Saturday, October 28, 2017

45. Duncton Wood by William Horwood

I have been exercising my reading muscles significantly in the last few months, but I am not sure I was quite ready for a 750+ page fantasy epic, even if it is about moles in Britain.  I was able to read it consistently and finish it in over a week.  However, I found it a bit of a slog at the end and there were passages where I found myself skimming or drifting off in my thoughts.

Duncton Wood had been on my list for ages (The Farthing Woods books being the other animals in Britain stories that continue to elude me).  I found it finally at least a year ago, but the damn thing was so thick that it sat on my shelf all this time collecting dust, intimidating me.  With my new found reading energy and commitment to clearing off my on-deck shelf, the time finally came and I jumped in.

Duncton Wood is the epic story of a community of moles and the heroic journey of two of them to deliver it from evil and back to the spiritual connection with its past, as represented by the great stone.  I won't go into the storyline because I am averse to any spoilers and part of the pleasure is discovering how it all plays out.  I mean, either you want to read an epic tale of mole fable or you don't.  Nothing I say hear is really going to change your mind.  It is good.  I can definitely say that.  The imposition of a civilized social order on the biological reality of mole existence is really cool and though much of it is invented, their base behaviour feels very realistic (and an afterword that gives an overview of real moles makes it clear that most of it is realistic).  For instance, much of the questing and learning by one of the protagonists is how he develops his tunnel exploring and then construction skills.  He learns how sound works in tunnels so that he can identify locations by them (and build his own that take advantage of that).  There are great descriptions of the diverse environments of the British countryside from a mole's perspective.  There is also hot mole sex (and sometimes awful mole violation), mole combat and even mole kung-fu training.

I am sure this book is known and well-respected, though I imagine there is a generation of nerds out there who should discover this for themselves.  Personally, I can say that it wasn't entirely too my taste.  It's pretty rough, almost too much bad stuff happens for me to have truly enjoyed (I'm soft as you probably can tell by now).  The two protagonists and especially Bracken, the male, spend a lot of time being bummed out or angry and it started to bum me out.  By the end, the story is complex and the author skilled enough that you understand why, so I point this out as a matter of personal preference rather than critique. 

If you consider fantasy your genre, Duncton Wood should probably be on your list. However, holy crap I see there are 5 more sequels.  I am not sure I am quite up to that level of completion.

[POSTSCRIPT for those who have read the book, still pretty much spoiler free]
I also note here that I am suspect of the behaviour of Rebecca towards her father Mandrake.  I get that she is a healer and their love was a complex thing and part of the complexity of her character, but I do not think a female author would have ever written it in this way and it felt very off given the way our society is finally (I hope) evolving to undersand and condemn the role of sexual violence in our culture.  I am speaking very obliquely to avoid spoilers, but when you read it you will see what I am talking about.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

44. The Man on the Bench in the Barn by Georges Simenon

Funny story about this one, I was wandering through various back roads in the area of PEI where we often spend our summer vacation and discovered a rental cabins place where the office had a big "Books" sign on it.  I went in and there was the typical vacation cabins office but very few books, only three ground level shelves.  I went through them nonetheless and discovered this hardback which had originally been from either the Town of Mississauga library or Clarkson-Lorne Park (or both or they are the same thing) based on stickers and stamps on the inside.  It is a first edition but in really bad shape.  The proprietor told me they used to have tons of books, shelves up and down all the walls but that they stopped selling so he had boxed them up.  I wished I had a chance to go through those, but he didn't say where he had put them.  He also did a search for this book and found somebody selling the same first edition on the internet for $21.45.  I pushed back on the state of the book but I could see he was feeling like I was trying to put one over on him, so I gave in easy and gave him $20 for it.  Way overpriced, but the value worked for me at the time.  Still, I carry a slight sense of annoyance with the guy.  You could just tell he was one of those cheap vendors who refuse to discount any stock even though it doesn't move because he thinks he can get the face value for it.

Anyhow, on to the book itself.  Simenon is an amazing writer.  I really need to try and read one of his novels in french.  If the translations of his books are good and his french is as straightforward and short-sentenced as his books in english are, I should be able to read them fairly easily.  He is removed from the situation but at the same time somehow captures the psychology of the broken men that are so often his protagonists.  Here, it is Donald Dodd, small town upper middle class Connecticut lawyer, respected but humble. He goes to a big holiday party put on by a rich guy in his area with his wife and another couple.  On the way back, they get stuck in a serious blizzard and have to walk the last mile home.  Ray, the other husband and ostensibly Donald's best friend gets separated from them and is not there when they finally make it back to the house.  Donald goes out to try and find him and instead of actually looking, goes and sits in his barn and smokes cigarettes, knowing he is basically leaving Ray to die.

His action (or inaction) is partly due to physical cowardice but it's also something deeper and that is what the rest of the novel reveals.  He starts to question his life and poke holes in his past behaviour.  I won't go into details and it's all very subtle.  The first half was really great.  The second half kept on the same subtle pacing and made it less explosively entertaining for me but still really interesting and engaging.  You kind of hate the guy but you totally understand him.  Simenon just nails that new england upper middle class self-loathing and anomie of this period.  Good stuff.

Monday, October 16, 2017

43. The Worlds of Theodore Sturgeon

I think I may be out on Theodore Sturgeon.  After finishing this collection of his short stories, I went back and read my past reviews of Sturgeon's works.  I really enjoyed The Dreaming Jewels, but I think he is just too much of a theoretical sci-fi author for me, sacrificing story for teasing out his ideas and concepts, most of which I don't find all that interesting.

This anthology, for instance,  had several stories that dealt with human psychology and technology that allowed scientists and psychiatrists to test out Sturgeon's wild theories on human psychology.  They all feel very dated, which is not a sin and of itself.  It's just that the '50s and psychology are kind of a particularly noxious mix, at least for me.  On top of that, the actual human relations that are in these stories feel really forced and artificial.  Love, in Sturgeon's world, seems super melodramatic.  He also seems to have a bit of an issue with being cuckolded, as that comes up in at least three of the stories here.

I apologize for belittling somebody who has contributed so much to the field ("Live long and prosper" being his line among other things) and who seems like an interesting and possibly quite good person.  He wants to understand why humans go to war, why we are so emotionally imperfect and he does a lot of interesting things exploring these themes.  His writing just doesn't work for me and these stories were a particular slog.

On a side note, there is a story in here, The Skills of Xanadu, about a super advanced humanity that is visited by another powerful (but less so) invader scout.  Though these people live in total harmony with freedom to do whatever they want, the women still are responsible for serving the food!  Sturgeon seemed like a very progressive thinker.  His novel Venus Plus X is about a species with a single gender.  He supposedly snuck in some homosexual subtext in an episode of Star Trek.  And yet even he cannot see beyond the dominant nuclear family heterosexual construct.  At first, I felt very critical of him, but upon further reflection it really makes you realize how powerful and fundamental these social constructs can be when you are inside of them.  If only 50 years ago, it was impossible for a science fiction writer to conceive of a future of humanity where women were not primarily responsible for homemaking, what rigid dogma are we today still stuck in?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

42. High Citadel by Desmond Bagley

Now this is what I am talking about.  This is how you write a manly adventure novel.  I was a huge Desmond Bagley fan in my adolescent years after my dad turned me on to him (I think it might have actually been this novel).  The last time I had read a Desmond Bagley novel was High Citadel for the second or third time while hiking through Torres del Paine park in Chile in 1996.  So it's been over 20 years.  Though I was looking forward to re-reading this, I was also nervous that I would find it lacking and be disappointed.

Well either I have not evolved at all as a critical reader (quite likely) or Desmond Bagley is just a kickass writer (or both) as I found myself to have thoroughly enjoyed High Citadel.  It has a few flaws, notably the simplistic conservative politics.  Otherwise, it is arguably a near-Platonic ideal of the late 20th century masculine adventure novel.  Being a little less hyperbolic, I would say that it is a tight, thrilling and imaginative story with a driving structure that really doesn't let up.

The protagonist is Tim O'hara, burnt-out alchoholic pilot flying over the Andes for a shitty airline.  He gets woken up for a late night emergency flight to take a bunch of passengers from a grounded airline to the capital of fictonal Cordillero.  His greasy, lazy co-pilot Grivas is acting weird and gets really weird when over a mountain pass he pulls a gun on O'Hara and forces him to land on a mountain runway.  The plane crashes and O'Hara and the surviving passengers find out that one of them is the ex-president of Cordillera who was secretly returning to trigger a revolution to overthrow the general who staged a coup against him.  Grivas was part of a plot by communist infiltrators to prevent him from returning.

And here is what makes this novel so great.  Oddly, there is nobody at this hidden mountain runway and when the passengers make their beleagured way down the old mining road, they come to a gorge with a single bridge on it. On the other side of the gorge are trucks and a bunch of soldiers. The sole bridge crossing the gorge has been damaged by the first truck that tried to cross it and now they can't get across.  The rest of the book is the survivors, led by O'Hara trying to hold off the soldiers from repairing the bridge.  They are a mixed bag of tourists, businessmen, the ex-president and his beautiful niece and O'Hara.  They have a single pistol among them, taken from the plane, with 12 bullets in it and bits of pieces of leftover equipment from the abandoned mine, as well as supplies the soldiers had left earlier.  I won't go into any detail about the creativity they use to try and survive, but will say that a medieval history professor turns out to be one of their most valuable assets.
The politics do bear mentioning.  The communists are portrayed as cruel and incompetent and it is assumed that the CIA are good guys and the ex-president simply wants liberty and business for his country.  You could very easily read this book as subtle imperialistic propaganda except that the real values here are not political at all but rather the redemption of a man when given the opportunity to fight and find a real woman.

A note on the trade dress.  I really love the design of these Fontana Desmond Bagleys.  There is a whole series and something about the illustration over the cream background and the typeface really works for me.  I would love to have the entire set. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

41. New Worlds of Fantasy #2 edited by Terry Carr

I generally avoid short stories, for many reasons, mainly that they are too all over the place in anthologies and rarely leave me satisfied. I found this one at Chainon and it had some good names and was a nice looking book, so I made an exception to the rule.  Each story has a neat little horizontal illustration at the top of the page that I found quite pleasing.  They were done Kelly Freas, who also did the cover (which I like less not because of the execution but the mode, silver-age abstraction of which I am not a huge fan).  I wish I could show you some but that would entail opening the book flat and the spine already cracked when I got to the end.

Overall, I found this anthology to be light, with a few bright spots.  Carr's intro did little to excite me, being pretty generic with a softball attempt to defend the genre of fantasy, which honestly isn't even well-represented here, the stories being more odd or supernatural than actual fantasy.  There was a lot of melancholy and those subtle ghost stories where nobody gets killed or anything.

There was one that really stood out for me, though, and that was The Scarlet Lady by Keith Roberts.  I wonder if Stephen King had read this, as it is basically Christine written 20 years earlier and taking place in England.  A mechanic's brother buys this massive old luxury vehicle that seems a nightmare from the beginning because it is so hard to get parts for, but then becomes a nightmare for real as it starts to rear off the road to mow down dogs, cats, cows and eventually humans.  The brother gets crazier and crazier as well, sneaking out to the garage at night to polish the car and stare at it.  This was a lot of fun.

Monday, October 09, 2017

40. Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard

This is a paperback anthology first printed in 1975 is a collection of Howard's short stories featuring Bran Mak Morn.  It's similar to Tigers of the Sea, which was released in the same format by Zebra.  They are illustrated and I think may have some value as they are both first printings.  They just aren't that good looking on the outside.  The art is vague and the typefaces a mess.

Anyhow, onto  the story.  Bran Mak Morn is a pict in northwestern Britain of Roman times.  They are embattled on all sides, a dying race.  Howard loves these guys.  There are only a few stories, so you get snippets of Bran's life.  He does manage to unite the scattered Pict tribes until his death.  He's a badass, like all Howard's heroes.  His skills lean towards subterfuge and craftiness.  These stories are overall much more supernatural than the Cormac Mac Art collection.  And overall I preferred them.

Howard is obsessed with racial origins and how they determine character.  It gets to be a bit much in these stories.  I think because of all the invading peoples (Romans, Saxons, Gaels, Britons, Vikings, etc.) Howard can really get into their various characteristics.  It is hard to call it consistently racist, though it gets pretty close at times.

I seem to have stumbled upon the theme of the middle ages in my reading this fall.  I think I may actually be learning something.  I can't get any of it straight, but now I have an overall better sense of England's origins.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

39. Shovelling Trouble by Mordecai Richley

I'm a big fan of Mordecai Richler and I am glad I read this collection of his essays from the late '60s to remind me.  He is smart, insightful and just so skeweringly funny.  He also pulls no punches.  I feel he reflects the best of our Canadian culture of criticism, in his directness.

The best one here is his essay on the James Bond books and Fleming himself.  He rips both apart.  It's pretty convincing actually.  I've read three or four of the Bond novels and they never did anything for me.  Richler helped me understand why.  He writes about hanging out in Paris with American artistic expats in the '50s, ongoing anti-semitism in the world, writing, Canadian culture (spot on).

Also, a beautiful paperback in great condition that I got free from I can't remember where.

Friday, October 06, 2017

38. The Once and Future King by T. H. White

This book is a bit above my pay grade.  I grabbed it free somewhere because it was one of those so comfortable Fontana paperbacks from the '80s and the title struck some distant chord in my memory.  I thought I was getting into a filled-out retelling of the Arthurian myth, which is exactly what it is, except not at all in the style that I expected.  I understand now that this book was a pretty huge hit when it came out and possibly one of the more important contributors to our contemporary understanding of the Knights of the Round Table.

What really threw me is that right from the beginning, the writing style is irreverent, almost flippant.  It reminded me of the British tradition of taking the piss out of things.  White makes a real effort to make Merlyn seem muddled (though still powerful) and there are long sections devoted to making questing knights seems like the twits of Monty Python.  It is also anachronistic, both in the story itself, because Merlyn is going backwards in time and makes constant references to things that haven't happened yet, especially the rise of fascism and in the meta-text because the narrator uses modern factors to build metaphors, like knights as cricket stars.  It's very jarring but then becomes quite fun.  The portrayal of magic is really cool as well, both utterly fantastic (Merlyn transforms Arthur into various animals as part of his education) and grounded (the hunting birds are rigorously mannered).

It's actually 4 books that later got put together into this single volume.  The first part is about Arthur's upbringing leading up to him pulling the sword out of the stone (which is a deliberate anti-climax).  The second, almost an interlude, introduces the secondary characters like Gawaine and his brothers, at a young age.  The third book is all about Lancelot, the love triangle between him Arthur and Guinevere and ultimately about Arthur's attempt to impose the rule of Right rather than Might on Britain.  The fourth book is it all coming undone.

And that is the main theme of the book.  It takes the piss out of the weight of the middle ages and then ultimately raises Arthur up as this deeply heroic figure not because of wars won but because of an extremist idealism to make England and ultimately the Christian world into a place that was ruled by justice, a modernized code of chivalry.  In effect, he reinforces the idea of the myth of Arthur as the father of Britain and takes it to an even greater level.  All the books were written around World War II and the spectre of fascism and Hitler's rise to power is explicit, especially in the last book.  White philosophizes deeply via Arthur's thoughts as an old king, failing to maintain his ethos in his kingdom about why man must constantly fall back into Might.

So it's a deep book, but along the way a lot of fun.  Another theme here is that White clearly loves the middle ages and he takes pains to show how rich and complex life was back then.  He doesn't shy from its brutality (and it gets brutal at points), but he does enrichen the culture, industry, crafting and thinking of the time that definitely worked on this reader.

Good stuff, definitely should be read by every nerd.