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.