Saturday, March 30, 2024

18. Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold (#9 in the Vorkosigan saga)

I guess Memory could be considered an interstitial novel.  I also suspect it may be the transition book to a new phase in the series.  Miles is basically grounded on Barrayar, after the seizures from his being resurrected from cryosleep cause him to accidentally slice off a rescued hostage's legs.  The real problem, though, was not the accident (Bujold has a nice wry way of treating these kinds of horrific space injries that make them somehow slightly funny), but that Miles lied about it on his report to his Barrayan ImpSec spy master, Simon Illyan.  He is caught and is forced to resign and give up his military duty, leaving him stuck at his family's mansion alone and brooding, trying to figure out his future (including the option of running away back to the Dendarii mercenaries to be his alter ego Admiral Naismith forever).

However, he isn't given long to fret as Illyan starts displaying bizarre behaviour, seemingly losing track of time.  This gets worse and worse until he has a total breakdown.  Miles now must act as a Vor and old family friend, against the new chief of ImpSec.  This book never really gets going into this main plot until the second half and even then it doesn't feel totally like the main story.  The real story here is Miles trying to figure out who he is and we also get a good dose of Barrayan aristocratic developments, including the emperor finally falling in love.

It's not a rip-roaring adventure, but I still found it absorbing and a page-turner.  We know the characters quite well now. This was finally the book where I think I truly get Miles' character.  He really comes off as brilliant and driven in the way he solves the mystery of Illyan's memory.  The ending and where it seemingly closes off certain storylines and opens new ones was quite satisfying and I'm looking forward to see where it goes from here.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

17. Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell

Once again, I have forgotten to note where I learned about a certain author.  Somebody I follow strongly recommended Sarah Caudwell's four Hilary Tamar novels and so I added them to my hunting list.  I found 3 of them at the Oakland Museum White Elephant sale and without knowing if they would be any good, bought them all.  They were only a dollar and I wasn't sure if I would have the opportunity again.

Well so far so good, this first one is quite a lot of fun.  Once again, I found myself less interested in trying to figure out the actual mystery while really enjoying the writing and characters.  Hilary Tamar is the "detective" (and the narrator) but really it's about a group of junior lawyers and their witty banter who all work for the same London firm.  It is deep in that aristocratic, Oxbridge self-deprecating, classical education rhetoric where they are always fighting about who should pay for the wine and pointing out each other's deepest flaws in the most passive-aggressive way possible.

The situation here is that their least practical friend, Julia, is off to a vacation in Venice on an art tour when she gets accused of murdering one of her fellow travellers, a beautiful young man named Ned, who is found stabbed through the heart in his hotel bed with which she had spent the entire afternoon.  The book is semi-epistolary as the first half is the group reading Julia's letters which are primarily about her trying to hook up with Ned and lead up to the murder (and thus give all these clues).  One of the things I liked about this book (written in 1981) is that both homosexuality and female sexual initiative are treated as given.  Julia simply wants a fling and is both worried about not succeeding but also of making Ned think she actually cares about him.  Ned is travelling with another young man, a strapping, up-and-coming sculptor whom she (and the others) suspect is in love with Ned.

Once again, the mystery once unraveled was quite clever, but there was no way I would have ever figured it out.  The conceit in the book that comes out a bit at the beginning is that while Tamar is the most clever of them, nobody respects here and later, you realize they also find her a pedantic bore as when she is trying to explain her reasoning, they all find excuses as to why they have to be elsewhere. It's pretty funny.  A very enjoyable read and strongly recommended, especially for fans of the cozy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

16. The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs by Marc David Baer

I have been wanting to fill the void of my understanding of how we got from the Byzantines to the Ottomans for a long time now and this interest flared up when I read Abbas' Modern History of Iran.  My European history is not great, but at least I have the broad lines.  The Ottomans and the background to today's Middle East was pretty much absent entirely.  I had been waiting for a recommendation so as to not waste any time with false starts, but ended up discovering this book at the indefatigable Moe's Books in Berkeley.  It turned out to be exactly what I was looking for, a well-researched, academic yet readable, chronological history of the Ottoman empire from its beginning in the 13th century when Osman sort of settled in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) to its demise after World War I when it reduced itself to the single nation of Turkey.  Spoiler alert:  the ending is rough.

This was an incredibly informative and eye-opening read for me.  It definitely answered how the Byzantime empire fell and was taken over by the Ottoman empire.  But there was so many more historical puzzle pieces filled in for me here that I hadn't anticipated, as well as concepts and ideas that I didn't know I was missing.  The big one was that the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the forced movement of people's, especially Muslims coming back to the Ottomans and Christians leaving them, was a major factor in the structure of the Middle East as we know it today.  Another big piece that this book filled in (though only partially) was the situation in 19th century eastern Europe and especially the Balkans (that were all part of the Ottoman Empire) that led to World War One.  I went to a liberal arts school where we had two mandatory Humanities courses that were supposed to cover much of the 20th century, but even for a very progressive school, they basically omitted the Ottoman empire almost entirely.  It's crazy.

The concepts in history and culture that this book also further enlightened for me were manifold as well.  In particular, though I was knew about the Armenian genocide and had studied it briefly in a summer extension course, I did not realize how it can be argued as the progenitor of the Holocaust itself, as one of the first truly modern genocides, directed via policy and bureaucracy.  The Germans of World War 1 who were allied with Turkey at the time were aware of it, approved of it and in some cases participated in that so that there is a direct line that can be traced to it and Nazi policies in World War Two.

Another interesting concept is the mutability of sexuality and the social mores around it.  Man boy love was a real, common and accepted thing in the first two thirds of the Ottoman empire and evidently in the rest of Europe. Today, much of the literature around it is read as metaphorical, but Baer makes a pretty strong case that it was literally meant.  These weren't gay relationships as we know them today, but rather the socially accepted sexual relationships between bearded men and their "beloved" unshaven boys.  This was open and very common for centuries.  Once a boy became a man, then heterosexuality was supposed to kick in with sex in marriage for procreation.  I am overly simplifying it to point out that this was the cultural norm and not licentious behaviour, as the Ottoman Muslim elites had as strict a social code as their European counterparts.  It's important to read and understand these histories as it really makes one question ones own assumptions about what is "normal".

Baer's big argument is that Ottoman history should not be seen as an eastern other but rather as an integral and integrated part of European history.  He makes a compelling case.  The other big them up until the Young Turks take over and do really horrible things in the name of modernity, is that the Ottoman Empire was fundamentally Muslim in its nature and leadership but existed, survived and even thrived by allowing other nationalities, religions and cultures to live and at times even thrive within its border.  This wasn't just Jews and Christians, but also various sects and interperations of Islam as well.  Not that this was all peaceful and hunky dory as we talking about human beings here so there was plenty of oppression and massacres and injustice.  It was, though, a concept of civilization that was very different than the secular nationalism of the modern Turkish state.  I was very surprised to know that after the Jews were kicked out of Spain in the inquisition, that they fled to the Ottoman empire and it was seen by many Jews as their saviour and a place where they lived in an integrated way under Muslim leadership for centuries. Today's rhetoric is that the Middle East is an unsolvable complex mess where the Muslims and Jews have been fighting forever, but that was not actually the case (well the unsolvable mess part might be).  Knowing history makes one realize that change is indeed possible (for better or for worse) and can and will something that we in our current vision could not expect or even believe could happen.

Friday, March 15, 2024

15. Are You Willing To Die For The Cause by Chris Oliveros

My wife gave this to me for xmas and I'm glad she did because I wouldn't have known about it and it is an excellent addition to my very limited understanding of the history of the Quiet Revolution.  So far, I only know what I learned in high school, which was quite limited and a good podcast series (that I maddeningly can't remember now but was primarily focused on the criminal angle).  Like those previous sources, this graphic novel comes from the anglophone side.  I don't necessarily want to say "perspective" because Oliveros is probably perfectly bilingual and clearly did a ton of research into primary materials in both languages.  Neverthless, it is a factor.  For instance, all the gushing pull quotes on the back are from anglophone writers, and other than Toula Drimonis, transplanted Mile End hipsters like myself or not even from Montreal at all (Seth).  I would love to hear what the francophone historical and bande-dessinee community thought about this book.  I couldn't find a single review of it in french online (maybe my search failed) and I don't think it was published in french.

It's tricky for me to asses the historical validity of this book, mainly because my own knowledge of the history is so limited.  Oliveros' approach, though, also confounds this problem.  He creates a fictional wrapping of the discovery in the archives of CBC television (not Radio-Canada) a documentary about the October Crisis, including previously unpublished interviews with the major players.  Oliveros then uses real quotes and strings them together as if they were interviews for this documentary.  It's a clever technique to give the history a flow and encapsulate a lot of info in a shorter way, since it is in graphic form.  However, it also opens up room for biases and tendencies that may not be apparent to the uninformed reader.

One such tendency that I felt I noticed was that it depicted the early members of the FLQ as being super amateurish and disorganized.  I don't dispute this, as it is basically true.  However, because there is no social context given, the relative poverty of the French-Canadians in Quebec and Montreal at the time, the racism and discrimination in which they lived, you don't get a sense of the anger and despair that was building up that would lead people to such desperate measures.  So yes, they were unrealistic and criminally thoughtless and violent in their approach, but their situation was desperate.  This is why they are exonerated and even considered heroic by many of that generation of Quebecers who lived through the Quiet Revolution.  Anglos who love to bitch about the language police still are not open to this understanding and I think it would have made this book more effective to have emphasized the oppression at the time.

As the book goes along, though, it does do a better and richer job of giving the reader the sense of inequality of Quebec during le Grand Noirceur.  It is also extremely well researched, as the detailed endnotes reveal (and in some ways, this was my most fruitful reading).  The art and the structure is really well done and makes it very readable and brings life to these names and their words.  Like all D&Q products, it is also beautifully produced, a very nice physical object for your bookshelf or coffee table.  I am very much looking forward to the second book, which focuses on the October Crisis.  So despite my concerns above, I would say this an valuable and entertaining book.  I would just love to have a chat with a francophone expert on this subject and have them share their feelings about this book with me.

Saturday, March 09, 2024

14. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

I bought this book new at the great White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. They recommended it as a good fantasy book for a pre-teen and I've been reading it to my pre-teen for the last few weeks.  It was also a favourite of my wife who actually read it as a teen herself.  We read the trade paperback on the right, but she has the lovely original proper-sized paperback, pictured below.  It was written in 1982, back in the day when YA fantasy, though still a sub-genre, was not an industry where every book has to be a series with a netflix tie-in.  It is refreshingly just a book.  Elements of the story and setting are left unexplained for one's imagination to ponder.

The protagonist is Harry Crewe a young woman/older girl (her age is never clearly established), whose parents died and is sent to a remote colonial outpost where her brother is an officer to live with a semi-noble couple.  They are in the desert region of Damar where mining has attracted what their country's expansion.  The natives are called the Hill-Folk and there is a separation between them and the Homelanders as they are called, though not necessarily the violence and genocide that usually comes with this kind of resource colonialism. It's a little hard to figure out what is going on in the beginning, as Harry is new and only overhearing things and the reader sees things mostly through her eyes.  There is a conflict arising with some other Northern tribe, with rumours of strange magic, rumours the Homelanders consider superstition.

The story really gets moving when Harry gets kidnapped by the intense, powerful leader of the Hillfolk, Corlath.  She doesn't know why he took her and it turns out, neither did he.  Rather, he was compelled by his kelar, the innate magic that the Hill-folk cultivate but has been dwindling in recent generations.  The bulk of the narrative is Harry learning about the Hill-folk and becoming a part of them and more, leading up to a battle with the Northerners that is quite cool.  It's an interesting mix of very big and epic changes to her as a character with the action being an important but small tactical battle.

I would say the language and structure of The Blue Sword might be somewhat sophisticated for a pre-teen.  At times, my daughter got a bit confused as to what was going on, as things are often implied or not said altogether so you have to infer from the context and leading narrative as to what is actually going on. I quite enjoyed it myself, but reading it aloud, it is hard for me to give a true impression as my mind can wander and I don't always internalize a book the same way. We both felt that Harry's big emotion of feeling that Corlath was going to be all mad at her was forced and felt artificial, but the rest of it we got quite into and by the end felt very absorbed by the story and the setting.  Recommended.



Monday, March 04, 2024

13. The Hit by Brian Garfield

I found this in near pristine condition (though faded with age, it appeared that it may have never been opened or at least barely) in a small used bookstore in Nashville.  I quite enjoyed Garfield's Death Wish and he is part of that small group of crime fiction writers of which Donald Westlake is the most famous that made their mark on the genre in the 70s and 80s so I had to pick this up.  

This is one of those thin novels of the past, with a simple premise and a quick resolution (at least compared to the tomes of today).  Simon Crane is an ex-cop somewhere in the Southwest (I suspect a secondary city in Phoenix) who gets sucked into the aftermath of a robbery on a mob safe (and the disappearance of the mobster whose house it was in).  His connection is that he had an ex who was the secretary at the house who discovered the place robbed and was too scared to go the mob bosses and went to him instead, making them both suspects.

The plot itself didn't grab me that much.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but it felt like it kind of went in various directions with new characters popping up but none of them having that much meaning to the protagonist or the crime itself.  When he finally does figure out who did the job, it's not all that interesting.  What was really good in this book was the location.  His description of a desert town that is evolving economically from a kind of shitty backwater to a more respectable and wealthier retirement and tourist area was really well done.  The city itself and the desert outside it are evocatively described as are the various weird characters who live there. The Hit, written in 1970, feels predictive of the desert noir mini-trend that would come two decades later to the movies.