Sunday, September 29, 2019

67. She and Allan by H. Rider Haggard

I bought this at the Grande Bibliotheque book sale for a buck.  I was vaguely aware of Haggard, mainly through the existence of what is considered one of the all-time worst movies and a general sense that he was quite popular adventure writer back in the day. I also thought this was somehow related to the movie She and will confirm that after writing my review.

It's an odd book, with an odd title.  The plot is pretty straightforward colonialist adventure.  Allan Quatermain is writing his memoirs from when he was a great white hunter in Africa.  He gets sent on a quest by a dwarf wizard to find a white queen who may be able to allow him to speak to the dead.  Already things are kind of weird and spiritual.  The whole impetus is that he felt kind of melancholy and wondered about a woman he had once loved who had died.  The dwarf, it turns out, needs the power of this queen and so sort of compels Quatermain to go on the quest.  With him comes his Hottentot (apologies for the use of this word, which I understand is now considered perjorative; it's the word in the book as well as constantly being referred to as yellow) guide, Hans and later a mighty Zulu warrior king with a huge axe, Umslapogaas. Both these characters are quite cool.  Hans is an expert tracker, always thirsty for gen and constantly dissing Quatermain in obseqious language.  Umslopogass has issues at home with conniving relatives and lives to kick ass in battle.  Quatermain himself is quite funny, as he is super self-deprecating and full of regret about all the ways he has screwed up his life.

The characters' interaction and the adventure itself were quite enjoyable.  There are also long weird spiritual passages that were less enjoyable. It gets quite trippy.  Furthermore, this is all wrapped in the deep, deep racism of the colonial mindset and lots of slaughter of animals (though Quatermain himself is now beyond killing just for sport).  It's just a given that Africa was there as a savage source of wealth, to be depleted.  The humility in Quatermain's character and the supernatural powers that both She and the dwarf have somewhat offset this perspective.  Quatermain is constantly and futilely trying to explain away all the magic shit that happens, which does give a sense that maybe the white man is out of his depth.  An odd, interesting book. I suspect others have done much more serious research into Haggard's work and I will depend on them for further elucidation.  I am glad I read this one and would pick up another if it was a bit tighter and maybe recommended.

(Addendum: this is at least the third book this year where the major plot point is the kidnapping of a virginal young woman, the other two being No Orchids for Miss Blandish and The End of the Night.)

Monday, September 23, 2019

66. The End of the Night by John D. MacDonald

This is the second of the Ed Gorman-inspired haul of JDM books I found in Vancouver.  I went in with some trepidation.  My mother had just finished a Travis McGee book and excoriated it thusly:
Just finished A Turquoise Lament and what a horrible book. 9/10ths of it was mansplaining about everything, and sooo tedious. The denouement happened in about 10 pages after endless lamenting about this and that. I can’t believed that. I used to enjoy his books!
While we do not share the same tastes and she has zero patience for nerdy, manly things, it pains me that there is truth in her critique and sometimes MacDonald's wordy explanations of the Human/American condition in the second half of the twentieth century can wear on me as well. Furthermore, this one looked pretty nasty.

It's an interesting read.  It is structured with much more variety than I have yet to encounter in a JDM book.  Usually it is first person or third-person most of the way.  Here we have a letter from an executioner to an old workmate, the notes from a trial lawyer, the notes from one of the suspects before he is to be executed and some omniscient narration, all structured around a crime spree you already know happened with the victims dead and the culprits caught.  The sole narrative tension is what happened to the perfect, innocent young fiancée they picked and how far did it go?

It is more of an investigation into a crime spree by psychopathic counter-culture young people with no motivation other than kicks.  It is the drugstore paperback In Cold Blood, but with 4 individuals whose backgrounds and psychologies make them together into murderers.  The main character is the fourth one to join the team, privileged college dropout who had just got over a crazy love affair with the older actress he was chauffeuring (which caused her murder and her husband's suicide).  He wanders out of Mexico with nothing left to live for and runs into a crazy pill-popping loser leader, a psychopathic beatnik slut and a massive beast of a young man.  Together, their dynamic plus the bills and booze triggers a crazy joy ride of murder, rape and car theft.

JDM's philosophizing about how it all came about and why the ostensibly well-raised college boy would go down this road is voiced by the defense lawyer, representing the older generation.  The college boy speaks for himself.  Combining the two, we get the jumbled thesis that the youth of this time have gone astray because we aren't disciplined enough and that people are a few steps from becoming animals at any given time.  It isn't super convincing. 

Despite my critiques, The End of the Night is a good read.  There are some great procedural passages when the authorities try and close in on the gang.  The locations and side characters feel very real, very American.  You do want to find out what happens.  The ending is oddly soft, compared to the lead-up and left me a bit puzzled as to what he was trying to do (or if in the end, he just had to pull his final punch).

Sunday, September 22, 2019

65. The Wanderer by Alain-Fournier (Le Grand Meaulnes)

I bought this book at a church bazaar, I believe, for 40 cents, based on its nice Edward Gorey cover, thick pages and sense that it would have lots of nice walking in the woods.  It turns out to be a classic of French literature, a Sorrows of Young Werther in the Parisian countryside.

It's hard for me to be fair to this book.  It fails the Bechdel test utterly and in this day of #MeToo, twitter and a total re-examining (to put it mildly) of the domination of the male protagonist in literature, it was hard for me to absorb the romantic mopings of the titular character who completely fucks shit up for himself and the women in his world because he feels indebted to an even more mopy and romantic young man in his pursuit for ideal love.

The story is from the more stable son of the schoolteacher. In their weird world of older boys still going to school everyday and having rivalries and minor adventures, a new alpha dog Meaulnes arrives.  He becomes the leader and one day gets lost after stealing a cart. He ends up at a mysterious manor that is preparing a massive party to welcome home a son and his bride.  He briefly meets the son's beautiful sister Yvonne with whose romantic vision he falls in love.  The son's bride never shows for reasons we learn later and the son then abandons the family and runs away to wander the land as a minstrel, he too yearning for his lost bride.

The plot is actually kind of interesting and woven together in an elegant way such that you can ignore the many coincidences that make it more of a fairy tale.  And there are really beautiful and evocative scenes of rural life in this part of France.  But man, this is some cliched romantic stuff.  These young men are around 17 or 18 and they are constantly weeping and filled with remorse and then sudden elation (but tinged with the potential for sadness like rain on a summer day).  This was written in 1913 and takes place just before the turn into the 20th century, so it is probably responsible for much of the notion of French romanticism.  And these young men didn't have TV or even radio, so you get it. It is very much of its time and so my superior condescension is weak sauce.  And I did actually enjoy most of it while reading it.  It's just that both Meaulnes and son are basically total dicks and the women suffer because of their obsession with romantic ideals (the son ruins his entire family with his spoiled whims, putting them in debt so they have to sell all their possessions and he is portrayed as some kind of wonderful, unique character; Meaulnes runs off after him leaving his bride and the women he yearned for pregnant and alone so of course she dies leaving him a baby daughter to represent his love when he comes).  It's not a good look.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

64. No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase

Am I like the last person to discover James Hadley Chase and this book?  I picked it up for a dollar at a sidewalk sale outside of the Le Port de tete, based mainly on the nice '70s Penguin cover.  I was not expecting much.  A few pages in, the sparse prose, tough and pathetic criminals and desolate Kansas roads made me think this was something special.  I don't think I ever remember Westlake referenceing Hadly Chase, but this felt very much Parker-like in tone.

A down-and-out gangster learns that a young debutante is going to be going to a nightclub wearing a $50,000 pearl necklace and plans to steal it.  The heist goes badly wrong when her drunken beau fights back and gets shot.  The thugs decide then and there to kidnap her and hold her for ransom.  Things go worse for everybody involved.

This is a tough, nasty book with cool police procedure and logistical details.  The locations, the various members of the underworld, the cops and about halfway through the detective who finally starts figuring out how to break the case are all neat and well thought out.  It's rough, too.  Some dark shit goes on.  This is grown-up stuff.

Imagine my surprise when doing a cursory research on the author, not only do I learn that he is considered the king of thriller writers, but that he is English and never even visited the U.S. until much later in his career!  Well you learn something new every day and I am most happy to have been luckily educated in this way.  Also, great title and brutally, darkly funny.

I also learned that Hadley Chase revised this book in 1962 to update it and my understanding is that he may have softened it as well.  The copy I have was published in 1980 and while there is no mention that it is revised and it also has the original copyright date of 1939, I'll have to assume this is the revised version.  Damn, I bet the original is expensive and hard to find.  Worth it though, if it is harder than the revised version, which is pretty damned hard.  Here is a reference to an extensive breakdown of the various versions of the book.

What is says on the tin.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

63. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Every now and then I just need to go out and buy or borrow a brand new fancy looking book to keep on reading.  This urge came upon me while waiting for some food to be prepared and I went into the Renaud-Bray in my neighbourhood, to the tiny english sci-fi/fantasy section.  It is a limited selection from my perspective (mainly big bestsellers, classics and popular series), but I did find this one which has been on my list for quite a while.

I won't go too much into it since many others, smart and harder-working than me have said a lot already (including Barak Obama who has a pullquote on the cover of another of Liu's books).  Suffice it to say that it lived up to the hype.  This is a really cool, trippy, absorbing science fiction story with narrative that works on the personal, human level and on the vast, space, physics-nerd level.  Moreover, it really does have a foreign mindset (which I think the translation captured) so while you can tell that Liu does have some western sci-fi influences, he is also very much a modern, Chinese thinker.  This just makes the book that much more pleasing.  There are some passages where things are just straight out explained, that kind of pull you from the narrative, but for some reason they didn't really bother me.  I think I was happy just getting the explanation rather than having to work with it. As a reader who really lacks patience with real science, I also felt he has a real way of explaining some pretty high-level physics concepts that made me get them and did not get in the way of the fiction.

It is, of course, the first of a trilogy.  I have just give in trying to avoid them at this point.  The others will be on my list, but I will look for them used.  Good stuff.

Friday, September 13, 2019

62. The Girl from Nowhere by Rae Foley

I cannot remember where I got this book, I think I chose it because the cover looked cool.  It's quite old, written in 1949 and this second printing from September of 1950, so I treated it very gently.  It survived my reading it with the pages holding together.  I usually try to vary my reading.  In this case, The Girl from Nowhere is very much in the tradition of Laura (which I had just read).  It takes place in Manhattan, the characters are of the upper classes and a big theme (and the girl in question) is about people from the lower classes trying to make it big. Also, one of the main characters is a female executive, co-owner of a publicity company and her professional skills clash with the social expectations of her as a woman.

It is more of a traditional whodunit mystery.  There is no main character, as we have a semi-omniscient narrator who jumps from character to character.  Most of the time, at least at the beginning, we spend with aforementioned executive, Beatrice Comstock.  She runs her publicity company with her ex-husband, who has now taken up with a super sexy, young "girl from nowhere" Tony (short for Antonia).  Tony, we learn quickly, is pretty rotten and up to all kinds of shenanigans. In many ways, she is the most interesting character, but she dies quickly, murdered in her bathtub when somebody drops the radio in it.  There are a long list of suspects: Beatrice, Carey (Tony's husband and Beatrice's ex), Carey's sister, their clients whom we learn were being blackmailed by Tony. 

Onto the scene comes John Harland, expert in "humanics" basically super smart successful guy with a penetrating gaze, who has a reputation for solving crimes.  He only solves them because they help with his research into humanics, which is the study of the whole man.  He feels that if he can get to the bottom of it and truly create a discipline of humanics, he can prevent people from doing crimes before they happen.  He is actually kind of cool, living in a sick house downtown with a garden behind a wall and a maid who makes the best lunches (the house was given to him for a past crime he solved or something).

The process is kind of fun, but a bit flawed.  You are never sure who is the main character because the viewpoint keeps jumping.  It was fun to slowly figure out the back story and the reason why Carey married horrible Tony (other than that she is super alluring) is nicely investigated and revealed.  Unfortunately, the actual mystery of the murder is very unsatisfying and could only be made into a mystery because the author doesn't give you the full perspective.  He cheats, basically, making you think you are really seeing it from Beatrice's perspective, while actually holding back on her actions that she actually did in the scene that you are experiencing from her eyes.  That's a basic mechanical failure in a whodunnit.  A nice little find, but undermined at the end.

After a bit of research, it appears that Rae Foley is the nom de plume of Elinore Denniston.  I thought it was a woman who wrote this as I was reading it.  John Harland may be a recurring detective character.  I would be curious to see if there are some better mysteries he solves, because he was sort of cool.

Monday, September 09, 2019

61. Laura by Vera Caspary

I wish I had this version.
I've been looking for Vera Caspary for a while, along with Dolores Hitchens and Dorothy Hughes, all 3 highly praised whose books are elusive.  I was mildly disappointed that this was the book of Caspary's that I found.  I have already seen the movie at least twice (and snippets of it many times more as it seemed to be quite often in rotation on AMC back in the day when cable was awesome).  I say mildly, because at least I found one of her books.

The story is about a woman named Laura, a girl from nowhere who ends up working for an advertising agency, living on Park Avenue and ending up dead on the floor in her front hallway, shot in the face.  This is a book of many narrators with varying degrees of reliability.  The first person whose perspective you read is Waldo Lydecker, overweight, erudite, cynical and worldly, a succesful columnist and Laura's mentor the big city.  The second is Mark MacPherson, hard-boiled working-class cop who starts to get to caught up in investigating the victim.  Finally, we have the words of Laura herself.  The fourth character is her fiancée, well-bred but feckless Shelby Carpenter.  He doesn't get a say. 

The mystery almost seems unimportant to the narrative.  I had guessed a lot of it by the end.  Laura is much more about the characters and particularly how the three men interact with and around Laura, alive and dead.  Their portrayals are pretty vicious and engaging, but it ultimately wraps itself up in traditional gender behaviours, which I felt undermines some of its potency.  It's still pretty interesting.  I suspect this book has been the subject of more than a few gender studies dissertations.  Class also plays a big role.  I definitely want to get my hands on her other books and will re-watch the movie again.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

60. Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt

I found this on the free shelf on St-Viateur.  It's definitely a detour from my normal reading habits, but I did study the origins of WWII and the rise of Nazism in college and given the resurgence of such thought and action today, it piqued my interest. I had also recently read a brief article about the origin of the term "the banality of evil" (basically this book).

It started out as a series of articles for the New Yorker, where Arendt covered the trial of Eichmann in 1961.  He had been found (though wasn't hiding all that well, as we read in the later part of the book) in Argentina and kidnapped by Israeli agents.  He had been portrayed as one of the last free masterminds of the holocaust and his trial was a big public spectacle at the time.  Later, she expanded the articles into this book  It cause quite a controversy at the time.  Interesting to see that outrage culture, minus the internet, was alive and well back then.  People freaked out based on hearsay or bad interpretations of what she wrote, launched campaigns against her and the book.  All the logical fallacies that we see so common today were used:  the straw horse arguments from people who had not read the book, the reductivist arguments where one small statement is blown up out of context to be her entire argument, etc.

From what I can understand, her great sin was to portray Eichmann as a pathetic, unthinking bureaucrat, who was more obsessed with doing his job and getting a promotion than any particularly strong antipathy towards the Jews.  I won't get into it all here, you have to read the book.  To my mind, this understanding of Eichmann is far more terrifying than if he was a murderous racist.  What this book makes you realize is that it only takes a few of those latter to drive on an entire society of more moderate or neutral people to carry out their crimes at a scale that it becomes genocide.  It's the exception, the very rare exception (and it was in all the horror that went on in Europe) that fights for a moral good against the conformity of all of society, no matter what that society is doing. 

As well as going into the trial, there are chapters on how the Final Solution was carried out in each region of Europe.  Though written fairly coldly, these are still very hard to read.  The enormity of it is still hard to grasp.  What hurts are the small details of the logistics and costs, of how people went willingly or were sent willingly by their fellows to a horrible death.  While I cannot excuse how Israel currently deals with the Palestinian people, reading again about what happened to the Jewish people, does make you better understand why they are so bellicose and aggressive today.

On the reading level, I had a hard time putting this down.  She writes a complex, journalistic style, where she is laying out history, complex arguments and painting a picture all at the same time.  It requires some concentration but is much richer than most of the stuff that comes out of the academic world.  The only part where I lost interest were the long sections making legal arguments about whether or not Israel had the right to kidnap Eichmann, whether or not the trial should have been held at an international level, blah blah blah.  She does a good job of laying out these arguments, but it all feels like the same kind of wanking that lawyers and politicians love to do which is basically arguing about how many angels dance on the head of a pin.  The other thing she shows, whose extent I didn't realize, was how many other Nazi criminals were exonerated or received pathetically light sentences in Germany after the war.  At some point, you just realize that power is what makes the decisions and if Israel had to send out some agents to deal real justice, then fuck the legal arguments.

A great book, should be required reading by every alt-right fuck out there today.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

59. The Powder Barrel by William Haggard

William Haggard was another recommendation from the unassailable Kenneth Hite.  It took me a long time to find two of his books, which I did finally track down in Amsterdam.  I had been postponing the pleasure and it was worth the wait.  I don't know about his other books, but based on The Powder Barrel, I would say that his books are fantasies of competence.  Smart, reasonable men surrounded by the chaos of the world and the doings of less competent men must smartly adjust and deal.  Haggard reminds me a lot of Michael Gilbert, though perhaps more global and political in his subject.  Suffice it to say, I am very motivated to find more of these.

Here we have a fictional coastal Arab country, almost miniscule but important to the British because it is a crucial port to get oil out.  It is barely held together by a hereditary Shaikh who is ambivalent about his role.  His chauffeur flirts with his sister and because he likes him (he is the only person who doesn't let him win in chess), instead of having the chauffeur killed, the Shaikh sends him to England to do a mechanics training course.  It turns out this chauffeur is also a spy for the Chinese (though interestingly, I don't think the word China is ever used in the book), sent as a kind of freelancer to sow any kind of chaos and sending him to England gives him such an opportunity.  Sir Charles Russel of the Executive must act to contain and ensure that the Arab nation does not descend into chaos.

It's tightly written, with short chapters but a lot going on.  There is lots of good, civilized maneuvering between men of power (mainly the behind the scenes kind of real power).  Lots of men recognizing other men's competence and respecting it, even if they work for the other side.  I loved it.  I need to find more.