Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 Year end wrap-up

Phew!  A record-breaking year for book-reading here at Olman Central.  I am quite pleased to have continued to maintain and even increase the new-found energy I found for reading at the second half of last year.  Even better, I was really quite consistent about it.  I made a huge dent in my deficit and where I had planned to take 3 to 4 years to get my average back to 50 books a year, it is now conceivable that I could achieve that by the end of 2020. 

More than the numbers, though, are the benefits of so much reading.  First and foremost, I get to read so many great books!  Really if you are reading this, I don't need to say much more than that.  Some may argue that reading in such quantity diminishes the experience, as if I am rushing through books.  It is the opposite, as I am not reading any faster than usual but just reading instead of doing other things.  As I have said in the past, those other things were usually wasting time anyways, like futzing around on the now totally-polluted World Wide Web (so advertising did destroy the internet, just like everybody said it would back in the day, who would have thought?).  I am also barely watching any television or movies these days, except some sports while cooking.  This is not so bad except that it was one area that my wife and I liked to do regularly together.  I still would like to do that but all these prestige shows coming out seem so similar to me that there is nothing that grabs my attention more than the book I am reading. 

The other big advantage of reading so much is that I can vary the kinds of books I read.  I have been branching out more into non-fiction and even picking up hard to read books every now and then.  I am toying with the idea of reading some big classic next year when I am ahead of my goals, as I will have the extra time.

Finally, I find that steady reading becomes an anchor in my life for other good disciplines.  I believe there is a subtle calming, even meditative, mechanism in reading that counter-acts the psychological frenzy of adult life in the so-called civilized world, especially in today's phone-zombie nightmare we are all living.  It isn't all due to reading, but my sleep schedule is the most consistent it has been for a long time perhaps ever.  Though to be fair, there are certain books that will keep you up either because you can't put them down or because they get you so excited it's hard to go to sleep after.  For my own personal discipline and productivity, 2019 has been a banner year, a real step in a return to my old ass-kicking form.  It would be an exaggeration to say that this is because of all the reading, but that certainly has been an important factor in the mix that sets the foundation for all the rest. 

My reading goals for next year are the same as last.  Read 50 books and if possible whittle away at the average.  If I can keep up any of the consistency of 2019, 59 is a very realistic possibility.  I also hope to read a long series or trilogy one after the other, to stay in the same imaginary space for a longer time rather than jumping all over the place.  I am targeting the Vorkosigan saga and some of these great new what I call "woke" sci-fi or fantasy series, possibly Robin Hobb's Assassin books or the N.K. Jemison trilogy.  I hope to throw in a major classic in there as well.  We shall see!

Now on to the actual books!  It is hard to summarize 2019 with any general theme as I read so many books.  There were several highlights.  As I mentioned above, I read several non-fiction books which I usually resist mightily.  The two books on the history of basketball and the ABA were great, super fun, informative and I tore through them.  I didn't tear through The Hermit of Peking but it was also enjoyable and it refreshed my knowledge of the British colonization of China, which I had studied in college and which indirectly informs so much of the British spy and adventure fiction I read (basically reminding me that despite its outwardly benevolent guise, British Colonialism was at its base motivated by greed and was fundamentally a giant and destructive theft at best).  A bizarre read for me, which ended up being quite rewarding was The Organized Mind, though it did reinforce my belief in the hype around all these organizational self-help books.

Another highlight was that I found and read a lot of authors that have been on my hunting list for years:  Edmund Crispin, Lionel Davidson, Michael Tod, Edgar Pangborn, Dorothy B. Hughes and a few others.  I also finished a few series that I have been working on over the years, including Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series (disappointing) and Mary Stewart's King Arthur trilogy (solid) and C.J. Cherryh's Chanur series (which was great but really should have been a single massive book or I at least should have read it that way). 

Speaking of female science fiction writers, I also jumped on the wave of all these great new series and books coming out in the new "woke" sci-fi space.  I only read two authors but that was simply because I am pacing myself as so far everything has met the hype and even exceeded my expectations.  Nnedi Okorafor's Binti series was really cool and innovative.  Anne Leckie's Ancillary series was really mind-blowing and awesome, up there on my most favourite books.  I really have had to force myself not to read the third one.

Finally, I discovered or found several Animal adventure books (I really need a term for the sub-genre where the animal is the protagonist).  The Silver Tide about squirrels in england had been on my list for ever.  Maneater was an awesome random find, as was Black Fox Running.  I still haven't found a single Colin Dann book used but did discover a beautiful reprint of The Animals of Farthing Wood and loved it.

Specific books that stood out for me were the quiet and gentle and almost simple The Long Way Home by Margot Benary-Isbert.  The super nasty and intense No Orchids for Miss Blanding which since I have read it keeps popping up everywhere (a character is reading it on the train in Crispin's The Gilded Fly mystery).  Wake in Fright, as well as being satisfying as a great find (Penguin paperback for $3 off a sidewalk garage sale) stayed with me like the heat of the Australian outback it portrays.

I really could go on and on. I probably missed something.  However, now it is time to move on to the next decade of reading.  Happy new year and happy reading in the Double Twenties everyone!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

104. Catch-As-Catch-Can by Charlotte Armstrong

I have been looking for Charlotte Armstrong for quite a while and found one here in Berkeley at Moe's and then found four more at Walden Pond books in Oakland!  It was almost too much and in the end I decided to take them all.  It turns out my mother was a big fan of Charlotte Armstrong from back in the day and was happy to have them back in her life.  She picked one at random (her memory is that she often had good stories with children and she remembers specifically one with a child in an airport).  I started with this one as it is was roughly in the middle of the publishing dates (1952) in the logic that she would be in her prime.

The story begins a little falteringly for my tastes.  I didn't find all the characters and their motivations totally convincing. Dee Alison's favourite and adventurous uncle returns home with a strange long-lost 18-year old daughter who is bizarrely naive.  He dies shortly thereafter, leaving her a fortune.  She speaks french and english fluently but could barely write, knows how to order at a fancy restaurant but doesn't know what phones or hospitals are.  I couldn't really understand where she was supposed to be from.  In any case, she is the driving force in the plot as she becomes enamoured with Dee's fiancé who starts to reciprocate, despite himself.  The uncle dies and becomes the ward of Dee.  Things are really thrown into chaos when the girl runs away and we learn belatedly that she ate some canned beans with botulism and needs to get treatment in 24 hours or will die.

The second half of the book actually got quite thrilling and exciting as various people, all with different motivations try to find or deliberately not find the girl.  There is another stupid, scheming cousin in particular who wants her to die so he can inherit her wealth; a well-meaning but unrealistic old mystic friend of the uncle who wants to protect the girl from evil and various other selfish people.  It becomes an exciting chase around LA with all kinds of crazy complications that cumulated up into a truly thrilling ending despite some of the original characters not being so well-founded.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

103. The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin

It's actually the Moving Toyshop that I have had on my list for quite some time, however after months of fruitless searching, I will take any Edmund Crispin and that is what I did.  I found that at Half-Price Books in Berkeley.  It took me a long time to read and I was much distracted, only partly because of the book itself.  It is the holiday season and I was at the family seat, surrounded by rambunctious children, interrupting relatives and tempting sweets.  The book itself, though, was not a natural page-turner.  It starts out great, with a passage about how annoying the ending of the train trip from London to Oxford is.  In doing so, it also lays out all the players who will be participating in the murder and in the play that they have all come up to Oxford to perform.

It actually takes a while for the murder to happen.  We spend a lot of time with the characters and learn more about their relationships and tensions, mostly centered around a sexy but not so beautiful secondary actress named Ysuet whom everybody hates.  We also meet Gervase Fen, professor of classics at Oxford and amateur detective.  He is a funny character, oblivious and unthinkingly ill-mannered, but also brilliant and caring.  Once Ysuet is murdered, I started to lose steam.  It is a true whodunnit where I guess we are supposed to be able to deduce it as a reader (this is what Gervase Fen keeps telling all the other characters, as he has figured it out right from the beginning but for various reasons won't tell), but I found it all kind of tiring.  The investigation seems to go on and on and I just wanted to find out who did it.  There were two other weird things that kind of bothered me as well: 1) the story takes place in 1940 and none of the males are in the war.  Was this a function of class?  2) the way people get married at the drop of a hat here.  They start going out and then one of them says they want to get married and the other agrees and it is all done in a weirdly casual way.  I know part of it is being droll and British but when it is 4 sets of characters, it all seemed a but unreal.

I will still keep the Moving Toyshop on my list but not sure about looking too hard for any Edmund Crispin in the future.

Friday, December 20, 2019

102. Condominium by John D. MacDonald

I was a bit wary going into this one.  I was worried about having read too many JDMs this year, having scored a nice set of his non-Travis McGee books in Vancouver over the summer.  John D. Macdonald can get a bit indulgent with his philosophizing about the world and his weird mid-twentieth century sexual mores, so it is best to take a break from time to time.  Still, this tome seemed a perfect book for the holidays.  I love this paperback version with the big gold embossed title over the great cracked sunglasses with the condo in the reflection image.

I was not disappointed as right away I saw Condominium was going to spend most of its time on characters, story and situation with a nice sprinkling of life philosophy.  I was particularly happy when we got early on a great JDM type of strong man character, in this case a retired engineer whose body still retains the hardness of a lifetime on international construction projects (take a moment to read the first two pages of the chapter below where he is introduced).  I was even happier when I figured out the setup.  The good guys are a mixed bag of retirees living in their brand new luxury condo that we soon realize is a con job, from the disrespectful manager, to the hidden fees, to the disappearing management company and as we learn the shoddy construction.  The bad guys are the developers (boo, hiss!) and the structure of greed, corruption and general moral weakness that surrounds and props them up.

There are a lot of characters and a lot of seemingly accurate details about the financial shenanigans used by developers to finance these condo projects and get them built.  Some of the money stuff, I glossed over though it seemed all too realistic (and sadly probably not that different than techniques being used today).  I got lost with a few of the characters, but as you move forward you realize that not only is this book an underdog story but also a disaster story, as a hurricane with the potential to expose the shoddy construction, starts developing in the Pacific about halfway through the book (around the time the engineer has brought in an old colleague to do an assessment whose conclusion is that these condos could not stand a major hurricane).

When the shit hits the fan, it is pretty damned enjoyable.  I ended up staying up two and a half hours past my bedtime finishing this book.  What the hell, I'm on vacation.  If you like epic 70s disaster stories in sleazy Florida with some John D. MacDonald musings on where we went wrong plus lots of torrid affairs, this book is for you.

This is where John D. MacDonald is the master

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

101. Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association by Terry Pluto

As big of a basketball fan I am, I actually am not very well-versed in its history.  This book made me realize that and helped fulfill a big gap.  I knew a bit about the ABA from Basketball: A Love Story, enough to want to read this one (lent to me by the same friend who gave me Basketball: A Love Story).  Loose Balls is also an oral history, but goes into much greater depth with anecdotes and details from all the major players (both on the court and in the offices) who created and made this league run for its nine seasons spanning 1967 to 1976.  Actually now looking at those years, I realize that it basically ran for the peak years of what we consider today "The 60s".  It's funny, because when you read about the counter-culture of that time, the politics, the societal upheaval in America, basketball isn't mentioned at all, not even as a backdrop.  Likewise, in this book, while there are references to racial issues, the narrative is almost entirely apolitical.  Was that because sports was considered the establishment during that time?  I did wonder while reading Loose Balls why there was so little discussion of race.

The theme here is that the ABA is the plucky, creative, talented little guy playing in the shadow of the more boring and powerful NBA.  The ABA played a faster, looser game, had cool red, white and blue balls, invented the all-star game and the slam dunk contest, had Dr. J and all kinds of other great players.  All these things were brought to the NBA in the merger/"expansion" when the ABA finally died and many of them are the reasons it is such a successful beast today.  This is very well described in Loose Balls and quite fun to read.  There are many crazy stories of excess and really tough basketball (like literally fistfights were a fairly common affair), but also incredibly gratifying stories of players reaching and achieving their potential and teams bonding together.  It's a super-satisfying read for a basketball junkie like me.  So many names that I know of as broadcasters, NBA execs or old ex-coaches were huge stars in the ABA and now I have a much deeper appreciation of their history.

I still can't help feeling that some of the history is missing here.  This book was written in 1990 where racial issues in America were kind of subtly being suppressed in the Clinton-era or maybe improving, but in any case were not talked about the way we are today in the post-Obama backlash.  Was race really not an issue in the ABA? 

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

100. The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann

Colin Dann is my white whale of used book hunting.  I found a later book of his King of the Vagabonds and grabbed it as it fell under my reading area of interest: animal adventure subgenre.  I have looked high and low (well at least in dozens of used bookstores in many major cities in the US and Canada and even a few in Europe) for the last 15 years and have not found a single copy of his books. My guess is that they were not published in large quantities in North America, or that they are in some in-between age category that has since been swept up in the resurgence of YA fiction post-Hunger Games.  This copy that I read was not some great find.  Rather, it has been reprinted as a classic and I found a new edition at Kidsbooks on Broadway in Vancouver.  I believe it was imported from the UK.  So I continue to seek his other works.  Maybe one day a trip to Great Britain will reveal the mother lode.

And thus it is fitting that this should be my 100th book of the year.  I am in a mild state of disbelief about this and I don't want to go on too much about except to record how I got here.   My goal for the last three years, since the crash of 2016 (when I read only 18 books) has been to get my average back up to 50 books a year.  I recognized that with such a significant deficit, this was going to take several years of more than 50 books.  I pushed myself then to read at least 5 books a month, with at least once a week.  Somehow, I caught fire this year and the reading just kept flowing.  There were only a few times when I flagged a bit, but the momentum I had built carried me forward.  There were several changes in my life that allowed this to happen.  I had very little videogame playing, with no game that is really grabbing me.  My daughter started going to elementary school and became a bit more independent (though still wants to play constantly when we are together).  My job has a lot of flexibility and a lot of satisfaction, which I think helped me to cut waaaaay back on useless social media scrolling.  I still go to Twitter almost daily but for minutes now instead of the hours that it had been in the past.  I guess there is a good side to advertising ruining the internet.  Since it sucks, I'd rather be reading!  Anyhow, I am happy with this achievement, but even happier with all the great books I have read.  I'll get into that at my end of year post.

The Animals of Farthing Wood was very straightforward, a little bit too simple for me to really get into.  Despite that, by the end, I was quite moved and felt a real sense of triumph at the completion of the adventure.  The stakes don't feel that high, though in the narrative animals do die and the threat of human destruction and cruelty is very real and depressing.  This was Dann's first book and judging by my memory of King of the Vagabonds, I suspect his work increases in subtlety. 

The story here is about the animals of Farthing Wood, a badger, a fox, an adder, an owl, a kestrel, a toad, a mole and families of hares, rabbits, hedgehogs, mice and voles.  The books starts in a drought and quite soon after the animals discover that their precious pond has been filled in by developers.  (Fucking developers, I hate them already but just typing this and thinking about the emotions this early part of the book brought up gets me stirred up.)  They realize they need to do something and they band together to try and find a solution.  At that point, Toad who had disappeared shows up.  Turns out he had been snatched by some kid and put in a jar and then released quite far to the north.  He made his way home which took four mating seasons.  Learning what happened to his pond (where had been born and raised), he tells the animals that he had discovered a nature reserve and could probably find his way back there.  The animals decided, after some debate, that escape to this place may be there only choice.  Their decision is confirmed the next day when the bulldozers show up.

It is a true adventure journey.  They battle weather, forest fire, nasty farmers, big agriculture, the hunt, predators and traffic.  Every episode is cool and tense, though as I said before, you always feel there is a certain benevolence to the narrative.  This does get undermined once or twice, which made me think I would wait a few more years before reading this to my daughter.  The travail with the fox hunters was particularly thrilling and satisfying.  A great book and a deserved classic.  I hope more kids in North America read it.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

99. Courtroom U.S.A. 2 by Rupert Frumeaux

I was planning on following up the Canadian dog book double rock block with another animal-themed book, but Fifteen Dogs saddened me enough that I need a little break.  What better than to jump into these odd, informative and sometimes entertaining trial books put out by Penguin.  I can imagine in my mind the editors and writers at Penguin coming up with this idea, figuring out they would make a few quid and saying something like "let's give Rupert a swing at this."  Each essay is in some ways like a Wikipedia page on the subject, but more artfully written and structured chronologically.

I found this one to be more engaging than Famous Trials 4.  It focused more on the actual story of the crime and wasted little time on the esoteric contortions of legal theory.  Unfortunately, I still have Famous Trials 5 to read instead of another Courtroom USA.  I actually found this one good enough that I will seek out the first one and any following editions.

There are 4 trials documented here, as you can see on the cover.  All of them were quite famous at the time (the theme of the role of the media in these trials is a constant sub-text).  Only Leopold and Loeb and Alger Hiss I had known roughly about.  The Leopold and Loeb story is really dark.  Several movies and plays were based on it and it is seen as the harbinger of a new kind of crime, a manifestation of the sins of the 20th century:  the crime for crime's sake by an immoral youth.

The Alger Hiss story is also fascinating to read in light of today's new cold war with Russia using cultural disruption tactics on the internet.  Even today, the truth behind the Alger Hiss accusations is unfound and being argued.  He was accused of having been a communist by a pretty sketchy character with super sketchy evidence, yet because it was the height of the cold war, the accusations had to be addressed.  The accuser, Whitaker Chambers, who seemed if not a traitor and liar than at least insane.  And yet after the trial, he ended up becoming a luminary of the American right wing, with Reagan considering him an important mentor.  To my mind, the whole thing felt like the kind of dirty tricks that Nixon did and the fake news strategy of the Republican party today.  Say something until it sticks, even if you are actually destabilizing the country and building up Russia's strategic power.

The Hoffman trial was interesting, though slight compared to the other three.  A projectionist is accused of murdering a woman as he fits the description seen of the man who gave her a ride.  Because he was Jewish, he panicked and tried to make up an alibi and get rid of his gun, which made him seem even guiltier.  He took the risk of appealing his sentence and pleading not guilty and ended up being exonerated by the excellent work of his lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz.  I felt the anti-semitism was underplayed in the telling here, as well as the side fact that the most obvious culprit was the brother of a local Republican official.  I would love to know the rest of the story.

It was the story of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray that really got to me.  As I was reading it, I suspected that it had been the basis of Double Indemnity and it turned out to be correct (also possibly The Postman Always Rings Twice).  Ruth Snyder married an older, succesful man and they moved to a house in the nice part of Queens.  He became quite domestic and she became quite bored.  She ended up meeting Judd Gray, a lingerie salesman, who was actually quite milquetoast.  They had a torrid affair and she convinced him to kill her husband.  It was an argument in the trial, whether he had been the instigator or she, but it really does seem like she pushed him to it.  It's a crazy, nasty murder, messy and amateurish and altogether pathetic.  They collapsed and gave each other up as soon as the slight pressure was put on them.  Both ended up getting the chair.  Her execution was famous because of the hype of the trial, because she was the first woman executed in a long time and finally because a report for the NY Post snuck an ankle camera into the execution chamber and took a picture of her at the moment of death that they blasted on the cover (and probably made a killing, pun somewhat intended).

Nice work, Rupert

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

98. Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

It's a Canadian dog story double rock block!  Fifteen Dogs is written 63 years after The Wild Dog of Edmonton, which was my previous read.  I think that a detailed analysis and comparison of the two would probably yield fruitful knowledge about the state of literature and dogs in Canada.  However, I do not have the time nor the inclination to do more than scratch the surface of this rich topic.

Fifteen Dogs is a winner of a bunch of Canadian awards and was a contestant (and maybe even the winner?) of Canada Reads.  These awards tend to bias me against a book, as I can only guess at the maze of politics and cronyism the author must make his or her way through to get here as well as the even more precarious balance of interesting yet safe content the book itself must contain.  For instance, the blurb on the back calls it "meditative and devastating".  Devastating alone would have been too risky.  And even worse, "Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks."  You can almost hear the anxiety of the editor, "make it super clear that this isn't a genre book!"

So yeah, many strikes against it before I even cracked the cover.  On the positive side, it was recommended by a friend whose opinion I respect and it was printed on acid-free paper from second growth forests here in Quebec.  I do like Canadian things and will support the Canadian book industry.  I just wish it would stop being so insecure and pretentious!

The story here is really clever.  It's basically a greek myth.  Apollo and Hermes are drinking in a brewpub in Toronto (this scene is quite funny: the Gods and Canadian beer) and make a bet that if they give dogs intelligence will they die happy or sad?  They choose fifteen dogs who happen to be staying overnight at a vet near the brewpub and bless them with intelligence.  The dogs quickly escape and most of the rest of the book is about what happens to them.

It's interesting, though I found it much more meditative then devastating.  There is not as much narrative as there is exploration of what intelligence would mean to a dog and what they do with it.  Some embrace it, others reject it and this causes a schism that turns quite nasty.  Alexis does a creative job of imagining how the nature of a dog would mesh with human-level intelligence.  They certainly don't become human.  In the end, as more and more of the dogs die and the bet remains inconclusive, the gods start to meddle.  All the stuff with the gods was really clever and well crafted.  It fit in perfectly with the stories of the Greek gods I loved in D'Aulaire as a child.  It's also kind of a downer.  The book was quite dark and sad for most of it.

Interestingly for such a divergent approach to a dog's life, both Fifteen Dogs and The Wild Dog of Edmonton portray the perspective of the dog on the run in a very similar fashion.  The dogs running around Canadian neighbourhoods, looking for food, shelter and figuring out which humans may provide that while always remaining wary was very consistent across both books. That's as deep as my analysis goes. 

So while I generally avoid "literary fiction", I will give Fifteen Dogs a moderate two thumbs up.  I am not sure if I got anything deep about the human condition from it, but I cared about the dogs and enjoyed the story. 

There is one small yet glaring error.  At the very end, there is a scene in Ralston, Alberta.  It says "It was a late afternoon in Summer. The sun had just begun to cede its ground to darkness."  I don't think Alexis has actually been in Alberta in the summer, because the sun I am pretty sure would be high in the sky in the late afternoon.  Is this not the case across Canada?

Monday, December 02, 2019

97. The Wild Dog of Edmonton by David Grew

I found this at the Value Village southeast of downtown (can't remember the neighbourhood name, rapidly gentrifying) which was packed with people buy Halloween costumes.  It was $7.99 which struck me as a bit pricey.  I also noted that if you are looking for contemporary thrillers, fantasy and sci-fi it had a pretty impressive collection of mainstream stuff.  I should add these to my hunting maps.

The Wild Dog of Edmonton was a great little book. It was written in 1948 for a young adult audience.  There are two protagonists, Dwight the orphan who lives with the hard-working and hard-feeling Brunnels.  They haven't officially adopted him and he is basically there as a farmhand.  Mr. Brunnel is the kind of resentful asshole they are still breeding in rural and suburban Canada, angry in this case because the government is forcing him to send Dwight to School.  Dwight, while tending the barn witnesses the birth of a litter of pups and falls in the love with the first one. He names him Whitepaw and he becomes our second protagonist.  Old Farmer Fuckface Brunnel realizing that the boy loves the dog, does everything he can to force him to get rid of it.  The boy's nice teacher (who also realizes his potential) lets the dog stay with her at least until the end of the school year.  Whitepaws becomes a favourite among the students.

However, when the school year ends, Brunnel, despite the pleas of the nice teacher, reiterates his threat that he will shoot the dog, so Dwight and Whitepaws run away, heading to Edmonton where he hopes to find work.

Thus begins a two-part adventure, first with the two making their way in the winter on a perilous journey and second once in Edmonton, when they get separated and then Whitepaw learns to fend for himself.  Both parts are cool but the book really shone for me when Whitepaws was on his own.  He was a loving, trusting dog, being brought up with nice Dwight, the kindly teacher and all the kids.  Here on the mean streets of Edmonton he learns to sneak, steal and fight.  It's pretty cool stuff.  It moves along at a nice tight pace with nice descriptions of wintery Canada and this strange world from a dog's perspective.

It struck me as reading this that the post-apocalyptic genre and the animal perspective adventure genre share a lot in common.  They both have potential heroes exploring strange lands with whom they have little or no connection or history.  Meaning can only be guessed at, puzzled together by the bits of information they glean from the ruins or Man's world.  Survival is a share theme as well.  Something to ruminate on.

This was a great find.  The fundamental conflict is between the selfish individualism of the farmer, who uses his struggle for resources and labour as an excuse for an ideology of negativity and control versus the liberal spirit of the teacher who recognizes that with education and community everybody can be uplifted.  This conflict is still with us today in Canada.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

96. Slow Burner by William Haggard

I went to Toronto in October to see my aunt's art exhibit (which was really wonderful and moving).  I did some research ahead of time and mapped out all the used book stores I could find.  I ended up hitting quite a few of them.  The results were somewhat disappointing.  Toronto has lost some good used bookstores recently and the ones that remain are all quite nicely appointed, well-managed and often quite pleasant.  They also have this odd BMV chain which I can't tell if it is nefarious or good.  Unfortunately, they do not have a lot of the kinds of books I look for.  Nevertheless, I found a few things, including two William Haggard's at Rereading in the Darlington, which had the best stock of used genre paperbacks in general and made me want to go to what I believe is their sister store Reading.

Slow Burner turns out to be Haggard's first book.  It takes place domestically in England (actually mostly in various government offices in London) and is kind of an "office thriller", in the sense that much of the action is various educated and upper class government officials strategizing and speculating on how to deal with a crisis.  It may sound boring but I love this stuff.  The crisis in this case is that a scientific agency that has developed a form of efficient, transferable nuclear energy called Slow Burner that is being used in several factories to give the UK a competitive economic advantage discovers the same signal that Slow Burner gives off coming from a suburban house in Dipley.  Slow Burner gives off very specific epsilon rays and the security part of the agency constantly monitors the factories to ensure safety.

What does it mean?  How did it get there?  Who lives in the house?  The head of the nuclear agency, a super smart physicist turned administrator has to deal with his overly cautious Assistant Minister, who also hates him.  He works with the head of Security, Russel (a recurring character in Haggard's books) to try and solve the problem while maneuvering around the assistant minister.

There are two things that I find odd in this book.  The first is class.  Every main character is educated and many seem to have separate incomes and have been raised in public schools.  Yet, there is a still more complex layer of class hierarchy behind all their conversations.  The subtlety of political interaction is already incredibly high here.  Every interaction is a possible powerplay, down to the way somebody is greeted.  Somebody says or does something that seems pretty standard and then the other character is suddenly primed for an attack or shaken to the core.  I have dipped my toe in office politics and am thankfully in a role that is almost entirely free of them today.  I can see how when you are actually in politics, in a stratified society with an ancient aristocratic culture like Britain, it would be pretty intense, but this is at another level, much of whose background is lost to me.  I need to read this book with somebody from that world and have them explain it to me.

The second thing is the civil liberties and the deep respect they are given.  I always assumed the British internal intelligence agencies could just invoke the Official Secrets Act and do whatever they want.  Here, they are stymied by this house because they have no legal right to enter it nor to detain its owner.  They do have dossiers on everybody and find out a lot of info quickly but if this was today and some house was emitting epsilon rays, would there not be some commando team surrounding it within minutes?  It makes the book much more interesting and our world much more pleasant when the security forces actually respect the rule of law, but it was a bit of a surprise to me.

The ending was a bit too neat and the physicist character and his romantic arc resembled a bit too closely the career diplomat in The Powder Barrel, but these are minor quibbles and it was his first book.  I have two more Haggard's on deck and those are going to stay there for a while, aging like a fine wine, until the right time to take each one out.

Friday, November 29, 2019

95. The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin

You know things are starting to get weird here at Olman's Fifty when I'm reading bestseller non-fiction books read by business tycoons.  It had actually been on my list for a long time and now that I am reading so much, I have allowed myself the luxury of buying new books every now and then (only from independent bookstores).  I was near Paragraphe here the other day and picked this up as well as two other (gasp) literary fiction novels.

Levitin is a pretty succesful dude and one of those guys who has had tons of jobs.  The rare part about him is that after all those jobs, he ended up quite high in academia.  He started out in the music scene and produced albums for some pretty big names. He rubs shoulders with rock starts and CEOs.  He is also a professor and dean in psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill and KGI (I don't know what that is). 

It is sort of hard to encapsulate The Organized Mind, as it covers a pretty wide range of topics.  The subtitle says "Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload" and this theme was one of the reasons I added it to my list.  I had been struggling myself with distraction and time-wasting on the internet.  This part of the book was really interesting and super helpful for me.  He explains what we understand now about how the brain works and how that impacts the way we interact with the world. I have mostly gotten on top of my internet addiction these days, but I still tend to be very distracted in my work.  It is in the nature of my job to have multiple projects and many little tasks to do as well as longer-term goals.  Much of my work time was spent "multi-tasking".  What I learned from this book is that multi-tasking is actually quite tiring, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for focus uses up a lot of energy switching between different modes.  On the flip side, finishing minor tasks like responding to an email or chat, fires off a bit of dopamine and this becomes addictive.  So you think you are getting stuff done and feeling good about it, but you are actually exhausting yourself.  It's a bit more complicated than this and I am probably getting it wrong, but just understanding this has made me much more conscious and seemed to really motivate me to stick to one job at a time.  It's only been a week and it could be the placebo effect but I honestly have felt much less tired at the end of the day since I stopped jumping around from task to task at work.

I found the other elements in the book to be mostly good, but not so helpful for me.  I am a pretty organized person (and used to be extremely organized before having a family) and I have worked as an executive secretary and office manager, so much of the advice about organizing one's time, home and office was rudimentary to me, likewise most of the technical info about passwords and skepticism on the internet.  He argues strongly for expertise in information and uses wikipedia as an example of where amateurs creating info can go wrong.  This already seems dated, as wikipedia has addressed a lot of those issues, though his central concern was spot on as we see that it has gotten far far worse since 2014 since this was written.  I do think he betrays his own privilege and class position and doesn't take into consideration the profound power imbalances that we see much more starkly in the post-Trump world when he argues that the New York Times is an objective, unbiased source of info.

Far, far worse, are some very snobby (and very typical for a McGill professor, the ultimate in Canadian intellectual elite class) assumptions about fiction where he cites some study that claims that reading "literary fiction" develops empathy much more than reading pulp fiction or non-fiction.  I get and agree with the overall point he is making, that reading fiction allows your mind to wander and uses the unconscious daydreaming mode.  But to make this false dichotomy between two class-based marketing categories of books is just embarrassing.  He claims that literary fiction has subtler characterization and thus makes the brain think more than rote pulp fiction.  This is class-based garbage. There is good literary fiction and there is good pulp fiction.  Likewise, there is a ton of fake high-browed literary fiction that is as boilerplate as any Harlequin romance (another genre that also has a range of quality, to be fair).  Very disappointing.  Otherwise, a pretty interesting read and I am better for it.

Monday, November 25, 2019

94. Highland Days by Tom Weir

I took a bit of a flyer on this book.  I have a romantic fascination with the British outdoors, probably started by reading Swallows and Amazons and the like at an early age, and later nurtured by British adventure fiction.  Who knows, perhaps there is a genetic trace going back to my paternal grandfather's family who came over from Liverpool and perhaps before that the countryside.  Highland Days looked to have some nice discussions about beautiful walks in the countryside, quaint characters and asides about existence.

Well those things were certainly present in the book, but only in very small doses.  The majority of the text is him describing each of various climbs he did as a young man in the Highlands. This is a book for climbers, though thank goodness of the older school.  He doesn't go into the super boring technical detail we would get today and each climb is described in language that makes you wish you could be there.  Nevertheless, this is a book for specialists.  It would kind of be like if I wrote a book in which I went through all the books I read as a young man and how much I enjoyed them (wait a minute...).  And all the place names are in gaelic in Scotland of whose geography I am woefully ignorant. 

Because it was all so pleasant and most of the time he goes out it seemed to be pouring rain (or snowing), it somehow managed to capture my attention better than I would have expected.  It did give me a real desire to go for some nice hikes in the highlands (though not the climbing in freezing rain parts).  He also has a really interesting chapter on keepers, who were men who lived on the land to maintain it for the laird's who would come once or twice a year to hunt. This was a ridiculous remnant of the old aristocratic landholding economy of Scotland and Weir is rightly critical of it.  Though I am not so sure how well his suggestion of logging and other resource attraction would have the end he hoped for of attracting more people to stay in these areas, while not doing to much damage to the environment.

Weir was the vanguard of a new phenomenon which was working-class people being interested in the outdoors for its own sake.  As a child he would take the bus out on his own to get away from the drab tenements (tenements are always described as "drab" it seems).  He later went on to do some important climbs and had his own TV show called Weir's Way that was hugely popular.  You can even get a DVD of his best walks, which I would not complain were I forced to watch.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

93. The Amboy Dukes by Irving Shulman

Picked this up at the Concordia book fair.  The name rang a bell, but nothing specific came to mind beyond a vague memory that this book was a classic or had caused a controversy.  I later learned there was a folk rock band from the 80s who took that same name.

I have to say that the hype on the front and back covers did not exaggerate.  There are always these two conflicting notions, that the past was softer and more innocent versus human nature always being human nature and the bad side of it being as depraved as possible from the beginning of time.  Well this book makes a strong argument for the latter.  Written in 1947, it takes place in Brownsville, when it was primarily a Jewish working class neighbourhood (or slum or ghetto as it practically was).  The war effort has finally blessed the poverty-stricken neighbourhood with some income as parents now work late and weekend shifts in munitions factories.  This leaves the already hardened kids on their own and so they hang out on street corners, pool halls and their club houses.

They are really bad.  They fight with knives and carry around homemade guns.  They have prostitution nights in their club houses where pretty rough gang girls come and bed them one after another on the floor of the kitchen.  They are into all kinds of little scams and their dream is to become a real made gangster.  The protagonist is Frank Goldfarb, with whom at first you are sympathetic as he seems to be a bit smarter than the others and have somewhat of a conscience, being nice to his little sister.  As the book goes on, though, he makes dumber and dumber choices and by the end you know he is doomed.  And he's kind of an asshole.  The main plot motivator is that he and his buddy, after getting kicked out of class, heads back after getting drunk to please clemency with the teacher.  This turns into a fight where the teacher accidentally gets shot (though they were beating him up).  The fear and mistrust that this creates between the two friends and between Frank and the rest of his gang (the eponymous Amboy Dukes, named after the street they hang on) is what drives his actions for the rest of the book.

The portrayal of their world, both physically (the drab tenements, the littered streets, the heat, the local restaurants and stores) and socially (the other gang members, their parents, the cops, the various proprietors, the girls they meet) is detailed and absorbing.  It really captures a feel for the time and place and I enjoyed it immensely.  The plot and the moral framing started to make me skeptical as I went on.  It all feels very factual and realistic and yet there is a low-level dread mixed with titillation (and sometimes just straight out crass) that felt every so slightly manipulative and even preachy.  There is a lot of emphasis on the environment being responsible for the boys' behaviour, but it also had an outsider feel and was meant so that the reader could be shocked and tsk tsk rather than really portraying the lives of these people as they were.  I think there is a nuance where you could show the crime and poverty and also show some of the warmth and character that existed there.  I felt that The Amboy Dukes falls over on to the sensationalist side.  I know Shulman grew up in Brooklyn, but I can't find out if he actually lived this life himself or was just an observer.  He ended up being a successful screenwriter and also wrote several more novels following up on the lives of the other Amboy Duke gang members as they go on to become real gangsters and then on to Hollywood.  I would check those out.

Monday, November 18, 2019

92. The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest by Peter Dickinson

I'll have to ask my parents exactly what their take Peter Dickinson was.  I remember they always liked him and we had a lot of his books at the house, but they never encouraged me to read him.  Though my dad read my sister and I the Weathermonger.  I think, after having read this one (which I picked up at the Concordia book sale), it was because he is a bit too sophisticated a writer.  You have to pay attention and even when you do, things are hinted at or presented in the vernacular of the thinker or speaker and you may miss something because you are not familiar with a reference.

The detective in The Glass Sided-Ants' Nest is Superindent Pibble of the Scotland Yard, a good detective, but one who suffers from a bit too much sensitivity and insight and tends to get the "little, kinky" jobs.  I believe he is a recurring character. He carries some baggage of past cases.  Here, the murder is of the chief of an obscure tribe from somewhere in New Guinea, the Kus.  Most of the tribe was massacred by the Japanese during WWII and the survivors were brought to London by the anthropologist daughter of the missionary who had also been included in the massacre.  She was raised with them and is part of them.  She lives with them in a large, well-built apartment that she owns and they try to maintain their tribal culture inside.  A lot of the book is learning about the past of the tribe and picking apart their strange status of trying to maintain their culture inside a London flat.  I guess this is interesting, but it's not really my thing, so I didn't totally get into it.

There is a lot of other stuff going on around the Kus, including a British soldier who was sort of the reason for the massacre (the Japanese were searching for Allied soldiers) and now lives in the same building.  He is involved in some villainy and that connects the tribal plot with some typical London underground activity, which part is quite well done. 

So a solid book, just not my style.  The ending is quite rough and abrupt (which I don't mind) and tinged with melancholy (this part not so much my style).  I'm glad I read it.  I would like, though, to read another Pibble book with a case that involves mostly London villains. I think that could be quite good. Oh sheesh, I just did my research and realized this was his first published adult book and the first in the Pibble series.  Interesting, it really read like we were well into a career.  I am now more intrigued to read the others.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

91. Murphy's War by Max Catto

This is such a beautiful cover (click for a larger view).  It is close to my platonic ideal of a men's action adventure book.  A beautiful, colourful illustration that bleeds to all four edges and big block sans serif letters for the title.  The image shows an actual scene from the book (though in this case, it is a bit of a spoiler).  The composition of the illustration itself is really awesome, too.  It draws your eye to the center of the explosion on the lower-right, which then naturally looks for the source of the explosion (the plane) and its victims (the German u-boat sailors).
It was interesting to read this book after having read the non-fiction U-Boat 977 a few weeks ago.  I wonder how much Catto took from that, as the story here is about a sub at the end of the war still attacking convoys off the coast of Africa. The captain and all the men but one Nazi ubermensch anatic are desperately waiting for the end of the war to be announced.  On the convoy, is an Australian escort, the Darwin Queen:
And the Darwin Queen was a mongrel.  She was a piece of naval miscegenation: the result of the mating of sheep with wolf.  She'd once been a passenger liner on the Sydney-San Francisco run; her hull still retained its rakish flare.  She'd been refitted in Seattle with toughened steel decks, a squat superstructure and six-inch gun turrets that, with the corrosion of time and endless combat, were already obsolescent and worn.  It was an aged wrestler's torso on feminine legs.  The British had given her a stern catapult for three Swordfish aircraft; only one was left, the rest lying in unmarked oceans like Drake's bones.
As you can see, the language in the book is rich, at times a bit overstuffed, but still really cool.  On the Darwin Queen, is a sailor named Murphy.  Abandoned at birth at the post office somewhere in the outback, he is a tough, brutal, hardworking troublemaker who has just punched out a senior officer while on shore leave in Lagos and quite likely awaiting a court-martial when the convoy arrives in Durban.  His depressing fate is diverted when the U-Boat in question torpedoes his ship.  He is one of the few survives when the fanatical first mate (who has taken over because the captain got knocked out temporarily) guns down the rest and then torpedoes a hospital ship.  Murphy swims to a deserted oil rig where he is rescued by the doctor of a local mission at the edge of this African delta.  He convalesces there and soon learns that the battered submarine has also taken shelter somewhere up river.  And thus Murhy's War begins.
It's quite a good book, though the action is equally weighted with the literary. There is a lot of exploration of the various characters, Murphy himself and his own identity and sense of self-worth, the captain of the sub, the cowardly deserter, the two doctors and nurse at the mission.  It's all quite interesting and well-written, but I would have preferred the action to thoughtfulness ratio to have been a bit higher.  In the end, the ways that Murphy goes after the sub is quite intense and amazing and the narrative complex enough that it keeps your sympathies from being too simplistically locked in.  It is a cool find. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

90. The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

Since I finished this, I discovered that it actually was a novella, originally published in a sci-fi magazine (to quite some acclaim; many old sci-fi heads have fond memories of the excitement it generated).  I got it in book form (and a lovely form as well, though the copy on the back is totally off base) and will thus consider it a book.

I enjoyed The Dragon Masters but it helped solidify my inability to truly connect with Vance's work.  It's his writing style.  His sentences have many adjectives and he often uses obscure words where a more common one exists (sacerdote, fuglemen are two examples that come to mind).  There is nothing inherently wrong with that and I can see how as a younger man, I may have even appreciated the opportunity to expand my own vocabulary.  Today, it distances me from the text.  Furthermore, he makes up his own words and drops concepts specific to his world in the book without explaining them.  So you can't always tell if it is an english word that you should know or something specific to the world that may or may not be explained further along.  Finally, he almost always describes what people are wearing, in great detail and with colours, also often using specific wardrobe vocabulary that means nothing to me.  I can sometimes stop and build a picture in my mind, but usually do not want to.  For an illustrator or a costume designer, these details are probably quite welcome, for my brain not so much.

All that being said, I am still quite capable of parsing through and enjoying the innovative settings and creatures he comes up with.  Here we have the last vestiges of humanity living on a rocky planet where they have tamed and allied themselves with dragons.  They also breed them and there are many varieties.  There are only a few communities left and they have fought with each other.  There also is a history of the destructive visit of the Basics, a higher species with powerful tech from the stars who comes around every few generations to steal the humans.  There is also a race of naked long-haired people (I guess) who live deep in the caves and never associate with the surface humans, though will answer questions honestly if forced to.

The protagonist, Joaz Banbeck, is the lord of the town of Banbeck and a smart strategist. His nemesis, Ervis Carcolo, is the opposite.  Banbeck realizes that the Basics could be coming back soon and figures out the pattern of their visits, based on the alignment of the stars.  He tries to work with Carcolo, who is too short-sighted and stupid to take him up on the deal.  As the two towns go to war, the Basics arrive and a lot of destruction and dragon-fighting goes down.  It's an interesting read and some have suggested it is an analog for the cold war.  I get why Vance is so popular and I think I could get into one of his longer series, but his style is distancing for me such that this novella did not really grab my full attention.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

89. Sunday by Georges Simenon

After having read two narratives about the crimes and trials of real-life poisoners in Famous Trials 4, I thought a Simenon roman dur about a poisoner was in order.  It was also part of my Concordia book fair haul.

Sunday is about Émile, a cook and innkeeper on the Riviera who is plotting to poison his wife.  The book begins on the day he will commit the crime.  He has been preparing for years.  The rest of the book then meanders back into his origins, how he ended up working/partly owning the inn, married and weirdly beholden to the daughter of the original owner and having an affair with the nearly mute, animal-like maid that lives in the attic.  There is a lot going on in behind the scenes at these quaint, rustic seaside inns!

A lot of this book feels so real.  It is part of Simenon's genius that he could crank out book after book, often in different locales (though mostly in France) and in each case create a complex and realistic set of characters, interwoven with each other and the place in such knowledgeable detail.  Here we get the background world of rural innkeepers, how it isn't the ideal retirement for peasants from inland that it seems to be when you are stuck in the rain and the cold on some farm outside of Nantes.  There is some good detail for foodies here, about how Émile goes to the docks and picks and then hand cleans and cuts the ink squid for the risotto for which travellers come to his little hotel.  Likewise the nuances of the power relations between his wife and himself, his wife and the servants and his own relations with the staff are all drawn with nuance and detail.

At the same time, there are other elements, major plot ones that seem almost insane in their preposterousness.  Now maybe this is how sex went down in the 50s in France, but it seems like all the woman just sort of wait around, showing absolutely no sign or interest, until the man finally summons up enough courage to have sex with them in some sudden way.  Then they are silently grateful, sometimes subserviently and other times in a controlling matronly way.  The maid/indentured servant, whose father basically sells her to Émile's wife as a servant under the condition that she not be allowed to leave the inn, is referred to constantly as a pet, with zero agency who barely even speaks, though is oddly resistant to the mistress of the house and utterly sexually complaint to Émile.  It's weird.

Despite all that, you really do get a sense of why Émile feels that murder is the only way out for him.  You don't sympathize with him, but neither do you sympathize with his wife.  You realize as you make your way through their history how their marriage was one of jailer and prisoner and his poisoning her is him trying to find his freedom.  The dark, twist ending brings this all home in a way that is quite horrible and depressing but also kind of funny.

Cool, looks like the BBC made a radio play of this and it's free on archive.org!

Thursday, November 07, 2019

88. Famous Trials 4 edited by James H. Hodge (and report from the Concordia Used Book Fair)

A friend alerted me to the Concordia Epic Used Book Fair the day before the pre-sale was going to take place (for a $5 entrance fee the real hardcore book heads like me can go a day early and get the first pickings).  I am very grateful, as I re-arranged my Sunday plans.  I got there about 20 minutes early to scope it out and there already was a line-up of around 40 people, so I sacrificed my plan for a snack and became the 41st. It was worth it.  I can't believe this is the first time I have gone.  Who knows what I missed?  English used book stores are not great in Montreal, I guess because the anglophone community is relatively small.  This fair gets donations from that same community, so it seems to pull in some interesting books in my line that may have been sitting on people's shelves for quite some time. 

Check out this haul:

Somebody had a nice James Hadly Chase collection.  I love those70s Corgi covers.  The real prize, though is the 1947 Avon version of No Orchids for Miss Blandish.  It still isn't the truly degenerate original edition that so disturbed Orwell, but it is a little rougher than the updated version that I read and I think doesn't yet have the "modern" additions that Chase put in later (such as television).  One of these days I will do a side-by-side analysis.

 Lots more lovely Penguins. I suspect these all came from the same collection, as the ages were quite similar and they were the only paperbacks that old.  I don't know anything about A Sour Apple Tree but how cool is that cover?

 I am a bit John D. MacDonald'ed out currently, but I could not resist this fat 70s paperback of Condominium.  This image does not do justice to the cool wraparound cover image.
I saw and put back all 3 of these trial essay Penguins on Sunday, but on Monday the fever was back upon me (like a vampire who drank some really good virgin blood and craves more) and I went back at my lunch hour.  That Jack Vance I had not seen and it is a beautiful little paperback and that kind of allowed me to justify getting the other 3 just because they were old Penguins.

And on to the review itself...
Now that I have three dense, dry essays on famous trials, I felt some pressure to get through them so I picked the first one to read.  It was actually somewhat promising, looking like it was well-written and I might get some exposé on the seamier side of British culture.  It did deliver that, but it was also fairly dry and at times even boring.  There are 5 cases in this book, as you can see from the cover, all of them notorious at the time.  Two are about men who poisoned their wives, one a prostitute whose throat was slashed and a fourth about a wealthy paranoiac (and ex-Australian cabinet member) who paid two men to kidnap and kill a completely innocent lodger because he was insanely jealous of his 65-year old mistress who had said hi to the poor guy once.  Those are all murder trials and all fairly interesting, though honestly mundane and realistic (because they were real) that for me they all ended in a slightly unsatisfying way.  The William Joyce trial was for treason, as he was the infamous Lord Haw-Haw who defected to Germany at the start of WWII and became the voice of Nazi propaganda.  He was declared guilty and hanged.  The essay is written by a lawyer and he goes into agonizing detail about how Joyce's guilt hanged on whether or not he was a British citizen (he was born in Brooklyn to Irish parents who had revoked their British citizenship) and how treason can be defined and what is citizenship.  This was a tough one to get through, though the part about Joyce's life was instructive.  He had returned to England at the age of 3 and grew up a young fascist.  We see these fucks sprouting up again today in America and Canada and England.  I wish they would study their history to see what happened to this loser.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

87. Severance by Ling Ma

I can not now remember the precise details of why I had kept this book on my list.  I know I read a review that made it sound fantastic.  It's in the post-apocalyptic genre and supposedly was a fresh take on the modern workplace, two areas of fictional interest for me.  It got so much hype that it sold out and was hard to find even new for a while. I am also trying to support independent bookstores, so will buy a brand-new book from time to time. I found this in Argo and picked it up.

Unfortunately, it really didn't live up to the hype.  My rule of skepticism towards literary fiction and trade paperbacks remains firmly in place.  It's not a bad book, in the second half it actually gets going and becomes fairly engaging.  It has clearly been carefully crafted and overall the writing is good (though there are a lot of throwaway, clever little descriptions that while not "bad" writing, feel too much of a time and style and undermine any substance that is developed by the narrative).  But the reviews.  One wonders if these people have ever read a good book before.  They acted like this book was some profound exposé on the millenial condition and the modern workforce.  While I enjoyed the details of the protagonist's job working for a book production company, managing the logistical details for outsourced manufacturing jobs in China, there was nothing particularly profound or groundbreaking here. It was a very typical, at times clichéd story of a  young, educated woman first moving to New York City, trying to fit in socially, sexually and professionally.  She is ironically self-critical and aware that she is doing nothing new, yet this does not dismiss the fact that the writer is doing the same thing.

There are two main storylines,  involving Candace Chen, who comes from Salt Lake City after college (with a photography degree) and her immigrant parents' deaths.  The first is as described above, her finding her way in the big city.  It is a pretty depressing and effective portrait of how cookie-cutter New York has become in the age of globalization and wealth disparity.  That rot was already well-advanced when I left in 2004, so I can only imagine how little of anything authentic or original remains, other than the power of money to keep people motivated.  I did enjoy reading this take on NYC, less so however the unmotivated meanderings of the protagonist, which really felt basically autobiographical and is simply not that interesting.  The second storyline is 5 years in the future, where Candace is now part of a small group of travellers, making their way to Chicago after the Shen Disease, a fungal parasite that turns people into harmless zombies, repeating their old habits à la Dawn of the Dead (though not messing with anybody or wanting to eat brains), has wiped out most of the population. Again, Candace is disconnected from her surroundings and colleagues and there wasn't really a lot new added to the PA genre here.  It wasn't boring though and some seeds are set, particularly with the mansplaining leader, Bob, of their group and hints of his malevolence.

Things do pick up in the second half of the book in both storylines.  Candace's disaffection and lack of connections mean she ends up being one of the last few people in New York City and watching it go empty and her steadfastly going to her job until she is the only one is quite enjoyable.  Likewise, the PA storyline, where they finally find this shopping mall that Bob was leading them to, gets interesting as well.  Finally, her own backstory and the struggles of her parents immigrating in the 80s, which are woven throughout the other two storylines, are also quite interesting, kind of sad.  When I think back, there are kind of like three books in here, two of them being quite good (her background and the Shen disease fallout and journey) and one being pretty derivative (the NYC first time one).  I think the biggest disappointment was how little this book said about the supposed Millennial condition.  As always, I should not believe the hype.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

86. The Mamur Zapt and the Spoils of Egypt by Michael Pearce

I've been looking for any of these Mamur Zapt novels for a long time and finally stumbled upon this one at Re-Reader on the Darlington in Toronto.  I am hoping this is not one of the better ones.  The writing is solid, British, slightly wry and on the sparse side.  The setting is really cool, British-controlled Egypt before WWI, a really nice period for intrigue but usually neglected in colonial genre literature.  The Mamur Zapt is the head of the Egyptian Secret Police and Captain Gareth Owen, who holds the post and is the antagonist of these stories and stands out among his fellow Brits in roles of responsibility because he is definitely not an old boy.  It all sets up really well and I will keep looking for them.

Unfortunately, the actual story in this one didn't really grab me. There was no central mystery and I found I couldn't connect to the storyline.  It centers around the market of archeological goods leaving Egypt (which was also quite interesting to read about in a fictional context).  A feisty American do-gooder, who has quite a lot of sway because her uncle may become the next American president, is visiting Egypt and wants to ensure that the archeological heritage of Egypt (and to her mind, the world) is not plundered.  She suffers two suspicious accidents.  Captain Owen, though skeptical, must investigate.  He also starts to feel political pressure around the market for artifacts and this further motivates him.

It all kind of meanders, none of it boring, but overall lacking purpose, so when a plot is finally revealed, it just didn't seem all that important.  I hope to find one of the earlier ones to give this series another chance.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

85. The Executioner #21 Firebase Seattle by Don Pendleton

My interest in Mack Bolan was only sparked by listening to the excellent Paperback Warrior podcast. They gave a nice overview of the line of books and their original author Don Pendleton.  He seemed like such a cool guy and the hosts spoke well of the books that I had always dismissed that I decided I needed to at least check one of them out.  I discovered this one at BMV in Toronto and since it was fairly early on in the series (the 21st book being "fairly early on" is saying something) that it might be a good representative.  Also, since I am from the Pacific Northwest and have a fondness for Seattle, at least the Seattle I once knew the choice was confirmed.

Unfortunately, this book was really, really not good. Even if this is one of the worse Executioner books, I would still be reluctant to continue on.  I don't mind stupid and I don't mind goofy.  Firebase Seattle was both, but also the plot was a mess, there were no side characters nor badguys that were of any interest and the entire objective was uninteresting.  Worse though, there is just no tension or doubt.  Mack Bolan, who has dedicated his life to wiping out the mafia, is investigating some grand plot by the mafia in Seattle, a town they had heretofore never messed with.  He discovers that under the guise of Expo 74, they are shipping construction material, tons of guns and other mysterious stuff. Since they never had a presence in Seattle (huh?), this is a sign that they have some major plan going here.

What's weird is how the "mafia" is portrayed in this book. They are more like some kind of international organization of super evil badguys who are plotting to take over the world, like SPECTRE.   Their plans are preposterous and the only thing that makes them The Syndicate is that all the guys working for them have Italian names and mafia-style nicknames.  Since none of the bad guys barely get a scene other than when they get killed and have little dialogue, you have no sense that they are even actually bad.  Bolan just shows up with all kinds of high-tech gear, super-human combat and spying skills and an unwavering desire to screw up all their plans and kill everybody.  And that's what he does.  I did not find it very entertaining. I make it sound simple, but the storyline is quite meandering, with him going from one place to another, connecting with allies who go on and on about how amazed they are by his skills, saving one daughter and banging her, then saving her mother and not banging her but wanting to.  But none of leads to anything and even the ending is kind of a whimper.  I really don't get what the appeal of these books are.  It was just odd and kind of hard to get through.  It didn't take itself too seriously and there are some funny moments where Pendleton goes deeper into Bolan's motivations.  It's not terribly written either.  There just isn't a lot here. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

84. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

I found this on the street in a bag filled with mainstream mysteries and literary fiction, all in good condition amongst other household items, often found on Montreal streets during moving weekends.  I took it because it caused a lot of excitement here in Canada and because I had heard an interview with John C. Reilly who was so humbly and charmingly pleased with the movie he produced based on the book.  My wife had read it a few years ago and said it was pretty good.  As it turned out, she still had her copy, so I needn't have even stretched out my on deck shelf.  Though knowing my capricious motivations around which book to read, I may never have gotten to it had I not stumbled upon it in a ripped open black garbage bag.

Before I get into all the annoying things around this book, I will say straight off that it is a really good book, a great story with funny, likable characters that makes you want to turn the pages.  The author worked hard at it, did a good job and deserves all the money and respect he got from its success.  What bugs me is why does this book get elevated to some elite status, while there have been so many great westerns that are not dressed up with cool graphic design and marketed to an educated readership that are just lost in time?  I think I answered my own question.  I am just always suspicious when a "literary" author writes what is basically a genre book and it gets treated with so much respect and publicity while great, great writers languished away, their books not getting the respect simply because they are seen as lower-class.  It's very much like Tarantino, who "elevates" movie genres he claims he loves by filling them with faux-intelligent dialogue, high production values and great actors and he is thus an "auteur" (to be fair, I enjoyed deWitt's treatment of the western far more than any of Tarantino's work). 

This is especially true in Canada, with its precious, desperate, incestuous and back-biting canlit world.  DeWitt doesn't even live in Canada and likely hasn't for years (though coming from Sydney on the island and being only 6 years younger than me, I wonder if I may have ever run into him back in the day) and gets adopted as a Canadian writer by the media here.  What is Canadian about this book?  It takes place entirely in the United States and the underlying themes and tropes are mostly American (the expansion of the west, man exploiting and destroying nature, killing people).  I guess you could argue that the softer nature of the narrator (the nicer one of the two brothers) and his desire to just live a slower life and do something mundane is pretty Canadian.

Anyhow, to the story itself!  It's about two brothers who are hired killers, working for a powerful employer known as The Commodore.  They are sent to San Francisco to hunt down a man, Hermann Warm, who supposedly stole money from the Commodore.  The first half of the book we slowly get to know the two brothers as they encounter various adventures between Oregon City and San Francisco.  We learn that the older one is much more aggressive and meaner and the younger one is deep down a sensitive sould.  In the second half of the book, they get to San Francisco and learn about Warm and what he was up to which tests their alliance and motivations.

It is written in a Runyon-esque style, with the first-person narration by the younger more sensitive brother speaking in a rich and educated vocabulary that is entertaining to read, though makes the whole thing feel somewhat unrealistic.  I guess this is what makes it literary fiction and not just a genre book.  It's a lot of fun learning about the brothers' characters as well as them employing their wits and badassedness to deal with situations.  The second half gets really interesting and crazy.  A very enjoyable read all in all.