Thursday, November 27, 2008

Finished: "Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance" by Gyles Brandreth

Finished: Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth, 2007, 9781416551744.

Okay. This could have been much better if cut back by about 100 pages. It went on too long and meandered a bit.

Oscar Wilde discovers the body of a male prostitute in a trysting house's room where Oscar was scheduled to tutor his god-daughter. The body disappears and the room is spotlessly cleaned when Oscar and his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Sherard come along to see if he is telling the truth. Sherard narrates the tale which covers about five months and introduces the reader to a very odd homo underground in London.

I think Wilde enthusiast Brandreth got carried away with Wilde information. Brandreth is a biographer so I suppose that is understandable. Wilde was a complicated dude and Brandreth's opinion on Wilde's conviction for perversion is unclear from the novel. But, I gather it is just as likely that Wilde was innocent of the charge and not sexually interested in dudes. No matter. The book went on too long.

The mystery aspect was very well done. The killer and accomplice was a true surprise to me and Brandreth tied it all together very well.

The Acknowledgements have a neat story about how Brandreth's headmaster used to be a friend of Wilde and one of Wilde's kids was in his school during Wilde's trial. During games of Scrabble the Headmaster spoke "with vivid accounts of Oscar Wilde's manner and conversational style - including Wilde's habit of trying out on his family and friends lines that would alter resurface in his stories and plays.

There are some author questions I have not yet read.

Read: "Zeppelins West" by Joe R. Lansdale

Read: Zeppelins West by Joe R. Lansdale, 2001, (Hey! I just noticed this is a signed edition when I was hunting down the) ISBN 193108100X.

Very, very good. I don't just say that because his daughter is good looking and Lansdale is all kung-fuey. I reserved several Lansdale books quite a while ago. A few months ago I had tried reading the sequel-of-sorts to this but was lost in the absurdity. This time around it all worked.

Buffalo Bill Cody, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickok, Ned Buntline, Annie Oakley and others are traveling in a Zeppelin convoy across the Pacific to tour Cody's Wild West show. Sex and violence ensue. After Cody and company capture Frankenstein from the Japanese, Cody's Zeppelin is shot down by Japanese bi-planes, crashes into the ocean, and the survivors are rescued by Captain Nemo (renamed Bemo) and taken to Dr. Moreau's (renamed Dr. Momo) island. Includes appearances from the Tin Man and Frankenstein who carry on a homosexual-robot-living dead love affair. There are probably other literary characters that I missed.

Everyone but the Tin Man and Frankenstein die in the end but you learn several important things. For instance, Sitting Bull has a huge schlong. One of Momo's creations has a horse vagina to match the horse cock Momo grafted onto himself.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Read: "In Deadly Combat" by Gottlob Herbert Bidermann

Read: In Deadly Combat: a German soldier's memoir of the Eastern Front by Gottlob Herbert Bidermann, 2000, 0700611223 (paper).

What to say? This was an interesting perspective on World War II for sure. I have read one or two German memoirs of the Eastern Front. When reading those I often enjoyed hearing about their failures and deaths. I felt more concern and compassion for Bidermann and his fellows. Bidermann wrote this for his surviving unit's memoirs. It was not meant as a general history.

Bidermann "captained" an anti-tank gun crew. After a brief time in Yugoslavia they joined the invasion of Russia in June, 1941 and went to the Black Sea to capture the Crimean Peninsula. There were plenty of heavy fights there and after a blistering summer and freezing winter the Germans prevailed over the Russians. Bidermann's division was sent further north into Russia and continued fighting there until German surrender in 1945.

Bidermann is obviously biased towards his fellow kraut soldiers. But, the Germans really did have some tremendous military success against superior numbers. The Crimean terrain could be very rough. The human wave counterattacks supported by armor by the Russians would last for hours. One particular nasty battle had multiple tanks assaulting Bidermann's position. His efficient crew was able to knock many out but the infantry and artillery attacks went on and on and on and on. The machine gunners would be ripping through belt after belt of ammunition and the gunners' hands would cramp closed. One machine gunner screamed out, "I just can't keep killing!"

Half of the book covers the Crimean campaign alone. Maybe all the fighting on the plains and swamps of Russia just blended together into one big, muggy, bloody mess. The swamp fighting sounded awful: constant moisture, no roads, mud defeating their equipment, close quarters fighting.

The final battle at the Courland pocket reminded me of the battle for Danzig (Gdansk) related in Sajer's Forgotten Soldier. Bidermann's men must have suffered under the same hunger and vicious attacks but Bidermann must have suffered it much better. Unfortunately for Bidermann he did not get captured by the English like Sajer did. Bidermann and his Battalion head east into Russian captivity and a 1/3 of them die over the next two years.

One thing about German memoirs that I expect or wonder about is the writer's views on all the horrid things the krauts did. How does the writer address (or not address) the Holocaust, German slaughter of civilians, burning whole towns and leaving civilians to starve? Bidermann's transit into POW status heavily resembled the transit of Jews, gypsies and the rest to concentration camps. Crammed into cattle cars for days with no food or water. Hoping that things will improve but not knowing. Brutality by the guards and no medical aid.

Bidermann must have been aware of these parallels. Was he using those for sympathy? During leave his policeman father shows him the reports by government officials of deaths by prisoners that are marked as heart failure or other natural causes. His father deeply questions those reports but Bidermann moves the story on and does not dwell on the tale.

Bidermann's anger over Hitler and his cronies is clear. He maintains pride in his former General who took place in the attempted coup in '44. The Army leadership's refusal to see the eventual defeat of Germany and surrender early grates him. Bidermann takes pride in the compassionate care he and his men gave to POWs and civilians.

The end of the war was most interesting to me. Germans attempt to escape the Courland Pocket to Germany by sea with mixed results. The Russian treatment was interesting. I half expected most Germans to be lined up and shot by the vengeful Reds. The Germans were true POWs but never treated as such. Soviets would interrogate soldiers and find reasons to sentence them to long prison terms. One soldier admits to slaughtering a hog during the war and gets a multi-decade sentence.

All in all a real sad tale. Bidermann returns to a destroyed Germany and feels no anger or sadness for his lost friends, family, and homeland; he just feels a big emptiness.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Did Not Get To: "A Dirty War" by Anna Politkovskaya

Did Not Get To: A Dirty War: a Russian reporter in Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya, 2001, 1860468977.

Just never got to this. I have a stack of fiction I want to get to first and am still going through a German's memoirs of life on the Eastern Front. That German book is enough destruction and death for now.

This was by one of those Russian reporters that have been murdered in recent years.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Read an ARC: "Fault Line" by Barry Eisler

Read an ARC: Fault Line by Barry Eisler, 2008 (for ARC), no ISBN.

I lucked into this advanced readers copy (ARC) when at Murder and Mayhem in Muskego. They were running a raffle and winners could pick from several baskets full of books. I saw Eisler's book sitting there and snagged the basket it was in. I know I liked this because I read it real fast.

I was apprehensive to read a new standalone after the Rain series. But, this was good. I'd say this was more of a mainstream book after the personal, hands on violence and passionless assassinations by Rain. There are a lot of similarities in character and action and I laughed out loud when there was a reference to a previous murder by Rain in Silicon Valley.

Alex Treven is a associate attorney with a high falutin' Silicon Valley law firm. Alex's specialty is patents and his latest client's cryptology program promises to be a huge success and will promote Alex into the rarified air of partner - or even higher. When the inventor client is murdered Alex is sort of screwed. When his friend in the patent office, who knew of the program, is murdered Alex is worried. When someone sneaks into his house and bedroom at 3 AM Alex is terrified.

Ben Treven left Stanford after a year and enlisted in the Army. The family had been in turmoil for almost two years before after the middle child and family peacemaker, Katie, was killed in a car wreck. After the dad committed suicide and Ben couldn't take anymore he skipped town. Ben blamed himself for Katie's death and Alex saw him at fault as well. After Alex and Ben's mother died of cancer the two never spoke until eight years later when Alex emails Ben for help.

Older brother Ben had always been steady and strong and Alex calls him out of desperation. Turns out Ben has been working for a very small and very secret Army unit that does assassination work. So, Ben is uniquely qualified to assist Alex.

Eisler does real well with the characters. Ben, Alex, and love triangle gal [what's her name] are real well done and their actions understandable. Ben and Alex at are great odds over the family's tragedies but unable to discuss it and understand one another. Ben has a big chip on his shoulder for anyone who does not understand his work and the deadly threats he stops; he thinks Alex only called him in to clean-up his mess for him. Alex thinks Ben has never been remorseful over Katie, their father, or their mother and hates him for it.

Similarities: Rain and Ben are very similar with the big exception that Ben is a patriot and Rain was a business man. Self defense and tactical awareness play a big part in the characters' actions and decisions. Not as much gun and knife-geek stuff in this (not one mention of Benchmade products).
The tempestuous romance between [what's her name] and Ben is similar to Rain and Delilah.
Eisler likes setting. He uses physical details to really explain and illustrate the San Francisco, Bay Area,and Turkish settings he uses.

Things I did not like: The bad guys needed more time. That's somewhat okay because government policies and actions seem more at fault than the shooters themselves.
The fact that no one really knows who was pulling the strings and issuing orders is fitting. But, not until the end of the book was there a person you could focus on as the true antagonist.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Read: "Murder City" by Michael Lesy

Read: Murder City: the bloody history of Chicago in the twenties by Michael Lesy, 2007, 9780393060300.

Really interesting. True crime by the author of Wisconsin Death Trip. I could tell while reading it that Lesy did a lot of research but his afterward illustrates the massive amounts of time it took to research and write this book.

This is not a statistical analysis or anthropological look of Chicago crime. Lesy focused on the front page news stories of crime and murder that everyone would have followed and known about. Presented are a mix of different crimes with both domestic murder and organized crime told in chronological order.

Lesy does not cover Leopold and Loeb and other famous cases since they are already well known. He starts with smaller domestic murders and disappearances and progresses onwards, as the years pass, to the gangster wars later in the decade. The same government officials and defense attorneys appear again and again. The fallout of previous cases impacts on new cases; notably, the difficulty in convicting wives for murdering husbands. At first Chicago and Cook County's District Attorneys and policemen appear brave, steadfast, honest, and heroic. From what I know about Chicago in the twenties I figured that could not be true.

The later stories strip the veneer off the government's show and reveal the almost complete corruption paid for with the massive amounts of money earned by the mob as the decade went on. Judges, attorneys, cops, bureaucrats and politicians were taking pay-offs and, as Chicago's reputation for crime blossomed, the locals and newspapers started to get fed up. Lesy points out the irony of the newspapers campaigning against crime when just a handful of years before competing papers hired goons to beat, burn, and murder the competition. Newspaper sellers, readers, delivery boys and anyone else handy would be attacked by competing newspaper goons. Incredible.

Lesy points out that crime in Chicago was actually less than many other places. Chicago's status as "The Second City" helped earn an undeserved reputation for crime. I once ran across a listing of obituaries and headlines on a web page from that time that listed all the dumped bodies and bombings in Chicago. If other cities at the time were more violent than Chicago they must have been like Baghdad in 2004-2005.

11-17-08 EDIT: Lesy was googling himself and hit this blog. So, I googled him and found out Wisconsin Death Trip was first published in 1973. That was a surprise. I thought it came out in the '90s but the copy I saw was a reprint.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Read: "Queenpin" by Megan Abbott

Read: Queenpin by Megan Abbott, 2007, 9781416534280.

Good but not enough action for me. Not the guts, gore, and guns I usually gravitate to. Abbott expanded a story she had in Damn Near Dead. Knowing that the book was based off a short story I kept thinking it was going on too long.

Main character - whose know I cannot remember or find when looking - works as a bookkeeper in a small casino. She is noticed by Gloria Denton who works for the big-time gangsters behind most everything in the region. Gloria is an ice queen with perfect legs and a poker face made of concrete. Gloria offers [no name] a job as a courier and bagman for the horse tracks, casinos, and other illicit activities.

Over time [no name] gains the confidence and respect of Gloria. Gloria's practiced detachment and coolness just barely betrays her fondness and concern for [no name] and only [no name], who spends so much time with Gloria, can see it.

[no name] falls for a degenerate gambler and allows him to take [no name]'s pick-up from the horse track. [no name] knows better but is itchy for degenerate gambler and eager to break free of Gloria. [no name] both admires and hates Gloria's abilities and her betrayal of Gloria is a chance to mentally break free even though she knows the fake robbery is a bad, bad idea.

Gloria finds out about degenerate gambler and his heavy handed sex with [no name] that leaves bruises. Gloria connects the dots and when she takes [no name] with her to confront Degenerate Gambler Gloria kills him. Degenerate Gmabler is buried by local hood Mackey's hoods. Later Gloria and [no name] rebury Degenerate to break the hold Mackey may have over them.

[no name] breaks down from the stress of the murder, burying her bloody boyfriend, fear of mobsters, fear of cops, fear of Gloria using her as a patsy, etc. [no name] spills to the cops and when cops confront Gloria, Gloria stabs herself right in the carotid artery and dies.

[no name] splits town in fear of someone finding out she was a snitch. [no name] takes bookkeeping job in other town. Months later Mackey shows up and offers [no name] a job to be a new Gloria in that town.

EDIT: This was a older style pulp novel in several ways. The one thing that sticks out is the pacing and style. This moves slower than most of the stuff I have read and seems to match the writing from 50 years ago more than modern pulp-stylists. The female lead is a switch from what I usually read and Abbott has her following the cultural mores of the time which was neat.