Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Reviews: Gentlemen of the Road, The Harlem Hellfighters, The Night Eternal

Gentlemen of the Road
by Michael Chabon
If you like adventure tales with a side order of mystery you might enjoy this book. Or if you just like buddy stories then this might be okay. And obviously if you can enjoy self-aware heroes who don't mind engaging in sarcasm or constantly arguing with each other about things that might not appear to be all that important to outsiders then this story could be up your alley.
Chabon dedicated this book to the sci-fi/fantasy author Michael Moorcock but it also pays homage to the fantasy author Fritz Leiber and his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. There is also more than a dash of cop buddy storyline here. I liked this book. I liked it even more because unlike many genre entries the book was short. My hardcover edition clocked in at just under 200 pages.  Imagine that. Someone wrote a good story without rambling on forever. So in yet another way this story is also a throwback to people like Leiber and Moorcook. Much of their best work was done in novellas or short stories instead of sprawling 900 page works, though of course Moorcock proved himself quite adept at that as well. The book's initial working title was Jews with Swords. As Chabon explains in the afterword this was probably a rejoinder and corrective to some people's (including his own) image of Jews as urbanized nebbishes who look and sound as if they stepped out of a Woody Allen movie. Chabon thinks that a people with a history of exile and pogroms, kingdoms won and lost, have just as much raw material for adventure stories as anyone else. I also enjoyed this book because a main character reminded me of Ice Cold from Fear of a Black Hat. I have to empathize with any character who's fussy about his style and accoutrement. After all they come a running just as fast as they can cause every girl is crazy about a sharp dressed man.

In the 10th century two Jewish friends and adventurers make a living as lovable rogues. Amram is a giant Ethiopian and former soldier who can use the business end of an axe to devastating effect. He's a big bad man so of course he names his battle axe "Motherf*****" or as Chabon slyly translates "Defiler of your mother!". Amram's axe is only slightly more deadly than his tongue as he can be verbally cutting with an insult. He has his own rarely discussed loss. His partner is a former physician and generally morose Frankish individual named Zelikman.  One reason he's generally morose is because as a child he saw his mother and sisters raped and murdered in an anti-Jewish pogrom. That will give anyone a different perspective on life. Zelikman likes his hats. He will go through a lot of pain and trouble before he will willingly part with one. And don't touch or otherwise damage his hat. Although not as large as Amram, Zelikman is just as deadly because of his skill with the sword. Zelikman tends to be much wordier than Amram. Alternatively working as con men, bodyguards, mercenaries and thieves (they refuse however to countenance slavery) the duo are in the Caucasus Mountains region when events conspire to throw them across the path of a whiny fugitive who claims to be the rightful heir to the throne of the Khazar Empire. Initially Amram and Zelikman just want back the money and horses that this young man stole. But despite themselves they are fascinated by the idea that there is a state where Jews not only live as free men and women but as rulers. So they wind up going after this desperado to see if he is telling the truth and whether they can profit by doing the right thing and helping him regain his throne.

The book has a lot of sardonic interplay between Zelikman and Amram and for that matter Zelikman and everyone.The duo has a rough sense of decency when pushed but they're not necessarily nice guys. In both prose and style the book very much reminds me of The Arabian Nights. Chabon is very skilled at describing without being wordy. This story, based in reality, is a good reminder that we don't need to look to non-existent worlds to find adventure, humor, perils, last stands and close calls. The book started a little slow but picked up. I only wish I had read it earlier. 

The Harlem Hellfighters
by Max Brooks
This was the third in a group of books featuring black heroes which I recently read. Although it is set in the early 20th century it's not a noir or pulp book. It is based on the very real exploits of Black American WWI soldiers who became known as The Harlem Hellfighters. The 369th Infantry Regiment, described previously in the fictional adventures of King Tremain, was a Black American/Black Puerto Rican US Army Regiment that fought in WW1. 
A recurring theme of American racism, and really racism anywhere is that the outgroup is considered as unmanly/unwomanly. The despised group is constantly in a position where group members must prove that they are just as good as the in-group. Of course racism being flexible even when such proof is offered up the racist just finds another line of argument to support his prejudice. Ironically, the first man to die in a military conflict for what would become America was a black man. Black men have fought and died in every conflict America ever had, even before they had citizenship rights. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, racists did their best to prevent black men from serving in the US military. If someone was man enough to fight and die then racist ideas about manhood, competence and non-citizenship would be proven untrue. And if a black man in segregated America saw that white men could bleed and die like anyone else then that would have dangerous implications for enforced white supremacy. No it was far better from a white supremacist point of view to prevent blacks from serving at all. If that wasn't possible then the idea was to only allow blacks to serve in segregated support units. And certainly the Army refused to allow any black who had somehow made officer to command white troops. This was both formal and informal military policy up until immediately after WW2.  But wars can change plans so occasionally black combat soldiers did manage to cover themselves with glory, generally to the chagrin of the white officer corps.

Although the 369th was part of the US Army and thus subject to all US Army regulations and civilian laws (most definitely including segregation), the US Army had no desire to appear to be sanctioning integration. The 369th was thus initially limited to cleaning and support duties. Eventually, via desperation, the 369th was assigned to the French Army. The US wanted nothing to do with them though racist US generals still issued orders reminding the French that social integration should not be practiced nor should the 369th get any ideas about 'liberty, egality and fraternity" that were a bad fit for blacks in the US. 
During their time serving with the French Army the 369th racked up a record for combat endurance and excellence that was unrivaled by any other Allied group. They were deployed in combat longer than any other group in the war.They became known as "The Harlem Hellfighters" by both friend and foe alike. In their most famous exploit, two members of the 369th made a last stand against an entire German platoon. The Hellfighters walked away to tell the tale. The Germans did not.
Brooks, the author of World War Z, tells the story of the 369th in an exciting black-and-white graphic novel format. The artwork is detailed but not overmuch. The book is about 230 pages, not counting the afterword and credits. It's a very quick read. Brooks did a tremendous amount of research at the Schomburg Center and elsewhere. This story is something Brooks was interested in since he was eleven years old. Brooks credits the actor LeVar Burton with encouraging him to keep at it. He also has some interesting stories about Hollywood's idea of what is considered marketable. His college black history professors also helped keep him on track. Obviously some characters and story lines were altered for entertainment purposes but not as many as you might think. In the afterword, which is just as interesting as the book, Brooks explains his creative process. This story has been optioned for a film. I think it would make a good one. The Harlem Hellfighters provided a virtual who's who roll call of 1920's era America. Such men as Benjamin Davis (the first Black general), Vertner Tandy (founder of Apha Phi Alpha), Bojangles Robinson (actor and dancer), Rafael Hernandez Marin (singer,actor and composer) and Noble Sissle (co-founder of Alpha Phi Alpha and jazz composer) all fought and bled with the 369th.

The Night Eternal
by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
This is book 3 of the trilogy upon which the FX series "The Strain" is based. In deference to those who haven't yet watched "The Strain" or haven't read the series I will do my best to avoid specific spoilers. The trilogy started out with much promise but by the end it's really grimly laboring on, much like Setrakian climbing out of the well in the last episode of "The Strain". Although the rebirth and re-imagining of the vampire as monster and virus instead of romance novel protagonist was well done and much needed the trilogy's plotline slowed down to a crawl somewhere in book 2. By book 3 the authors have long since made it quite clear that they are simply retooling Del Toro's storylines from Blade 2. By Book 3 we have a human-vampire hybrid with a special hatred for vampires, a ragtag bunch of vampire hunters who increasingly dislike and distrust one another, human traitors who scurry to do the Master's bidding and a man trying to put his family back together against all the odds. This last is what should be The Night Eternal's emotional center, and perhaps even that of the entire trilogy. However because the man, former CDC doctor Ephraim Goodweather, is such an unlikable, solipsistic, bossy and whiny character the story suffered a lot from making him the primary protagonist. I didn't and still don't care if he succeeded or not. Not everyone from the first book made it alive or unaltered to book three. In this book, as you are no doubt meant to ascertain from the title, the vampires are ascendant. In the US at least, Goodweather and company are one of only a few scattered resistance cells. Most humans are either enslaved, collaborating passively or actively, or have regressed to criminal savagery. Humans have no trust for each other any longer. Money is useless. Food, shelter, violence and sex are the currencies in use.
Humanity's only hope is a legendary tome which describes the origin of the Master vampire and may well hold the key to his destruction. Of course getting the book is only half the problem as it is written in several dead languages. The Night Eternal ran a turgid 500 pages and change. The other issue I had with the story was that some alterations which the vampires made in order to make the world more to their liking would have had the secondary effect of exterminating almost all of humanity. Humans, and almost every other living thing on this planet, simply can't survive for very long without sunlight. So cutting off access to the sun would have sown the seeds for the vampires' eventual doom by slowly removing their food supply. Without sunlight almost all the plants would die which would in turn destroy many animal species. And without plants our atmosphere and environment would be much degraded, further making human life harder to sustain. It doesn't seem well thought out. Stephen King did a better job of imagining such environmental catastrophe dominoes in Under the Dome. It would seem that the Master would have limited new vampire creation from self-interest. We learn the Master's origin story but I found it much too similar to Anne Rice's cosmology, which is ironic as the vampires here are otherwise 180 degrees apart from the languid effete omnisexual vampires which Rice prefers. The book can be read on its own. The authors also made many changes to the television adaptation of their trilogy. This unfortunately doesn't include Dr. Goodweather, who staunchly remains a pompous twit in film or in print.

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