Thursday, March 31, 2011

18. A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

Another Chainon find. I had no idea about this book, being interested in it purely from its cover. But I did discern that this copy was originally published in Pakistan or India and that it was very popular in that region. I thought it was going to be a military thriller, which it partially is. It's not aimed at the genre audience, though, but rather at an educated reader who reads modern trade paperback literature. Nevertheless, a pretty interesting and mostly enjoyable read.

The book has two parallel storylines the ultimately run into one another. The first is about an air force cadet in the Pakistani military whose roommate disappears. He is blamed for it and sent into a process of investigations, imprisonment and even some torture. You know from the beginning that he was involved in some way in the explosion of the transport plane that killed the president of Pakistan Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (an event that really happened and upon which this book is based). The last days of the president and his assassination make up the second storyline. Here you get a completely out of touch (both with his people and his administration) president succumbing to the paranoia of the world he has created, culminating inevitably in his death.

Though at times I found the book a bit slow and I was not so interested in the young cadet's storyline, overall I quite enjoyed the read. The president is surrounded by a great cast of characters (his jealous wife, his zealous paratrooper head of security, his scheming head of intel, etc.) and the mix of naive egotism and caprice that Hanif imagines going on in Zia's mind is quite humours, despite the dark reality behind it (that the author does a subtle job of maintaining). It also was educational and incited me to do a bit of history on this period. Pakistan played a crucial role in the support of the Mujahadin of Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviet Union and the U.S. had a big hand in supporting Zia's dictatorship. Some very interesting lessons for today's dynamic situation in North Africa, where the U.S. has to make some tough decisions about dictators they have been supporting.

A nice little find that I wouldn't foist it on anybody, but if you were interested in the period or found it at a beach house, you wouldn't be too bummed out.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

17. The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

There is a great little cordonnerie (cobbler) near my neighbourhood that also has a small wooden display on the counter of used books for sale. It tends towards "literature" trade paperbacks, though every now and then they have some genre stuff. The place also has a cleaning service, so I've been going there more regularily and realized that the stock changes. I asked the owner about it and he told me he has a deal with a guy who comes by every Thursday and changes all the books. He also keeps track of sales by checking the remaining inventory, so the owner of the store doesn't have to bother with any records. He just gets a cut of the sales. Last week, I found this Alan Furst novel. I swear I had read in one of the book blogs I follow a lukewarm review of a different novel of his, but now I can't find it. In any case, he has a reputation of being one of the better contemporary spy authors, with perhaps a bit of hyperbole attached as well.

Spies of Warsaw is about exactly what the title says it's about (which I appreciate). It takes place in Warsaw in 1937 as the Nazi threat is becoming a real possibility for war. It's an awesome period for espionage and an awesome location. Poland, being third in line in Hitler's plans for expansion, after Austria and czechoslovakia, is an important information depot for all the other european powers. The protagonist is Jean-Francois Mercier, an ex-soldier and now agent working for the French embassy in Warsaw. He is of the aristocracy, comes from a long line of soldiers, and has a sweet pad in Warsaw, a family apartment in Paris and an old farm in the French country. He is pretty into his job.

There is no single plot line here, but rather a semi-tangled web of operations that Mercier has to undertake: making regular pick-ups from a german engineer he has set up with a mistress, helping two Russian spies defect, getting together with a hot polish League of Nations lawyer, making contact with a hunted anti-Hitler Nazi and so on. All of it is compelling, rich with period detail and atmosphere. I've read that Furst is often compared to Patrick O'Brian, in that it is historical fiction. I'd say that is accurate, minus the rich language and profound human warmth. Furst sometimes errs in trying to be a bit too historically accurate and in context. References to Buster Keaton or an article by a leading Nazi seem slightly forced. At times, the language also seems contemporary (though how would I know)? But these are minor complaints. I studied this period in college and I still find it fascinating today and Furst does an excellent job of bringing it to life. Another thing that I enjoyed is that the narrative doesn't try to hard to force excitement on the reader. There were lots of points where I thought we were heading into a traditional action climax, but instead situations resolved themselves in a much more organic and realistic way, thus creating a more satisfying depth.

I did some reading around and a lot of people feel his work suffers in the later years. This was one of the more recent (2008) and it was pretty darned good. I'll definitely keep an eye out for the earlier books. There is one that takes place on a tramp steamer that looks right up my alley.

Friday, March 18, 2011

16. The Wars by Timothy Findley

I was told a few times that I should read this book, but now I think the actual book by Findley that was recommended to me was Not Wanted on the Voyage. The Wars is the story of a young upper-class Canadian from the Prairies who is sent off to World War I has terrible, growing stuff happen to him and then causes a scandal that ends up in his dishonor. The scandal itself is a mystery to the reader right up until the end and thank god for that because otherwise I am not sure I would have been able to finish this book.

Now let me preface my rant by saying that this is not a bad book, possibly even a great one and it has the reputation of being a Canadian classic. But it represents everything that I hate about Canada (and had pretty much forgotten), the cheapness, the self-pity, the protestant emphasis on suffering, the need to justify one's existence by constantly feeling that everything is a bummer. As much as I rail against the spoiled consumption of America and how that is poisoning our culture as well, I do greatly value the optimism of the United States and am glad we have gotten that here.

Here is the protagonist, Robert Ross: a very handsome, athletic young man from a wealthy family. But oh guess what he is too freaked out to talk to women. And his big sister whom he loves more than anything is hydrocephalic and spends her life in a wheelchair feeding her rabbits. But one day Robert neglects her and she falls over and dies. Guess what he was doing when he neglected her? That's right, wacking off for the first time! Oh the guilt and the shame! And oh guess what else his psycho alchoholic mom demands that all his sister's rabbits be killed and that he be the one to kill them. and on and on and on.

Look dude, I believe it sucked growing up in some upper-class family in the Prairies during the beginning of the century, but I don't want to read about it and I certainly don't want to revel in it. Why do I suspect that poor French-Canadian farmers, who had a much rougher situation back then, had a much richer, happier life. Sure there was tragedy and poverty and death and all that, but in between, why don't we have a drink and a laugh? Oh no, we can't because we are fucking uptight western Canadians who have to frown on fun and pleasure (and even then we can't go over the top about it like some good repressive catholics or fire and brimstone evangelicals).

And then on top of it, of course we have to have the constant sexuality, generally tending towards the homosexual and always causing guilt and freaking out. Every male is gay or not gay but in love with some other male. Zzzzzzz. And whenever people do have sex, it's always seen to be disturbing and violent.

It strikes me that this book is much more about the place and period when it was written (Toronto, 1997) than it is about its subject matter. That's not intrinsically a bad thing. It's just that it doesn't age well, especially not to my personal bias.

There are some neat moments, including an especially memorable one when the guy runs with a coyote on the prairie. That was awesome. But the rest of it brought me back to a Canada that I used to be trapped in and could not wait to get out of. Now that I am free of it and now that Canada herself seems be moving past that state, I really don't want to be reminded of it again.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

15. Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies by C.S. Forester

Helping to feed the Age of Sail reading frenzy that is going on chez nous this Spring in anticipation of our extremely gradual but progressing forward Beat to Quarters game, meezly found a really neat old hardback copy of one of the last Hornblower books. These are the true classic adventure stories of the British Imperial Navy, pre-dating and most certainly influencing Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey and Maturin series by several decades. I have read one other Hornblower, Commodore Hornblower, which is also late in his career. Clinging desperately to the fact that the books were not originally written in chronological order, I have pretended to myself that I am abandoning any care about following Hornblower's career in order and avoiding spoilers and thus jumped right into this novel, which chronicles the end of Hornblower's career as he patrols the West Indies. To be honest, I wanted to read H.M.S. Surprise, the next in the Aubrey-Maturin series and I knew that meezly had a copy, but she kept it hidden from me and then started reading it herself. This was a fine consolation prize, however.

It's interesting from a historical perspective. It takes place in 1818-21, when the big sea wars were all over and Britain's naval dominance, especially in the new world, had receded dramatically. Though still a powerful diplomatic force in the West Indies, Hornblower's fleet is relatively small, with a frigate carrying 12-pounders as his biggest vessel. No more ships of the line here. Because of this, he is often outclassed either in firepower or speed and has to use his skill and wits to resolve situations. He is really more like a policeman here, hunting down pirates, smugglers and political criminals. The book is actually a series of short stories, two of which are connected. The whole thing does trace a complete narrative about this period of his career, his 3-year separation from his wife, but there is no single over-arching storyline. All the stories are excellent, with the final one being a real cracker, once again keeping me up past my bedtime and getting me over-stimulated.

It's cool, because when I was in high school and college, I didn't find this period all that interesting. I think I just couldn't relate to the goofs in their buckled shoes and restrictive manners. It's also so complicated. But now I am learning to realize how much there is to appreciate about this period, the revolutions against monarchy around the world, the burgeoning technologies of transport that were changing the face of the world, the crazy political intrigues. So much going on and so much opportunity for adventure!

(Note, the cover pictured here is the same cover that meezly found, but not an actual scan. Ours is a book club edition and had one rip in the upper middle and another smaller one where I stupidly picked at the glue after successfully getting the price sticker off.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

14. Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

The discovery of this book brightened my day. I was fighting the endless fight against other people's hoarding and trying to make some space in the storage area in our office. Going through boxes of files that haven't been touched in a decade, equipment bought, used once or never and then lost (but "keep that, we may need it"), over-ordered print jobs with obsolete content when I found two boxes that looked even too old for our office. They were full of books! Most were old textbooks, but I also found a couple of science fiction and fantasy paperbacks, including this one. The rest will go to the local thrift store, to be released back out into the wild and maybe read once again. This one, as well as two others, went to my on deck shelf.

The only other Heinlein I've read is Stranger in a Strange Land and I found it quite dated. He was prolific and I suspected that his earlier work might have been a bit more prosaic (read, better) and less philosophical. Tunnel in the Sky was written in 1955 and the storyline sounded much more like an enjoyable sci-fi adventure rather than an opportunity to wank about gender relations. It takes place in a future, resource-strapped earth where space-jumping gates offer an opportunity for struggling earthlings to migrate to remote planets.

The hero, Rod Walker, is a student in a school that trains students to survive in new planets. For the final exam, they are sent to an unknown land and must survive for 48 hours. This time, though, something goes wrong and the gate doesn't open again. The bulk of the story is about Rod surviving, meeting up with other surviving students, eventually building a community and then facing the internal challenges that a burgeoning community must face. This last part dipped a tad into some basic (and a bit trying to me) social theory and reminded me a lot of Earth Abides. Thankfully, the narrative moves forward briskly, moving the story forward and coming to a satisfying conclusion.

A pretty enjoyable adventure with some cool ideas.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

13. Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian

In advance of an online Beat to Quarters game (and because it's been too long since I read the first one in the series), I decided to pick up the second book in the famous and much-loved Aubrey-Maturin series. Meezly was one step ahead of me and kept her copy of the book, so that made it even easier.

Once again, there is real pleasure in diving into these two remarkable men's relationship and the life of adventure they lead. Added to the enjoyment is the rich language of O'Brian and his great depictions of the world around them. One often thinks of this period in history as downtrodden and meagre, but O'Brian makes it a compelling fantasy world, with diverse charactes and intrigue and adventure at every turn. Just little things, like the poor alchoholic Gibbon monkey in the rigging of the Lively (and the struggle between two sailors for the heads of other monkeys that had died on board) make one want to ship off oneself, despite the privations and the fear of the cat and rope-ends!

I didn't consider this book to be a slog, as Meezly did. But I do agree that it goes on for too long. It seems that the story should end when Jack and Stephen's love conflict is resolved and Jack gets promoted to Post. Instead, there is a whole other storyline where he and his temporary command of the Lively joins a mission to steal some spanish gold. This feels like it should be in a different book.

In general, at least so far, these books are structured in a strangely dreamlike episodical way. He slips from scene to scene without any explicit transition. One moment, Jack is talking to Stephen about his worries for his meeting with the admiralty and the very next paragraph is him actually speaking to the Admiral. Other sections suddenly fast forward seasons in a single paragraph. It takes some getting used to. It made me think, in the beginning, that the division by books was an artificial one. By the end, however, I realized that it is the love triangle and Jack's need to get a Post position that unite this book. I'll have to see how this structure manifests itself in the next books.

The battle, though, before that, where the awkward Polychrest (a ship that had initially been designed to suppport a failed secret rocket weapon and then foisted on Jack by a spiteful Admiral) sneaks into a French bay and wreaks havocs on their parked ships is just awesome. This is the thing about this series, it is all wrapped up in rich language and social conflicts but when ships go broadside and cannons blast and men leap into other ships with pikes and swords, the shit really hits the fan. There is serious action in these books. Great, ripping stuff and I am so psyched that there are tons more books to go!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

12. The Handle by Richard Stark

I have finally started on the next set of 3 University of Chicago Parker reprints that I got for my birthday this year. I think that it is possible that I had only read The Handle once before. It is one of the series that I have never owned, so I must have borrowed it from a friend. In any case, I remembered almost nothing about it beyond the basic premise: Parker is hired by the outfit to rip off and burn down a private casino island off the coast of Texas, but actually in Cuban territory.

The heist here is one of the better ones. The isolated island, filled with rich party-goers and yachters, is a great target. Westlake, as always, makes it come alive with detail (love the little cockfighting pit in the rear, put in place to further heighten the air of exoticism for the guests) and colour. He also clearly describes the layout so the reader is encouraged to start thinking of the best way to hit it as Parker is.

However, I'm going to have to say that this is possibly one of the more flawed episodes in the series. The complications are just a bit too large and preposterous. Parker is already working with the outfit, hired by Karns, the guy who got to the top because Parker took out his predecessor, which seems a little off. Their motivation is because the island is competition they can't touch and they want Parker to take it out. I just don't like to see Parker cooperating with the mob, even if he is ultimately going to screw them. But then the feds show up and they know everything about Parker and his crew. They also want the dude who runs the island and want to use Parker to that end as well.

Finally, we have Grofield. Now, I like Grofield, but he always seems out of place in a Parker book. He's just too fruity and goofy. I get the feeling that Westlake was struggling with some other literary desires whenever he put Grofield in a Parker book. You see these tears in the Stark fabric that shine the light of Dortmunder into Parker's world. I don't want the light! The ending is this slightly unreal helicopter pursuit in the Mexican desert that just didn't feel plausible or like Parker at all. He even ends up on a navy vessel! I am having a hard time understanding how he doesn't just get arrested after this given the info the feds have on him now (they know his current alias and all his past aliases and link him up with 8 other robberies). Maybe it gets explained in later books.

Also, the heist itself goes down awfully quickly. The owner of the island, an ex-nazi with a really rich and colourful past, is set up nicely and then ends up not really doing a whole lot. He also has a disturbing right-hand man who is offed all too easily. I think I would have been happier to have not had the feds in it at all and stick with the other complications.

Still and all, a great read. I had wanted to savour it and I am trying to go to bed on time, but once the heist started, I couldn't put it down and ended up with the head lamp on staying up a good 45 minutes after my bedtime. A slightly-flawed (in the eyes of a hardcore Parker nerd) Parker is still a work of fucking art. I mean there are sentences in here that I just had to read over again a few times, as well as a few moments of badassedness I noted down for future dealings with annoying people (like when Parker tells the slightly officious outfit manager "I don't even want to be reminded of you.").