Wednesday, January 30, 2019

On my initial introduction to Ian Fleming's James Bond

This month, I read a book by Ian Fleming for the first time.

Happily, as it was unplanned, it was Casino Royale, Fleming’s first book to feature James Bond.

The book was darker than expected, more realistic and more than a bit misogynistic. Dark and brooding, Bond emerges as something of an anti-hero.

Until now, my only frame of reference for the Bond books were the movies, which were neither dark nor realistic. And Bond is portrayed more as a suave scamp than cold-hearted killer. The movies were misogynistic, but not to the degree found in the book.

By the mid-point in Casino Royale, (the book) Bond has successfully completed his mission.  What follows is completely unexpected — Bond is taken captive and brutally tortured.  He also discovers that a fellow spy, whom he hopes to marry, is a double agent.  

I had expected pop fiction. Instead, I discovered a dark, noir-ish, spy novel, that stands alongside books by Greene, Le Carre or Chandler. 

It’s awkward to read, but I’ll dismiss the misogyny as a product of its time. Also — I’ll need to read more Bond books to know — but it appears Fleming is using Bond’s betrayal by his lover as character development. I’ll know if, in future books, Bond is a cold, dispassionate killer, using women for sexual relief and never letting another woman, or anyone else for that matter, come to close. 

As for Casino Royale, as is generally the case,  the book is better than the movie.

Book read -- January
1.   Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2.   Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3.   Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4.   Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5.   A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6.   Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7.   Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8.   Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9.   The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming

Currently  Reading --
The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy
Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor
Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson

Monday, January 28, 2019

A space opera, a mystery and a comic book history

Three books for your consideration today.

Neptune’s Brood is a space opera by Charles Stross.  Perish Twice is a Sunny Randall mystery by Robert B. Parker.  The League of Regrettable Sidekicks by Jon Morris is an account of “heroic helpers and malicious minions from comic book history.”

Stross is a gleefully inventive writer.   He has two long-running series — the Family Trade, a meld of mafioso and the multiverse; and the Laundry, a mash-up of Ian Fleming and H.P. Lovecraft. James Bond vs. elder gods, tentacled horrors that regard man as an ambulatory Tootsie Pop.

Neptune’s Brood is a one-off.  Krina Alizond, a metahuman, has set out among the stars in pursuit of a her missing sister.   As she traipses from star system to star system, Krina is stalked by a mixed cast of characters. Some want her dead. Some want to locate the missing sister because of an excessively large insurance policy. 

Krina, and her sister, have have attracted this undue attention because they have stumbled on the secret behind the largest  Ponzi scheme in the universe.  A scheme that involves faster-than-light travel and which, if revealed, threatens to undermine several ill-gotten fortunes.

What separates Stross from the ranks of the run of the mill sci-fi writer is that he’s concocted an elaborate financial structure for star systems. A structure that involves “slow” money and “fast money” and which provides the novel with a certain gravitas.  

Ultimately, like his other books, Neptune’s Brood is fun. It’s a quick, enjoyable read from a sci-fi master.

Perish Twice is my introduction to Robert B. Parker.  Parker is a prolific writer, well-regarded by many, and I think it was inevitable that one day one of his novels would find its way to me.

This book ran to almost 300 pages, but I knocked it out in a day. Full disclosure: there was no football to distract me and the wife was out of town. Still, Parker’s an easy read. Perish Twice breezes along. I just had to turn the pages.

I liked the book. The characters were solid and the plot satisfactorily muddled and mysterious. I surmise a second book by Mr. Parker will find its way to me soon.

Jon Morris is having fun. First there was The League of Regrettable Superheroes, followed by The League of Regrettable Supervillains and now, naturally, The League of Regrettable Sidekicks take center stage.

All three books are best read a few pages each day. Each book ranges from the infancy of comics in the Golden Age through the Silver Age to the Modern Age. Generally, Morris devotes a page of text and a page of illustration to each superhero, supervillain and sidekick.

I was familiar with a few of the characters Morris introduces, others were new to me. 

Morris has done a splendid job in capturing a slice of comic book history.   Most of these characters will never be missed, but it seems fitting to acknowledge their presence and their passing.  

These three books by Morris are a must for comic book aficionados.

Book read -- January
1. Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2. Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3. Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4. Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5. A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6. Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7. Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8. Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9. The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris

Currently  Reading --
The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy
Casino Royale, Ian Fleming

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Newest reads -- a science fiction class and a biography of a flashy newspaper photographer

In the past two days, I finished my first work of non-fiction in 2019 and re-read a classic of science fiction.

The non-fiction book was Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos. The sci-fi classic was A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. 

Bonanos does nothing wrong in this biography of the flashy (pun intended) newspaper photographer. Bonanos prose is readable and his research impeccable, but . . . do we really need 319 pages of prose about Arthur Fellig, the self-styled Weegee the Famous?

No, of course not.  There’s so much here that just not of genuine interest.  I would have preferred a Penguin Lives-style biography of the (semi-) famous newspaper photograph.  

Penguin Lives was a series that ran in the early part of this century.  Each biography was about 150 pages in length, and often written by a notable author such as Larry McMurtry or Jane Smiley.

Because the books were small, even if you weren’t certain you wanted to read a biography of Mozart or Mao or Woodrow Wilson, they were inviting.  Yeah, sure, I can tackle that subject for a couple of days. In contrast, Flash took me two-thirds of a month.  

A Canticle for Leibowitz, a post-apocalyptic novel set in a Catholic monastery in the southwestern United States, was first published in 1959 and won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1961.

I’m not certain, but I must have first read the book between 1970 and 1972.

The novel is comprised of three sections spanning centuries.   Each section originally appeared  in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Miller later made significant revisions as he shaped the material into a novel, expanding scenes, adding characters and increasing the complexity of the story.  

It was the only novel he would write in his long career.

A Canticle For Liebowitz explores a variety of themes, including the struggle between secular authority and the church, the cyclical nature of man’s inhumanity and his tendency to self-destruction.  It is a bleak story, but contains a glimmer of hope.  

It ranks among the best science fiction. Not the wild tales of aliens, space ships and robots, but works like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984 by George Orwell or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

Books not confined by genre, but which speaks truth to power,  probes the human condition, serves as a sobering parable for our times and a warning that we may not find the  future as hospitable as today.

Book read -- January
1. Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2. Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3. Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4. Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5. A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6. Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos

Currently  Reading --
The League of Regrettable Sidekicks by Jon Morris
Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross
The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Dan Fesperman's Lie In The Dark -- first novels are rarely this good

In his first novel, Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman combines the skill of an accomplished novelist with a journalist’s eye for detail.  And he unravels a tantalizing mystery, while vividly capturing the horrors of war.

Lie In The Dark is set in Sarajevo in the midst of the Bosnian cvil war. The chief of the Interior Ministry’s special police is found dead, murdered, his death staged to appear the result of a sniper attack.

The first of many mysteries is why? Was he slain by criminals, worried that an investigation was closing in? Or was he greedy, trying to carve out a slice of the lucrative black market?

Police investigator Vlado Petric is given the job of solving the murder, although no one really seems to want that. One more death amid so many has little meaning, but Petric takes his responsibilities all too seriously.

As he navigates war-torn Sarajevo, Petric finds himself on uncertain ground., He must confront the constant threat of snipers and random cannon fire, food shortages (including a tragic lack of coffee), a people angry and isolated by suspicion and long-held prejudice, a vicious criminal underworld and a government riddled with corruption.  

From such rich material, Fesperman fashions a satisfying tale of greed, duplicity and casual cruelty. Bravery, too. Both Petric and the reader wonder if he will survive his dogged pursuit of the truth. 

Fesperman, who has written a number of fine books since Lie In The Dark was published in 1999, worked in the Baltimore Sun’s Berlin bureau, where he covered Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia during their civil conflicts. 

It’s this experience as a journalist that is the strength of this novel.  Fesperman has an eye for detail,  especially the small, but telling note that places the reader squarely amid the horrors of war.

First novels are rarely this good.

1. Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2. Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3. Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4. Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman

Currently  Reading --
A  Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
The League of Regrettable Sidekicks by Jon Morris

Monday, January 14, 2019

Kubert and Crais, a grim graphic novel and a wisecracking P.I.

Three books completed in the first two weeks of 2019. Three underway.

I commented on Our Mutual Friend in an earlier post.

Voodoo River is an early Elvis Cole thriller by Robert Crais.  I'm unsure why the title is Voodoo River, since neither voodoo nor a river appear in the novel.  It's set in the south, so perhaps that justified the reference to voodoo for some New York editor.  It's an enjoyable read, not the best from Crais, but a nice mystery, leavened with Cole's wisecracking and a budding romance

Cole's partner, Joe Pike, makes an appearance. He talks more in this novel than I remember him talking in later books. I guess that's something. Voodoo River also marks the introduction of Lucy Chenier, the perky New Orleans attorney who becomes Elvis' squeeze and a regular (along with her son Ben) in several of  the later  Cole thrillers.

Yossel April 19, 1943 is a graphic novel by the incomparable Joe Kubert.  It tells the story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising during World War II.   

The power of graphic novels is on full display as a result of Kubert's decision that the drawings in the book would be pencil renderings.

In an introduction, Kubert writes, "My original intention was to first pencil then ink my drawings. But, with my first preliminary sketches, I felt an immediacy in my pencil drawings that I wanted to retain."

It's a sound decision as the starkness of the drawings lend weight to the grim subject matter.

Yossel is a teen-age Jewish boy, living in the ghetto, who has been separated from his family. He has innate talent for drawing; a talent that leads to the attention of German soldiers.  The attention provides Yossel special treatment, including food and safe passage through the ghetto. It also creates an opportunity to spy on the German command.

Comics often entertain the concept of "what if." What if Jane Foster had been Thor? What is Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos went to space? That sort of thing.

Yossel has definite echoes of "what if" for Kubert. Kubert's family left Poland and made their way to America in 1926. In the graphic novel, Yossel's family never leave Poland. Throughout this powerful, sobering graphic novel, Kubert -- through the eyes of Yossel -- ponders what if his family had remained behind. 

Yossel is one of Kubert's finest works. No small feat for this pioneering comic artist.

1. Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2. Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3, Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert

Currently  Reading --
Lie In The Dark by Dan Fesperman
Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
The League of Regrettable Sidekicks by Jon Morris

Friday, January 11, 2019

Launching 2019 alongside the honorable Charles Dickens

My reading in 2019 began, as all years should begin, with a novel by Charles Dickens.

The novel, in this instance, was Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. This is a book I had not previously read, and I felt it was time I added it to my life-time list.

I found it to be a fine novel, typical of previous works by Mr. Dickens, defending the poor and downtrodden, condemning hypocrisy in society. It is sentimental, but I am sentimental, so I am not bothered by the prevalence of Dickens' tendency to the romantic or the happy ending.

I like happy endings.

Dickens remains my favorite writer.  Our Mutual Friend was his final complete book. He died before finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Currently Reading

Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
Voodoo River, Robert Crais
The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris

Monday, January 07, 2019

Books & Brews . . . a novel approach

Today's New York Times (on-line) carried an interesting story about a start-up in Indianapolis that features Books & Brews.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Currently Reading

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos

November Road -- Thoughts on Reading in 2018

I read 146 books in 2018. That’s the lowest amount read since I completed 135 books in 2011, and a significant drop from recent highs ranging from 180 to more than 200 books a year.

Travel, thrice weekly work-outs, and various other activities, accounted for most of that decline.  (When I set out on a trip my most demanding decision is not what clothes to pack, but what books to take. Flying, in particular, presents an opportunity for hours of uninterrupted reading. Still, when traveling, entire days go by when I do not open a book.)

To reach previous highs would have required me to read three to four books more each month. While that is something I could do, or might do, the total for 2018 is not only reasonable, but more leisurely and less compulsive.  

Moving now from my reading habits to my reading list.

In truth, the list does not represent everything I read this past year.  Magazine and newspaper articles, comic books and comic collections are not listed.  What you find here, instead, are books only. A few of the titles here might stretch your definition of a book — Lynd Ward’s woodcuts, for example, have no text.  His “novels” are no less powerful for being composed of illustrations only.   Others might question the presence of graphic novels.  I, however, am especially  fond of that combination of text and illustrations.

Also, this year-end summary does not constitute a “best of” list. I’ll leave that to the New York Times and other publications, on-line and off, that have a host of reviewers who, combined, can read far more books in a year than I can.

The books I choose to single out are the books I most enjoyed. They are books, I believe, you might enjoy too, which is the reason I assemble this year-end review.

Let’s start with non-fiction.  In general, I greatly prefer fiction to non-fiction, yet this year there  were some extraordinary works of non-fiction.  Those books I enjoyed most, in no particular order, were:

Ali — A Life, Jonathan Eid
Packing My Library, Alberto Manguel
The Boys In The Boat, Daniel James  Brown
Killers of the Flower Moon, David Gann
Cartoon County, Cullen Murphy
Bad Blood, John Carreyrou
The Library Book,  Susan Orlean
The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell

The works of fiction I most enjoyed were:

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles
Don’t Skip Out On Me, Willy Vlautin
Circe, Madeline Miller
Safe Houses,  Dan Fesperman
Reamde, Neal  Stephenson
Transcription, Kate Atkinson
Girl, Balancing & Other Stories, Helen Dunmore
The Witch Elm, Tana French
November Road, Lou Berney

If you were to ask me to pick one book among this short list to put in your hands it would be Lou Berney’s November Road. It is a fresh take on the suspense novel. 

A few additional comments:

Returned to several old favorites this past year, including the science fiction classics Dune, Ringworld and Footfall.  All were as good, or better, than remembered. 

I can't tell you the last time I read Alice in Wonderland, but we’re talking decades.

Stubbornly completed Ben Bova’s Grand Tour series.  Stubbornly, because Bova can be a  clumsy writer.  His characters are one dimensional — either all good or all bad, rarely shades of gray — and given to using oaths that or no longer in use now, let alone 100 years in the future. His science is solid, though, and I like his vision of the future.

Book series that I recommend: Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series, which is also a good source for recommendations on country music;.  Joe Ide’s three-book series on Isaiah Quintabe (IQ), his Sherlock Holmes of the hood; the Laundry series from Charles Stross, a low-culture blend of espionage and Lovecraftian horror; and anything by Bernard Cornwell.

On the complete list you will find a smattering of books in what I broadly consider graphic arts. Graphic novels are here, and also biographies on a number of creators, including the men behind Mad Magazine and Krazy Kat.  

*Any errors in this post are purely the result of your imagination.