Friday, September 26, 2014

The Collini CaseThe Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Baldur von Schirach was one of the top officials in Nazi Germany; he was the leader of the Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth) organization. Convicted for crimes against humanity in 1946, he spent 20 years in Spandau prison in Berlin. Ferdinand von Schirach, a lawyer and a writer, whose books have been translated into more than 35 languages, is his grandson. "The Collini Case" (2011) is a good courtroom drama. I find it better than many of John Grisham's novels.

Fabrizio Collini, an elderly man, a toolmaker posing as a Corriere della Serra reporter, visits an 85-year old rich industrialist, Herr Meyer, in a hotel in Berlin. He kills him, and defaces the body ("He couldn't stop, he kept grinding his heel into that face while blood and brain matter spurted over his trouser leg, the carpet, the bedstead.") Then he calls the police, sits down in the lobby, and waits for the law to come. Caspar Leinen, a young attorney on standby duty for legal aid (something like the public defender office in U.S.) picks up the case, against a famous and very experienced prosecution attorney.

I find the plot interesting and "The Collini Case" is a hard book to put down. The denouement is plausible and consistent with the setup. The author, being a criminal law practitioner, obviously knows about the court process in his country. I also like the writing; the sentences are mostly short and simple, yet they well convey the visuals (the translator must have contributed to the overall quality). The best thing of all is that the novel is only 186 pages long. No fluff, no padding, no extraneous stuff that many American writers so love to use to increase the volume. Way to go!

Three and a half stars.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

The Polish Officer (Night Soldiers, #3)The Polish Officer by Alan Furst
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Although Alan Furst's "The Polish Officer" (1995) came highly recommended by a friend of mine whose judgment I value and trust, I feel a little disappointed having read the book. It is a rather standard spy novel slash war story fare; Daniel Silva's books, which I do not like at all, are quite similar, with the exception that Mr. Furst is obviously a better writer. The novel is written with great sympathy for Polish people and Polish resistance fighters in particular, but I am not allowed to be biased because of my country of birth.

September 1939 in Warsaw: Germans attack Poland from the west, thus beginning the Second World War. Soon the Soviets attack from the east. Captain Alexander de Milja joins the Polish underground resistance army and his first task is to transport Polish National Bullion Reserve gold to Romania and then to Paris. The plot follows de Milja's exploits in various European countries as he excels in spying, diversion, and sabotage craft fighting the Germans and Russians. Toward the end the book is less of a "historical spy novel" (the author's characterization of his work) and more about the horrors of war.

The novel has several lighter, funny passages, for instance, when Sturmbannfuhrer Grahnweis leaves the hotel by the Saint-Rustique side of the building: "For a time it wasn't clear that Grahnweis was ever going to be found, but, with persistence and painstaking attention to detail, he was" (based on crown on the second bicuspid molar).

Captain de Milja is a success with women and the sex scenes are discreet and well written. A few gems like "She was that indeterminate age where French women pause for many years - between virginal girlhood (about thirty-five) and wicked-old-ladyhood..." demonstrate the author's sharpness of observations. Yet, all in all, I find "The Polish Officer" a rather unremarkable novel.

Two and a half stars.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Out of the BlackoutOut of the Blackout by Robert Barnard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Robert Barnard's "Out of the Blackout" (1984) is the twelfth book by Mr. Barnard that I have read. It is quite an engrossing mystery, but not the best by this author.

1941 in London is the year of the Blitz, strategic bombings of British cities by German Luftwaffe. Many children are evacuated to the country. One such transport that arrives in a village in Gloucestershire has a five-year boy who is not on the list of evacuees. No one can figure out who he is and how he got on the train. The boy says his name is Simon Thorn, but does not seem quite sure about it. He is adopted by a local family and enjoys a happy youth.

The plot skips in time over the period of about 40 years as Simon tries to establish his real birth name and to learn about his family. Will he succeed? Are there any dark and ugly secrets in his family's past? I am not spoiling; read the novel.

The last chapter is the only place where Mr. Barnard shows his trademark acerbic wit and sarcastic writing style, which allows me to raise the rating a little bit.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Capitol Offense (Ben Kencaid, #17)Capitol Offense by William Bernhardt
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Reviewing William Bernhardt's "Capitol Offense" is not an easy task. This mystery/court drama has so many utterly moronic features that a one-star rating would be overly generous. Yet, it is not completely devoid of interesting stuff. For instance, the opening sentence, "I died three days ago", is pretty neat.

A female doctor in Oklahoma disappears, after having a car accident in a remote area. Her husband tries to have the police look for her, but for seven days he is unable to convince a detective to issue an APB or even to begin a search. After his wife is finally found, too late to be saved, he apparently has plans to kill the detective who indirectly caused her death and consults Ben Kincaid, a senator and a successful lawyer, to arrange a pardon for him for the murder. The whole premise is so idiotic that I was almost ready to stop reading the book, which I almost never do (I have not finished only two books in the last 20 years).

While the author's writing is occasionally so bad that I enjoyed it for entertainment purposes, the court drama part is quite interesting and competently written. Plausibility of the denouement is rather feeble. I enjoyed one passage: "People might not be willing to admit to extreme, even uncontrollable emotions with regard to their spouses. But a kitty was a different thing altogether."

"Capitol Offense" is quite a readable book, but in a wrong way. One wants to turn the pages, without reading them, just to learn the ending.

One and a half stars.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Special Prisoner: A NovelThe Special Prisoner: A Novel by Jim Lehrer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the 1980s and most of 1990s, before I quit watching TV, I had been a fan of McNeil and Lehrer's NewsHour on PBS; I used to watch it almost every day. This was an interesting, serious, and mature news program unlike the so-called news on the networks. So I was quite excited about Jim Lehrer's book, "The Special Prisoner". Alas, I am not able to recommend it - while the plot is engrossing, the book is not written well.

John Quincy Watson used to be a B-29 bomber plane pilot during World War II. He participated in many bombing raids on Japanese cities and villages, where incendiary bombs were used. Men, women, and children on the ground were burned alive, and their surviving parents, children, spouses, or siblings could smell the burning human flesh. Watson could smell it too.

One day Watson's plane is shot down; he falls into Japanese hands, and in the infamous Sengei 4 camp for war prisoners he witnesses and is subject to unimaginably cruel torture applied by Japanese soldiers to Americans. One sadistic Japanese officer - whom the prisoners named Hyena - excels at torturing the prisoners of war. Almost each day an American is killed through unspeakably cruel means in front of other prisoners.

The plot of the novel begins in the 1990s, when Watson, who in the meantime became a Methodist bishop, spots Hyena at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. The past is told in flashbacks. The novel is, basically, a revenge story. It is quite crude and has A Big Ethics Question written all over it, all in capitals. The novel reads as if it was written with the purpose of becoming standard book club fare. There is some bad writing too, for instance, in the unconsumed sex scene. Very readable novel but grossly flawed.

Two stars.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Gun Before ButterGun Before Butter by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lucienne Englebert, a protagonist of Nicolas Freeling's "Gun Before Butter" (1963) is as unforgettable a character as the much more recent Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson's famous "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". Both are strong. compelling, complex, and very well written female characters. I read Mr. Freeling's book for the first time in the early 1970s, and ranked it then among masterpieces of the crime genre, along Rex Stout's "Murder by the Book" and Sjowall/Wahloo's "The Laughing Policeman". I have just finished re-reading the novel, and my opinion has not changed; it is indeed a masterpiece of the genre, and my only problem is whether to award it four or five stars.

Inspector Van der Valk, probably my most favorite of all fiction detectives, a nonconformist policeman, critical of Dutch stolidity, provincialism, and isolationism, and a "queer character" overall, often does not do his police work by the book. He meets Lucienne for the first time at the scene of an auto accident where her father dies. Van der Valk is investigating a murder that happened in Amsterdam but which also has connections to Germany and Belgium.

Mr. Freeling's observations of European cities and people are phenomenally sharp. As in all his novels, he masterfully captures the essence of Europeanness (were he alive, he would be very happy about the current state of the EU) and satirizes the stereotypes about European nations. (He also makes jokes about the French, which is always a plus in my book, just kidding...) The passage where Lucienne judges her customers based on the look in their eyes exhibits unusual psychological depth. The conversations between Lucienne and her admirers ring true and they help elevate this mystery book to a first-class literary status.

The ending is astounding, but understandable upon reflection. Unfortunately, in the so-called real life there are very few policemen of Van der Valk's caliber. Probably none.

Wonderful title, believable characters, great writing, engrossing mystery. I decided to round my rating up. Of course, "Gun Before Butter" is not exactly in the same class as Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", Coetzee's "Disgrace", or Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49", but within its genre, it would be very hard to find a better novel.

Four and a half stars.

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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Slow ManSlow Man by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Slow Man" is the tenth novel by J.M. Coetzee that I have read (and reviewed here). Mr. Coetzee might be my favorite author, but this is not my favorite book of his. While it conveys frighteningly deep wisdom about what it means to be old (the author was exactly my current age, 63, when he wrote the book in 2004 or 2005), I do not like the sudden transition from fiction to meta-fiction at about one-third of the novel. Of course, I know next to nothing about literature and am too obtuse to appreciate this particular literary structure, so my opinion is tentative at best.

Paul Rayment, a 60-year old Australian ex-photographer and bicycle rider, has an accident in the street; his leg is shattered and has to be amputated above the knee. He falls in a sort of love with his day nurse, Marijana, a mother of three children. The affection (it is really more than that) that Mr. Rayment feels for Marijana makes him offer money for her son's college education. Enough summarizing: any more would make the novel sound like the worst kind of soap opera, which it emphatically is not. The point of the book is far, far beyond the plot. The point of "Slow Man" is the difference between care and love and how painful the difference can be felt by those affected.

This is one of the most adult books I have ever read; I doubt people below forty will understand it at all. It is about longing for a child one has never had. It is about sexual awakening of a 60-year old amputee. Mainly, though, it is about yearning for love, including the sexual kind, when one is at the end of the earthly passage and readying to die. Mr. Rayment worries about "leaving no trace behind" and having been "sliding through the world". The subtlety and depth of psychological observations are stunning. Mr. Coetzee writes about things that we barely dare to think about in private and would never dare to talk about.

In addition to the meta-fiction trick, I am unable to appreciate the Marianna (not Marijana) episode. To me, it is redundant; I do not think the impact and message of the novel would change at all, if the Marianna event was removed from the text. Of course elderly and infirm people need sex and are sometimes lucky to have it. I just find the episode incompatible with the rest of the novel and the details (flour and water paste, nylon stocking, etc.) ridiculous. Skip Marianna, skip Elizabeth, and it could be the greatest novel for adults ever written. But then how ridiculous am I to criticize a Nobel Prize winner in literature?

Three stars.

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Friday, September 5, 2014

Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography And DiscographyEric Dolphy: A Musical Biography And Discography by Vladimir Simosko
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The great musician and composer Eric Dolphy is little known outside of jazz circles. A so-called "average person" might have heard the names of John Coltrane or Miles Davis, but I doubt that more than one or two percent of randomly interviewed people would associate the name Dolphy with jazz. Yet, he was a giant of that genre and one of the most influential musicians/composers of the 1960s, which is the only jazz period that interests me (I do not "get" the pre-Sixties or post-Sixties jazz).

Vladimir Simosko's and Barry Tepperman's "Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography & Discography" is a very short book about Dolphy's musical trajectory so tragically interrupted by his death from a diabetic condition at the age of 36. The book is a well-researched chronology of Dolphy's engagements and performances, as a sideman and as a band leader. There is precious little in the book about Dolphy's personal life. I would love to know more about him, particularly because he has been frequently described as a deep, gentle, generous, and caring person. John Coltrane, the only musician whom I would put above Dolphy in the pantheon of jazz, says the following about Dolphy: "[...] my life was made much better by knowing him. He was one of the greatest people I've ever known, as a man, a friend, and a musician."

The authors' work has been largely wasted on me as I do not have even the slightest understanding of musical theory; still, I love reading about some of my favorite pieces, such as "God Bless the Child", or some of my favorite albums like "Africa/Brass" by John Coltrane Quintet with Eric Dolphy. Maybe I have not listened to a lot of flute music, but to me no one has ever played this instrument better than Dolphy. He is also widely acknowledged as a virtuoso of bass clarinet.

To my unsophisticated, completely untrained ear, many of Dolphy's works are some of the most brainy, intellectual music I have ever heard. In a certain sense, the joy of listening to it resembles the joy of a viewer of an abstract painting, when suddenly one transcends the jumble of shapes and colors and "gets" the picture.

Eric Dolphy died on July 9, 1964 in Berlin, Germany. There are rumors that doctors ignored his diabetic coma and instead attributed the artist's state to substance abuse, based on stereotyping; after all he was black and a musician (as far as I know, Dolphy did not use drugs). Coltrane was allowed only 41 years of life, Dolphy 36. World music would be very different today if they had a chance to live and create throughout the average human lifespan.

Good book. A pity it is so short and skimpy on biographical details.

Three stars.

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Murder by the Book (Nero Wolfe, #19)Murder by the Book by Rex Stout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Re-reading Rex Stout's "Murder by the Book" (1951) concludes my experiment that was supposed to establish how my reception of the Nero Wolfe series has changed over 30 - 45 years. The first two re-reads were not quite conclusive (I review "The Mother Hunt" here and "Champagne for One" here . Well, I have not changed my opinion of "Murder by the Book" much. It is an outstanding mystery and a very good book overall. A magnificent 32-page fragment rivals the best writing of Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler (yes, in this order).

When Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin discover a connection between two seemingly unrelated murders - a staff member of a law firm and an editor in a publishing house have been found dead - Wolfe is hired by the father of one of the victims to investigate. The connection is of literary nature (thus the title) and when yet another murder occurs it is also related to a book that looms in the background. Archie uses a clever 48-orchid trick to gather many female employees of the publishing company in Wolfe's office and - thanks to his manly charms - manages to gather some information. This is obviously implausible, which is usually a turnoff for me, yet the episode is somehow charming, and well written, and it gets the thumbs up.

After some further plot developments comes the unforgettable 32-page passage, where Archie goes to Los Angeles to conduct Wolfe's investigation and meets Mrs. Peggy Potter. The sequence of events is cleverly structured, the writing is beautiful, and the "almost love story" between Archie and Mrs. Potter is deeply touching yet sweet. I think I must have cried when reading it as a teen. In addition, the sub-story has many funny touches; for instance, Archie comes back from California, where it has rained incessantly for fours days, to New York, which is basking in early spring warm sunlight.

The flight from New York to Los Angeles took 10 or 11 hours in 1951. Most everybody smoked. To send a telegram (what's a telegram?) one had to go to a drugstore. Phone lines were often busy ("circuit congestion"), which made communication impossible. Ah, these were the wonderful days.

Alas, at the end, Mr. Stout again has Wolfe gather in his office the 17 people connected with the investigation to pompously expound the solution of the case. Why can't I tame my dislike of this theatricality? Still, unquestionable five stars for the California episode and four stars for the rest of the book. Maybe one day I will round the average up, with a dedication to Mrs. Potter, with her twinkling eyes and little giggles. She would be about 100 years old today, if she were alive.

Four and a half stars.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Champagne for One (Nero Wolfe, #31)Champagne for One by Rex Stout
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Rex Stout's "Champagne for One" (1958) is the second Nero Wolfe mystery that I have randomly chosen to re-read in a quest to find out whether my reception of the novels that I highly praised when I read the entire set (46) of Wolfe mysteries in the Eighties and Nineties has changed. I review the first one, "The Mother Hunt" here .

Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe's right hand, is invited to sit in for the sick nephew of a very rich woman who sponsors a famous annual charity party for unmarried mothers. Archie is to play a chevalier to one of the women. One of the attendees dies during the event, poisoned by cyanide. While the police and the hosts of the party maintain that the death is suicide, Archie insists it is murder. A rich guest of the party, afraid that certain events from his past may influence the police's thinking, hires Nero Wolfe to investigate.

I find the plot convoluted, quite clumsy, and the whole story rather implausible. Coincidences galore. As usual, I am annoyed by the excessively theatrical conferences in Wolfe's office, attended by all the protagonists and, sometimes, the police. It gives the author a chance to show pontificating Mr. Wolfe at his best (which is also his worst). One sentence made me smile: "A man who would never see eighty again came out hobbling over, squeaking at me, 'What's your name?'" The novel is a pleasant and very fast read (about two hours), but I believe Mr. Stout's average level is higher. Now I will conclude my experiment by reading Mr. Stout's "Murder by the Book", which I considered a masterpiece a long, long time ago.

Two stars.

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