Sunday, May 3, 2020

Bourbon Penn 20

Bourbon Penn 20. Erik Secker, editor. March 2020.

Bourbon Penn 20 can be read (or purchased) online at Bourbon Penn
Bourbon Penn 20 on Goodreads


Overall Rating:     7/10



It's been a couple years now that I've been reading Bourbon Penn. As with most primarily online periodicals, I tend to read a story or two, and move on. Consistently impressed with the quality of the stories in BP, I've been meaning to read through an entire issue, and I managed (nearly) to pour through their latest issue, Bourbon Penn 20, in two days. (I write "nearly" since the last story followed a two-day hiatus.)

Yet read through the issue I certainly did. Half a dozen stories and none of them bad. Each with a dose of suspense injected into its own unique universe, mostly dark. Though I enjoyed each story, I do have a favourite: Mark Pantoja's "The Replacement," which struck its emotional cord at a hefty pitch.

The cover art is by John Brosio, titled "Fatigue (Version 2)." It is accompanied by a good personal essay on his experiences studying art.


Smilers by Chris Hauser     7/10
Six year-old Aiden wants to go to the pool and hit the high dive, but his big brother Zack can't tear himself away from a zombie shoot-'em-up. Meanwhile dad has been in the kitchen for several days, reading the same paper. A very good and surprisingly sad apocalyptic world, where the setting takes back seat in the mind of a six year-old in a wolf mask who wants nothing more but to spend time with his big brother.(Aidan & Zack, from A to Z... interesting.)

The nature of the apocalypse is not the point of this story, but it is nicely conveyed to the reader. This can be challenging when seeing the world through a six year-old's eyes. Good descriptions, good detail, and a good ending make for a memorable story.


Crescendo by Chelsea Hanna Cohen     7/10
Selena speaks in numbers, while Charlotte speaks in music. Quickly they fall in love, and everything runs smoothly until they meet Mark, who also speaks in numbers. Immediately, he and Selena are able to speak and understand each other at a rate Charlotte can only wish to achieve. The story presents the idea that how we get along is on par with how effectively we communicate, and then challenges that idea. Another well written story with realistic characters in real scenarios, regardless of their methods of communication. A nice example of how fantasy can convey concrete emotions.


The Replacement by Mark Pantoja     8/10
A young boy has returned home following a long illness. He remembers little of his pre-illness days, and is concerned that his mother appears not to want to have anything to do with him, despite his father's sympathetic and logical explanations.

Suspenseful, surprising and touching. I was gripped throughout and felt satisfaction at every turn in the plot.


The Kool-Aid Stoppers by Elisa Abatsis     6/10
In a society where people travel into the past to rectify human error, our narrator has travelled to 1978 Guyana to help halt Jim Jones, prior to the Jonestown Massacre. Despite the setting, the story opens with a good deal of humour. There is a major tone shift, as the narrator, like the narrative, removes the defensive humour cloak to reveal the private agonies underneath.


We Aren't Violent People by E.C. Barrett     6/10
In a post-flood apocalyptic world, a young woman must contend with being the new leader of a small segregated community.

The narrative bounces ideas of basic survival against notions of human kindness, not unlike those presented on The Walking Dead. The title has the implication of a "but," which is appropriate for its main theme.


Emptying the Bunkhouse by Vincent H. O'Neill     7/10
In a corporate-run future, seemingly governed by robots, convicts are offered freedom if they take part in the collection of all-important spheres in a complex series of caverns. The catch is that the environment is inhabited by hostile creatures that like to snack on humans. The "Bunkhouse" is their boat that drops them off each day to collect their quota of spheres, whereas the "emptying" can refer to a couple of things I won't give away.

Launching off from a premise borrowed from Stephen King's 1985 novella "The Mist," to the extent that the environment is early on referred to as "the mist," the story soon veers away from King to become something very much its own. A more complex plot than I was expecting, I enjoyed the story quite a bit, as it kept surprising me with its plot shifts. Primarily a futuristic science fiction adventure piece, with elements of monster horror and a dash of social and technological criticism, it all meshes together nicely.


Thursday, April 23, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 1969

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (March 1969) - The Alfred ...Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Volume 14, number 3. HSD Publications, Inc. March 1969.


AHMM, March 1969 at Goodreads
AHMM, March 1969 at The Alfred Hitchcock wiki

Overall Rating:     6/10

Overall, a very middle ground issue with no exceptional stories, though nothing truly atrocious either. Three stories featuring some kind of kidnapping, two others with hostages, and two stories featuring gambling. Then we have one bank robbery, one serial killer and a snake. Not to mention some surprisingly strong violence. My favourite story is Michael Zuroy's "The Experts," followed by the Robert Colby novelette, "Dead Stop on the Road South," and Malcolm Thompson's "One for the Money," along with perhaps the opening tale, Max Van Derveer's "The Gambler." A couple of forgettable tales which, at the risk of bringing undeserved attention to them, I will not mention up here.

An ugly orange cover which features an interesting detail. Hitch's left shoulder is coloured in a little. Initially, I thought my copy had been felted by a previous owner, but noting the same detail on cover images available online, this effect was the original intention. Or an error in the original print.

My favourite section is this friendly notice to help support local magazine sellers.

Three of the stories in this issue were reprinted in AHP anthologies. The Robert Colby novelette "Dead Stop on the Road South" was included in both the standalone Alfred Hitchcok's Rolling Gravestones (1971), and a decade later in Tales to Make Your Teeth Chatter (1980), which is probably where I first read it as a kid, though I had no recollection of the story. Michael Brett's "Images" was included, also in 1971, in I Am Curious (Bloody), while Frank Sisk's "The Return of Crazy Bill" found its way into Alfred Hitchcock's Grave Suspicions (1984).

And onto the stories...


The Gambler by Max Van Derveer (pp. 2-20)     6/10
To clear a large gambling debt, talent agent Mina Tilton is forced to allow her hottest young star, Academy Award nominated Sydney South, to be kidnapped for ransom. A fairly tense and fast-paced story, and though we know Tilton will get her deserved dues, there is a nice surprise waiting at the finish line.

The story presents us with an interesting moral conundrum. Protagonist Tilton is presented as selfish and compulsive, both as a gambler and once wife throwing herself at other men. Yet she is a victim here, and the real criminals do not get their own dues. Granted since the story is focused on Tilton, and the emphasis is on her own a-moral behaviour, this falls nicely within the story's scope. It's when we think beyond scope that we realize no real justice is done. Even the intelligent detective is duped.

A note on the interior illustration. This drawing captures a moment in the opening scene quite nicely. Only Chip, the man behind the caper, is dressed in a dark suit with a burgundy tie. The illustrator, normally accurate with story details, decided instead to go for a comfier look.


One for the Money by Malcolm Thompson (pp. 21-29)     6/10
Another story about gambling, and in one we actually witness some bona fide gambling. Former boxer and convicted conman "Pug" works at a casino, cleaning toilets and ashtrays. Wanting to escape his dead-end life, he forcefully borrows two thousand dollars from a small-time money lender, leaving him tied to his chair with a promise of repayment, and hits the craps tables.

A good story, and though the ending might be predictable, it does not diminish the tragedy. A short piece, everything is intended for effect, and Thompson does well in providing exactly what is needed for a story.


Snake in the Tower by George C. Chesbro (pp. 30-38)     6/10
Elevator worker Burt Abele is unhappy with the up-and-down monotony of his life. Furthermore, as we he wallows in self-pity at a local diner, he is keenly aware of the unhappiness of everyone around him. As a challenge to the static nature of modern existence, there enters a man with a basket containing a deathly poisonous king cobra. Of course the reptile is freed, and eyes potential victims.

What works in this story is not the minimal plot, but the narrator's outlook on the world around him. People cannot change, he thinks, and later becomes aware of how different people are in the face of death.

Author Chesbro is, of course, the author of the Mongo the Magnificent series. The first novel, Shadow of a Broken Man, was published in 1977. This novel originated from the novella "Strange Prey," first published in the August 1970 issue of AHMM.


One Way by John Lutz (pp. 39-43)     6/10
A police officer patrols a low income area, in search of one Tony Randello. Well written and interesting until it becomes obvious. That last section with an expository explanation is a little lazy, but decent enough.


The Nose Blows by Rose Million Healey (pp. 44-57)     5/10
Miss Ade of the Ade Agency, along with partner Ted Tierney, investigate the disappearance of a missing, well-to-do girl shortly before her wedding. Her parents are certain she was kidnapped, but appearances suggest she has run off on her own.

Amusing enough, with tidbits of wittiness scattered throughout, the humour both self-deprecating and aged. I was interested to a point along the search, but the denouement was less uninteresting than the investigation. The story proves itself to be more of a comedy than a mystery, and since the humour is slight, as a story it falls flat.


Bon Voyage by Jaime Sandaval (pp. 58-63)     5/10
Lane Johnson meets a beautiful Linda Wilson at the San Francisco airport, and with half an hour to kill before their flight, they sit in the bar for a drink. There, however, they are accosted by a drunken man they have difficulty getting rid of, and agree to play a small wager in order that he leave.

It is difficult to get more average than this. Not a bad story by any means, but predictable from the get-go, so the reading slogs along until we reach an obvious finish, which is unfortunately over-explained.


The Typewriter Shop by Earle Lord (pp. 64-77)     5/10
In search of a specif, older model typewriter, Rudolph Valentino Cirino visits the Typewriter Shop, oddly situated between a meat-packing plant and a record-pressing warehouse outside Los Angeles. He receives some rough treatment from three large thug employees, and is soon embroiled in some illegal goings-on. He and a beautiful passerby are immediately arrested, and some generic plotting ensues.

Another very average story, I had difficulties with this one. First of all, why would a successful crime syndicate send thugs to attack a potential customer in what is clearly a front. Just send someone to help keep up the facade. Is making such idiotic decisions what makes a person a crime lord, only to get taken down by a physical education instructor?


The Strangler by James E. Thomas (pp. 78-85)     6/10
Over the past three months, a serial killer known as "The Strangler" has been claiming two victims a month, one during each of the first week of the month, and another during the last. It's 1:30 in the morning, the last night of the month, and so far no victim has yet been claimed. In a bar near the train station, on a rainy night, a small group of people gather: the bartender, a regular female customer, a stranger waiting for his train to depart, and the police investigating the case of the strangler.

While the premise and the set up are quite good, the identity of the strangler is evident early on. Despite the obvious manipulations contrived by the author, the reader`s assumption will not be diverted. Too bad, since it could have been a better story.


The Experts by Michael Zuroy (pp. 86-95)     7/10
New York City bus driver Radford Mulligan is content and overly protective of his suburban home, resentful of anything, or anyone, that disturbs his quiet existence. A serial thief known as "The Creeper" has been silently robbing homes in the neighbourhood, and yet the thief does not worry Mulligan, though he scares his devoted wife Libby. Instead of worrying about this successful thief, Mulligan develops an unusual obsession: to kill the neighbourhood plumber. R. Kropowicz, the only available plumber this side of Queen's, is reputed for his shoddy and overpriced work, and as a result brings chaos to Mulligan's otherwise quiet and comfortable existence. Wife Libby, however, able to read his mind, advertises his intentions to the neighbourhood police, who warn him to leave such things to the experts.

A surprisingly enjoyable story with a nifty ending. The tone is light but not comical, and Mulligan's musings of how he would murder the plumber is entertaining. This story works on pretty much all required levels.


A Gun for a Kingdom by Anthony Marsh (pp.  96-108)     4/10
On the run from the local sheriff, a small-time crook holds up a cabbie and his niece at their cabin. As they wait for the law to show up, he confides to the cabbie the events that led him to his current situation. Small crime to religion and quickly over to desperate, violent crime.

Not a very good story. Surprisingly violent and with a point that is more than a little fuzzy. The criminal, regardless of his experience and victimization by society and the local church, does not carry much sympathy, and the cabbie, less a character than a device, is just as bland. Even that little crying niece does not serve her purpose. I didn't care how the hostage situation would end, only that it would end quickly.


Images by Michael Brett (pp. 109-115)     6/10
Two weeks after the disappearance of Oscar Middleton, a man in serious debt to a group of loan sharks, Mr. Orange receives a visit from a pair of police detectives. He was the last person who appears to have seen Middleton, having dined with him at a restaurant the night he seems to have disappeared. Furthermore, the police bring up additional cold cases where Mr. Orange happened to be the last person to have been seen the disappeared party. Cool and co-operative, Mr. Orange claims he is no murderer, and the police, despite the logic of their investigation, have no proof.

A passable story, and like many in this issue of AHMM, fairly predictable. I do like the name Mr. Orange.


A Hearing Aid for Carmody by Stephen Wasylyk (pp. 116-128)     6/10
As part of their standard M.O., a pair of serial bank robbers take a civilian hostage from the bank to ensure a safe getaway. Shortly after having driven off, however, they notice there is no pursuing police, and in addition, that their hostage has a bit of a deathwish. A decent story despite the weaker, sentimental wrap-up. The crooks are a little inconsistent: early on portrayed as strictly professional bank robbers, then transforming into potential cold-blooded murderers.

Wasylyk (1922-1996) is among the most consistent contributors to AHMM, publishing several stories over a span of thirty years (1969-1998). He has also published frequently in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. His name is among the most familiar from the AHMM issues I used to devour as a kid, but his stories were never among my favourite.


The Return of Crazy Bill by Frank Sisk (pp. 129-137)     6/10
Reading through the paper one morning, our narrator recalls childhood days and the likes of the neighbourhood oddball known as Crazy Bill. The story follows the innocent summer game of a group of boys convincing each other that the grizzled man lives in a cave and abducts children. A good little story with a quick and neat little finish, which brings clarity to the story's title.

Like Wasylyk, Frank Sisk (1915-1985) was also a frequent contributor to AHMM. He too contributed regularly to EQMM, along with Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine and The American Mercury. His short story "The Flat Male" (which appeared in two AHP anthologies: Down by the Old Bloodstream (1971) and A Hearse of a Different Color (1972)), was adapted for a 1972 episode of Night Gallery. Its reprint in the second anthology one year later is likely to have been inspired by the adaptation.


Dead Stop on the Road South by Robert Colby (pp. 138-162)     6/10
Successful real estate investor Stanley Sherwood and his wife, Barbara, are driving from New York to Florida. They are pulled over one evening for speeding, by a small county police deputy and escorted to the sheriff. At the station they are promptly arrested for driving a stolen car and placed in a jail cell. A scam, certainly, and as Stan sits alone in his cell, other victims are being brought in.

A pretty good story, this one. The victims are not very sympathetic characters, and it is a good touch that there is no clear heroic figure, nothing like the forced hero in "The Typewriter Store." We do sympathize with them, however. They are somewhat-but-not-quite-average people, yet the bad guys are pretty despicable, so we cannot root for them. Might have been interesting to read a version with less vile crooks.

The deep purple detail here is good, down to the burn on Sherwood's cheek, and placing the doors and shotgun where they ought to be.



Friday, April 3, 2020

Peter Straub, Ghost Story (1979)

Straub, Peter. Ghost Story. NY: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979.

Ghost Story at Goodreads



Rating:     8/10


Ghost Story by Peter Straub.jpg

There is a pattern to a Peter Straub novel. Consequentially, there is a pattern by which I read Peter Straub.

The first three quarters is taut prose, excellent character-building alongside a suspenseful plot: a mystery with some element of the supernatural. The next portion elevates the supernatural, as our characters choose to battle against evil forces. The final portion is exaggerated, a great climactic explosion while, for the most part, the characters have stopped evolving and, as they go all out against evil forces, threaten to become sentimental.

My reading pattern sees me glued to that first portion, interested still during the second, and unfortunately (but not always), disappointed by the finale. This was the case with Floating Dragon, which was proving to be my favourite Straub until that finish, and Shadowland which I read too long ago to truly reflect on. An exception is Mr. X, which despite some exaggerated fantastical elements, held me throughout, particularly as a result of its complexity.

While Ghost Story does follow this pattern, neither the fantasy nor the end are too outlandish, and the novel holds up well from start to finish.

Though a celebrated genre writer, Straub is foremost a stylist. His writing is patient and conscious of language. Atop this, his delineation of character is excellent, and makes the horror elements of his work truly threatening, in that we are interested in the people caught up in the tensions of his universe. Had the townsfolk of Milburn been generic slasher victims, we just wouldn't care much about them, and rather than sympathize with their situation, we may even root for evil. In addition to strong characters, and unifying those characters, is the character of the fictional town of Milburn, New York. The geography is among the best captured in a novel, elevating the basic function of setting.

Five elderly men of Milburn make up the Chowder Society, gathering regularly to share ghost stories. A year ago one of the men died, and now a second has also fallen victim to unusual circumstances. These men are strongly linked to one another, to their town, past, and through the malevolence of the woman hunting them down. Linked also to the folk tales that come full circle with their storytelling, and the title is only a representation of something greater, so that an arguably more appropriate title would be Creepy Folk Tales. The idea is that the evils our minds have conjured up in our folk years, in the form of ghosts and werewolves and vampires and changelings and the rest, are the result of a single malevolence that appears sporadically through time to wreak havoc in any given part of the world. In this novel that malevolence is seeking vengeance.

A truly fascinating concept. Interestingly, my attention was absorbed by the character relationships and the town, more even than by the evil spirit. It is as though the novel is primarily centred on these relationships, and the malevolence is introduced as an obstacle to test the relationships, like a death or a divorce or a car accident. Will these good folks pull through and overcome this situation? In all honesty, I would be intrigued by a Straub novel focusing on relationships with no element whatsoever of the supernatural. But he appears to have retired from writing.

On a side note, my copy contains one unusual printing error. Several pages repeat themselves: when you come across page 314, you can turn to page 283, and make your way back up the repeated thirty pages. I have the first edition but not sure which printing, and I wonder how much those thirty pages multiplied by the number of copies printed, cost the publisher (or printer). (Or forest.)





Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Jason Heroux, Good Evening, Central Laundromat


Heroux, Jason. Good Evening, Central Laundromat. Quattro Books, April 2010.

Good Evening, Central Laundromat at Goodreads
Good Evening, Central Laundromat at Quattro Books




This review was salvaged from oblivion by author Jason Heroux. It appeared in the online cultural journal The Rover in July 2011, and, as is the fate of many web journals, The Rover is a thing of the past. Since unlike print we don’t have copies floating around, it is left to readers to print or repost content in order for the review to remain in circulation. Luckily for him, and Mr. Heroux himself, he posted the entire review on his blog.

And now I am reposting it here.

The novella, little read it seems, is worth hunting down, and I am looking forward to a re-read.


RINSE CYCLE

Cameron Delco’s girlfriend Viola is losing her voice, his friend Ray has asked him to attend his assisted suicide, and a pigeon has taken up residence in the Laundromat he and Viola own and operate.
Cameron is the narrator of Jason Heroux’s surreal novella Good Evening, Central Laundromat. Though a fairly average guy, Cameron proves to be an appropriately passive narrator for these events. He takes things in stride, acknowledging the odd occurrences but unwilling or unable to consider their significance. The world around him seems to be changing, yet Cameron himself is slow to develop.
Cameron is the glue holding his world together. Simply by maintaining his routine — from running the Laundromat to attending to Ray — a strange new reality takes shape around him. Though he refers to Ray as a ghost, it is in fact Cameron who is wandering through life without leaving a solid impact on the world. Ray, on the other hand, is obsessed with his own place in the world. “I know I’m already dead and everyone’s just pretending I’m alive,” he tells Cameron after failing at his first suicide attempt. “I was hoping if I went through the motions and killed myself I could finally end it all.”
Good Evening, Central Laundromat is an attractive and slim little book, part of the Quattro Books novella series; a great series that has allowed this unique and highly entertaining read to find an audience. It is a surreal work filled with healthy ambiguity, dealing with notions of existence, of going through the motions of living, and of our impact on the world and the people around us. The prose is simple and straightforward. This allows the odd elements to appear natural so that, like Cameron, we are able to accept these events at face value and move ahead. Of course there is a great deal happening beyond the surface and we read on intently, wondering whether Cameron can awaken and break the tired cycle that has become his life. The Laundromat, with its own cycles, is emblematic of both Cameron’s routine and his unwavering commitment to that routine. The title itself is ambiguous, referring to Cameron’s telephone greeting while also evoking his daily presence at the Laundromat, as though he were greeting it.
The dialogue is excellent, the conversations natural whether the topic is infused with the commonplace or by weighty observations. There are some nice touches to enrich the mostly straightforward prose, from elegant similes to ambiguous statements: “I couldn’t hear any traffic,” Cameron says when trying to sleep. “The roads were clear. Everybody was where they had to be and no one was going anywhere.” The greatest irony is that the only character seemingly going somewhere is the one who believes he has already died.
With Good Evening, Central Laundromat, Heroux has succeeded in creating a unique work that is simultaneously thought-provoking and entertaining. It is great to encounter a work that is not only unique but refreshingly well written.




Thursday, December 19, 2019

Thomas Tryon, The Other (1971)

Tryon, Thomas. The Other. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, May 1971.


The Other at Goodreads


Rating:     8/10



The tagline to the 1976 Fawcett Crest paperback edition of Tom Tryon's first novel reads: "You have never read a novel like this one." The proclamation, as bold as it is, is fairly accurate, even as we near 2020.

Image result for Tryon, Thomas. The Other.Well into the economic depression of the 1930s, the Perry family lives in relative comfort, subsisting on the meager yield of their aging farm. During this particular, sweltering summer, thirteen year-old twins Holland and Niles pass their time playing imaginative games and guarding their little secrets. Yet the atmosphere is heavily strained, and their relationship seems to be deteriorating as the family is dealing with the tragedy of their father's recent, violent death. It is the story of a family suffering from depression, amid a broader societal Depression.

An incredibly well written novel, whose suspense and horror is overshadowed by genuine family tragedy. Stripped of its horror, The Other would be just as effective as a family drama, as its characters are excellently drawn, including the bit players in the New England town. As with most successful horror novels, we feel the tragedy that the members of the family experience because these people are so very real, and even if we do not like them, because they are so real we nonetheless empathize with what they are going through. The mother who is practically bed-ridden in grief; the preferred son who feels the need to minister to his mother; the grandmother who must care for that fragile boy whose entire family has, in some way, abandoned him; the guilt-ridden groundskeeper who suffers for an act of which he is not guilty; the grieving aunt and uncle; the pregnant sister about to bear her child.

These characters live in a contained environment that becomes so vivid as we read, Tryon might as well have drawn us a map. Sheltered in this wide open yet nonetheless claustrophobic environment, we see the events, both minute and tragic, through the eyes of the good twin. Niles, sensitive and caring, looks up to the cruelly mischievous Holland. Because Holland appears to have distanced himself from his brother and the farm, Niles is left to wander near aimlessly around home and town, immersed in his imagination and watched by his Ukrainian grandmother. Alongside his meanderings, we learn of family history and family dynamics.

Whereas many suspense novels of the period, including Tryon's strong 1973 follow-up, Harvest Home, have in the modern era become fairly predictable, The Other retains much of its initial power. It is not just the effective ending, but other unexpected revelatory incidents throughout the novel that strain our emotions. Because the novel is patiently paced, the build-up and end-result creep up on the reader, and I found myself to be more immersed in this world than I thought I was while actually reading. It's as though we were placed in a slow-boiling cauldron, comfortable at the outset, unaware that we are in fact being cooked alive. (With apologies for the analogy, but I recently completed Shogun.)

Well worth a read, even if your copy is as dilapidated as this one.

For additional information on The Other and its author, Thomas Tryon, please read this enjoyable and informative article by Grady Hendrix.


Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Aside: Now that was a good book! The Pleasures of Reading Dilapidated Books




Finished the novel at the local Tim Horton's & took a snapshot. It'll soon be in my recycling bin.

Recently I've been rummaging through books I've been hanging onto only because I want to read them. Most of these I've obtained as rejects from an annual book fair at which I volunteer, while others came from odd, random sources, including found lying in the streets. These books are so beaten I have no wish to keep them, nor to pass them along, no matter how rare they might be. (With the exception of Joan Samson's The Auctioneer, which, despite its dilapidated condition, I gave to a colleague I knew would appreciate the read and not mind the state of the book. A rare quality.)

In some cases I tear off and keep the cover. Either the cover is in surprisingly good condition (as was the case with The Other), or the edition is an old one, or I simply like the cover. Years ago a friend confided that she tore the covers she liked off old paperbacks in order to make boxes. At the time I was appalled: why would someone willingly ruin a book? But in cases where the book is already ruined beyond repair, I have come to realize that keeping the cover is, in its own way, a continuation of the use and memory of that book.

Besides the logical reasoning of this practice of hoarding torn books, keeping covers and recycling the rest, there exists a guilty pleasure I have recently come to acknowledge.

Since I was a child I was taught (rightfully) to respect books and treat them well. "Books are among my best friends," my lovely mother used to say. No matter their age, current state or to whom they belonged, I treated books with respect. I have always been careful even with library and school books. I do not eat while reading and am very careful with my coffee or tea, which I enjoy in the evenings while I read at home or in coffee shops.

Yet this recent practice of reading torn books has come with an unexpected sense of relief. Being  careless with these books, I feel that I am somehow letting go, dropping that rigid, near obsessive care with which I have always treated all books. Instead of the book itself, I can focus on the content. (Actually, I genuinely enjoy the combination and frequently a good edition can enhance the reading experience.) Rather than feeling guilt in damaging these already damaged books, I am instead receiving pleasure from stuffing a paperback into my back pocket, folding pages over as I read, and even carry a pencil with me as a threat of underlining! In short, I have become mad.

Yet before handling these books with careless abandon, I had already decided they were slated to leave me via a blue plastic sac, properly sorted with other paper products. Not as useless, perhaps, as that torn envelope, but like a cracked glass, they have served their usefulness and can continue being useful by being transformed back into pulp.

Not to mention I own too many books, and looking into moving soon, need to begin clearing out the house.

Other recent crumpled, coverless books read:

The Auctioneer, Joan Samson
Shogun, James Clavell
Digits and Dastards, Frederik Pohl



Thursday, December 5, 2019

James Clavell, Shogun (1975)

Clavell, James. Shogun. US: Delacorte Press; UK: Stodder & Houghton, 1975.


Shogun at Goodreads

Rating:     7.5/10


Shogun. A Novel of Japan
Like a feudal lord of old, Clavell manipulates this pawn of a book into the coffers of mainstream western society.

The historical romance that is Shogun, features English sailor John Blackthorn infiltrating the culture of imperial Japan, intermingling with the nation’s trade, religion, internal politics and international affairs. A kind of super man, Blackthorn is described as the greatest of sailors, able to commit to the complex internal politics of the country, alter its impression of western religion, and win the heart (and body) of its loveliest and most intelligent & respected interpreters. Seemingly, this sailor’s only fault is his temper, since even his ability to love (and the size of his “manhood”) is also described as unique. What grounds this character, other than the typhoon he encounters, is his ability to adapt to Japanese culture, and reject many of his former, European habits and thinking, which essentially tells us he is a mere mortal striving to become a better person. Clavell’s respect for eastern culture is evident, and we are reminded that this Englishman, though he is made samurai and does embrace Japanese customs, will always be lacking for his being European. The final sequence of Toranaga’s internal monologue proves this, as it turns out (no real spoiler here) that Blackthorn has always been a part of the plotting of Japan’s future landscape. He is essentially one among many instruments used by Toranaga in navigating the political landscape, and his destiny is pretty much settled by the Japanese lord even before the war of Crimson Sky takes place. The novel finishes with Toranaga, and the last vision of Blackthorn is him hopping away like an obedient puppy, clearly unaware of the scope of Toranaga's thinking.

Historically, Toranaga is based on Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became the military leader (shogun) of Japan--a difficult feat, rarely achieved. This achievement was made possible not only through his political guile and military prowess, but by his being open to Japan's involvement in international affairs. At the time, Japan was sought out and visited by European nations, who were seeking religious converts and economic trade, and while most of Japan was reluctant to open up to the world, Lord Tokugawa used these outsiders to best position himself internally.

Similarly, Clavell uses the outsider John Blackthorn (based on British sailor Will Adams) to position his novel in the American marketplace. Japan was a nation steeped in mystery, and Clavell's exaggerated depiction of feudal Japan, largely through the eyes of the westerner, awakened interest of Japan in the general public. This, of course, was helped by the widely successful TV miniseries phenomenon of 1980, in which Clavell himself was very much involved. And so, like a feudal lord of old, Clavell manipulates this pawn of a book into the coffers of mainstream western society.

Certainly, like the scheming Toranaga, Clavell worked hard on attaining grandeur. Shogun was the ninth best-selling novel in the US of 1975, according to Publisher's Weekly, and the highest rated American miniseries of 1980, according to the Neilsen TV Ratings (it was the second highest rated miniseries at the time, following the 1977 production of Alex Hailey's Roots). The popularity of the miniseries no doubt helped Clavell's 1981 novel, Noble House, to attain the top spot on PW's list of best-selling novels of that year. Apparently, following the airing of the miniseries, Shogun's paperback reprint attained stratospheric sales at the time, though I don't have specific stats or sources.

Despite its mainstream popularity, I enjoyed the book immensely. It was engaging and highly entertaining, written in a straightforward and linear narrative, bogged down only occasionally by the political dealings as the reader tries to keep track of the impressive cast of characters. Sex and violence were piled throughout, which all added to the entertainment. Though a hefty book, it does little dragging.

The initial draft of Clavell's novel is reported to have been well over two thousand (about 2,300) pages. At 1,210 printed small font pages in its initial paperback print, I doubt that an uncut version will be released (yet in this age of re-visiting the past for profit, it is improbable without being impossible). It is difficult not to discuss the novel without mentioning its length, as length alone has become as embedded in the novel as its setting or main characters. This single book has more printed words of fiction than the entire printed oeuvre of the likes of J.D. Salinger. And yet, the length is only daunting in appearance and not in fact, as the work is nonetheless a quick read. Therefore, I cannot pride myself in reading these twelve hundred-plus yellowed pages of small print, a copy of the 1976 paperback so used before I even opened it up that it quickly lost its cover, since many smaller books have proven to be a far greater time commitment.


For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

As of 24 December 2015