Tuesday, November 30, 2010

65. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

I got The Stepford Wives from meezly's finished book pile. It is a classic and as meezly pointed out a quick and entertaining read.

Her review does a better job than I can, so I'll let you read it. I would just add that I was a bit disappointed in the ending. It's not that it wasn't well crafted. It's just that with the book having such a strong impact in our popular culture, I basically already knew the entire premise. The intrigue in the book is the slow and subtle revealing of what is actually going on. But it never specifically reveals in any detail how the wives are being changed. This works well in that it leaves it up to our imagination and makes for a disturbing read. There are many interesting hints, but I was hoping for some greater reveal and never got it. Still, it's a tight and effective thriller with some good social commentary. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go look at real estate prices in Stepford...

Monday, November 29, 2010

64. Tales of the Red Panda - The Crime Cabal by Gregg Taylor

The Red Panda is a wonderful podcast series from Decoder Ring Theatre, a toronto-based group of performers, led by Gregg Taylor, who love all things pulp and noir. They have two main series, The Red Panda about a pulp superhero and his sidekick The Flying Squirrel; and Blackjack Justice, a hardboiled detective and his even more hardboiled sidekick. Both are quite good, but The Red Panda is really their signature show. If you like old-time radio, great characters and pulp action, you should definitely check out the Red Panda series. It's really well done. A bonus is that it all takes place in a pulp Toronto during and after the Depression.

There are also three Red Panda novels out and I bought this first one when it first came out, but haven't gotten around to reading it, mainly because the shows keep coming out and are so fulfilling. I think I was a bit hesitant, thinking the book would be just like the shows, but more work for me because I'm reading it instead of passively listening. What I didn't realize is that the book is a real addition to the series, because in the written form, Gregg Taylor can expand in many ways that can't be done on radio. The Red Panda and his super hot and ass-kicking sidekick (and chauffeur) have a real romantic tension. It's great in the show, but it is even more fun when you get to read about each of their thoughts. There is also a lot more depth about The Red Panda's awesome equipment and set-up (including an underground system of human-size pneumatic tubes to help him get quickly from place to place).

Taken on its own, it is a thoroughly entertaining, slam-bang pulp novel, with great dialogue and some nice character development. The main plot isn't the most creative. The rackets, now quite weakened by the Red Panda's constant attacks, are united by two super-villains. But it is sufficient to bring lots of great action, bravado dialogue and a bit of humour. There is also a hard edge to the Red Panda (I know that sentence must sound a bit odd if you haven't heard the show before), especially when he is talking about the poor and the downtrodden and how crime is a parasite sucking away at the limited funds those people have worked so hard for. Another neat touch is how Taylor brings a modern perspective without undermining the pulp tropes. One of the badguy's allies is a Chinese laundromat owner, who allows the mob to use his building as a meeting place (with the laundry being a good front). The prejudice the Chinese faced at that time is made very explicit in the book, but fits in with the character's motivations. I found it enriched the book.

I do have a complaint about the layout. I know these books are self-published and Gregg Taylor and the good people at Decoder Ring Theatre give a lot more than they get, so it's totally excusable. Also, this is the first book and maybe the next two have improved. Chapter headings, page numbers, space between paragraphs, they all look like a word document basically. The whole thing needs a proper designer to give it a quick run-through and fix-up.

Other than that, though, I'm definitely going to pick up and read the next two in the series. Their catchline doesn't exaggerate: Decoder Ring Theatre really is Your Ticket to Adventure!

Friday, November 26, 2010

63. O.G.P.U. Prison by Sven Hassel

I had the good fortune as a young man to spend three weeks on a cattle ranch in Brazil, basically working with the cowboys (though more likely getting in their way). The manager of the farm was a crusty old Brit and he learned me three things: 1) how to shovel, 2) that two non-gay men cannot live together in close quarters for extended periods of time and 3) Sven Hassel wrote great books about war.

I found one of his books, Monte Casino, immediately after that. But for some reason it sat on my shelf for years and I never found the desire to open it up. My understanding was that Sven Hasssel's book were incessantly grim and violent. I have always been a bit squeamish, but I think the other thing that made me hesitate was the sheer width of the book and a language that didn't grab me. Eventually I got rid of Monte Casino, but when I was in Amsterdam, I found this one for a really cheap price and thought it was high time to introduce myself to Sven Hassel.

Unfortunately, I have since learned that O.G.P.U. Prison is one of his later books and veers more into the black comedy and less into the grimness and is perhaps not the best representation of the series. I say unfortunately, because I really do want to get a better understanding of the series, but this book was kind of a slog. A fascinating, crazy slog, but still quite long and repetitive.

I apologize for dancing around the actual description of the book, but it's hard! It's like the Threepenny Opera mixed with Sergeant Rock (as directed by Sam Peckinpah or one of those Japanese gore-masters) and starring the Marx Brothers. What makes Sven Hassel stand out is that his books are written from the German perspective. The heroes are utterly cynical, war-mad and basically criminals forced into being soldiers. But they are excellent soldiers, basically immortal and constantly killing (during the war scenes). But it's super goofy! The book opens in Berlin, where the heroes are ordered to transport some prisoners. They go into bar after bar and chaos ensues at each place. Then they are sent off to the front to try and take this Russian prison that sits strategically at the top of a hill. It's a total gorefest, but weirdly disjointed and lacking flow. Part of it could have been the translation, but as a reader you jump from violent war scene to violent war scene. At times it happens so abruptly that you don't even realize the heroes have moved to a new situation. A lot of the language is passive or just colourful descriptions of gore (soldiers missing heads, missing legs, legs only, guts hanging out). It goes on and on. It's basically gorewarporn, but all with this ultra-violent humour and ironic awareness of the insanity of war. It felt at times very similar to playing a video game.

It has a certain hypnotic flow and there is some truly crazy stuff in here. But there is so much of it and it is often quite goofy, that I just felt removed from the story most of the time. It also bothered me that the heroes seemed utterly impervious to damage. People are getting slaughtered all around them and the worse they get are scrapes or bullet holes that go straight through but do no real damage. They also always have time to make clever comments and jibes to each other back and forth. It's all very surreal.

If it was less goofy and flowed a bit better, I think it could have been really awesome, truly dark and destructive. I read in a few places that the earlier novels are a bit less crazy, but I wonder how much. I say it was a slog, but it also gave me a certain hankering. Maybe one day I will pick up one of the earlier novels and see how it goes.

Just to give you an idea of the goofiness I am talking about here, is a moment from a scene in a German planning session near the Russian front.

...One of the lamps hisses and crackles loudly.
The General looks at it wickedly.
'Make that lamp shut up,' he shouts, red in the face with rage.
A Signals Unteroffizier tries nervously to adjust the burner, but the lamp continues to splutter. It is as if it has decided to tease the general.
The Unteroffizier burns his fingers, but is wise enough not to show it.
'Take that lamp away! Out with it!' roars the General, in a hoarse voice.
The Unteroffizier grabs the lamp, and rushes out of the black-out tunnel.
At the same time comes the roar of exploding bombs. The Signal Unteroffizier and the lamp come flying back through the tunnel in a rain of glass shards, strips of flesh and brickwork.
'Damned mess,' snarls the General, angrily. 'Clean it up and let's get on with it!'
Planning for the grand attack is resumed immediately. The bombing and the dead Unteroffizier apparently of no interest whatsoever. A couple of soldiers rapidly clear up the remains.

Does that not seem like a very violent Marx Bros. movie? Now imagine that like three or four times per page.

Sven Hassel himself is also an interesting guy. He claims to have been an SS soldier and he was definitely around during the war, but there is another Danish journalist who has dedicated his life to proving that Hassel is a fraud. The war rages on the internet.

I think these book are interesting and that you should read at least one if you are a student of paperback books and manly fiction. I'd love to hear some other people's opinions, especially those who have read more of the books.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

62. Murder Twice Told by Donald Hamilton

Snagged this little gem at Chainon, our local thrift store (which helps to support the larger organization, a women's shelter). Their used books section has really improved over the years.

This book is actually two novellas of Donald Hamilton, Deadfall and Black Cross. Both were initially published in magazines (Deadfall serialized in Collier's in 3 issues in September '49 and The Black Cross in The American Magazine in September '47; thanks to this website for that info). The paperback I read has a minimal colophon, saying only copyright Donald Hamilton 1948, 1949, 1950. I guess it must be some later printing of the paperback. On the inside of the back cover, the original owner wrote "acq. 22 sep. 1967 fin. 1 sep. 1967". That was cool to see. A gesture motivated by the same thing that motivates me to do this blog, I suspect. I also think it was a francophone based on the order of the dates and the use of acq (acquiré) and fin (fini), though both could have been abbreviations of english words, they don't seem that obvious choice.

I'm a bit wary of Donald Hamilton. Donald Westlake spoke of him as a big early influence and I found a couple of those novels and really enjoyed them. I then went and bought a bunch of his later novels, including some of the Matt Helm series. When I finally got around to reading them, I found them almost unreadable. They were clunky and obvious, not as truly terrible as some of that numbered paperback adventure fiction, but pretty uninteresting to me. This one looked promising, though, with minimal commitment (the two stories make up less than 200 pages). Plus, they were early on in his career.

And interestingly enough, the two stories perfectly encapsulated all that is good and all this bad about Donald Hamilton. Deadfall is the story of a chemist who is under suspicion by the FBI for having associated with a woman. It has some cool moments, but overall I found it kind of forced. Way too much time is spent on his feelings about this woman or that and whether or not he can trust them. It was obvious too me early on who was the real bad guy. There was some nice bitterness in the main character, but I just really didn't care about the story all that much. It's not bad, just not great.

The Black Cross, on the other hand, was superb. It was really dark and mature, with an excellent, unravelling plot that brings all its elements together at the end in a very satisfying way. It's the story of a young professor who is driving home with his tight wife after she made another scene at a party. They get in a terrible accident and she dies. Except he remembers seeing her still alive and the trucker beating her down with a black cross. Things get very interesting from there. I'll leave it at that because you should really try and track this little gem down. This is classic noir with a hard edge.

I need someone with similar taste to mine to sort all of Donald Hamilton's work into good and bad. The bad is really not terrible, just on the mediocre side and not to my liking. But the good is pretty hardcore and I want to read more of it!

61. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

I am on such a tear of reading these days that I finally found the energy to actually read a non-fiction book. These things are often in hardback and wide and thus take up important inches on my on-deck shelf. If I can knock a few non-fiction books out before the end of the year, I can do some major clearing. I am extremely lazy-minded and have a hard time concentrating on reading when there is not an exciting storyline to keep me connected and wanting to know what happens next. However, I felt that with my current momentum, reading a non-fiction book was within my capabilities and possibly even enjoyable.

I got this book for xmas last year or even two years ago from my wife (I believe I requested it or at least was very interested in it) when there was a big wave of books and tv specials about what would happen if all the humans disappeared. It is a fascinating subject and a bit of a fantasy for people like me who lament humanity's impact on the planet. I'm also a big fan of the post-apocalyptic genre of which this book must be considered partially a member. Finally, I am going to be running a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game (Barbarians of the Aftermath is the actual game system I'll be using) starting next week with my gaming group and thought The World Without Us would provide lots of good imagination stimulation and concrete ideas.

It's a solid, interesting read, but it suffers a bit for me from two things: it's journalistic style and a greater proportion of information about the world today than the world without us. For reasons I won't get into here, I'm not a big fan of the fourth estate. I particularly dislike magazines. The articles so often follow the same structure and use the same techniques (clever hook, brief description of some dude who then gives some quotes, blah blah). The World Without Us evolved from a magazine and each chapter was basically structured in the same way. Not a deal breaker, but one of the reasons I have trouble concentrating on non-fiction. Nevertheless, it is thoroughly researched and mostly well-written (a teeny bit too florid for my tastes). I learned a lot in reading it about the state of the world today and long-term trends, both natural and man-made, that will affect what would happen to the planet were humans to disappear.

And there was a lot of that kind of information. I'd say more than two-thirds of the book was about current environmental situations on the planet. There was a ton of interesting (and depressing) stuff: agricultural research on elements in the soil going back centuries, shrinking pristine forests in Poland, the history of plastic and its proliferation (totally fucking scary) and so on. The problem for me is that I know a lot of this stuff already, especially the environmental issues and since that is a big part of my day job, indirectly (I'm the IT dude for an environmental NGO) and I find it hard to take as it is, I really don't want to be reading about how we are destroying the planet when I'm reading at home. My own personal difficulty with reading this stuff is not a criticism of the book and I would argue that if you are interested in the subject of a humanless planet but also want to get a good primer on a wide range of ecological impact going on, this is a great book for that. His information is built all around the science and conversations with scientists. It remains objective and never gets emotional. That being said, the parts where he does go into how things would degrade were much more enjoyable and interesting for me (he talks about New York City, works of art, farmlands, nuclear power plants, the Panama Canal) and I would have liked a greater proportion of that part than the current state of affairs. Though i do recognize you need some info on the current and past situation to explain what will happen when we leave (which I hope happens sometime soon).

So good stuff and I pat myself on the back for having read a non-fiction book this year. Hell, I kind of even enjoyed it and may do it again!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Guest post on The Violent World of Parker

I'm very pleased to announce that my review from last week of Richard Stark's The Seventh attracted the attention of Trent over at The Violent World of Parker and he offered to put it up as a guest post on his site.

You can re-read it here.

If you don't know, The Violent World of Parker is the site for Donald Westlake's masterpiece, the Parker series. The site has an excellent (and I think complete or very nearly so) cover gallery, a summary of each of the novels, a section on comics and Parker movie adaptations and a great blog that collects valuable info on all kinds of Parker-abilia (and some forays into the greater paperback crime world). Definitely a must on your blog reader if you are a fan of crime fiction.

The other thing that I respect about the site is that it has been around for a long time. Long before Parker became hip again (with the University of Chicago re-release and the Darwyn Cooke graphic novels), The Violent World of Parker was an old-school, html-based website which I used as a reference quite often or just visited when I need a Parker fix. This was back in the day when you could still find a Parker paperback for a couple bucks at some used bookstore (today, if you can find any, they will be plastic wrapped under the glass at the front and start at $20). Almost nobody was talking about Parker online except The Violent World of Parker.

So congrats to you Trent and thanks for your dedication. Keep up the good work. I hope my next review will earn another guest spot on your great site!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

60. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Well I finally got the guts to read this book. My good friend, the Lantzvillager (whose production of reading has dropped with a recent production of a new human) lent this to me a long time ago and I have just been afraid that it would be too dark and depressing. Happily, my current reading frenzy overcame my trepidation. Even more happily, this is a quick read and a decent one, despite my misgivings about McCarthy (more directed at the media around him than the author himself).

I have mixed feelings about this book. At first, I was extremely annoyed. I can not stand McCarthy's stylistic pretension of not using quotation marks for dialogue. His reliance on incomplete sentences would be almost as annoying, but he is such a good writer that there is often an effective poetry or description there. However, in the beginning of the The Road there is some extremely pretentious blather that any 10th grade english teacher would have excised. Get on with it, Cormac!

Fortunately, the wasteland setting is truly effective. The situation of the boy and his father starts to seep into you and the pretentious useless sentences diminish in frequency. I do appreciate that he went for the full apocalypse. There is almost nothing left and the few remaining humans are either on the edge of death or scary murdering, raping cannibals. I loved the wagon train with the collared catamytes at the end. That was a pretty nice over the top touch that tells me that McCarthy still has a part in him that wants to entertain.

But fundamentally, The Road's bleak setting is a fake-out. Because it is ultimately a (relatively) happy story. It has a happy ending with a slight gleam of hope and may in the final analysis be a condemnation of the choices the father made. It is also so sappy and sentimental. The book spends a lot of time posturing and acting all tough and bleak while actually constantly tugging on your heartstrings with memories of the wife and the boy's pity for other humans. This latter struck me as being questionable. Would a child whose only knowledge was the world after the fall be so caring? Check out The Wire for a more accurate portrayal of how children adapt to their environment.

I will spare you a rant on the literary community and their snobbery against genre fiction (and how McCarthy has hoodwinked us all). I'll simply say that The Road is an enjoyable book, but ultimately its core is a bit too soft.

Friday, November 19, 2010

59. The Seventh by Richard Stark

Holy crap, that heist went really sour!

We're developing a little tradition here where my wife buys me some of the new University of Chicago Parker books each year on my birthday in January and I read them slowly throughout the year. I've already read the entire series at least twice before the U of C books were released, but this is a dedicated, focused reading in the wake of Westlake's death and with the full consciousness that the Parker series is a literary classic. It's been great. I don't know if I've changed but the re-reading of each novel this time around has come as a real surprise to me. Things I'd forgotten are exciting to re-discover and things I had never noticed before are popping up now. I'm getting both the pleasure of re-reading a great book and the pleasure of discovering something new.


Once again, with the Seventh, I had the feeling going in ahead of time that I knew what I was in for. I vaguely remembered this had something to do with a football game and that it was one of the books that was a standard heist, without any longer-term narrative complications for Parker. What I had completely forgotten is how brilliantly structured this book is. So far, it is the best heist followed by the worst fuck-up followed by the perfect denouement. The Seventh is also notable because it is the first time that Parker goes into the backstory of some of the other heisters in a bit of detail. You get hints of it in The Score, but here you really start to care. They are a much richer bunch then in The Score as well. The angry, flamboyantly-dressed dwarf is particularly cool.

The Seventh feels structured to me like an ever-narrowing tunnel. It starts off in a closed apartment, where Parker discovers the woman he had been shacking up with dead, pierced to the bed with an ornamental sword taken from the wall. Worse, all the money he had been holding from the recent and successful heist is gone. Parker goes hunting for the money and the book opens up. We learn of the heist, this college town, all the heisters as well as the local police. Much of the novel is Parker trying to find out who killed the woman and took the money while avoiding the enclosing investigation. Then in the last third, everything starts to constrict. The cops close in, his partners go down one way or another. Parkers pursuit becomes more and more focused. All he wants is "the amateur" who screwed everything up.

The final chapter is Parker stolidly climbing stairs in an empty high-rise under construction, in pursuit this panicking loser. The money, his colleagues, the investigation, the midget are all eliminated as storyline and it is just you the reader with a burning focus to get this amateur who caused so much trouble. It's a very intense ending. And satisfying. Westlake introduces so much tension and worry into the first two-thirds. It's so frustrating to have such a beautifully-executed heist go sour after it's over. You just know things are going to get worse and worse. And yet somehow, once everything is as bad as it can get, you as the reader only really care about Parker getting the amateur. The coda that makes the book so perfect (which I won't reveal here) is really only a cherry on top of a delicious ice-cream sunday. Not necessary, but oh so tasty. I laughed out loud.

Is this a love story?
Okay, get ready for some pretentious essay-writing, people. What struck me in the beginning of this book was the character of Ellie. She is the woman with whom Parker shacks up before and after the heist and whom he finds murdered when he returns after a quick errand for beer and cigarettes. What is remarkable about her character (and what I noticed for the first time during this reading) is that she is the perfect woman for Parker! As is well known, Parker is celibate leading up to the jobs and then satyr-like after. He is introduced to Ellie by Kifka, who is organizing the job, when he asks for a place to stay in town. I don't know if this is a period thing or just one of the perks of being a heister, but when you need a place to stay, you always have the option of getting a woman as well.
"It's been a long day. I need a place to stay while I'm here."
"With a woman or without?"
Parker hesitated and then said, "With." Not that he expected to want her, not just yet. Before a job he never had any interest in women, or in anything else but the job itself. But he would want her afterward, when he would make up for lost time.
The women that Parker stays with tend to be portrayed with some spirit and a bit of personality, but they are rarely anything more than their role as his woman. This is the case with Ellie. The difference is that she turns out to be the perfect Parker partner. Before the heist, she asks nothing of him, is mildly surprised that he doesn't want to get it on and leaves him alone.
Her style was very much like Parker's own, silent and self-contained. They spent hours in the same room without either saying a word. Parker was pleased by her. She didn't jabber away at him, and he never had to tell her anything twice. Kifka had done better than could have been expected.
Parker pleased!? I mean, wow, that never happens. And then after, when he is done. Whoo boy!
Seeing how lackadaisical Ellie was about everything else in life, Parker hadn't expected her to be more in bed than a receptacle, but she surprised him. He had found the one thing that made her pay attention. For three days and nights, they hardly left the bed at all, and the whole time she was nothing but stifled mumblings, and hard-muscled legs and hot breath and demanding arms and a sweat-slick pulsing belly. All the passion that had been dammed up inside Parker while his one-track mind had been concentrating on the robbery now burst forth in one long sustained silent explosion, and Ellie absorbed it all the way a soundproof room absorbs a shout.
[Feel free to go to your bunk now, I'll wait.] When Parker returns to find her impaled to the bedstand, he has no emotional reaction. Then the cops show up and he learns that the money is gone. Nowhere in the text does Parker ever display any sadness at Ellie's death. He needs to get the murderer because he needs to get the money back. And as things go to shit, he stays focused on the murderer because he is so angry about how this amateur was able to make such an ordered thing become so chaotic.
There was no profit in killing him, but Parker was going to kill him anyway. He was going to kill him because he couldn't possibly just walk away and leave the bastard alive.
But the fact remains that Parker does relentlessly pursue the guy even when it may not be the wisest choice. He also takes several dangerous risks and, one could argue (and the midget heister does), even makes a mistake. Should he have left the apartment in the first place without taking any precautions? Should he have braced the detective in his own home to get his list of suspects? In each of the situations, the choice seems reasonable, but when you look back at it, there is a certain aggressiveness in Parker's behaviour that is slightly out of character. One wouldn't say sloppy, but it's close. Parker always hates idiots who get in the way, but there is a certain extra vehemence directed against the amateur (who is the one character whose personality is only hinted at, thus making him more of a concept than a person), which I would argue may come from Parker's anger at losing a woman with such potential. I know I'm stretching a bit here, but there is a little something there. We'll see how Parker's future retalations compare (and there is at least one I can remember that is coming up).

Westlake's critique of progress

In some ways, Stark has a classically conservative inclination. Though he is the ultimate outsider, Parker also represents old-fashioned values of skilled manual labour, stability and fidelity. The other heisters that he meets are a more positive and fuller representation of this. Actually, representation isn't even the right word. Most of his partners are hard-working craftsmen. In The Seventh, it goes even farther, in that they are working people who were pushed into a life of crime by structural changes in the economy. One character ran a local movie theatre with love and care, but with the advent of television he fell into serious debt trying to keep it alive. Another is a highly-skilled carpenter whose work is too high quality and too expensive so that he slowly loses business, until two guys hire him to build a false compartment in the back of a truck and then he begins his life of crime (where he is properly remunerated for quality labour).

Except for the midget (and Parker himself), they are all portrayed as genial men. The planning sessions could be a bunch of factory workers planning a hunting trip in their buddy's basement. Violence is only a means to get the money and they use it sparingly. The machine guns purchased for the heist have a purely psychological function, to eliminate any opposition. Nobody actually wants to shoot them (though mainly because of the noise and mess they cause). These guys are motivated by doing a good job and earning some money in a society where doing a solid day's work no longer necessarily means you will earn some money.

This critique of the "progress" of the second-half of the twentieth century creeps into the descriptions as well. In the final chase, Stark lovingly details the rich nuances of the forest, going from the airy, needle-floored coniferous to the cluttered, multi-coloured decidous section. Suddenly, the forest ends and the chase spills out into a dirt wasteland, a construction site: "Later, when the building was done, landscape architects would come in with fresh earth and seed and hothouse plants and turn this moonscape back into something vaguely like the forest it had been, but with less clutter and liveliness." I posit that it is not just for visual effect that Stark describes the building as something fundamentally aberrant, broken:
It was over twenty stories high already, and from the confusion of cranes and pulleys atop the building—looking like unruly hair on the head of a Mongoloid idiot—it was apparently going to be even taller before they were done.
I found this final passage to be descriptively powerful. Westlake is such a good writer. I've been to that forest, I've walked along a bulldozed land site and I've clambered around inside a building under construction. Reading The Seventh put me back in those places. I'm probably imposing my own environmental melancholies to some degree, but I do think Westlake is channeling a lament for an America that he saw disappearing into today's world of mindless entertainment (the target of the heist is a football game) and cheaply-produced goods, where the complex, tactile natural world is bulldozed to make way for soulless apartment blocks. Parker is Stark's robot of vengeance, sent in to strike deeply into this new order and wreak as much havoc as possible using order and professionalism. He cannot succeed, but you cheer and rage for him along the way.

Now that all this pretentious twaddle is out of the way (and thank you for bearing with me this far, if any of you did), I'd like to just throw out two more side points:

1) There is a great passage where Stark describes the detective working on the case of the murdered girl. Parker has found out his home address and cased it out. His neighbourhood, his house, his car, all suggest that the guy is struggling economically. There is even a slight hint of contempt in the tone, though that is coming from Parker probably, as the passage is described as being seen through Parker's eyes. If you've read any Westlake, you just know something is up when he lays it on this heavily. And when we actually meet the guy, you get a classic moment of why the world of Parker is so awesome.
He waited a couple of minutes, and then Detective Dougherty himself came to the door. He was no more than thirty, but had all the style of fifty; dressed in his undershirt and trousers and a pair of brown slippers, carrying a rolled napkin in his left hand, walking with the male approximation of a woman in late pregnancy. He wasn't stout at all, but he gave an impression of soft overweight. His round face was gray with lack of sleep and the need of a shave, and his dry brown hair had already receded from his forehead.

But it was all crap. His eyes were slate gray, and all they did was watch. The way he held his right hand, his revolver was still on his hip somewhere.
Despite all the previous snide criticism of the guy's lifestyle, upon seeing him in person, Parker recognizes him instantly to be a serious opponent. Ultimately, it's about the man underneath. Game recognize game. That is great stuff!

2) The introduction to The Seventh is written by Luc Sante and is excellent. He must be of french origin as he read Parker originally in translation. He references several very interesting-sounding french crime authors whose works haven't been translated and he gives some solid, interesting analysis about the Parker series. There are some spoilers there about upcoming books, which I guess I'll excuse. I don't know who this guy is, but I will look into it, because this is finally an intro this series deserves.

3) Donald fucking Westlake.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

58. The Painswick Line by Henry Cecil

I can't even remember where I found this book, I think at the Spui bookmarket in Amsterdam. I remember thinking that it had a certain anglophile feel to it that appealled to me but that also I was getting into something unknown. With books that give me this kind of feeling, they need to be devoured quickly or they may get stuck on my on-deck shelf indefinitely. My pace is so good right now, I thought I should just knock it down. I was glad I did so. The Painswick Line is not a masterpiece and it's probably not even an author I will follow up with, but it was an enjoyable read and gave me a bit more insight into popular British reading in the second half of the 20th century. For you see, I have learned that Henry Cecil is the Richard Gordon of the Legal profession (Richard Gordon, if you didn't know, is the James Herriot of the medical field (James Herriot is, of course, the James Herriot of the veterinary field)).

I like to go into new novels fairly blind, with as little external information as possible. Though sorely tempted, I don't read the author blurbs or any of the quotations (I am definitely never tempted to read the book blurbs as they are almost always spoilers and should just be fucking banned). However, about halfway through the book, I started to get the idea that the main gist of this novel was to share funny anecdotes about the craziness of the world of law in Britain.

The base story is a vicar who reveals in court that he is able to accurately determine which horse will win the race. He has been doing it for years, but always purely as an intellectual exercise. He stayed true to his humble calling and never made a penny with his skill. But of course his skills do not go unnoticed and soon his small parish is hounded by punters and press and even the judge who presided over the trial where he revealed his ability. The judge's son is a scoundrel (though treated with the utmost respect by both his father and the author; very little moral judgement in this book either) and the father needs a large sum of money to keep him out of debt and thus jail. Though this plot seems sufficient for a humourous novel, it is actually resolved quite quickly and the book follows the son through several legal scams, some of which work and other that don't. The end of the book has the son of the judge (who has now since passed on) turning 84 and finally deciding to give up a life of crime so he can end his days at home with his always-loving wife (the daughter of the vicar).

So as you can see, this is not a tightly woven narrative. I didn't really mind the meandering structure, especially when it became apparent that the point of this book are all the little legal wrangles and boondoggles the son (and other people) get into. I think that this kind of book was really an enjoyable read for educated professionals in 50s and 60s Britain, especially lawyers. Some of the details went over my head and I did glaze over a bit when the language got a bit too industry-specific. However, it is a pleasant, non-judgemental read and didn't make me want to smash up the house as 30 seconds of network news or a single television commercial can. The back of the book had several other recommendations, including the Richard Gordon Doctor books, which look like they might be a lot of fun.

[Note: I have now broken my one-year record of total books read this year, at least as long as I have been keeping record. I'm happy, but with my new obsession of trying to get an average of 50 books a year, I am not satisfied. I've got less than 6 weeks to hit that average hard!]

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

57. A Classical Education by Richard Cobb

I discovered Richard Cobb while studying history in college. Among the hundreds and hundreds of pages of text that I struggled to consume on a weekly basis (my ability to read non-fiction is relatively poor compared to my consumption rates for fiction), Richard Cobb's rich and meandering pieces on french history stood out. He wrote about places and very specific moments in history, taking a little slice and then weaving these amazing descriptions around them until he had built up a very complete sense of the place in the reader's mind, which he then associated with the greater history. He would spend pages, for instance, talking about a single sidewalk and the cobblestones in it, where they came from originally, who walked on them and how and at what times, what the storeowners whose establishments faced that sidewalk saw and so on. Eventually, he would come around to revealing the info that this street was where a certain Jacobean minister had walked just before making a certain specific political move that had ramifications for the history of the french revolution. I'm making that last example up, because I can't actually remember any of the details, but I think that provides a decent idea. He had some of the longest sentences of any historians, but they were ones you could follow and enjoy.

He was also known to be a bit of a wild man, an old boy who worked hard in the archives but was no stranger to drink or shenanigans. Our french history professor told us that before his lectures, he would be found in a nearby bar having a glass of Apple Jack brandy. His great writing and his exemplary character and old boy credentials combined to make him a favourite for me. I later discovered that he had also written some autobiographies about his public school childhood. I thought that I had already read A Classic Education, but now I am not so sure. It's the story of one of his classmates and their relationship over the years. They bonded at Shrewsbury public school in their shared antagonism towards the administration and fear of the bullies, though they also had very different approaches. The pin that the whole narrative hangs on is that his classmate murdered his mother in Dublin in what was at the time a fairly sensational news story. The jacket blurbs try to sell the book as some kind of mystery or thriller, but it really isn't. It's a study of the man and boy as Cobb knew him, their own relationship and Cobb's connection to the murder. It's a wonderful read, absorbing, enriching and funny. Cobb is refreshingly removed and un-moralistic. That kind of dry distance, in today's histrionic and morally righteous world, would be considered offensive by modern readers. Even I was a bit surprised at how unsympathetic he was to the murdered mother (though she was a pretty horrible person) and how lightly he treated the whole affair. My surprise, I suspect, is more of a function of being surrounded by a world of self-righteousness and mushy-minded sentimentalism. The treacle sticks. Cobb's approach is a reminder that I need to distance myself from indulgent emoting and cheap sympathy.

A Classical Education is a short, engaging read. I started it on the morning of a day of travel and finished it before I put out the lights that night. I laughed out loud several times. He is such an educated person that there are many references that I didn't recognize, but they are not an impediment to becoming absorbed in the eccentric, complex characters and the crazy, real stories that are their lives. Strongly recommended.

Monday, November 15, 2010

56. Inspector West Leaves Town by John Creasey

John Creasey was an amazingly prolific British mystery writer. He had several series (including the Toff, one of which I read and reviewed here). I discovered him through the very enjoyable BBC radio plays of his Inspector West books. I was really excited to make the discovery, as I love the whole allure of Scotland Yard. I didn't love the Toff book and was expecting a bit more from this Inspector West book (great cover!), hoping that it might emphasize more the procedural side of things.

Unfortunately, it's a bit of a mess. I did a bit of reading and see that Creasey cranked his books out, going straight from his mind to typewriter and never revising. You can tell! It lacks cohesion and rhythm, so you don't really know why you are reading certain sections. A lot of time is spent on West's domestic life, which would be fine, but it doesn't seem to be in service of anything. There are moments and bits of dialogue that almost seem like you are reading a documentary of post-war British middle class life.

The real problem for me, though, was that the badguy is presented as incredibly powerful, almost invincible. Nothing wrong with that and he would have fit well into an American pulp novel. But it just seemed weird that a villain who is able to kidnap dozens of top British officials and prefaces all of his perfectly-timed exits with a specific concerto playing from nowhere is in the same book where one of the heroes has a badly injured hand for almost the entire story.

I get that he was cranking these things out and I am somewhat in favour of pushing the action forward rather than revising a zillion times to make the perfect novel, but in this case I just felt too unconvinced and mildly bored at times. I would not be surprised if there are superior books in this series. I also think they work better as radio plays, as the interplay between the characters is fairly enjoyable when delivered by BBC actors. If someone can recommend a particularly good Inspector West book, I'll definitely check it out. Otherwise, I probably won't be adding any more John Creasey books to my on-deck shelf in the near future.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

55. The Enemy by Lee Child

I was at the local thrift store dropping off some old pants and household items and decided that I could risk taking a look at their book section, which has actually been quite fruitful in the last year or so. Some unknown volunteer has taken to organizing the books and they are doing a great job. Hats off to that person. So rare to find someone who actually makes an effort to organize things these days. Everybody seems to think that they can just leave everything in a big pile and have google sort it out for them or something. Anyways, I found an old Donald Hamilton. I also picked up this Lee Child book. I quite enjoyed Gone Tomorrow and was looking for something easy to digest that I could get sucked into. Well mission accomplished. I tore through this thick book.

This time we go a bit farther back into Reacher's career, where he is an MP, actually the head MP in a large army base in North Carolina in 1990. He had been in Panama dealing with the Noriega situation, but suddenly got moved. He's army all his life and used to simply following orders (though seems to have no problem breaking them as well). Furthermore, he has a philosophy of just living life as it is presented to him. It's part of what makes him such a compelling character. He is the fantasy rogue male with the skills to handle any situation, so he has no need to plan, put aside savings, worry about loneliness, etc.

The story starts out with a General found dead of a heart attack in a seedy hotel near the base. The investigation gets more and more complicated and ultimately reveals a massive conspiracy. Most of the book is on the ground investigation, detailed and enjoyable. But the overall plot is some big-picture, end of the cold war, internal military politics stuff. It's just on the right side of being implausible, but totally acceptable because of all the stuff that Reacher is dealing with is well thought out and engaging. This is detailed, manly stuff with sprinklings of gun and vehicle porn (and a two-page discussion on a custom-made crowbar that I took particular pleasure in). In Gone Tomorrow, Reacher is a civilian and most of the action takes place in NYC, where he has all kinds of urban skills, including all the tricks for staying for free in fancy hotels. Here, money is an issue and when he goes AWOL he has to count his pennies. I guess he continues to add to his skillset.

Most of the books in this market—the thick, manly books sold at airports, with abstract, embossed, mainly black covers—are crap these days. They tend to be overly written and basically unintelligent. They often feature excessive serial-killerism. Lee Child's Reacher novels (at least the two I have read so far) are an exception, good escapist stuff but not insulting to the reader's intelligence. They are sparsely written and the good stuff (the ass-kicking, the technical details, the wise-cracking superiority over lesser bosses) is dealt out in just the right proportions to keep this manly reader quite satisfied.

Monday, November 08, 2010

54. The King of Swords by Michael Moorcock

This is the third and final book in the Books of Corum series by Michael Moorcock. You can read my brief reviews of the first two here. In this third one, everything seems to be at peace, though we the readers know it cannot last as the final God of Chaos, the King of Swords is still mightily pissed at Corum for having destroyed his sister, the Queen of Swords and his brother the Knight of Swords.

The basic idea in Moorcock's world is that the gods mess with mortals indirectly, in this case through the Mabden or humans, a new lesser race who have been wrecking the world with their warlike ways. The main evil Mabden, who tortured Corum in the first book, poking out his eye and chopping off his hand, is in major retreat. But he still has strong connections with the Chaos gods and one broken Vanagh (the higher race of which Corum is one of the few remaining), whom he forces to create a powerful spell that causes everybody to hate each other. Soon Corum's pleasant world starts to fall apart in mutual aggression and violence.

So he has to go out and adventure again, gets sucked into all these different planes and even universes of existence. This is big, big picture stuff with some very trippy imagery. I'm kind of a geek, but not entirely and I think I draw the line at this kind of fantasy. I love it in principle and think that metal bands that base their entire aesthetic around it are really cool. But I don't really care. It's just all so removed. There was one exception and that was at the very end, when Corum learns that all that went on was part of a rare period of major change in the universe. After this, the gods power will diminish in the mortal realms. This theme is very common in fantasy (the classic is all the Elves leaving Middle Earth at the end of the Lord of the Rings) and it symbolizes the end of the imagination, adulthood, banality etc. I did find it touching and appreciated Moorcock's skill and desire to keep alive worlds where reason and "reality" are not actually prioritized.

One geeky element in this book that I also found mildly distracting (but probably would have sucked up when I was 15) is that this third book brings in a bunch of characters and concepts from other Moorcock books, particularly Elric, his most famous character. It made me feel like I needed to read a bunch of other books to fully appreciate what the hell was going on. I used to love this kind of cosmos building, but now it tires me slightly and honestly it did feel like it kind of deflated the impact of everything else that had led up to this point. You read a trilogy about a hero in a world and then in the last pages of the last book, it turns out that he needs to connect with another even bigger hero who has a special sword and an entire backstory himself that is only hinted at. To get really geeky and compare it to tabletop roleplaying, it's like when your character needs the assistance of the GMs special more powerful character to actually complete the quest. It takes the adventure out of your hands and that is kind of what I felt like as a reader.

Still, if you have a 15-year old who needs his mind blown, this may well be the way to go.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

53. A Sense of Survival by Kevin Casey

Man, I am really in the murky soup of British self-loathing and anguish! A Sense of Survival was way high up on the shelves in the mystery section of the American Book Exchange in Amsterdam and it's age and cover design attracted me. I was a bit desperate as I had been disappointed by the offerings at that store. The inside flap blurb (of which I only try to read the bare minimum as a rule) spoke of ex-pats in Morocco which was enough for me.

The story takes place in Casablanca and centers around a small boarding house run by a lonely and judgemental old spanish woman. The main characters, a new mother waiting for her husband, an Irish and morally loose journalist and an aging and pathetic remittance man all stay there. As well there are two non-present characters, the mother's husband, who has allegedly gone into the hills to study the natives for his academic work but who is 3 weeks late in coming back and a man called Traynor around whom some suspicion seems to linger.

The book isn't really a mystery, though there are several loose storylines that keep you hanging on. Where is Traynor? Where is the husband? What's the deal with the pathetic guy? Even when Traynor does come back and gets murdered (about halfway through the book), I realized the author was much more concerned about perusing deeply into the personalities of these various lost souls. Again, it's not badly written, though much more rife with constant excessive symbolism and referential language ("This was like the time that dragged through an illness, nothing happened, a contracted world, dust upon a broken chair, a bored reader"--okay I added that last phrase but you get the picture.) It reminded me of the last J.G. Ballard book I read, though a little less out there. In any case, most of it was unwelcome. But it does flow and you find the characters believable and complex. But who cares? Once again, it's a bunch of depressed, confused British people who need to get semi-interesting jobs (and in this case seem to have the means and situation to do that as opposed to the Beryl Brainbridge book) and a good dose of therapy. This is the 70s and you are in Casablanca for Christ's sake where a man can get into some trouble and adventure! Instead you sit around moping in some boarding house where the owner thinks you are a sinner and plaster crumbles from the ceiling.

What really turned me from mildly bored to fully annoyed is that the writer uses a poor animal to deliver some kind of symbolic narrative structure. The landlady has an old cat that is constantly appearing. It comes and goes and tension is built because the landlady claims the local boys (who also harrass the mother and generally follow people on the street menacingly; hey how about a kick in their ass? You think Parker would waist a second worrying about those fucking street urchins?) tried to light it on fire. There are several scenes where the cat is missing. And hey guess what? At the end of the book, when Traynor's murder is solved and everybody has a minor revelation about themselves (they are lame and aren't really going to change seems to sum it up for them all), the cat is discovered dead, strangled with a wire. And it is delivered as an afterthought by the journalist character. So fucking lame mr. 70s Irish writer. Why don't we have Evil Spock come in and Vulcan nerve pinch to death all the characters in this book? I think that would have made a much more poignant point about their lost lives and struggles for identity. Feh.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

52. Anarchaos by Donald Westlake

Anarchaos is the legendary lone science fiction novel by Donald E. Westlake. It was originally published under the Curt Clark pseudonym (he also wrote several sci-fi short stories under that name as well). I had located a french version of this book at my local library, but was waiting to find the english one before I read it. I ran across a hardback first edition in Amsterdam and was all excited until I realized the author on the cover was "Donald Westlake", thus making it some kind of reprint. I don't even know if the Curt Clark version was released in hardback.

I had no idea what to expect. Parker in space? Dortmunder in space? One of his multi-character epics like Humans or High Adventure? It's the story of Rolf Malone, recently out of jail on earth, who travels to the violent and un-governed world of Anarchaos to find out why his brother died. It was an interesting premise and the science fiction stuff was quite well done. For instance, the planet doesn't rotate so there is a dark side and a light side. Westlake does a lot of interesting things with this concept, bringing out the coolness of the idea (which is an aspect of sci-fi) but also and more importantly making it an important part of the narrative.

Unfortunately, the book takes a weird turn at the halfway point. It becomes about the protagonist's understanding of himself and his motivation and thus really bogs down. He gets put into a slave camp where you are basically broken down into nothing and then spends the whole rest of the novel trying to figure out what he wants. It makes for an interesting encounter or two with the baddies when they aren't able to threaten him (he has become so existential that he welcomes their worst threat of a drug that will wipe out his memory). I as a reader also struggled with my own understanding of why I was continuing to read the book. Not terrible, but you just get the feeling Westlake ran out of a raison d'être for his main guy and instead of forcing one on him, just let him sort of dawdle until he slapped on a way too neat ending.

So not the greatest, but now I've read it. For Westlake completionists only.