Friday, June 28, 2024

39. Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold (#10 in the Vorkosigan Saga)

I read this in the omnibus
"Miles in Love"
I love reading and since the dip from my daughter's birth, I have been steadily turning it into a constant habit.  It's kind of like eating for me now, which is cool.  I have to say, though, that sometimes it can be a bit of an effort, especially when a book is annoying or boring.  Reading these Vorkosigan books is the exact opposite.  They are like delicious ice cream sundaes that aren't too filling and not unhealthy.  I had set a goal to find a long science fiction series and many voices suggested that Bujold's saga be the one.  They were right.  However, now that I am over halfway through and really am getting (and really enjoying) the style and rhythm, I have the dilemma of wanting to plow right through them but also wanting to savour them and not wanting them to be over.

This dilemma is only amplified by Komarr being my favourite so far and it leading to a potential romantic situation whose outcome I am desperate to learn!  Komarr takes place on, you guessed it, Komarr. It's the planet situated right next to the only wormhole that goes to Barrayar and is thus strategically crucial for Vorkosigan's planet (and growing empire).  The Cetagandans did a deal with Komarr to allow them through the wormhole to invade Barrayar.  When Barrayar repulsed that invasion, they then came after Komarr, invading it and securing the planet and the wormhole.  Miles' dad was a principal military leader in that invasion and it ended with a bunch of Komarrian politicians and rebels getting massacred after having given up their arms thus earning him the nickname "The Butcher of Barrayar".

Several decades later, the power relationship has softened somewhat as Barrayar has tried to integrate and assimilate rather than dominate.  The Barrayan emperor Gregor has fallen in love with a Komarran scientist and they are to be wed, when suspiciously destructive accident sends a freighter into the massive solar reflector that is crucial to Komarr's terraforming project.  Miles, newly appointed and youngest of the Imperial Auditors is sent out with an older colleague and engineering expert Lord Vorthrys to investigate.

This premise alone is intriguing and satisfying, but this book becomes doubly delicious when they are sent to stay with Vorthrys' niece, Ekaterina Vorsoisson.  She is a stifled wife and mother married to a career bureaucrat who is just on the border of being truly abusive.  However, you define his behaviour he is one of the most dislikeable characters I have read in a book in a long while.  He has a rare genetic disorder that makes him a "mutie" in the Vor prejudice and deals with it in the most loserish way possible, by hiding it and avoiding getting the treatment because he wants to do it in some faraway place where nobody will know which is way beyond their means.  Even worse, his son also has it and he keeps delaying the treatment for him as well.  He is also just a generally insecure and mean dick and the wife has long suppressed herself to be able to survive with him.

What makes the book so fun is that Miles is immediately smitten with her.  She is his physical type and then keeps revealing more and more layers of a great personality with suppressed potential.  These books are very much romantic adventure fantasies in the Georgette Heyer mode (others have made this comparison) and here the comparison is particularly apt.  There are so many great scenes of Miles using his class, charm and experience to try and get her to like him.  The fantasy is on both sides as we want her to fall in love with Miles and we also want him to user his wealth and power to grant her the life she deserves.  It's good stuff!

There is also some cool space stuff (though at the planetary level) and a fun conclusion with some action.  I stayed up way too late.  Now I want to jump into the second one to see how the relationship progresses but also want to wait.  Dillema!

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

38. Killer Mine by Mickey Spillane

I'm not a huge Mickey Spillane fan and he is generally considered a lesser rated writer by hardboiled aficionados.  I think he is also slightly tainted for being somewhat extreme in his language that is a precursor to the right-wing Dirty Harry/vigilante mentality that really came to fruition in the Death Wish cinema of the 80s.  A friend of mine gave this to me and I thought I should give him a revisit, since to be fair, I had no memory of actually why I wasn't a fan of his as I hadn't read him since college.

This is actually two novellas put into one book.  The first, Killer Mine, is about a police lieutenant who is sent back to investigate some murders in his old tenement neighbourhood.  He is a good cop and had worked to put that world behind him, but his inside knowledge is seen as an assett by the department.  The plan is that he goes in "undercover" in the sense that everybody knows he is a cop but he is back in the neighbourhood because he has taken up with an old fling (who also was from the neighbourhood and kind of an old fling) who is still living there.   She is a police officer as well.  Big names have been getting killed and it seems to link up to something bigger in the mob.

The story was okay and I guessed the mystery quite early on.  Spillane also has a lot of weird very dated romantic interactions that I guess were supposed to seem modern and edgy at the time.  They aren't quite as psychologically convoluted as John D. MacDonald but have a similar tone and language.  The depiction of the neighbourhood, it's grime and various locations as well as the characters that live there and even some history was quite rich and well done.  A decent enough read.

The second story, Man Alone, also stars a cop, who just got acquitted from killing a mid-level gangster and taking bribes.  We start out with him sneaking out of the courthouse and getting in a cab.  He was framed and now he is pissed.  The plot here was quite convoluted and I got a bit confused, though I also guessed the main mystery (both involved somebody who was supposed to be dead but wasn't actually).  However, I quite enjoyed the protagonist's journey.  There is some good investigating (which I always appreciate) and some nice tough language.  This one was a good read.

So I'll re-assess Spillane somewhat.  He definitely churned them out with a certain cynical style towards selling books and there is a simplistic escapist fantasy element in there that is a bit too blunt for me to take him seriously.  Nevertheless, he sets a good scene and moves things forward.  There is entertainment here.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

37. La Vie Secrète des Jeunes (volumes I, II & III) by Riad Sattouf

There are 3 volumes in total
I'm going to be somewhat ignorantly expository in this post, as I suspect most of the masses of readers will not be aware or able to read these.  I get the sense that among a certain set of Parisian, they were quite impactful at the time.  It was a daily one-page strip in Charlie Hebdo (the satirical magazine that became known outside of France after the horrible attack by some psycho extremists because they dared publish a picture of the prophet) depicting various scenes and incidents that Sattouf (though I wonder if it was just him or if he got anecdotes from other people as well) witnessed and overheard mostly on the streets and metro in Paris.

For the most part, they do not portray the people of Paris kindly.  He got a lot of feedback from readers not believing that the exchanges were real and he swears they all are.  I have to admit that some of the behaviour was quite shocking.  I had heard from some French expats here that it is very hard to be a woman on the street in France and this book bears that out.  There is a lot of really horrific street harassment which--while shit happens here in North America for sure--would just not be acceptable.  Also several straight-up violent attacks.  More common is frank sex talk and cliched Parisian rudeness, like a woman letting her dog shit right in front of somebody.

There is also an interesting theme of the various French people of North African descent. It was quite fascinating to see how Sattouf portrays these people who are often but not alway an underclass in the comics he did much earlier in his career than L'Arabe du Futur.  It helped me to learn a lot of French slang, some of which is common among young Parisians (the verlan, where they flip sylabbles on words so "noir" becomes "reno" which is supposedly a non-perjorative term for Black people) and other specific to those of Arabic descent ("le bled" literally means the village but is used as "back home" or "back in the old country").  Nobody comes off well in this book, but the portrayal of the French Arabs (what is the right way to label them) is particularly rough.  Without any sociopolitical context, it also can be seen at times as stereotyping.  I suspect this editorial stance was not limited to just this cartoon in Charlie Hebdo and that may have also been a factor in the attack.

There are also many frank sexual discussions that are also fascinating (and somewhat shocking as well) to read.  While sex is all over the place everywhere in the west now with the internet, it still seems that at least in the early 2000s, French women were way more sophisticated and sexually liberated than their North American counterparts.  And the men seemed to benefit.

I wouldn't say these are brilliant as they are just single-page strips and the art is kind of deliberately ugly, sort of a more cartoony and smeary Jules Pfeiffer (though the lines getting firmer as his style evolves).  But it is an eye-opening bit of anthropology and quite funny at times.

Friday, June 21, 2024

36. Pascal Brutal by Riad Sattouf

June is Riad Sattouf month here at Olman's Fifty.  Since stumbling upon L'Arabe du Futur, I have pillaged the library for his previous work.  Pascal Brutal come out in the early 2000's in the earlier phase of his work, though he had already established himself, where he was less polished and way more edgy.  It was published regularily in Fluide Glacial, which I need to learn more about, and then released in 3 albums (and later a fourth), which are what I read (thanks again to the awesome bande-desinnée collection at the Montreal library system).

These are fucking hilarious.  I don't think they could be translated into english, unfortunately, and it took me a lot of looking things up on the internet to understand some of the jargon.  Much of the cultural in-jokes about the French, the Bretons, the underclass and Arab/north african French I could only surmise or missed entirely.  Though reading Pascal Brutal itself is an education in these subjects and I felt that I better understood that part of the material as I advanced in the volumes.

The parts that do come through to any reader, and especially of my generation, are the anarchic energy and amplifying of extreme virility.  Pascal Brutal pokes at that hilarious intersection where the straightest, machoest toughest guy is so manly that he may as well be gay.  There are several scenarios where this indeed happens. His animal dominance of all other males and sexual irresistability to all females is also a big theme and super funny.  

The setting is also quite a funny take on the neoliberal direction France and the world was heading in the early 2000s.  France is now a depressed near third world country of concrete apartment blocks and discount supermarkets (the Toutattiprix "all at a cheap price" chain is a running joke).  We get glimpses of the rest of the world as well.  Belgium is a fascist gynocracy, Russia a savage post-nuclear wilderness and the Arab states a super progressive and united utopia.  It's very fun but also a painful reminder that sometimes the only way to not lose it altogether in the shit hole we have allowed our planet and society to become is via humour.

Pascal Brutal is in a similar tradition to Red Ketchup and the less well-known Terror Assaulter (O.M.W.O.T).  It's a counter-culture parody and examination of manliness and violence from the perspective of nerdy comics creators who love the genre but aren't of it.  I wish there were more!

The first three volumes are rougher in drawing and the stories more straightforward.  The fourth volume, which came quite a few years after the first three, has a more polished style, richer colours and takes the concept of Pascal Brutal to a more meta-level, with hilarious movie concepts and him leading the French soccer team in the world cup.  

"I'm going to make love to all of you!"

This one where he is training his dog and
gets set up on by some old enemies is my favourite

35. Watership Down by Richard Adams

My daughter is way into rabbits.  Obviously, Watership Down is the classic of the rabbit adventure genre and I had been wanting to read it to her for years but was wary due to my own memories of how harsh and potentially traumatizing either it or the movie had been.  These memories were hazy.  We finally bit the bullet and read it over most of the first half of the year. It's a fairly long book.

At first, it was a bit slow and took her a while to get into it.  There are lots of asides about rabbit behaviour and mythological rabbit stories, but as the gang of runaway rabbits make their journey, you start to get to know their characters.  Once they are settled into Watership Down and start to face the real threat, the neighbouring Efrafa warren and their control-freak leader Woundwort, we were fully invested.  The climactic ending was epic and moving.

I think it's fair to put Watership Down in the same classic fantasy genre epic as Lord of the Rings. It creates a rich alternate fantasy world that parallels our own and yet adds a level of excitement and heroism.  It builds up a conflict between good and evil, though interestingly the evil is less about industrialized world-destroying tyrants than an obsession with order and control of society.  The world destroyers are us humans and so powerful that it is basically the catalyst for the initial destruction of the home warren and then barely felt throughout the rest of the book.  As a particular fan of animal adventure narratives and the notion that our world to a creature of smaller scale can be as fantastic and escapist as any fantasy world, I actually would now lean towards Watership Down as a preferable read (though I haven't read LotR since I was a kid myself).

The one big bummer with Watership Down is how painfully and ignorantly sexist it is.  The adventuring party are all males, which while creating a good narrative need, took my daughter out of it at first and I've since read is also scientifically erroneous.  Warrens are actually more matriarchal in structure.  It's crazy how powerful and assumed our social stances are when compared to reality and especially discouraging when you see how entrenched they are in the fantasy and science fiction genre, which is supposed to be about moving beyond those stances.  You could simply swap the genders entirely in Watership Down and it would have been exactly the same and as good, except that nobody would have read it and those that did at the time would have probably scoffed at its unbelievability and lack of realism.  It would only get discovered decades later.

Anyhow, we got over it and ended up really enjoying it.  I strongly recommend it.  Needs to be rediscovered by today's nerds.


I think now that I may have never actually read it myself and only saw the movie, which indeed has some pretty intense imagery and gore.  Because I had pumped up the harshness of the book so much, both me and my daughter were constantly in dread of some of our favourite characters getting offed throughout the whole reading.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that while it definitely has some real world death that comes to rabbits, the narrative as a whole is quite classic and heroic and in the end good mostly prevails.

We did watch the movie after, which is quite faithful and it has two sections that are definitely quite freaky.  The retelling of the gassing of the first warren has some imagery that while somewhat abstract is still effectively horrifying as the rabbits all bunch up in the tunnels. The final act is also just straight up really gory with some very red blood.  Not recommended for little ones but fine for 10 and up.  Her real issue with the movie that I thought was quite accurate was that it bunches the narrative up and everything happens too fast. It definitely should have been a trilogy.  We are going to check out the series next.

Saturday, June 08, 2024

34. L'Arabe du futur by Riad Sattouf

I had already returned #1 to the library
I had vaguely heard about this bande-dessinée when I found books 5 and 6 (in almost new condition) in a free giveaway box just doors from our place.  I took them, started reading number 5 and then realized I really needed to read it in chronological order and so got the first 4 from the library (and they came via inter-library loan within a few days; gotta love the library).  I dived right in and basically didn't/couldn't stop reading until it was done.  This is the kind of book that makes it easy to not go to the internet (and makes it hard to turn off the light at bedtime).

It is the story of the author's childhood and youth, with a tail at the end summarizing his early success as a comics creator.  But it's really the tragic story of his father, a Syrian who did quite well in school that he was able to come to the Sorbonne, where he met Sattouf's mother.  He (and the family by extension) is torn between his main goal to build a palacial home on his hereditary land in Syria and the pressures of living there on him and mainly on his family.  Not only is Syria impoverished and a dictatorship, but where he moves his family too is way out in the country, which is even poorer and very traditional (trying not to be judgemental here, but from the mother's perspective also backward to the point of being scarily primitive).  It's fascinating to see how to our western perspective, the father seems strict and almost abusive in his attempts at raising his family in the Islamic tradition in which he was raised.  Yet from his family's perspective, he is going to hell because of his lack of practice and faith.

It's really hard for me to do justice to this book (or these books, as it is in 6 volumes).  It really is an epic tragedy but also chock full of humour, warmth and interesting observations on culture and politics and humans.  I was completely absorbed while reading it and moved with many emotions and thoughts.  There is an english translation so I would strongly recommend that you seek that out, via bookstore or library.

On a graphic note, Sattouf uses a slightly cartoony style and it deceives the reader into a lightness of reading that hides the depth underneath.  It is episodic and many of the narrative capsules are enjoyable moments in and of themselves.  The characters are made sympathetic with their round noses even if they often actually aren't and over time it makes the horror of what is actually going on really sink in (or sometimes slammed into you at certain particularly shocking moments).  It's incredibly effective storytelling.  

On a personal tangent, reading this book reminded me of a thing that went on right after I got out of college.  My girlfriend had met this dude from Morocco when she was travelling in Spain with her lesbian girlfriend a few year before we got together and he had become a kind of remote stalker.  He would phone her up from time to time and try to convince her that she was siding with the devil.  Her mother gave him her new phone number when we were living together (wtf) and I picked up when he phoned once.  I was aware of this situation and launched into a macho (hey I was in my early 20s) attack about how I was going to find him and kill him and then he did the same and we had a brief spazzy back and forth before we both calmed down and ended up having an interesting conversation for about a half-hour.  The guy was living in some small town in Morocco and believed that he was trying to save her.  It was actually kind of sad.  The poor guy was still obsessing over her and had some toxic mix of sexual/romantic attraction (she was quite lively and engaging with people to the point that there were boundary issues) mixed with fascination/revulsion of her being a lesbian.  I tried to argue with him on a philosophical level but he was more mollified that she was now with a man, though disappointed.  I can't remember how it ended but it wasn't negative and we never heard from him since, but who knows as we broke up a few years after that.

These fucking old school religions and their obsessions with controlling female sexuality end up fucking up the guys just as much (though of course it's the women who suffer).  The cultural differences go beyond just sex in L'Arabe du futur and it powerfully captures how this conflict can tear a family apart and by subtle extension also demonstrates how it continues to cause conflict in France.  Strong recommendation.  I am now on the hunt for Sattouf's other work.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

33. The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

A friend recommended this book to me, sort of out of the blue and it looked up my alley (British dude walking) and I was lucky enough to find it right away at my local library.  Now that I have read it, I have mixed feelings about it.  First off, I have to acknowledge it is a very well-written book, very accessible and clear.  And the journey itself is insanely impressive and crazy, all the while its craziness is very much downplayed by the author in classic British understatement.  However, that understatement is also tamping down a lot of privilege going on behind the scenes here.  Stewart is basically a Scottish aristocrat with a possible military intelligence background and definitely a strong diplomatic background (which he has continued quite successfully into a significant political and academic career).  It's not that he doesn't acknowledge that his sufferings are his own choice and that he is consciously aware of the differences in his life context compared the people he meets on the road.  There is just a subtle attitude of slight superiority or something in this book that only once gets made explicit in a footnote where he tries to argue that the original British colonial exploiters in the Middle East were more engaged and connected to the locals than any of the "experts" coming in after 9/11.  Again here he is broadly right, but it's the attitude behind that made me go whoah.  Also the New York Times calling it a "a flat-out masterpiece" really doesn't help.

Stewart basically walks from Herat to Kabul, across extremely dangerous environments.  Until he gets close to Kabul, the danger is mostly environmental, but it is no joke. You do not get any real sense of the true discomfort he was experiencing.  He mentions quite a few times that his boots were soaked through but only once that actual temperate, which was -20!!!  He also is suffering from dysentery most of the time and eats the most minimal diet, with basically stale bread and water at points for several days at a time.  It's pretty fucking hardcore if you have ever done any actual hiking and read between the lines.

Also hardcore is his social/tourist courage.  He is basically walking through a country that has been engaged in 2 civil wars (to put it simply) first against the occupying Russians and then against the Taliban and now only slightly "pacified" by the coalition led by the Americans.  It's a really dangerous place.  Yet he just goes and knocks on people's doors and asks if he can spend the night.  As an individual on foot, most people are not threatened by him but more confused.  The Islamic tradition of hosting is also a factor, though much diminished with the extreme poverty (and destruction from war) that many of the villages he visits are experiencing.

It's a really interesting book, just to get a sense of how remote and removed these places are, not only from the foreign empires that are invading them, but even from their own cities and regions a few hundred miles away.  At the same time, Stewart peppers his narrative with lots of neat history (particularily the journey of Babur, Afghanistan's first Mughal emperor) so you get a sense of how connected it once was.  It is also a bit repetitive and not a lot goes on but him walking. I didn't mind this at all, but just noting it for those who want to argue that it is a masterpiece.  Anyhow, I'm glad I read it.