Tuesday, September 19, 2017

After the CircusAfter the Circus by Patrick Modiano
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Outside everything seemed light, weightless, and indifferent – like the cold blue January sky.

Reading After the Circus (1992) has been my first contact with the French author, Patrick Modiano, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014. There are many good things about this slim volume, and it has made an impression on me, albeit not one on the order of a masterpiece. First of all, it is a wonderfully short book, not much over 100 pages – one could technically classify it as a novella but it feels like a fully-fledged novel. More importantly, it deals with some of my favorite topics: the transience of memories and non-existence of the past. Yet the most impressive feature is the minimalistic prose. The author's economy of words is fascinating: no word is wasted and there are no spare words that could be removed without harm to the novel.

The book might conceivably be viewed as a thriller, but not of the usual action-cliché-upon-action-cliché variety. There is little action to speak of and the reader’s focus is kept through growing atmosphere of foreboding and menace. Three time frames exist in the novel: in the current time (early 1990s) Jean, the narrator, reminisces events that happened 30 years earlier, and there also is an unexpected detour to the 1970s.

Early 1960s, Paris. Jean is not quite 18 yet, and we meet him as he is interrogated at a police station. He is unable to understand why he is questioned; the reader is even more in the dark as the author points out that Jean is not always telling the truth. Jean notices a young woman - much later we learn that her name might be Gisèle - who is called to the interrogation room after him. He waits for her, they talk, and since she has to move out of the apartment she has been renting and has nowhere to stay, Jean offers her his place. His parents went (fled?) to Switzerland and left Jean the apartment. Gisèle happens to have some strange friends who ask Jean to run an errand: meet a man in a cafe and tell him that another man is waiting outside. The tension is skillfully ratcheted and culminates in a dramatic finale.

To me the following passage (my translation of the Polish translation of the French original) is the key to one understanding of the novel:
"Today I see this scene as if in a fog. In dim light, through the window pane I can make out a fiftyish blonde man in a tartan bathrobe, a girl wearing a fur, and a young man... The light bulb in the lamp is too small and weak. If I could go back in time and return to that room, I would change the bulb. But then, in bright light, everything might well dissipate."
The seemingly all important "now", with all its interconnections, circumstances, relationships is continually dissolving into the past, but the actual past does not really exist, only the dim shadows of our memories.

One can read After the Circus also as a love story - sweet yet very low-key, implied rather than told, and suggested with the faintest touch of the literary brush. There is a strong feeling of autobiographical element in the way the story is told, for instance, Jean is said to be an aspiring writer. Vague references to politics and war are intriguing, particularly the passage where Jean's father asks for the files to be destroyed. What files, the reader may ask. But the files and their meaning existed in the parents' past.

A slight, subtle, and sad story. It reminds me a little of one of the best books I have read in my life, Cees Nooteboom's The Following Story , in that it deals with human impermanence and phantoms of the past, but Mr. Nooteboom does past much, much better. Nobel Prize in literature for him is way overdue.

Three and a half stars.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

High Country (Anna Pigeon, #12)High Country by Nevada Barr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Torture was good. It gave her time."

What a difficult book to review! Nevada Barr's High Country (2004), my fifth book in her National Parks series featuring ranger Anna Pigeon, seems to be composed of two completely different parts: 240 pages of amateurish crime solving and inept, awkward prose, and - in the middle of this dud - a 60-page jewel of a thriller: an outstanding, well-written story of extremely brutal fight-to-death and survival in the unforgiving winter mountain scenery. If I were a suspicious reader, I would immediately jump to a conclusion that Ms. Barr wrote the 60 pages herself (she can write well as evidenced by, for example, Blood Lure ) and then had the remaining clinker ghost-written by someone else. (I prefer not to entertain the idea that it was the other way around.)

Ms. Pigeon works undercover as a waitress in the historic Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley. She is on the assignment because four young people (mainly National Park personnel) disappeared during a period between two heavy snow storms and some kind of foul play is suspected. There had been serial murders in a nearby town so some people suspect a copycat in action. In addition to the investigating the disappearances Ms. Pigeon is facing a constantly growing array of mysterious happenings: a near-death experience of her roommate, presence of some strange men in one of the tent cabins that used to belong to climbers, several attempts on her life, and other events that are hard to explain.

Based on scraps of conversations that she has overheard she sets up to hike in the higher portion of Yosemite Park. Finally, by page 150 or so, the author delivers what I have been waiting for: descriptions of gorgeous mountain scenery. Ms. Pigeon takes the reader onto the Illilouette Trail and to Lower Merced Pass Lake. Here, the truly excellent part of the novel begins. First the author hints at the possible solution of the disappearances and several other mysteries. Then we have the unforgettable thriller sequence where Ms. Pigeon has to fight for her life against extremely brutal opponents. Her survival depends on her using equally brutal means. The fight culminates in one of the most gut-wrenching duels I have seen on pages of thrillers. Gripping, well-written, and not in any way more implausible than the plots of most famous bestselling thrillers.

Alas, good things do not last forever and for the closing part of the novel we are back to pedestrian plot and completely uninspired writing. I feel the need to repeat myself: it is hard to believe that the same author who wrote the thrilling and captivating 60 pages is responsible for painfully clumsy prose full of circumlocutions (for example, "blissfully unaware of the currents of unease"), for editorializing characters thoughts, and other inanities.

By the way, I love the title: a cool double entendre! The rating is the average of five stars for the thriller and one star for the hopeless main part of the book.

Three stars

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

" It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time."

Let me begin with a disclaimer: my enthusiasm about Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is limited not because I do not appreciate the central message of the novel. In fact, I would prefer that of the two human genders the males were limited to reproductive functions (and of course the all important tasks of watching sports, drinking beer, and playing with guns) while women were in charge. I just do not like the novel much as a literary work of art. Similarly, while I have been deeply touched by the message of Orwell's 1984 I do not think it is written well. By the way, Atwood's book was published in 1985, just one year after Orwell's target year. Coincidence? (Just kidding...)

Ms. Atwood's dystopian novel is a classic so I do not need to provide synopsis of the plot, which can be found in zillion places on the Web. In the so-called Republic of Gilead (the term "republic" is used in the sense as in "People's Republic of North Korea" rather than that of Plato's republic) a caste of women called "handmaids" are kept "for breeding purposes" so that for them having "viable ovaries" is the basic social criterion. They are indeed crucial to the survival of the society as the birth rates have plummeted because of pollution and other factors. The policy is set and enforced by Commanders, a caste of males who actually own the handmaids, whose names are like Offred (the narrator's owner is Fred), Ofglen, or Ofwarren.

Among the many powerful and unforgettable scenes depicted in the novel the reader may find the Ceremony most shocking. This the ritual of fertilization attempt of a handmaid performed by her owner in presence of his wife (a higher caste of females). In perhaps the most sarcastic sentence in the novel Ms. Atwood writes that the term "copulating" would be "inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved." She uses a more fitting, seven-letter gerund. Other rituals that stay in memory are Salvagings (remember, this is Newspeak), Testifying, hangings of "criminals" on the Wall, and the most horrific of them all, Particicution, i.e., a participatory execution, a delight for those of us who feel empowered by administering punishment to convicts.

Some of the author's acerbic scorn is aimed at commercialization of religion, for example:
God Is a National Resource
We are introduced to a Women's Prayvaganza and to praying machines: a woman can use a sort of ATM-system to buy a certain number of machine repetitions of a prayer, and her account will be debited appropriately. Superb satire!

I certainly have serious problems with the purely literary aspect of the novel. It is overwrought, over-emotional, and - which is the worst - over-explained. The author seems to underestimate the intelligence of the reader. The images evoked by the prose are powerful enough: why not let the readers form their own opinion and "get the message" without being explicitly told what it is? Still, even if quite imperfect, it is a very important book, and I would be happy to have it among recommended readings for students.

Four stars.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Monsieur Monde VanishesMonsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"He lay down and closed his eyes in a rage, but nothing was as it should be, neither the shadows nor the light, nor the sounds, nor even the twittering sparrows, and his whole being tossed impatiently in the drab limbo."

The Belgian author Georges Simenon is mainly known for his famed series of psychological crime stories featuring Commissaire Maigret (I have reviewed three of his novels on Goodreads, the best of them being Cécile is Dead ). Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1952) is a standalone novel and, in fact, even if it begins at a police station, it is not a detective story at all. I would categorize it as a psychological novella (just about 130 pages) about a man taking a dramatic turn in his life: depending on the point of view, some will call the turn "a midlife crisis" while others "a moment of spiritual rebirth."

Norbert Monde is a successful businessman - he has inherited a brokers' and exporters' company that has carried the family name for over 100 years. Madame Monde notifies the police about her husband's disappearance: he has been missing for three days. The wife truthfully answers the Superintendent's question about her husband, yet the author astutely remarks that "sometimes nothing is less true than the truth."

From then on we look at things from Mr. Monde's point of view. He just can't take the kind of life he lives any more. He cannot sustain the focus needed to run the business while his personal life is in shambles: his first wife left him, he has nothing in common - and never really had - with his second wife. He can't stand her little black, cold, calculating eyes:
"[t]hat fixed stare. That unconscious, immense, haughty contempt, that apparent obliviousness to anything outside herself, [...]"
He considers his grown-up son a failure, nobody remembers his forty-eighth birthday, and he is unable to name even one person to whom he is close. Mr. Monde decides to chuck it all, escape from his dreary life, and perhaps find some sense of his existence. He takes the train to Marseilles and finds a room in a cheap hotel.

The powerful scene of Mr. Monde crying over his meaningless life in the hotel room is to me the highpoint of the novella.
"What was streaming from his whole being, through his two eyes, was all the fatigue accumulated during forty-eight years, and if they were gentle tears, it was because now the ordeal was over."
I find the first half of the novella, a deep psychological study, much better than the rest of the story where much happens, alas at the expense of the sharpness of psychological observations. The reader may find the ending surprising - as I did at the first moment, before I had the chance to think about it a little - but it is quite a fitting ending, from the literary point of view. Thus I am rounding up my marginal recommendation.

Two and three quarter stars.


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Thursday, September 7, 2017

At Swim-Two-BirdsAt Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression."

So begins Flan O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), an outrageously unusual book, breathtakingly different and daring. I am sure there are Master's and Ph.D. theses dedicated to the novel and googling the title yields numerous hits with serious literary analyses of the work. The Guardian lists it among the 100 greatest novels written in English. Time magazine placed it on its list of 100 best English-language fiction books since 1923. Being totally unskilled in the craft of literary analysis, I will just say that it is probably one of the three most unusual books I have read in my almost 60-year reading career, a remarkable and completely unforgettable novel.

I had not known Flan O'Brien - a pseudonym of Brian O'Nolan - until I read his The Third Policeman , a phenomenally hilarious, unconditionally five-star book. At Swim, not that funny but deeper, is an extremely ambitious exercise in the literary art. Many critics consider Flan O'Brien to be an early representative of post-modernism in literature, although others classify him as a modernist, along with, say, James Joyce.

At Swim is clearly intertextual and metafictional - two of the main characteristics of literary post-modernism. It contains three separate beginnings and three endings (antepenultimate, penultimate, and the ultimate one). The narrator - a student of University College in Dublin - is writing a novel in which a certain Dermot Trellis writes a novel which borrows characters and motifs from ancient Irish folk tales and legends. One of the characters in this novel is Trellis' son, who writes about his father at the suggestion of other characters from the novel. Since Trellis' literary powers disappear while he is asleep, the characters in his novel conspire against him: they use his periods of rest to have a good time. In fact, they arrange to simulate the actions that Trellis wants them to perform in his story rather than actually carry them out. We have four "levels" of authorship: Flan O'Brien creates the narrator who creates Trellis who creates characters among which we have his son who writes about Trellis. So who really writes the story?

The novel - a set of loosely connected stories and vignettes might be a better term - is written in a wide variety of styles. It contains an abundance of pomes (i.e., poems), staves, and verses. and it includes figures of speech followed by their identification, for instance
"[I expressed] my whole-hearted concurrence by a figure of speech.
Name of figure of speech: Litotes (or Meiosis).
There are passages of utter hilarity: for instance (note the ſpelling):
Horſe, with a round fundament, why does he emit a ſquare Excrement? Happineſs, what is it? Lady diſturbed in her Bed, your thoughts of it? Light, is it a Body?
Perhaps my most favorite passage of the book begins with "There is nothing so important as the legs in determining the kangaroolity of a woman" and goes through ascertaining that a deceitful kangaroo can shave the hair of her legs, assuming she is a woman, and then - by the way of the mathematical concept of geometric progression - proceeds through truth, which is an odd number, to the fugal and contrapuntal character of Bach's work

And what about a breathtaking passage that seamlessly (and intertextually) combines quotes from John Milton, "What neat repast shall feast us light and choice of Attic taste" with "What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?" by Keats. And the unforgettable monologue by Finn MacCool about the sweetest of all music - the music of nature, a passage that incorporates calls of various birds of the Irish landscape.

While I suspect not every reader will be amused by At Swim I am in awe of the sheer audacity of the author's undertaking, and I am rounding the rating up to - yay! - five stars.

Four and a half stars.

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Monday, September 4, 2017

McNally's Luck (Archy McNally, #2)McNally's Luck by Lawrence Sanders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Recently I had written to a custom hat maker [...] and had ordered three linen berets in white, puce, and emerald green. They arrived on Monday morning, and I was highly pleased. They were soft enough to roll up and tuck in a hip pocket, yet when they were donned and the fullness pulled rakishly over to one side, I felt they gave me a certain devil-may-care look."

Having just read a Supreme Court book followed by a Chandler's noir classic and then by a book about human cadavers, my brain told me to select something purely recreational, a totally thought-free read. So Lawrence Sanders comes to the rescue and the always reliable Archy McNally, the head of discreet enquiries department at McNally & Son, Palm Beach, Florida. And Mr. Sanders delivers! McNally's Luck (1992) has been precisely what I needed - a relaxing read before I tackle the 1939 Irish precursor of post-modern metafiction, At Swim-Two-Birds.

Peaches, the Willigans' feline has been catnapped and the note from the captors indicates that a ransom may be required. Since Mr. Willigan is an important client of McNally & Son, Archy is instructed to locate the missing cat. Soon after that another client wants to hire McNally's help: his wife has been receiving threatening, nasty anonymous messages. Archy quickly establishes that the messages have most likely been composed on the same word processor as the catnappers' note. As usual, the case grows rapidly and soon two murders occur. It is beneficial for the reader that Archy is a friend of Sergeant Rogoff of the Palm Beach Police Department: this way we can learn a lot of background of the two connected cases. It is Archy, also as usual, who finally untangles the entire mess.

Quite implausible, sure, but a wonderfully uncomplicated and fast read that does not engage the brain. And again (see my review of MacNally's Risk ) I must complement Mr. Sanders for the exquisitely florid and circuitous language that provides reading pleasure enhanced by clever puns and word plays. For instance, one of the main characters in a story is a medium, a psychic advisor, and the author calls her "a very rare medium," which made me giggle for quite some time. She is later called a "very physical spiritualist," which is a tastier while less obvious wordplay.

Archy gets infatuated with another character and the couple manages to consume their mutual passion in a really well-written scene that uses neat metaphors instead of awkward physicalities. Archy is a bit of a dandy which lets the author have fun with the puce beret motif. Cat vomit happens to be another motif. Speaking about motives spelled with a "v", the author manages to create a clever twist concerning the killer's motive, a twist that will ensure the triumph of justice.

I am unable to bring myself to rate a piece of pure entertainment fluff, a weightless literary trifle with four stars, but this installment of McNally series comes as close as it can. Big thumbs up and

Three and a half stars.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversStiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and at the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget."

In between birth and death the human self, the mind, the consciousness - or the soul, if one prefers the term - resides within a physical object, the body. Regardless of our beliefs of what happens to the self at the moment of death, the body loses its normal functionality. Mary Roach's Stiff (2003) tells us in quite scientific - and often terrifying or hilarious - detail what happens to that empty vessel that once carried our self. A few weeks ago I have read (and reviewed here on Goodreads) Spook where Ms. Roach studies the question of the existence of afterlife; I appreciated the author's seemingly earnest commitment to the scientific method and, of course, the remarkable humor of her writing. So I expected a lot from Stiff, an even more popular book. And I am happy to say that the author has not disappointed me.

First, let's just enumerate some of the topics: observation of students working on cadavers in a gross anatomy lab, the biology and chemistry of cadaver decay and how the decay manifests itself visually, practices of embalming, use of cadavers in automotive crash tests, in determining causes of airplane accidents, and in studies on weapon and body armor design, harvesting organs from brain-dead patients, organ transplants, decapitation, medicinal use of cadavers, cannibalism, and - finally - methods of cadaver disposal (or, euphemistically, disposition), including freeze-drying and composting.

Sure, the book contains an overload of detail that some readers may call gruesome and sordid, and some others may suspect the author is trying to exploit the pornography of death - the common fascination of human beings with morbid details of death, dismemberment, and decay. Sure, there is some of this here but catering to the death fetish is offset by providing an attentive reader with food for thought on things one does not really care to think too much about. That the whole book does not slide into the ranks of death pornography is due to Ms. Roach's writing skills: her writing would best be characterized by a phrase that she herself uses to describe one of the crash researchers: "neither patronizingly euphemistic nor offensively graphic." Obviously the humor helps: the text is infused with enormous hilarity. Let me just mention the petit bouchon fécal and the story about the misdelivered package that was supposed to contain a cadaver, but instead included a very fine ham, a large cheese, a basket of eggs, and a huge ball of yarn.

So, contrary to what one might expect, this is quite a light book thanks to the author's sense of humor. Yet a reader will have a lot to think about. Most importantly: what is the actual relationship between our "self" and the body it is connected with? After we die, does the empty shell of the body have any connection with the "self"? Is my cadaver anything of value? And more practically: what should be done with our cadaver? Do we want the body to be buried? Cremated? Donated to science and then dissected into tiny pieces? Maybe we want it to be ecologically composted? Even more fundamentally: is it really the cadaver's temporary resident who should decide about the cadaver's disposition?

To me - obsessed with investigating the symptoms of the pandemic Euphemism Disease, the deplorable human trend to solve social and other problems by renaming them - the language issues involved in talking about death are absolutely the most interesting. Why do people prefer to say "passing" rather than "death"? Why "the decedent" rather than "the dead person"? Should the families who donate remains of their loved ones to research be informed what exactly will be done with these remains? As the author writes "[...] in the end [it] comes down to wording," and she presents an example of a statement, which accentuates the positive - contributions to helping other people - and euphemistically omits the specifics, which any family member can figure out if they care to think it through. "But most people don't care to think it through."

Four stars.

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