Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Waitress Was NewThe Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"You really are a useful thing in other people's lives when you're a barman."

First a micro-review of this micro-book: Not much of a story, no overt message, yet a good read: well-captured everyday life, unadorned with literary frills.

Dominique Fabre's novella The Waitress Was New (2005) with its 110 half-size pages may be - gasp! - a bit short even for me. However, what is does not exhibit in terms of volume it makes up by being thoroughly unusual: the novella is a quiet celebration of the ordinariness of everyday life. People's behaviors and characterizations are the focus and there is only a slightest whisper of what might be considered a "story."

For Pierre, the narrator, a lonely aging barman in Café Le Cercle in Paris, working the bar is the only sense and focus of his existence. While hints are dropped as to his dramatic past: divorce(s), drugs, serious illness, Pierre is almost serene these days. Not that he is actually happy: he is just accustomed to a tolerable degree of unhappiness. No dreams, no hopes, but also no major worries, except for anxieties about not having secured enough work credits for the full pension after almost forty years of employment.
Quiet, peaceful life filled with listening to the bar patrons' troubled stories, observing their behavior, reading Primo Levi's books in the evenings, and conversing with his long dead mother. In the tiny wisp of a plot his boss' marital life is in trouble and Pierre, rather unsuccessfully, is trying to offer emotional support to the boss' wife. The thinness of the story emphasizes that anything that "happens" is really incidental to the melancholy account of Pierre's days who is already sort of on the other side, seemingly resigned to the fact that he will spend the remaining years of his life occupied with waiting for death.

Good, extremely short read, which at first does not feel depressing. This comes later - I am sure that's precisely what the author intended - when the reader reflects on what it means to be old and completely lonely. One will not find much solace in this book, but why should one: life is a pretty grim business and the end comes too soon.

Three and a quarter stars.


View all my reviews

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Drowned Boy (Inspector Konrad Sejer, #11)The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"There's a lot you don't know."

I do have "a thing" for Karin Fossum's prose and have rated several of her novels with five stars. I love that she writes about everyday matters and captures the extraordinary meanings of completely ordinary, everyday events. She teaches us the truth and beauty of little things using narration closer to a whisper than to a scream. She is a serious mystery writer who has not yet succumbed to the allure of commercialism. While The Drowned Boy is certainly not Ms. Fossum's best book I still like it a lot.

Inspector Sejer is called by Jacob Skarre to the scene of an accident. Carmen, a very young mother, found her sixteen-month-old boy drowned in a pond. Despite Carmen's and her young husband's lifesaving efforts the boy dies. Neither Skarre nor Sejer are certain what exactly happened as Carmen's version of the accident does not quite ring true. Yet it is not the mystery of the boy's death that provides the main narrative axis of the plot, but the moral and ethical questions raised by Ms. Fossum. When making momentous decisions should we follow our moral standards or are obligations to other people more important? And an even tougher question: when a honestly reasoned decision happens to be the most convenient one, is it still OK to follow it?

I'd rather Ms. Fossum did not solve the mystery of what happened to the boy; the resolution is based on an awkward literary device - a diary that is way too erudite considering its author. On the other hand I like the in-your-face artifice of the denouement: the author makes it patently clear that there should not be a solution and one is provided only because it is expected by readers. This is one of the main reasons I love Ms. Fossum's novels: she does not really care about the "story" - she cares about her characters instead. Another major reason of my attraction is that Ms. Fossum never judges her characters but tries to understand them instead.

This is not a book for younger readers (meaning below 40, 50 or 60, whatever one's definition of "young" is). For instance, Inspector Sejer suffers bouts of dizziness and, of course, worries about brain tumor. This provides a lighter counterpoint to the serious main thread, but to me, a true geezer, it is clear that the author is one of us, the 60+ crowd, who have "been there, done that."

I have a problem with the translation by Kari Dickson (she did not translate any of the other novels by Ms. Fossum that I have read). The sentences, especially the dialogues sometimes sound unnatural and the prose does not sound right. For instance, someone roughly estimates the distance to be 165 feet. Yes, 50 meters is 165 feet, but no one would use such an exact number in a conversation.

Flawed yet wonderful read.

Three and three quarter stars.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger: The Authorised BiographyEdge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger: The Authorised Biography by William J. Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"John Schlesinger is eulogized as the man who made Midnight Cowboy, but Sunday, Bloody Sunday is his masterpiece, [...]"

Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger (2005) transcends the biography genre: it is much more than a vacuous enumeration of stages of life and professional achievements of an artist. This authorized biography of the great British film director offers a moving tribute not only to the great master and his art but also to the loving and enduring relationship between him and his partner. True, the reader will find some name-dropping, tabloid-style gossip, and even some "Hollywood dirt" on the pages of this massive volume (over 500 pages - the longest book I have read in many years), but these snippets appear incidental to the main thrust of the story.

I need to disclaim that Sunday, Bloody Sunday and Midnight Cowboy (SBS and MC henceforth) are two of the best films I have seen in my life. In fact, depending on my mood, SBS might be the film that I love most of all, so the admiration for Schlesinger's work may have biased my reception of the biography.

I agree with all the praise the author heaps on MC, indeed a masterpiece, a "psychedelic trip [...] with its otherworldly, dreamlike feel", a film that reflects the "time of huge and tumultuous upheaval in American society," and - along with Easy Rider - heralds the 1970s, the best period in American cinema. MC signifies the beginning of the New Hollywood era, with its ambiguous messages, lack of old-style heroes, and candidness about sexual matters (MC is the only X-rated movie ever to win Academy Awards), including homosexuality. Yet to me MC ranks below the stellar regions of little-known SBS, a "piece of chamber music," a penetrating study of a unconventional love triangle, and "a monumentally beautiful" film.

In the biography non-linearly structured so that the stories of the director's creative path are framed by vignettes of "today" (2003) we read about the director's work on over 20 movies: in addition to MC and SBS I find at least three other outstanding works: Billy Liar that made a huge impression 50 years ago on the teenager that turned into me, Darling, a film that epitomizes the Swinging Sixties in London, and Marathon Man with the unforgettable "Is it safe?" torture scene. We learn that at least three Schlesinger's movies were colossal artistic and commercial flops. We also read about Mr. Schlesinger's acting career and his later opera and stage directing. His last years are revealed as well, the years when he could not or would not speak, after having suffered two strokes.

The author seems to emphasize Mr. Schlesinger's uncommon approach to his homosexuality. He was sometimes ostracized by the gay community about not "coming out" of a closet (anyway, not early enough). The author points out that the director had never been in the closet, that he had never done anything to hide his sexual preference. So why would he have to come out?

And finally there is the extraordinary love story between John Schlesinger and Michael Childers: real love story that included not just living together, not just wanting to spend all your time with your partner, but also wetting your lover's lips when he is dying.

Four and a quarter stars.


View all my reviews

Monday, March 20, 2017

Fiddlers (87th Precinct, #55)Fiddlers by Ed McBain
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] the French are peculiar. To them, ambulance means lighting, music, mood, the whole setting"

Fiddlers is the last novel in the monumental 87th Precinct series that spans half a century and includes 55 volumes published between 1956 and 2005. Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) died the year that the book was published. I have re-read and reviewed here selected installments - this is the twelfth one - spaced, roughly, by five years.

A talented violinist, a Vietnam vet blinded in action who has been earning his living playing in a night club, is shot to death. Carella and Meyer Meyer catch the case, but soon more detectives from the 87th get involved as there occur further killings committed with the same weapon: it becomes clear that the police have a serial killer on their hands. Of course we meet all the familiar characters: Bert Kling, Cotton Hawes, Arthur Brown, Andy Parker, Richard Genero; Ollie Weeks also offers a substantial contribution. The plot interweaves the detective threads with the story of the killer told in parallel.

Unfortunately Fiddlers is not a memorable ending to the series that many critics and millions of readers consider a pinnacle of the police procedural genre. The setup and the structure of the novel are totally formulaic. I have read at least 10 books that have the exact same premise and the same narrative approach - the intertwining of the detectives' and killer's threads, and they really read as identical books. Only the names, the locations, and some minor details are changed.

A more specific complaint of mine is that the book consists almost exclusively of dialogues, pages and pages of conversations, as if it were a TV script. The term "novel" hardly fits here. There are sparse narrative pieces - in fact, one is sweetly lyrical.

There are a few good bits about Fiddlers so that it is not a complete waste of time. We have a completely changed Fat Ollie Weeks. Ollie is on a diet and - gasp! - he begins to fall behind in his pursuit of bigotry: he is dating a Latina police officer! Fortunately, we have Det. Parker to carry the torch of cliché bigotry. And we have a little originality in Bert Kling's thread - his cliché troubles with affairs of the heart get a strange twist. The title is sort of a double entendre, not stellar, but not that bad either.

I am rather happy that I have finished the re-read project: although I do not exactly regret re-reading these selected installments of the series, I would like to offer a mean-spirited, sarcastic rendering of Mr. McBain famous motto:
The city in this novel is generic.
The people, the places are paper-thin placeholders.
The plot and the narrative structure are based on cliché templates.


Two stars.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 17, 2017

The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 by Martin Amis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart."

While reading The War Against Cliché (2001), a voluminous collection of literary reviews by Martin Amis, has been a lot of fun it has also been a deeply humbling experience. Comparing Mr. Amis' deep, witty, polished reviews with my own attempts is like comparing paintings by Velázquez with a toddler's smears. The reviews in the collection are gorgeously written and very funny, often viciously and sarcastically funny. At the same time the reviews expose the author's cynical and common-sense outlook on our crazy world. Mr. Amis is an extraordinary writer in terms of the literary technique. In fact, I much prefer his reviews to his fiction (I have reviewed several novels on Goodreads, for instance, Time's Arrow , Success , and many more), which - although interesting and very readable - are no match for the excellence of his literary reviews.

I guess my admiration for this collection is mainly due to the fact that Mr. Amis addresses several topics that are my idées fixes about literature and its perception:
1. Most books are too long.
2. Cliché is a rot that begins on the surface of a book, i.e. in the language, and diffuses toward its deeper layers: moods, emotions, meanings.
3. Readers might benefit by shifting their focus from the story told in a novel to the artistry of the story teller.
4. Nothing in art conveys reality better than well-written fiction.
(After the rating, I include Mr. Amis' quotes that illustrate the above four points.)

Quite a few reviews in this set are devastating and devastatingly funny. About Michael Crichton's writing: "Animals [...] are what he is good at. People are what he is bad at. People, and prose." Thomas Harris' Hannibal is obliterated as a "novel of such profound and virtuoso vulgarity." Andy Warhol's self-absorption and vacuousness are made severe fun of. And on the topic of "funny": there is a passage in the review of Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, which is one of the funniest anecdotes I've heard in my life. I strongly recommend checking out the story to which the punchline is "That's how good Drenka was."

Mr. Amis conveys his loving admiration for great literature and offers extended analyses of works he calls "Great Books": among them Don Quixote, Ulysses, and Lolita. Yet another wonderful feature of this collection is that the pieces are engrossing even when they are about things that do not interest me in the slightest, such as football and poker.

Four and a quarter stars.

Some great quotes:
On books that are too long:
"There are two kinds of long novel. Long novels of the first kind are short novels that go on for a long time."
Alas, the majority of long novels fall into this category. On the second item in my list above the author writes:
"Cliché spreads inwards from the language of the book to its heart. Cliché always does."
Nabokov's quote (on Emma Bovary's reading habits) re-quoted by Mr. Amis illustrates the third item:
"The subject may be crude and repulsive. Its expression is artistically modulated and balanced. This is style. This is art. This is the only thing that really matters in books.
And on the power of fiction:
"[...] when fiction works, the individual and the universal are frictionlessly combined."


View all my reviews

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Depths of the ForestThe Depths of the Forest by Eugenio Fuentes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"There's a Numa in every forest, a fanatic guardian who has just one mission: to make sure that the wild woods stay wild."

Depths of the Forest (1999), my third book by Eugenio Fuentes, could easily be the best of the three, if not for the author's bizarre obsession that I ridicule later. It is the fourth entry in the Ricardo Cupido series, and the earliest one that has so far been translated into English. It is similar in structure, tone, and style to the later installments The Blood of the Angels and At Close Quarters .

The story takes place mainly in a fictional Spanish nature reserve and in the nearby town where Cupido lives. A talented painter and art gallery owner Gloria Garcia Carvajal is brutally murdered while walking in the forest: Gloria's boyfriend does not have confidence in the police force and hires Cupido to find the killer. The detective's investigation offers the reader an opportunity to meet quite a sizable set of suspects: Gloria's ex-lovers and admirers as well as her business partner. The most fascinating thread involves Doña Victoria, who used to be the owner of the lands on which the nature reserve was founded, and who has been involved in a protracted legal battle about the land ownership.

However, when another young woman is murdered in equally brutal way, it becomes apparent that a crazed serial killer is at large and that Gloria was not the particular target. From the whodunit point of view the plot is very interesting, and the book is for the most part compulsively readable. The denouement, a little in the Nero-Wolfean style, is a bit disappointing though.

I like the author's descriptions of nature: the forbidding forest with its ominous atmosphere comes alive on the pages and the mysterious cave paintings keep the reader in suspense. We are also offered a funny relief moment when Cupido recalls his youthful activities in the cave. Probably the best aspect of the novel is the characterization of Gloria - her portrayal is vivid, lively, and completely lifelike - I could imagine I have personally known Gloria despite the fact that she is only talked about and known from her own writings.

Brutal, cruel scenes have their place in literature, provided they make sense in the context. The killing of a stag is one of the most harrowing scenes I have encountered in quite some time: I recommend more sensitive readers skip the three page-fragment that begins with "They lowered the stag to the ground..." The brutality is justified in the plot, though, and it conveys a powerful message about people who use suffering of others, be it animals or other humans, to further any cause they are obsessed about.

Sexual references of even the rawest, most vulgar kind are also legitimate components of a literary work of art - again, as long as they are justified in the context - yet I have been stunned by the author's "sementics," his demented antics on the topic of semen of animal (three references) or human (another three mentions) origin. One of these references even uses the phrase "It was all so horribly gratuitous that I was nearly sick." Well, dear Mr. Fuentes, semen is not gratuitous, but your way of mentioning it certainly is.

Semen-free Depths would be a very good book, both as a detective novel and even perhaps as actual literature. With the gratuitous bits, I still recommend it, albeit with hesitation.

Three stars.


View all my reviews

Friday, March 10, 2017

K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous MountainK2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"As they forged on down into the darkness, the two Austrians lost track of Mrufka. They assumed she was just behind them, but they would never see her again."

As a clumsy person afraid of heights the closest I have gotten to mountaineering was to conquer Orla Perć, a difficult tourist hike in Polish Tatra Mountains. Yet since childhood I have had a love for mountains and have always enjoyed reading climbing books. K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain (2009) by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts is an important book for me for another reason. My wife and I used to be friends with Dobrosława "Mrufka" Wolf, one of the climbers who perished on K2 during the disastrous 1986 season, and the authors shed some additional light on the tragedy.

Mr. Viesturs is one of the very few people who managed to conquer K2, the "Savage Mountain", considered the hardest mountain on Earth to climb: he certainly is the right person to write about the history of K2 expeditions. He focuses on six most dramatic seasons in the K2 history, but also recounts his own successful ascent during the 1992 expedition. Of the perhaps 50 or so authors of mountaineering books I have read, Mr. Viesturs comes across as the most cautious. In fact he keeps insisting that his decision to continue the 1992 climb that resulted in reaching the summit had been wrong and that he is alive just because of luck. This was the only time that he violated the motto he used to live by:
Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.
The first two attempts to conquer K2 date back to the beginning of the 20th century: one of them involved the famous "occultist and egomaniac" Aleister Crowley. The other attempt, led by the Italian Duke of Abruzzi had been more serious: the climbers had found the now classic route. The members of the 1938 American expedition led by Charles Houston achieved the elevation over 7900 meters. One is unable to refrain from smiling when the authors quote Houston's enjoyment of a "restful cigarette, which seemed especially welcome at these high altitudes." I wonder which activities that we now consider as perfectly normal will be considered suicidal 79 years from now - eating chocolate?

The next American attempt turned into what the authors describe as "one of the most enigmatic expeditions of all time." The climbers reached the height of 8400 meters, but three team members died in a still not completely explained tragedy, with conflicting versions of critical events in existence. In deep contrast, yet another American attempt in 1953 was, in the authors' words, an "embodiment of team spirit and the standard to which all expeditions should aspire." Only an unusually brutal storm prevented the expedition from succeeding. It was finally in 1954 that an Italian team conquered K2: again there had been some controversial events during that attempt and the revelations that emerged fifty years after the climb justify the authors' viciously funny critique of the failed leadership in that successful endeavor.

My friend, Dobrosława Wolf, known as "Mrufka" (phonetic transcription of the Polish word for "ant"), died in August 1986. 13 climbers died on K2 that summer and the authors describe the tragedy and try to cast light on its reasons. Unusual crowding of the route, unequal technical skills of multi-national climbers, lack of permits and resulting haste all might have contributed to the drama.

K2 is one of the best mountaineering books I have ever read. I like the authors' serious, even-handed approach, their staying away from cheap sensationalism and "macabre delight in tragedy" while not avoiding sarcasm and humor when they are called for. And I truly appreciate Mr. Viestur's insistent emphasis on safety to the extent possible in the extreme conditions of high-altitude climbing. The book ends with a fragment about Mr. Viestur's family, sweet but incongruous with the entire work.

Four stars.


View all my reviews