Wednesday, April 26, 2023

42. The Bamboo Blonde by Dorothy B. Hughes

Wow was this ever a disappointment.  I was pretty excited to find an original Pocket book of one of Hughe's early works, both as a collector and to read it.  After finally getting through this one, I have but faint hope that it is a nice collector's edition that I got a deal on.  I consider Hughes to be one of the best and most influential noir/hardboiled authors (of course semi-erased today because woman writer), so would really like to understand her motivations and goals in writing this book.  It's really a disaster.

There several problems with The Bamboo Blonde and they are apparent right from the beginning.  First and foremost, the protagonist, Griselda, is so disempowered and weak that it almost seems a parody.  She is on honeymoon in Long Beach with Con. It's their second marriage and already he is walking out on her with other women in bars, not listening to her, constantly drinking excessively against her wishes.  He is a well-known radio reporter and announcer but also has a history of espionage work and Griselda is deathly afraid he is actually there on a mission.  He just seems like a total dick and the more dickish he is, the more she wants to sacrifice herself for him. He puts her in truly dangerous positions constantly all the while telling her nothing because he doesn't want her to get involved and put herself at risk.  I was hoping right up until the end that she would start to show some pluck and turn the tables on him.  This book is like the negative Bechtel test.  Con is barely in it and yet her entire internal monologue (which is a lot of the text) is all about Con.  The only actual active behaviour that Griselda manifests is calling her colleagues in Hollywood to get info. She is a costume designer and there are tiny hints that she is well-respected in her business milieu, but that is the extent of it.

It's also just super boring.  The bulk of the action is all the various characters meeting over dinners and lunches and speculating about who did what.  Nobody has any information, least of all Griselda, so you are basically in the dark about everything.  There are things happening, but I would be being generous to call it a plot.  A woman is murdered.  There is an evil British colonel who is evil because Griselda can feel it right away (of course Con exposes her to him at every opportunity).  There is a maguffin about a missing radio engineer who is working on a Pan-American network or something that is causing all these people to gather at Long Beach but nobody knows who is doing or knowing which stuff.  It just goes on and on and then at the end we get endless pages where they all explain to each other what they did and why they did it but at that point you really don't care at all.

There are a few genuinely creepy passages when Griselda is all alone at their beach house and some of the characters, like the one-legged sheriff and his candy-eating son, are fun.  I learned that this was a sequel or follow-up to The So Blue Marble which I also disliked, though not as ferociously.  Good to know that writers can improve!

Friday, April 21, 2023

41. Stalking Point by Duncan Kyle

It's always a pleasure to find a new Duncan Kyle in the wild.  This one came with the Plattsburgh book haul.  It's not fair, but I like to refer to him as the poor man's Desmond Bagley.  He wasn't as consistently successful and his books are a bit more varied in subject matter which I think made him less marketable.  Personally, I find his writing to be somewhat more clinical and less visceral than Bagley.  Nonetheless, he is a solid writer with inventive adventure situations and well-structured plots.

Stalking Point starts out with a backstory at the end of WWI where a young German pilot, Ernst Noll, just avoids execution for cowardice (he freaked out his first flight when surprised by British fighters, abandoned his formation and left his decorated commander to get shot down).  He is shunned by his family, especially his patriotic father and pregnant wife and so makes his way to South America to start anew.  

Decades later, he is a new man, Ernie Miller, and we are in the middle of a new war. It's 1941 and America is still neutral.  The narrative dances around here and gets complex and interesting.  Alexander Ross, expert pilot but too old to fight is sent to Los Angeles to work on a secret mission to be the pilot for some new sub-detecting equipment.  He hires Ernie, who has mistakenly exposed himself to a keen, patriotic secretary at the German consulate in San Francisco.  She drags him into a plot by her boss, a bitter ex-pilot sent to work the bureaucracy because of a limp, to suicide bomb the secret meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill.

There is a lot going on in the first half of the book and the pages keep turning as we follow several storylines, including real high-ranking historical figures (Canaris, Donitz and others).  It's a lot of fun with a couple of neat little asides (particularily memorable is when two spies get pulled over by a zealous polish-American small town sheriff who rightly guesses they are up to shenanigans and almost has them but takes a contemptuous swipe at an explosive package).  The last quarter involves a long range airplane pursuit across Quebec to Newfoundland and while cool, it was also kind of a downer and the ending a bit of an anti-climax.  I appreciated its efficiency but there wasn't even a denouement so it felt a bit empty and sad.  It's still a solid read, though I would have to put in the lower ranks of Kyle's works.


Tuesday, April 18, 2023

40. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Lives up to the hype.  Masterly crafted.  I teared up.  My only complaint is that there is only the briefest mention of the work on the estate.  I would have much appreciated a few chapters on management of the fields and gamekeeping as well as Mr. Darcy's relations with his tenants which had earned him such a good reputation.  Otherwised, no notes.  I may try to watch the 1995 BBC mini-series which seems to be the general consensus for the best adaptation.

Monday, April 17, 2023

39. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I've been looking for this for a while and found it at The Corner Stone Bookshop in Plattsburgh, NY.  It was part of a set of the Ballantine Books Mars series going up to #6, except #2 was missing, which is probably fortunate for me as I might have purchased them all.  I enjoyed the first one, but it didn't suck me in so I probably won't be reading the others.  So I'm glad I don't have that burden on my on-deck shelf.  

I think had I found these when I was 13, I might have gotten really into them.  They are quite fun and wild, with some crazy science fiction (or I guess "science fantasy" if you are going to be really nerdy) concepts about the environment, tech and societies on Mars.  The world-building is a lot of fun.  However, the storytelling is kind of clunky and there are some ridiculous coincidences to move the plot along.  These are not deal-breakers, especially for a book that was serialized and is basically the progenitor of the genre.  It just made the reading a bit slow-going for me at this age.  I feel like if I had to choose between continuing with the Tarzan or the Mars series, I would go for the former most likely.


Monday, April 10, 2023

38. An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler

It's a first for Olman's Fifty, a cookbook!  Good friends gave this to me for my birthday years ago.  I am not a natural cook and have never had much interest in cooking but have been forced into it by circumstance.  Personally, I have very simple tastes and can eat the same thing every day (I literally lived on rice from a rice cooker, a can of goya beans with cheese shredded on top as my dinner for most nights or years as a bachelor).  Unfortunately, others around me have more varied needs without the means or will to provide it for themselves, so it falls on me.  Many of my friends are hardcore foodies and I know a couple of incredible cooks, so I have also benefited from their delicious skills and good taste and have over the time developed a pretty sophisticated pallet in some areas (I have become kind of a BBQ snob for instance).  My mother is also an excellent cook and while I only really started paying conscious attention to her techniques in recent years, I realize that I did absorb some fundamental principles at an early stage.  

I started An Everlasting Meal when I first got it, but it is so dense with practical advice, that I had to put it down.  The plan was to read a little bit at a time and try her techniques as they came along, but instead it just gathered dust. I decided instead to read it almost straight through and then go back to it and try the various recipes and techniques and perhaps (horror!) mark it up with notes and stickies.  

First off, the philosophy and techniques in this book are excellent.  So many people in this fear and gadget-addicted age are obsessed with sterility and wellness but think that healthy and organic means individually wrapped in plastic and throw away anything that doesn't make their perfect instagram image.  This book will teach you how to use all the food and where to find real flavour in your food.  This is pretty much how I grew up with jars of weird liquids filling the fridge, the crisper being full of random weird single vegetables, my mom cutting off the moldy bits on cheese.  It is validating to see these techniques not only in print but applauded by all the hipster food media outlets.

My one caveat is the tone.  I went to a liberal arts college and there was a certain type of woman that I met there, the crafty earth mother.  They were amazingly competent and weirdly grown-up.  They weren't smug or righteous because they were too inherently caring to go that far, but there was a certain firmness and lack of humour in their demeanour that did not make for a lot of fun.  The kind of person who didn't watch cartoons as a kid and would say things like "why is there so much yelling in sports?" You can't tell if they are putting on a role or if they are genuinely that pure in their vision.    It feels like Tamar Adler was this type.  She's always saying things like "stale bread must be ground up into crumbs" like it's some universal goddess rule she is handing down. One gets used to it, but it is mildly annoying.

Still a great book if you want to expand your cooking game and more, change your entire perspective on food.  I will be going back to it over time.

Sunday, April 09, 2023

37. Some Dames are Deadly (Red Gardenias) by Jonathan Latimer

My quest for Paperback Warrior's #1 book of 2020 Solomon's Graveyard continues, but the clues along the way have provided a lot of pleasure.  Some Dames are Deadly (stupid title compared to the original "Red Gardenias" which is crucial to the plot original title) was one of two Latimer scores that I found recently in the now-famous Plattsburgh Corner Stone Bookshop haul.  I was a bit disappointed by Latimer's last book, but now I think I get his style and am starting to have a lot of fun with his books.  They should rebrand them something like "William Crane, Partying Detective" or "William Crane, Drunken Detective".  He really gets wasted constantly and it's part of his method.  Once you realize that not only is he drunk but he is also somewhat of a self-consciously unreliable narrator about his own drinking (he starts to feel grand, confident, steady on his feet as he crashes into a waiter, etc.) it makes the books much easier to digest and enjoy.

Here Crane is sent undercover to upstate town Marchton with his boss's niece, Ann who is also a detective, to pose as a married couple.  Crane has allegedly been hired as a copywriter with furniture magnet and patriarch Simeon March.  March's son and nephew have both had fatal carbon monoxide accidents within the last year and he suspect's his nephew's wife the super-hot Carmel March (who always wears perfume that smells of Gardenias).  There are two broad narratives that run through this book:  the mystery itself and the attraction/conflict between Bill Crane and Ann, who clearly have feelings for one another.

The mystery is fun, though gets a bit confusing.  I was almost tempted to write out all the characters with a relationship chart, but I eventually got it mostly figured out in my detail-averse brain.  As well as the various members of the March family (two recent widows who hate each other, the remaining brother and cousin) we also get hangers-on, nightclub performers and even local gangsters with names like Lefty, Frenchy and Slats. There is a lot of action, too.  Right from the get-go, the posing couple awaken to a burglar in the house they are staying in. We get a car chase, attempted assassination during a duck hunt, cat fight in the tennis club, a hospital shoot-out.  It's not boring! Latimer has a clipped, straight-ahead style that seems to elide how crazy the actual happenings are but in a weird way it makes them more exciting.  Oh shit, these women are really going at it, she just bit her to the bone!  The revelation is held out to almost the very last page, which kept me up way past my bedtime.

I don't know yet how many William Crane books there are nor if they have an ongoing and developing storyline, but here Latimer seems to be introducing a longer-term relationship with Ann.  What I appreciated about her other than that she is competent and courageous and quite witty is that she is constantly giving Crane shit about his alcoholism.  In the other books, everybody is drinking with him all day and it seems almost insane.  Here we finally see that there are people who don't drink constantly and are aware that it may actually be harmful.  Crane himself even grudgingly admits it.  It is helpful for the reader.  I'm not anti-alchohol, actually somewhat of a fan, but the drinking in the other books was so constant and extreme that it didn't even seem real.  Here, we are more grounded and as I said above now that I get that his drinking is a thing, it makes the behaviour easier to pursue.  

This is a sexist and racist era.  Most of the racism is in erasure (except the band of course), but there are also some really awful vocabulary that was just the norm for the time.  The sexism is more interesting as though the women's roles within the world are clearly defined, there is an equality in how they are used as characters that is refreshing.  Ann is fully independent and goes off on her own, fairly regularily one-upping Crane in her detection results.  She does end up getting captured and "rescued", but it feels almost perfunctory like she is just one of the guys.  Also, there is weed-smoking and it is simply noted just in passing as a thing the band does behind the country club.  This book was written in 1939 and it's a reminder that a lot of the anti-drug hysteria and puritanism in America was ramped up after WWII and not something always at such insane levels in our culture.

The copy I found was actually printed in 1939.  It's pretty ragged as you can see and the cover held together with tape.  It's an interesting format, bigger than a traditional paperback (thinner too) and much bigger than those small pocket books from that era.  Not sure how it will fit into my bookshelf.  Maybe better to find a true collector's home for it.  Readable anyways and I didn't do much more damage to it, which is rare for me.

Friday, April 07, 2023

Plattsburgh Haul at the Corner Stone Bookshop

I had to drive to the border to do an interview to get a Nexus card.  My original plan was just to do the interview and come back, but for some reason all the employees at the Border protection office for some reason all had barbecue.  It was some kind of celebration.  They didn't offer me any which was lame (it's a weird scene there) and the smells triggered a pavlovian response in me so I did a google search and then drove a half-hour out of my way to a decent BBQ spot in upstate NY.  Once there, I thought I might as well see if there are any used bookstores in nearby Plattsburgh.  I found two.  Sadly one is now empty but the second one, The Corner Stone Bookshop, turned out be an excellent store.  It's right downtown, which like a lot of these older northeastern cities looks to be struggling.  It was clearly a well-run store, clean and organized, with good sized mystery and sci-fi sections and lots of non-fiction categories.  I had high hopes which started to sag as I literally found nothing in either section.  However, there was a basement and going underground revealed a rich vein of paperback mysteries.  Some great finds here!  I left quite a few on the shelf that I might have picked up had they been the only one in the store, but my pickings were so rich I could afford to be discerning.  I believe most of these titles speak for themselves.  And the entire thing cost me $27.50.  I'll need to find an excuse to come back here someday. 

I've been looking for the first Mars book forever.  It's weird that it is so hard to find as there must be quite a few copies and versions.  They actually had the first 5 but missing #2 so I didn't think it would be so bad to just get the first one.  A new Duncan Kyle is always welcome, as his are hard to find in North America.  I wish I had a pre-movie Get Carter, but I'll take the movie tie-in as it's the writing that counts.  I had just realized that Haggard wrote his Charles Russel stories right up into the 80s so it was cool that I found these two.  Finally, All the King's Men is not a hard find but something on my list and since it's not in the categories I usually search in, I never find it.  This time I asked the helpful and informed woman working the desk and she found me two copies right away.

Here are the real scores!  It's crazy that you have to go back to original paperbacks to find some Dorothy Hughes.  Her stuff should be reprinted as much as "the big three".  Two more Latimers also a nice find (yet Solomon's Graveyard remains ever elusive) and finally a Charles Williams!  Yes!

with the jury-rigged crossbow!

High Citadel I've already read several times, it's arguably one of my all-time faves, so I couldn't resist this Fontana beauty. It's in good condition but the glue is dried and cracked when I opened it, so this will go right on the shelf, maybe even bagged.  I'm not a big collector guy, but there are plenty of copies of High Citadel that can be read so I'm happy to make a museum piece of this beauty.

I've worked hard to reduce my on-deck shelf.  My original goal was to empty it of all but books for which I need the one before (I have several part 2's of series there), but there is more than enough space to fit these beauties.  One has to be flexible with one's goals when opportunity arise.  

Thanks Corner Stone Bookshop!

36. The Sun Chemist by Lionel Davidson

Phew, this was a tough one, set my recent furious reading pace way back.  It's deceptively long too.  I thought it was a slim paperback but I have recently realized that page width can make a huge difference in the apparent length of the book.  Two paperbacks of the same page count can be as much as twice the difference in physical width.  The Sun Chemist came in at a laborious 284 pages.  I think this will probably be my last Lionel Davidson book.

It's actually not a bad book, with a strong premise, cool locations, a good structure and as always excellent writing.  It's just not all that exciting.  Worse, Davidson has this cool style where he throws you into the situation and the head of the protagonist as if you have already been part of his life.  Context and background clues are therefore extremely subtle.  Maybe smarter readers than me get absorbed by this approach, but I find myself at a distance and not really knowing who any of the characters are.  As an example, the protagonist is an academic from a Russian background who seems to get laid fairly easily (has a long-running affair with a colleague's wife, hooks up regularily with his research assistants) but you never even get his age until he is referred to as "young" about halfway through the book.  I thought he was an old man.  He avoids any physical altercation and only at the very end do you learn he's not a good swimmer but nowhere does Davidson ever tell us what his body type is like, what shape he is in, etc.  You are supposed to infer it.

So I am already disconnected from the protagonist and all the many characters around him who are barely introduced and come and go.  Then from this batch of somewhat indistinguishable players, we are supposed to figure out which one could be a traitor.  I just really didn't care.

The plot is about the hero, Igor Druyanov who has been contracted to write a specific section on a giant biography on the life of Chaim Weizmann a chemist and founder of modern Israel.  I didn't know about Weizmann, so that element was informative.  Druyanov is a scholar of the 30s and is tasked to go deeply into those years of Weizmann's life, where he stumbles upon a potential chemical solution that Weizmann had found to producing cheap oil and food. The setup is neat and early on there are hints of menacing forces hovering around trying to prevent the discovery of this formula.  The problem is that the first 90% of the book and much of the "suspense" is just Druyanov trying to decode Weizmann's margin scribbles, hunting down old correspondence, seeking indirect colleagues.  It's well put together and clever but boring.

Finally, the climactic ending involves a lot of chasing with lots of complex geography, first in a house, then on a construction site, then in some ruins and finally in the water, all of which I was thoroughly confused by spacially so had no real care as to who was where.  There are also two very obviously telegraphed "twists" that further bummed me out.  Druyanov is carrying the formula in a case that he has obsessively and carefully protected and hidden for hours and then gets duped by a fat lady falling over his feet in the airport waiting room and puts the case down so it gets switched.  This is presented as a big shock, but it is so obvious when it happens. Likewise, a visiting Indian professor Patel is seen as the antagonist when any reader knows almost immediately that he is a red herring, but it goes on and on for pages of frustration.  I'm glad I am through with this one.