Monday, January 30, 2023

9. Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

This is the one I found
I have had Gresham on my hunting list for a long time to no avail.  Though this movie tie-in edition is really quite unattractive and a terrible size, I do appreciate its existence both because I found it in a free box and because it is uncensored which I gather a lot of later editions were.  I saw the original movie and quite enjoyed it and was excited for the del Toro remake but the reviews deflated my enthusiasm so I haven't seen it yet.  My patience and interest in movies has really dried up in recent years.  All I seem to be able to watch these days are Indian action blockbusters and old 80s episodic series like The Equalizer.  Anyhow, people rave about this book so I was pretty excited to get into it.

It lives up to the hype.  I really wish I had read it before seeing the movie.  I suspect that the inevitable ending would have revealed itself to me anyways, but since I knew what was going to happen to our carny turned con artist spiritualist preacher friend it informed my reading especially near the end and made me somewhat conscious of the plot and pages left.  I think if you come at this book for the first time, with its original plotting and excellent twist (which totally threw me in the movie), you would be pretty blown away.

The story is about the rise and fall of charismatic runaway Stanton Carlisle who joins a travelling carnival and starts to learn the tricks of the trade.  He has a few magic skills, but soon realizes his potential for charm and fast-talking as well as a sharp mind to memorize codes to use as you take questions from the crowd for the medium.  His lack of morality is apparent early on as he gives alcohol to the geek husband of Zeema to get him out of the way so they can get it on.  He doesn't realize it, but it's wood alcohol and this kills him. His stress at the guilt is soon masked by his burning ambition and he absconds with a younger, more attractive woman to the big city to start plying a trade as a spiritualist to rich widows.  The narrative is a struggle between building up to his biggest scam and his own internal stresses and this race leads him to one of the greatest femme fatale characters in the history of noir, psychologist Lilith Ritter.  She takes Carlisle under her wing was they work together to con a rich industrialist, whose guilt over the abortion death of a girlfriend in his youth is the key they use to catch him up.

This is definitely adult material and while the original movie gets pretty dark, it eludes and even cuts out the harshest stuff, especially around sex.  I was reading this on the plane and gasped aloud when Lilith explains what role Molly (the pretty young one Stan took from the carny) will play in their con.  Great stuff.

This one's going for $150!

Sunday, January 29, 2023

8. Sing Down the Moon by Scott O'Dell

My daughter chose this as the next one for her bedtime reading.  The Island of the Blue Dolphins was subtly sad, only really if you understood the context and read the afterword which she refused to do (though the attack on her people at the beginning by the Aleuts was pretty rough).  This one was brutal!  I feel like it may be better appreciated by an older child of maybe 12 or 13.  Nevertheless, my 10-year old got a pretty direct lesson in the horrors of colonialism.  To top it off, my father had died on the night that we read the harshest chapter where the shitfuck white man drives the Navajo off their land and destroys  their crops and homes.  We were both pretty bummed but it led to a good discussion of whether it is better or worse to read something as dark from history as this while you have your own sadness in life.

This is another fictional retelling of the real history of what is known as The Long Walk, where white settlers drove several tribes of indigenous people from their lands to what is now known as the four corners in the middle of the country.  It is told from the perspective of a young girl who is just taking on the responsibility of shepherding the family's sheep.  The first section is about her getting kidnapped by a Spanish soldier and then her escape, where the reader gets a brief break from the sadness before "the long knives" as they call the settler soldiers come and force them to march from their home lands in Arizona to eastern New Mexico, where their descendants live today.  I don't know what the Navajo people feel about a white settler descendant writing about their history, but this book is straightforward and very affecting.  

Friday, January 27, 2023

7. Poets and Murder by Robert van Gulik

I had heard about Judge Dee over the years, but assumed it was a kind of mystery Charlie Chan series.  I did see at least one of the Tsui Hark Judge Dee movies, which was tons of fun.  However, recently I saw some pulp mystery fans on social media speaking highly of Judge Dee and then found this in a free box in Berkeley. It was surprisingly good!  I appreciate that it is an extreme case of what I believe is called "Orientalism" and I was happy that the portrayal of Tang dynasty China seemed respectful and well researched (there is an afterward where van Gulik explains the setting and the research he did).  More importantly, the story itself was really cool. It had an enjoyable mix of interesting characters in a rich setting with a touch of mysticism (the overall theme was fox spirits).  Judge Dee's style and methodology were particularily good.  He does a lot of research via the empire's bureaucracy and culture of record-taking.  I guess this may seem boring but I found it to be a neat twist on procedural investigation.  I also enjoyed the culture of politeness that makes Judge Dee very careful in how he approaches people and works on his investigation.  Finally, there was a humanity to the entire proceeding that I enjoyed.  I hope Poets and Murder is indicative of the series because if so I will keep an eye out for others.

Monday, January 23, 2023

6. A Stranger in my Grave by Margaret Millar

Again, I have the ghostly feeling that I have read this book before, pre-Fifty Book Challenge.  It's worth a reread (and now I own it in paperback), so no harm done just wish I could confirm it.  This is a rich thriller with multiple layers of narrative and theme going on, all of which get unraveled at an increased pace.  The surface plot is about Daisy Harkin, a young married woman who lives with her successful husband and mother.  From the beginning, she is clearly unhappy, though putting on a smile each morning to keep her husband and mother from worrying about her.  This does not last long as she has a vivid dream about seeing her own gravestone with a specific date from four years earlier.  Convinced that she herself may have died, she starts to obsess about it, not being helped by her supportively denying husband and mother.  We learn that her father ran off years ago only communicating via letter from time to time when he needs money.  He comes back into town again, calling her to pay off a bail bondsman who is also a detective.  This man, Stevens Perata, is also a detective and she hires him to investigate the date on the gravestone in her dream.

At first, she really seems neurotic, although quite firm and clear in her communications with Perata and her mother and husband.  The main plot seems to be about the difficulty of investigating a day in the past (especially pre-computers).  However, some articles from the newspapers microfiche article triggers a denial in Daisy and Perata starts to suspect she isn't just a neurotic housewife with too much time on her hands.  

The plotting in this book is quite a trick as several really interesting and eccentric characters' (Daisy's romantic, con artist dad; Juanita the promiscuous mother of 6; her strict and religious mother, Perata himself) stories start to gradually reveal their connections.  We don't see them all until the final page, literally the last words of the book.  I won't say anymore because the enjoyment is in finding out, but it gets deep and touches on some progressive social themes that are still relevant today.

Here is a review that captures the qualities of this book better than I can.

Friday, January 20, 2023

5. A Law for the Lion by Louis Auchincloss

My sister gave this quite beat up copy as a gift for xmas.  She and her son had both read it and thought I might enjoy it.  We discussed whether this type of novel was part of a genre, which would also include books like The Best People (which I passed on to her because of the real estate angle).  I think generally these books are what we call today (and perhaps in the past?) "literary fiction", meaning it isn't lofty enough to make it as "literature" but not so low to fall into the gutter of "genre" such as crime and romance.  I like the term "social fiction" in that the story, conflicts and satisfactory resolution take place in the realm of humans interacting socially, especially around class and status.

This is quite an early one, having been written in 1949.  The protagonist is Eloise, a good wife of a successful and climbing lawyer, whose uncle is the even more successful senior partner of their firm.  The initial conflict is the return from Europe of Eloise's wayward and much divorced mother, Irene, who gave up her daughter at a young age to live with her uncle.  She drinks excessively, speaks directly, has "European" values and is constantly at the risk of creating a scandal in this white-shoed New York City, summer house on Long Island community.

Irene only causes a minor scandal but her presence triggers Eloise to examine her own life more aggressively which leads to a friendship with a young author, at first platonic.  We also get a side narrative of her adult stepdaughter, Hilda, as rigid and proper as her father who falls for a charming but too festive lawyer.  It all leads to conflict and then resolution, centered around Eloise taking a stand against her role and the social mores that confine her.  I have to say that I found it very satisfying, with a gentle balance of things going bad and then righting themselves that I was caught up but rarely stressed. There is one harsh but brief scene of adultery exposed by private detectives.  Other than that, everything is dialogue and inner thoughts.

My mother remembered the author's name, so I guess he was fairly well known back in the day.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

4. Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

I read Cosby's second book, Razorblade Tears, last year and given his success, knew I would run across a copy of his first book eventually.  I found the paperback in a free shelf in Berkeley.  I loved the first one, where Cosby manages to make a hardcore yet work hard-boiled crime book.  Really impressive.  Blacktop Wasteland was equally enjoyable, though more straightforward as a crime novel.  It still gets innovation credit for being from a modern African-American perspective (though I know there is a significant literary community of Black crime writers who are read mainly by other Black people; so maybe I should qualify Cosby's innovation as having succeeded in poking into the mainstream, white reading crime-reading public).  

The story here is about Beauregard "Bug"  Montage, a father and husband in Virginia who runs a struggling garage with financial pressure all around him.  He wants to be legit, but his past in the Life becomes his only option.  He is also a really good driver and has a bad ass souped up duster.  Against his better judgement, he takes on an escape job for a diamond heist at a local jewelry store.  Of course, shit goes pear-shaped (why would a strip mall jewelry store be holding millions in uncut diamonds?) and Bug has to bring all his skills to save himself and his family.  

At first, I was questioning my enjoyment of these kinds of books.  I was so sympathetic with Bug and stressed about how it was going to go bad for him, that I couldn't really enjoy the heist.  One of Cosby's skills, though, is developing the American criminal milieu in the globalist era.  Once the heist goes down, we start to see all the machinations behind the jewelry store and get a bunch of scary higher-level bad guys up to all kinds of shenanigans.  This is fun.  Furthermore, like a getaway car, the story keeps accelerating.  I stayed up way past my bed time finishing the book. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

3. Pale Grey for Guilt by John D. MacDonald

I am pretty sure I have read this one, but it would have been before the Olman's Fifty era, so I couldn't find it listed.  I generally avoid the Travis McGee's because they tend to have too much of JDM's run-on sentencing philosophizing about love.  They really feel like a big part of their selling point was as escapist fantasy for Mad Men era middle managers and suburban dads who want to read about swinging girls on houseboats.  I get it, but it's really not my fantasy at all and the lamenting about the super hot but silently troubled beach babes gets me down.  There is much of that in this one, as well as a financial pigeon drop revenge plot whose accounting details were too complicated for me.  I was hoping for some pure fun after the history of the world but found this more of a slog to get through.

The plot here is that McGee's old high school buddy who runs a houseboat rental gets squeezed by developers on either side of him, squeezed so much that he supposedly kills himself by dropping an engine block on his head.  It stinks to McGee and he starts poking around, uncovering an all-too common scheme between local government, small-time scammers and big-time developer scammers.  McGee fucks all their shit up.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

2. Masters Of Deceit: The Story Of Communism In America And How To Fight It

I found a copy of the original paperback at a free book box in Berkeley in quite decent condition.  Unfortunately, I damaged it somewhat in reading.  I can't imagine it is worth too much but as a cultural artifact, I consider it a lucky find.  Jesus what a fucking douchebag was J. Edgar.  I took this just to keep and perhaps give as an ironic gift, but then felt I should actually read it.  I really went through a range of emotions getting to the end of this book: smug contempt, ridicule, a lot of boredom but ultimately a growing sense of horror.  

Let me be straight, I am no fan of the USSR and while I consider myself progressive on many issues and I fucking hate this version of late-stage consumer capitalism we are in, I'm doubtful even a "good" form of communism would be an effective way to govern human society.  I have always been critical of those leftists who slavishly looked to Russia and their communism for leadership (I mean some of these people were still defending it even after the reality of Stalin's terror was fully revealed).  I also recognize that the U.S.S.R. was up to constant shenanigans worldwide and in the U.S. and Canada with a destructive espionage regime.  Fuck those commie spies.  Putin today is continuing a long, long tradition of Russian authoritarianism and imperialism.

As bad and dangerous as the Russkies were, the red scare of the fifties was clearly exaggerated and blown out of such proportion that its excesses got the US to be almost as bad as the communist regime it so feared.  Furthermore, fear of communism was ultimately a propaganda tool to attempt to maintain suppression of labour and black people.  Reading this book strongly reinforces that theory.  Hoover takes great pains to talk about "good" labour and civil rights organizations but basically lays out an argument that any movement that is critical of the government was already infiltrated by communism and therefore it was acceptable for the FBI to go after them.  It's a sinister model and one that has been used by governments over the years to suppress dissent.  It's particularly egregious and hypocritical here because the whole point of America is freedom.  A good example in this book is here the way her refers to the Rosa Lee Ingram case as a woman murdering her neighbour and not a Black woman who had been sexually harassed and assaulted repeatedly by her neighbour finally defending herself.  Read her real story in the link and then compare that to the propaganda from Hoover below:

what a giant shitbag

There are many points in the book where Hoover uses an example of Commie infiltration and then you do a bit of wikipedia research and see how people's rights and liberties were trampled, their lives destroyed, labour unions and civil rights initiatives ruined.

There is entertainment here, especially at the beginning, before you you get sick of Hoover's paranoia.  He relies on anonymous anecdotes telling crazy stories of safe houses and families ripped apart.  One of his favourites is when the party orders members to sell their house or divorce their wife for the cause. None of it is substantiated.  I'd love to read a thoroughly researched critique of Hoover's claims of communist party behaviour in America. He loves describing women's clothes in great details in stories about a member dodging a tail or going underground.  There is some good material here for a period thriller.  Unfortunately it all deteriorates in repetition after a while.

What's really crazy or rather just depressing is that there are still many people alive today who still believe this shit.  Really, once you read this, the anti-vaxxer movement doesn't seem that surprising any more.  People with a strong ideological agenda to defend their perception of the world will quickly and easily move to finding a fake enemy and using that to further their agenda.  I think the part that would have Hoover twisting in his grave (next to his longtime male lover, btw) would be where these "Freedom" fucks are pro-Russia.  Strange times.

Look at this asshole on the phone

Friday, January 06, 2023

1. The Penguin History of the World (third edition) by J. M. Roberts

Whew!  For those of you wondering (i.e. nobody) where I have been for the last two months with no books reported except ones I read with my daughter, I can now tell you: deep in the 1,109 pages of the history of the world.  Please let me know if you have any questions about the history of the world, as I now know everything about it. :)  I picked this up at the thrift store on Gilford.  It's mostly french books but every now and then you can find some decent english language used books there.  I have long wanted to better understand how we got from ancient Greece and Rome to the Middle Ages.  Honestly, though, I bought this book on a bit of a whim (and probably need to satisfy consumerist impulses) with no real intention or belief that I would actually read it.  When I had surpassed 50 books and was feeling tired of all the genres of fiction awaiting me on the on-deck shelf and still had two months left in the year, I thought why the hell not?

It was a good choice, though I really wished I had been able to finish it before the xmas holidays as it became quite a slog at a time with lots of family interaction and domestic holiday labour when I would have preferred a nice easy detective novel or escapist sci-fi or fantasy book.  Reading this book was extremely rewarding on two fronts.  First, it gave me a good overview of what actually happened in the world since the beginning of civilization.  Though I will (and have already) forget a lot of the details, I do now have a broad overview on the thread of the growth of human society on this planet.  I went to a very academic and intellectual liberal arts college and majored in history.  I learned a lot, but I always felt there was a snobbish (and typically rigid academic post-modern hatred of "objectivity") and deliberate exclusion of taking the time to just go through what actually happened before delving into the theory and arguments and all that.  Reading this book filled all that in nicely.  Second, reading history like this at such a high level, where major events like the Russian Revolution are summarized in a few pages genuinely provides the reader with a calming sense of perspective on current events.  It certainly doesn't make you any less pessimistic, but it does turn down some of the hysteria that the news media amp up and one internalizes while reading about the resurgence of pseudo-populous fascism in democratic countries. Understanding the roots of American democracy makes one realize that the current conflicts in congress are all part of a conflict that existed from the very beginning and not necessarily the signs of the end.

There is probably a ton of stuff to freak out about in this book from a more leftist perspective.  I broadly commend its approach and mostly agree with it.  His biggest thesis is that the history of the world is ultimately dominated and guided by the history of Europe and  the social principles that evolved out of that history.  I think that broadly speaking that is mostly true.  And though Roberts is mostly neutral about it (e.g. he's not saying European culture is better or superior, just that they were technologically advanced and their ideas had ways of sticking onto their conquests), it still feels like he is arguing that the very nature of capitalism and democracy are somehow fundamentally European.  It's an existential argument at this point, but I would have liked to see more information on non-European trends in thinking and backgrounds that we are today seeing start to seep into the west via consumer culture.  

Another big takeaway from me from the early part of the book, which just confirms my existing bias, is how much Christianity was just such a huge bummer.  Putting aside the atrocities committed under its aegis, it is also just super boring.  I still don't understand how it came to dominate and spread within the Roman empire (not a fault of the book as I am pretty sure there is an entire area of history just devoted to figuring the spread of Christianity out and arguing about it) but I do know it took a very rich and adventurous era with diverse civilizations and cultures and lots of cool exploring and adventure and somehow morphed it into centuries of boring doctrinal rigidity, religious semi-homogeneity (that got more and more homogenous as its power advanced, despite the splits between the Catholic churches and later the Reformation) and boring stupid wars between one stupid monolithic religion and another.  And it is still plaguing us to this day.  So boring!

The book ends roughly in 1990 and he starts to get things wrong at the end, understandably.  He sees space exploration as a huge inflection point, completely missing the turn inward to the internet (though he does recognize the potential danger of it in one brief phrase).  He also missses the resurgence of Chinese power and the challenges of globalization, being a little bit stuck in the self-satisfaction of the 90s.  This is nitpicking and not fair on my part, but am sharing it because it did make me think that the beginning of the twentieth century may well indeed be seen as an inflection point.  I also give him points for his strong emphasis on cares about the environment being a major historical trend at the end of the twentieth.  Anyhow, epic read.  It has definitely returned my appetite for fiction, but I also now have several branches of non-fiction and history into which I would like to delve.  Read on!