Saturday, February 26, 2011

11. My Search for Patty Hearst by Steven Weed

I've always held an interest in the various phenomena that marked the end of the '60s, where the cultural movement got really dark. That whole period, sort of kicked off by Watergate, is just so fascinating, culturally and politically. The establishment was probably at its most retarded in the history of America, while the young radicals were also amazingly stupid. And right in the middle was Parker, kicking everyone's ass—oh no wait, I'm in the wrong review.

I picked up this book for a dollar because I thought it might be an interesting read. Steven Weed is the ur-cuckold, the rational, sensible young white professor whose pure heiress fiancée got kidnapped, brainwashed and eventually turned out by the ultimate revolutionary black cock. I admit to having a slightly prurient, almost mocking, interest in hearing his perspective. Surprisingly, the book far exceeded my expectations and turned out to be both a very thoughtful introspection on his psychology as well as a detailed and accurate history. I don't know if credit is to Steven Weed himself or his ghost writer Scott Swanson, but a real effort was made here to detail all the craziness that went down during the period between Patty's abduction and the shootout of most of the SLA 3 months later. It makes for a fascinating read.

I am not too aware of all the context surrounding the publication of this book, but it's clear that Weed was trying to defend his reputation. So it should be approached with some skepticism. The Hearsts ended up distancing themselves from him. He botched several media interviews. He published the book while Patty was still on the run and then added a bonus chapter after her trial, so it does look like an opportunity to cash in. That being said, he does an excellent job of portraying himself as a victim, but ultimately one who comes to terms with what happened, while not hiding over any of his flaws. You do feel sympathetic for him, but he doesn't milk it or seem to feel sorry for himself. You get the sense that he was more just blown away by what was going on. Imagine, your fiancée is brutally kidnapped from your house and you get the shit beaten out of you. You first think it's a simple hostage case after a break-in. Then you think it's for money because she is the heiress of a famous wealthy family. Then you get this communiqué from these freaky crimino-revolutionaries making these insane political demands. And then the final straw when she joins them and starts parroting their garbled revolutionary bullshit and claims you are a sexist, ageist pig. He was only 26 years old! I think it is a testimony to his basic stability that he didn't go completely bonkers. I'd be curious to hear another perspective, but I think another point in his favour also is that he seems to have completely disappeared from the limelight. The only thing I can find is that he is a real estate agent in the Bay Area.

But back to the book. One example of the detailed history that I hadn't expected was the recounting of the chaos that was the People In Need food drive. One of the SLA's demands was that the Hearst family donate $400 million worth of food to the poor. Instead, they donated $4 million and tried to create a system for buying, sorting and distributing to the food, hiring experienced administrators from Washington state and affiliating them with a wide range of local churches, political organizations, community groups, criminals and just everybody. Because the distant voice of DeFreeze in his political communiqués (sent via tape to the local media through a black church) was weirdly driving the whole thing, all these groups had a lot of power. Plus, it was the 60s in the Bay Area, which was just a total free-for-all when it came to these kinds of things. I mean you think PC thought can cripple getting things done today, you need to read this account. The first food drop turned into a total riot. By the end of the program, they did manage to get a lot of food out, but the waste, chaos and theft that went on in between is just a perfect demonstration of the vast gap between vague political ideals and actually getting something done. Steven Weed volunteered for four days during the last drive and you get a first-person eye view on it.

I know what I've written so far portrays the radical left as being profoundly naive and incompetent (or just criminal) and they were. But the undercurrent throughout the whole book is also the utter incompetence and disconnectedness of the establishment at the time. The FBI completely blew this case. They had absolutely nothing but bullshit and bluster. (Their rhetoric during this case sounds eerily similar to the garbage we get from Homeland Security about "terrorism" today, which should tell us something about how much they actually know.) Particularly hilarious is the part where they bring in an expert to interrogate Weed right after the kidnapping. He is an expert on "marijuana addiction" and asks if any of the attackers had a yellowish tinge, as that is a dead giveaway of said addiction. Straight out of a Freak Brothers comic. Patty's parents, especially her mother, were completely out to lunch. The cops, for the most part, seemed more concerned with harassing people and being dicks than actually investigating. The "establishment" just had absolutely no idea what they were dealing with on all levels.

I was a little kid in Oakland when all this was going down, completely oblivious. But my parents must have been following along, so I'm quite curious to hear their perspectives on the matter.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

10. Eon by Greg Bear

I have a strange relationship with science fiction. Basically, it's awesome and I love it. But I am not quite enough of a true nerd to actually be able to fully jump into it and be the guy who in the theatre is furiously reading a 4-inch think paperback while waiting for Aliens to start (I saw this). I often approach science fiction novels with trepidation, with fear that they will be too long, have too much detail and visualisation that I won't be able to follow, that they will be part of some massive series that I'll have to follow to get the fully satisfying reading experience. One of my 50-books goals a few years back was to catch up on a bunch of sci-fi classics and I read quite a few, but since then, it's been few and far between, reading one when the mood really strikes me.

I've been interested in Greg Bear for a while. He has a reputation of being a "hard" science fiction writer. This vague distinction always adds a level of hesitation for me. But I saw a well-read paperback on the shelf at Chainon for a buck and just felt the urge. Not giving myself a chance to be intimidated (and to wash a bit of the PC-stench of The Suspect off my mind), I jumped right in.

Happily, it turned out to be a real page-turner and definitely worthy of its reputation as a sci-fi classic. I read the 500+ pages in a couple of days, staying up too late on school nights (be concerned, Mom!). It's the near-future, 2012, and a large asteroid has appeared, about the shape of a potato and 120 km long. Upon closer inspection, it has symmetrical bands along its length and other markings that appear to indicate the work of intelligence.

I also note that interestingly this is the third sci-fi classic that involves a vessel showing up in our solar system that turns out to be hollow and reveals great secrets, the other two being Rendezvous with Rama and Titan.

Eon was written in 1985 and Bear has pushed forward the cold war context to our present day. He also added in a limited nuclear exchange, called The Little Death.

The west has the advantage in space and NATO quickly claims control of the stone, as it is called (cleverly, the Russians call it the potato). The book's perspective comes mainly from a young theoretical physicist, Patricia Vasquez, as she is called up for reasons she doesn't know to participate in the exploration of the stone. The discoveries in the stone have been kept under tight wraps and all she knows are the rumours that it is hollow and that evidence of an intelligent civilization has been discovered. The first part of the book is her going there and slowly being introduced to what they have actually found. What they have found is pretty awesome and it's a big part of what keeps the pages turning. You want to find out more!

I won't reveal any more, suffice it to say that there are external conflicts from the jealous Soviets and internal conflicts from what they learn about the civilization that did the work. I guess it's called hard science because one of the things they find at the far end of the stone is a seemingly endless tunnel made of walls of anti-matter or something. The tunnel (called The Way) is a huge part of the book and some crazy spacey-physics stuff happens. I guess the whole thing is based on real physics or something, but it all seemed like pretty standard science fiction to me. It was really cool, but I'm not sure what is so "hard" about it. A scientist would probably understand the distinction, but my point is that for a simple-minded thrill-seeker like myself, the science was not a deterrant at all.

Also, though it sounds like an afterthought, the humans and their narratives are ultimately what keep the book moving through to the end and they are quite well done. How do people react when faced with such mind-blowing situations. There is also the theme of nuclear annhiliation, something that was much more in the cultural forefront when the book was written. It is still very meaningful and intense here.

Great book.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

9. The Suspect by Michael Robotham

Well here is the first stinker of 2011. Well, that's a bit harsh. It's not a terrible book. The basic mystery is pretty cool and the guy is a competent writer. The problem is that this is basically the slightly upmarket version of a Jeffrey Deaver, a book that is demographically targetted rather than actually written. And the target? The guilty pussified middle-aged white male of the 21st century. Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I go off on a rant, I'll give you the basic premise.

Joseph O'Loughlin is a clinical psychologist in London who gets involved in a case involving a young girl found murdered and tortured in a very specific way. Because he works with prostitutes as a side philanthropic effort, the investigating detective comes to him, thinking the victim was a prostitute. It turns out that not only is she not a prostitute, but an ex-patient of the protagonist's. As he digs deeper, more and more is revealed until he himself starts to become the principal suspect. Okay, pretty standard non-detective gets in too deep and has to become detective-like, using his real world skills, to prove himself innocent. It's not bad as these kinds of stories go, with some good twists and turns, rich characters and good locales in and outside of London.

The problem is that to get to that story, you have to dig through pages and pages of whiny, self-indulgent, narcissistic chaff. First of all, the psychologist has early Parkinson's. Bummer. Dick Francis often had characters with a single handicap like this (the wife in the iron lung, the paralysed hand, etc.) and they gnawed at the main character. But they didn't become a major part of the narrative with the guy being a total douche, constantly obsessing over it, not telling his wife and child, nor the detective who is investigating the case, nor none of his colleagues so they all think he is being even more suspicious when his face gets all blank, serial-killer like, and his hands are trembling and he drops things at crucial moments. Even lamer than this though is that the guy also has a way hotter wife than he deserves (but of course she loves him unquestioningly), so he has to fret all the time about the other more alpha males wanting and possibly getting her sexually (his best friend, the plumber, the visiting cops). Oh yeah and his father is a super successful medical doctor and contemptuous of his son for choosing psychology and he has to fret about that every single time he sees his parents even though they are basically quite pleasant.

Look, I agree that we should try to be psychologically aware of ourselves. But there is a point where that just becomes preening self-indulgence and the character in this book goes way over the line. Dude, man the fuck up! You have a hot wife. Good for you. Own it. You are a grown man. Time to move past your parents' disappointment. I think this book was semi-deliberately written this way in an attempt to appeal to female readers. And I think the author is one of those misguided guys who thinks this kind of sensitive shit gets you laid. Lesson to my younger male readers: it doesn't.

But here is the real capper. Along with all this pussified hand-wringing, we also get a super-nasty, titillating gang rape, ripped almost directly from Leaving Las Vegas (in between rounds, they cheered for Man U). This comes in part of the narrative behind the protagonist's ex-prostitute ally, with whom he gets to have an affair (but it's okay because it was just once after he had learned he has Parkinson's and can't talk to his wife about it for fear of showing weakness or some such bullshit), and of course the sex they have is super angelic the first time but then he "takes her" the second round. And of course even though she has been a prostitute since she was 13 at the lowest levels of the game, she is still so hot that when they go out at restaurants everyone stares at her. It's the worst kind of adolescent masculine fantasy dressed up as some kind of profound psychological analysis.

Also, the psychology in the book is actually really simplistic. One of his patients is scared of crossing bridges and comes to his office with a life buoy. And guess what his treatment is? To talk with her about all the stable bridges in the world and going over the safety statistics with her until she is a bit calmer.

I have to admit to being a bit taken in by the packaging. It looked like it would be kind of tough and cold, with a very sparse cover and glowing reviews from (what I mistakenly assume to be more critical) British newspapers like The Sunday Times or the Telegraph. But really, looking closer, which I should have done, I see the majority of those quotes are from Australian papers and even The Australian Women's Weekly, which should have rung some alarms.

The protagonist in this book is the kind of character Patricia Highsmith would have made fun of. Thank god I didn't buy the other book by this guy that was right next to it and also tempting for a dollar.

If you are one of the hordes of pussified males that don't take responsibility for anything and can't fix a flat tire or drive in the snow and you feel terribly guilty about being a white male but still think it makes sense that a super-hot ex-hooker would ultimately sympathize with your sensitivity because you lecture to prostitutes about their safety and you want to revel in your feelings of inadequacy and doubt and impotent frustration towards your parents, then you'll probably love this book.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

8. How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar

Will 2011 be the year of Margaret Millar? How Like an Angel did not rock my world like Beast in View, but I am still blown away by how talented a writer Millar is. This is much more of a straightforward mystery, albeit an engaging and interesting one. Joe Quinn is a gambler and laid-off casino P.I. who gets dropped off in the middle of the desert after a binge at the tables. He wanders onto the property of a strange religious commune and from there gets mixed up in a mystery that involves bank embezzlement, small town real estate and, of course, murder.

Quinn meets an old woman in the commune who helps him out. In return, she asks him to find out the fate of one Patrick O'Gorman, who lived in the small nearby town of Chilcote. She doesn't say why and when he finds out that not only is O'Gorman missing and presumed dead, but that his mysterious disappearance 5 years ago caused a scandal that the town still hasn't gotten over. Intrigued, he starts to dig deeper.

What's great about this book are the excellent locations, especially the little fringe California town of Chilcote that was once primarily agricultural and since dominated by oil money. You can understand why so many writers lived or wrote about Southern California in the 20th century. It was a dynamic place, but also so atmospheric. She really captures the feel of a too-hot desert town. The cult is also quite neat, a precursor to the communes of the 60s.

What didn't quite work for me was the romantic angle, where the protagonist seems to all of a sudden fall in love with O'Gorman's widow. I mean yes she seemed like an admirable woman, but the falling in love came out of nowhere. Maybe that's how it worked back when you couldn't have pre-marital sex, but it seemed forced to me.

Margaret Millar was an amazing person. She was Canadian but moved to the States after marrying her husband, Ross MacDonald. She did a ton of conservation work and wrote kick-ass novels. I wonder if anyone has written a good biography of her? It's funny because she was quite succesful, both commercially and critically, and yet her name has sort of faded while everyone still knows who Ross MacDonald is. Is that simply the male bias of publishing and the crime genre or simply a testament to the longevity of having a single recurring detective?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

7. Les Sept Jours du talion by Patrick Senécal

[title translates to The Seven Days of Retaliation.]

Patrick Senécal is a very popular writer here in Quebec. Two of his earlier books (5150 rue des Ormes and Sur le Seuil) were made into movies (as was this one). I read Sur le Seuil, which was one of the first novels I read in french. It's the story of a psychologist investigating people who start suddenly going on killing sprees. It was quite gripping and I was particularly impressed with how extreme Senécal was willing to go with his plot (jusqu'ua bout!).

I was not interested in Les Sept Jours because I saw the trailer of the movie before even knowing about the book. And like so many trailers today, it gives away way too much. There really needs to be a law about that. And it looked like a harrowing, unpleasant subject matter and I closed my mind to it. Not that I'm against that stuff being in books and movies, but I just find it so difficult to watch or read about that I just avoid it. However, a friend of mine strongly recommended that I read the book, to the point of lending me his copy. It sat on my shelf haunting me, both because the subject matter looked rough and reading it in french makes it twice as hard for me.

The story is a simple one. A young girl is raped and murdered and the doctor father kidnaps the sex maniac responsible to get his revenge. He holes up in a cabin and tortures him for 7 days. You can see why I might have been reluctant to read this book. I'm definitely not a fan of torture porn. However, what that simple premise leaves out is the psychological depth of the book and the suspense. It's a real page-turner! Right from the first page, you are caught up in medias res with the doctor preparing to carry out his kidnapping. There is a lot of cool procedural stuff in flashback while he's waiting in the car outside the courthouse and you really want to find out what happens next.

Then when we do get to the cabin, the book is just as engrossing as you follow the police trying to find him, society's divided reaction to the doctor's actions, the affect on his wife and ultimately how the doctor himself starts to unravel. This is some dark, rich shit. It poses the question, what would you do in this situation and is it the right thing? It answers that question in a deep psychological way with a frisson of the supernatural. Very gripping and enjoyable read. What I like about Senécal, among other things, is that even his side characters are interesting. The team of cops, though playing a smaller role (except the main detective on the case) seem very real and kind of cool.

I also have to add that the things they guy does to his victim are pretty fucking harsh. I've seen some harshness in fiction (especially in the movies) and there are things that go on here that really had me quite freaked out. It's not only the excess or the twisted creativity, but also the way it is delivered to the reader and put into the psychological context.

It's also interesting to read this alongside Sur le Seuil. Sur le Seuil does it much more explicitly, but both suggest that there is a true evil in the world, but that it is something that is linked to our own psychology. We can access it and it can take us over, but we can also choose to fight against it. It is, however, a real thing out there (especially, it seems, in rural Quebec!) waiting for us to give it access.

Here is my question after reading this book. Why the fuck has it not been translated into english and properly marketed? Is this the fault of lame Toronto-centric publishing houses, trapped between their ignorance of the francophone market and their fear of anything "genre"? Is this the fault of navel-gazing Quebecers who can't imagine their written work would have any value in the rest of North America? Because this book seems highly marketable to me. It's a real page-turner and delivers the horror goods. There is a huge market in the States and anglo Canada for this kind of horror. Will somebody please sell it? Or if not, please explain why.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

6. This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith

This Sweet Sickness doesn't rank amongst my favourite of her works and at some point I even found it a bit trying. But it does pick up by the second half and ultimately she delivers a succesful tale of a man driven mad by his obsession with a woman. She is such a master at writing about what is going on inside the head of a crazy person. It's not just the internal dialogue, but subtle little clues, like sudden surges of energy or erroneous perceptions (that the reader is aware of).

I did have one exciting moment that sadly turned out to be not so exciting. The basic story is that a scientist, David Kelsey, pines after the woman he left behind in his town (to make money to be able to marry her). She ends up going out with another guy and then marrying him and the "protagonist" can't let go, to the point that he has bought another house and spends every weekend there, preparing for her eventual arrival in that home. He sends letters to her and eventually harrases her enough that her husband comes out to confront him. They get in a scuffle and the husband falls and hits his head on the concrete porch stairs and dies.

Kelsey drives to the police station and pretends he doesn't know the guy. And here is where I flipped out. "He [David Kelsey] said that the man had arrived at his house in a belligerent mood, addressed him as Parker or something like that, and eventually pulled a gun."

It sure seemed like a potential Highsmith/Westlake connection. I was actually jumping up and down and shouting at my wife "I think Patricia Highsmith may have read Parker!" I was under the impression that This Sweet Sickness was written in 1970 and I went on a flurry of google searching, which then made me realize that the paperback I was reading was released in 1970, but the book was originally written in 1960, years before The Hunter came out. :(

It sure does sound like a reference to Parker, though doesn't it? I mean isn't he always attracting beligerrent dudes with guns coming looking for him?

My wife did offer one appeasement to my disappointment. Perhaps Westlake had read This Sweet Sickness and the name had stuck in his head? The name Parker comes up twice more in that section as he continues to lie to the cops. Highsmith and Westlake were contemporaries. Can anybody find evidence that one may have read the other on the web?