Thursday, July 27, 2023

61. Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson

My daughter is a big fan of the Moomins. She has read all the comics in these beautiful hardcover editions her mother got for her.  I didn't grow up with them and had never heard about them. They are cool and weird.  I've only read part of the comics.  She chose this book as the next one to read aloud at bedtime.  I had no idea what to expect but I was pleased from the outset to find a neat little map inside the book.

We just finished it tonight and I'm still not sure what to make of it.  The story follows several eccentric characters who have all decided to go to Moominvalley to visit the Moomin family, with whom each has or thinks they have some kind of relationship.  But when they get there, the Moomins are gone, seemingly on their own vacation.  So all these characters end up stuck together in this neat little valley as summer ends and winter comes on.  There is Fillyjonk, a female aardvark thing who obsesses about cleaning or not cleaning and turns out to be a really good cook.  There is Toft this strange little boy who lives in a boat on land.  Snufkin who opens and closes the book and seems to be the closest to the Moomins is somebody with a hat and an imagination and there is The Hemulen who seems to be a sort of stuffy older fellow, who felt kind of British.  

They have their interactions, sometimes verging on conflicts but more like a lot of strange eccentrics doing their own thing and not really tripping too much off of each other, all of them waiting for the Moomins.  It's very soothing and pleasant.  Sometimes I would drift off while reading aloud and have to force myself to concentrate.  My daughter listened, absorbed most of the time.  She knew most of the characters from the comic, so I think that helped.  She was a bit surprised by the ending, asking "isn't there an epilogue or something?"

Strange, Nordic stuff but I'm not against it.

60. The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross MacDonald

I've now come all the way around with Ross MacDonald.  He may have moved to the top of my detective fiction rankings after reading the Zebra-Striped Hearse.  This is the fourth or fifth book of his that I have read in the 50 Books era and they just keep getting better and better.  It's really the detecting that gets me and this one has a lot of it, but then the intricate and tightly-structured plot that keeps revealing more and more and finally the real darkness at the end that brings to near-masterpiece level for me.

Archer is almost a cypher in this one, though with several great quips and observations along the way.  He starts here with a request from an angry old man to investigate the beau of his rebellious daughter (well a request preceded by the angry old man's wife, which anticipates the complexity of the case to come).  The daughter, who is 24 and will inherit her aunt's millions when she turns 25, has run off to Mexico and met an old, attractive artist/bum and threatens to marry him.  It begins with a pretty straightforward effort to find out the true identity of the artist.  An envelope found in the beach house where the couple was hiding away suggests that the man came across the border using an alias.  Archer hops it to Mexico and things start to get complex.  I'm going to stop there with the plot, because the unraveling is a big part of the pleasure.  I did find it a bit confusing about two-thirds of the way in, but it's all so carefully built that it comes back together again (and boy does it!) by the end.

What I love about MacDonald is that there is a ton of real investigating.  This book is quite procedural.  I just love scenes of the detective talking to various characters, getting past their defenses and getting the info he needs to go to the next character.  Nobody does it better in my reading experience so far than MacDonald in these Archer books.  Each encounter is also an opportunity to expose a little bit of mid-20th century America, especially California.  The locations (expat artist town in Mexico, seedy Reno hotel apartment, Malibu beach houses) and the weirdos that live there (struggling bar owner, cute girl who goes on dates for slot machine money, drunken mom with wayward son) are each finely crafted and in the aggregate open up to the reader a fading, changing America.

I'm not going to say this book is super deep, but the title reveals a richer sub-text.  The hearse in question is the vehicle of a gang of surfer kids whose role is only incidental to the plot but thematically quite central.  It's about wayward children, the separation from their parents and the anger towards them, anger that comes out of trauma and just change.  The Zebra-Striped Hearse was written in 1962 and California feels decaying.  The 60s are coming and MacDonald makes you feel it in the wind.  I know too that Macdonald and Millar had their own wayward daughter with her own tragic end (and their own responsibility) so may surmise that is what he is writing about here.

It does get very dark in the end.  Characters that we thought were bad are much, much worse.  What I particularly appreciated is that the complex plot once you know the whole story is not that complex at all. It's just that everybody lying and hiding and Archer coming into it backwards makes the unravelling complex, which is the pleasure of the mystery.  Great book.  I haven't gone back and checked thoroughly but this is up there for one of the top books in 2023.

Oh yes, I almost forgot, there is a great little interchange near the end where Archer interacts with an early sci-fi nerd "a fat man with a frowzy unwed aura".  LOL!  He clearly did not approve:

Sunday, July 23, 2023

59. Murder in the Wind by John D. MacDonald

Wow, an absolute banger!  I had been putting this one off for a long time.  It is the last of the Ed Gorman recommended JdM's so I was saving it.  Also, as I've expressed in my previous reviews, I had been growing somewhat weary of MacDonald's style, especially his sometimes convoluted sexual mores.  I gave in because I just needed a pallette cleanser and something hard and direct after some of the longer books I've been struggling through.  Well I am very pleased to report that this was absolutely great, one of my favourite JdM's (after Condominium, which I can consider a classic now that my sister loved it; interestingly also centered around a hurrican).

Because of the title and the way it began, I thought we were going to get more of a crime story.  The first chapter is a description of the growing storm.  These are the kinds of near-thrilling paragraphs  that MacDonald excels at, grabbing you with the captain of a freighter in the Caribean looking at the water and recognizing the signs, then zooming out to the geography and science of a growing hurricane.  We move to the human scale next, in classic JdM manner, with a neat structure of various cars passing each other on the highway heading North on the Gulf side of Florida.  As each car passes another, we get a chapter about that person's background: the family with the defeated father who are moving back north after failing to make it in Florida; the aggressive businessman with his belittled business partner, the widow with the ashes of her manic-depress husband who had recently killed himself, the failed tennis pro and his heiress bride, the two escaped cons and their cow-like girl in tow and finally the hard as nails fed who has finally found the last spy of the cell that blew up his wife.  

There are a lot of characters!  I thought we were going to have a book mainly focused around the tensions and conflict of these characters trapped somewhere in the storm, but as they only finally get stuck together well past the halfway mark, I realized it was more of a troupe story with the storm and its destruction as the main conflict.  Fine by me.  MacDonald keeps them clear for the reader and I only once or twice had to refer back to remind myself which was which.  It's a short, efficient book and he satisfies all their narrative arcs with an extremely moving romantic storyline as well.  This really is a tight, fun read.  He gives you everything you want with both the characters and the physical action of the storm.  That shit seems really terrifying!  It's not in depth but for instance, he spends a gleeful two pages describing the wealthy people's waterfront properties and how the storm first destroys their sea walls and then the houses themselves.  Thoroughly enjoyable, though honestly at one point, given how we are accelerating these disasters with our addiction to empty fossil-fuel driven consumption and you don't have to be in Florida or on the coast to have your life destroyed, I did have moments of real father anxiety while reading.

Dark fucking times, but on a Fifty Books note my project of reading all the Ed Gorman recommended non-Travis McGee books ended perfectly.

The part about the fish got my hyped.  JdM so good.


Monday, July 17, 2023

58. Of One Blood by Pauline Hopkins

I discovered this at Drawn & Quarterly.  I'm ideologically opposed to trade paperbacks but this design by Seth definitely caught my eye and I'll make an exception for books that would be impossible to find in a traditional paperback format.  It is a truly interesting historical document, though the reading of the first two-thirds is quite slow going.  It picks up in the end in a sudden frenzy of narrative and plot craziness but I can't recommend it if you are looking for thrills.  

It's the story of a young doctor, Reuel Briggs, extremely good-looking, smart and conscientious but brooding, his soul weighted down by something.  It really takes us a long time to get anywhere, but we learn that he is well-liked and respected by his peers, but poor because he dabbles in only obscure sciences, including paranormal studies. He is entranced by Dianthe the lead singer of an African-American (the word "Negro" is used in the text) show as he had seen her in previous visions.  Soon after she dies in a train accident, but he realizes that as her body is not damaged she isn't truly dead and can be revived using some of the skills he has been studying.  He succeeds in bringing her back, but much of her memory is gone, including the knowledge that she herself is black.  This was the age of "passing" and we also soon learn that the protagonist himself is also black.  

We are already halfway through the book at this point and nobody has even mentioned going to search for a lost civilization in Africa, as we were promised on the back cover.  The story was originally serialized in in 1903 in The Colored American Magazine of which Hopkins was the editor. You can see how reading it as the issues came out would have made fora more satisfying read, as the writing has a lyrical quality and there are interesting ideas, especially about race (hints and suggestions at first but much more explicit near the end).  However, in book form, it feels very meandering and the reader does not always feel on sure footing.  I think much of that is also due to the style of the times in which it was written, with references to Milton and abrupt jumps in location and changes of pace.

Eventually we get to a love triangle, as Briggs' close friend and sponsor Aubrey Livingston, scion of a wealthy, white previously slave-owning family falls for Dianthe and tricks Briggs into going off on an expedition to Africa.  Once Briggs is out of the way, Livingston arranges a canoe accident where his fiance drowns and at first we think he and Dianthe also drown but instead he makes it shore and squirrels her away.  From here things get quite gothic and crazy.  Dianthe dies at least 3 times.  There is a real muddying of contemporary ethics (she feels super guilty about being married twice) and racial issues. I get the feeling that Hopkins had to rush the conclusion.

I'm glad I read it for several reasons. It's a seminal piece of science fiction that I had not known about. The racial issues are fascinating, both to see how they are treated in the behaviour in the book (seems like 1903 was weirdly less racist then today in some social ways, yet clearly super duper racist) as well as some of the foundations of ideas that are prevalent in later black crime fiction in the second half of the twentieth century.

This is part of MIT Press's Radium Age book series, celebrating early science fiction that bridges the classics of the 19th century and the big boom that we call the Golden Age in the second half of the 20th.  It has an aggressive and informative forward by Minister Faust which helped put a lot of the African mythology in the book in context.

Pauline Hopkins was a badass and
yet sadly neglected by history.

Saturday, July 08, 2023

57. Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell is one of the grande dames of British crime fiction and I have had her on the non-urgent hunting list for a while.  I've been trying to make regular visits to scour S.W. Welch's in its final days and noticed quite a few Rendells in the thinning mystery shelf.  I quickly googled "best Ruth Rendell" and got this one so I bought it.  Time period, cover design and page count all looked right up my alley so this got bumped my priority list for a long weekend vacation trip the Eastern Townships.

Unfortunately, it begins with two potential strikes against it for me.  First the crime and the culprit are revealed in the opening paragraph.  She implies that there is still a mystery about what led up to the crime and how it was solved afterwards, but this made me worried that what I was going to read was more of a horror story then a detective story, which turned out to be true.  An upper middle-class family of four is shot to death in their home by their live-in maid.  

The second strike which is also laid out in the opening pages is that the maid, Eunice Parcherson, is illiterate and this was the motive behind the murders.  I can imagine that illiteracy is an incredibly powerful social stigma (and even those words feel like I am putting it lightly).  I am pretty ignorant about how illiteracy would impact somebody socially and I am hoping that Rendell did her research before making it the defining characteristic and drive for a brutal murder.  I don't feel like I really learned any more about it from this book.  The idea is that this working class woman not only isolated herself socially because she couldn't read, but that her illiteracy actually deadened her feelings and sensitivity to the human world.  While she does have heightened memory and quick practical learning skills, she has never learned empathy or the basics of emotional human interaction. Ultimately, it is even suggested that Eunice is not even human but an atavistic, pre-human creature.  This just strikes me as utterly false.  I would imagine that illiteracy might even heighten the emotional senses as you have to rely on so many non-written clues to get around in the world.  

The construction of the Eunice character also feels deeply classist and biased, as the implication here is that lack of education (of which not being able to read is the most extreme form) is what creates the monster.  To be fair, Rendell is quite ruthless with almost all her characters and she is equally nasty about the well-educated, pretentious and un-self-aware family.  One gets a sense, nevertheless, that Rendell would not trust anybody who doesn't love a library.

So as I sense from the beginning, Judgement in Stone is really a horror story about a family unknowingly trapped in their home by a sociopathic illiterate whose flaw will drive her to homicidal mania.  Reminiscent of In Cold Blood, the trigger that will transform Eunice from a cold, removed repellent presence who is kept on because of the excellence of her house work into a homicidal maniac is her friendship with town gossip and religious maniac Joan Smith.  This latter character who starts out quite rich also ends up being somewhat simplistic, basically just going insane in the end.

I'm spending a lot of time critiquing the premise.  The actual execution is quite well done.  The portrayal of the family and the town is extremely well done so that the reader is quite able to sense the environment both physical and social and really know and quite sympathize with the family (especially the two children).  Rendell expertly expels any illusions one might have about moving to the English countryside. The town is dominated by the worst kind of British social constraints and a rapid and condemning gossip network.  I grew up with a watered-down version of this on Vancouver Island in the 80s where there were a lot of middle-class British expats and it's just the worst.

I'm just not a fan of horror. I have enough low-level anxiety and dread in my own imagination that I don't enjoy reading about it all.  But if that is your thing as it is for many, I can see how enjoyable this book would be. The idea of having the live-in help who does a really excellent job (it is a big house and Eunice's labour turns it from a deteriorating, stress-creating environment for the wife to the ideal aristocratic household) but makes you at first vaguely uncomfortable and then more and more creeped out until finally the masters are psychologically beholden to the servant is a really great one touching on so many social issues.  It's deeply uncomfortable and the tension and dread increase until the almost mild but psychologically explosive pre-climax (before the actual violence) when Eunice's greatest fear of having her illiteracy exposed happens.

I can understand the critical praise the book gets, just know you are not getting a mystery but a social horror/crime novel.  I do feel the portrayal of the antagonists is still simplistic enough that it deserves some critique even for fans of those genres.

Postscript:  I just learned that Rendell has an entirely separate series of straight-up detective books starring Inspector Reginald Wexford.  Those are what I should probably be looking for.


Tuesday, July 04, 2023

56. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

Another pick-up from S.W. Welch's last days, I thought that I had already read this, but once I was about a third of the way through I realized it was new to me.  I kind of messed myself up by stopping reading Gibson and then picking up books at random much later.  I would have rather read them in order, simply to keep track of which ones I've read.  All his post sci-fi books that I have read have been really good, but their narratives are not clearly delineated nor easily remembered with time (they tend to be cool girl and other neat characters are trying to find something that they don't know what it is). His books are grouped into trilogies but not because of a narrative through line but just shared time and place and some characters.  Now that I have "rediscovered" Gibson and enjoy his later books, I have them on my hunting list and am going to try and read them in order.

Pattern Recognition is Gibson's 9/11 novel. The story goes that he was almost finished with it when the planes hit and was going to abandon it when his editor convinced him to re-write it to incorporate the new world.  I resist the idea that "9/11 changed everything" because it is so annoyingly American and self-centered, but two decades later, I can see that there is a lot of validity to it.  Pattern Recognition puts 9/11 in the back story, the protagonist's father who worked for the CIA but had retired, disappeared on that day after checking out from a hotel in lower Manhattan.  The main plot is about her working as a consultant for an elite advertising/marketing agency called Blue Ant and its powerful, charismatic, manipulative and morally ambiguous Belgian boss named Bigend.  She has a unique skill/flaw in that she is allergic to branding and logos and can sniff out a logo that will work or not.  On the side, her main interest is investigating these mysterious snippets of video that are being released to the internet. She is a big part of the internet community (online forums at this stage) that is obsessed with these videos.  The story takes off when Bigend hires her to continue her personal investigation into these video snippets in a professional capacity.

There is a lot going on here.  Gibson explores early internet culture, as well as fashion and street style (one of the characters is a "cool hunter" another a guerrilla marketer hired to be cool and hot and drop references to certain products to men she meets in bars).  The roads slowly lead back to Russia and we get a lot of exploration into post-Soviet collapse and the growth of oligarchs.  It's a testimony to Gibson's vision and style that none of this feels dated.  The content is, but he frames it from an objective stance that both gives you a slice of what was going on then as well as demonstrating how these things laid the foundation for the excessive versions with which we are living in the 2020's.

There is also a real aspirational, wish-fulfillment element in these books that I really enjoy.  They are corporate fantasies, where the protagonist gets the coolest freelance gig ever.  She never has to deal with any administrative or grunt work.  Has access to first-class flights, boutique hotel rooms, limo pickups and elite restaurants where the tab is paid all with a quick phone call to a person whose job is to immediately get you anything you need, including visas, passports, etc.  Her challenges are internal (should she expose her personal and artistic interest in these video snippets to her corporate boss who wants to exploit it for marketing clout?) and political (why does the icy Italian VP seem to want to fuck with her and what should she do about it?).

The goals are ambitious and somehow Gibson wraps it up in a rich, satisfying way.  This is the first book of the so-called Blue Ant trilogy and I've already read the second, so the next on my list is.