Month: September 2013

Death of a Dissident

Death of a DissidentToday I finished Death of a Dissident by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1934 – 2009) .  This is the first book that I have read by Kaminsky.  I started purchasing the Kaminsky novels in the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series that I find at cheap prices.  Unfortunately, I do not have book two.  Death of a Dissident was first published in 1981, but I read the 1989 edition.  I picked up my copy used for $2.

I was not sure what to expect from this novel.  I was wary of trying out a new author.  I generally enjoy cozy mysteries, but am leery of bloody, crazed murderers (as you should be, too).  I was okay with the Michael Connelly novel I read, I really enjoy Agatha Christie, and I have been pleased with the few other light mysteries that I have read in the past.  I was worried, though, that this novel might be a bit too gory or dark.  That is generally one of the main reasons I am nervous about reading mysteries.  I do not like reading thriller/mysteries which are filled with depravity and gore.  Another reason I was wary was that I worried the background and setting of this novel might feel really dated.  Or that the author would try to over-write the whole USSR background.

Luckily, my fears were unfounded.  I actually really liked this novel and read it fairly quickly.  The best part of the novel is that Kaminsky did not overwrite the “dismal, politically-charged” USSR setting.  It is actually written really well and gives a really good insight into Kaminsky’s interpretation of the USSR.  The characters were also really well done, I think.  Nothing massively in-depth, but I came to like all of them.  They are all interesting and make the novel much better than it would be with flat or hideous characters.  The subtle and not-so-subtle political awkwardness of the police force dealing with the political structure made for a unique and interesting setting.

Rostnikov was worried about the girl, true, but he was also worried about how he might explain the destruction of the automobile.  His body and that of the driver could be repaired by doctors.  Doctors in Moscow were good and there would be no cost.  But to repair an automobile. Ah, thought Rostnikov, that may be much more difficult.  (Chapter Twelve)

The villain was a bit twisted, to be honest.  There was a scene toward the end of the book where I was worried things were going to cross that line into “too graphic and gory” for me to want to read.  But the whole thing turned out okay and Kaminsky did not cross the line-of-yucky.   The main character, Porfiry Rostnikov, is a big hit, I think.  He is a fairly good Russian imitation of a war-hardened hard-boiled detective.  He is patient and brooding, just as one would expect.  But he also is politically savvy – although he is not completely subservient and whipped by the political edifice.   I like the supporting characters, too, particularly Emil Karpo.  Karpo is really fun and awesome – I am glad I met this character.

This is the sort of book you want to see as a movie – but done well, not ruined by some ridiculous Hollywood interpretation.  I am giving it four stars for the writing style (dry-humor and subtle) and for the characters.  The background of the USSR is worthy and should interest those with a fondness for Russia.

Moscow begins work at five in the morning.  The few hours before are for the criminals, the police, taxi drivers, government officials at parties, and party officials working on government.   (Chapter Two)

4 stars

Invisible Cities

InvisibleCitiesI tend to demand more out of books.  I want the intellectual challenges.  I want authors to be brilliant.  And Invisible Cities can be read on such a level.  In fact, all over the internet and in universities you can find analyses of this text that are of high-academic level.  There are charts.  There are theories. And there are examples.  However, I enjoyed this text on a more purely reader-ly level.  Published in Italian in 1972, Calvino presents a unique text which can be read as fiction, short prose, or even as fantasy.

Calvino is, generally, a bit of a difficult author.  I am rather sure that he knew that and liked that fact.  He’s arrogant, because he knows that he is educated and a bit monied.  So, he is not writing for the common man.  His audience is not the beginning reader or the basic reader. Technically, this work is structured by a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Some of these sections are repetitive.  Maybe they could have been done slightly better.  Interesting:  Polo and the Khan do not speak the same language – so though we read dialogue, it is also (possibly) imaginary.  Imagine instead Polo playing charades and gesturing to describe cities.  Seriously – imagine it.  If I had you describe the city you live in without using vocabulary (just gestures, expressions, movements, and sounds) could you do it? How would you do it?

At times, some of this conversation alludes to chess.  And these are some of my favorite parts.  What does the chess game represent? What does the victory actually gain? Can a city be made of chess pieces?  The majority of this text is symbolic and metaphorical.  So, none of the answers are immediate and prima facie.  At one point we are told that Polo is not actually describing the dozens of cities he encountered in his travels.  Instead, he is re-describing Venice, his hometown.  It makes for another interesting intellectual point of interruption.

To be honest I focused on reading about the cities themselves.  There are 55 cities described.  Each of these falls under one of eleven categories.  Some readers may want to focus on these categories.  I did, to an extent, but I got a bit disinterested in doing that.  I probably should have done better on that front.  Anyway, even if you read this work on a very basic level – as I did – you should find something intriguing or surprising in the descriptions of the various cities.

My favorite cities were Clarice, Eusapia, Adelma, and Perinthia.  These were my favorites because I found them most shocking to imagine and consider.  These descriptions provided the most shock-value and curiosity to me.  I suspect other readers may select different cities to remark upon.  When I read the descriptions of these cities, however, I got an eerie feeling, or I was surprised, or I gasped at what I imagined.  Anyway, I want to keep a copy of this book around so I can pick up and read these cities in the future whenever I get the urge to do so.

At times I feel your voice is reaching me from far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, where all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume.  And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again.  (Chapter 9)

I selected this quote from a section of dialogue between Polo and the Khan.  I think this is the best summary of the entire work. I wish I was expert-level in Italian to read this sentence in its original and really let this concept sink in my brain.  In English, it is not terrible – but I feel like there is a whole lot in just this little excerpt.

In the past I’ve studied and written about Ayn Rand’s novels, Flatiron buildings, China Mieville’s novels, and human geography.  Reading Calvino’s work actually did not cause me to move into a science fiction/fantasy mindset – but one that focused on the city qua city and architecture.  I was slightly disappointed, because some part of me wanted the science fiction catalyst.  However, I did not really mind the foray into these other subjects.  A result of this is that after reading the work, I’ve been considering all the cities I have lived in and visited and trying to see them through Marco Polo/Calvino’s imagination.  This is definitely an ongoing process, so I am glad Calvino gave me some solid food for thought.  At the end of the day, this is not going to be every reader’s best-loved work.

4 stars

Blue Beetle #1 (1986)

Blue Beetle #1 (1986) – DC Comics;

Blue Beetle is a character that has hung around comics history for a long time.  He has an early history in the late 1930s and 1940s with Fox Comics and Charlton Comics.  In 1983, along with most of Charlton Comics properties, the character rights were sold to DC Comics.  The character has had a pretty interesting history that practically parallels the history of American comics. But this is not a history blog. I finally got my hands on a nice copy of DC Comics’ 1986 #1 issue of Blue Beetle.  I got it for .50¢ and am totally thrilled with the purchase.

This iteration of Blue Beetle is the scientist Ted Kord.  In this issue, we are introduced to the character as he leaves retirement to once again enter public service.  Fires are being set in buildings all over downtown Chicago – and the Blue Beetle appears to deal with this problem. The writer for this issue is Len Wein; Paris Cullins and Bruce D. Patterson are the artists.

I love the way this issue begins.  In fact, lately, I have been loving all pre-1990s comics.  They have this depth in the writing that I feel is a little missing in current-day comics. I am not talking about the level of writing, really. I feel like these older (vintage?) comics have this wordsmithing knack to them.  Sometimes it seems a little hokey, but sometimes, it’s almost poetic.  That’s one of the main things that is really drawing my interest into these pre-1990s issues again and again.

Blue Beetle #1 (1986) – frame one, page one; DC Comics

Last night, as the household was lulling into sleep, I carefully pulled the issue from its plastic sleeve.  I opened to the first page and fell in love with the first frame.  How about that?  I harp on the importance of the first issue, first book, etc. of all the things I read.  Because I am a big believer of the first impression concept with these things.  Authors/artists have to hook the reader.  They have to make the reader care, be engaged, and show us competence.  Lots of work for first issues.  So look at the copy in the first frame – its poetic, I tell you.

Okay, maybe not great poetry, but nowadays the copy would read:  “Lots of big fires are burning in Chicago.”  I particularly like the “fugitive sparks” part. Awesome. Thank you, Len Wein.

The story is actually really good.  Kord is a scientist entrepreneur who moonlights as Blue Beetle.  He discovers that the arsonist isn’t just a criminal with a dim view of city planning, but an armored villain named Firefist. (Okay, maybe not the least goofy of names…)  Anyway, in their first fight, Firefist gets away, but Blue Beetle makes plans to take Firefist on.

We get a little history of the previous Blue Beetle series, which is good. We meet a villain that seems really intense.  We learn about Ted Kord’s double-life.  And the banter between characters is witty and cute.  Finally, you have to read the next issue – you want to and need to. This is an excellent comic. It really makes me love the character a lot.  If you really want to dig into comics beyond the usual adoration for Batman and Superman, I think Blue Beetle might be for you.

5 stars

The Curse of the Blue Figurine

Blue FigurineThe Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs is the first in the Johnny Dixon series.  I have never read it before – but finally, in 2013, now that I am old and haggard, I finally got a copy.  I actually am working my way through as many John Bellairs novels as I can.  Overall, these are excellent.  I recently re-read The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt, which was as awesome as I remember it being when I was a small person.

But this novel is even better.  I was thoroughly impressed. I thought for sure that I was going to be somewhat disappointed – how could Bellairs do better than the other book I read?  And yet! And YET! This one is excellent.

As I mentioned, this is the first book in the Johnny Dixon series.  So here, I finally got a lot more background on Johnny’s grandparents and Professor Childermass. I learned more about how Johnny came to live in this town and about the school he attends. And the church that he attends.

First of all:  yeah, parents in 2013 who are all stuffy and politically-correct and shelter their munchkins are never going to let them read these books.  These books are all kinds of “inappropriate” – but not because of the usual reasons you might think.  There’s alcohol and Church and the adults are realistic.  Nothing sanitized, really, in here.  But it isn’t bawdy, rowdy, or uncouth, don’t get me wrong. Secondly:  Johnny is so full of guilt and low self-esteem that he probably isn’t the type of character one finds in current-day novels.  But he’s really a great kid! In fact, he’s the best! I love Johnny!

I love all of the characters.   And this story is creepy and eerie and has a lot of supernatural elements in it. And the supernatural elements are kept real and true – no one attempts to erase, explain, or devolve them. Awesome! I love the language and constructions that Bellairs uses.  He’s really a charming author and he writes with such a fun style.  I am subtly pressurizing my entire household to read this novel.

5 stars

Bend Sinister

Bend SinisterI finished Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister tonight. It was first published, in English, in 1947.  It falls in chronology almost a decade prior to the publishing of the infamous Lolita.  This is the fifth Nabokov novel that I have read.  My favorite Nabokov novel is The Defense, but this is a close second.  In fact, I would say that they both tie for first place in awesomeness.

This is a rather challenging and difficult novel.  By this I mean, only intelligent people are going to read this and understand it.  It is not a novel that is junk or for the weak-minded.  I mention this to be fair.  I am going to give this novel high marks, but unless you are an intelligent reader, you will not enjoy this novel.  This is meaningful because it is one of those novels that you will get out of it what you put into it.  This requires focus and imagination and appreciation of language, symbols, wordplay, etc.  Also, you should have a dose of academia and have already read some real dystopian novels.

In this novel, one finds expert, masterful wordsmithing.  This is on the level of the greatest of the greats – in terms of wordsmithing.  And I do not say this lightly.  I am actually really amazed by the level of this book.  I saw good ideas/concepts in Nabokov’s other novels.  I love The Defense.  But when I speak of actual usage of language – I am completely impressed by the work here.  I know readers hear about Nabokov’s skill – but, I’ll be honest, this is the first novel wherein I can say the awesome skill was proven and sustained throughout the entire work.

I’m a bit of a sucker for the classic dystopain scary-government reads.  Bring on 1984 etc.  But compared to this, 1984 seems juvenile.  We seems sketchy.  THIS was eerie, disturbing, creepy (at least the elements dealing with the sinister government).  In fact, the writing is so great in so many respects that I have difficulty describing it adequately and just want to pass you the book.

Get this:  the main character is Adam Krug – a philosopher. A real one – like in University and everything!  And Nabokov did not make him a whining, sniveling wimp; Krug is a beast.  He is a large man; strong, bullish, and stolid. It feels like everyone in the fictional country of the novel has capitulated to the new tyrannical government except Krug himself.  His non-emotive, but unwavering protection and concern for his son is rather comforting to read.  Krug’s acceptance of his wife death is written perfectly.  Instead of outward emotive theatrics, Krug is clearly deeply sorrowed and upset – but internally, and more meaningfully than any external blubbering would demonstrate.  Olga’s family comes to the house and Krug (more or less) heads out the backdoor to avoid them.

Krug also has this unflagging duty to his friends – even though they may not be extremely close to him.  Krug tires of tedious people, absurdity, and subterfuge.  He sighs magnanimously and suffers. He drinks – some accuse him of being a drunkard, but I did not see that. Krug is truly a great character.

Settings are also awesome.  The early scenes on the bridge are excellent – so much vivid imaginative work.  The scenes in the rural country are also amazing.  Finally, the scenes in the University and government buildings are done so well, I felt like I could close my eyes and actually be in the room.  Chapeau, Nabokov!

Nevertheless, Nabokov’s arrogance shows through. I have just learned to tolerate it – particularly in novels where he deserves to be a bit cocky and self-satisfied.  I feel Nabokov knew how good this work is and reveled in it. Arrogant jerk.  Let’s face it, there’s a narrator to this. (Possible paper for enterprising college student:  decide who is the narrator and argue for your position). Sometimes it seems like Krug, but only rarely. Usually, it seems like some chronicler.  At other points, it’s obviously the Divine.  So yes, Nabokov’s arrogance is in full force here. And it’s really meaty and exquisite.

Are not these problems so hard to solve because my own mind is not made up yet in regard to your death?  My intelligence does not accept the transformation of physical discontinuity into the permanent continuity of a nonphysical element escaping the obvious law, nor can it accept the inanity of accumulating incalcuable treasures of thought and sensation, and thought-behind-thought and sensation-behind-sensation, to lose them all at once and forever in a fit of black nausea followed by infinite nothingness.  (Chapter 6)

Krug discussing his wife.  Or the narrator discussing Krug.  Etc.  But there you have it. Wordsmithing and intelligent pondering.  The thing is, Nabokov actually bothered to make his philosopher-character be actually philosophical.  And not merely floofy or what passes for philosophy.  Nabokov, unlike so many people in the universe, does not treat philosophers as if they are lepers.  Nevertheless, he still tortures the hell out of Krug. (People love to torment philosophers.)  And someone on Goodreads used a word in their review that really describes this novel in just a word:  grueling.  And it is grueling – you’d better have some gravel in your gut to get through this one.  Also, it manhandles readers because it is intense and challenges the brainpower of the reader.  And the end?  I feel every reader will synthesize, extrapolate, and contextualize the ending in their own way – which would give us clues to that particular reader’s worldview and psychological make-up. Wow.  An author accomplishing that is stunning…. be impressed.

And then, thought Krug, on top of everything, I am a slave of images.  We speak of one thing being like some other thing when what we are really craving to do is to describe something that is like nothing on earth.  Certain mind pictures have become so adulterated by the concept of “time” that we have come to believe in the actual existence of a permanently moving bright fissure between our retrospective eternity which we cannot recall and the prospective one which we cannot know.  We are not really able to measure time because no gold second is kept in a case in Paris but, quite frankly, do you not imagine a length of several hours more exactly than a length of several miles? (Chapter 14)

In any case, the characters are great. David – presented through Krug’s thoughts and speech – is loveable.  Quick characters like Phokus appear and reappear and contain little twists and turns of the storyline – but subtly without the reader really noticing until it surprises!  Olga – who we never meet – is also a powerful character, one we know and miss even though we never knew her.

This is not a “nice” book.  So, do not give it to your mom or your grandmother.  Or to your small child.  But it is an intense “grueling” and masterful work.  I recommend it to all the best readers of the world.  While there is a lot of stamina required here – the ending, for me (as I hinted at earlier, I take away what I bring to it), was divinely joyous amidst a lot of dark tragedy.  If this was all I knew of Nabokov, I would be completely surprised by everything about him.  How did he manage to do this?

Throughout the novel Nabokov gives you hints of what will happen.  He warns you and drops hints. He moves from narrative to first-person seamlessly.  He shoves characters right at you.  He handles whole chapters with philosophical finesse.  As each storypoint event occurs, you feel it in your gut – and then you slap yourself because you totally should have seen this coming.

As a fun sidenote, I am not sure if you know the old TV series The Prisoner? I watched it back in 2002.  I think it’s been in different venues and has recently gained a re-interest.  But the “I’ll be seeing you” stuff?  It is from this book. The line is in this book. And it’s done perfectly; I almost fell off of my chair with the way this tickled and thrilled me.

5 stars