Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Pulp Jungle

Frank Gruber
The Pulp Jungle

Sherbourne Press, 1967

This book is like an accountant ledger. Is it boring? No, absolutely not. It is fascinating.

Gruber lists all his sales during his pulp years, tells how much money he’s made for each story, what rates magazines paid in those years, what markets were the most prestigious. In these dry facts and not less dry and matter-of-fact numbers we feel that era like we can feel the era smelling old pulps.

Gruber started with Sunday school papers, and then made his goal to become a writer after his first sales. Like Tarzan, he went to the pulp jungle – New York - where most of publishing companies were (and still are) – and made it into big time. But not right from the start. Before he conquered New York and dozens of pulp magazines (and subsequently Los Angeles, working later in Hollywood), he lived through years of struggle, barely selling a couple of stories a month and literally starving on the streets of NYC.

It’s a fascinating account of a professional who works and works non stop and who knows that hard work will pay off some time in the future. His story of success Gruber ornates with recallections of other pulpsters, who also made successful careers (some after that vanished somewhere).

While reading this book, one can easily see how many differencies there were between publishing businesses now and then – and how many similarities. Gruber wrote thousands of short stories and novelettes before he’d moved to writing novels (and screenplays). It was not easy, to just write a novel and sell it without establishing your name first.

The book, though, is roughly written and feels like a first draft. But damn, the masters of pulp always wrote only one draft – the first. They couldn’t afford to write many drafts and rewrite their stories. And we shouldn’t ask for more.

That’s the memoirs everyone interested in book history should read.

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Kim Jong-il Production

Paul Fischer
A Kim Jong-il Production

Flatiron Books, 2015

The most successful couple of the South Korean cinema, Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, during a few decades earned the love of their fans. Shin was a famous director, the founder of an independent film studio which released numerous films each year. Choi was a star of the silverscreen, beautiful actress and the founder of an actors school. Choi, before the fame reached her, was the wife of a war vet, invalid with a short temper, who beat on her time from time. She played almost for free, and had only a modest fame. Shin helped her made big time, they hit it off, though not publicly, keeping in secret their affair. Then gossips started to sip in, the scandal broke out, and the actress left her husband, having chosen Shin. The couple made even larger success as a pair, doing together films, spreading their businesses, receiving awards.

Later financial troubles started to bother the couple, Shin couldn’t make more films due to high censorship and competition, and with money love also went away. The couple divorced, Shin started to work on his invitation to film in Hollywood, to restart his career in America. Choi had focused on her actors school.

And then they were kidnapped, by the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

Young film producer has written a debut non-fiction book, that is on the level with best examples of spy fiction. The only thing absent is heavy involvement of intelligent services, the rest of the necassary elements are all there – powerful villain, brave heroes, sinister plot, mysterious kidnapping, surprising rescue.

Fischer even stylistically sticks to belletristic approach to his narrative. He presents the main heroes’ biographies (and antihero’s who plays as important role as the couple of heroes), makes enough geographical and historical digressions, leads to a culmination, the kidnapping itself, then switches to heroes’ lives during their captivity, their reborn as filmmakers, and then to the final with the rescue. The epilogue tells us the oucome of their lives.

The book has 360 pages of exciting prose, and even when Fischer retreats to the historical background, it still is a fascinating read. These digressions are necessary if only to place this kidnapping into the world context. During the book we’re told of the birth of a dictatorship in North Korea, rivalship between two Koreas, the general place of North Korea in the world. Fischer describes a number of methods used by Kim and his people for kidnapping people. Shin and Choi were not the first victims of Kim’s dangerous games, the couple will even meet some other kidnapped victims. This is the evidence to that the couple weren’t the only victims of Kim’s crimes, neither they were the first. Their case is not unique, possibly, it’s the most spoken of and resonance.
Digressions about, for example, Korean labour camps are the heart-wrenching reading in itself. Atrocities and cruelties commited in those camps were not less shocking, probably even more than the ones in Stalin and Nazi camps. Fischer doesn’t restrict his descriptions of tortures forced upon Shin the camps. To survibe, Shin had to make some sacrificies, had to step on his principles and agreed to work for the man who ordered the tortures.

It’s hard to say, yet after reading this book I’m of the opinion that Shin made his best films during his prisoner years in North Korea. That means that only being not free, he could reach the highs of his talent. And does it overcome these tortures he had suffered through, this chance to be reborn in your art and make the films you’ll be remembered after? That’s the question one can hardly will find an answer.

The book also can be read as a chapter from a film history textbook. Fischer includes in the book a short history of the North Korean cinema, Choi and Shin’s achievements, their post-kidnapping period, and legends of Kim Jong-Il as a father of North Korean films and omniscient expert on the world cinema.

A Kim Jong-il Production is written quite frivolously, without stating the sources of the obtained information, and that’s understandable: this books is aimed at the wide audience, not at academic world. The story of kidnapping of Shin and Choi already for dozens of years raises questions and doubts. Paul Fischer is quite sure that the couple was abducted and worked on Kim after the fear of death. The other believe that they at their own will crossed borders when their careers went downhill. The story is, withoubt doubt, mysterious, controversial, it’s possible it will be left thus for ever. It is one of those historical events, like Kennedy’s assassination, US moon landing and disappearing of the group from Dyatlov pass, that people can’t come to one point. There is plenty of information all around, but what are the truth and what are the lies – it’s all wrapped in the mist.

This book will let you sink into one of the secrets of XX century. First rate non-fiction book.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Holy Cow

David Duchovny
Holy Cow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

Cow Elsie lives on a farm among other cows. She “can think, feel, and joke”, gets milked by her owner’s sons. She’s not dumb, she knows Homer and Internet jokes. This memoirs Elsie writes for NYC publishing house editor, keeping in mind possible movie adaptation.

Elsie knows the main principles of life, both human and animal’s. But there are a few moments she doesn’t know. For example, why her mom “disappeared one day, like all cow moms do. We’re taught to accept that. That a mom is not forever and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you if she leaves without saying goodbye once the job of raising you from a calf is done.” Elsie doesn’t know where her mom had gone. Elsie has a “bff”, Mallory, “Mallory is seriously gorgeous, like she could definitely model. She could be the cow on the milk carton.” Elsie and Mallory keep an eye on young bulls, which are kept in a different paddock. Then two cows case a plan: when two owner’s sons will forget to lock the gate, the cows will use this to escape their paddock and at nighttime join young bulls and play with them. Thus adventures will start.

David Duchovny has joined the already significant number of stars who are not satisfied with Hollywood fame – they want literary fame as well. Actor, director, screenplay writer, musician mounted another top – has written a novel. To my surprise, the result is not bad at all. I’d even say good.

Holy Cow can’t be categorized, as it doesn’t stick to one genre. Duchovny plays in literature: his novel is a parody on Madame Bovary (the novel’s protagonist and the heroine of Flaubert’s novel share the name), a postmodern fairy tale, a fantasy screenplay (a number of dialogues in the book are presented in a screenplay form), a very funny coming of age novel. Any mysticism is absent here (and that may seem like something strange), unlike plenty of good laughs (there is no shortage of them).

The novel is written in teenage slang, especially its first, “farmer”, part, with jokes, particular kind of words, dialogies a la cartoons with animals like Ice Age and such, and this recklessness of the style suggests that Duchovny had written his book during three nights while he took a bath. And still. The important thing is that the book is written in one uniform style, the novel’s narrator has her own voice, and I can’t say that this book is a potboiler written solely for the money. Even the level of jokes has interesting variety, from toilet or poop jokes to Torah jokes.

Throughout the novel Duchovny (or his protagonist) jokes that this book sooner or later will be adapted to the screen. There is strong chance it will. Nevertheless, the author tirelessly makes fun of Hollywood (and of publishing industry, too), yet the books is so postmodernistically done, that it’s unlikely it will ever find a suitable and talented director who will make a worthy adaptation. This is so _written_ book, that holds for the paper, not adaptable at all.

Duchovny, though the dialogues between Elsie and the editor, translates one more important aspect of the book. What are the audience it was written for? For adults or for young adults? Yes, the books has enough teenage slang, teenagers jokes, the whole plot is rather coming of age. I wouldn’t stick Holy Cow to the YA department. Duchovny sometimes uses not so young adult language, plays with adult reader, he’s open for both categories of readers.

Americans, having this book finished, will cry “holy cow!”. And they are right: holy cow indeed, smart, funny, engaging novel.

Friday, February 6, 2015


Anthony Quinn

Head of Zeus, 2014

Retired Special Branch agent David Hughes, suffereing from Alzheimer, disappears from his home, where his sister is looking after him. Because the old spy is almost helpless, the police assumes Hughes was kidnapped or even worse. Soon a retired legal clerk is found murdered and tortured under the tree. The victim, Joseph Devin, had a murky past, and his death is somehow connected to the disappearance of Hughes.

The main protagonist of the story, transferred from Belfast to small town in Northern Ireland, Inspector Celcius Daly doesn’t know that. In fact, he even doesn’t realize that both men worked with Special Branch, where Hughes was a detective, and devin was an informer. Daly is assigned to investigate both crimes, he hits many dead ends (no surprise because Special Branch doesn’t want Daly to mess in their business), until he makes a connection, linking Devlin and Hughes to another disappeared man from 1989, Olilver Jordan, who, it’s been said, was an informer for Special Branch while being in IRA.

I expected from Disappeared something more, and after finishing it it became evident to me that behind us is a mediocre thriller, poorly written, poorly structured and not involving at all.
Sentence by sentence, Quinn writes not that bad, for he was a journalist, and he mastered a bit of a craft. Once sentences start to form paragraphs and chapters, the prose become one crumbly bulk barely moving forward. The novel suffers from the need to follow all the rules of modern british crime thriller, and these rules, it seems, are handed out to writers by editors. Here we have a lone sleuth, who returned home, secrets of the past, chapters written from POV of many side characters only making already muddy picture more blurred. Quinn as a slave obediently follows these rules, only as a storyteller he is nothing special, with not enough abilities to pull his novel, relying on clichés and types, through. After promising start with the background of Northern Ireland after the Troubles, the story bogs down, turning into a beaten plot when policeman hunts down the murderer.

Dragging style is complemented with emotional void of the prose. Tragedies of the past and modern political atmosphere in NI as important topics aren’t worked out. Behind us is a mystery, or thriller to be more precise, where not sufferings of soul and analysis of an issue matter but only when the main hero catches the villain.

Disappeared is a poorly structured thriller, it shouldn’t be called a mystery. The final disappoints, first, because instead of fiar solution Daly would present, we get unconvincing confessions from the main villain, and second, the villain itself and his motives materializes from the air, so much for the fair play. All motives are motivless, the final reveals plot holes, and the novel leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Piercing topic of lives in NI after the bombings and killings stopped was trampled to the ground.

I will add the author to my blacklist, where 90% of British thriller writers already are.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Shovel Ready

Adam Sternbergh
Shovel Ready

Crown, 2014

Near future New York. After two terrorists attacks where dirty bombs were employed several smaller attacks followed, which caused panick and climate changes. The Big Apple soon was abandoned by most, few remained, and class differencies divided remaining citizens into seperated ghettos. Poor started camping in not so long ago public spaces, and the rich retreated to the comfort of their homes, for the comfort you only needed a few bodyguards. Without any will to live in a dirty, dangerous city, the rich have chosen another reality, the limnosphere, Internet of the new type, where one can live a life he creates for himself. The more money you spend on virtual reality, the more real it will be. You don’t need to live in reality, your body in coffin-like bed will be taken care of by a hired nurse, and your home will be protected by bodyguards. If you thought of that.

If not, the your are an easy prey for a hired killer, who can crawl into your home and kill you in your sleep. This method is the favorite method of Spademan, the protagonist of this novel. He’s ex-garbage man, after one incident turned to murder-for-hire business. “I kill men. I kill women because I don’t discriminate. I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.
I do it for money. Sometimes for other forms of payment. But always for the same reason. Because someone asked me to.”
He doesn’r ask questions and he doesn’t need to hear clients’ stories. New client hires Spademan to track down young girl Grace Harrow, and kill her. The girl leaves a blood trail beside her, and when Spademan finally has caught up with her, he can’t kill her. Because she’s five month pregnant. He’s signed up to protect her from the client who hired him, he’s also girl’s father.

The novel is selling as a hired killer novel, which is misleading, because it isn’t. And that is the first step to disappointment. Spademan is only nominally a hired killer, soon after the start he turnes to the role of private eye in a cyberpunk world, honest knight on a white horse, who is ready to defend every girl. Sternbergh sould be on the same shelf, as such masters of hired killer novels like Thomas Perry, Max Allan Collins, Lawrence Block. “Shovel Ready” has only a few similarities with the works of this sub-genre, among them is powerful beginning where Spademan describes the rules of his work.

All in all, the book is one big cliché, mediocre cyberpunk thriller, with only one correction that it’s written almost in free verse and that Sternbergh doesn’t use quotation marks in dialogues. The main problem with this book, as I see it, is laziness of the wit and anbsense of enough real-life experience to write believably about fanastical world. For his world Sternbergh borrowed too familiar tropes and elements from old SF. His idea of virtual reality Maxtrix-style and retreat of the rich to virtual world while their bodies are taken care of is that old and was used so many times that rarely an author from SF community will use it. Half-abandoned, dirty New York is detailed with love and care, yet tis is more like an ode to the favorite city, writing with a nostalgic tone, than a proper world-building. Sternbergh lets too much nostalgie sink into his novel. Instead of creating new ideas Sternbergh utilizies a few old ones: the protagonist uses “old” Internet, reads newspapers, avoids the limnosphere, uses subway. The world-building of the city is so-so, it’s just dirtier and more corrupted version of NYC.

Employed for his own purposes old SF elements, plot-wise the author employs elements of thrillers and action novels. A hired killer, instead of killing his client, starts to protect a victim – We have seen a hundred times. A team of the protagonist’s helpers almost in it entirety came from a different sources. Pregnant runaway girl, crazy pastor, hired muscles, dead protagonist’s wife – Shovel Ready should be called novel-collage. Through these clichés Sternbergh tries to satirize class-divided world, only fails when his satire drowns in a large pool of blood, guts, and mindless action scenes tiring you out.

The plot is predictable from start to finish, and all what’s you are left with is to pay attention to the style. Sternbergh relies heavily on dialogues, and they are nothing outstanding, and experiments with the prise, writing short, abrupt sentences, similat to free verse. It works in some scenes (particularly in the beginning and when Spademan recalls his first victims), and fails in others. Dull thriller written in verse is still a dull thriller.

Spademan already became series character, yet after this debut you feel no need to pay attention to the series. Where is my shovel? I need to bury this book deep.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ross Thomas on race

My theory is that we either ought to give the niggers their rights—not just lip service, but every blasted right there is from voting to fornicating, that we ought to make them have all these rights and enforce their right to them by law, and I mean tough, FBI-attracting law, until every man jack of them is just as equal as you middle-class, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I said either and I mean it. Either we give them the right to marry your daughter, if you got one, and fix it so that they’ll not only have the same social and educational rights that you have, but the same economic rights—the same ways and means that you’ve got to the pursuit of happiness out there in one of those fine suburban developments instead of in a slum. And then they’ll be just like you white folks with all your sound moral values, your Christian virtue, and your treasured togetherness. ’Course, they might lose something along the way, something like a culture, but that ain’t nothing. Now I say either we do that for them—make ’em just like everybody else—or, by God, we ought to drive ’em down in the ground like tent pegs!

- from The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas

I'm afraid Americans have chosen the latter.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Somebody Owes Me Money

Donald Westlake
Somebody Owes Me Money

Random House, 1969

Part of Forgotten Books Friday

NYC hack Chet Conway gets a tip from a shady underworld character to bet on a pony that should bring good money to Chet. Young cabbie, who happens to be an obsessive gambler, places a bet, the horse wins, Chet, happy as a horse (if horses could experience happiness) and almost $1000 richer, goes to his bookie’s apartment to get his winnings. The bookie is killed, the widow is screaming murder, and Chet suddenly is not sure who does he get paid from. And all bets are off.

In the beginning of the novel there has been a snow collapse in NYC. We survived a pretty intense snow collapse in last year’s October. It was two meters of snow in two days. And though NYC of the 60s is not small town Russia of 2010s, let me tell you that all that running around and racing through the streets as it happens in the novel is close to impossible. Not less impossible is also running around in summer clothes only. Why would Westlake need to create this collapse for his book? Argh, so much for realism in fiction.

Though it is considered as a comic caper, Westlake used a couple of new approaches more suitable for his serious enterprises. His Mafia-type characters started to have Italian names (and that is before Slayground; Westlake was there before Stark), their speech became closer to life. I think in this book mobsters for the first time for Westlake spoke with Brooklyn accent.

Once again the theme of corruption in the police reoccurred here, as it constantly were in Westlake’s previous books. This time it’s not some patrolman, but a homicide dick. One would begin to doubt if police in the US ever held a non-crooked cop. Still, I was skeptical, while reading, that a homicide cop would be bought (yes, history has seen some examples), and this cop would be bought by this particular family. Homicide detectives work in pairs, and it’s doubtful that Golderman could be useful to Mafia in this case.

I myself have similar attitude to police. Every cop personally whom I knew and know, are honest and hard-working man. I enjoyed working with cops, while I worked in paper, I enjoyed learning from them how their work is done. My school history teacher after some years in school quit, and had gone on to be in investigator, analogues to D.A. investigator in the US. While he was a teacher, he had been very friendly with me, we were always joking with each other, always messing and kidding around. I even supplied him with VHS cassettes, me, 13-year-old kid. Then he became sort of a cop, and died very early from a heart attack. Was he a bad man? Absolutely no.

Yet the whole police system, as always any system, is rotten to the core. Good people, evil system. And I don’t have any single reason to like this system.

That being said, I found it difficult to believe that Chet would go to Golderman for help, being on the run from the mob. Mob first rule is never talk to police. Chet, going to police, signed his death warrant (only that the cop was bought, and no one cared). Slippery plot move.

Another thing that made me wonder is Chet’s age. He’s 29, roughly my age, he’s a cabbie in NYC, and probably I am applying modern realities on New York of the 60s, but how many young men today in NYC work as hacks? Westlake clearly stated Chet’s age, yet for me the protagonist does seem older, maybe early 40s. His habits, his world view, his character features, they all scream at you: older!!! The protagonist’s occupations was also a useful plot feature.

I found this novel not in the least funny. I liked it fine, mostly because of the usual set-up of Westlake’s gangster stories, where the protagonist first talks to all other parties involved, and then gathers them in one room to reveal whodunit.

There were a couple of moments that made me smile (particularly the scene in Goldman’s house), but that is all. In fact, I laughed more reading Westlake’s serious works.

I liked Somebody Owes Me Money fine, but I’ve read better Westlake.

Friday, December 26, 2014

best non-fiction books 2014

Time to wrap up the year. Only two categories this year, fiction and non-fiction, with comics and poetry absent. In no particular order.

Sibilant Fricative, by Adam Roberts
Mass Incarceration on Trial, by Jonathan Simon
Violins of Hope, by James Grymes
My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff
The Getaway Car, by Donald Westlake

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander
The New Jim Crow

The New Press, 2012

Every once in a while comes a book that says some things obvious to everyone out loud. Sometimes even obvious things should be said out loud. But the thing with this books is that everything written inside it is not obvious and said out loud these things will open someone’s eyes.

Indeed, The New Jim Crow starts with the premise that sounds more like a conspiracy theory than a solid social theory written by a legal scholar and civil rights lawyer. Inside America exists caste system, where an undercaste is black and brown people of America. Instead of slavery and racial segregation, Americans now have a caste system, that is quite legal. Instead of Jim Crow, America now has New Jim Crow.

Living outside of US, I can only judge the American social system by that information US media supplies us. Imagery presented by media mostly shows a safe and comfortable life for whites and not so rosy life for blacks. But, as media hastens to explain, it is only so because blacks themselves chose this life, chose criminal path. Til this day we read and watch “horror stories” about black men, their drug usage and their violence.

Yet this image has no similarities with the image of America presented in this book. If even for Americans it will be a shock to learn about the real state of things, then what about us, on the other side of the pond? It seems like everything starts with the image. No matter how things stand, the only that matters is how they are presented. Michelle Alexander, step by step, paints a bleak picture. After the WWII African Americans, it seemed, received their freedom and civil rights, finally. Yet it was only a start, a beginning of the end. In the new era where an image dominates it was very important to create needed image. After that, this image will start working without additional efforts. People holding power in a matter of decades created that image, of a black man who is a threat, who is an animal, who is a merely life form, not a proper human being. With racism successfully remained in the past (or so they said), it was only with the new image government could control the masses and win the minds of those who were in doubt.

And the image has been sold, successfully. African Americans remained the same, yet he was labeled a criminal. Not only labeled, first he (as the author focuses on males on her book) was made a criminal, then labeled, as an animal, and then excluded from society.

Alexander explains on all the levels how the government succeeded. First the courts, then public image, then war on drugs, then mass incarceration, then ghettos, then total exclusion from American society, discarded as trash. The author makes strong arguments, especially on war on drugs and legal system, and it is difficult to imagine one who would not be persuaded by these arguments. It is always easier to control a large layer of people when this group of people are rounded up and sent to ghettos or, worse, to prisons.

When a large part of African Americans is in prisons or in ghettos stripped of basic rights and privileges, how could we say that USA is a democratic society? When governments makes its own citizens mere life forms, how can we say that it is a democracy? Democracy is based on equality for all, not for those chosen selectively.

The New Jim Crow is a truly eye-opening book. It changes your views on today’s America and African Americans.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mass Incarceration on Trial

Jonathan Simon
Mass Incarceration on Trial

The New Press, 2014

America worries about its citizens. America wants to reduce crime, separating those who have comitted crime from those who are victims or can become victims. The method of the separation the US have chosen is imprisonment everyone who poses even a slightest threat to society.

Mass incarceration has become panacea for all crime related illnesses in America. Prisons lose their rehabilitation status, turning into human warehouses storing people as objects that have lost all their value for the government.

Jonathan Simon in his study of mass incarceration writes that the society and then government views on crime and crime prevention toward incapacitation changed their views on prisons significantly only recently. On an example of California, Simon shows how a state with moderately small amount of prisons during only two decades had made a big step forward to a prison state, where “more than twenty new prisons [were built] during 1980s and 1990s”. The state abandoned all rehabilitation programs for prisoners, adapted new harsh sentensing laws, made parole impossible, with the only solution in mind – incarceration. The newly builded prisons couldn’t catch up with the number of newly convicted, who received long sentences even for smaller crimes. It had led to overcrowding in prisons, that itself had become the source of another issue for prison inmates. The conditions of their imprisonment worsened. While the official theory was that prisons are safe for those who are unsafe to society, in real life prisoners suffered from absence of elemental medical treatment. The prisons became places of torture tucked away from our eyes.

Examining new trial cases, regarding mass incarceration and prisons conditions unfeat for any human, especially those who suffer from mental and chronic illnesses, Simon find the reasons as to why California and the rest of America found this brutal and most unhuman way to treat persons who were found guilty of comitting a crime. I avoided in the previous sentence the notion that state found a new way to prevent crime by building new prisons. In this book Simon (and he’s not the first) argues that it’s been established already that there is no direct relevance between crime rate and incarceration rate.

Thus we should regard the reasons that caused and started mass incarceration across USA. In one of the strongest arguments Simon explains how society viewed an ordinary criminal, the two most common types being black violent revolutioner and white serial killer hunting in suburbs. It seemed there were no other way to be saved from crime, other than to place every person who committed any crime possible in prison for the longest term possible. Simon convincingly argues that it is the government itself who sold the society this idea about incorrigable criminals, and then after society in fear changed its views toward the need of a harsher punishment, the government simply used society’s approval of mass incarceration.

Building prisons is the simplest way out, also being not the cheapest one. Mass incarceration requires minimum brain work, as prisoners are treated as things that are needed to be placed inside cells, and then forget about them, for life if possible. Rehabilitation, working with people, treating human beings with dignity they’re entitled to, this is a hard work. Government “treat(s) members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded”. For a few decades government was focused on the materialistic side of the problem, being interested in contruction, safety inside of prisons for prison officials, supermax blocks and whole prisons.

Simon slightly touches one, as it seems for me, important point: the new prisons were considered as safe places for work of prison officials in the first place, and only in the second as a safe place for prisoners. Prison officials viewed prisoners as dangerous species, animals who deserved to be treated as such. Therefore all in prisons was made so that prison officials could feel and work safely inside prison walls.

While completely forgotten and deprived of decent medical treatment and opportunities for education, communication and rehabilitation, prisoners struggled all these years. The prison population grew, the average age of prisoners raised, the suicide rate among prisoners high as ever, and only recent litigation cases drew attention of media and social scientists to the issue of total incapacitation.

Simon delves into three most important cases, where whole population of several Califotnia prisons demanded the right to medical treatment and human conditions in prisons. During these cases, it was found that mass incarceration leads to a violation of Eighth Amendment. The Brown vs. Plaza court’s recommendations on reducing prison population is only a start. The three cases examined in this book initiated the end of mass incarceration. The government still fights this decision, yet there were some progress already made.

Mass Incarceration on Trial is a superb study of American penal system, its issues and the possible ways to solve them. It a book for prison freaks and for those who studies law.


Nick Harkaway

William Heinemann, 2014

“ON THE STEPS of the old mission house, the Sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican.”

The Sergeant himself is on his way to become a local Batman, who as one would have guessed from the title, will be called Tigerman. The boy will remain the boy, though the Sergeant will find a name for him closer to the end of the novel. As a pair, the Sergeant and the boy fight evil of a undefined type, since the source of evil is often uncleared, as it often is if it’s a matter of global politics where good and evil not easily recognizable. As just local people, and on the island of Mancreu everyone is local and alien from somewhere else, the Sergeant and the boy are hardly in need of names. They remain symbols, of a wanderer, wounded and faithful to the Crown, being an army vet, semi-retired, and of a child in need of a proper parent, or so it seems.

The heroes are introduced at the beginning, and the place also plays a significant role in the book. Mancreu has no proper government, being a former colony in post-colonial time when it already doesn’t matter who governs whom. “In theory, of course, the British presence here had been withdrawn three years ago, claims of sovereignty having been yielded to the NATO and Allied Protection Force on Mancreu, NatProMan.” The Sergeant serves here a role of an observer, and there is nothing really to observe, except to keep your routine, eat, talk with the boy. The Sergeant is in position when he just needs to do nothing until the island is liquidated, and the rumors going from the start of the novel have it that the island will be eventually destroyed. There will come Leaving time, and one just ups and goes home.

The official reason for destroying Mancreu is its dangerousness to the rest of the world. The island has mutant bacteria somewhere around it, and it needs being stopped from potential future spreading. While the island is still functioning (and no one asks locals whether they want their home demolished), it remains a strange and lawless place, where shady deals are going. And soon the Sergeant finds himself first in the role of a country detective, and then of Tigerman.

It can seem that the fantastic element of Tigerman masks behind not so fantastic theory about dangerous island. This element is obscured by the rest not so fantastic stuff. In fact, Tigerman reads like a work of fantastic genre. Superhero fights and mysterious women, known only by name legendary villain are all part of the atmosphere, and this unforgettable atmosphere makes it read like an adventerous novel with fantastic elements inside. It is enormously entertaining, remaining thoughtful and heartbreaking. Bat(Tiger)man on an aboriginal island saves the world, with a touch of international intrigue, what else do you need?

It is not all BANG and BING, though. Harkaway is pretty realistic in depicting so called Third World problems. And the tension between a grown man imagining himself as a father and a boy in need to be fathered and their shyness about their thoughts and emotions on that create careful examinations of human feelings. The novel asks, are adult and child equal in their bond, or is it always unbalanced relationship? Who manipulates whom?

Prepare yourself for a wild ride. It’s one of the most poignant SF books I’ve read in years.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Dog Stars

Peter Heller
The Dog Stars

Headline Review, 2012

Hig, a pilot and the hero of this novel, lives in an abandoned hangar with his beloved dog Jasper and dangerous companion Bangley. Nine years ago, a fever of unknown origin wiped out almost the entire population of the planet, yet leaving some alive who carry now the disease called just The Blood. After losing to epidemic fever wife Melissa and an unborn child, Hig left the city in Colorado and moved to the hills, where all this time he’s been fighting for survival.

Together with Bangley they equipped the perimeter - a small piece of land, which became their refuge. On their land Hig and Bangley have built an observation tower, have armed to the teeth (for that is responsible mostly Bangley, an ex-SEAL, in his spare time working on his weapon arsenal) and now they defend themselves from time to time wandering on their territory strangers. Hig makes rounds on his old plane “a 1956 Cessna 182, really a beaut”, watching the area from the sky, searching for strangers, as well as game and possible supplies, while Bangley watches the perimeter that at any moment could be invaded by "guests". Jasper serves as a night alarm, sleeping side by side with his master. The dog is old, has been with Hig before the fever, but still not in a bad shape.

Heller, who before this book has written about the adventures and travelings around the globe, debuted with a novel. The author immediately went on the genre territory, namely the post-apocalyptic science fiction, certainly causing with that the displeasure and open envy among SF writers. Because science fiction writers don’t write so well. Some do, of course, but it's a small percentage. Let any publishing house throw «The Dog Stars» to its science fiction imprint, and other novels of this genre will look poor, gray and dull, at least stylistically.

And it is not the fault of SF writers that they write that bad, it is Heller’s fault (or achievement) that he writes that well. In building fantastic entourage he, on the contrary, is not too skilled. The novel’s premise is familiar even to those who have not read fiction at all. Heller does not invent the wheel, just takes those wheels that have already been invented, and just put them on his bike, as it is convenient to him. Heller is not particularly interested to play in virologist: there was an epidemic (big deal!), almost the entire population died out (so what?), someone got infected and become a carrier of a strange plague (who cares?), a global warming started - what now, contrary to logic, to make a hero to get behind the microscope and make him study different science fields at once? In conclusion, the author of the novel makes a few vague allusions to the origin of the disease, by the time that's already not important.

What’s important is, Heller has written a book that reads in one breath, you do not want to close it, you beg the author to tell something else, some small detail from the protagonist’s past. The Dog Stars is the imposition of a skillful adventure about the survival out of civilization on a modernist style with the elements of post-apocalyptic fiction and men’s fiction about the search for love. And it makes no sense to look for where one layer ends and the other begins, as they lapped each other.

Depopulating the planet using a fantastic element, Heller makes a perfect background for his drama - the natural world, where people seem to have already become superfluous, but still clinging to existence. For nine years Hig lived only by relying on a fading memory, and almost extinguished hope. Why does one needs a life if the world around you died? Just for the sake of life itself? Having made his hero a pilot of the aircraft, Heller drew an allegory between Hig and birds, but of that sort that is bad with flying: Hig is attached to his piece of land, which gives him at least some security, and missions only tease his imagination and are part of self-defense. The hero can fly, but can not fly away - no place and no need.

As an extraordinary traveler, Heller with unprecedented skill transfers his knowledge of nature and on a page. It's one thing to conquer the rivers and peaks, and the other to describe it as if you the reader plunge into nature, too. To do this you need experience - even if you're a stylist's number one, sitting on a chair somewhere in a residential area of Chicago, you can’t imagine and can not describe all that so authentically as it does Heller.

If Heller’s spirit is closer to Jack London, the style is closer to the experimental prose. The novel is written as a stream of consciousness, where past and present merge, and mangled vocabulary, poeticized in some places. The storyteller prior to the epidemic wrote prose and poetry, perhaps, hence originates the style of The Dog Stars. Remained essentially without writing (the only example in the book is the scene where Hig writes a warning to farmers), Hig initially focuses on spoken language, which has its own laws.

The Dog Stars deserves the highest praise.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Ice Cream Man

Katri Lipson
The Ice Cream Man

AmazonCrossing, 2014

Before us is a fine example of European metaliterature which playing with the themes of human identity and WWII.

The book begins with the shooting of the film in the postwar years in the Czech Republic, where a man and a woman during the German occupation are fleeing the country, but their train is canceled because of the explosion on the bridge, and they are forced to stay in a small village (on the outskirts of a city).

An unnamed actress plays Esther Vorszda and an actor Martin Jelinek plays her husband, Thomas Vorszda. In fact, Esther and Thomas are not the husband and wife to each other, they were forced to create their new identities to not draw attention by the Nazis. They made up their new biographies, and who these two are actually remains unknown.

The shooting happens on location, besides an unnamed actress and Martin a very limited number of actors and movie crew participates in the filmong, including the owner of the house, who gave a pair of fugitives a roof, and a one-legged man who appears closer to the film ending.

In the second part, the author presents us with the film’s plot, which is, perhaps, not a film, but a real story that happened. Thomas and Esther, the people hiding behind these names, come by taxi to the train station, where from they have to take the train and leave. The train is canceled, Thomas decides to stay and wait, the taxi driver is sent back, and Thomas and Esther drag their large suitcases on themselves. Thomas negotiates with a widow, Madame Nemcova, to stay with her for a month.

While the English-language authors chew the last bones of war stories and suck the remaining tissue while looking for suitable candidates for their war melodramas, European writers set themselves more sophisticated and complex tasks, seeking first of all new approaches to the form, not the content.

A Finland native, Lipson tries to destroy all canons of war melodrama as weel as family saga stretching from World War II. The plot of the film that is laid in the basis of the book is fairly standard, even on the contrary, devoid of frills. Two fugitive hiding from persecution live in a widow’s house, then the man disappears (in another meta-layer there is a hint of the reason for his disappearance - he did not run away, but went for the forged documents, and was killed), and the woman is left alone, then becomes the wife out hopelessness to a decent man, whom she doesn’t love.
Thу story is very touching, and if it is only that, a touching, simple sketch of the past. On this layer, let’s call it a narrative layer, Lipson puts two more. The first chapter makes it clear to us that behind the masks of Esther and Thomas the actors are hiding, we assume it. We watch their play, know that it seems to be unreal, the director makes it grim. This layer is adjacent to another, pseudo-actor-ish: Thomas and Esther behind the masks are the real people who have to become actors, to reluctant fictional husband and wife. The price of an error will not be a verbal abuse of the director, but death. Accordingly, never knowing for sure what is in front of us, just a movie or reality, we see how these actors play two strangers who play two people who are close to each other, husband and wife.

A reader accustomed to easy, straight narrive may not like such complexness. What's next is a little easier, though again you need to keep in mind that the events may be real, but it may be some rehearsal to a shooting. Lipson extremely quickly replaces generations, time from post-war changes to post-Soviet, and then gets to the present day. Jan’s plot line sheds some light (actually only obscures which is the same thing) on Esther’s past. Lipson again throws us between layers: Jan could be Esther’s son, and could be the son of the actress who played Esther.

In any case, it does not matter when the film moves to our days, where the final major focus is on the granddaughter of Esther Gunilla, a strange creature either going crazy, or by inheritance becoming an actress.

Our memory casts doubt on the past, it is what Lipson wants to say. Something hiding inside us is transmitted from generation to generation. And yet there is a gap between generations, judging by the structure of The Ice Cream Man. The book is as if glued together from two different novels, and the final cut is a little bit rough. Two parts - the life of Esther and the life of Jan and his daughter - have only a few points of intersection. The thread of the past is lost somewhere in the middle. Both parts are original and charming, they do not have enough sequence between them.

The novel is beautifully translated into English, its prose is elegant and devoid of Britanisms which often spoil the historical novels. Lipson surprises with her book and her courage in fighting cliches.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rough Cut

Ed Gorman
Rough Cut

St. Martin’s Press, 1985

Michael Ketchum is a partner in a small advertising agency. Michael seems to be the only one who really works there, not only looking after the artistic side of the business, but also taking part in the creative process. The other advertisers, starting with Michael’s partner Denny Harris, are preoccupied by different activities: looking for mistresses on the side, stabbing each other in the back, scheming, drinking during working hours, at best, doing nothing.

Michael suspects that his partner Harris keeps the biggest client wife's named Clay Traynor as a mistress. If this secret will emerge, Traynor is likely to stop working with Michael’s firm, and the firm simply will go bankrupt. Michael hires a sleaze private detective to gather evidence on Harris. With photos from a private detective Michael goes to his partner to confront him and put pressure on him. In the Harris’ house the corpse of his partner greets Michael. Michael, scared, doesn’t report crime to the police, and soon someone kills another agency employee and another. Michael must find the killer before Michael will be the next.

After Rough Cut Gorman will write a few dozen books, but in 1985 this will be his debut. The circle of the novel's characters are only employees of an advertising agency, and the action rarely spreads beyond the office and apartment of the protagonist. This makes the mystery local, and the atmosphere stuffy. Everyone is a suspect, and the suspects die one by one. Could the killer be a secretary? The agency employs envious cowards and careerists that even secretaries are not to be excluded.

The intrigue expertly is stretched until the very end, and I can assure you, you will not guess who is a killer.

I also quite enjoyed the novel because of the presence of a bad private detective. If usually private detective is a knight on a white horse, a hard man, walking down the mean streets, and in these cases invariably P.I. is a main protagonist, in this book the private detective Stokes is an aahole, blackmailer and sissy, and not the main character either. I have not seen such disgusting private investigator in a long time.

Gorman’s prose is another pleasant surprise, not rough cut at all, the refined product.

«After my divorce, and before I felt much like falling in love again, I spent many evenings alone in my bachelor apartment feasting on Stouffer's frozen dinners and using self-pity the way other people used drugs. I also got into the habit of approximating a sensory-deprivation tank by sitting in the bathtub, throwing back several gins, and coming dangerously close to dozing off in the hot water.

Which is where I was three-and-a-half hours after somebody knocked me out at Denny Harris's house.»

This is conscious, adult, men's prose, surprisingly assured for the detective genre. Rough Cut is a pleasant debut.