Bookreview: And the hippos were boiled in their tanks.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their TanksAnd the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by William S. Burroughs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Junky I discovered this book by Burroughs among the books dubbed as crime novels in my local public library. It was probably labelled as such because there is a murder in it and I don’t think the library has a label for literature as such. So it would be the most logical choice from their viewpoint, but somehow this label doesn’t fit the book.
From the introduction and comments I gather that Burroughs and the co-writer Jack Kerouac were part of a literary movement called the Beat generation and that this book was written before they became famous. In fact the book was published after they both died because it was deliberately put off. It was the wish of one of the people involved in the murder that it would not be published in his lifetime. It ended up as being published in nobodies lifetime..
The result of the delay at publication was that the book gained a mythical state. Like many things that are unknown it peeks the interest, gains notoriety and heightens expectations.
But what were the results?
The book seems a lot like Junky, with the same down-on-their-luck types as feature in that book, but a little bit less criminal. Most of the people are poor and some are the brink of crime. The best term to define them is: a bunch of freeloaders. They live on the money others make and they get that money by borrowing and not paying back, gaining it in a half legal way or by outright crime. For example: one of the characters pawns the diamonds of a relative, pocketing the money for himself, without letting the relative know.
Most of the book describes this freeloader life from various angles and against this backdrop is set the awkward semi-gay relation between a young man and an older man that finally ends in a death. The book is however not a crime novel. There isn’t a real upbeat towards the killing, nor any investigation or anything else that is part of a crime novel. The murder itself and the aftermath actually are only a small part of the book and occur well in the end. It feels almost as and anti-climax when it does, which it probably will be for anyone attracted to crime novels. The murder isn’t what the book is about.
But what is?
The charm of the book is the writing, which is to the point and frugal. Just like in Junky there is not a word too much it this book and no beating about the bush. The story is told straight and without any moral justification from the writer. Crime happens, people steal, someone gets robbed. It all is told in the same way as the writer tells that people had a bite, took a leak or banged their girlfriend.
The characters in the book have opinions of course, but nothing is morally weighted by the writer. Everything is told as it happens, to the point. It is almost clinical.
I like the writing style as a way to learn how to write. The shortness of the book combined with a efficient writing style made it readable.
The problem I foresee for me is that much more of this will start to bore. If a bigger book would be filled with just more scenes of freeloading then such book will become a tedious read. It does make me curious about the books that made Burroughs famous. I assume there must be a lot more to them.

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Book review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of CivilityRules of Civility by Amor Towles

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Think thirties – with the linger touch of the roaring twenties -, think mystery, think romance, think New York in grey with the Empire State building looming in the background, think high life, think jazz, think autumn in New York, think smoky bar with an attentive crowd silenced enough to hear the pensive tune of the crumpled jazz trombonist over the background noise.

That sort of thing.

Rules of Civility is the lingering remembrance of a time that perhaps never was but is served up tasty, steamy and hot by Amor Towles. The prologue is the bait. It is set in 1969 and ends, a handful of pages later, with a cliff hanger: “A case of riches to rags,” says Val, the husband of our protagonist about one Tinker Grey. “Not quite,” our protagonist Katey Kontent answers. Or rather, as is written,: -Not quite,. Because in my version of the tale the ” ” denoting speech is replaced by a single – at the start of a sentence. It sometimes leads to confusion when the spoken sentence continues after the comma.

Towles baits us in another way to: a man arranges his live according to the rules of civility set forth by George Washington. Rules that are that old? So how is that going to work out in a more modern setting with different morals? I was curious.
So it is fast backwards towards 1937. We are with Katey again, but now she is twenty five years old and with her roomy Eve hitting downtown New York to celebrate the closing of the year. They run into Theodore Grey; Tinker to friends.

And friends they become. It is a bit of a mystery why this man, who obviously belongs to the well-to-do, should associate himself with two women of the working class type. But hey.. he is a nice guy and they are nice gals.

And why not?

At first it looks like Katey and Tinker are the couple, but Eve intervenes and Tinker and Eve fade into the background from which an occasional update informs us and Katey of their budding romance. A party here, a vacation there. It seems all to be sunshine and roses.
In the meantime Katey has nothing to complain. Her association with Tinker gets her an association with Wallace. And later on she bumps into Dick. All three men belong in one way or another to the affluent layers of society. Katey is hot with the bon ton and, as irony will have it, she doesn’t even realize it.

Another storyline splits off at some point. Katey is a second generation Russian immigrant who works as a white-collar worker. Her task is to neatly and precisely type out contracts for third parties. She does so to the satisfaction of her employers. She even gets promoted.

But Katey has ambitions and while waiting for an interview with a possible new employer she meets an older man running a publishing company, who gives her a job. Cause that is what older men are for. A chapter later it is his referral that lands her a job by a starting high society magazine named ‘Gotham’. Gotham…. Wait? Isn’t that? It might be, but I am probably missing the point.

Katey is either one lucky broad, or a very talented one or very pretty one. Probably she is all three. If I was only told.
But what happened to the mystery? You know, the one that the book starts out with? The riches to rags thing?

We are coming to that about two thirds or so in. So after Tinker we have Wallace and after Wallace we have Dick. And we get back to Tinker again because the affair between Tinker and Eve was just make believe. In fact it was a string of disasters from the start, so Eve tells Katey.

^^

After Eve is out of the picture -she takes a train trip into the sunset and we never hear from her again- Tinker and Katey hook up.

Are you still with me?

Time for a little romance then, but we hit another bump in the road: Tinker has something with Anne. Yup.. it turns out that all the time Anne was his sugar mommy. Poor Tinker is actually only rich with someone else’s money: Anne’s money that is.

Right.

So Katey, wounded in the heart, disassociates herself from Tinker and now we finally get to that other cliffhanger. The one from the title: the rules of Civility.. Tinker lives according to them, but it is all pretense. At least that is what Katey thinks in her anger. He is a fake gentleman, but a better man than most.. According to his painter brother.

At this point in the book I lost patience.

I had a hard time believing the fortunes of Katey. She is white collar girl who gains access to social stratum where millionaires abide. Now I do not doubt that this is possible, but it is never made plausible in the case of Katey.

If Katey was portrayed as an intelligent capable beautiful woman (Katherine Hepburn springs to mind) who stands out, then it might have been understandable for her to do the socially upward mobility thing, but Katey is a nothing.

For instance: Katey exists in a void. Despite the fact that she actually lives in her hometown we never get to meet any of her friends and family. Her father is dead, her mother is missing and she has an uncle who is only mentioned in relation to the death of her father. Eve does not even count as friend as she is her roommate. Otherwise she seems to have no relations from her past at all.

In her hometown?

Is New York so big that she looses contact with the people she knew from her childhood? Does anyone have a clean break like that from the past?

But what makes her upward social move itself so implausible is her passivity. You might expect her to be of an ambitious nature with an intelligence and a drive to match, but Katey is simply not pictured that way by Towles. Instead she retreats most of the time to her apartment to read Dickens and Christie and only sallies forth to partake of parties when invited by others. And her dalliances with the men who are infatuated with her, is on their invitation and not hers.
But why her.. why not any of the other girls? Why Katey? She is a docile party animal at best and a social climber by accident.

Towles entices with a mystery and a complication but both sizzle out in the end. They are promises, but little is delivered. What is left is cute but implausible romance with a sad ending.
It is a bit too forced and unbelievable.

A pity.. it seemed to promise more.

However: Extra points for the catchy dialogues though. Towles does not hold back.

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Book review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 (Catch-22, #1)Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some weeks ago I found that I sleep better when I read something, but I did not have any books of my own anymore. I used to have a collection of mostly science-fiction and fantasy books, a size able part of which was handed down to me by my father. Another part -the cheaper ones- I had collected myself. But I did them away. Some I gave to good causes, others to friends and others I threw away as they were in a bad shape. It felt odd to completely remove all books from my house, as they had been my companions for years, but I figured that most of them I could get digital and read them that way. As fate would have it: my digital reader broke down.
So I went to the local library and got me whatever book they had that looked interesting to read according to the cover blurb. At first I tried some Dutch books, both written in dutch or translated from other languages, but I have always read English books, so after that brief encounter with my native language I moved over to the English section of the library, which was good size smaller, which made it easier to choose.

One book that I found was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I had heard of it before, but never what it was about. So I decided to read it with some trepidation as it is considered literature and I am not much of a well-read reader, being more interested in non-fiction or fringe books. However I thought that the reading of a good book would rub off on me and I would write better for it. I write, because it is my desire to tell stories and writing is one way of doing it.
Catch-22 left me somewhat confused in whether I liked it or not. I have that more often of late, in that I do not quite know what to make of a book or a movie. It is why I have two characters doing my movie reviews. I am sometimes of two minds, or even more.
Catch-22 is the story of group of American bomber crew based on an imaginary small island of the coast of Sicily at the end of world war II. The most important MacGuffin of this book is the war or better the missions the men have to fly over Italy. When I read about that I immediately knew what that meant. The air missions in World War II were notorious for their casualty rates. At the height of the war this could even mean a loss of over 10% of the crews involved for one mission only. In the wikipedia you will find that the average rate of a Bomber Command mission was 2.2 percent throughout the war. Since a normal tour of duty was considered to be twenty missions this amounted to a 44 percent casualty rate at least if we use Bomber Commands figures to illustrate the situation. In Catch-22 the amount of missions they have to fulfill is an absurd fifty at the start of the book and that number increases during the book. Facing almost certain death makes that some of the men involved go to great lengths to get out of the war, one way or another, or die trying. This is what basically drives one of the main persons: Yossarian. One way to get out of the war would be to be declared crazy. And this is where the title comes in: Catch-22 is basically an logic fallacy: you can not get out of the war on the grounds that you are crazy, because that is the desire of a sane man.
This illogic you will find throughout the book, not only in the attempts to escape the war, but for instance in the desire of an atheist assistant of a chaplain to replace that chaplain, because he thinks he can do a better job at what the chaplain is supposed to do.
Next to this Catch-22 the whole book is a bit of a jumble of scenes and situations who only seem related because the men all belonged to the same unit. It reminded me somewhat of Mash, but more absurd and more satirical, but also less focused. Mash is of course of a later date then Catch-22 and it is probably inspired by Catch-22, but I name it because it give me a neat bridge to one of my problems with the book.
Catch-22 reads as an absurd satire and when it was released that might have been a novelty. However nowadays, over sixty years after the book was first published, we have seen a lot of absurd and satirical series and movies. Mash is one, the Monty Python series another. South Park and Red Dwarf all added their satire. The consequence is that Catch-22 is not much of an eye opener as an satirical book. There are little story lines that stuck with me, such as the guy Milo who manages to set up an expansive free trade network all over Europe and the Middle East using (bomber) airplanes of both sides to trade with anyone for a profit. Free market capitalism unites people in their thirst for greed. It sounds like a thing to wish for until Milo shows his mettle by having the American bomber crew bomb their own airfield, because he has been contracted to do so. In the mean time his greatest worry is how to get rid of the complete Egyptian cotton harvest that he acquired but nobody wants to buy from him, thus threatening him with bankruptcy. One attempt is to sell it off as cotton candy by dipping it in chocolate.
Perhaps because the satire and absurd situations are not very new or exciting there are two problems that suddenly comes to the foreground: the plot and the characters. There is hardly any plot. In fact you might cut up each chapter and see it as a separate standalone episode, just like an episode of Mash. Now Mash was at least consistent in that most of the time the same cast was used, but in Catch-22 this is not the case. Different people are central to different chapters without any apparent organization or reason. But even in this there is no consistency as there is even a chapter named after a person who hardly features in that chapter.
All of this might of course be a subtle way of telling a story with a deeper meaning, but if that was the case it is lost on me. If it was to tell that war is hell and life is absurd, then it might have been a novel way back then, by using satire and ridiculous situations, but nowadays it is hard to get more than a ‘Meh’ reaction. It has been said over and over again. And personally I somehow find Monty Python’s killer joke sketch a lot more funnier then the situations in Catch-22.
The last problem I want to mention with this book are the personalities involved. I simply could not connect to any of the people. They behaved in absurd and sometimes hurtful ways and because of the haphazard plot line the focus kept shifting from one to the other.

Catch-22 is for me an ok book, but the lack of a consistent plot and someone to identify with made it hard to keep on reading. I did therefore not finish the book but stopped two thirds in.

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