Thursday, March 31, 2022

16. Dead Calm by Charles Williams

I picked up this trade paperback new at Dark Carnival, because I have yet to find an actual used Charles Williams paperback in years of searching.  I chose to read it now because I was confident it would at least be competent and I needed something good after the lacklustre Marion.

It starts with honeymooning couple way out in the Pacific on a sailboat in a dead calm.  He's an experienced sailor and she is learning.  They notice a boat out on the horizon and then soon a single dinghy coming in fast.  They pull in a hysterical young man with a story of a terrible botulism accident, which the reader and soon the man suss out as fishy.  I thought we were going to head into a long period of tension and suspicion, with the couple in conflict.  Instead, Williams delivers action a few chapters in when the man goes to the stranded boat and discovers a couple locked in the cabin.  He races back in the dinghy to his boat, but the kid has already started the engine and taken off with his wife.  A great setup.

The rest of the book is a back and forth between Ingram trying to figure out what happened and get the boat moving so he can follow his wife and his wife trying to deal with this psycho kid.  It's more psychological than action and very tense.  I really am not comfortable on boats and out in the ocean and this book stressed me out.  There was a bit too much technical sailing language, but that is a fault of my ignorance than the book.  Great, fast read. This is what pulp fiction should be.  I understand there is a prequel that narrates the adventure that brought the man and woman together, which I really want to read now.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

15. Marion by John Bingham

I found this in my nice little haul of obscure mediocrity (or mediocre obscurity) at Urban Ore.  I sure love the object, though did not have super high expectations.  There was a lot of marketing hype by publishers back then and most of it on the cover itself.  Here we have relatively unknown author John Bingham getting a way bigger font than the actual name of the book.  My daughter thought the book was called "Bingham". 

Turns out it was not a great read.  It's competently even well-written, as so many of these mid-century journalists turned thriller writers were definitely professionals.  It's just that most of the book (as the title states) focuses on his relationship with his wife (Marion) whom he discovers to have lied completely about her past and is a total philanderer.  There is a thriller plot, but it is bookended and just not all that exciting.  I also felt there was a very real plot flaw with the timing, but was too lazy and uninterested to go back and doublecheck. The book is written from the future and jumps around in time (as if the author is recounting the story, telling us where he went wrong).  At one point, the various time narratives cross over in a way that made no sense, so that the discovery of his wife's infidelity happens before another major plot point that is dependent on him not knowing her infidelity.  I can live with that and I may have misread, but though the backstory revelation of how he discovered his wife's true nature was kind of neat (he goes to her hometown to deliver flowers to her father's grave who isn't actually dead), I was just not that interested in his processing of the end of his marriage.  There was also some weird class resentment thrown in that never got developed.

Looks like Bingham was one of these upper class WWII intelligence blokes who turned to writing.  Maybe this was one of his lesser works.

Monday, March 28, 2022

14. The King's General by Daphne du Maurier

I am really getting back into the history these days. I found this on a free shelf somewhere and kind of took it because it is a beautiful first edition hardcover (though missing the slip case), kind of because it's du Maurier whom I am discovering and partly because it takes place in the British civil war of which I wanted to learn more.

At first, I was bewildered by the context and all the characters.  The opening chapter had me quite discouraged.  Fortunately, it was deliberate, one of those openings where the character gives hints of the conclusion because they are now looking back on their past.  Once the main narrative begins, du Maurier sets the stage with skill so that the reader internalizes the characters and their relations to each other.  It takes place in Cornwall in the early middle of the 17th century.  Honor Harris is the youngest daughter of a less arisocratic family.  The antagonists at first seem to be their neighbour the Grenvilles, in the form of their beautiful avaricious daughter who weds Honor's oldest brother and then ruins and discards him.  Things get complicated and romantic fast though when the youngest Grenville with the terrible reputation (debt and a lack of honour), Richard, woos our protagonist.  On their weddding day, she is crippled in a riding accident brought on by his sister (who could have prevented the accident).

One of the main things I enjoyed about this book is that while there is much danger and threat and bad behaviour, throughout the entire story Richard and Honor's love is true.  He is a ruthless, irresponsible bastard who is also an incredibly skilled soldier and competent general.  He's a real dick, but in a cool ass way and you can't help but respect him for his constance.  It makes for a subversion of the genre, as despite her crippled and childless state, he truly loves her.  And despite his rash and cruel behaviour, she still loves him. It's a good romance.

I read that there were criticisms of the book at the time it came out in that it portrayed the language and behaviours of the people in a contemporary way.  I have no way of knowing if this nerdy criticism is accurate or not, but at least the geography and politics are descriptive and accurate to paint a strong picture of what the civil war was like for the people who lived through it.  The afterword reveals that the locations and the secret chamber were actually real, which is super cool.  du Maurier's pedigree is bonkers.  She basically leased and restored this sick castle because the family that owned it resided in some other manor.  Nobless oblige indeed!  Really enjoyable read.

What's crazy is that du Maurier was rumoured to have had a lesbian affair with Doubleday's wife!


Saturday, March 19, 2022

13. John Adams by David McCullough

I had the good fortune to go on a real vacation recently and wanted something long and absorbing and somewhat serious that I could sink my teeth into.  One of my friends (whose 50th birthday was the impetus for the trip) had mentioned this book and he had it on his shelf, so I borrowed it.  There was a very funny moment on the trip when I came out on the patio with this one and another friend was sitting there with his equally large biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  We definitely were living up to our image of middle-aged white males.

At first, I was disappointed.  Though extremely well-researched and constructed, it begins with way too much fawning.  There was an unquestioning acceptance of the American experiment, the greatness of the principles of the founding fathers and non-stop admiration for Adams' frugal, hard-working Puritan New England values.  I believe this is what they call a hagiography.  I was appreciating the facility of learning history through the framework of a biography, as it does make it easy to absorb as you follow a person's life.  However, too much of the early history felt very simplified and often unquestioned.  I only have a bachelor's in history, but it is enough to recognize when conclusions are presented that lack nuance. It also just made the early days of Adams' life kind of boring to read.  I am quite ignorant of the details of the American revolution, though, and this book helped fill in a lot of the early days.  I was not aware of the moral furor, contempt and animosity the British felt for the Americans and I better understand now why the great Kenneth Hite always refers to them as "the hated British".

Fortunately, the second half, when Adams returns to America and starts his time first as vice-president and then president, the politics and history, though still surface, are treated with much more ambivalence.  The book became much more engaging and McCullough's mission of making Adams out to be a hero much more successful.  What I learned here, aside from the politics of federalism vs. republicanism in the first few presidencies of America, was that the country truly was divided from the beginning.  It is both somewhat reassuring but also deeply unsettling to know that the same broad divides that exist in the U.S today were there from the beginning and that the shitty media worked as hard as possible back then like today to make them seem worse.

In the end, I put down this book quite convinced.  I had been skeptical at the beginning, even somewhat sneering of it as a biography for the masses and that it may be, but by the end, it made me respect Adams and his wife Abigail even more.  She in particular seemed incredibly strong and smart.  A big throughline of the book is both the Adams' relationship with Jefferson and she is the one who really tears into him at the end, never forgiving him and telling him directly what a dick he had been when her husband was president, while John himself lets it slide.  Impressive.

I haven't seen Hamilton so it may be more nuanced, but if that musical makes him out to be a hero, this book certainly portrays him as a manipulative, selfish asshole who tried on several ocassions to undermine the new nation. Jefferson comes off even worse and this was before his reputation was recently re-trashed with confirmation that he had several children with his slaves.  All this filled in a lot of gaps in my own grade school and Schoolhouse Rock knowledge of American history.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

12. The Ship that Died of Shame by Nicholas Monsarrat

I found this in the english language used bookstore Black Cat Books in Lennoxville, in the Eastern Townships in Quebec this summer. I normally avoid short story collections, but the cover design of this Pan was just too attractive.  It ended up being a very enjoyable read.  None of the stories go deep, but Monsarrat has a style that is direct and engaging, so they were quite easy to get into.  What I really appreciated was the postscript where he gave a brief history and background to each of the stories.   This was invaluable and made the whole book much more rewarding.  It should be required of all short story collections.  I thank Monsarrat for his thoughtfulness.

There were three longer stories that were all good adventures.  The title story about a languishing WWII vet who hooks up with his old shipmate (and their old boat) in a smuggling venture had some neat details about cross-channel contraband practices and a cool, slightly superstitious moral theme (as hinted at the title).  The Thousand Island Snatch takes place in Canada (where Monsarrat was stationed* as a diplomat for 14 years) and is a great brains vs. brawn tale of a scientist outwitting kidnappers and sparing his masculinity in front of his fiancee.  Licensed to Kill is a bittersweet tale, again of post-war ennui.  This time it is the tale of the man hunting the killer he trained in WWII who has lost his mind and putting his skills to practice in peacetime.  There are several shorter clever stories that were easy to read that give a fun insight into Monsarrat's worldview.  I especiallly enjoyed his pro-tax dig at British celebrities trying to avoid paying their fair share, "Oh to be in England!".  

*Here is a fantastic exit interview by Maclean's where he is quite spot on about Canada:

Monsarrat: Canadians are always astonished that anyone likes their country at all. I’m always being asked, “Why do you live in Canada — why don’t you live in Paris, or New York, or London?” But the only people who ask me are Canadians themselves — no one else. I mean, an Englishman knows instinctively why I live here, which is because 1 like it. It’s a big country, lots of elbow room, not too many people, taxes are a little . . . uh, things like that.

Turcotte: Do all Canadians have this attitude?

Monsarrat: I think it’s predominantly the English Canadians. It’s a curious thing, but the French Canadians whom I’ve met and talked to and traveled about with seem to have much more confidence in themselves as Canadians than the English do. It’s the English Canadians who are asking all the questions and in many cases it’s the French Canadians who are giving the answers — and the latter have much more of a sense of being at home in this country and its future than the English. I don’t know why that is.



Tuesday, March 01, 2022

11. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl

I did not have high expectations for the sequel to the fantastic Charlie and the Chocolate factory and they were met.  It's a weird, bifurcated story whose flaws my daughter keyed in on about halfway through: "this book should be in the elevator for the entire story".  I don't know if I quite agree with her on that, but it does feel like Dahl did not have a strong premise or idea for this one. The first storyline is about them interacting with the US government while in space and while parts of it are quite wacky and fun, much of it feels like an aimless Dr. Strangelove, with much goofy commentary on various members of the US executive branch and military. It's not that funny for adults and kids don't get it.  The second two-thirds deal with Charlie's obnoxious grandparents taking too many youth pills.  It does allow us to see more of the factory but the whole problem could have been easily avoided if Willy Wonka had just doled out the pills in moderation.  His being neutral works perfectly with spoiled kids, but with people in their 90s it feels like he is being the irresponsible one.  It just may be that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory should not have a sequel.