Wednesday, March 31, 2010

21. The War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

Wow, what a cool book! Sometimes truly classic sci-fi can be a bit austere and difficult to get through (say, for instance, We or Flatland), but this was thoroughly enjoyable. It was written in 1937. At the time, Capek was a succesful playwrite and satirist. The War with the Newts is basically the story of what would happen if intelligent, industrious creatures were discovered that would do in the sea what we do on land, e.g. build and populate.

There is no real protagonist, nor a single storyline. The book is more like a fake collection of historical artifacts, with some fiction thrown in highlighting various episodes in the history. It starts off with the captain of a merchant ship who first discovers these 'devils' (as the natives call them) in an avoided lagoon on a south pacific island where the pearls are mostly harvested. Realizing that not only is their lagoon filled with oysters, but that the newts are capable of harvesting them extremely efficiently for the cheap price of some knives to fight off sharks, their natural predators, he sets about making friends with them.

The newt's 'intelligence' is a major issue in the book. They can learn and grow increasingly more sophisticated. But they never seem to develop any real culture or individual personality. A lot of the book is about the various human reactions to the existence of the newts, socially, intellectually and ultimately economically. When it is discovered that they are capable of great underwater engineering projects, they soon become turned into labour commodity, with giant newt farms and newt trading markets. A lot of this section really made me think of District 9, except this book actually takes the concept much further and it really does make you think, why weren't the prawns in District 9 exploited for labour?

The War with the Newts is funny, prescient and really enjoyable. This is true science fiction at its best, in that the author came up with a novel concept and then took it to its limit. In doing so, he also reflects a very critical mirror back on humanity and our own social and political limitations. Top notch and definitely deserving of its classic status.

Monday, March 22, 2010

20. The Stringer by F. F. Langan

I picked this one up at Chainon, our local thrift store (affiliated with a women's shelter) despite my personal embargo on buying new books until I get my on-deck shelf whittled down to a reasonable size. I bought it because it was set in 1960's Montreal and had an energetic writing style in the first few pages I read. Though it is not a great book, my instinct to pick it up was correct as it had the kind of information I was looking for. It's not a terrible book either and I had no trouble making it through to the end.

It's the story of Jack Devlin, an ambitious and self-centered young anglo journalist in Montreal working for CBC television (though the network is not named) and freelancing for Time Canada. Thanks to a bit of luck and a pretty aggressive journalistic instinct, he manages to get ahead of the curve on a series of interlocking stories involving separatist bombings and corruption and organized crime among the longshoreman's union. He is also constantly drinking and fucking, going to a series of different bars and restaurants throughout the day and juggling up to 4 different women. The bit of luck is that he wakes up to a bomb going off in the mailbox of the house of a wealthy friend of his where he has ended up after a night of partying. He happens to be the first on the scene and sees the dead body of an innocent french-canadian servant who was going to mail a letter in the booby-trapped mailbox. One clue leads to another and soon Devlin has leads on the head of the longshoreman's union (who may be funding the revolutionaries) and connections into MPs offices where the plan to use the War Measures Act in Quebec is brewing. He also is unknowingly being made a patsy of by the organized crime unit of the Montreal Police, who use his articles as bait to get criminals to come out of the woodwork.

The stringer is very baldly structured. Everything is told very deliberately and the point of view keeps changing, sometimes so quickly you aren't sure whose it is for a sentence or two. I'm not a big proponent of the "show, don't tell" dogma of storytelling, but here the telling is so blatant that the book lacks any elegance or flow. However, it keeps moving forward and doesn't try to get too tricky (well, actually it does, with a couple of unnecessary foreshadowings and false suspense, but they are so brief and badly done that you blow right by them), so that none of this is really annoying. And on the positive side, the stuff he does tell is really interesting. Clearly, Langan lived the world of crazy '60s Montreal journalism and he shares it all with the reader. I truly appreciated that, as it not only does a great job of capturing that time and place, it also (and I suspect this was not deliberate) catches a very specific perspective: that of the ignorant anglo right at the end of his time in power in Montreal.

It's tricky to explain this, because this book is quite cynical and really doesn't paint anybody in a good light. He doesn't try to defend or pull any punches about Jack's ignorance about French-Canadian culture. However, the book itself really does a terrible job with the depiction of the french-canadians. The revolutionary is particularily two-dimensional and annoying. If you didn't know anything about the situation (or were an anglo who already had certain biases about it), this book would make you think that the people behind the Quiet Revolution were just a bunch of stupid, dreamy upper-middle class intellectual university students. It ignores entirely the rich heritage of Quebec, of the truly shitty labour conditions for francophones of all class levels and the importance of language. For Langan, it seems that the revoluion is the aforementioned bourgeoisie and a bunch of corrupt longshoreman who are already getting paid triple-time.

And this reflects the attitude of a lot of anglo montrealers from that period. It's sort of understandable, as they were the losers in the whole affair. But it's not so good to see it deeply embedded in a book that was written in 2000. It is very interesting to read about it from the perspective of one who was there. What is also good is the portrayal of the way the news media worked back then (with television copying news stories from the newspapers!) and the general social life. Great side characters, including a gay British antique dealer who suddenly turns out to be a badass in the final scene, taking out a couple of longshoreman with a collectible brass-knuckle knife and a shovel (turns out he was in the army in Malaya; love that kidn of shit, really left me with a good feeling about the book at the end).

Montreal did seem pretty wild back then. And there is tons of sex in this book. Very explicit, too. I'm not really sure what Langan was going for when he decided to get all explicit. It's weird. He throws in a sex scene wherever he can, even side characters getting up in the morning, suddenly turn their wife over on her stomach, tuck a pillow under her and enter her from behind, all while mentioning that she still got him as hot as ever after 20 years of marriage. Hey, I don't mind, but what is the goal? It doesn't seem to fit in to the demographic that this book was aiming for.

So a weird little find, well worth the read, with some criticizable flaws that did nothing to lessen my enjoyment of it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

19. The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

My wife has held a particular fondness and interest in Darwin, his works and his legacy and this, among other obvious reasons, spurred us to choose the Galapagos as our honeymoon voyage. I decided to inform myself better on the story behind Darwin's influential voyage there and was told by two different scientists that The Voyage of the Beagle was worth the read. It was very popular in England at the time, though it is more of a travel and science exploration journal than a theoretical work and only holds hints of the radical (for the time) theory of evolution that Darwin was later to espouse in his Origin of the Species (which came out 15 years after the Voyage of the Beagle).

It really was an enjoyable read, though there were some slow parts where he goes into length various observations about land formation and geology. His clear prose, the interesting places he goes and his love of discovery really give you the sense of a young, curious man seeing amazing new places. Here is a nice quote about his experiences in the Pampas of Argentina:
There is high enjoyment in the independence of the Gaucho life -- to be able at any moment to pull up your horse, and say, "Here we will pass the night." The death-like stillness of the plain, the dogs keeping watch, the gipsy-group of Gauchos making their beds round the fire, have left in my mind a strongly-marked picture of this first night, which will never be forgotten.

There is nothing personal in here and you miss his terrible seasickness (except for a couple of paragraphs at the end where he weighs the pros and cons of such a voyage), his ideological conflicts with Captain Fitz Roy (whom he still considered a friend, nevertheless). So it is a bit dry. But the writing and his joy overcome it and I ended up really happy to have read it. There is a book of his correspondance on the journey and that looks to fill in a lot of the personal blanks. They have it at the library and I'll probably read it in the future.

It is also informative and interesting to see the new world in the early days of colonialism, when native populations were still very present as forces to be dealt with rather than extinct (as in southern South America) or relegated to isolated reservation as in the rest of the world. Comparing the state of communities of European origin in South America, Tahiti, Australia and elsewhere in the 1830's gives a lot of insight into the current political situations of those places today. Darwin makes some fairly accurate predictions and judgements. (Although not always, there is a hilarious part where says "General Rosas intimated a wish to see me; a circumstance which I was afterwards very glad of. He is a man of an extraordinary character, and has a most predominant influence in the country, which it seems he will use to its prosperity and advancement." and then follows that up with this footnote: "This prophecy has turned out entirely and miserably wrong. 1845. " I'm going to have to do a bit of research on this General Rosas character.)

Here's a sweet map of his journey:

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

18. High Adventure by Donald Westlake

I found a beautiful first edition hard copy of this book at Confederate Books in Quito and despite trying to keep my luggage weight down, I had to buy it. It turned out to be a good move, because I did so much reading on the trip that I went through all my packed (and lighter paperback) books before we even got to the flight home. I actually finished High Adventure on the first leg and was almost faced with being forced to read The Lovely Bones (the critics quotes on the back cover and the dedication alone fueled several long rants my poor wife had to endure), the only book we had left between us that I hadn't read. Fortunately, there was a movie on the flight I wanted to see, so I dodged that bullet.

High Adventure is the story of a bunch of shenanigans around a faked Mayan temple and smuggled Mayan antiquities all taking place in Belize. The main characters are a bush pilot who bought a useless piece of land, the scheming minister and developer who sold it to him, an idealistic archeology grad student, a gay couple of antique collectors, a nerdy midwestern museum curator and a mellow tribe of Mayan indians. Westlake wrote a few of these ensemble cast novels, ones that tend to have a bigger scale and don't fall into either any of his series or a specific genre (Humans and Kahawa are two other examples). I get the feeling that he vacationed in Belize and found it so fascinating that he decided to write a book about it. A big part of this book is about life in Belize and even a bit of history. He clearly has a lot of admiration for it and pits the way Belize accepted indigenous refugees from the other Central American countries (particularly Guatemala) against the miserable treatment they received from their own countries.

The story itself is a lot of fun. It has a good mix of characters and lots of very funny moments. The whole thing has a light, party vibe ("high" adventure), even though the climax involves a village getting attacked by a Guatemalan death squad. I quite enjoyed it and would recommend it if you are looking for some nice light escapist reading and want to learn a little bit about Belize. I have trouble believing things are quite as hunky-dory today as they were back then, considering the massive growth in the hardcore drug trade in the ensuing period. But it still sounds like it would be a cool place to visit.