern Marxist theory and many historical arguments on the French Revolution. Unfortunately, my oblique and precious liberal arts education never actually directly explained what the hell actually happened. During the Prussian siege on Paris, the citizens living in the heart of the city set up their own militia and government, a relatively democratic one. After an armistice with Prussia, the communcal government didn't want to give up the power and the royalists eventually attacked them, in a very bloody way. It's a very interesting history and you can read more about it at the Wiki page for actual facts and details.

I found Les Voleurs d'Empires to be engaging and genuinely horrifying at times. It is a good adventure, with strong characters that you care about in exciting situations. It is the supernatural element and the portrayal of the history that make this bande-dessinée stand out. Again, the horror here is really horrific. Punches are not pulled. It is the same with the history. The authors do a fantastic job of showing a city under siege and the profound conflict between the classes that ripped Paris apart. I wish I had understood the backstory of the devil and his mistress, but I am not sure if it was meant to be fully explained.
Largo Winch cover picture

Thursday, December 21, 2006

24. Largo Winch

Get ready for an onslaught of last minute updates!

Largo Winch cover picture
Largo Winch is another very popular bande dessinée by Van Hamme. It's also as I have come to see with Van Damme's work, another story centered on an attractive white male who is disconnected from his roots. (Thorgal is the only other example I've posted so far here, but you will see others; it's definitely a major theme in Van Hamme's oeuvre).

Largo Winch is probably the lightest and most fantastic of them all, in the sense of adolescent wish fulfillment. It is a long-running series, structured in episodes of two albums. In the first two albums, it is established that Largo is an orphaned adventurer, a long-seasoned traveller who is actually the long-lost heir to a vast corporate empire, Winch Industries. The CEO and Winch's long-lost father (although the background to their relationship is much more complex and convoluted) has himself killed (or maybe doesn't; as I say it's complicated) and leaves his empire to Largo, who happens to be traipsing around Istanbul without a penny in his pocket, completely ignorant to his destiny. Of course, there are usurper's to the throne who want Largo out of the way and the hunt is on.
Largo mugshot picture

After his legitimacy is established, Largo takes the reins of power and the strength of his character, despite his total lack of business experience, proves him to be a natural, if unorthodox, business leader. From this point on, every two albums is a new adventure in which, in the first album, some problem arises which Largo, and a few recurring characters, then solve in the second album, all the while visiting exotic locations. blowing things up, showing off their ass-kicking skills, embarrassing uptight rich people and getting laid in the process to a series of comic-book hot secretaries, stewardesses, heiressses and sometimes villainesses.
Winch hottie picture
There is an ongoing story arc, although it imposes itself rather lightly on the serialized adventure structure. It involves the various factions of the vast empire of Largo Industries, many of whom are often working to unseat or disgrace Largo. There are great board meetings, where Largo whips out his knife and demonstrates his knife-throwing skill at some executive who tried to buy him out. I think it is this fantasy element, the street and life-trained individual bringing his skills to bear against slimy, but smart capitalists whose only game is in the office that makes Largo Winch more than just an extended adolescent fantasy. It does become a bit repetitive after a while, but for short bursts, it is really quite fun. I would say that Largo Winch is probably Van Hamme's least interesting work (that I've read so far), or perhaps the most self-indulgent, but compared to most adolesecent male power fantasies, it is still very effectively done, with funny and engaging secondary characters (the old maid secretary, the apache-pilot buddy, the uptight bureaucrat second-in-command) and really over-the-top adventure situations. Van Hamme puts his characters in serious jams.

So, good stuff but it doesn't last long.

Monday, September 11, 2006

20, 21, 22, 23. English novels read while in B.C.

[I read four english novels while I was in B.C. for a family wedding and then 2 weeks of work on the Excelsior Club in Golden. I had a 10-hour bus ride and really had no access to french comics.]

20. Slam the Big Door by John D. MacDonald
John D. Macdonald (along with Patricia Highsmith, who you'll see next) have become my two favorite cheap paperback authors. You can always find their books in a used book store for cheap and both were prolific (especially MacDonald). Slam the Big Door is a non-Travis McGee, but still contains all the classic elements: decadent establishment types in the height of the sexual revolution, spoiled, sour marriages, drinking, levels of toughness. This one was entertaining but meandered a bit at the end, not sure of where it was going and thus not totally delivering.

21. The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith.
She really was a disturbing genius. Her books look with depth and detail at the lives of normal people, people with weaknesses, and what happens to them when things start to go wrong. In this one, a recently divorced man who moves out to upstate NY accidently comes between a nice but quirky girl and her petty resentful boyfriend. The protagonist is really the good guy, but he's just slightly off, a little weird and this dooms him. He meets the girl by sneaking up to her house and watching her through her window. But he's not a pervert. He's sad and lonely and watching her quietly and happily living her life makes him happy. He didn't even want to meet her, but he does and she starts to like him. He is constantly trying to hide from the rest of the town that he was looking through her window (she caught him and didn't mind; that's how they met) and when the shit hits the fan (the jealous boyfriend tries to kill him and then disappears, putting the suspicion on him) this one weird thing starts to make everybody suspicious of him. It's a dark book and fascinating. Very hard to put down because of the narrative and the character study. Good stuff.

22. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
A funny and complex look at the relationship between british and indian society as the Jewel in the Crown starts to lose its shine at the beginning of the twentieth century. It's much more about the characters than the politics (unlike the movie). It made me extremely interested in the history of India and how it was colonized in the first place. An excellent book and I won't say more about it here because it's all been said by smarter people.

23. A Long Finish by Michael Dibdin
Dibdin is one of the better current mystery writers. His Aurelio Zen books portray a hyper-cliched, but rich enough to probably be realistic Italy and they do it well. The protagonist is very likable, with an excellent toughness of style. He's no big fighter but he knows how to play the game of politics and culture and it makes him very cool. This one is about the murder of a local vintner and has a lot of stuff about regional wine politics and truffle hunters. Great side characters and great locations. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

19. Aquablue by Cailleteau et Vatine

Aquablue cover pictureWritten by Thierry Cailleteau drawn by Olivier Vatine

French comics are sold in albums. If you've seen a Tintin or an Asterix, you know what I mean. Hard-covered, large format and fairly expensive. They tend to have 64 pages. If a series does well, it is usually collected into what is called an intégrale. These can be from 3-6 albums. I try to look for those because there is a limit to how many BDs you are allowed out at a time (10 at the local branch, but only 3 at the Bibliotheque Nationale) so you get way more reading for your borrow and are ensured to read the whole series (or cycle, as a complete story within a given character line is called).

I explain this to give you some sense of how I am picking out comics. I have found some authors that I like and I have slowly gotten some recommendations, from people and reading online reviews. But there is just so much material out there (I weep for joy) that sometimes you just have to go for a shotgun approach. So I will just grab any intégrales I see (they are easy to spot by their thicker spine) and check if the art and story interests me.

The cover of Aquablue looked interesting, but I didn't groove immediately on the art. It has that slightly cartoony '70s feel and a bit more than usual of the perfect bodies (check out the blue babe). But I was feeling like some real sci-fi after all the contemporary comics I'd been reading, so I picked it up.

It turned out to be a good find and I'm glad to know there are two more cycles to come after this one. It's a very cool concept, with a strong environmental and anti-colonialist theme. It's about a planet that is almost entirely covered in water. There is one small continent and several small islands. The people are peaceful and highly adapted to the water, though they are land-living. An earth-based company discovers that the ocean's energy can be tapped and sent back to the greedy, consumerist home planet.

The lynchpin is a human, a child whose rescue shuttle crashed on Aquablue and raised by the natives. He looks like a surfer and, though not as genetically comfortable in the water as his adopted people, he is still a marine ass-kicker. He becomes a cause célèbre on earth. There is a lot more going on, including a military contingency that is sent at first to protect earth's corporate interests but then starts to question its role, space pirates, mysterious and enormous sea creatures and the deserted remains of an underwater civilization. It all comes together into an exciting and moving story. Again, the french don't pull their punches. Their is some brutal stuff in Aquablue as the natives are rounded up into slave teams and experimented on by a psychotic chemist towards eradicating the entire race.

Another enjoyable read.

Monday, September 04, 2006

18. Tramp by Kraehn and Jusseaume

Tramp 1 cover pictureWritten by Jean-Charles Kraehn drawn by Patrick Jusseaume

Tramp is a 4-album dark and sombre noir/adventure taking place in the shipyards, ports and seas of post WWII Atlantic Ocean. It's about a ship owner in financial trouble, with a dying daughter, who plans an immoral and desperate scheme to buy a barely serviceable cargo ship and blow it up for the insurance. He hires a young, competent captain who is having trouble getting any work because of a scandal during the war. The captain doesn't know about the plan and is grateful for the opportunity, though due to his experiences, naturally wary.

Tramp 1 cover picture

Before leaving, he begins seeing the ship owner's secretary and they fall in love. She accidently discovers the plan but gets found out and is brutally raped and tortured by the tough and rotten first mate (first mates are often tough and rotten, aren't they? How about Allen, Captain Haddock's old nemesis?). The young captain leaves with the ship anyways, suspicious and heartbroken, but not realizing his new love's death was connected in any way to him or the ship he is piloting. There are of course plenty of clues and machinations in motion to get him involved and this is what drives the majority of the story.

Tramp 1 cover picture

The art is great, really capturing the grey sea and sky, the rusted metal and wet wood of industrial ports, the desperate, hard nature of the people who survive off the economy around them. Though it is very noir in tone and design, ultimately, like many french BDs, it is an adventure. There is a lot of action and the ending is particularily spectacular. The protagonist gets into some serious shit! There are also a great cast of secondary characters: sleazy south american guides/middlemen, wealthy arms dealers, ex-nazi submarine crews, east african prostitutes. It's very similar in many ways to a Desmond Bagley novel.

This is what I really love about the BDs. They are arty and self-conscious, but they really like to tell a good story and they like cool, badass stuff. But they do it intelligently and beautifully and they don't pull their punches. It makes for a gritty, gripping and very satisfying read. Very cool. Strongly recommended. I wish they would translate these things so everyone could read them.

Tramp 1 cover picture

Thursday, May 11, 2006

17. Vortex Tess Wood & Campbell by Stan and Vince

Vortex tome 1 pictureWritten and drawn by Stanislas Manoukian and Vincent Roucher (Stan & Vince) and coloured by Florence Breton

I picked this one up because it had a glaring, energetic cover and it appeared that at least the first 3 albums were available (an issue at the bibliothèque nationale). What a find! This is a totally over-the-top, action-packed comic, stuffed full of ideas and thoroughly entertaining.

Vortex2 picture

It begins at the height of Nazi power in WWII in a remote atlantic base, where an experiment that could change the course of the war is being carried out: a time travel machine. When it is first demonstrated, two almost superhumanly tough guys bust into the room, steal the plans and jump through the time portal, destroying everything as they leave. Super agent Campbell, who it has already been established is an ass-kicking hero of the nth degree, is called to follow the badguys and get the plans back. However, the only other person who understands how the time travel machine works is the scientist's lovely assistant Tess Wood, so she has to go as well.

Vortex2 picture

Vortex3 pictureThe 9 albums of the series follow Tess Wood and Campbell as they pursue the bad guys and the plan and get mixed up in crazier adventures and more and more convoluted time manipulations. The conceit of the series is that each chapter is divided into three albums. The first follows Tess, the second Campbell and then the third both of them together as they resolve the problems created in the first two (and usually ended up making more for themselves). It's really well done and actually quite exciting to read because they are often in different time dimensions, somehow affecting each other's stories which makes reading the second album really fun. In the hands of less skilled scenarists, it could have been quite a mess, but in Vortex it is quite cleverly constructed and very satisfying.

Vortex3 pictureMore than the intricate structure, it is the utter excess to which the authors take the heros and the world. They push time travel to some excellent limits. I'm trying to think what's not in this book. What it does include, among other things are future cities in bubbles surrounded by ecological nightmare zones, giant egyptian crocodile gods, brain-head ETs studying prehistoric earth, a dystopic devolved future where humans regress into savage apes (in a day), underground steampunk civilizations, the man who trained Sherlock Holmes and it goes on.

I loved Vortex. It was totally my kind of story. The art is blatant and colourful, with lots of good gore. It had a similar look to Mr. Monster. The authors are clearly big fans of pulp action and american style comics. They both have done gigs for Dark Horse as well. Vortex desperately needs to be translated into english and sold in 3 volumes. Why this does not happen is beyond me. Awesome stuff.

Vortex5 picture

Saturday, April 22, 2006

16. Thorgal

Written by Jean Van Hamme and drawn by Grzegorz Rosinski

Thorgal pictureThorgal is one of the most popular bande-dessinée comics in France. I had seen references to it and the albums several times, but I was wary of it and only started reading it in a roundabout way. I had read two other series by the same author (those reviews will come later) and really enjoyed them. But I saw Thorgal as a poor European rip-off of Conan. He has long black hair, is generally shirtless and is in a fantastic semi-medieval setting (though actually it's more of the Viking period). It also has a similar black and white style to many of the Savage Sword artists.

The similarities are valid and the French are quite familiar with the comic world of Conan the Barbarian, but thinking of it as a weaker version was profoundly wrong. Thorgal rocks! This is a fantastic book. The first book I got was the Intégrale 1 (intégrales are what they call collections of the albums) that contained the first four albums. What first grabbed me was that the story had some really wild space/fantasy elements, but delivered with some gravity and expressing interesting themes and thus keeping it from being too far out.

Thorgal pictureIt's about a young man, a member of a tough viking tribe, but not actually of them. Though he is one of their best warriors, he is treated as an outsider because he was found on the beach as a baby. His origin is a fundamental part of the overall story arc of the series and as we learn more about it as we follow him through his adventurers. He falls in love with Aaricia, a daughter of the tribe's king (and this, of course, does not work out easily) and most of the book is about him and her trying to live peacefully away from the violence and machinations of man. It's a great theme and the love between them is really compelling, because, as you can well imagine, he is consantly getting drawn into shit and separated from his wife. Or she is taken from him, or their son is taken and they both have to go kick some ass. Along the way, Van Hamme and Rosinski create a great cast of secondary characters as well as amazing worlds of wondrous fantasy. Thorgal travels to underground dwarf tunnels, other dimensions, lost islands, aztec kingdoms ruled by space gods, nowhere (the land between heaven and earth) and I've only read 17 of 28 albums!

Thorgal2 pictureOne of my quebecois friends and I were discussing comics and I told him I was reading Thorgal. He said, with great enthusiasm "des belles histoires, des belles histoires." And it's true, at the level of each album, which in most cases is a self-contained story and at the greater level of the overall series, these stories are tight and engaging, always fundamentally connected to the themes and the characters. I have yet to find a moment that was a little lame, a little inconsistent.

And Thorgal is full of great ass-kicking moments. Later in the series, Thorgal makes friends with Pied d'Arbre (Foot of Wood, or I guess, Pegleg) a one-legged weapon-maker. He fashions a powerful bow, with two curves that can only be pulled back by an exceptionally strong person. Pretty standard stuff for a fantasy book, really. But when it gets exploited it's just one of those "Hell yeah!" moments. A bunch of bad vikings have done all kinds of bad stuff to Thorgal and his wife. Five of them are pursuing a wounded Thorgal. When they finally catch up to him, he's stopped and facing them across a plain. "Why did he stop?" asks the leader. "I don't know. He's just out of arrow range. I guess he thinks he's safe." "Ha ha, the fool," the leader laughs grimly. "As long as our arrows can't reach him, his can't-URK!" and suddenly there is an arrow in his chest. I can't really do it justice, (if I can get it out of the library again, I'll scan it in), but there are tons of great moments like that.

Thorgal3 pictureThe art is beautiful. At first I found it a bit too sketchy, but as I got into the comic more I appreciated some of the more interpretative lines. There is a great image of a horizon filled with oncoming Viking ships. They are just little squiggles on a black line, but somehow it works. Rosinski clearly has the skill to detailed, tight lines. He demonstrates it constantly on the close up shots. I read later that he deliberately keeps things open-ended, allowing the reader's imagination do the work. It is very effective. He captures the action of combat, the stillness of emotion and the fantasy of another world equally well. I actually prefer the black and white of the intégrales to the colour in the individual albums. It allows you to see Rosinski's lines much better.

I see that a lot of these were published in english by a company called Ink Publishing. I've seen them on eBay, but I imagine they are quite hard to come by. If you find one, check it out. My life is much better now that I have read Thorgal.

I'll leave you with a couple of frames from a story of Thorgal's childhood when he has to help a dwarf find the metal that does not exist in order to prevent the dwarf kingdom from being taken over by the evil serpent Nidgard. This story is one of the more fantastic, almost like a children's story. Check out the winged cats! The little dwarf rocks. He has a pick with which he is quite handy!

Thorgal4 picture

Thursday, April 20, 2006

15. Cell by Stephen King

Cell pictureOkay, this snuck in during my french BD reading because I had it reserved at the library before I started the comics project and it became available during. I couldn't pass up the opportunity.

Meezly does a better job of an overall review without giving away too much of the plot than I could have, so I'll let you read that and then add my own analytical comments.

First, I quite enjoyed Cell. I don't know if Stephen King is back or anything, but Cell was much more of a fun and direct read, closer to the books of his earlier days than his later more literary (and frankly boring) efforts. It starts off fast, hard and gory and keeps going. At first, it seemed like a The Stand lite, but when it was done it felt more like The Stand tight. The focus was much more personal, on the main protaganist and his drive to find his son, rather than on a collection of characters coming together for some epic post-apocalyptic battle. You didn't get the great scope of The Stand (I particularily enjoyed the spread of the disease, told in the 3rd person omniscient) but the impact of a world gone made may be more direct and powerful in Cell, seeing it only from the limited perspective of one young man trapped in Boston.

What I've always liked about King is that he is a very critical writer. He is not afraid to take shots at people, though they are usually indirect. For a horror story, Cell has some very strong political persuasions. There is a real anger here against christian fundamentalists that crops up regularily. More potent, though, is the entire theme, which read to me like a new england Liberal's disenchantment, disillusionment and, ultimately, contempt for the rest of America. The survivors, outside of the protaganists little gang are at best cowards, fearfully surrendering their freedom in exchange for the false security offered by the new enemy and at worst angry hateful bigots.

A scene among the refugees from burning Boston, when a shopping cart, pushed by an old couple, breaks a wheel and spills the boy inside on the ground, captures King's pessimism and bitterness:

"What had made his spirits sink to his shoetops was the way people just kept on walking, swinging their flashlights, and talking low among themselves in their own little groups, swapping the occasional suitccase from one hand to the other. Some yob on a pocket-rocket motorbike wove his way up the road between the wreckage and over the litter, and people made way for him, muttering resentfully. Clay thought it would have been the same if the little boy had fallen out of the shopping cart and broken his neck instead of just scraping his knee. He thought it would have been the same if that heavyset guy up there panting along the side of the road with an overloaded duffelbag dropped with a thunderclap coronary. No one would try to resuscitate him, and of course the days of 911 were done."

When I first read that, I thought he meant 9/11. With Cell, King punctures the American fantasy of unity that the current government is using to stay afloat. Like the survivors, following the call to the phone-free north where they will only meet their demise, Americans are following the corporate right to the false security of freedom of consumer choice and a war on terror. It's no accident that the cell phone is the medium for humanity's downfall here and interesting to note that under About the Author it says "Stephen King lives in Maine with his wife, the novelist Tabitha King. He does not own a cell phone."

I strongly recommend it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Interim Report

tintin pictureTo my legion of readers, I would like to explain why I have suddenly stopped posting. The truth is that I have also suddenly stopped reading books in english. I started a new job in March in a french office. This is wonderful and I'm loving it, but I found quite quickly that my french was not going to improve simply by me going to work. I need to buckle down, practice and drill on my own, listen to french and read french. I am therefore trying to immerse myself as much as possible in the french language and one of the first things that had to go was all the english reading I was planning on this year. This saddens me a bit, as I do love reading in my mother tongue. But there will always be a chance to read in english.

Since I read french novels at anywhere from 50% to 20% of the rate of english ones, it is unlikely that I will acheive the 50 books. Furthermore, reading in french can be a chore and I find that I slowly lose motivation. So I have decided to make a serious study of french comic books. The Bandes Dessinées as they are known have long been a source of interest for me, especially when I first went into a used comic store on St. Denis and saw just how fantastically extensive the industry is in Europe. They were just too expensive and I didn't know where to start, though I did begin, very slowly, to collect old Blake & Mortimer comics. Well, now I am happy to report that the Bibliotheque Nationale, the massive new library here in Montreal has a huge comics section and though it is often out of order, I am hitting it hard. I'm not quite sure how to 'score' bandes-dessinées for the purposes of the 50 books a year, but I will be bringing you reviews of some pretty interesting stuff, either series of a single character (probably the most common format), the work of a specific author or enclosed mini-series. I don't think I can justify a single album as a book. I have already started and I am extremely psyched! There are some ass-kicking french comics and I have barely scratched the surface.

Blake et Mortimer pictureFor the sake of an introduction, the bande-dessinée (which means "drawn strip") is considered in Europe and especially in french-speaking europe (Belgium is the primary source) as an aesthetic medium as relevant to art and literature as the film or novel. Comics cover a wide-range of subjects and are aimed at all different demographic groups (though there does seem to be a preponderance of books for young, male readers). They tend to be large format, hardback bound and 64 pages in length, generally of quite nice quality. They are also serialized in magazines that collect a bunch of different comics and then bound together later in complete volumes. Outside of Europe, the best known are Asterix and Tintin and if you've ever seen those, you will get an idea of at least how they are presented physically. Those are both great books, and both are responsible for significant trends in the medium, but they should not be taken as truly representing the incredible range of comics that exist today.

Obelix et co. pictureI can't say a whole lot more than that, as I don't know much more. But I hope to be able to share with you some of that incredible range in this blog. I have already learned a lot in the last month and I hope I can start to put together some ideas, theories and overall descriptions of la bande-dessinée. It's also a great opportunity to add lots of cool images! Very few of these comics are translated into english and I have yet to find a good web site for the anglophone, so we're kind of on our own here. Which is great. Stick around...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

14. The Greenpeace to Amchitka by Robert Hunter

Greenpeace pictureIn 1971 a group of men chartered an old fishing boat, the Phyllis Cormack, rechristened the Greenpeace, to take it to Amchitka island, on the far side of the Aleutian chain to protest a planned nuclear test by the American military. Though they never made it to the island and the test went off (it was the last test done there, however), their trip created a wave of publicity and they formed the Greenpeace organization upon their return. Robert Hunter, the author of this book, was on the boat and was one of the founding members of Greenpeace. It's his memoir, written almost immediately after the trip, though unpublished until a few years ago. He put the manuscript away because he had made a pact to show a unified face to the world, to hide the many internal divisions that plagued the birth of Greenpeace.

I'm glad he did finally decide to pick it up again and publish it, because it's a fantastic read. He's an entertaining and skilled writer and was clearly cranking this out when it was fresh in his heart and mind. It really captures the feel of the time. His prose has strong resemblances to Thompson, Kesey, Tom Wolfe. And the story is quite exciting. A group of freaks, piloted by an old school captain and his old-timer engineer, chugging their way up the Alaskan panhandle, stopping in native Aleut villages and cannery towns, passing abandoned fisheries as the internal and external tension builds makes for a very gripping narrative. On top of that, there are some real conflicts with the ocean, which sounds like absolutely no joke up there. The trip through the storm at the end is as exciting as any Jack London story.

Going in, I thought the environmental politics on display here would be a bit primitive. It is sort of disheartening in one sense to see that their concerns about the planet were just about the same as today's. I say disheartening, because the sense of urgency seemed just as extreme then and we haven't done anything in the convening 40 years to stop man's mad path of destruction. The book ends on a very discouraging note as Hunter had completed the manuscript basically feeling as if the entire trip had been a failure. There is a more optimistic afterword that was written around the time of publication where he is pretty psyched by all the good work that Greenpeace has done.

Robert Hunter died last year, of lung cancer. You can read a bit more about him and his later work here. I had never heard of him before this book, but it's clear that he was a radical, a freak and a fighter and we need more people like him in the world today.

Robert Hunter picture

Friday, March 10, 2006

13. This Land Is Our Land: The Mohawk Revolt at Oka by Craig Maclaine and Michael Baxendale

Warriors pictureI found this book at a giant municipal book sale they have every year in Montreal. It's held in a hockey arena and is mostly old library books. It's a large format hardback by two of the journalists working the story of the standoff at Oka in 1991. There are quite a lot of photos and I have to credit Robert J. Galbraith who was the photographer (I didn't want to make the title of this post too long).

There are plenty of websites dedicated to the actual event and some of you may remember it from the news. Basically, the town of Oka, which is right next to the Mohawk reserve Kanesatake, wanted to expand it's golf course from 9 holes to 18. The new part of the golf course would be built on top of a pine grove that the indians considered sacred. They used it as a burial ground and a place of ceremony. From this book, it's not really clear who actually 'owned' the land. I guess it wasn't part of the reserve, from Canadian law. The town council approved of the development and when they went to tear up the land, the natives had set up a blockade. The town sent for the Sureté de Québec, which is the provincial police force, who quite quickly attacked the blockade (which was mostly women and children) with teargas. A firefight ensued and one cop was killed (though most of the bullets were fired into the air). After that, a standoff ensued that lasted several months. Another reserve, the Kahnawake to the south, blocked off a bunch of roads in sympathy, including a major commuter bridge into Montréal.

Eventually, after much negotiation, posturing and pressure (both militarily and political) the protesters were pushed into a smaller and smaller area. The Canadian army came in, replacing the SQ. The federal government bought the land from the town council (for millions of dollars, all of which came out of the Ministry of Indian Affairs' budget; i.e. was going to be used to help the natives). A few of the warriors (as they called themselves) were arrested. The provincial government were a bunch of pricks, the feds basically useless and the people of Kanesatake are still having the same social problems today.

The book follows the standoff from beginning to end, with lots of little asides, like interviews, small histories, quotations). It is clearly sympathetic to the native people, though they do make an effort to be objective. They point out that the natives were the most open with the media, inviting them to stay with them on their side of the blockade, being very free with information while the army and the quebec and canadian government kept them shut out.

The people who really come off bad in this book are the white people of Québec from the region. As soon as the bridge connecting them to Montreal was blocked off, local roughnecks came to the blockades, yelling racial slurs and throwing rocks at the natives. Early in the standoff, two people were dragged from a nearby grocery store and beaten because they were though to be natives (they were wearing camo pants and just had dark hair). For the SQ, the white protesters became almost more of a problem than the native blockades because they started to pelt the cops with rocks and bottles, angry that they hadn't cleared their precious commuter route.

It's very easy to get angry when reading a book like this. The greed and selfishness and utter disrespect (that word is way too mild and simplistic for the reality) given to the natives is just astounding. You're going to call in the provincial army because you can't build your little 9 hole golf course? When the SQ came in, the reason they first shot the tear gas was because nobody would represent themselves as a spokesperson for the natives. The Iroqouis tradition has always been a communal one and when the cop approached the group of natives (all women and children) they kept telling him that they all were the spokesperson and that he should talk with them. So he teargasses them.

Coming to Canada after living for almost 10 years in the States, I had a feeling of living in a relatively democratic country. But Democracy really is relative and if you're a native, you're basically fucked. The 5 nation confedaracy that welcomed Champlain to Canada considers that they allowed the white man to come and use their land. According to their system of laws, land is owned by the ancestors and is made available to anyone who needs it. They consider that we took advantage of that and are now claiming to own this unownable land. Obviously, it's untenable for them to cling to any realistic hope of the current system respecting their traditions. Even within the tenets of our system, we are screwing them. The hierarchical political system the Canadian government has imposed on their communities creates a tiny cadre who control all the money and usually just steal or waste it.

Kanesatake is no better off today. In the last year, the reserve almost disintegrated into civil war when one group burned down the chief's house. He had secretly ordered a new internal police force who I guess were outside officers. It's all so confusing and the information is so scattered. Everyone says everyone else is lying. The people still suffer. We Canadians should feel deep shame about the way the First Nations people are living inside our so-called democracy.

This Land Is Our Land gave me an excellent account of what actually happened during the standoff. I'd like to read some more external accounts that might explain in more depth the positions of all the parties involved. I would also like to understand better the infighting inside Kanesatake, though I doubt any book will explain that.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

12. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down pictureThe momentum from the beginning of the year has started to dissipate. I've been very distracted these last couple of weeks, and though I can point to a number of valid explanations (new job, two new volunteer projects, three deaths, Diplomacy) I have spent way too much time futzing around on the internet, doing nothing of significance. That thing is becoming like television to me. That's bad.

I read Watership down consistenly but slowly, perhaps a chapter or two a night. It's a shame because my distraction was so high that I had trouble getting into the book at first. It's a testament to the craft of it's writing that by the last third, I really couldn't be distracted. It is really an exciting adventure, structured and written to keep the reader engaged. Another reason for my initial slowness was fear. I had seen the movie as a kid and I don't remember much but the ear shredding. The book starts out on such an ominous note that I was spending quite a lot of time waiting in trepidation for the hammer to fall, for some terrible thing to happen to these good bunnies. Moreover, there is a powerful sense throughout the whole book that this terrible thing has already happened, that the land where these rabbits lived has all been torn up for development. Watership Down really is a cry of love for the rural countryside and it's delicate and proper management.

I can't help but to compare it with Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Watership Down is slower (until the end), more complex and perhaps closer to reality. The rabbits communicate, but their perception of the world is limited (they don't understand what bridges or boats are or how they work). Adams also pays a lot of attention to their biological behaviour, much more so than is done in NIMH. He has also built a complex religion, history and culture based on the rabbit's biology that gives Watership Down a lot more depth.

Overall, it's a cracking good read, a great adventure story. You should read it and it should be read to children.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

11. Fatherland by Robert Harris

Fatherland pictureWell, I'm going in to this post forewarned by jarrett's comment in the last post. I'm very curious to hear why he was so dissapointed by Fatherland. I found it to be a well-written, thoroughly researched and entertaining historical (or faux future-historical) detective story. I'd go so far as to say that the ending actually had some emotional impact.

It's 1964 in an alternate past where the Nazis win the Second World War. The hero is a detective in the Berlin police force (and by default a member of the SS). He is divorced, his son hates him and he's having ambivalent feelings about the Fuhrer. He is called on to investigate a body found in a river bank. An old guy, missing a foot, but in decent shape. Of course, the investigation becomes complex and dangerous, potentially revealing conspiracies at the highest level. I'm not going to go into any of the details of they mystery, because that's what keeps it interesting, but I found it very well done, fitting nicely into the history that we know and being compelling and disturbing in and of itself.

I thought the book really captured that feeling of paranoia and self-censorship that a succesful nazi regime may well have put into place. Everybody has a file. If you're not in several party and social organizations, interest will be paid to you. Another interesting idea, a connection that I hadn't made, is the germans are constantly fighting a war against Russian and Communist partisans on the far eastern front. It's the "Total War" that Hitler postulated as a foundation of National Socialism. The partisans are called terrorists and terror attacks are a constant fear and fundamental part of the state security apparatus. This was written before 9/11 but sure sounds familiar.

A fun read and well thought out.

Monday, February 20, 2006

10. The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert

The Dosadi Experiment pictureThis is the second book taking place in Herbert's Con-Sentiency world and a sequel of sorts to Whipping Star. It's a universe where planets and races have been united by jumpdoors. The BuSab (Bureau of Sabotage) exists to ensure that governments never get so powerful that they can ruin society. Whipping Star dealt with the Calebans, the mysterious creatures who provide the jumpdoors for humans.

This one has the same hero, Frank X. McKie, BuSab Agent Extraordinaire. This time, through the convoluted laws of the Gowatchin, these frog-like creatures, he is sent to investigate the hidden planet Dosadi. It is surrounded by a forcefield and unknown to the rest of the universe. Dosadi is inhabited by two species, the humans and the Gowatchin and none of them know that they are actually part of some experiment. They are the descendants of people who chose to escape whatever problems they had, have their memories erased and had themselves marooned on Dosadi. The planet is deliberately brutal and the descendants are in a constant state of war and survival, making them brutal and tough. McKie's job is to go to Dosadi, figure out what the point of the experiment was and whether the Gowatchin who are behind it should just destroy the planet rather than let the violent Dosadi people loose in the rest of the universe.

It's a very interesting idea and the first few chapters of McKie on the planet are really cool, especially when he quickly realizes that all his experience, skills and equipment are useless against this supremely aggressive and adaptable society. Unfortunately, the book is pretty slow going, for several reasons. Though McKie's character is fleshed out much more than Whipping Star (and Herbert himself admits that that book was more of a history than a story in the preface to Dosadi), it still spends a lot of time on abstract, large-scale political theory. There is a lot of telling and not a lot of showing. I really wanted to see Dosadi, to understand how the planet worked, to interact with these tough people. But we got precious little of the streets and a lot of people in power strategizing in a complex game, whose ends and beginnings the reader has very little notion. By the end, the competition and conflicts are so complicated and abstract, and connected to races and worlds and histories with which I really had no connection, that I just didn't care. I felt only a minor elation at the protagonist's victory at the end and had no conceptual idea of why his victory was so important to the universe Herbert has created.

There is a lot of political philosophy here, ideas about power and the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Some of it is kind of interesting, but its not enough. It all left me feeling kind of tired and annoyed. Too bad, because it was part of a pretty good paperback care pacakge for my birthday. Well, I was wise to save Wizard for the end.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

9. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Rats of NIMH pictureWhat a fantastic book. I'd of course heard about the movie, but it was Jarrett who actually recommended the book. I'm quite surprised that I never came across it as a child, either read to me or read by myself. If you're not familiar with the story, it's about a widowed mouse who, in trying to find a way to help her sick son, discovers a community of very stange rats. I don't want to say anything more than that (like the méchant book flap which tells almost the whole story) about the plot, because the story itself is part of the pleasure of reading the book.

This book does a tremendous job of capturing the cozy but limited world of the small animals living on the fringe of man and wilderness. With that foundation, it then creates an exquisite sense of wonder and excitement. Each new area outside Mrs. Frisby's (the mouse widow) experienced world is a little adventure in and of itself. It's tightly structured and the characters are strong and simple. It is also an innocent book, with a sense of reality. It believes in education and kindness, but is aware of the dangers of growth and science.

I read this in a day. Strongly recommended.

Monday, February 13, 2006

8. Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens by Michael Gilbert

Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens pictureThis is at least the third time I've read this book. The first was at some point in my teenage years, working my way through my parents collection of Michael Gilbert paperbacks. When I moved to New York, I would pick up any of his paperbacks I found, building up my own collection and reading them. This was my mid-20s. Sadly, I am motivated to re-read at least one of Gilbert's books now in honor of his passing. I will re-read them all again at some point, but they are still a bit fresh in my memory.

Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens is a collection of short stories from Ellery Queen magazine recounting the exploits of two British counterinsurgency agents. There is another collection called Game Without Rules. Most of the stories take place in Britain in the late '60s and early '70s, though since both characters came up in the Second World War, there are many references to that period. Mr. Behrens looks like a nondescript college professor, is an expert linguist and strategist. Mr. Calder is a bit thicker, perhaps looking like a retired sergeant. He likes to mix it up, often chopping people "scientifically" in the throat or kidney. He is accompanied by a Persian Deerhound called Rasselas that he treats like a human.

Both represent the best qualities of an ascendant Britain: well-educated, sensible, calm, stoic and honorable. A car breaking down is an opportunity for a good walk. They embody the great British notion (so lost on the Americans) of treating small things with great concern and treating large problems with aplomb (an important trait of the samurai, according to Hakagura). Gilbert spends a lot more time discussing the quality of the claret than the shooting of a spy through the heart. In one story, a wealthy colonel threatens to harm his MP and put a stop to a new road being built across his estate. Their boss tells them "I think we must take a hand. The loss of an occassional member of parliament may not be a matter of concern, but we don't want some innocent bulldozer driver destroyed."

Ultimately, Gilbert is a moderate conservative, in the most classical sense. He believes in the importance of the state. He is also a moralist. There is always right and wrong in his books and when right meets wrong, it is right's duty to stop wrong in the most expedient and least disruptive way possible. Punches are not pulled in Gilbert's books, especially in the Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens stories. Once discovered, spies are eliminated, generally shot, quickly and efficiently. However, his is ultimately a morality that wants peace and considers any aggression towards the innocent as just as much an outrage as treason. It is a morality I wish we had more of today, a sensible sense of duty and commitment to society, rather than the two poles of frightened aggression and weak self-indulgence we have in North America today.

Read some Michael Gilbert as soon as possible.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

7. Whipping Star by Frank Herbert

Whipping Star pictureGot a nice old paperback copy of this as a birthday gift. I've read Dune and quite enjoyed it but didn't have much of an overall understanding of Frank Herbert. Whipping Star started out like a classic of 60s sci-fi (silver age?), with a lone male character in a situation, using a language style very much from that period. However, quite quickly, it heads into a pretty bizarre metaphysical direction. It spends most of the time there. There is a plot about the end of all living creatures and it does come up with some narrative tension at the end, but really most of the book is about species trying to communicate with other species whose perspectives and existences are so different that they barely have a frame of reference to compare anything.

I know I'm sounding really vague, but it's hard to explain Whipping Star because the plot is contingent on so many ideas. Very basically, the galaxy is full of civilizations that use these jump doors to hop from planet to planet. Nobody really understands how they work. The jump doors were introduced by the Calebans, creatures that live in these metal beachballs and are so mysterious that you can't even sense them properly. The Calebans are disappearing and the last one is discovered by the protagonist, who learns that an evil woman is flogging it (for her own bizarre reasons) and every time it's flogged, it slowly weakens. When it finally "dies" (though it calls it "discontinues" and it means something very different), anyone who has ever used a jump door will die, because of some previously unknown connection between the jump doors and the existence of the Caleban. Thus, the end of most of the sentient world.

The protagonist McKie, an agent from the Bureau of Sabotage (a whole other thing to explain!) must try to communicate with this Caleban, who barely understands human existence and is only just learning to communicate, find out why it is being flogged and stop it before the world is over. So you can see there is a very high-level plot. But most of the book is McKie talking to the Caleban. It's such a different and theoretical world, and there is no real character development, that I found myself a bit removed from the process. This is not to be critical, because I think Herbert intended this book to be an exploration of these ideas and he didn't want to spend a lot of time and effort on those more lower narrative elements. It's a book for people who like interesting ideas of the way species could interact.

There is also not tons of explanation of the world, giving you the sense that Herbert had thought a lot of it out already. It turns out that this is part of a mini series of books all taking place in the same universe. Two short stories and another longer novel called The Dosadi Experiment, which I also got with Whipping Star. I'm intrigued enough to see how the longer book develops this pretty wild setup.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

6. Voices in Time by Hugh Maclennan

I picked this paperback up new for real cheap (99 cents) at a book sale. Despite its safe, pseudo-intellectual cover (some semi-abstract painting that had nothing to do with the book and was overly framed so you couldn't really look at it properly), the blurb about a story set in several time periods, including a post-apocalyptic future interested me, especially for a Canadian book. I only learned later that Maclennan is the author of Two Solitudes, considered the classic novel of relations between the french and english (which has long been on my list) and that this was one of his last books). Voices in Time is one of his last books and not very well known, though respected by those who've read it.

The set-up seems arbitrary at first. The world has been destroyed and a fascist government called the Second Bureaucracy is running things. Their fascism is distant and indirect and seems to be relaxing as younger people take over. One of these young people is a historian who has uncovered a bunch of documents that tells the tale of the forgotten past (most records and memories had been destroyed and repressed by the First Bureaucracy). He contacts an old man who is connected to the documents. The book is basically the old man putting together the records, connecting them with his own memories and telling the story in the records.

See? It's kind of a convoluted setup. But you start to get into it, because the stories the old guy tells are really engaging. The first one is about a young, hipster talk show host in Montreal in the late '70s and especially focusing on the time of the FLQ crisis. This guy is the older cousin of the old guy telling the story and he ends up, through his own selfishness and misguided politics and the power of his show, causing a casualty of the revolution. It all hinges around an interview he has with an german professor who was in Germany during the second world war.

The bulk of the book is actually the German professor's story. He has to work for the Nazis in order to survive and to protect his loved ones, including his jewish fiancée he met in England. It's a gripping, brutal and sad story of a society turned to aggression and insanity. Just as a story, the professor's narrative is really satisfying. But it also reminded me how frightening (and how possible) the rise of Nazism was. The whole point of the book is to tie this in with the separatist crisis in Québec, to compare the similarities in youthful anger and uncontained social energy and how it can be used by forces beyond the understanding of the people in the street. He doesn't make a direct analogy between the Nazi movement and what happens in Quebec. He's not condemming anyone in particular, just pointing out warning signs. He takes it to an even higher level by putting it all in the context of a world totally destroyed as terrorism and the fascist response by governments reach a global level. Fairly prescient, no?

So in the end, though complex, the structure made sense to me and I walked away both a satisfied reader and someone with a renewed sense of the delicacy of our society and how easily it can tumble into chaos and then fascism. Here is a great quote from near the end of the book:

The entire world is screaming for freedom and is sincere about it, but they don't understand what freedom is. The most violent screamers are really screaming for release from freedom's discipline, which means they are screaming for somebody to return them to slavery.

Monday, January 30, 2006

5. Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis

Take a Girl Like You pictureLucky Jim is one of my favorite books. I've tried to read a few other of Kingsley Amis's books, The Green Man, Stanley and the Women, The Girls and none of them even came close to the acerbic wit, careening narrative trajectory and total satisfaction of Lucky Jim. I found Take a Girl Like You for 50 cents at the local thrift store. It had a neat cover so I picked it up.

It was okay, but sadly I'll have to put it in the same category as the other non-Lucky Jim Amis books. It is very similar in themes and tomes, taking place in a small college town, showing small social conflicts, often with subtle class and generational differences. The story is about a girl from a northern town who arrives in this suburb of London (thus a small step up in sophistication). She is very attractive and immediately becomes a center of interest. Fortunately, she is also quite sensible, despite her naïveté. The book's perspective jumps, without any apparent structure, between her point of view and the guy she ends up dating. We are never sure if he is really sincere or just wants to get laid as the central conflict revolves around the protagonist wanting to keep her virginity.

There are some funny moments and some funny critical passages. But I didn't really care too much about the main characters and when I did start being concerned with the heroine's passage, he would jump away. The sexual mores of this period, the late '50s also seem really bizarre and I had trouble understanding the characters' behaviours. They are all very loose sexually, constantly making out with other people, even when they are already definitely a couple. They get mad about some things and completely blasé about others. Maybe Amis was trying to be critical of this behaviour, but it didn't come across with any of the quiet ferocity of Somerset Maugham. The whole thing just left me kind of non-plussed and beginning to wonder about Amis reputation.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

4. The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Fall of Hyperion pictureStop reading now. Put down your book this moment. It's a terrible habit and can only get worse, leading to not just any reading but reading genre books like Sci Fi and you all know where that leads, sitting in a movie theatre before the movie starts, overweight, popcorn and sno-caps in lap, open sci-fi paperback in hand.

It took me a while to get through the follow-up to Hyperion. The two are really a single book that probably got cut in half for practical purposes. I enjoyed the first one, but didn't love it. I read the second mainly to find out what happens. I kind of slogged through the first three-quarters of this one, feeling that I've read (and played in) too much alternate reality in too short a time and it was all getting kind of mixed up in my head. But the last quarter of this book pulled everything together and really rocked. I was lacking confidence and feeling doubtful of the excessive appearance of twentieth-century religious concepts and Keats the poet. But what you learn in the ending solidifies everything, gives a reason for all the disparate elements and makes a very cool story and concept.

What's really amazing about this book is that ultimately, one of its stronger themes is the relationship between man and machine. It is realized in a way far more profound than (and coming 10 years before) the Matrix series. I'm realizing that this theme of humans and machines as two different but fundamentally connected meta-species is much more extant in today's sci-fi than I had thought. I'm sure it's old hat to hardcore fans. But I think there are some fundamental and powerful philosophies being explored about our relatioships to the machines that (currently) serve us. The Hyperion books deserve to be a significant contributor to those ideas.

If you've got the time and want to get into a really amazingly constructed future and an even more complex and cool plotline about the future of humanity, I strongly recommend that you read Hyperion and the Fall of Hyperion. Unfortunately, as I lamented in the opening paragraph, there is a follow-up series, called Endymion, to the Hyperion books and though you don't need to read them to get a complete and satisfying conclusion from the the first two, once you do finish the Fall of Hyperion, you, like me, will probably want to keep going. Aargh! Stop reading!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

3. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

[Bike is broken, more time on métro; reading time way up, podcast consumption down.]

Motherless Brooklyn pictureMy SO discovered this book through her cultural raking and took it out from the library. She found it pretty enjoyable and renewed the loan so I could read it. In between that time, both my brother-in-law and my sister recommended it. So it has good pedigree, and now that I've read it I have pass their recommendations off to you.

I loved the first half of this book. What I was so psyched about is that somehow (probably because he's already published several books) Lethem seems to have snuck a genre book past the gauntlet of agents, editors, publishers and critics in the form of a hipster novel. I thought this book was going to be some personal exploration or some garbage like that has covers and titles like this one did. Instead, it's a straight-up detective novel, with a unique protagonist and a rich and deep look at a hidden and shrinking part of criminal Brooklyn.

The catch in this story that I guess made it acceptable enough to the literary world to merit it glowing reviews and awards is that the narrator has Tourrette's syndrome. This element of the book is fun and interesting. You're always cringing for the hero when he's trying to express himself, always wondering how the person will react to him. It goes deeper than that, blending the complex state of his mind with the symmetries and interweavings of the mystery. I have no idea how accurate a portrayal of someone with Tourette's this is, or if such a state of mind can ever be truly understood, but this book gave me the sense of what it must be look to be unable to control oneself.

The Brooklyn that Lethem describes is alluring, compelling. It's the last dying embers of the mafia gangster fantasy that we know of today only through movies. When the book stays in this area, it is fun reading indeed. As the mystery plays itself out, the book is still really good, but we are driven forward more by wanting to figure out what happened than the magic that fills the first half. By the end, Motherless Brooklyn is a competent mystery with great characters. But I strongly recommend that you all read it. I'd love to discuss this with you on the forums so I won't say anything more here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

2. Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Journey pictureI wish I could say I had read this in french, but then I would probably be posting this in the middle of the summer. The translation is a bit stilted and kept me a bit distant from the material and I can just tell that in french it's probably even more ferocious. My dad recommended it to me. I guess it had a strong impact on him when he was a young man. It's basically the life of a poor but educated french guy in the early twentieth century. The story takes him through the horror and disillusionment of the first world war, to work in french colonial Africa then as a doctor in poor, suburban Paris and finally as an assistant to the administrator of an insane asylum.

It's one of these books where the plot isn't all that important. From the introduction, this book caused quite a stir when it was published in France before the second world war. You can see why. He just tears apart everything that the french consider sacred and important. It starts with the war, which he sees as basically thousands of mindless maniacs desperate for killing each other or being killed, but he goes on. And he has the most hilarious language, really classic french stuff where he waxes for pages on about sex or the rich and then makes a quick comment about the quality of the wine he had access to at that point.

Here is a good example:
Speaking of families, I know a chemist on the Avenue de Saint-Ouen who had a marvellous sign in his window, a lovely advertisement: One bottle (price three francs) will purge the whole family Isn't that great! They all belch!... and shit together, family-wise. They hate one another's guts, the essence of home life, but no one complains because after all it's cheaper than living in a hotel.

There is a lot of that kind of stuff. Very dark and entertaining. There is a lot of truth in it, but I'm not sure if 400 pages of that, and a lot of meandering is so effective. Perhaps for the time, the intensity of such an angry message, obviated other editorial concerns. I found myself getting distracted at certain points. I will admit that I am a slave to the narrative and a babe nursing at the teat of resolution. I get distracted easily. Still, I wish more people were writing with this kind of anger and conviction about the situation we live in today. Hmmm...

Friday, January 06, 2006

1. Maelstrom by Peter Watts

Maelstrom pictureNow that the furor caused by my year-and summary is over, I'll start the 2006 50 books challenge with book #1, Maelstrom by Peter Watts. The second in the series that started with Starfish (and one of my favorite books last year), Maelstrom follows the path of Lenie Clark, abuse victim and mutate-amphibian, as she escapes from the deepsea station she and the other sociopaths were manning and makes her way on to land. Because she is carrying an RNA strand that will genetically rewrite life on earth out of existence, she is chased by those same powers that created her. At the same time, she becomes, through the proliferation of her myth on Maelstrom (the data network that evolved from today's internet), a symbol of rebellion against the powers, for all the victims of the world (and in this dystopia, there are many).

I was really looking forward to this book and though I'm not dissapointed, it didn't take me to the same level as Starfish. I was hoping for lots of description of the world on land because I loved the hints Watts had given in the first book. He is obviously an environmentalist (and he really is a marine biologist) and has projected a dark future based on that. Everything is about energy and evolution. Quebec is a major worldpower (and grown quite scary), the internet is like a jungle on steroids where viruses and security evolve against each other constantly. Unfortunately, most of the book takes place in the minds of the key players. The story is tense and exciting and the development is cool, but you only get glimpses of the world. And a lot of the key players are involved virtually, either trolling through Maelstrom or interacting with the real world through remote bots. Either way, they are actually in their apartments most of the time. The whole west coast is separated from the interior by giant walls and is teeming with refugees who are kept alive by unmanned food-producing units. Their protein is filled with mood-controlling drugs so they just end up sitting on the beach and surviving. That portrayal is cool and scary and it went into some depth of setting. But there was very little time in the cities, in the enclaves of the rich and powerful and other locations that would have grounded the story in the constructed reality.

It is also structured in to tons of short chapters, each chapter is broken into groups of paragraphs that are separated by triples spaces. But these triple spaces don't often separate anything in the narrative. They just act as little suspense devices, a dramatic pause. For example, there will be a dialogue between two people. Something will be revealed. Then there is the pause. Then the dialogue continues. It's constant throughout the book. I think the idea is to make the whole thing kind of episodic and it allows the narrative to jump all over the place, but I found it kind of distracting, expecting a change of perspective between triple-spaces and often there wasn't one.

I'm definitely still really enjoying this series and I'm going to read the next two. The concept of the data network evolving the same way life does (but way, way faster) is great. You can almost see little stirrings of that today. Watts pushes his ideas out there and he's definitely a critic of the man, which is what I demand of great science fiction.