I did a bit of research and learned that this book is an adaptation by Robert Sheckley of the Italian movie that was in turn an adaptation of Sheckley's short story from Galaxy magazine called The Seventh Victim. I'm curious to find the original and read it just to see how much it changed and if the movie (which was highly stylized, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress) influenced him at all.
It's a great setting: the near future where war has been eliminated in favour of an ongoing, global game of voluntary human hunt. The rules are simple. You offer yourself up and then you have a total of 10 kills to succeed, 5 as the Hunter and 5 as the Victim. It's totally legal as long as you don't injure any non-participants. It is all televised and a major part of the culture. If you do make it to 10 kills, you become a high-status person in your community. The book begins with a few example kills and then focuses on two people, both heading to their tenth kill. Catherine Meredith is a New York executive with a big media organization behind her. Marcello Polletti is a feckless middle-aged Italian man who doesn't seem to care about the hunt at all.
When I was an adolescent, I got into Killer big-time. It was a game where you played assassins trying to take out your friends with dart guns, squirt guns, bombs that were notes etc. It was a brief phenomenon in the '80s, I guess on college campuses. We lived in a small town and were only like 12 or 13 but we had some pretty good games, including one that took place in the woods behind my house (with my uptight neighbour freaking out about us making noise and screaming into the woods that there was a cougar sighting earlier that day). This book was a huge influence on the original game. This is why it has been on my list for so long.
However, the tone of the book is actually quite light, almost sardonic, which was far from the way I as an intense, nerdy 12-year old boy thought about how assassination should go down. I'm quite glad I didn't read it back then, as I wouldn't have gotten it and probably been kind of annoyed and disappointed. Today, I find it a fun read, doing some nice satire of the media and our culture of violence. The Marcello character is quite funny. It's just all a bit light and kind of goes nowhere in the end. But I guess that is not too surprising given that it really was just a short story. There are two sequels. I am at least curious to know how Sheckley followed this story up.
I bought this paperback at the inestimable Kayo Books in San Francisco. I have mixed feelings about Donald Hamilton and picked this one up because of a combination of the date, the price and the cool cover. It turns out (and I thank the inestimable Nick Jones of Existential Ennui for making me aware of this) that this was the first Matt Helm book. So that was quite exciting. Happily, the book itself is great and lives up to its reputation as a hard-boiled spy classic.
It's an awesome title and the book explores the theme well. The protagonist is successful fiction writer (Westerns) Matt Helm, living a very normal, pleasant life in Santa Fe with his lovely family. He is almost a decade out of his war career, where he was part of a ruthless top secret Allied spy/commando force. To everyone around him now, he had a fairly boring war, though he did get badly injured. The book opens in medias res (and really well done in media res as well) at a party where he sees a beautiful young woman who was his colleague and lover back in WWII. Her presence quickly brings back memories and then more than memories as he gets tangled up in whatever the hell she is up to here. It's a great ride and the ending is particularly intense and tough and satisfying. I'm kind of glad this isn't the first Matt Helm book I've read and that I was aware that the whole series is not able to maintain the hardness of this one. Otherwise I might have been in for a great letdown. Coming to Death of a Citizen at this phase in my reading was most rewarding. Get your hands on this, citizen.
He looks like the principal from Ferris Bueller's day off.
I knew the Scientology was a cult, but I had never really been clear on how it got from L. Ron Hubbard being a science fiction writer to the place it is today. I can not even remember how I stumbled onto Bare-Faced Messiah. It was simply a link that I followed on my ipad and because it held my interest, I ended up reading the entire thing online. I guess that it can be considered my first e-book read, though it was actually a straight-up HTML site with white text on black. The U.S.'s retarded copyright laws allowed the psychos at the Church of Scientology to block its publication there, but thanks to the internet, it is available online. You can find it here:
In case you have any doubt about its validity as a biography of L. Ron Hubbard, know that the book was published to favourable reviews in the rest of the world and that it is generally considered to be the definitive work on the man. Miller is a respected journalist who did other biographies. He went through incredible harassment and persecution during and after the work on this book. When you read the story of what the church did to try and defame him and prevent the book from coming out, you really have to wonder how they are allowed to exist at all. They are a total cult operating outside the law of the countries they are in. Germany was right to shut them down. The U.S. policy towards Scientology is just insane. Not only are they not prosecuting them for their crimes, but they actually grant them religious tax status, so they pay no taxes. The IRS was basically blackmailed into this position to avoid further legal and extra-legal harassment from Scientology. It's astounding.
But I'll let others fight the fight against these losers. Let's get to the book at hand, which really is a fascinating study of an individual and a look into a time and place when a cult like this could be able to gain such a powerful foothold. The first half of the book is a thoroughly documented tracing of L. Ron Hubbard's early years, constantly comparing the reality to the fiction he and the church created around him. He was basically an imaginative, unfocused young man from the Pacific Northwest who got to do a bit of travelling because of his dad's job with the army. He was also an extraordinary egomaniac who began embellishing his own life story at a very early age. So a berth on a merchant marine to Guam with his mother to go visit his dad turns into a rollicking adventure where he performs all these outsized deeds. His interest in gliding and participation in some gliding clubs becomes him being a record-breaking pilot and general daredevil. His short-lived role as a pilot of a submarine in WWII where he did a few practice runs and was demoted for taking action against something only he saw on the radar becomes a heroic destruction of the only known instance of Japanese u-boats in US water and him being moved to a top-secret intelligence department.
To his credit, he was able to embellish his life story because he himself was a wildly imaginative and highly prolific writer (though nowhere near as prolific as he and the church claim today). He was a successful contributor to the science fiction magazines of the golden age and a part of that general scene on and off in New York.
The middle part of the book, about him as a young adult, you can see that what was a penchance for exaggeration starts to take a more serious turn. He demonstrates all the symptoms of a manic-depressive personality, though fortunately for him, he seems to have spent more of his time in a manic state. His pulpish yarns do not make him enough money and also don't seem to bring him the kind of respect he demands. So he starts working on longer, more serious works. This is where the craziness starts. Fortunately for Hubbard, his kind of craziness, plus his manic drive to succeed combined to make a system of living that seemed to resonate with people at this time. I'm really cutting things short, but basically he started these teaching centers, first with Dianetics and then with the more "refined" Scientology. It exploded and he ended up making tons of money and gathering tons of followers. As Scientology grew, so did his paranoia and megalomania. By the end, Hubbard was floating around the ocean on a restored cruise ship, surrounded by an elite team of prepubescent blonde girls who communicated his every command in his exact tone of voice and temper while carrying out complex plots of revenge on defectors. This is some Kim Jong-Il level shit here. Scientology has been in the media today a lot. Anything you might think sounds a little crazy to be true is actually true and it started with L. Ron. The Sea Org, which originated with his cruise ship crew and those psychotic little girls is still the source of the inner elite and extreme weirdness (though now it is land-based) and it is where the current leader, David Miscavige, came from. These people are completely fucking bonkers and everyone who follows them is bonkers themselves or else a victim who was sucked in against their will. It's a fucking scary cult with billions of dollars.
And this is where the book disappoints. It's a great factual read of Hubbard's life and how Scientology came to be. But it does not attempt to understand how it possibly could have succeeded so well.We all know that most people are stupid and gullible and want to be led, but it's rare that some new form of organized religion is able to spring into being in the modern era from the mind of one charismatic, manic loony and turn into a worldwide phenomenon so powerful that it can blackmail the IRS and that its leader can make his wife simply disappear without any authorities asking any questions. I have my own ideas why it worked so well, but I would like to have had more analysis and data to really think it through. There is none of that in Bare-Faced Messiah.
Nonetheless, a thoroughly enjoyable, fascinating sometimes infuriating read about one of the twentieth century's great cult leaders. I recommend it.
Another near-masterpiece of science fiction and political speculation, here LeGuin examines two opposing ideals that we know all too well here on earth: the egalitarian collective society versus the hierarchical individualistic society. I know, it sounds kind of boring, but in LeGuin's expert hands we get a compelling, moving story about the only man who had the opportunity to live in both worlds. The setting is the planet Urras, similar geographically to earth and its habitable but resource-limited moon, Anarres. Centuries past, a group of rebels broke off from the society of Urras and instead of causing a civil war, were allowed to go to Urras, where they created a functioning anarchic society. Both societies mutually decide to break off all contact, except for one rocket ship that goes back and forth with basic trade goods and minimal communications.
Shevek, a physicist on Anarres, has succeeded in getting his theories put on that rocket ship and they are so groundbreaking that they garner him an invitation to Urras. The beginning of the book is him getting on that rocket and leaving everything he knows behind. The narrative then breaks off into two threads. One traces his experiences on this vastly different world (the material wealth alone is mind-blowing, but Urras also has mammals and rich geographical diversity) as he begins to conflict with its political realities; the other thread goes back in time to his own upbringing and the conflicts he faces on hishome planet against its own hidden political rigidity.
Both stories are equally engaging, though it is the present one on Urras (the wealthy planet) that really grabs the reader's attention at first. It reminds somewhat of The Man Who Fell to Earth, though Shevek is not here to plead for anything other than increased communication between the two worlds. He enters this wealthy place a hero, but soon learns that he is in the proverbial gilded cage. The government of the host nation (and the wealthiest one on the planet) wants his knowledge as it may be the key to instant inter-galactic communication, thus giving them a huge advantage with the other worlds they have just started to meet. Shevek tries his best to navigate the choppy waters of this highly social world and badly fails in the book's turning point.
Here the origin story starts to get more interesting. We are feeling critical of Urras, but we soon see that Anarres has problems of its own. Shevek's mentor, who controls access to the rocket ship, is jealous and close-minded. When it becomes known that Shevek may be actually going to Urras, political adversaries mount an aggressive attack against him and his clique.
The ending of the book is not explosive, though it threatens to be. Rather, LeGuin zooms out and we suddenly see these two worlds from a new perspective and it is quite enlightening, both for the way we think about what we read and for the way we think about our own world.
It's quite easy to see how these two worlds can be seen as communist Russia and the capitalist west. The parrallel doesn't quite work, because LeGuin is examining these political ideals more abstractly. Divorced from the realities of our earth, she can push both philosophies to different outcomes - but especially the collectivist one, which works much better here. It is cool to see how a collectivist, anarchist society could actually work, what the pros and cons would be, especially given significant material constraints. While I was reading it, I was thinking to myself that I would be pretty unhappy to not have beautiful oceans and mountains and to only eat sweet food once or twice a year. But as you read on, she does a pretty convincing job of making the positive human elements of this society, the true freedom to pursue what you want while being deeply connected to the greater community, very appealling.
Now we're talking. The University of Chicago Press edition of Deadly Edge has a great introduction to Deadly Edge, by Charles Ardai, where he points out how the Parker series softens slightly with the four books ending in "Score" and then kicks into a darker, more intense gear with Deadly Edge and the three that follow it (Slayground, Plunder Squad and Butcher's Moon). He also points out that for many Parker fans one of those 4 is their favourite. That was definitely the case with me, with Slayground being my favourite (and the first one I read). With this third go-around, though, I am holding out on naming a favourite until I am finished. Currently, The Jugger is in first place.
But boy does Deadly Edge make a run for the title! First of all, it starts out with my favourite heist, the robbery of the ticket offices of a stadium during a rock concert. The idea is just cool in and of itself, but it is also so well realized. Only Westlake could so effectively put together the constant throbbing of the 60's psychedelic rock, the decaying industrial architecture and the tense execution of this heist. He portrays the side characters so well (the pessimistic heister and the angry security guard) which adds to the tension and the richness of the situation. Finally, the entire thing is founded on the value of skilled physical labour, with the opening being entirely focused on the logistical details of cutting into and through a stadium roof. Just so good. This is Westlake the master craftsman writing about other master craftsmen, both parties at the very top of their games.
And this is only the beginning. Westlake is not satisfied with this perfectly constructed music box. He needs to jam his pen right into the middle of the mechanism. In doing so, he also demonstrates that he is more than just a master crafstmen. He is also a profoundly observant social critic and her he turns his eye to the idealism of the 60s and its sordid demise. Deadly Edge is Donald Westlake's Altamont. It takes the form of the two "hippie" characters, one a sexless psychopath wearing fringed leather and talking about "taking it easy", the other an lsd-blasted man-child as prone to glee as to savagery. They have discovered Parker's heist and are tracking down the participants one by one, torturing each and taking their money. Their insanity and ruthlessness trumps the skills of the more experienced criminals (there is an interesting generation gap here as well). Until they get to Parker of course.
There is a lot of other good stuff to mention as well in Deadly Edge We get to see Claire on her own again and this time she is not quite as helpless. She shows her inner toughness and smarts in parrying with the intruders long enough for Parker to get back. There is also a horror element here, reminiscent of the grindhouse movies of the same period (Last House on the Left in particular comes to mind). Finally, despite the utter depravity of the hippie thugs and the reader's desire for Parker to completely fuck them up, Westlake still portrays their relationship with some humanity. Their ending does not deliver easy satisfaction for the reader. Westlake was too realistic for that.
Another Parker tour de force. I'm into the home stretch here. Next up, the first Parker I ever read and possibly my favourite: Slayground. Going to be hard to wait.
I just discovered this morning a slew of fantastic comments that I had never approved! For some reason, Google decided that blogger did not actually want to alert me when I had a new comment (a policy change on which I was not consulted), so they have been piling up there since July of 2012. My apologies to everyone if you felt snubbed! Man, there are some good comments there as well. I will respond to each one on the post in question and pray that you will somehow get alerted. In any case, my thanks and appreciation to all of you who have been reading and especially to those who have given me some feedback. You know how it works in this blogger game.
Also, I know I've been a bit lax so far in 2013, but my reading is ongoing. I actually have a bit of a back-up of posts to write but will start to hack away at them. Appropriately, one of the comments was "More blogging, less reading!". From my mother, natch!
Keep turning those pages, people!
Oh and since I have you, let me throw out a recommendation for End of Watch, a 2012 southside LA cop movie. It's not a masterpiece and the plot when it finally happens kind of gets in the way, but the procedural moments of which there are plenty are really fantastic, a nice mix of crazy situations and rich engaging characters, especially the two cops. It's kind of like Cops that old television show scripted by Pelecanos on a cocaine binge.
All My Sins Remembered shares similar themes to the only other Joe Haldeman book I've read (and his most well known), The Forever War: war and time and how they effect the individual. In this book, the protagonist is a Prime Operator, an elite agent for a universal peacekeeping force. He is sent from civilization to civilization disguised as a local with plastiflesh and a personality overlay (which only allows his true personality to come through in moments of crisis). The book is made up of several separate episodes, interspersed with debriefings, without much of a thread beyond the main character to tie it all together. Two of the chapters were actually stand-alone short stories in Galaxy magazine. I don't know if he always intended them to be part of a larger narrative or if he went back and stitched them together to get a book. It holds together fairly well, but more because the concept is cool and the episodes are each quite interesting on their own. The protagonist's fate feels a bit forced precisely because his internal arc only really moves forward in the debriefing sessions and not in the episodes. The things that affect him happen in missions that he only refers to and not ones you read about. The parallel to the Vietnam war and its effect on US soldiers is strong here and I suspect that's what Haldeman was going for. He doesn't quite get there, but it is still an enjoyable read.
I'm starting to question James M. Cain's reputation. This is the second book of his that I have read and while I enjoyed the reading, I found it to be seriously flawed. I did read some other reviews that considered this part of his lesser, later work so I will withhold such a general judgement for now. But I am wary. The reason is that the same flaw that bothered me about Masquerade is the one that makes The Magician's Wife so preposterous: a rigidity and blindness in his approach to sexuality that seems extremely dated. Cain seems hampered by a morality that he himself can't seem to see. So instead of talking around sex like many of his contemporaries did, he hides from it all the while that it is the main mechanism that is driving his storyline forward. It makes for a disconnect for the reader. You are constantly questioning why the main character is behaving the way he is.
The plot here is quite compelling. Clay Lockwood is a super succesful meat salesman. Now I love any book that takes the time to explain the details of a real job and the mechanisms behind this and Cain really does this here. We learn about Clay's role in the early days of food industrialization, selling pre-packaged meat products to high-end restaurants. It's fascinating to read about how he has to explain to experienced chefs that they only need to throw the foil packet in boiling water for one minute before the meat is ready. This is considered the new haute cuisine! So I was quite psyched when the book started. In touring one of his major clients, he meets a super-hot hostess, Sally Alexis, who demonstrates impressive efficiency in the way she runs the restaurant. Circumstances bring them together again and they are clearly attracted to each other. Unfortunately, she is married. To a magician! Not only that, but the magician comes from a wealthy family and they have a young son together. Clay and Sally fall in love. She is unhappy with the magician. He is a jerk. But she refuses to leave him because in doing so she will cut off her son's chance at inheriting his father's money (currently also blocked by her crabby mother-in-law). As the book progresses, she reveals herself to be more and more of a psycho, possibly murdering the mother-in-law and then pushing Clay more and more to help her murder her husband.
It's a classic set-up. The problem is that none of it really rings true. Clay seems like a rational, focused dude and Sally shows herself to be completely psycho early on. She spazzes out and breaks all kinds of fancy art in his sweet penthouse apartment. Why would he bother with her? There is nothing in his character that explains why he would stick with this woman. He is a super eligible bachelor with a fine future. Furthermore, even if her son would lose his inheritance, Clay is very well off and on his way to becoming even more succesful (he gets promoted in the course of the book and is being groomed to run the whole company). He could easily support Sally and her son with a wealthy lifestyle. The only thing that holds it all together is that they had sexual intercourse and that now he is somehow destined to be stuck with her. Except that Cain never tells us this and never dives into it in any interesting way. It's just assumed that it's the 50s, if you bone some chick you are going to go all crazy and make a bunch of stupid decisions that will ruin your life because you have to whatever she wants. It's so weird. So while I'm reading it, I'm quite enjoying all the situations and the characters but I'm not believing any of it and Clay just comes off like the giantest chump ever (and there are a lot of them).
So ultimately a failure, but not a painful one for the reader. Also, the paperback edition I found is quite lovely.
1/3 American, 1/3 Canadian, 1/3 Montrealer, when I'm not working for the planet and living my lucky life, I hang out on the internet and write about culture and language in Montreal, books and movies. I also rant on a wide range of subjects and try to do that here so my wife doesn't have to be the only one to suffer.