Tuesday, November 21, 2017

One for the Money (Stephanie Plum, #1)One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

""I lined my eyes in midnight blue, gunked them up with mascara, painted my mouth whore red, and hung the biggest, brassiest earrings I owned from my lobes. I lacquered my nails to match my lips and checked myself out in the mirror.
Damned if I didn't make a good slut.

Janet Evanovich's One for the Money (1994) is the first novel in her long-running series featuring Stephanie Plum, a bounty hunter. The series that always uses numerals in the titles has now reached the 24th installment but I am not sure whether I will read another one. While the protagonist is a relatively interesting character, the prose is marginally competent, and there are some smidgens of socio- and psychological observations, the literary convention completely puts me off. The novel is set up as a "light-hearted mystery" yet it deals with such light-hearted events as deaths, beatings, and torture. While I quite like "light prose" and am certainly interested in books that deal with life-and-death events I do not think that mixing the two conventions works.

The novel begins with the following cool passage:
"There are some men who enter a woman's life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me - not forever, but periodically."
Then Stephanie reminisces playing "choo-choo train" with Joe Morelli when she was six years old. Several years later their paths cross again, "behind the case filled with chocolate éclairs". And then again, three years later, when Stephanie tries to run the guy over with her car.

Well, Stephanie has now been laid off her job as a lingerie buyer, anything that could be sold or pawned is gone from her apartment in the predominantly Italian neighborhood of Trenton, New Jersey, and she desperately needs a job. She blackmails her cousin Vinnie to get a skip tracing job in his bail bonding company. And guess what: her first case is to track Joe Morelli, who became a cop in the meantime, as he did not show for a court appearance in a case where he is suspected of killing an unarmed man.

Well, this light-hearted, rather inane caper involves an ex-special-forces operative schooling Stephanie in the craft of bounty hunting (yeah, right), her grandma shooting a heavy gun over dinner, a whitish substance - probably not tapioca - smeared on her door, and two well-intentioned prostitutes telling Stephanie what the "word on the street is" (ugh). Several people die, some are tortured, but Stephanie keeps strutting her light-hearted stuff. Sweet!

Other than the rather plausible and well-portrayed relationship between Stephanie and Joe and their interesting "story" one thing I really liked in the novel is the reference to how Stephanie removes the distributor cap from her car's engine to render it safe from stealing. This reminded me the days over 30 years ago when I needed to do it every evening when parking the car in front of our apartment building in San Diego.

Two stars.

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bagombo Snuff BoxBagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"My longtime friend and critic Professor Peter Reed, of the English Department at the University of Minnesota, made it his business to find these stories from my distant past. Otherwise, they might never have seen the light of day again. I myself hadn't saved one scrap of paper from that part of my life."
(Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in the Introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box.)

I am not sure that the collection of early short stories Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., one of my favorite authors, should have been published. I suspect that the publisher's eagerness to make a buck off the great author's name may be more to blame than Dr. Reed's zeal. Mr. Vonnegut himself seems to be aware of literary weakness of the stories: he writes in the Coda:
"Rereading [some of the stories] so upset me, because the premise and the characters of each were so promising, and the denouement so asinine, that I virtually rewrote the denouement before I could stop myself."
Further in the Coda the author is even more critical of these early stories that date back to the 1950s when they were published in such magazines as Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Argosy, Redbook .

Most of the 23 stories collected here are completely unremarkable and instantly forgettable. They are overtly and overly didactic, aimed at readers with teenager-like worldview, and just plain sophomoric. The endings, clearly meant to be "surprising", are quite predictable. The weakest story, A Night for Love is trite and unbelievably syrupy. This Son of Mine aims at psychological depth yet what we receive is a maudlin, sentimental mess. And this mess comes from my beloved author of Slaughterhouse-Five !

Some stories in the set are a little better. Souvenir rings true as it is based on Mr. Vonnegut's experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany, yet it is marred by atrociously cheap ending. A Present for Big Saint Nick is partially redeemed by being just nasty enough at the end. The only story that I like is Der Arme Dolmetscher, again referring to the author's war experience, but maybe I like it just because of the phrase "Where are your howitzers?" (Vo zint eara pantzer shpitzen?), which reminds me of Monty Python's Hungarian Tobacconist's Sketch.

Dr. Reed points out two interesting aspects in his Preface: the stories feel quite dated because the women play secondary roles in all of them and the men are completely defined by jobs they have. Well, these observations are way more interesting than the stories themselves.

Also, to be clear, my one-star rating is relative: what merits one star for Mr. Vonnegut, would bring a much higher rating in the case of a less talented author. This set of stories ranks nowhere near even the weakest entries in Vonnegut's literary output, such as, say, Deadeye Dick or Mother Night . To compare it with the author's great books such as Bluebeard or Breakfast of Champions is absurd, not even mentioning his masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five .

One and a half stars.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

DeceptionDeception by Denise Mina
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"She lets out a sigh so small, so intimate, it makes me want to cry. It's as if she's brushing her lips past my ear, a small breath easing from my throat, past the palate, brushing between her lips, and out. She takes in a tiny rasping breath to compensate before she carries on, and when she does, her voice has changed. "

What a phenomenal writer Denise Mina is! It's been quite some time since I last reviewed her novel Blood Salt Water . And I still am due the re-read and re-review of her masterpiece, Garnethill, one of the best mysteries I have ever read, and a piece of high-class literature. Deception (2003) is a stand-alone novel and a wonderful one at that: aren't we all a wee tired of Alex Morrow? Ms. Mina and Ms. Karin Fossum are by far my favorite current writers in the genre. I love to read their prose, rich, subtle, evocative, and astute psychologically (both of them) and sociologically (Ms. Mina).

Deception is framed to appear as a true crime novel. The bulk of the book is the set of diaries of Lachlan Harriot whose wife Susie has been pronounced guilty of murdering Andrew Gow. Gow had in the past been convicted of serial murders of five prostitutes, but then released on appeal since similar murders happened while he was in prison. Susie was a psychiatrist in the mental hospital where Gow had been under observation after confessing to his crimes. She was fired when she took home the prison documents related to the case and then accused of murdering Gow when she had found out that he married another woman.

The plot is captivating and I lost the proverbial "many hours of sleep" not being able to put the book away. But to me the super interesting plot is the least important aspect in the novel. Also, I am not quite convinced by the logic of the surprising denouement. The two extraordinary aspects of the novel are Ms. Mina's outstanding prose (see the epigraph) and the psychological truth of characters she's portraying on the pages. The five-page scene of Lachlan's second visit to see Susie in prison is a masterpiece of prose that overwhelms the reader with psychological depth. This is the actual, real life, captured by a master writer who knows the subject. (Let's not forget Ms. Mina's research in the areas of criminology, criminal law, and connections with mental illness in female offenders when she was working on her PhD thesis). Also, the whole passage of Lachlan's family descending upon him to help is very well observed. And so hilarious! The family row scene is almost on par with the unforgettable four-actor scene from the same author's Gods and Beasts

All the main characters, Lachlan, Susie, Yeni, are rich, life-like portraits of real people. Lachlan, the narrator, is an off-center, peculiar, idiosyncratic character yet I recognize in him various people I have known and I feel I have known him for a long time. His trajectory in the plot is really well designed and what happens at the end is really obvious when it does happen, in the hindsight.

And finally, one of my main reasons of being on the verge of a five-star rating of this book: the stunning thread that provides a solid psychological and sociological analysis of the phenomenon of women's emotional investment - sometimes leading to marriage - in male prisoners who have been convicted of heinous crimes, like serial murders or rapes. This theme dovetails nicely with the motif of people selling the sordid stories of their relatives' lives for money, and the whole repugnant feature of the human race: the interest in celebrities of WHATEVER kind, murderers and rapists included. The author writes, in a fictitious article from Guardian:
"[Stevie Ray] has given up his job at the minicab firm where he met Gow and is dedicating himself full-time to managing Gow's career as a serial killer and celebrity."
Are there more despicable creatures on Earth than humans?

Four and a quarter stars.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

JailbirdJailbird by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"She believed, and was entitled to believe, I must say, that all human beings were evil by nature, whether tormentors or victims, or idle standers-by. [...] We were a disease, she said, which had evolved on one tiny cinder in the universe, but could spread and spread."

I am ambivalent about Kurt Vonnegut's Jailbird (1979). On the one hand the author pushes many of my hot buttons and I agree with his choices of human failings to lampoon - human race as a disease affecting the universe is a brilliant metaphor - but on the other, the diagnoses and solutions he offers are way too simplistic and naive. There are some brilliant passages in the novel but many others are ridiculous, childish, or just plain silly.

Jailbird can be divided into two, quite disjoint parts. The first is a memoir of one Walter F. Starbuck, the son of a Polish chauffeur and a Lithuanian cook working for an American millionaire. Thanks to his parents' employer's sponsorship Mr. Starbuck graduates from Harvard, but then - during the grim days of the Depression - he becomes a Communist. Much later he is interrogated by Richard Nixon himself during congressional committee hearings. The future president remembers him and Starbuck obtains a job in Nixon's White House, as a Special Advisor on Youth. He becomes one of the scapegoats in the Watergate affair and goes to prison.

I find the first part realistic, almost "historical", and captivating. Vonnegut focuses on the issues of labor movement in the US. He writes:
"Labor history was pornography of a sort in those days, and even more so in these days. In public schools and in the homes of nice people it was and remains pretty much taboo to tell tales of labor's sufferings and derring-do."
One of the most dramatic fragments of the novel is the depiction of the fictitious Cuyahoga Massacre where the soldiers killed fourteen protesting workers of the Cuyahoga Bridge and Iron, wounded scores of others, and - the worst of all (sarcasm!) - caused serious stutter in Mr. Starbuck's future employer. Another dramatic fragment depicts the factual story of executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, anarchists convicted of murder, but guilty only of "dangerous radical activities."

The novel's second, present-time part that begins on the day of Starbuck's release from prison is a sort of fantasy tale:
"This is just the dream of a jailbird. It's not supposed to make sense."
Here we encounter The RAMJAC Corporation that owns 19% of the entire wealth of the United States and the story focuses on Mr. Starbuck's connections with the mysterious Mrs. Graham who is the majority stockholder. I am not enthusiastic about that part of the novel, not only because I dislike fantasy in literature, but mainly because it dissolves the stronger message of the novel's "historical" part. Although I burst out laughing over the hilarious commentary on the average American level of literacy: Vonnegut writes about an invention needed in the times when "it was getting harder all the time to find employees who understood numbers well": images of products are put on the keys of a cash register rather than numbers.

Vonnegut's trademark sarcastic view of humanity is made clear by the numerous references to the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of teachings attributed to Jesus Christ in which he predicts that the poor in spirit would receive the Kingdom of Heaven, the meek will inherit the Earth, that the merciful will be treated mercifully, and so on. I wonder why the author does not quote the most striking phrase from the Sermon: "You cannot serve God and wealth" because "no one can serve two masters." Would the author be not bold enough to say that capitalism and Christianity cannot coexist?

Infuriatingly uneven work by the author of the great
. Here Vonnegut editorializes way too much and does not let the power of his fiction speak for itself. The beautiful passages about Starbuck's wife and his girlfriend virtually disappear buried deep in well-meant yet inept propaganda.

Two and a half stars.

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Lady in the Lake (Philip Marlowe, #4)The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips."

Raymond Chandler's fourth novel, The Lady in the Lake (1943), is not as remarkable an achievement as The Long Good-bye or the popular favorites The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely. Yet it is a solid, engrossing, and very readable mystery with some well-developed characters, and also a novel that conveys the sense of the times.

Philip Marlowe is hired by a well-to-do businessman, Mr. Kingsley, to find his wife, Crystal, "who has been gone a whole month." She sent him a telegram from El Paso telling him that she is going to Mexico with a man she met and that she plans to get a divorce. But the man in question denies going anywhere with Crystal and her car is found in San Bernardino. Marlowe quickly discovers a connection with Kingsley's wife doctor, whose wife committed suicide some time ago. There are hints of excessive drug prescriptions.

Marlowe goes to Kingsley's cabin on the fictional Little Fawn Lake (maybe modeled on Big Bear Lake) where he meets the caretaker, Mr. Chess, who tells Marlowe that his wife also disappeared. They go on a walk around the lake and accidentally discover the drowned body:
"Then the face came. A swollen pulpy gray white mass without features, without eyes, without mouth. A blotch of gray dough [...]"
Mr. Chess recognizes his wife. I am not giving any spoilers as this is just the beginning of a very complicated plot that involves many characters and an intricate tangle of connections between them.

Several characterizations, for instance Sheriff Patton's and Miss Fromsett's, are well written: the characters are not caricatures but almost feel like real people. Even Philip Marlowe is not as cartoonishly perfect as in The Long Good-bye. On the other hand, the characterizations of Captain Webber and Lt. Degarmo are one-dimensional and not psychologically plausible.

The sense of place and time is well rendered. The fictional Bay City is obviously modeled on Santa Monica (I seemed to recognize the place even though I was there for the first time 40 years later than the time of the story). Most memorable are the references to World War II. Marlowe has to cross a dam at the end of the Puma Lake to get to Kingsley's cabin. There are sentries on the dam and the drivers are told to roll up car windows. After Pearl Harbor attack, the protection of water systems and dams was a national priority. They were military zones and to prevent sabotage twenty-four hour protection was in place; the criminal plot of the novel takes advantage of the circumstances.

On the negative side, there is an awkward, implausible scene with Ms. Fallbrook. Also, the author uses some truly cheap tricks in the denouement, like for instance:
"[...] went back to the house the next morning. That's just one of those things that murderers seem to do."
Sure, the murderers in mystery books often do things convenient for the plot. Despite the weaknesses, I recommend the novel.

Three stars.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

Kurt Vonnegut. Great Writers.Kurt Vonnegut. Great Writers. by John Tomedi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] an essentially pessimistic outlook is advanced in almost all of Vonnegut's novels. [...] One of the few bright spots on the dim palette of Vonnegut's fiction is the place of decency, humanity, and kindness in a modus vivendi."

Since I am slowly working through Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s literary opus I thought it might be interesting to read the great author's biography. The first of the two that I found in my university library is a "critical biography" Kurt Vonnegut (2004), written by John Tomedi and published in the Great Writers series. This is a serious book, a monograph with a clear research bent. The author focuses on the analysis of the writer's work rather than on his life story.

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my most favorite authors even though I really like only few of his books and do not care much for several others. So far I have reviewed here on Goodreads 10 out of the author's 30 works (14 novels and 16 other books, including both fiction and non-fiction) and the average rating is not impressive. But then I think a writer who has created a masterpiece like Slaughterhouse-Five deserves all his works to be read even if most of them are failures of some kind.

I share several of Mr. Vonnegut's concerns that the author of the biography identifies as main themes in Vonnegut's work: dark pessimism about the nature and future of the human race, total randomness of life, skepticism as to the power and role of science in society. Moreover, in almost all of his works Vonnegut attempts to determine "what's wrong with America", and I agree with many of his diagnoses: the culture of greed and commercialism, the glorification of violence, and the cult of guns. Mr. Tomedi's book also made me realize that my identification with Vonnegut's ideas is not only based on the commonality of negatives. As shown by the fragment I used for the epigraph Vonnegut offers human decency and kindness as the rays of hope, "bright spots on the dim palette" of his fiction. There is nothing that I value more in people than the notion of decency and that's one of the main reasons why I cherish works by authors such as Coetzee, Macdonald, or Vonnegut.

I also share the author's outrage at the fact that Slaughterhouse-Five was "banned from several school district's libraries and reading lists, and even burned in a few communities." Grim is the future of a country where great books are burned while commercials on TV poison people's minds 24 hours a day. Speaking about TV, Mr. Tomedi offers the following great observation:
"[...] people try to imitate the unrealistic world of stories in reality. One result is the expectation that reality will behave like a story. Television is a prime culprit."
An interesting tidbit I learned from Mr. Tomedi's book is that Vonnegut's rejected Master's thesis, Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales, attempted to provide a graphical description of structure of stories from wide-ranging cultures, which reminds me of the famous (for an Eastern European like myself) study by Vladimir Propp, Morphology of a Folktale.

To sum up, the biography is a worthy read, and I recommend it, although it suffers from frequent repetitions of themes and it reads more like a collection of essays about individual books by Kurt Vonnegut rather than as a synthesis of analyses.

Three stars.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Murder Through the Looking GlassMurder Through the Looking Glass by Andrew Garve
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"A substantial part of Warsaw's population, including regiments of children, seemed to have been marshaled on to the bleak, windswept platform. They stood in orderly files behind a screen of security police [...] holding aloft red banners inscribed with such slogans as 'The Peoples' Democracies Strive for Peace' and 'Ban the Atom Bomb'"

Andrew Garve's (pseudonym of the British journalist and author Paul Winterton) Murder through the Looking Glass (1951) begins with the Warsaw scene quoted above. A British "peace delegation" gets on board of a train to Moscow to demonstrate support for the peace-loving, people-friendly Soviet rule in the U.S.S.R. The narrator, a British journalist, George Verney, is already on the train which he boarded in Berlin. Having spent several years in the Soviet Union during the war, fluent in Russian, Mr. Verney is on a new journalistic assignment, and he welcomes his fellow travelers with quite an unease as he has seen enough of the Communist regime in his past. By the way, the author revels in his brilliant literary pun of having a group of "fellow travelers" become fellow travelers of Mr. Verney.

The non-criminal aspect of the story is really interesting and the author manages to convincingly present a bunch of characters deluded by Soviet propaganda: some of them may even be well-meaning. But this is a crime mystery, so we have a murder: an important member of the delegation is found dead, his head bashed with a bottle. Our narrator who happens to be the first on the scene discovers some clues. We witness his private investigation that parallels the one conducted by the infamous MVD (successor to NKVD). And, obviously, it is he who eventually discovers the truth.

The entire criminal thread and the private investigation in particular are rather ridiculous, and a reader may infer that the functionaries of MVD are almost like regular police in other countries, only slightly corrupt and inhuman. The mechanisms of widespread, systematic torture and killings of millions of people in the Soviet Union are not mentioned, except for one gentle allusion, even though Stalin is still wielding his monstrous power.

Other than the crime plot, I liked the story as I could easily recognize several aspects of the Soviet life. I too departed for Moscow - more than once - from the same train station in Warsaw. I also have always made fun of Soviet phraseology and in particular of the "stormy applause" expression ("Бурные аплодисменты"), and I also learned how to open a bottle of vodka by smacking its bottom hard. I too had to stay in several Soviet hotels and experienced the "protection" of floor manageresses, the search for recording bugs in the furniture, and the ubiquitous radio loudspeakers tuned to the official propaganda station. My visits to the U.S.S.R. were in the 1970s however, so it is funny how little things changed between 1951 and the end of the 1970s.

Bottom line, a readable book, if we do not pay too much attention to the crime plot.

Two and a half stars.

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