Sunday, June 05, 2016

10. The Flower People by Henry Gross

Picked this up at a stall at the Marché de Nuit here, after flipping through it several times.  It's a series of interviews with people from the the "hippie" movement.  It was written in 1968 and while some may find the cover and the idea something to laugh at today, it's actually a pretty cool historical document.  The author is a bit heavy at first with some of his framing, but the vast majority of the interviews are just the various people speaking and it's really fascinating.  There interview subjects range from a young woman who is doing way too many drugs, a head shop owner who is sympathetic to the scene, but also taking care of himself, a bunch of people from a pretty chill commune in Connecticut and a bitter loner who couldn't fit in. 

What was the most eye-opening to me was how self-aware about the scene itself most people seemed.  I thought that things were still in pretty full bloom in 68, but the people here are all well aware of how many of the "hippies" are just upper middle class kids coming in from the suburbs for the weekend, about how commercial things had become and about how dependent (or derived from) drugs the culture was.  It's sort of depressing to see how little we have learned as a society since then.  One guy, a chemistry professor, talks about how he can't wait for us to properly embrace marijuana and study it so it can be understood and applied properly.  That only took us 50 more years and a devastating "war" on drugs and we are only now starting to figure that out.

A good read, but its seriousness made me want to jump back into my Freak Brothers omnibus!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

9. The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr

I've been hunting down the original British versions of Philip Kerr's now classic Berlin Noir trilogy (or close enough that the first three have been reprinted in their own "Berlin Noir" entitled omnibus), since I discovered them at a great open air book market in Amsterdamn.  They only had the second and third and I thought it was a trilogy and so held off on buying them.  I've been looking for the first one ever since, to no avail.  I stumbled on a decent copy of the second one (Penguin, 1991) in pretty beat up condition with a fade spine, so I thought I could actually read it.  But again, I wanted to start with the first one, March Violets.  I was at my friend, paperback aficionado Hannibal Chew's recently and he had the above-mentioned omnibus and lent it to me, but of course I forgot to take it.  So I just decided to relax my stringent policies for this one case and started The Pale Criminal.

I was glad I did, because I jumped right into it.  I was a bit surprised by the tone at first.  It really is a straight-up detective mystery.  I was expecting something else, not sure what, but from the first page, The Pale Criminal follows all the tenets of the form.  The protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is the ex-cop loner with some sadness in his past and a dogged determination to do the right thing, no matter what it costs him.  He gets hired by an obese, wealthy woman to track down some blackmail letters showing her son to be a homosexual. 

After this traditional setup, things do veer into a deeper place, as Gunther gets picked up by the Gestapo for an interview with Heydrich himself, who reveals that there has been a string of serial killer like murders, the victims being blond, female teenagers, exemplars of Aryan youth.  I won't say anything more about the plot, but the storyline does open up and takes full advantage of the Nazi Germany setting.  The mystery is solid, but the portrayal of the Nazis in full power just before the invasion of the Sudetenland as seen by the eyes of a working stiff with some policy authority is what really makes this book resonate.  Nazi Germany and Hitler get thrown around a lot as internet memes and references to fascism, but whenever one is reminded of the actual reality of it, it is profoundly disturbing.  I am fortunate to have had a good high school education with a lot of emphasis on how the Nazis came to power as well as spending some time in college on it.  It really is something we should never forget, because humans unfortunately have an all to easy tendency to head down that road.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

8, Fletch's Fortune by Gregory McDonald

I'm really going back to my original reason for buying paperbacks, which was to be able to carry them with me anywhere and not worry about them getting damaged.  That means I am buying books these days that I don't want to worry about and this Fletch fell into that category (also a dollar).  I remembered enjoying a few of these as a teenager.  This one was just okay.  Fletch is a post-60s anti-establishment James Bond of a journalist who also solves murders.  He can be funny but I think the establishment he is mocking has changed so much that he comes off today as just being kind of trying too hard.  This story takes place at a journalist's convention where the president of the association gets murdered just as it begins.  It got moving near the end, but ultimately lacked weight and I've already moved on.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

7. The Black Company by Glen Cook

Not Tor's finest effort, cover-wise.
It took me forever to read this book.  It comes highly recommended in the well-read nerd community, but the prose style was just not doing it for me.  I think I sort of got it after a while.  It's supposed to read like those gritty war novels, except in a fantasy setting.  I like that conceit, but even with that understanding, I felt distanced.  The setup is cool.  The narrator is the medic and chronicler of a historic band of mercenaries in some fantasy land embroiled in war.  There is lots of cool fantasy battle scenes and fantasy grunts doing what they do in their downtime.  It gets epic, but ultimately didn't do it for me.  Another problem for me, and this may have been the edition, but it is very geographical (lots of strategic discussion about the war and which side has control of which region), but no friggin' map!  Come on. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

6. The Body on Mont-Royal by David Montrose

This is the third and last David Montrose book published by Vehicule Press.  I enjoyed it more than the other two.  Things actually happened, characters interacted and a rough mystery and crime narrative unfolded more or less amidst all the drinking.  It's also really violent, exaggerated to the point of being unrealistic at times (especially the beating the protagonist takes).  Still, it wasn't particularly enjoyable, beyond seeing 50s anglo Montreal in the noir detective context.  Even the portrayal of Montreal is lacking in how insanely un-French it is.  It's like Montrose lived in Toronto, had never met a francophone Quebecois and was writing about some fantasy Montreal.  The only french character is the police detective, who is shown as sympathetic, but not super bright (a Lestrade character basically) but with the goofiest accent. I mean it's fine to do a francophone speaking accented english, but if that is the way they spoke english in the 50s, shit has changed a lot.  This sounded to me more like Pepe le Pew.  I guess that probably does reflect the anglo reality before the Quiet Revolution, but you'd think at least detective fiction would try to portray the underclasses and oppressed a bit more realistically.

Also, I find the cover deeply uninspiring.  They couldn't have paid an illustrator to do a real pulpy cover or just copy the original Harlequin, which is actually quite nice?  I mean compare and contrast:

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

5. Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

My wife picked this up and enjoyed it with some reservations.  It was thin and seemed like an important book in a sub-genre of fantasy.  Also Fritz Leiber (I need to reread his Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories).  It is the story of a successful professor in a small, stuffy northeastern university in the late 40s who discovers that his wife has been using magic to protect him and boost his career. He is a rationalist and believes she is deluded and the book is about the mistakes he makes because of this and his slow realization of the truth. It actually gets pretty intense and all the spell details and magic explanation are well constructed and fun.  The setting too, with the various flawed faculty and their malevolent wives juxtaposed against the free spirit that is his wife and his own independence, is instantly sympathetic.  The ending was a bit pat and deflated some of the import and horror that the narrative had built up.  It's a short and enjoyable read, and lives up to the reputation touted by the publisher.  Recommended.  (heh heh, my wife recommended Conjure Wife.)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

4. Reamde by Neal Stephenson

I was sort of done with Neal Stephenson.  I loved Snow Crash and The Cryptonomicon (the guy who recommended this to me accurately described it as "the kind of book you feel sad about when it is over") but just could not make it through the first book of the Baroque cycle.  So much nerdy diversion that was not in service of the story!  My brother-in-law helped bring me back into the fold first by convincing me I might like Reamde and then by giving it me for xmas.  I picked it up at the end of January and while it was a beast (1000+ pages) I had a hard time putting it down and was able to crank through a huge section during two train rides to Toronto.

It's still really nerdy, but the nerdiness is a light peppering rather than a deep sauce.  Actually, the very foundation of the book is pure nerd ideology.  That ideology says that if only people would base their existence on rationality and skills and not get caught up in social convention, they will then succeed and kick ass in all kinds of situations.  There is some truth to this and it is very appealing to an old ex-nerd like myself.  The dark side of this is the libertarian techbro dolt that we see all too often today and I'm sure a lot of them loved Reamde.  Stephenson doesn't take us down this far because he maintains a human, sympathetic side, but also because the priority here really is the story.

And it's a great, crazy story.  It somehow manages to be both empirical and theoretical at the same time.  It's empirical because he brings in a wild mix of characters and situations, whose behaviour and premises driver what happens next.  Yet at the same time the whole thing is structured into some neat unities (it all takes place in 3 weeks) and maintains several consistent, interesting themes (the virtual world vs. the real world; terrorism as a thing, far right rural wingnuts as real people, family).

Ultimately, it is a teeny bit too American jingoistic and the ending wasn't quite as satisfying as I had hoped (by the time you get to it, you can kind of guess how things will play out).  But the ride itself was thoroughly enjoyable and I will keep my eyes out for his next book.