Thursday, August 31, 2023

67. Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts (Might Marvel Masterworks vol. 9) by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

A friend lent this to me.  He's a big fan of the silver age of comics.  I grew up on a lot of these comics, but always very sporadically.  You never had an entire series back then, just whatever copies you found at garage sales or got as gifts or your friends had (or their older brothers).  So it's cool to get an entire series in order, even if with Dr. Strange's first appearances there wasn't much of an overarching narrative.  He was introduced in 1963 and you can see how the comics are reflecting the earlier manifestations of the interest in psychedelia and the occult that were a big part of the 60s.  

The narratives are fairly simplistic.  Each issue has a new baddie (or a repeating one the indefatigable Baron Mordo) usually from another dimension who decides he has to dominate planet earth (and presumably the rest of our dimension, though they seem generally fixated on earth).  Strange discovers it and following his rigid duty to always protect earth and help those who need his help, he boldly jumps into some other dimension for a magic battle.  Usually, after being almost defeated, he whips out his magic amulet gifted to him by his mentor The Master.

The language and the depictions of the other dimensions are what make these stories entertaining.  I've never been clear on how much actual writing Stan Lee did.  The language here is that great, fantasy pseudo-classical language where the traditional sentence structure is inverted ("It is over! Never have I faced defeat so close!").  Also, the combatants narrate each of their attacks ("Now feel the fury of the electro plasma ray of Tiboro!")

I don't love Ditko's art, it's slightly too sketchy for me (I'm a solid line kind of guy), but his surrealist depictions of other dimensions and the battles therein are quite neat.  Lots of weird random doodles floating in emptiness.  I wonder how much Ditko and Kirby influenced each other?

Monday, August 28, 2023

66. Thank you, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand

I picked this up and another Mr. Mot Bantam paperback from a nicely-curated antique store in Vancouver that had an interesting collection of paperbacks (chosen almost entirely for aesthetic reasons as the otherwise friendly owner had not actually read any of them and had never heard of Ross MacDonald!).  I was a bit desperate for good paperback finds at that point so justified to myself that I needed to read a Mr. Moto book or two.  I did find a nice paperback of Margaret Millar's An Air that Kills and a Mary Stewart (The Moon Spinners) that I hadn't read before.

Thank you, Mr. Moto was a strange read.  Marquand was a successful novelist; he even won a Pulitzer, so I want to give him his due as a writer. It's hard, though, to find any merit in this book beyond its existence as a very specific manifestation of I guess what is called Orientalism.  It's not that the bizarre mix of trying to be progressive (in the 1930s) by arguing that all Chinese people do not actually look alike while constantly marvelling at China's (and particularily Peking) fundamental unscrutability is so bad that I am morally condemming the book.  Rather, the characters and the plot are basically dull and mostly passive.  It's just a boring story in an environment, pre-WWII Peking with all the various colonial powers machinating, which should be anything but.

The protagonist is professional expat Tom Nelson who hasn't gone native but is too satisfied with his life of doing nothing in China.  He gets involved with another young single woman with a slight questionable reputation (comes from good stock, but is staying on too long in China without getting married or something) who had been at another expat's house the night he was murdered.  There is some mystery around his death but no real suspense.  It feels like the plot is an excuse for Marquand to go on and on about the mysterious Chinese character, on which despite the many words, he really doesn't say anything.  Did he even ever go to China?

You may be wondering, what the hell does this have to do with Mr. Moto?  He shows up early but is only tangentially involved in the plot that turns out to be an alliance of an extreme Japanese nationalist and a warlord who are plotting to take over Peking.  He indeed speaks in that stereotypical way where he is contstantly thanking and apologizing but somehow we are told he is also extremely effective.  The end of the book is a standoff with the warlord where the plucky woman grabs his gun and thus foils the plot.  Moto is there and talks a lot, but seems to do very little and what he does do is off screen.

I can live with some old school "benevolent" racism in my 20th century fiction.  I can critique it but still find value in the rest of the text.The problem with Thank you, Mr. Moto, is that there really isn't much going on with the rest of the text so the racism is the only thing that stands out. And even this is not very interesting.  I would welcome an ethnocentric discussion of Chinese culture from an expat living in Peking in the 30s if it brought something interesting to the table.  Marquand's portrayal here is simplistic and limited; it honestly feels like he just made it up based on whatever popular cuture on China he was exposed to.  I'll be hard-pressed to read the second one I bought.

Friday, August 18, 2023

65. Badlands by Robert Kroetsch

With this posting, I tread warily onto the badlands of CanLit.  I can't remember where I picked this book up, but it must have been in a free library back when my on-deck shelf was down to a third of its max size.  After my massive book haul in Vancouver, my on-deck shelf is now full of books I want to read and so books I should read are much less tempting.  I debated putting this book down as it took me a few days to get into it.  After the awesomeness that was The Heights of Zervos, I was reluctant to start a new book.  I persevered and pushed through, the Macomber of boring books.

That's not actually fair to Badlands, which isn't boring.  It's actually kind of fun and weird, with an absorbing, vibrant portrayal of the Alberta Badlands and the river that runs through it.  Unfortunately, because this is "literature", we have to get an elaborate structure, forced themes and stylized language.  The main story is about Dawes, an obsessive explorer who has left his wife at home to hunt for dinosaur bones in the Alberta Badlands.  He is in competition with two other well-known bone collectors.  With him, on an enormous raft with their supplies and a made tent (when things are stable), are Web the steersman, Grizzly the cook and McBride (who bales and is later replaced by Tune, the boy rescued from playing piano in a "hoo-er" house).  All of them are strange individuals, communication is limited and seems mainly to release the various tensions among the men.  They get into various scrapes and interactions, many of which are entertaining (like when the raft goes through the rapids) or interesting (the various ferries and the photographer).  None of these interactions ever go truly crazy (I think this is what marks it as Canadian), though all are marked with eccentric behaviours and the language weighted with excess language and symbolism.

That narrative is further framed by I guess journal entries by Anna Dawes, the explorer's daughter, 56 years later.  She gives interprets what he wrote in his journal and laments his absence from their lives.  She ends up meeting Anna Yellowbird, the I guess Blackfoot woman, who follows and eventually joins Dawes' expedition (and of course has sex with Dawes and maybe with Web*) after her husband never returned home from WWI.  The two Annas attempt to drunkenly trace the raft's route backwards and I guess discover things about themselves.

Once I got into it, Badlands was a mostly fun read.  I enjoyed the portrayal of the zany raft crew and the detailed exposition of their work and interactions.  Likewise, the description of the environment made me seriously consider taking a trip there.  There is a dinosaur museum and I imagine great hiking.  

Unfortunately, the goodness of those things were somewhat buried under the forced "literature" elements like a well-made cake under too much cheap icing.  There are enough themes embedded here to fill 2-3 undergrad lit seminar sessions and yet none of them end up saying all that much.  Something about masculinity, yes a lot about masculinity of course, maybe something about Canada as a nation, buried dinosaur bones as metaphor of something or other, etc. The language is stilted and weirdly stylized. He uses a device where he says the subjects name in two sentences in a row, which I guess is supposed to be deep but just made it confusing as to whose point of view it was when he didn't use the name.  

You can see I wasn't exaggerating!

I'm glad I read it and Kroetsch had an esteemed career and seemed like a decent guy, so happy to have read it but now I am very much ready to get back into some straight-ahead story and ass-kicking.

*This edition was published by PaperJacks which seems kind of cool, though you can see where creative Canada was in 1975 by the books listed there, with references to Tonto, use of the word "Eskimo" and at least one book whose main point seems to be sex between a First Nations woman and a white man.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

64. The Heights of Zervos by Colin Forbes

I honestly bought this book because it was a Pan with a pretty cool layout.  I don't even like the image on the cover that much. Sometimes I'll pick up a book that I'm not super sure about either because I feel it needs rescuing, or because I don't want to spend all this time browsing and then not even purchase anything and finally because I need my book-buying fix.

Well in this case, the hesitant purchase turned out to be a big winner because this book was awesome.  It's probably one of the best adventure books I've read in a while, rivaling Desmond Bagley.  Though a huge student of WWII, I tend to not love adventure books that take place then as I am not a big fan of military fiction.  I also was worried it was going to be all winter.  What made this book so great, was that it has so much going on.  We get great espionage and sabotage, as well as a whole section on a Greek ferry that could be right out of Eric Ambler, before we even get to the main adventure, which is a race by a three Brits and a Greek to beat a battalion of elite German Alpenkorps to a monastery on a mountain peak that will give them a huge tactical advantage in their invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia.

The whole second half is alternately tense and hair-raising.  It culminates in a wild, explosive finale.  I'm being vague here because I don't want to give anything away.  The protagonist, Macomber, is kind of a British soldier superman, though of course with zero self-promotion.  Just a competent public school boy who kicked around Europe as a kid so perfectly fluent in Greek, French and German (the latter allowing him to march around the boat in the guise of an Abwher agent, flustering his supposed Nazi colleagues with constant criticisms and unsettling questions).  I love lines like this, when Macomber explains how when in Bulgaria the British government tapped him to do sabotage jobs on Nazi stockpiles in the Balkans:

"It was lying around in warehouses and railway sidings, so the Ministry brainboxes said would I have a go at it?  Very obliging they were too — sent out an explosives man to teach me a trick or two about things that go bang in the night..."

One simply does one's duty, what?  A great read and a keeper.  Colin Forbes is going to the top of the list.


Monday, August 07, 2023

63. Iran: a Modern History by Abbas Amanat

My best friend is Iranian and his father recommended this book as a "pretty good history" of modern Iran.  He does not praise lightly!  Starting in 1500 and going right up to the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the Green Revolution of 2009, it answered all the big picture questions I had about Iran as well as filling in some significant gaps in the surrounding region.  It does so in a readable, yet still scholarly style, so I found it to be quite a page-turner actually.

My biggest question was how Iran/Persia remained a coherent nation (or maybe became one) with distinct language and religion from the rest of the middle east.  In answering this question, Amanat also really helped me understand the distinction between Shi'i and Sunni Islam (though I still don't know the origin of the split as that happened before 1500 I guess).  I also wanted to know better England's role in Iran's history.  I hadn't realized that Iran was never actually colonized, though it got pretty damn close.  

It's hard to write about a 900+ page book covering 600 years of history.  My big takeaways are that Iran is an amazing country with a rich and complex culture.  A lot of bad shit went down there (I thought the second Shah Pahlavi was bad then Khomeini is like hold my beer) and much of today's Iran is found in the diaspora after the Islamic Revolution.  It makes you wish that it can find a way to one day move to a more pluralistic society not dependent on autocracy and repression to grow.  It seems so often that despite changes in ideology, countries' basic structure of government seems to often adhere to their pre-modern roots.  Russia had czars and now they have a "President".  China had emperors and now Chairmen.  Iran had Shahs and now an Ayatollah.  Very hard to say what could shake that.  Another point is that Iran was never not fucked with by external forces.  At its borders, the Russians were up to constant fuckery, the Ottaman empire and then Iraq (to be fair this was more of a back and forth) and of course the British basically taking over all of Iran's oil.  Amanat is quite fair, though, in laying responsibility for Iran's mistakes equally at Iran itself as well as the outside forces.  He also gives credit for various government managing to maintain the slimmest Iranian polity when it seemed like the country was going to be split in half or uttery dominated.

Coincidentally, as I was in Vancouver finishing the book, there was a Parviz Tanavoli exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  Amanat spends a page or two on him and his contribution to Iranian modern art.  The exhibit was fantastic, adding depth to my reading.  Tanavoli captures a lot of history in his work, many of his pieces look like modernity enclosing traditional Persian forms and motifs while those forms and motifs resist back making a dynamic that felt like I was looking at the tension of Iran in a single statue.  Cool stuff.

Finally, I have to make a point about eurocentrism.  Earlier this year, I finished J.M. Roberts' Penguin History of the World, which I quite liked.  Roberts makes the argument that because Europe dominated most of the world through colonization and its political forms that the lens of world history should focus on Europe.  I don't entirely disagree with that article, but now that I have read this history of Iran, I see how much basic history of this region was missing from Robert's book.  Even if a region didn't have impact on the world (which is questionable, especially today), you still have to get its history into a history of the world.  I learned more about the history of India, the Arab world, Afghanistan and even Russia from Amanat's work in his tangential backgrounds to those regions connections with Iran.

Here are some photos I took of Tanavoli's work.

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

62. Vancouver Vice: Crime and Spectacle in the City's West End by Aaron Chapman

My wife picked this one up while we were in Vancouver.  She went to film school with the author who seems to have become a succesful "alternative" journalist, with several books on Vancouver history.  I was about halfway through the 900 page tome on Iranian history and picked this one up at first just to check it out, but it was so readable and interesting that I ended up reading the entire book overnight.

Vancouver Vice is the history of the West End of Vancouver in the late '70s and early '80s, specifically the development of the gay community there and the sex trade that flourished during that time.  We moved to Vancouver Island in 1980 and I didn't really become conscious of Vancouver until a few years later, so I missed the peak of this period, though certainly saw the seediness and crime on Davies and Granville in my teenage years.  My grandfather lived in the West End  and he and his brother who lived with him must have seen all of this.

The book is well-written, very easy and entertaining to read.  It is also thoroughly researched.  Much of the history is now lost, or at least not easily accessible or even part of the common knowledge of the region. Vancouver has a long history of its culture of stiff gentility trying to stifle its pockets of extreme vice.  Today, the really bad neighbourhoods are down on the east side and characterized by homelessness, mental health issues and addiction.  This book captures a time that would probably seem even more shocking to today's younger Vancouverites, where open prostitution of both sexes lined the streets of the West End.  The barriers and blocked streets that make it such a pain in the ass to drive were pu there not to help bikes and make calmer streets for the residences but to make it hard for Johns to drive and solicit sex workers.

Vancouver Vice is framed by a body being found in the trunk of a car left abandoned in Stanley Park.  We then get background on the establishment of the West End as a safe space for gay men, a look into the hot clubs and establishments and interviews with cops and locals as well as some sex workers who were there at the time.  The treatment of the police is quite interesting, they are portrayed in a favourable light and seem like decent guys who had a kind of rock and roll job.  I'm not sure the people they busted for hooking up in the English Bay bathrooms or for buying or selling weed (both activities now legal) felt about them.  Their motivation, they say, was really to go after the abusers and people who preyed on underage kids.

Ultimately, the laws of the time reflected the will of the general public but were also limited by the power elite of the province.  The only name we get is the successful founder of the U-Frame it business, but there is a lot of evidence suggesting many other wealthy and powerful people were participating in sex and drug parties with underage sex workers, who had been exploited by the lower level criminals, particularly the scary Wayne Harris. 

You can buy the book here.