7.22.2018

what i'm re-reading: the ax by donald westlake and other literary thrillers

I've just re-read* one of my all-time favourites: The Ax by Donald Westlake. I'm agog with how much I love this book. But first, the requisite blather.

* * * *

One of my favourite kind of books -- although I don't read them frequently -- is a mystery, detective story, crime thriller, or spy thriller that transcends its genre and is also a literary novel.

The definition of literary is always a bit squirrely -- and of course always somewhat subjective --  but in general, a genre novel is generally plot-driven, and follows a formula that readers of that genre recognize. The writing itself is not particularly important, and may be mediocre, passable, or worse.

The best-selling titles in the genres I've mentioned are all about plot, pacing, and recognizable character types. But I just can't get past the writing. I can't stand reading mediocre writing, no matter how good the rest of the package.

So for me, a crime, hard-boiled mystery, or spy novel, with an intricate, surprising plot, interesting, fully realized characters, and truly excellent writing -- that is a great find. From my own limited reading, the pinnacle has been Graham Green. But whenever I read a book review that sounds like a literary thriller, I put it on my list.

In the past, I didn't read in this category very often. Years would go by when I completely forgot about it! But these days I'm looking for these books more frequently. I like to intersperse fiction and nonfiction, and while there's an overwhelming supply of great nonfiction out there, I find myself bored or unsatisfied with so much fiction. So more and more, I find myself looking for quality mysteries, detective stories, and thrillers. (I don't read a series straight through, all in a row. I read other books in between and return to the series.)

Right now I'm slowly working my way through Henning Mankell's Wallander series, Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce novels, and all the Donald Westlake -- under any name -- that I can get my hands on. (Westlake's Parker series, written under his Richard Stark pseudonym, are genre novels. But damn, they are addictive. They are potato chips!) Olen Steinhauer, Ted Mooney, and Martin Clark are others I've enjoyed. I've also loved reading classics by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (which I wrote about here). I haven't had much luck with the noir classics by James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and James Ellroy, but I'm still trying.

* * * *

So, The Ax. Why do I love this book?

It is built on a fascinating premise, and a plot line that is a both a shocking roller-coaster and eminently believable.

It has a very strong anti-capitalist point of view, a thread that runs through the entire book, without any soapboxing or author intrusion (something I have zero patience for).

It is a psychological study of a man losing his moral compass, and how humans rationalize and accommodate evil.

It's a philosophical study of social mores and ethics -- and how what's permissible on one scale is criminal on another.

The main character changes gradually and credibly, so that the reader is aware of the changes before the character's self-awareness -- and self-deception -- catches up.

It's a meditation on violence, not only physical violence, but the psychic violence of capitalism, and how they are linked.

And all this is wrapped up in a brilliant plot and a bone-chilling crime novel.

* * * *

From the New York Times 1997 review:
Donald E. Westlake has caught and logged our unspoken fiscal dread in a novel of excruciating brilliance. His protagonist, Burke Devore, is Homo reductus, Downsized man: out of work in the processed paper industry for month after stupefying month, about to lose the wife (Marjorie) and children (Betsy and Billy) he can no longer support, bitter, desperate, made furious by an economic system in which stock prices go up when (and even because) people get axed. . . .

With trenchant and subtle special pleading, Devore will convince himself -- and almost convince his agonized readers as well -- that it is justifiable homicide to kill.... That, in fact, such an act constitutes not murder at all, but an act of self-defense. "If the alternative is despair and defeat and grinding misery and growing horror for Marjorie and Betsy and Billy and me, why shouldn't I kill him, the son of a bitch? How could I not kill him, given what's at stake here?"

. . . .

As novels go, "The Ax" is pretty much flawless, with a surprise ending that will unplug your expectations. Burke Devore is American Man at the millennium -- as emblematic of his time as George F. Babbitt and Holden Caulfield and Capt. John Yossarian were of theirs. Westlake has written a remarkable book. If you can't relate to it, be thankful.

* I rarely re-read anything, with these notable exceptions: 1984, The Grapes of WrathWinter's Tale (Mark Helprin), Wuthering Heights, and selected Charles Dickens.

7.15.2018

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #29

It's TIHATL, Summer Reading Club edition!

Summer Reading Club is in full swing in Canadian libraries. In more than 2,100 libraries around Canada, kids are earning prizes and recognition for reading. Thanks to Toronto Public Library and a certain sponsoring bank, we all have lots of free stuff to give away.

The most popular kids' series ever,
still going strong after almost 15 years.
Our motives are simple: kids who read during the summer do better in school in September. SRC also helps remind parents of pre-readers to read with their little ones daily.

Our children's library is very busy. The first day of SRC, we signed up 180 kids! After two weeks, we're well over 600 participants. When kids register, or when they come in to "report" and collect prizes, it's a great time for some one-on-one conversations with our young customers. Some won't say one word without their parents' prompting, but others are so forthright and articulate! It's really a pleasure chatting with them. What have I heard?

"My favourite books are the ones where things happen, and you know, you don't know what's going to happen, and you think things won't happen, and then they do happen!"

"I love reading about space, and planets, and the universe. I'm going to be an astronaut and go to Mars -- when I'm six!" This boy was amazing. At not yet six years old, he knew so much about astronomy! And he wasn't just regurgitating facts without engaging, as you sometimes see with kids who are on the autism spectrum. This boy was relaxed and social, and had clearly synthesized what he had read. We had a great conversation about his impending Mars visit. His mom and I looked at each other in amazement.

Two sisters wanted to read about... it sounded like churchills.

"Miss, can we bring our churchills to the library?"

"Your ... what?"

"Our churchills!"

"I'm not getting it. Can you say that again?"

"Our CHURCHILLS! Can we bring our CHURCHILLS to the library?!!"

Finally I am forced to admit, "I don't know what that is."

"They are little animals, they have a shell, and their little arms and legs and head sticks out of the shell, and when they're afraid, they can go inside it. We have two baby churchills and we want to bring them to the library!"

I try not to laugh. They are hearing the word from their parents, who are new English speakers.

"Do you mean turtles?"

"Yes, yes, tur-tills!" Without missing a beat, they now begin to pronounce the world tur-till with great enunciation.

"I don't think your turtles would be very happy at the library."

"We would help them! We would show them all the books!"

"But you know what, all the kids would want to see the turtles and pet them, there would be a huge crowd, and I think the turtles might be afraid."

They nod with great seriousness.

I ask, "Would you like to read some books about turtles?"

"Yes yes yes yes yes!!!"

"Do you want to read stories with characters who are turtles, like Franklin, or information about turtles?"

"Information! Information about tur-tills! Tur-till information!"

The book on having a turtle as a pet is nowhere to be found, but we find lots of books about turtles in the wild. I try to shield them from books about endangered sea turtles, but they are too fast for me. Fortunately, they are only looking at the pictures, so they're not bothered by the sad stuff.

"Tur-tills! Tur-tills! Mommy Mommy we have books about tur-tills!!"

Currently the hottest ticket, by the
creator of Captain Underpants
* * * * *

[What should we set for your first reading goal? How many books will you read before you come in for your first prize?]

"100! No, 500! No, one thousand! No, three. Three books."

[What kind of books do you like to read?]

The most common answers are Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries (Wimpy Kid for girls), Harry Potter (still and apparently forever), Percy Jackson (hero of the Rick Riordan series), Narnia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For the younger readers, the most popular answers include Disney Princesses, Ninjago, Pokemon, LEGO, Barbie, various superheroes, and Transformers. (Notice anything?)

For graphic fiction (which kids call comic books), girls are still looking for anything by Raina Telgemeier, especially her new adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club. Everyone is still reading Amulet. This year's kids have not heard of Bone, but I can talk them into trying it. This is especially great because, being slightly out of fashion, Bone is easy to find.

The graphic hybrids are hugely popular: Geronimo Stilton and related spinoffs, Big Nate, Captain Underpants, Dog Man (this year's runaway hit), and the seemingly eternal Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I often steer girls to Marissa Moss' Amelia's Notebook series, which predates Dork Diaries and is way better.

If you phrase the question, "Do you like funny books, scary books, adventures, mysteries...?" the number one answer, by a huge margin, is funny. Scholastic has the results of a survey about what kids and parents look for in books.

The best answer I heard in a long time was: "I like books with words and pictures! I'm very particular about what I read."

7.08.2018

in which we do something i thought i'd never do: say goodbye to our vinyl

Through all our years together, and all the different places we have lived, Allan and I have hung on to our large collection of vinyl LPs.

Most people I know who are old enough to have lived in the vinyl era stopped listening to LPs with the advent of CDs, and got rid of their LPs some time after that. We never understood this. We couldn't possibly re-buy all these albums on CD, so why wouldn't we keep them?

We must have weeded some duplicates when we first moved in together -- although we still have at least four copies of "Exile on Main Street" (one is autographed by Keith). The core of my own collection was inherited from older siblings, so dates back to the early '70s.

We did replace well-worn favourites with discs over the years, but even then we kept the LPs. Of course we have much of our music digitally now, but still. No vinyl left behind.

And now, suddenly, I'm OK with it. With an impending move to the other side of the continent, I'd like to lighten our load  -- both for moving, and for how much space we need to live. Allan would rather cull the collection down to essentials. But I don't want a small LP collection. I want our collection or none.

Before we make any drastic moves, we're cataloging all the titles, so I can see what we already have on CD, what we need to download, and what's not worth keeping in any form. Do I really need "Frampton Comes Alive" and "Rumours"? When was the last time I listened to Yes? Good lord.

Amazingly, I also suddenly feel ready to really downsize, which means the unthinkable -- getting rid of large quantities of books. I love books as much as I ever have, but I no longer feel the need to own them. This is not a battle I would ever win, so I'm not taking up the cause. For his part, Allan is scanning mountains of paper, as hard drives take up a lot less space.

kevin baker in harper's: "the death of a once great city -- the fall of new york and the urban crisis of affluence"

Everyone who cares about cities, about privatization, and frankly, about humans and our ability to live on our planet, should make time to read the July cover story in Harper's magazine. New York writer Kevin Baker unpacks "The Death of a Once Great City -- The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence".
As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there. For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring.

This is not some new phenomenon but a cancer that’s been metastasizing on the city for decades now. And what’s happening to New York now—what’s already happened to most of Manhattan, its core—is happening in every affluent American city. San Francisco is overrun by tech conjurers who are rapidly annihilating its remarkable diversity; they swarm in and out of the metropolis in specially chartered buses to work in Silicon Valley, using the city itself as a gigantic bed-and-breakfast. Boston, which used to be a city of a thousand nooks and crannies, back-alley restaurants and shops, dive bars and ice cream parlors hidden under its elevated, is now one long, monotonous wall of modern skyscraper. In Washington, an army of cranes has transformed the city in recent years, smoothing out all that was real and organic into a town of mausoleums for the Trump crowd to revel in.

By trying to improve our cities, we have only succeeded in making them empty simulacra of what was. To bring this about we have signed on to political scams and mindless development schemes that are so exclusive they are more destructive than all they were supposed to improve. The urban crisis of affluence exemplifies our wider crisis: we now live in an America where we believe that we no longer have any ability to control the systems we live under.
The article unpacks the trend I was lamenting in the 1990s, worsening each passing year, until it finally drove us out in 2005 -- the City paying diminishing returns on the "why live in NYC" equation, finally allowing me to defect from the whole mess of the United States. Since then, of course, it's only gotten worse. But no longer seeing the City on a day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground level, I had no idea how much worse.

This is not nostalgia. And it's not an inevitable act of nature. It's the result of deliberate choices by the ruling class. And it's happening all over North America.

I'm still reading the story. With every paragraph, my heart breaks a little more. It's a long, depressing, essential read.

If you can't access it through the Harper's website, try using your library card to get it through rbgdigital or hoopla.

7.01.2018

happy canada day: a wish for a pledge

One unfortunate result of the current ascendancy of white supremacy in the US is the increase in Canadians' nationalism and self-love -- the strengthening of Canadians' conviction that our society is peaceful and democratic, our institutions benevolent, our kindness manifest in law.

We pat ourselves on the back while Trudeau spends our money trampling Indigenous rights, poisoning our water, and hastening climate catastrophe. We say "We're the greatest country in the world," while our most populous province has elected a false-majority, white supremacist government of our own.

So often, if Canadians can believe that it's better here than in the US, they are happy enough to stop there.

We can do better.

We must do better.

This Canada Day, let's pledge to push our governments -- and to educate our friends, family, co-workers, and ourselves -- so that Canada can live up to its reputation, a little more every day.

magazine covers presented without comment, because what is there to say






6.30.2018

from the archives: for millions of american women, roe is already history

With the resignation of US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, it is very likely that Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, will be overturned. I'm getting frustrated by the spate of stories about how abortion will now be illegal -- with no mention of how Roe has become meaningless for so many women.

I wrote this (below) on Common Dreams in 2005. I was off on the chronology -- it took longer to get to this point than I thought it would -- and the lack of access has undoubtedly gotten worse since then. This piece in The Guardian will bring you up to date.

* * * * *

January 23, 2005

For Millions of American Women, Roe Is Already History
By Laura Kaminker

Thirty-two years ago yesterday, American women gained greater control over their bodies - and therefore, over their lives - when Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, became the law of the land.

The choice community celebrates the Roe anniversary as a kind of emancipation day, but it is unlikely we will see too many more of those celebrations. Roe will almost certainly be reversed soon. Abortion will be legal in some states and not others. State laws will vary widely in the circumstances under which a pregnancy may be terminated - as is now the case, only more so.

However, those of us involved in abortion access know that for millions of American women, Roe is already irrelevant.

Money. For a few years after the Roe decision, Medicaid paid for abortions; anyone could get an abortion regardless of her age or ability to pay. Only four years later, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which banned payment for abortions unless the woman's life was endangered. (In 1993, after much struggle, those exceptions were broadened to include cases of rape and incest.)

In most states, Medicaid rarely covers abortion. Yet the cost of a first-trimester abortion can be more than a family on public assistance receives in a month. In our Walmart economy, many working women can't afford a procedure.

Low-income women and girls delay termination as they try to scrape together the money they need. These delays often force them to have second-trimester procedures, which are more complicated medically, more risky - and much more expensive. It is not uncommon for women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term because they cannot afford a simple medical procedure.

Laws. Then there are the legal obstacles. With the Webster (1989) and Casey (1992) decisions, the Supreme Court upheld states' rights to restrict access to abortion in myriad ways. Women must jump through hoops and over hurdles before they can terminate a pregnancy. These laws run the gamut of idiocy, from 48-hour waiting periods, to parental consent and notification for minors, to mandatory "counseling," which often involves coercion.

These laws assume women are incompetent, irresponsible, and unable to make their own decisions. They also expose the anti-choice "abortion is murder" argument for the smokescreen that it is. If abortion was murder, these types of laws would be anathema to the anti-choice crowd: what good is delaying murder? However, if one's goal is to control women and punish them for having sex and getting pregnant, then these laws make perfect sense.

And then there's availability. In addition to the financial and legal barriers, there is one last, often insurmountable obstacle: availability.

Because of anti-choice terrorism and political action, thousands of doctors have stopped providing abortions and thousands of towns have stopped leasing space to abortion providers. Right now, nearly 80% of American women live in a county with no abortion provider. Obtaining an abortion often means traveling long distances, which in turn means finding child care and transportation, and even more funds. Imagine if the state also has a mandatory waiting period, so the entire trip has to be made twice. A baby should not be born because a woman could not afford the price of a bus ticket or had no one to watch her children.

When Roe is overturned, I will mourn. But in a very real sense, Roe is already history and has been for a long time. Without access, legal abortion is meaningless.

what i'm reading: running the books: the adventures of an accidental prison librarian

I read this book many months ago. I'm still catching up from my involuntary blogging hiatus.

Last year I read and wrote about The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison. I found it extremely disappointing; if you read the review, you will catch my understatement.

Avi Steinberg's Running the Books starts out disappointing, but once it kicks in, is a wonderfully satisfying and beautifully written book. When we meet Steinberg, he is somewhat adrift, having abandoned his religious studies at Yeshiva University, escaping to Harvard, but graduating with no discernible direction or passion to find one. The writing is snarky and self-deprecating; the tone is pure staccato. I thought Running the Books might be one of those "guy reads" that I find shallow and irritating.

But when Steinberg accepts a position as a prison librarian -- with no experience in either prisons or libraries -- the writing slows down, and it blossoms. Perhaps the early tone was meant to reflect Steinberg's state of mind at the time, because one thing becomes very clear: this man can write.

Steinberg introduces the reader to the prisoners -- both men and women -- who frequent his library, with a keen eye for detail, a wry humour, and a voice suffused with compassion.

The library is a prison hang-out, a somewhat less supervised space where inmates can interact a bit more freely. In this way, Steinberg is witness to interactions an outsider normally would never see. Steinberg also runs a writing class, where inmates reveal bits of their lives and emotions.

The library also functions as an underground post office: prisoners leave each other messages -- known as "kites" -- in books. Many of these messages are romantic in nature, as the male and female inmates live in separate areas, and their paths rarely cross. Steinberg is supposed to destroy these notes, but he cannot bring himself to be so punitive about communication. He copies the messages into a notebook, and they form a sad, lonely core at the heart of this book.

I really liked Steinberg's writing, but I liked his point of view even more. He writes about the inmates with open eyes, not trying to romanticize or sugar-coat their crimes, but also with an open heart, one that recognizes the social complexities that may bring one person to prison and the other to rehab, with completely different outcomes. He is clearly changed by his experience, but he leaves it up to the reader to judge both how he changed, and how much.

Reading Steinberg's book revived my interest in volunteering at a prison library. One future day, when I am no longer a local union president, I hope to see that through.

A reader at this earlier post suggested The Prison Book Club by Canadian writer Ann Walmsley. A review of that book and the controversy that followed is here. I have it on my list.

6.24.2018

rip philip roth

I was literally reading this article in The New York Times about Philip Roth when I heard he had died. It's a wonderful story: an 85-year-old celebrated author who has come to the end of his career with no regrets, is grateful to wake up every morning, and is now bingeing on nonfiction to learn more and more about the world. I was so happy for him, experiencing an old age we all deserve, but so many never find.

I've read many of Philip Roth's novels, and have many more still to go. He can be a challenging read, sometimes deceptively simple, sometimes confounding, almost always thought-provoking and worthwhile. If you haven't read The Plot Against America, I recommend it highly.

To me Roth is best remembered as the author who taught me about the bright line between fiction and autobiography, and that readers would do well to stop conflating the two (although they never will). Critics and readers were obsessed with this question, and seemingly could not see Roth's novels through any other lens. The Guardian quotes him:
I write fiction, and I’m told it’s autobiography. I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide.
Roth grew so tired of responding to questions and accusations about which bits of his work were autobiographical and which were fiction, that he declared a moratorium on the subject. He wrote more than one novel that purposely obfuscated the distinction in weird twists worth of M.C. Escher. The narrator of Operation Shylock, for example, is a character named Philip Roth, who is being impersonated by another character, who stole Roth’s identity.

I haven't read any of Roth's work for a long time, and his death reminds me to keep his last body of work on my list: Everyman (2006), Exit Ghost (2007), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009), and Nemesis (2010).

Philip Roth obituaries: The New York Times and The Guardian.

still catching up

venn diagram courtesy of Lucidchart

I just wanted to create a Venn diagram.

6.23.2018

welcome to the allan and laura new york city history reading club

The theme of this year's TD Summer Reading Club -- a national program (developed by Toronto Public Library) that more than 2,000 Canadian libraries participate in -- is Feed Your Passions, or as some are calling it, geeking out. Allan and I are going to join the fun with our own tremendously geeky reading, although it will take us considerably more than one summer.

For eons, we have had on our bookshelf Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, a massive 1,424 pages in very small print.


I've always wanted to read it, but it's a bit intimidating! And it's not like you can throw it in your backpack to read on the bus.

Then for my birthday this year, included among Allan's gifts and cards and general Celebration of Laura, was Wallace's follow-up: Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919.


This volume -- all 1200 pages of it -- has got to be fascinating, but we can't read the second book without reading the first! And, geez, that's a lot to read!

I suggested a solution, following in the footsteps of Phil Gyford, to whom literature and history geeks the world over are indebted. Phil is the genius who put The Diary of Samuel Pepys online, one daily post at a time. (I read the entire thing, usually in weekly installments. It took 10 years.)

To tackle this Big Read, Allan and I are going to read one chapter each week -- with the understanding that sometimes we may have to take a week off. We'll still also read whatever else we're reading. That's the plan at least. Starting... now!

Bonus points if you know without Google why the year 1898 is an important marker in New York City history.