Monday, May 30, 2022

24. The Feud by Thomas Berger

Kudos to a cover that shows
an actual scene from the book
I found this nice 1983 first edition hardback in the free shelf outside of Latina.  I knew nothing about it or the author and thought the premise seemed interesting enough that I should give it a try.  It was enjoyable but I am still left a bit puzzled about what the overall mission was for this book.

It takes place I guess in the 50s in two small contiguous towns somewhere in America.  In the opening scene, a father from one town is buying paint stripper in the hardware store of another town.  The son of the proprietor working the counter expresses some attitude and this turns into a full-on conflict (the hardware store burns down that night and the father gets blamed).  The story of the feud is really the vehicle to deliver a somewhat light comedy of manners about dumb hicks.  I couldn't figure out if the author was sympathetic to the characters or poking fun at them and that is what left me feeling puzzled and slightly unsure of my ground while reading it.

There are several sympathetic characters, especially the two sons of the father at the heart of the conflict.  At the same time, almost all the characters, especially the men, are deeply flawed.  Weak of will, emotionally immature, corrupt and dishonest almost all of them.  We get snippets of real affection among them that are somewhat moving and nothing is treated with real heaviness (for instance, one of the sons punches the police chief of one town, who deserved it and his real punishment is that he can't go back to that town).  At the same time, everyone seemed so ignorant and selfish that the portrayal feels a bit like a caricature.

It is well written and the story moved along nicely.  There are some funny bits and the interaction among the teens and their sexual fooling around was well portrayed.  I am still not sure what the point was though.  Here is a much better review that puts The Feud into some context (and summarizes it better), but still doesn't succeed in explaining why we would want to read it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

23. The Protector by David Morrell

Here in Montreal, we have two library systems, the local municipal libraries (of which Mordecai-Richler I frequent often) and the BANQ which is the provincial system (as well as being the official archive for the province).  The BANQ has a really beautiful building downtown which I used to go to a lot, especially when I was studying.  However, since the pandemic and the efficiency of the municipal inter-library loan system, I hadn't been in a few years.  I volunteered to go with my child's school trip, renewed my card and in the few minutes I had to spare between corralling and shushing rugrats, I snagged this David Morrell.  I am actively hunting for his medieval mysteries, but he is always competent and this looked like a fun, quick read.

Morrell seems to have made a niche for himself as extreme researcher of cool ass shit.  In this case, he goes deep on the elite protection industry.  Cavanaugh is an ex-Navy Seal who runs a small team that protects and hides people under extreme threat.  Here, he is hired to protect a scientist who is already holed up in a warehouse hideout.  When he goes there, the shit hits the fan and Cavanaugh learns that the guy discovered the ultimate drug (instantly addictive) and that the cartel is after him.  There are several twists that weren't too hard to predict (even too easy, at a couple of points I found Cavanaugh to be stupid to not cotton to what was going on), that of course lead to Cavanaugh on his own, on the run.

There was another early plot point error that surprised me, where they sent the client out to get his fake ID created before the plastic surgery they were planning and I was off on the wrong foot.  Once we get into the main plot, it's pretty cool.  Morrell's research comes into play and we get lots of cool techniques for going undercover on the lam, armouring vehicles (and how to knock other vehicles off the road), making fake wounds and all kinds of cool little details.  The bad guy is a real hateful prick too.  A bit shakey at the beginning but ended up being as I had expected a quick fun read.

Monday, May 23, 2022

22. Understanding Korean Politics: an Introduction edited by Soong Hoom Kil and Chung-in Moon

Shit is getting wild around here at Olman's Fifty!  Not only reading non-fiction but actual academic books.  Crazy.  I grabbed this one after several moments of hesitation from the free little library on Esplanade.  I have a decent understanding of Chinese history and an okay knowledge of most of the rest of Asia, but beyond that Japan was quite horrible to it, my knowledge of Korean history was almost zero.  Like so many others, I have been introduced to Korean culture through movies and food in the last 20 years and I've long felt I should have at least a broad grasp of its history.  This book is more based around political science, but you can't do a survey of the country from the end of WWII to 2000 (when this book was published) without some history and I got what I wanted from this book.

I think it is probably worth studying why Korea has remained so quiet in the west, considering that it's history is quite wild.  Not only did it have a miraculous economic growth, it did so through three dictatorships and some serious political craziness (including the president being assassinated by the head of the Korean CIA in 1987!).  Why does Korea get so little play in the west?  This book did not go into that, but it was a solid and sometimes interesting overview of Korea's political history, coming out of WWII being basically occupied by the US and USSR, getting split after the Korean War and then developing from a US-dependent military dictatorship to an independent, democratic economic powerhouse.

Though a bit dry and basically undergrad poli-sci with some of the nonsense that brings (academics still struggle with arguing over which theoretical lens is best and then concluding oh yeah we can use many), this book was divided into digestible chapters, all of which were really well-researched and directly presented.  What I found particularly interesting is how the dictatorships had such control until, in each case, they went too far and popular protest ended up bringing them down.  I'm over-simplifying but there seems to be something in 20th century Korean history where the people are unified enough (and having the threat of North Korea is a major factor here) that they can exist with a dictatorship and yet also bring it down.  It bums me out that in their last election, they chose a populist asshole (though barely, but isn't that how these fucks get in power everywhere?).  I hope Korean cultural and political unity can withstand the dividing power of today's internet.

Monday, May 16, 2022

21. The Lottery: Adventures of the Daemon Lover by Shirley Jackson

I found this at the great traveling vintage sale that has started to come to Montreal.  They have very few books, more cloths, furniture and other antiques but this was a nice little find. It's a 1949 paperback original of her collection of short stories and was quite a good seller at the time.  The cover and subtitle is misleading, as if they were trying to sell it to sci-fi and horror fans rather than a more literary set.  The stories themselves are pretty literary, though definitely as unsettling and thought-provoking as those genres.

An aside, reading this book did just give me a clear notion of the definition of "genre".  This is my own way of understanding it (and may well be utterly not original and probably thought over with much more depth by much smarter and more patient people).  Basically, in genre fiction, the primary objective is to tell a story.  Ideas and concepts are delivered with the story, but tend to not be the main focus.  Literary fiction can be story-driven but generally it is the ideas and concepts that are the main objective.  Obviously there is a spectrum and lots of exceptions but broadly speaking this is why I personally prefer genre fiction.

The above notion crystallized in me while reading these short stories because many of them have only the most minimal story structure.  At first, I was mildly annoyed, because despite my objective tone above, I am really not down with the New Yorker/liberal arts university creative writing course mode of trying to impart a feeling or some shit.  However, Jackson is such a skilled writer and the stories so tight and short (and effective) that I got over my irritation.  Many of the stories deal with the anxiety of women in this time period in the northeast, usually with an absent or oblivious husband and a contrast between the city and the country.  There are a couple of stories here that really capture the fear that New Yorkers have of the country and close proximity to the rural working class.  This has been going on for a long time!

My favourite story is The Dummy about two catty women who see a ventriloquist show and react to the dummy.  Really, nothing much happens, almost the small incident one might see going out in NYC that would be a funny anecdote, but it made me laugh and she captures the women's dialogue so well.

I'm glad I read this (and later read up on Jackson's life) because I had only read The Haunting of Hill House, which is good but doesn't give you a good sense of where she is coming from.  I will have a better appreciation of her work now.



Friday, May 13, 2022

20. Planet in Peril by John Christopher

I found this on the shelf at Welch's (I still habitually look for Christopher despite not having seen any of his books for ages) and thought it a nice find.  I guess it was, in that Planet in Peril is quite possibly the worst John Christopher. I don't know what drove him to write it.  Was he trying to emulate some of the succesful American sci fi that dealt with a future of alternative political systems?  Right from the beginning, one is uninterested.  It takes pages to establish any kind of plot and though we are clearly in some future America where a great disruption has ended with a new social and political system called "Managerialism" none of it is explained with any depth and what is explained is not interesting or compelling at all.  It seems that all the world but a small (I guess Arabicish) part called Siraq is organized into different gigantic companies/government departments like Atomics, Agricultural, etc.  The protagonist is somehow also part of United Chemicals.  These managerials compete against each other and there are hints of decay.  Also there is a comet, but it's barely mentioned.  

The story is that the hero after years working quietly in the same lab, suddenly gets transferred and promoted to a location where his predecessor disappeared in a sailing accident.  When he gets to the new office, he meets the resentful assistant, who is also attractive and they hit it off. Then there is a lot of intrigue that you really don't care about, culminating in the possibility of Siraq invading the rest of the world with flying soldiers using heat rays generated from a new diamond energy that only the protagonist was somehow capable of inventing (except the Siraqis already invented).

There were a couple of good bits, such as the airspheres, giant bubbles you can fly around in the clouds, which was very well described and enjoyable to visualize.  There are nice, subtle descriptive moments that remind you what a good writer Youd was.  Overall, though, a dud.

Friday, May 06, 2022

19. The Big Brothers by Irving Shulman

I picked this up mainly for the cover and because I thought it would have some cool writing about organized crime of the period.  I enjoyed The Amboy Dukes, but more as a historical, culturally important book in the genre and was not necessarily looking to read more of Shulman's work.  I am glad I did take it because it was a better book than I expected, on its own merits, as well as being indeed a great look into the syndicate in the late 60s.  Even more fun, the outfit in The Big Brothers that we see is mostly Jewish and this gives it a distinct feel as well as some good background on how these guys came up.  Finally, this is actually the follow-up to the Amboy Dukes as it continues the story of that street gang and how they grow up to become big-time mobsters.

The premise is great.  Three young toughs (and one's moll) are sent by their boss to take over a failed resort and casino investment in Las Vegas.  They proved themselves well on the streets to their boss, kindly but tough and scheming Itzik Yanowitz (a great character!) but it is a bit of a stretch and a risk to ask them to take over a hotel where the previous scrammed with the money and left to ruin.  The book has an interesting pattern of weaving between sections of great detail, focusing on getting the casino set up for instance, then accelerating ahead to the next phases and challenges in their existence.  It makes it somewhat uneven in feeling. Is it a procedural or an epic?  In the end, it goes for the latter and I have to say does also succeed in giving us a lot of really entertaining procedure, both with how the criminals work and how a resort casino was run in that period.

Another element that makes the book somewhat uneven is the writing style. It's not bad, actually quite readable and the content is so rich that I found myself easily turning the pages.  Shulman jumps around from perspective, not just from the characters' minds but going from a detailed description of the muscles on their faces to their thoughts and then to a more objective perspective.  It also gets a bit melodramatic and maudlin at times.  He really bears down on the stress and anxiety and the generally unpleasant price one pays to avoid the rat race and live large as a gangster.  It gets rough at times too, there are two particularly brutal beatings that are hard to read.

It's interesting to read this book written in 1959, written 10 years before The Godfather and yet containing so much material that is now considered the sole domain of Scorsese.  I wonder if he read this book, because half of Casino is in here.  This one is going on the book shelf.