Saturday, June 24, 2017

Kosygin Is ComingKosygin Is Coming by Tom Ardies
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"He decided that he has fallen into the hands of the Russian version of the Keystone Cops. They were the damndest bunch of idiots he had ever run across. Nothing they did or said made any sense whatsoever."

Exactly! The last sentence of the above quote from Kosygin is Coming (1974) serves as an apt characterization of the novel. Past a certain point in the story nothing that any of the characters says or does makes any sense whatsoever. In my naiveté I have again fallen prey to the Fake Beginning Swindle, where the author cleverly sets up the plot, builds some tension, introduces apparently interesting characters to then let the plot deteriorate to sheer idiocy. Welcome to the Mickey Mouse world of political assassination!

I read the first fifty or so pages of with interest: the plot seemed promising and the writing competent. The action begins in the Canadian War Amputees Association Club, where the amputees are not your usual veterans - many of them seem to be working for intelligence organizations. Interesting. But then something strange happens with the novel: the author begins creating plot twists. First batch of twists are still acceptable, but then there happen twists on twists and starting about page 80 the plot completely stops making sense and becomes a random sequence of events not connected to others in any way. Good bye logic! Good bye common sense! Good bye reason! All characters behave like complete idiots and - worst of all - the main character alternates between being a moron and a genius of survival. Deaths and escapes from certain death abound. One of the characters, a giant named Goliath (how inventive), lifts the entire engine block over his head and throws it into the water to help dispose of a corpse. Another character is named Bjsgrkowski - indeed Polish names have an overabundance of consonants, but certainly not these consonants. Readers may find it interesting to learn what a full colonel of a powerful national intelligence organization does while he is working - here it is:
"[...] he held his arms outstretched, pretending he was airplane, and he started running around the living room that way, making the sounds of the engine [...] 'Rrrrrr. Rrrrrr....' Suddenly he veered and dived headlong into the sofa. 'Ka-boom!'"
The novel could have possibly been funny - the unusual amputee setup is so promising - yet the humor is forced and involves caricature characters or lame jokes about human excrement.

The quarter of a star that I am awarding is for the interesting beginning and for the mention of Squamish and its vicinity: long time ago my family and I spent a memorable night on a camping in this Canadian town on our way to Banff via Lilloet and Kamloops. Otherwise the novel - hailed as a "tightly wound thriller" in the cover blurb - is a disgrace to the genre and a complete waste of time for the reader.

One and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert WyattDifferent Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt by Marcus O'Dair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...]Robert has achieved spectacular success by another definition: longevity without compromise. In politics as in music, he has become a byword for integrity [...] In fifty years of making music, there seems not to have been an insincere note."

For once I agree with the critics. Marcus O'Dair's Different Every Time: The Authorized Biography of Robert Wyatt (2015) won accolades from British music critics: it was selected as the music book of the year by Guardian and Times, among other British newspapers. Indeed it is an excellent book, extremely informative, well-written and captivating.

Robert Wyatt, "one of the greats of English music," is mostly known as the drummer for Soft Machine, the extraordinary British band, during their 1966 - 1971 period. The detailed history of Soft Machine can be found in another outstanding book Out-Bloody-Rageous , which I review here on Goodreads.

Different is remarkably rich in details: we read about the artist's bohemian childhood, how he met his future bandmates in the secondary school, and we learn about his interest in Rimbaud's poetry, Thelonious Monk's and Igor Stravinsky's music, and paintings by Georges Braque. In 1965 Mr. Wyatt becomes a member of Wilde Flowers, one of the founding bands of the Canterbury Scene characterized by "jazz-tinged, pastoral and very English psychedelic rock." In 1966 Soft Machine is born and the band creates some of the best music of the era (to me absolutely the best - but then I am heavily biased).

Yet soon the musical trajectories of Mr. Wyatt and Soft Machine diverge: in fact he is basically fired from the band. The separation is not all the band's fault - Mr. Wyatt has always wanted to play songs rather than the cerebral music based on jazz, avant-garde influences, and technical virtuosity. Depressed and suicidal he creates the Matching Mole band, its name being a superb pun, based on the French translation of "soft machine". He meets a Polish émigré Alfreda Benge, the woman of his life, but then a horrible accident happens: he falls out of a window and gets paralyzed from waist down for the rest of his life. Thanks to Alfreda he survives and spends 40 further creative years in a wheelchair making wonderful music - which includes recording eight successful albums - on the boundaries of pop and avant-garde.

While one needs to distinguish Robert Wyatt the artist from Mr. Wyatt a person, the biography makes it clear that certain amount of crossover cannot be avoided. Usually the artists' strengths come from their force of conviction and in Mr. Wyatt's case the conviction is mainly political in nature: he has always been a left-winger, and quite radical at that. However, even being myself on the left side of the political spectrum I am unable to understand Mr. Wyatt's long-time membership in the Communist Party of Great Britain. Joining the party in 1970s, when the extreme range and depth of Soviet crimes against humanity were well known, can only be treated as lunacy. The author calls Mr. Wyatt a "Marxist jazz fan" but to believe that any communist party is guided by any ideas other than grabbing and wielding total power is akin to hallucinating. Still, even if I am eager to call Mr. Wyatt a complete idiot for his communist sympathies, I admire his music and his singing.

A very good book, meticulously researched and referenced. A great source of information not only about one of the most important and serious artists of British popular music but also about the times from the early 1960s to the current day. No gossip, no tabloid stuff, no name dropping. A sincere and focused book in which the author is basically invisible: almost a five-star book - maybe I will change my rating over re-reading.

Four and a half stars.

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Bitter Feast (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #5)A Bitter Feast by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] threadbare and thin villagers choose cold, hungry, two-month trips in the lowest holds of cargo ships, all packed in the same windowless, rolling room, breathing stale air, never coming on deck, for their chance to work sixteen hours a day on the slopes of Gold Mountain [...]"

My fifth novel by S.J. Rozan - and coincidentally the fifth installment in the Chin/Smith series - has turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The amazingly good Winter and Night set the expectations bar pretty high and the next three novels that I have read and reviewed here on Goodreads were disappointments. Luckily in A Bitter Feast (1998) the author is back to form with an interesting, well-written, and almost cliché-free novel.

The plot opens with a strong scene: members of the Chinese Restaurant Workers' Union are marching for "Justice and a Living Wage" and picketing the Dragon Garden restaurant. Lydia Chin's friend hires her to look for four Dragon Garden employees who disappeared. Since one of them has been an union organizer it is quite likely that the disappearance is related to the labor issues. Other clues also point to a powerful Chinese businessman, H.B. Yang, as having connections to the case.

Soon the pace of the plot picks up, Lydia is assaulted in her office, her employment is terminated, but in a strange twist she is almost instantaneously re-hired by Mr. Yang himself to continue her assignment. Lydia goes undercover as a dim sum lady in the Dragon Garden restaurant. In the meantime a bomb explodes in the union headquarters, and some connections with government agencies begin to emerge. The ending is a bit hard to follow because of several meandering conversations, but relatively plausible until the cinematic climax occurs with its mandatory shootout. Why, oh why?

Despite the silly and pointless shootout I like the book quite a lot: there is much more in it than just a clever criminal plot. The reader is bound to appreciate all the hardships of Chinese immigrants' lives. The oblique, allusive, circuitous ways of Chinese conversations are portrayed convincingly and the reader can even learn a little bit about a dim sum place as seen from the waitress' side. But, most of all, Lydia Chin is a really compelling character who comes across as a real person, with her various quirks and biases. Bill Smith is more in the background in this novel, which is a plus because his character has so far felt not quite convincing. Had the author omitted the gunplay I would have rounded the rating up.

Three and a half stars.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme CourtThe Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme Court by John W. Dean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"There ought to be a woman judge. Lots of women, and it's economic. I'm not for women, frankly, in any job. I don't want any of them around."
(R.M. Nixon, according to transcript of recorded conversations)

John W. Dean was one of the crucial figures in the Watergate affair of the early 1970s, the affair that ended R.M. Nixon's presidency. Of all the principal actors in the affair he might be the one who contributed the most to exposing the President's knowledge of all machinations. The Rehnquist Choice (2001) is not a book about Watergate, though. Mr. Dean writes here about President Nixon's other contribution to political history of the U.S. - one that that might have had even a more significant impact - the nomination of William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court in 1971. As Mr. Nixon said himself in a TV speech to the nation:
"Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court - through its decisions - goes on forever."
Mr. Rehnquist eventually became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the author aptly summarizes the importance of President Nixon's decision:
"The Rehnquist choice [...] has redefined the Supreme Court, making it a politically conservative bastion within our governmental system. Rehnquist's many years of service, and his ability as a legal scholar, have brought about the rewriting of fundamental aspects of the nation's constitutional law."
The book contains extensive excerpts from the transcripts of the infamous "Nixon tapes" that eventually sealed the President's fate and forced his resignation in 1974 - recordings of conversations taped in the Oval Office.

The title of the book is a little misleading since more than half of the book recounts the history of all Nixon's nominations to the Supreme Court. Out of eight seriously considered candidates two were rejected by the Senate, two were deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association, one withdrew himself, and three nominations were successful: justices Blackmun, Powell, and Rehnquist.

The book is rich is historical details and I will focus only on its two main emphases. The author's first central point is that it was in fact he, John W. Dean, who sold the idea that Mr. Rehnquist should become nominated to Supreme Court to people who had significant influence on the President and the selection of nominees. One has to keep in mind that Mr. Dean's narrative may conceivably be biased. I have no way of assessing the veracity of the message: it might be true but neither is it impossible that Mr. Dean aggrandizes his role in history.

The other central idea is that Mr. Rehnquist did not tell the entire truth about his past judicial record during the confirmation hearings and that the truth did not come out because the entire process was conducted in haste. The author's argument is very strong but I am certainly not an expert to take sides. If the message is indeed true, it would make me less happy about the robustness of the confirmation process.

One aspect I do not like is that the distinction between transcripts of Nixon tapes and Mr. Dean's recollections of conversations that had not been taped is not made more explicit. The reader, knowing that most of the dialogues in the book come from tapes, may form an impression that Dean's private conversations are rendered verbatim. But, in fact, the author could have made them all up. I am absolutely not claiming that he did any such thing, I just regret that the distinction is not more clear.

The look behind the curtains of the nomination process, evidenced by conversations caught on tape, is quite revealing. One can really confirm the ugliness of the political process, things like catering to minorities: focusing on whether the candidate is Catholic or Protestant, African American, Italian, Jewish or Polish, and, of course, trying to nominate a woman. Let me quote another passage from President Nixon's rant:
"And she's the best qualified woman but she's not qualified for the Supreme Court. Jesus, that's great. That's great."
We may never know if other presidents tape their private conversations in the White House. If they do, I have no doubts that Mr. Nixon wouldn't be the only one with despicable quotes.

And finally, let me observe how extremely non-partisan the senators were in these times - often voting against the party line on both sides of the party divide. Nothing even remotely similar would be possible in today's polarized political climate.

Three and a half stars.

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Blood Lure (Anna Pigeon, #9)Blood Lure by Nevada Barr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] fog white as drugstore cotton began pouring down, feather-light liquid in stasis, from over the jagged mountain face to the east. Slow and silent in sinister majesty it cloaked the crags, slipped between them and flowed toward the meadows."

National Park system is one of the best things we have in this country; my wife and I have now visited 30 out of the 59 national parks in the U.S., several of them more than once, and we cherish the memories of our trips. So when I started reading Nevada Barr's Blood Lure (2001) and realized that the plot is located in Glacier National Park I got really excited. Indeed, the first part of the novel is, to me, absolutely spellbinding. Ms. Barr writes about places I vividly remember from two stays in the park: Going-to-the-Sun Road, Lake McDonald, Cathedral Peak, and others. Even Kootenai Pass makes its appearance, and I still remember the Kootenai country from Blue Heaven and from our Montana trip. The setup of the plot is absolutely first class and I was unable to put the book away until after 2 a.m.

Anita Pigeon, a ranger in the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, is "on loan" to Glacier National Park - the U.S. part of it located in Montana as the park has also its Canadian part - where she works on a project concerning grizzly bear DNA. Ms. Pigeon, accompanied by Joan, the researcher, and Rory, a young park volunteer, embark on a five-day hike to collect bear hairs from hair traps, set up new traps and furnish them with fresh lure, a smelly blood-and-fish-guts mixture. On the second night they have a dramatic encounter with a bear; the scene is really well written. Rory disappears and, having been alerted by the park's chief ranger, Anita and Joan find a body of a victim of a brutal attack, half of whose face is gone, "cheekbone and teeth [...] exposed, bone and enamel crusted brown with dried blood."

To me the first half of the novel was a totally compulsive read: not only was I captivated with the mystery of the ravaged dead body but the park's forbidding yet magnificent landscapes that I remember from the two visits, the nature, plants and animals, came alive on the pages. Then the author acknowledges that this is a crime novel after all, and begins creating and dropping a number of unusual clues. The criminal plot rapidly grows at the expense of the national-park component of the story. We have several suspects and Ms. Pigeon's investigation even involves such distant places as Florida and Seattle. All this is pretty mundane and ordinary and the second part of the novel has not really interested me that much. The denouement has a rather low degree of plausibility but I imagine it must have been extremely hard to reconcile and successfully explain all the numerous and often contradictory clues.

Hence, even though at the beginning I was certain this would be an above-four-star novel, my hopes have been shattered by the unremarkable second half. Still, Blood Lure is a good read, and the non-mystery bits are quite interesting, like the one about bears and their food sources that very rarely include humans but often the cutworm moths. One can even find a pretty insightful sociological observation (remember, this is 2001):
"Americans were happily forfeiting their freedom of choice for imagined increases in security. [...] People as individuals were giving up their decision-making power because they did not want the responsibility."
I have now learned that each installment of the "Anita Pigeon series" of novels takes place in a different national park. Wow! I have just found a new must-read author.

Three and a half stars.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

The Canary And Other Tales Of Martial LawThe Canary And Other Tales Of Martial Law by Marek Nowakowski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Must be two 'realities': one on the telly, the other in real life. It's unbearable. Here I am: I've just come away from 'life', I sit down in front of the telly, and a different world opens up before my eyes."

December 13, 1981. The imposition of martial law in Poland and the crushing of Solidarity movement. The first weeks and months of the "state of war" - as the martial law was called by the government - were deeply traumatic for virtually entire Polish society whose hopes for freedom from Soviet-influenced ideology have been dealt a devastating blow. Marek Nowakowski's collection of stories The Canary and Other Tales of Martial Law (1982) was written during these horrible first months of the government's war on society.

I lived in Poland during the entire year of martial law: Nowakowski's stories accurately portray the anger, the feeling of total defeat, the hopelessness, and the deep personal pain that Polish people were suffering at the time. Thousands of Solidarity activists were detained, riot police were controlling the crowds, many striking workers were killed, and military patrols were roaming the streets all over the country. In the beginning weeks the entire telephone system in the country was disabled - later the phone calls were possible but monitored - and only one TV channel and one radio station were available. The curfew was strictly enforced.

The pieces in Nowakowski's collection are snapshots of the grim reality, vignettes that reflect the many aspects of life under the state of war; people were in fact comparing the period to the times of German occupation of Poland during World War II. The scenes and sketches combine to form a picture of a defeated nation. Everyone who lived in the country at that time participated in or at least witnessed many situations shown by the author. Police harass elderly people who have lined up in front of a butcher's store well before 6 a.m. - the curfew still in force - because meat delivery was promised. Ordinary people, often the whole families, distribute underground bulletins in which the truth is told rather than the "alternative truth" one can see on the telly. Employees in all sorts of places - offices, schools, factories - are required to undergo a "verification" process: they may be fired just for having dissenting political views.

Two stories stand out: in one a student is forced to betray his friend so that he himself is not arrested, in the other one a father and a teenage son who have never had any meaningful conversation suddenly find out they share the hate for the common enemy - the government. But while the stories are truthful, honest, and totally realistic, I am unable to agree that they are well written, and the matter is certainly not with the translation. This is my first book by the author, a noted Polish writer in the so-called "little realism" genre, so I can't say whether it is the author's general manner of writing or whether the haste in composing this book while the suffering of the nation was the most acute is at fault. In many of the snapshots the author constructs a clever metaphor, one that will be quite obvious to even a less-than-thorough reader, and then he spoils the effort by explaining the metaphor "in simpler words."

Overall it is a worthy read, for historical and sociological reasons, and it provides food for thought: 35 years later one might venture an observation that it might be easier to survive very hard times in a society where 95% of people are of one mind than to live in better circumstances but where the society if bitterly divided about 50-50%.

Three stars.

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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Casino Royale (James Bond, #1)Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold."

In the olden days, when my wife and I were still interested in watching movies, seeing every Bond movie was a compulsion. For many people born and raised in Soviet-dominated Poland Bond films were associated with the anti-Soviet resistance and illustrated the "real freedom" to be experienced only in the West. So we saw all Bond movies continuing the tradition even after we had settled in the U.S. I felt it was high time to actually read at least one of the books on which the movies were - loosely - based. I chose the first installment, Casino Royale (1953), also notable because its movie adaptation was the only comedy among the series.

James Bond, the British intelligence agent, has the double O clearance, which entitles him to kill in the service. This time his task, while equally difficult, seems to be less bloody. He is supposed to bankrupt Mr. Le Chiffre - a Soviet agent and a gambler who defrauded money from French labor unions where he was employed as a treasurer - in a high stake baccarat game at the casino in Royale, France. The long scene of the crucial game, with stakes rising to 70 million francs (only about $200,000 in current money, how unexciting!), is well written and keeps the reader's attention. Of course the whole concept is utterly preposterous but the internal consistency of the plot is retained, and the story makes sense in the fantasy world of 1950s intelligence game.

We meet Vesper Lynd, a stunningly beautiful woman, the chronologically first "Bond girl", and we read about the somewhat unconventional love affair between her and Mr. Bond. The characters of M (Bond's boss), Miss Moneypenny, M's secretary, and Q are introduced. Felix Leiter, an FBI operative, makes his appearance as well. As do agents of SMERSH, the most "efficient organ of Soviet vengeance." So, in addition to high-stake games and love scenes, we also have a street bombing, a car chase, and extended passages of Mr. Bond being tortured. Most of these scenes are unexpectedly well written.

In general, I have been surprised by competent prose, and despite the fact that the novel is almost exactly as old as I am it does not feel that dated. Well, everybody smokes and what's more, cigarettes are not only good for you but also cool and chic, but then today we drink sweetened sodas and eat sweet snacks - activities that 65 years from now will be considered suicidal. What I like the most is probably the fact that Mr. Bond seems to be more human than in the movie adaptations: for instance he cries a little and he can "feel his armpits still wet with the fear [...]"

To sum it up, Casino Royale is a better novel than I had expected, and let me just finish with a quote in which I will omit the last word - read the book if you want to know how the quote ends:
"Bond awoke in his own room at dawn and for a time he lay and stroked his [...]"
Three stars.

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