Monday, October 16, 2017

Ross MacdonaldRoss Macdonald by Tom Nolan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] recurring patterns in Macdonald's plots which [...] more resembled Dickens' and Faulkner's than Hammetts's or Chandler's. [...] All men are guilty and all human actions are connected. The past is never past. The child is father to the man. True reality resides in dreams. And most of all, everyone gets what he deserves, but no one deserves what he gets."
(George Grella, University of Rochester, on main motifs in works of Ross Macdonald)

Tom Nolan's Ross Macdonald: A Biography (1999) is an outstanding book. The biography portrays the life and works of one of my most favorite writers, the author of "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." As much as I dislike critical hype and hyperbole, I completely agree with these words of a literary critic about Macdonald's series of novels featuring Lew Archer, a California P.I. I have reviewed all 18 Archer novels, written between the late 1940s and the mid-1970s, here on Goodreads. Two of these novels, The Underground Man and The Chill , are in my view near-masterpieces, and deserve inclusion in the so-called serious literature category.

Sue Grafton, an accomplished and popular mystery author, provides a touching introduction to the biography and emphasizes the profound influence Macdonald had on her own writing. Mr. Nolan provides a detailed account of Ross Macdonald's early years. While most of us know that Macdonald is a pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, fewer readers are aware of the author's fractured childhood and checkered youth, when he spent most of his days apart from his parents and was raised mainly by aunts and uncles, continually changing addresses, cities, and even countries - he spent many years of his youth in Canada. After serving in the US Navy as a communication officer, he studied literature at the University of Michigan and obtained the PhD degree based on the thesis about Samuel Coleridge. His first books, non-Archer ones, were firmly grounded in the hard-boiled crime genre. The Archer series illustrates the author's evolution that freed his writing from the constraints of hard-boiled genre and led to the depth of late works that masterfully depict the human condition.

The biography is fantastically rich in details, analyses and interpretations, so for sake of brevity I will just mention the few threads that I find the most important. The dramatic youth, possible mental illness, and tragic early death of Macdonald's daughter, Linda, cast a long shadow upon the author's life and writing. A Newsweek journalist offers perhaps an oversimplified yet astute diagnosis when he writes about Linda and Macdonald's novels: "she's really the one that all those novels are about."

Another major thread in Macdonald's life is his marriage to Margaret Sturm, later Margaret Millar, an accomplished and popular mystery writer who in 1956 won the prestigious Edgar Award for her Beast in View . The couple had married in 1938 and stayed together until Macdonald's death 45 years later. The thread of spousal "competition" is totally fascinating: in the beginning years it was Margaret who was supporting the family financially through her mystery writing when her husband focused on his academic and military careers; but towards the end, it was Mr. Millar whose earnings dwarfed those of his wife's, when he became a worldwide acclaimed author.

The third thread in the biography is focused on sort of a "rivalry" between Macdonald and Raymond Chandler. It may be true that in the early stages of his literary career Kenneth Millar used Chandler's hard-boiled style as inspiration and pattern to imitate. However, he certainly grew beyond the hard-boiled canon. Mr. Chandler used to denigrate Macdonald's literary skills and disagreed with grouping Macdonald along himself and Dashiell Hammett as the three masters of the genre. In fact, some of Chandler's statements might be construed as attempts to sabotage Macdonald's career. I apologize to Chandler's fans but I think his novels are generally inferior to these of Macdonald's and that listing Chandler as Mr. Millar's equal is not justified. To me, only one novel by Chandler, The Long Goodbye is comparable in class to the best of Macdonald's works.

Fascinating biography and I need to toss a coin to decide whether to round my 4.5 rating up or down.

Four and a half stars.

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Red Death (Easy Rawlins #2)A Red Death by Walter Mosley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Police and government officials always have contempt for innocence; they are, in some way, offended by an innocent man."

Walter Mosley who comes strongly recommended by a dear friend of mine is another new author for me. I am thankful for the suggestion: I like the novel and will definitely read more books by Mr. Mosley, although it is hard for me to be enthusiastic about A Red Death (1991). Yes, a good book, with solid grounding in social and political issues, but not particularly remarkable. Maybe the "sophomore curse" can be blamed: this is the second novel in the Easy Rawlins series, one that follows the immensely popular Devil in a Blue Dress.

The story takes place about 1953 in Los Angeles. We meet Easy (Ezekiel) Rawlins, an African American war veteran who moved to LA from Houston, as he cleans an apartment building in the Watts neighborhood. However we soon learn that he actually owns the buildings where he works as a handyman. He explains:
"That's why I kept my wealth a secret. Everybody knows that a poor man's got nothing to lose; a poor man will kill you over a dime."
We also learn that Easy was successful as a sort of amateur detective a few years ago and that there are secrets in his past, which is probably a reference to the previous book.

Easy is in serious trouble. IRS is on his back threatening him with a prison term for tax evasion. The woman he had an affair with in the past has just come to him with her little son. Her estranged husband who had been Easy's best friend may be looking for her: he is a killer and "has gone crazy," according to the woman. In addition, one of the tenants - unable to pay the rent - commits suicide in a building that he owns. When Easy is resolved to kill the IRS agent who pursues him he is miraculously saved by FBI: they promise him help in the tax case if he helps them infiltrate the African American community. He is supposed to set a Jewish man, a suspected Communist organizer, for a fall. The captivating criminal plot gets even more complex, there are more deaths, and it is Mr. Rawlins who provides crucial contributions to resolving the case.

These are the times of "Red Scare", suspected Communist hunts, blacklists, arrests, trials, and other kinds of repressions in the U.S. These are also the times when soldiers come back home dead or wounded from the Korean War. The story takes place in some of the poorest African American neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Racism is overt and ubiquitous and the author - who is himself of mixed black and Jewish ethnicity - draws parallels between persecution of Jews in Europe and economic and social oppression of black people in the U.S.

There are several compelling scenes and threads in the novel. The portrayal of a mass in the First African Baptist Church makes a strong impression. Both the suicide scene and the "dental" fragment (I can't say more without spoilers) are graphic and powerful, and I find the thread of the African Migration group very interesting. Sadly, the author's great efforts are damaged by his tendency to provide unnecessary commentary on the characters' motives and his attempts to tell the readers what they are supposed to think as if they were unable to think on their own. Still, A Red Death is a worthwhile read.

Three stars.

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Monday, October 9, 2017

The Dalkey ArchiveThe Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"One might describe a plenum as a phenomenon or existence full of itself but inert. Obviously space does not satisfy such a condition. But time is a plenum, immobile, immutable, ineluctable, irrevocable, a condition of absolute stasis. Time does not pass. Change and movement may occur within time."

Flann O'Brien (pseudonym of Brian O'Nolan) is my literary discovery of 2017. This great yet not widely known Irish writer is the author of The Third Policeman , to me the funniest novel ever written in the English language. His critically acclaimed At Swim-Two-Birds is a masterpiece precursor of post-modern literature. So I am more than a little disappointed with his The Dalkey Archive (1964), an interesting and readable novel, yet in no way even close to the greatness of the two other works.

Dalkey shares two motifs with The Third Policeman: the character of De Selby, the "mad scientist", and the idea that humans and bicycles can morph - perhaps transmute would be a better term - into each other. This fabulously deranged idea, first introduced in Policeman is dwelled upon here and explained via Sergeant Fottrell's Mollycule Theory. Mollycules are transported from a bicycle to a human and presumably vice versa through repeated contact of human body with the bicycle saddle. Alas, because of repetition, what is out-of-this-world hilarious and unprecedented in its sheer audacity in Policeman becomes just slightly amusing here. Also, De Selby is side-splittingly hilarious when he is talked about; when he gets a speaking part in the story the hilarity is much lessened. (In an essay on O'Brien I read that he was unable to publish Policeman during his lifetime, which may explain the repetition of motifs that the author wanted to save from oblivion.)

The plot of Dalkey is demented but not as wonderfully wacko as that of Policeman. Neither is the novel as masterfully constructed as Swim. Mick, an Irish lad in the little town of Dalkey, and his friend Hackett encounter a stranger who happens to be De Selby himself. Over whisky they discuss the erroneous ways of Descartes' philosophy, the nature of time (see the epigraph), and De Selby's plans to destroy all life on Earth by totally eliminating oxygen from the Earth's atmosphere. De Selby leads them to an undersea cave where - equipped with diving gear - they have a lively religious and philosophical discussion with none other than Saint Augustine. De Selby has the power of control over time: bringing back dead people to life is not a big deal for him. Even better, he can easily change one-week-old-whisky to several years of age - a feat quite useful in Ireland, one presumes. By the way, most scenes are accompanied by consumption of certain types of liquids in the form of stout, whisky, gin, or - gasp! - wine.

To me, the Saint Augustine scene is the best in the book, which sort of goes down from there. True, we have plenty of things happen, such as conversations with St. Francis of Assisi, attempts to rehabilitate Judas Iscariot, and - most impressively - several meetings with James Joyce, who had only pretended to have died. Joyce maintains that ... No, let's not spoil the plot as this might be the funniest thing in the novel for readers who do not know the author's other works.

To sum up, neither the insanity nor the originality of the plot reach the top registers. The prose is still wonderful and reading the book made my fascination with English - the language that I would like to master one day - even stronger.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Bland Beginning (Inspector Bland, #3)Bland Beginning by Julian Symons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Adam to Eve: "This breast hard as an apple,
These slim, straight thighs, are built from dung and dirt.
The vitriol sucked from each tautened nipple
Runs in the veins of all whom life has hurt.

Bland Beginning (1949) is another classic British mystery by one of the genre's grandmasters, Julian Symons (by the way, it is the 10th book by the author that I am reviewing on Goodreads). As usual, the author delivers an extremely clever and solid mystery, which is literate, well-written, and a pleasure to read, even if it is not my favorite type of mystery or my favorite style of prose.

The Prologue is set in 1949 in a London library where the author searches for literary inspiration for his next novel. There he meets Detective Inspector Bland who mentions his first successful case from a quarter of a century earlier. We jump to 1924 and meet young Anthony Skelton who proposes to Victoria Rawlings, the granddaughter of Martin Rawlings, a minor 19th century British poet. As an engagement present Anthony buys Victoria an expensive first edition of the famous set of poems by Rawlings. They happen to meet John Basingstoke, a young man who is an expert on all things literary; he tells them that the book is a forgery. Trying to learn the truth they consult various experts, including a publishing house employee, Miss Cleverly. Anthony is assaulted, the book is stolen, and pretty soon things get very serious. There are four murders and despite the police investigation, the mystery is solved by Basingstoke's friend, young Bland, then an amateur sleuth.

The mystery plot is quite captivating, but to me characterizations of people, places, and socio-cultural background are much more important. The literary forgery thread is superb. On a lighter note we have an interesting "romantic" thread:
"The battle between two men, one of them physically and the other mentally disfigured, for a woman. Which of them gets her?"
It adds zest to the plot that the romantic configurations change, as dictated by the events. Yet of the main characters, only Victoria is believably drawn, with all her lack of seriousness of purpose. I love how she does things based on how they will look written about in her private diary. Very lifelike character! Alas, other personas are mostly caricatures who serve as devices to move the plot.

Samples of poetry written by the fictional Martin Rawlings in mid 1800s are wonderful. They straddle the boundary between poetry and kitsch, and tend towards the latter, as shown in the epigraph. As a nice bonus the poetry plays a role in the clever solution of the mystery. I love the scenes of the cricket match between two neighboring villages. On the other hand, the novel is full of usual classic British mystery novel clich├ęs. They are almost tolerable, though, because of masterful prose by Mr. Symons. So all in all, not my type of book, but certainly well done job and a great example of its genre. Recommended without too many reservations.

Three stars.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

TimequakeTimequake by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I still like what O'Hare and I said to German soldiers right after we were liberated: That America was going to become more socialist, was going to try harder to give everybody work to do, and to ensure that our children, at least weren't hungry or cold or illiterate or scared to death.
Lotsa luck!

Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake (1997), the ninth book by the author that I have reviewed on Goodreads is a major disappointment. I hesitate to offer a sad diagnosis but it seems that Mr. Vonnegut just ran out of things to say. It does not augur well that he himself confesses on the beginning pages that the novel is a rewrite of Timequake 1, the previous version, which, in his words, "stunk." Vonnegut's last novel - he published only collections of essays and various other writings after 1997 - is to me a mess devoid of a central, organizing theme, and close to incoherent rambling. It is painful to say this about a work by the author of one of the best books ever written, Slaughterhouse-Five .

The plot revolves around the concept of a timequake, "a sudden glitch in the time-space continuum" that makes "everybody and everything do exactly what they'd done" before. In Vonnegut's novel this occurred on February 13, 2001, when the time was zapped back to February 17, 1991, and all events repeated themselves. With the end of the repeat period the "free will kicked in again", which caused a lot of trouble but provided opportunities for the story.

I do not like the science fiction aspect of the novel, personified in Vonnegut's favorite fictional character, Kilgore Trout: I do not think it connects in even the slightest way with the realistic passages that portray events from the author's and his family's life. Another reason for the sci-fi aspect leaving me cold is hinted at by the author himself:
"Trout might have said, and it can be said of me as well, that he creates caricatures rather than characters. His animus against so-called mainstream literature, moreover, wasn't peculiar to him. It was generic among writers of science fiction."
There are a few redeeming passages that lift my rating from the cellar. Probably the best of them is the definition of a "humanist" (the author considered himself one):
"Humanists try to behave decently and honorably without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. The creator of the Universe has been to us unknowable so far. We serve as well as we can the highest abstraction of which we have some understanding, which is our community."
The message, if there is any, about free will vs. predetermination is muddled. Unless Mr. Vonnegut just wants to say that we should be more active in our lives rather than somnolently follow the fake life shown to us on TV (or on Internet these days). If only there were more of the social critique in the book instead of Kilgore Trout and timequake stuff... As it is, I find the novel a major failure.

One and a half stars.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

The Rattle-RatThe Rattle-Rat by Janwillem van de Wetering
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"United Europe [...] That's the dream. Why shouldn't it come about some day? All together and still apart? [...] United above all troubles?"

Many years ago a dear friend of mine highly recommended Janwillem van de Wetering’s novels. I had tried to read The Corpse on the Dike and was able to get through just a few pages: I could not follow the bizarrely structured text. About 30 years later I decided to try again and chose a different book - The Rattle-Rat (1985). This time I managed to finish the book only because of my superhuman patience and dedication. I admit the plot is interesting and many characterizations and situations are presented with nice insights and a nice sense of humor but I will not attempt any other book by the author. The problem is that while I understand all the words and almost all sentences in the novel, I do not understand many paragraphs. Mr. van de Wetering’s prose constantly leaves me wondering whose point of view he is presenting at any given time. It seems that frames of reference change frequently within the same paragraph. The fault is not with the translation as I understand the author wrote himself two versions of the book: the Dutch one and the English one.

An Amsterdam Police constable notices a floating fire, something burning in the waters of Amsterdam Inner Harbor. The next morning Adjutant Grijpstra and Sergeant De Gier of the Murder Brigade have to deal with a corpse burned beyond recognition, found in a blackened aluminum rowboat. The autopsy indicates that it might be a laborer's body but the expensive dental work does not quite match. Soon the suspicions as to the identity of the victim focus on a Frisian man and the criminal plot gains an accompanying motif of juxtaposing the northernmost province of Frisia (Friesland) with the rest of the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular.

Many interesting subplots contribute to the story: sheep trade, Chinese immigrants, heroin dealing, prostitution, Hong Kong vs. Singapore triads, and the rare disease of trigeminal neuralgia. Two threads make the strongest impression: Hylkje Hilarius, a Frisian police female corporal, offers a convincing characterization of a modern liberated woman. And of course we have the pet rat mentioned in the title. The rodent plays quite a prominent role in the plot.

There is a lot of humor in the novel, most of it based on contrasting the good Frisians and bad Amsterdammers who wallow in filth. We are told about 167 times that the unnamed commissaris, Grijpstra’s and de Gier’s boss, was born in a city of Joure (city of 13,000 people) in Frisia. There are some funny sexual references like:
"Why does your wife copulate in a cupboard?" Hylkje asked. "So that she may debauch herself in secret."
We have quite a “socially progressive” ending, fitting the image of the Dutch as some of the most progressive people on Earth. And we have this wonderful passage, quoted in the epigraph, about the dream of united Europe: the dream that came true for a while and now is in grave danger of being trampled by nationalistic fervor.

I like most things that are Dutch, I love my memories of Amsterdam, and the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom is my most favorite writer. If only I could understand the paragraphs written by Mr. van de Wetering!

Two and a quarter stars.

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Monday, September 25, 2017

Bill Bruford - The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and MoreBill Bruford - The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More by Bill Bruford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Popularity is a crime from the moment it is sought; it is only a virtue where men have it whether they will or no." (Marquis of Halifax, Moral Thoughts and Reflections (1750), as quoted by Bill Bruford)

Bill Bruford: The Autobiography (2012) is an outstanding work by the famous drummer, a legend in the rock and jazz music community, and the "godfather of progressive drumming." The autobiography presents the 40-year career of Mr. Bruford, from his work in the famed progressive rock bands Yes and King Crimson, through electronic jazz, to acoustic jazz drumming. As far as I can ascertain this is not a ghost-written work: there is little of that characteristic polished, glossy style of entertainment writers and a lot of somewhat endearingly awkward prose of an "amateur" author.

By far the best aspect of the autobiography deserves capitalization: THERE IS NO SHOW BUSINESS GOSSIP in the book! The reader will not learn who slept with whom, who took which drugs, or who fired whom from the band. These kind of issues belong in tabloid magazines and luckily there is virtually nothing of that kind here, with the exception of some gentle fun made of Robert Fripp, the famed leader of King Crimson. This is a really serious book, one that deals with serious issues in a mature way.

Another good feature of the autobiography is that it is not chronological but instead arranged around selected topics from theory, business, and sociology of music, which of course helps the author focus on the serious aspects of his career. He repeatedly "circles in time" and returns to his periods of playing with Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Bruford, and Earthworks.

Some of the topics studied by the author are: the relationship between talent and success in the music world, the differences between being an artist and a craftsman, the theory of music as a social phenomenon, differences between composed and improvised music, and similarities and differences between mathematics and music. The closest that the author comes to the dreaded gossip in his autobiography are passages that portray the interpersonal dynamics on a rock/jazz tour and detailed descriptions of recording sessions. Still, luckily we have no sensationalism here.

Let me just focus on two of my hot-button issues. The first one is about "music as art" versus music as a commodity. Mr. Bruford nicely says that artists create music "to soothe their soul," and he chides the alternative - the focus-group-based, business view of music whose goal is to study "what the market wants and provide it." Alas, the latter approach is prevalent these days.

The other issue dear to my heart is the dramatic shortening of the attention span for modern listeners. Mr. Bruford writes:
"For a whole new generation, listening to a piece of music from beginning to end seems unusual. Through TV advertising we hear slices of Beatles songs, Bach cantatas, jazz and blues pastiche, and - here is the point - all of it incomplete".
The "incomplete listening" goes hand in hand with the more and more common "multitasking," which means that instead of doing one thing well, we do two or more things poorly.

There is a number of cool and catchy phrases in the autobiography, such as "Music begins where language leaves off" and several funny quotes, such as
"The [progress in] technology has benefits (anyone can make a record) which immediately leads to drawbacks (everyone does make a record)."
For a moment I was even toying with the idea of a five-star rating for this interesting, analytical, and insightful book. But no, let's leave five stars for absolute masterpieces.

Four and a quarter stars.

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