Saturday, May 31, 2014

Elizabeth CostelloElizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

J.M. Coetzee's "Elizabeth Costello" (my eleventh book of this author) is probably the most uncategorizable book I have ever read and also one of the most enigmatic. It is classified as a novel, yet I would rather call it a literary collage of philosophical essays, meditations on the nature of writing, and short pieces of fiction, all connected by the central character of Elizabeth Costello, a distinguished Australian writer, strongly cerebral and not at all comforting, a writer exactly like Mr. Coetzee himself.

Perhaps the most unusual fact is that six essays included in the book and some additional writing have been published earlier by Mr. Coetzee. The device that allows including them is that Ms. Costello presents them as lectures, mostly at various universities, where she is receiving an award or has been invited to give a talk. I am utterly unqualified to analyze the essays and the meaning of the book (literary critics have written at least a thousand pages about the purported message of "Elizabeth Costello"), so I am focusing on three themes that I have found most captivating.

In Lessons 3 and 4 (the author calls chapters "lessons") Ms. Costello reads her essays that fiercely condemn "the industry of death" - killing animals for food or torturing them for research purposes. Mr. Coetzee paraphrases the famous quote by Plutarch: "I [...] am astonished that you can put in your mouth the corpse of a dead animal, astonished that you do not find it nasty to chew hacked flesh and swallow the juices of death wounds." The author is not one-sided, though; he presents several responses of the audience that offer reasoned arguments against Ms. Costello's position.

In Lesson 6, "The Problem of Evil", Ms. Costello is invited to Amsterdam to talk about censorship. Instead, she decides to speak on whether writers have the right to write about extremely evil things and whether they can remain unscathed by the evil after having written about atrocities. The chapter also includes a twist, where fictitious Ms. Costello talks to an actual, living author. I have found this theme most fascinating from the philosophical point of view (by the way, I strongly disagree with Ms. Costello's position).

Finally, Lesson 8 offers a dreamlike vision of afterlife (with Kafkaesque undertones). Ms. Costello tries to pass through a gate, but in order to do that she is subject to a court hearing, where she must make a statement of what she believes. When she offers sort of a writer's manifesto explaining, in Czeslaw Milosz' words, that she is a "secretary of the invisible", it is not quite good enough. This lesson reminds me a little of a similarly captivating chapter in Haruki Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore".

"Elizabeth Costello" is an extraordinary work of literature - more properly, "metaliterature" - yet to me it is too disjointed to be a masterpiece.

Four stars.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Death By Sheer Torture (Perry Trethowan, #1)Death By Sheer Torture by Robert Barnard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Death by Sheer Torture" is another pleasant and fast read from Robert Barnard, yet I find the novel weaker than two other books by the same author that I have recently read ("Death of an Old Goat", reviewed here, and "Blood Brotherhood" here). Mr. Barnard's wonderfully acerbic and sardonic writing style is largely missing here; also, there is not enough of his trademark black humor. The novel reads almost like a serious mystery.

The story takes place in very late 1970s or in 1980. Perry Trethowan's father, a connoisseur of torture and pain, dies while having fun with his strappado hanging device, and Perry, who happens to be a policeman, is ordered by his boss to participate in the investigation. Perry has been estranged from his father and most of his family for many years, so he quite reluctantly goes back to the home of his youth - a huge castle in Northumberland. The Trethowan family is pretty colorful; in addition to a sado-masochist, it includes minor artists, Nazi sympathizers, and the amusing Squealies.

There are some surprising somber moments toward the end of the novel, and I find the ending quite disappointing in that it builds to a clichéd gathering of all characters, during which Perry presents the solution of the case.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Przyszlem czyli jak pisalem scenariusz o Lechu Walesie dla Andrzeja WajdyPrzyszlem czyli jak pisalem scenariusz o Lechu Walesie dla Andrzeja Wajdy by Janusz Glowacki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In "Przyszlem" Janusz Glowacki writes about his work on the scenario for Andrzej Wajda's movie about Lech Walesa, "Man of Hope". Mr. Glowacki is one of the best Polish writers of the recent 50 years, and he again delivers. Ostensibly, this is a book about the Lech Walesa movie, but it is much more than that; it provides a realistic portrayal of Poland in the 1970's and 1980's. What's more, Mr. Glowacki writes about the past events from 2013 perspective. The attempts to repossess and rewrite history are rampant now in Poland, and many Polish people have been deceived into thinking that Lech Walesa was an agent of state security apparatus. It is obvious that Mr. Walesa has many faults, but the claims of him being an agent are idiotic and politically motivated.

Instead of reviewing the book, I am providing an amateurish translation of the fragment that I find the funniest. It describes the author's dream.

"Now, as in Slowacki's 'Kordian', lightning strikes ten times and it begins to rain demons; the most horrible one has Putin's face [...]

Next, as in the 'Terminator' movie, President Bronislaw Komorowski, and following him, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, illuminated by a beam of light, fall down naked to the ground. [...]

Loud steps are heard [...], knights are rising from their graves, and the Polish choir intones 'But who's coming. Who is it? It is him, the avenger, led by God. Just, gentle, and merciless, he holds a sword in his hand, a sword honed on the gravestones of heroes' [...]

A bit of Apocalypse now: a loud splash is heard - the president, the prime minister, as well as the devil who deceived them, all fall into a lake of sulfur and fire. Their screams of terror are heard as they beg for forgiveness and mercy. Too late! [...]

The dawn of freedom is rising, and the steps are getting closer. There enters..."

Mr. Glowacki's dream ends there, and we will never know for sure who enters, but my bet is that the avenger's initials are JK.

Four stars.

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Death Of An Old GoatDeath Of An Old Goat by Robert Barnard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading Robert Barnard's "Death of an Old Goat" has been a lot of fun. It is a pretty solid mystery, crisply written, full of humor, even to the extent of being "laugh out loud" hilarious in some places. The last sentence of the novel provides one of the best "twists" of the plot I have ever encountered.

Dr. Belville-Smith, an octogenarian Professor of English from Oxford is on a lecture tour in Australia. He arrives at a second-tier Australian university to give the same lecture he has been giving for almost 50 years. To celebrate the distinguished visitor, the chair of the English department throws a party for the academics and the local squirearchy. Alas, the Professor is found murdered the morning after the party. Inspector Royle conducts the investigation, which allows the reader to learn about his schedule of "day jobs" - pure hilarity!

The novel offers an incisive portrayal of life in academia (being an educator myself, I can attest to the accuracy of various observations). What's more, Mr. Barnard pokes fun at the Australian society and culture in general: the prevalence of heavy drinking, rampant corruption, especially among the police force, the attitudes towards the Aborigines (the plot takes place in the early Seventies). I do not know whether these observations are totally true, but the author should know as he taught English literature in Australia for six years.

The pace of the plot slows down a bit in the second half of the book but the denouement is not at all implausible and, as I have mentioned, the last sentence is stunning. All in all, the novel, while a bit of a trifle, is extremely readable. I am thankful to the author for providing me with three hours of intelligent entertainment and I am looking forward to reading his other books. The understated British humor at its best.

Three and a half stars.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Master of PetersburgThe Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

J.M. Coetzee's "The Master of Petersburg" is an astonishing book. The South African author writes about an episode of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's life in St. Petersburg, and manages to produce a novel which, while being recognizably Coetzeean, feels quite Russian with its dark, tortured, spiritual themes, and which aptly conveys the melancholy of the Slavic soul. Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" and three novels by Coetzee ("Disgrace", "Waiting for the Barbarians", and "Boyhood") are among the best books I have ever read, so the combination would seem to be irresistible. Alas, I have somewhat mixed feelings, and it is definitely not one of my favorite Coetzee's works (this is his tenth book that I have read).

It is October 1869. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's stepson, Pavel, commits suicide in St. Petersburg, and the writer returns to Russia from his home in Dresden to visit Pavel's grave and retrieve his papers from the police. Shaken to the core with grief, he spends days in the room Pavel was renting, touching the things that Pavel touched. He befriends the landlady and her daughter and soon learns about the connection Pavel had with Nechayev, a young anarchist and revolutionary (an authentic figure from the Russian history), who is wanted by the police.

I do not find the whole Nechayev's thread interesting, although it is indeed very Dostoyevskyan, particularly the tense conversations. The gentle interrogation scenes are reminiscent of "Crime and Punishment". To me, the most powerful messages of the novel are about a father who discovers that his son is not what he has thought he is, and about the father-versus-son generational conflict.

Most of us, luckily, do not have to grieve the loss of a child. Mr. Coetzee's son died in an accident five years before the novel was published, which casts a different light on the book. The changing stages of grief become the primary topic: Dostoyevsky's utter despair from the beginning of the novel evolves into something quite different at the end. Despite an involving plot, I feel that this is also a book about writing, where a writer writes about another writer's writing.

In "The Master of Petersburg" I miss the crystalline clarity of writing so characteristic of most other novels by Mr. Coetzee and I perceive a general lack of focus. I prefer to have both Dostoyevsky and Coetzee speaking in their own voices.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The PyramidThe Pyramid by Ismail Kadaré
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ismail Kadare's "The Pyramid" is a parable about totalitarian system of government and about the dynamics of relationships between tyrants and their subjects.

In the 26th century BC, Cheops, the pharaoh of Egypt, influenced by his advisors, decrees that a huge pyramid be built for his tomb. The unfathomably difficult task (over two million blocks of stone are used, with some blocks weighing over 20 tons) is completed in 20 years. The construction process is accompanied by cyclical fabrications of anti-government conspiracies, which lead to mass quarterings, stonings, and crucifixions of people. Tens of thousands die, while working on the pyramid or executed for fictitious crimes.

Mr. Kadare obviously models the pharaoh's totalitarian rule on Enver Hoxha's ways of wielding power in his native Albania before the fall of "Communism". Moreover, he rightly implies that people have not changed very much in 4600 years. We had Timur the Lame, Stalin, Idi Amin, and now we have North Korea's Kim Yong-un, starving his nation.

My mixed feelings about the novel most likely indicate that I am too obtuse to grasp its greatness. True, the writing and translation are of high quality (the English version is based on the French translation), but I find the book highly unfocused. I do not quite understand the author's fascination with the cyclical nature of Egyptian people's emotions toward the pyramid ("Admiration turned to indifference, hatred, destructive fury, then reverted to indifference, followed by veneration, and so on, ad infinitum"), and the chapter about the pharaoh reading the scrolls is, in my view, abstruse.

I agree, however, with what I think the main message of the novel is: a tyrant's greatness is measured by how many thousands or millions of people horribly suffer or die.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

The Price of Blood (Ed Loy, #3)The Price of Blood by Declan Hughes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Declan Hughes' "The Price of Blood" is the third novel in the series that features Ed Loy, a private detective, who - after spending 20 years in Los Angeles - returns to Dublin, the place of his birth and youth. I have reviewed the first two books here and here. I like them more than the current book, mainly because they are more reminiscent of Ross Macdonald's work and because the writing is better. In "The Price of Blood", the sins of the past also cast a long shadow upon the present, but the plot is ridiculously complicated and the premise ends up being quite implausible.

Ed Loy is summoned to Father Vincent Tyrrell who hires him to... - neither Ed nor we are sure what Father Tyrrell wants Ed to do. He just mentions a name and implies that he is bound by the seal of the confessional. When Ed begins working the case, it quickly grows to include several murders with cruel mutilation of victims' bodies. It also involves shenanigans in horse racing and severe abuse in the so-called "industrial schools", institutions for wayward youth.

What I particularly dislike about this novel are passages that detail savage beatings that do not seem to serve any purpose. A man breaks another man's nose, and a fountain of blood erupts. They talk for a while, and then the other guy breaks the nose of the first one, and blood spurts again, along with fragments of bone. Finally, one drives the other to an emergency room. Of course we all know that there are many people who love inflicting pain on other people. It is just that the scenes of beatings in this novel do not make much sense - both parties are deeply unhappy about the incident, and no one gains anything. I hope I am not just unaware of some secret rituals of Irish culture.

I also do not like the increased reliance on Tommy Owens in furthering the plot. Tommy is not an interesting character at all. The fragments of plot with a bad cop, Geraghty, are cartoonish. I find the entire climax of the plot, including silly theatricals, and the change of narrative mode when the major parts of denouement are revealed, quite disappointing.

"The Price of Blood" has little in common with the artistry and depth of Ross Macdonald. There is almost nothing original in this novel, which reads as a weak rewrite of the previous books, with inane plot and artificial characters

One and a half stars.

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Wrong Kind of Blood (Ed Loy, #1)The Wrong Kind of Blood by Declan Hughes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"It all goes back to Fagan's Villas": the sentence is repeated several times in Declan Hughes' "The Wrong Kind of Blood". Current events are echoes of dramatic events in the past. This 2006 Irish book reads almost like a classic Ross Macdonald novel; "The Underground Man" comes to mind. "The present is washing away the sins of the past."

Ed Loy, who spent his youth in Dublin, works as a private investigator in Los Angeles. He returns to Ireland for his mother's funeral. His former schoolmate hires him to look for her missing husband. Soon, the case explodes; there are two deaths, and connections emerge to shady business dealings and corruption among city councillors. The plot is interesting until the very end even if it has too many "twists and turns".

"The Wrong Kind of Blood" belongs to the noir genre, but in comparison with Ross Macdonald's work it is a bit overwrought. The American master was able to further the plot and convey the atmosphere with fewer sentences. Also, Mr. Hughes includes scenes of brutal beatings, and while such beating happen all the time in real life, I do not find them compatible with the somber tone of this novel.

I have not enjoyed all of Mr. Hughes' literary tricks. The passages in italics are occasionally irritating or aimed at confusing the reader. Mr. Dagg's rationing of information serves only one purpose - to slow down the progress of the plot. The climactic scene close to the ending is silly and theatrical.

Still, the positives outweigh the negatives and it is a good book. I love the little story about a guy on the Venice, California, boardwalk selling T-shirts that read "The rich are different from us - they get away with it", and no one is buying any. The very ending, while grim, is moving. And I have gotten some sense of Irishness from the novel, although I would like much more. I guess I need to read "Ulisses".

Three and a half stars.

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Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Big OThe Big O by Declan Burke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Declan Burke's "The Big O", a comedic mystery, happens to be very funny. It is a hard-to-put-away book, and a pleasant, easy read, with zero depth, but quite well-written.

We meet Karen, a stick-up woman, and Ray, a professional kidnapper. They are the protagonists in the plot, with Frank, a plastic surgeon, his soon-to-be ex-wife, Madge, a career criminal, Rossi, and Doyle, a policewoman, being the remaining central characters. There is also the mysterious Anna. Frank and his lawyer concoct a scheme to have Madge kidnapped to get a big insurance payoff. Through cunning, coincidence, or sheer stupidity, all characters have their own take on the scheme, and participate in it one way or the other.

Mr. Hughes seems intent on having each character connected in some way to every other character. Coincidences galore. Obviously, this is implausible, but in some strange way it makes the novel funny. Unlike most mysteries and thrillers, "The Big O" manages to maintain the pace and tension of the plot from the beginning to the end.

What mostly bothers me about the book is that it was not until page 67, where I read the phrase "off-licence", that I realized the plot does not take place in the U.S., but rather in Ireland. Aside from this single phrase, there is nothing that localizes the plot in any particular country or place. While some readers may find it interesting, to me it is a bit jarring. On the other hand, I really like the writing and several passages (for instance, about a good exercise for wrists or about not coming up for air for fourteen minutes) made me laugh hard. This is a perfect book to read when one wants to pleasantly spend time, without having to think much.

Three stars.

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