Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: Turbulence (2013) by Samit Basu

As newspapers have folded or drastically slimmed down as a result of people getting their news and opinion from the web, one crucial piece of collateral damage has been the demise of the newspaper book review. Once upon a time any half-decent book would appear in paperback bearing blurbs from newspapers both large and small, anything from the New York Times to the Kingston Whig Standard. These reviews weren't a foolproof guide to a book's quality, but it was a lot better than the situation we're in now. These days paperbacks arrive on the shelves barnacled with glowing reviews from bloggers, online fanzines, and other authors. The problems here are obvious. The bloggers and fanzines are usually uncritical promoters of most anything that falls into their field of interest, and authors are doing favours for friends, publishers, or in the expectation of getting their complimentary reviews repaid in kind. It's become common to come across cabals of authors in various genres and sub-genres who seem to have nothing but good things to say (in print) about their fellow club members. It's all very cosy and does a great disservice to readers.

Having been burnt several times in the past by novels recommended by authors, I've no one but my self to blame for reading Turbulence. The fact that four of the quoted reviews are from blogs with the word "geek" in their name should have provided ample warning. But wait! I think I'll blame Mike Carey and Ben Aaaronovitch, two of the best writers in the urban fantasy fiction genre, because their gushing reviews of Basu's novel are what made take a chance on it. I won't quote their blurbs, if only to spare them the embarrassment. Turbulence is about what happens when the passengers on a London to Delhi flight arrive at their destination to find that they've all been gifted with superpowers, from the odd to the frightening. What follows can charitably be described as fan fiction for people besotted with Marvel's X-Men franchise. There are cinematic fight scenes, much fretting over the responsibility of having great power, and a lot of B-grade quips. The only creative wrinkle is that all the characters are Indian. Basu had a great opportunity to do something more with his concept, specifically the idea of superheroes all being members of the developing world. One intriguing aspect of comic book superheroes is that at one level they are projections of Western (primarily U.S.) power and ideals. How does being an Indian superhero change what a superhero does? Would the caste system still exist amongst Indian superheroes? From Untouchable to Unstoppable? There are a lot of cultural and political ramifications to the idea of Indian superheroes and Basu hasn't addressed any of them.

The SF/Fantasy field is stuffed with bland and bad writing, and good writers like Carey and Aaronovitch don't do readers any favours by pointing them towards vanilla novels like Turbulence. In fact, they damage the reputation of their genre as a whole by promoting books that any discriminating reader is going to be disappointed by. Clearly, the publishing world needs a superhero who has the power to stop first-rate authors from promoting second-rate novels.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Betty and Veronica Unveiled

When I was a kid my least favourite comic book was Archie. From my point of view it was strictly for girls and it couldn't even claim to be funny. Fast forward to seven years ago when I began working at the library. To my amazement, Archie comics were still around. I had figured that the Archie universe of malt shops, roadsters, proms, and Archie's frankly bizarre relationship with Betty and Veronica would seem hopelessly out-of-date and unappealing to 21st century teens. Not so fast, Jughead. It turns out that kids and teens are still fascinated by the denizens of Riverdale, USA.

And here's the interesting part: in my neck of the woods some of the most avid readers of Archie are Muslim girls, especially the ones swathed in chadors and hijabs. At first blush this might seem odd. How can they relate to two female characters, Betty and Veronica, whose lives revolve around dating and clothes shopping, and who feel free to kiss any boy, any time? No psychology degree required to deduce that Archie serves a wish fulfillment function for these kids. The personal freedoms enjoyed by Betty and Veronica are clearly something these girls covet and dream about. The girls are also reading the usual variety of teen lit titles, especially the ones featuring teenagers with supernatural powers.

You don't have to throw a stone very far before hitting a right-wing politician or commentator who rails against immigrant Muslims for failing to integrate, for not adopting Western standards of dress and behavior. That might be true of some Muslims, but that only makes them like every other group of immigrants. Past a certain age, say thirty, we all become old dogs who are too reluctant or too lazy to learn new tricks. It's the kids who adapt and integrate. The popularity of Archie in the Canadian teen Muslim demographic would be just a cultural oddity if it didn't also point out how strongly young immigrants of all varieties want to participate in North American culture.

And now enter a time machine with me and journey back to Toronto in the late 1960s, a time when the city's most visible and numerous immigrant group was Italians. To we WASPy Torontonians, Italians were a strange race, indeed. We tsk-tsked at their large families; snickered at the shapeless, form-disguising black dresses worn by their women; mocked their accents; and most of all we fulminated about their inability to become Canadian, to speak English instead of that ridiculous language of theirs. From a WASP point of view in the '60s it didn't seem Italians would ever be "Canadian." It's at this point that the "the more things change..." cliche comes into play.

Having grown up in Toronto and seen it become one of the most multicultural cities in the world, it's dead obvious that immigrants of all varieties eventually integrate. Some immigrant groups manage the transition quickly, some do it over the course of a couple of generations. But they've all done it. And judging by the hunger Muslim girls have for Western grrl power literature and comics, their female children or grandchildren will one day be acting like Betty and Veronica instead of just reading about them.

I'll close with a story about the way in which integration can even find its way back to the "old country." I went to university with an Italian girl (I'll call her Sophia) who once told me about the time in the mid-1970s when she and her sisters, all teens, spent a summer in her family's town of origin in southern Italy. Her female teenage relatives in the town noticed that she and her sisters shaved their armpits. Sophia was pointedly told by these girls that only whores shaved their armpits. By the time Sophia and her sisters left for Canada, those same girls had started shaving.

Sophia's story neatly reveals how cultural values can backwash into an immigrant's country of origin through family relationships and friendships. So I wonder what seeds are planted when a girl in India or Pakistan or Iran is given a gift of secondhand Archie comics by a relative in Canada? What does she think when she sees Archie kissing an African-American girl? How does she react to Kevin Keller, Archie's openly gay friend? And what on Earth does she make of Betty and Veronica publicly flirting with boy after boy? I'm not saying that the world of Archie & Co. is an aggressive agent of cultural revolution, but in its depiction of teens living their lives unfettered by ancient tradition, ironclad gender stereotypes, and ruthless social prohibitions, the kids of Riverdale are presenting a seductive picture of a world largely defined by the choices and beliefs of individuals. There's nothing very revolutionary in that picture when viewed from North America, but in the right household, in the right country, it could tilt, even in a small way, the axis of someone's world.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Book Review: The Crooked Man (1997) by Philip Davison

In one of his blog posts, spy novelist/critic Jeremy Duns neatly divided espionage novels into two camps: desk work and field work. A desk-work spy novel is all about spymasters trying to sniff out moles, turn enemy agents into defectors, and divine what the other guy is up to and then frustrate his plans. It's a cerebral genre, and John Le Carre would be the poster boy for it. A field-work novel follows agents at the pointy end of the espionage stick: surveillance, assassinations, dead drops, car chases, shootouts, and having sex with implausibly-named women if your name is James Bond.

The Crooked Man is very much a field-work spy novel. The crooked man of the title is Harry Fairfield, a lowly odd-jobs man for a sub-section of MI5. Harry doesn't even rate an official position, he's simply paid on a per job basis by Hamilton, his ruthless MI5 boss. Hamilton is one of those oh-so-English spies with an Eton tie who can use the word "quite" as a weapon and who refers to his hitmen as "chaps." Fairfield is what Len Deighton's Harry Palmer character (he was only given this name in the films made from Deighton's novels) might have become if he'd succumbed to booze, gambling and the moral brutality of his job. Fairfield is a bit a wreck, hating himself and what he does despite being rather good at it. He's used by Hamilton as an occasional minder for senior politicians, a burglar, and sometimes as an enforcer.

This is a slim novel, but Davison packs a lot of plot into it. The action shifts from London to Dublin to Bosnia, and Harry finds himself at the centre of several murders, including one committed by a cabinet minister that needs to be covered up by MI5. The plotting is excellent, but what makes Davison stand out from the herd is the quality of his writing. Here's a snippet from a scene where Harry KOs a man sent by Hamilton to search his flat:

     He groaned and let out a nauseous whine. His eyes focused on me momentarily, then on the picture cord that bound him.
     "What have you done?" he asked painfully.
     "I've waited patiently," I replied
     "You hit"
     "Oh, I did," I confirmed.
     "What did you hit me with?" he demanded with the same pain evident in his voice.
     "With conviction," I said assuredly. "What's your name?" I asked.
     He wasn't going to tell me.
     "A first name will do."
     He had a tic in one eye that made want to slap his face.
     "Winston. I'll call you Winston."
     No response.
     "Winston," I said, "these days there's a lack of social cohesion that makes it increasingly difficult for us all to decide what we mean to each other...wouldn't you agree?"
     He sneered. I slapped his face hard. He agreed there was a lack of social cohesion.

Davison's dry, acidic prose is wonderful, and there was one particular line that stuck in my mind (but I can't find now) that describes a character as bringing their problems with them like "a kite on a short string." Fairfield isn't only a hardboiled quipster. The backbone of the novel is his moral struggle with his crimes of omission and commission. Fairfield has intense feelings of guilt, and even tries to atone for his sins, which is pretty much unheard of in spy fiction. In this regard Davison is a thematic cousin to Graham Greene, but for my money Davison is the better writer. There are three more Fielding novels after this one, but they seem to be out of print. So here's me off to the used book stores.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Review: The White Tiger (2008) by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger took the Man Booker prize in 2008, and I choose to believe that it won because the jury felt that they'd stupidly overlooked Sujit Saraf's similar, but much better, novel about modern India, The Peacock Throne (my review), which came out one year previously. Adiga's novel is very good, but it feels like an amuse-bouche appetizer before the high in protein main course of Saraf's book. But on with the review.

The white tiger of the title is Balram, once a peasant in deepest, darkest, most backward India, but now the owner of a fleet of cabs in Bangalore. The novel is written as a series of letters from Balram to the Chinese Premier, who is about to make a state visit to India. Balram feels that because he's climbed from the bottom rung of Indian society to somewhere near the middle, he's perfectly positioned to tell the Premier the truth about India. Balram does this by describing how, through luck and one fateful murder, he managed to reinvent himself as a successful businessman in India's capital of hi-tech..

The strength of The White Tiger (and this applies to almost every Indian novel I've read) is that it enthusiastically takes on subjects such as class conflict, the lives of the working poor, the cruelty of unfettered capitalism, and the corruption and viciousness of Indian politics. Modern Western novels rarely tackle subjects such as these, and working-class characters usually only make regular appearances in crime fiction, most often as perps or victims. The White Tiger is not a dire or dreary examination of hard times in India. Adiga, like his Indian peers, uses wit to make the basic horror of Balram's story palatable. Balram is a consistently amusing narrator even as he's describing the noxious nature of village life, or the demeaning and dehumanizing details of master-servant relationships.

Where this novel didn't work for me was in the character of Balram. He's entertaining, but he's also too much of a fictional artifice. The idea that Balram would write letters to the Chinese Premier works well as a comical, but very artificial, narrative device, but that also ends up applying to Balram; he never feels like more than a deftly-handled, but weightless, comic character who wouldn't exist outside the pages of the book. The same problem, to a far worse extent, handicapped Monica Ali's Brick Lane, set in London's South Asian community, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2003 . And Adiga isn't always consistent with his character: one minute Balram is presented as woefully ignorant and the next he's using a word like "oleaginous."

I'm still recommending The White Tiger, but its issues and themes have been handled better and more imaginatively in The Peacock Throne and, more recently, by Manu Joseph in Serious Men (my review). Finally, it's interesting that Brick Lane and The White Tiger both gained Man Booker approval with stories featuring male South Asian characters who are somewhat absurd and/or laughably naive. The more realistic characters of Saraf and Joseph don't seem to fit Western tastes.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review: My Home Is Far Away (1944) by Dawn Powell

Dawn Powell is one of those authors who has received more fame, critical recognition, and sales in death than she ever did in life. Gore Vidal championed her work, and in the last fifteen or so years her novels have come back into print. Powell was born in 1896 in Ohio, and the subject matter of her novels is divided between studies of small town life in Ohio and witty glimpses into the lives of New York's bourgeois bohemians. I read one of her New York novels a few years ago and I can't say that it made much of an impression on me. It was well written, smart, but felt slightly insubstantial.

My Home Is Far Away is Powell's lightly fictionalized autobiography of her childhood in Ohio, and it's one of the best novels of its type I've ever come across. What suprised me the most about it was that it only sold four thousand copies on its initial release, which seems paltry for a novel that should be nipping at the heels of To Kill a Mockingbird for the title of best American coming-of-age novel, Female Division. But then I considered the year it came out and things began to make sense. America was at its patriotic apogee in 1944 and I doubt the reading public would have had much enthusiasm for a novel that put the boots to the Andy Hardy version of small town life that was currently popular.

The character who does the coming of age is Marcia Willard, the precocious five-year-old daughter of a traveling salesman, Harry, and his wife Daisy. Marcia has two sisters, Florrie, the youngest, and Lena, the eldest. The time is the early 1900s and the place is London Junction, Ohio. Harry is the archetypal traveling salesman who dresses sharp, loves to tell a joke, and has a high opinion of himself. The truth is that Harry neglects his loving family and spends money he doesn't have mostly on himself. Daisy and the children scrape by on his occasional largesse, store credit, selling their home baking, and the aid of relatives. Daisy dies suddenly and Harry remarries after farming out the children to relatives. Idah, his second wife, is a honours graduate of Cruel Stepmother College. Between her cruelty and Harry's indifference to the suffering of his children, the family eventually falls apart. The two eldest girls are now teenagers, and Lena moves out to live with an aunt. The novel ends with Marcia running away from home to Cleveland where she hopes to find a new life with some people who are no more than acquaintances.

My basic description of the novel makes it sound like a generic, melodramatic sob story. It isn't. Marcia and her sisters do suffer from abuse and neglect, but an equal amount of time is spent describing Marcia's joy in discovering all the colour and variety in the world around her. She and her sisters are, by and large, raised without a lot of supervision, and that opens up all kinds of worlds and adventures for the trio. They spend, for example, a delightful summer living on a relative's farm, and an extended stay living in a railroad hotel provides a learning experience of a very different kind. Powell crafts her characters with subtlety and feeling, and even the egregious Idah (Powell left her actual stepmother's name unchanged for the novel) seems less of a caricature thanks to the social environment we see her living in.

About that social environment; Powell's depiction of lower-middle-class life in the Midwest is revelatory and detailed. This is a society filled with casual and transient relationships between men and women. Many people marry, but there's often little love involved, but a great many financial considerations. Children are casually ignored, abused or cast-off depending on the financial health of the parents. And everyone is scrambling, with sharp elbows at the ready, to get ahead/advantage of the next guy, As a portrait of seedy, grasping, cynical, street-level capitalism this novel has few equals. This wasn't the sort of book that was going to be embraced in 1944, but now, seventy years later, Harry and Marcia Willard need to take their place beside Atticus and Scout.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

I've enthusiastically detested director Wes Anderson's films beginning with Rushmore, so it comes as a shock to say that I didn't hate The Grand Budapest Hotel. In Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom I found his penchant for toxic levels of whimsy, quirkiness and meta references to be intolerable. What might aggravate me the most about Anderson is that he writes characters who are actually less than one-dimensional. Take any unambitious genre picture and it will be stuffed with single purpose characters such as, say, the lone wolf cop, or the bitchy cheerleader. Anderson's characters are sometimes consist of nothing more than a tone of voice, a particular look, a costume, or even just a raised eyebrow. Anderson's overflowing basket of filmmaking idiosyncrasies have made him the David Lean of hipster cinema, but for the rest of us he's that annoying, precocious child (much like the central character in Rushmore) who thinks the best way to show genius is to be a contrarian. Some filmmakers, past and present, have managed to toy with or subvert the norms of narrative cinema, but Anderson does so in the most shallow, non-threatening way possible.

Having got all that off my chest let me say that The Grand Budapest Hotel managed to hold my interest, largely thanks to Ralph Fiennes performance as M. Gustave, the concierge of a great hotel located somewhere in Anderson's imagination between Grand Hotel (1932) and The Night Porter (1974) and set in the 1930s. Fiennes brings charm and energy to a role that's no more than a pot luck of character traits. The other thing that kept me interested was the look of the film. I'm usually opposed to films that invest too much energy on gaudy set and costume design, but the look of this one fits its subject matter perfectly. Even if the plot and characters are generally tedious, the scenery, both indoors and out, is always imaginatively realized.

As for the rest of film, all I can say is that it's the usual grab bag of movie star cameos, arch acting, and dialogue that sounds as though it was written in italics or with ironic quotation marks around it. Oh, and the character of Zero, a bellboy who has the biggest role next to Fienne's, is the owner of the raised eyebrow I mentioned earlier. He runs around a lot, but his character is largely built around his ability to raise an eyebrow at key moments. At the end of the day I didn't like The Grand Budapest Hotel, but I didn't loathe it, which means that for me Wes Anderson's career is trending upwards.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sex With Travis McGee and John D. MacDonald

Sometime in the 1970s my first foray into reading crime fiction came via John D. MacDonald's series about Travis McGee, a Florida-based "salvage consultant" who helps people recover money or property they've lost due to theft, embezzlement, blackmail or a slick con. McGee keeps half of what he recovers as a fee. In truth, McGee is an adventurer/private detective who just as often comes to the aid of friends as he does clients. The twenty-one McGee novels were written from 1964-85, and were popular at the time, and certainly remain popular with critics and contemporary crime writers. I'd read them in publication order way back when, and I recall enjoying them very much. Up to a point. I remember that as the series wore on the book's became less about crime and more about sex; there's nothing wrong with sexy crime novels, but my impression at the time was that MacDonald was letting his freak flag fly, and it wasn't an experience I wanted to share.

The McGee novels were recently reissued, complete with glowing introductions by writers such as Lee Child and Carl Hiaasen, and since the library has all of them I decided to give McGee another try and see how he'd aged. First off, here's what's still good about MacDonald: he writes about Florida and the destruction of its environment with a prescience and passion that still burns brightly. MacDonald saw with awful clarity that Florida was being raped and pillaged by property developers and politicians, and if nothing else MacDonald could claim to be the first "eco-novelist." In relation to this, MacDonald is also a fine writer when it comes to describing the outdoor life. His descriptions of the natural world, life on the ocean, fishing, the joys of sailing, they all have a freshness and muscular poetry that makes them timeless. Lastly, the plots of the McGee books have a pleasing variety. Murder always figures into the stories, but there's also some complex con or swindle going as well, and the settings for the novels frequently shift away from Florida.

But here's where things get weird and wonky with the McGee novels. It turns out I wasn't misremembering the obsession with sex in the books. It's fair to say that MacDonald was using the McGee books to air his many sexual anxieties and fantasies. But where to start? One theme that runs through all the books is the idea of sexual humiliation and/or enslavement. Various characters, often quite minor ones, are given back stories in which it's revealed that their sexual partner either made them feel so sexually inadequate they had nervous breakdowns, or their partner was so good in the sack they became their sexual slaves. The novel Darker Than Amber has barely got under way before we're hearing about a woman who fetches up on McGee's doorstep after being sexually humiliated by her husband. After some hands-on sex therapy from Travis, the woman is made whole again and is gone from the story. Almost every book has several asides along these lines. And all kinds of throwaway characters only make appearances in the stories (so it would seem) so that MacDonald can dwell on their sexual prowess, their ability to gain a psychological hold over another man or woman simply by through their sexual ability or appetite.

Another theme is voyeurism. In two of the novels McGee lurks outside bedroom windows listening to the people inside the rooms having sex, and on several more occasions he looks through pictures taken surreptitiously of people making love, which has counts as voyeurism by proxy.  In fact, I don't think there's a single novel that doesn't have some scene of mild or major voyeurism.

MacDonald often sees sexual relationships as a kind of infection, something that the mind might resist but the body cannot. When he gets down to describing the nitty gritty of people fucking, MacDonald takes the view that we're helpless slaves to our body's sexual triggers and desires. In Dress Her In Indigo McGee falls into a brief (and irrelevant) affair with an English aristocrat. McGee is initially a helpless victim of her sexual acrobatics, seemingly forced to have pleasure against his will. Our hero eventually manages to turn the tables and make the aristo purr with pleasure, which, oddly enough, seems counter to her wishes. The whole sub-plot is profoundly bizarre. The same novel also features an "incurable" lesbian and a gay man. Both characters are confidently described as having the ability to turn straight people gay. McGee sees the gay man, Bruce Bundy, taking a  straight man under his wing and confidently surmises that within a few months the guy will be speaking with a lisp.

MacDonald's view that we have little control over our sexual selves takes a darker, more disturbing turn in Bright Orange for the Shroud, in which a woman is repeatedly raped one night by a brutish redneck. The rape scene is horrible enough, but what's worse is that MacDonald then tells us that because the woman's husband hadn't been satisfying her in bed, her body, if not her mind, couldn't help but enjoy the rape. Here's how MacDonald describes it:

"But he was so damned sly and knowing, so crafty and patient that each time, even the last tine, he had awakened the traitor body so that while the soul watched, the body gasped and strained to hungry climax, to dirty joy, grasping powerfully."

Yes, dear old John D. also had a taste for rape It's not a subject that's as front and centre as his other sexual obsessions, but it's often lurking in the background.

And getting back to the Bruce Bundys of the world, there's a subtle but definite vein of homoeroticism running through the McGee novels. For one thing, MacDonald sees to have a thing for bears, and I don't mean the kind who steal picnic baskets. In gay culture, large, hairy, masculine gay men are known as "bears," and, as it happens, McGee's best friend and sidekick, Meyer, fits that description to a T. Meyer's chunkiness and hirsuteness is obsessively mentioned by MacDonald, who frequently describes him as looking like a bear or ape. Meyer's not the only hairy hunk McGee meets up with. Here's how McGee/MacDonald describes Boone Waxwell, the redneck rapist:

"He was barefoot, bare to the waist.  Glossy black curly hair, dense black mat of hair on his chest. Blue eyes."

And a bit later:

"He peered up at us through lashes I had not noticed before, dense and black and girlishly long."

Hmm. Travis certainly has an appreciation for a well-furred foe. And Waxwell isn't the only fit, hairy man McGee will meet on his various adventures. Interestingly, Waxwell meets his maker when he leaps off a boat into shallow water and impales himself up the ass on a submerged tree root. Paging Dr. Freud. And then there are McGee's girlfriends. Each novel has Travis falling into bed with one or two women, but one characteristic almost all of them share is a certain mannishness. McGee's women are usually described as fit, athletic, solid, or muscular. No svelte, willowy femmes for Trav. In one of the later novels, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, McGee and MacDonald's taste for butch women becomes more explicit:

"There was big tall lady behind the counter in the office. She had very short black hair and strong features...She stood about six feet high, and though the face was strong enough to look just a little bit masculine, there was nothing masculine about the legs or the way she filled the T-shirt."

The masculinity of Travis' women often goes beyond the physical; they sometimes even sound like men. In Pale Gray for Guilt McGee's love interest is Puss Killian (introduced to us as "a big, stately, random redhead"), and what's striking about her is that she means more to Travis than most of his companions and through her use of slang and her hearty sense of humor, you're left with the indelible impression that you're listening to a man.

MacDonald began his career writing all kinds of pulp fiction in the 1940s and '50s, and a certain amount of sex was the sizzle needed to ship product in those days. The '60s saw pulp fiction get even more sexually explicit, so from that point of view the McGee books are simply surfing the wave of sexiness that helped define that decade. What sets MacDonald apart from his peers is the sheer amount of sexuality in his McGee novels. In novels like Bright Orange for the Shroud and Dress Her In Indigo it feels like the crime plots end up taking a back seat to discussions and depictions of sex. And yet MacDonald stops short of becoming a porn writer because it's clear he's both fascinated and terrified of sex. A porn writer enjoys what he's writing about. With MacDonald you get the impression he can't stop talking about something that scares the crap out of him. What's intriguing is what caused this terror. At times he comes across as a man with horrendous performance-anxiety issues, and at others he reads like a deeply-closeted gay whose constant focus on heterosexuality is a way of distracting himself from his own truth.

All in all, I can't say that the McGee books have stood the test of time. He has a poor ear for dialogue, his attempts at humour are ham-handed, and he gets downright silly and cranky on the subject of hippies and rock 'n roll. But if you're looking to do a master's thesis on, say, sexual paranoia in 1960s crime fiction, MacDonald's a limitless resource..