Thursday, December 31, 2015

After the QuakeAfter the Quake by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“You know something?" she said.
"I'm completely empty."

This is my second book by Haruki Murakami; over two years ago I read and reviewed Kafka on the Shore . I have read After the Quake in a Polish translation as I do not have access to the English version right now. This is a collection of six short stories, linked together by references to the tragic 1995 earthquake in Kobe. All stories in the set are compulsively readable, yet - in my view - of quite uneven literary value.

UFO in Kushiro tells a story of a man whose wife left him, after the quake, and who was asked to deliver a package - a small box - to someone in a distant part of the country. This enigmatic tale poses many questions to which it gives only oblique and indirect answers. What was in the box? Why did the wife leave the man? Why did Keiko say that the wife had died? And most importantly, what do we really know - if anything - about other people? I quite like the story, probably because of the last question: our guesses about other people's motives are usually wrong. (Also, being a connoisseur of bad jokes, I appreciate Mr. Murakami's use of the famous joke about bears and bells, without spoiling the punch line.)

Landscape with Flatiron is ostensibly about the human atavistic fascination with fire, but this moody and melancholic story really focuses on the feeling of emptiness in human life. Nice but not particularly memorable.

The Polish translation uses the title of the third story, All God's Children Can Dance as the title of the entire collection, probably because it is a catchy phrase, yet to me this story of a man in search for the father he has never known is by far the weakest story in the set. It is pretentious, superficial, and it fails in its attempts to titillate the reader with religious and sexual references. (By the way, there is nothing wrong with explicit sexual references in literature as long as they make at least some sense in the context of a story; Yoshiya's huge penis does not).

The quiet and reflective fourth story is about a medical researcher, divorced from her husband, vacationing in Thailand (which is the title of the story), and trying to cope with memories of her painful past. This "secrets and lies" sort of tale is enlivened by the character of Nimit, a Thai driver and guide, who speaks with a Norwegian accent. The piece would have a greater impact if the author were not so insistent on explicitly telling us what he wanted to convey through his prose. There are subtler ways of portraying human loneliness.

The title of the next piece - Super-Frog Saves Tokyo - succinctly summarizes the plot of this amusing yet lightweight story. The highpoint here is a funny reference to Anna Karenina, especially coming from the mouth of a frog (sorry, the Super-Frog). On the other hand, its low point is pretty low in my opinion: the showy claptrap bit about suppurating abscesses, oozing pus, worms, and bugs.

The last story, Honey Pie, is clearly the best: the author manages to refrain from cheap literary tricks and does not try to dazzle the reader with showiness. Here we can see a good writer at work, telling us about the ways in which love changes our lives and brings some sense to our otherwise meaningless existence. This story is the only reason that my rating of the entire collection is higher than "Fair".

In the review of Kafka on the Shore I wrote: "In a sense, the novel is a beautiful, yet empty shell." I have a similar feeling - minus the "beautiful" bit - after reading this set of stories. With the exception of the excellent last piece and the fourth one where the author explicitly tells us what we are supposed to think, the stories read as empty textual structures that the readers can fill with any interpretation they want - not that there is anything wrong with it, in my view, as long as the structures are constructed of engaging prose.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Monday, December 28, 2015

Philip and the OthersPhilip and the Others by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"She became the shadow and the quivering of the silver spruce that grew there and the aged, cracked crimson of the dried-up riverbed."

"Magical" is the word that best describes Cees Nooteboom's novella Philip and the Others (1954). Trying to grasp the word's entire spectrum of meaning I looked it up in several dictionaries: excluding the denotation that refers to magic I found two nice definitions: "mysteriously enchanting, bewitching" and "describing something with a special and exciting quality". While these are adequate, the definition from The Oxford Dictionary best captures my impression of the novella: "beautiful or delightful in such a way as to seem removed from everyday life." This is exactly how I felt reading Philip. Let me continue the quote from the epigraph, the quote that epitomizes Mr. Nooteboom's magical prose:

"That evening the valley was created afresh with the hands of a lunatic who had come into possession of the moon and who painted and struck the rocks and the trees with the light of the moon until an unbearable madness seized control of the landscape, and all things began to breathe and live together with her, unbearably."

Mr. Nooteboom, whose work I had not known until about half a year ago, has quickly become one of my favorite authors and I would probably call his The Following Story the best book I have ever read (with
Lost Paradise not so far from the top of my choices). Philip and the Others is his first published book, and its beginning chapter is a literary tour de force, a beautifully told account of events from Philip's childhood and youth. I will never forget the passages about a bus ride at night, walking just around the corner to Africa, the uncle's secret from the distant past, and, particularly, a girl in a red coat, whom Philip saw at a bus stop and who was not there six years later. The evocation of childhood memories is so powerful and the prose so vivid in its magical intensity that Philip's childhood could well be my own.

The remainder of the novella relates Philip's search for a beautiful Chinese girl. He hitchhikes through France: Provence, Paris, Calais, then farther, through Europe. This reads almost like a fairy tale, a tale that contains episodes featuring different characters in changing locales. One can find some rather incongruously included autobiographical elements - the passages about a Carmelite school that likely reflect Mr. Nooteboom's Catholic education. I do not much like this part of the novella, finding it unfocused, somewhat contrived, and overwrought. I am aware how presumptuous of me is to quibble about this author's prose, but I think at the time of writing Philip he was still learning to become the great writer he is now, a writer of ethereally beautiful yet lean and economical prose. While I do not believe there are many sentences that could be cut from The Following Story without diminishing its impact, about a half of text in Philip could be deleted, without much harm to the book's significance. True, one can find passages of beauty in the main part of the novella, for instance the fragment about buying a bird of paradise, named Janet, or the one about the chorus of people seated on park benches in Luxembourg, but on the whole the reader will likely find the book aimless and meandering.

I also do not particularly like the Preface, in which Mr. Nooteboom writes about the reception of Philip in mid-1980s by students at Berkeley, although it has a great fragment about the young man who wrote this book in 1954 and then went "on his way to becoming the unavoidable me that I am [...] the mystery of time's passage has become too perplexing." While this mystery is a central theme in Mr. Nooteboom's books, I much prefer when the author speaks to me through his work rather than directly.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Sand CastlesSand Castles by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"[...] a once bestselling writer whom everybody now thought a joke"

Nicolas Freeling had achieved international fame as one of the best crime novelists of the second half of the 20th century based on a series of novels featuring Inspector, later Commissaris, Van der Valk. I was totally awed when Mr. Freeling killed his main hero mid-case in 1972 in one of the best crime novels of all time A Long Silence . Even though the author was famously known for his disdain of clichés and repetition, discontinuing a series that brought him fame and made a lot of money must have required real courage of conviction. So I was greatly disappointed when I learned that Mr. Freeling succumbed to the readers' pressure and returned to Van der Valk much later in his life. As much as it pains me to say this, Sand Castles (1989), despite some flashes of writing brilliance, is not a good book. The sentence quoted in the epigraph is taken from the novel; does it convey the author's bitterness?

Anyway, Van der Valk walks into a bar... The Commissaris and his wife Arlette are spending vacations on the Dutch coast. In a small seaside town, Van der Valk visits a bar, where he notices some strange goings on. Having followed a suspicious character he discovers quite ugly criminal activity that involves local notables, people in position of responsibility. When these doings are properly dealt with by the Commissaris, it is off to Germany for the vacationing couple. On Norderney island they meet a rather mysterious character, a Mr. Rijk (Herr Reich, in German), a rich businessman who insists on making friends with Van der Valk. "Why is he so damn pally?" wonders the Commissaris. Alas the suspense soon dissipates into a run-of-the-mill thriller that features spies, government agents, right-wing conspiracies, and - as a pièce de résistance - a preacher from Florida. Some people get killed and the climactic scene occurs near the Visbek Bride, a megalith assemblage close to Bremen, in northern Germany. Enchanting place, utterly silly scene.

While Herr Reich is a well-drawn character and the initial suspense is promising, the idiotic plot of the standard thriller variety is so cliché that it is hard to believe it comes from Mr. Freeling. Also, the purpose of including in the novel the first part of the plot escapes me. There are some beautifully written passages, where the places on the Dutch and German coast, the small towns and the big cities, come alive on the pages of Freeling's prose. All in all, though, Sand Castles is - to me - the weakest book by my favorite author: unremarkable, unnecessary, and forgettable. Van der Valk is an ill-conceived revenant.

One and a half stars.

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Dear Committee MembersDear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] the student cheater is amazed at my powers of discernment, my uncanny ability to detect a difference in quality between his or her own work and, for example, Proust's."

I received this book as a gift from my dear friend, Kat on Goodreads. In fact, I owe her much more: it was she who showed me this great website, and thanks to her I have been addicted to reading books and writing reviews for over two years. So thank you, Kat!!!

Dear Committee Members (2014) is a funny book, hilarious indeed to people like Kat and me, who are in academia, but almost everyone will get quite a few laughs out of it. The book is composed of over 60 (fictitious) letters of recommendation (LORs, for short) written by a Dr. Fitger - a Professor of Creative Writing and English in the Department of English - for his students, advisees, and colleagues. There is no narrative glue between the letters - they constitute the entire book - and no such glue is needed: there cleverly emerges a plot when the letters are read in order. It is, in fact, valid to categorize the book as a novel.

Professor Fitger is a once popular author, whose first book, Stain, made quite a splash and almost became a bestseller, yet his career is now stagnating and his fourth book is not selling. He has long been divorced, and his love affairs have not been too successful either; what's worse, his relationships with the three important women of his life are – to put it mildly - strained, yet his work requires maintaining professional contact with them. Professionally and personally spurned, entering late middle age, Dr. Fitger is generally dispirited and his bitterness abundantly spills into the LORs, with hilarious effects for the reader.

I had always believed I was a prodigious LOR writer - how wrong I was! With my meager output of about 350 letters of recommendation produced so far, and being quite a bit older than Fitger, I am just a flyweight compared to his heavyweight status. Yet even with my limited experience in writing LORs, I recognize the author's utter mastery of the subject, language, and peculiarities of LORology. While the main difference between Dr. Fitger and me is, obviously, that he has a good command of the English language, we share many experiences and views. For instance, like him, I have had to write a LOR addressed to myself - twice, in fact. Like him I have written letters for students or colleagues about whom one could only say "[He] has a singular mind and a unique approach to the discipline. He is sui generis." And in many cases I wish I were courageous enough to use Fitger's great phrase "This letter's purpose is to provide the usual gratuitous language recommending a student [...]".

I am leaving the funniest snippet for readers to find on their own (just a hint: it concerns Hamlet). Alas, the humor tires rather quickly and the customary sniping at other departments and schools (the opulence of the Economics department versus the inhumanly rough conditions that the English faculty have to slave in) is too cliché for my taste. Also, the satire feels lightweight and disappointingly "safe". Well, the author of the book , Dr. Julie Schumacher, happens to be an actual Professor of English at an actual university, so it is obvious that she is not allowed to venture beyond the bounds of acceptable satire as defined by the rampaging PC brigades.

What I like in the book is the author's success in constructing a momentous event in the past and using it to cast a long shadow over lives of many people (the "Seminar", attended by Fitger and "his" women, led by Fitger's old mentor). I also like the Darren Browles thread, which brings some respite from the unbridled "funniness". And, of course, I like the recursive nature of the setup: Browles as an alter ego of Fitger, whom the reader might construe as Schumacher's alter ego.

A fun read. Thanks again, Kat! Happy Holidays!

Three stars.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

A City SolitaryA City Solitary by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!"
(Lamentations 1:1, King James Version)

When reading A City Solitary (1985) my reactions alternated between awe and exasperation. Now, that I have finished, I feel a little like someone who, having received a beautifully packaged gift, excitedly unwraps it to find just a little trinket inside. "Is that all there is?" one might be inclined to ask. This is my thirty-eighth book by Nicolas Freeling (only three more are known to exist): I have reviewed all of them here, on Goodreads and of all of them this is the one that I wish to review the least. The first thirty or so pages dazzle with utterly magnificent prose: I kept rereading sentences and passages to prolong the pleasure of being in contact with real, high literature. And yet, not even fifty pages later, I was barely able to focus on the text, so awkward and wooden it was. First, a thumbnail synopsis:

Walter, a middle-aged writer living somewhere in southwestern France, falls victim to a home invasion. The robbers, led by a young man, Fernand, break into Walter's house, threaten him with a gun, take whatever valuables they can find, destroy some precious objects of sentimental value, kill the much loved dog, scare Walter to the extent that he wets himself, and leave him bound. When Walter's wife finds him and wants to notify the police, he does not allow it. What's more, when the robbers are caught during another burglary, and Walter is called as a witness to provide additional testimony, he refuses to incriminate the suspects. He is determined to help the gang leader, who manages to escape from jail in the meantime. The second part of the book is an account of a demented journey of an unlikely quartet of characters across almost the entire length of France.

Most of crime/suspense/thriller novels are built on one fundamental premise: when bad guys do harm to people, a good guy (often a policeman or a detective) chases the bad guys and punishes them, thus meting justice. This is the archetypal, Biblical eye-for-an-eye principle. Mr. Freeling changes the pattern: when the bad guy hurts the good guy, the good guy helps the bad guy escape the so-called justice. Clever and interesting? Oh yes! Convincingly shown? Not quite. The lack of plausibility is not even the main problem to me: I would even tolerate it, if the whole novel was as beautifully written as some of its parts.

I have already mentioned the beginning thirty or so pages, where Freeling first vividly describes the home invasion, and when the victim is left tied up, in a sudden shift in the narrative focus, the author moves from detailed microscale reporting of events to a macroscale view, when his inimitable, soaring prose that touches on the essence of Europeanness, national character. and human fate, relates the story of one man's family on the backdrop of European history. But this magnificent narration soon fizzles to interminable, artificially sounding dialogues; as I have noticed many times, writing dialogues does not seem to be Mr. Freeling's strongest suit. Yet soon we are back to superb prose as we get beautifully recounted memories of one of Walter's first girlfriends and how he was trying to make love to her on the beach. Also, when Walter first learns about his wife’s infidelity, the account of his emotional trauma that quickly turns into physical pain is a first-rate psychological analysis of a universal human emotion.

The autobiographical component of the novel is rather obvious: in his youth Walter worked as a cook's helper and then as a cook, and so did Nicolas Freeling. Walter, whose heritage is a mix of English, French, Spanish, and German elements, has lived in various countries and his peripatetic life is reminiscent of Freeling's personal story that he later described in his last work, The Village Book.

Partly wonderful, partly irritating, a tad too sophisticated novel for my dwarf intellect. Let's call it a mostly failed literary experiment that had carried great promise.

One and three quarter stars.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Blood Rain (Aurelio Zen, #7)Blood Rain by Michael Dibdin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The dualistic, northern approach to life is completely alien to the Sicilian mind. So far from there being just two possibilities, there are, in any given case, an almost infinite number."

Michael Dibdin's Blood Rain (1999) is a part crime drama part thriller that perceptively portrays the Sicilian mentality - or I should rather say - the stereotype of Sicilian mentality. The blurbs on the cover of the novel scream "Spellbinding... superb" (The Washington Post), "Dibdin, whose prose is as startlingly clever as his plot, stretches the existential suspense through to the final page..." (The Wall Street Journal). I beg to differ: the phrases "superb" and "clever plot" are totally misused. This is my seventh "Italian" crime drama in the Zen series by Dibdin and it barely rises above the level of the totally lame and ridiculous Cabal. On the other hand, I quite like the other five Zen novels that I review on Goodreads.

Inspector Aurelio Zen, "unambitious and deeply compromised", has now been posted to Catania, Sicily, ostensibly to work on "smashing the Mafia", once and for all. The author clearly suggests that this is just a pretend appointment and - like virtually all police-type jobs in Italy - his posting as a liaison officer between the Catania office and Rome headquarters is just a sham personnel move, and Zen is just supposed to pretend he is fighting the Mafia. Zen's adopted daughter, Carla, a computer expert, also happens to be in Catania, working on setting up a computer network for the local Palace of Justice; she is trying to find the "back-door" entry to the system that causes leaks of sensitive information. We also meet Corinna Nunziatella, the local judge, who befriends Carla, and the two women are young enough to seem to believe that the fight against the Mafia clans makes sense.

The first half of the novel is totally unfocused and wanders aimlessly from a thread to a thread, from a possible main topic to another one. All of a sudden, several dramatic events conveniently happen, and Mr. Dibdin finally makes a decision what he wants to write about. The novel mutates into a standard thriller, characterized by breakneck pace and little logic, other than that things are different than they look like. Since it is of course true that nothing is ever like it seems, the silly "Third Level" stuff invoked by the author is also only a delusion, like all the misconstructions of various conspiracy theories. Whole lotta blah blah blah. The only part of the plot that I really like is the explosive ending.

While in my eyes, Blood Rain fails as a crime/thriller novel, it seems to redeem itself as a novel about Sicily. Here's a nice highlight, as a sample: Mr. Dibdin writes about a fish market on the Sicilian coast that has been in the same place for about 3,000 years. Also, one is impressed with the author clearly explaining the phony nature of Italian war against the Mafia, and how it is that the so-called "bad guys" usually win. They do because fighting them for real would be a greater inconvenience than tolerating them. Also, in some ways, the "bad guys" are just like us.

In several of my previous reviews of Mr. Dibdin's novels I noticed his peculiar preoccupation with human excreta. In this book, in addition to mentioning flatulence and defecation, the author widens his scatophilic range to include other species: he writes about "piles of [dog] turds the size of a meal and the color of vomit." We are also offered truly original references to feeling like "eating the breast of a pregnant woman" and "chewing on penises of dead boys." Maybe the author thought these literary devices would emphasize the brutal and deeply cynical tone of the novel? I am probably just dull-witted, but I find these fragments pathetic.

One and three quarter stars.

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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Tokyo FiancéeTokyo Fiancée by Amélie Nothomb
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"More than in any other country on earth, the Japanese did things because they were done."

Other readers will probably find Amélie Nothomb's Tokyo Fiancée (2007) - yet another autobiographical work by this popular Belgian author - more interesting than I did; alas I may have been a little overexposed to details of the author's biography, having recently finished reading her The Life of Hunger . While neither of these books rises to the true masterpiece level of Loving Sabotage , they are both sweet, charming, and very readable. It is not Ms. Nothomb's fault that I suffer from the Too Much Of The Same Thing syndrome, and the repetitiveness of the main topic prevents me from enjoying the books with the level of enthusiasm they deserve.

After 16 years away, the author returns to Japan, the place of her birth and early childhood, to learn Japanese and get an adult-level view of the country. The first sentence sets up the premise: "The most efficient way to learn Japanese, it seemed, would be to teach French." And so she places an ad and immediately finds her first pupil, a twenty-year-old student, Rinri, a handsome, extremely well-behaved and proper young man, heir of a wealthy family. Not only do they teach each other their respective languages but they also get close emotionally and live together for quite some time, the affair being much more serious for Rinri than for Amélie.

The book offers enlightening glimpses into Japanese society and culture, as viewed through the eyes of 21-year-old Amélie and then filtered through the mind of an almost 40-year-old, accomplished writer. The good thing about Tokyo Fiancée is that the observations feel authentically youthful and devoid of mature cynicism. The Mount Fuji story - the dramatic highpoint of the book - is captivating and very well written. Of course, one appreciates the funny depictions of various seemingly inexplicable Japanese customs: my favorite is the story of Amélie's party to which Rinri invites eleven young men, his university friends, none of whom says anything all evening long.

So while this modest, quiet, little book gets my wholehearted recommendation as an interesting and pleasant read, it does not in any way transcend the frame of a standard memoir, and the anti-repetitiveness bias prevents me from rating it higher.

Two and a half stars.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

GadgetGadget by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"A gadget is physicists' jargon for a nuclear device: a playful and harmless word for what we would call an atomic bomb."
(From the Author's Note.)

The thirty-seventh book by Nicolas Freeling that I am reviewing here! Only four remaining to read; what will I do with my life? While Gadget (1977), being a straightforward thriller, is a little unusual entry from my favorite crime/mystery author, it has been even more unusual for me because for almost half of the book I did not like it too much. I found the first two parts, out of five, boring, implausible, charmless, and - what would seem inconceivable for the author known for his stellar prose - not that well written, particularly the artificial sounding, stilted dialogues. Of course, I would never dream of not finishing a book by Mr. Freeling, so I plodded forward. And lo! At about the 40% mark the novel suddenly picked up and became quite readable.

Jim Hawkins, an American physicist working in a German nuclear institute, is kidnapped by terrorists, along with his wife and two young daughters. The captors - terrorists of a rather atypical variety - want him to produce the Gadget, a small nuclear device, that they want to explode to achieve their goals. They have managed to steal the necessary quantity of highly enriched uranium, they have collected all needed parts, and the only thing they are missing is the know-how. Mr. Hawkins is diligently working on assembling the device, and things keep looking up for the captors, but suddenly... a piercing scream can be heard in the terrorists' well-equipped lab, and at about page 100 the plot becomes really interesting.

While in most thrillers the descriptions and explanations of science are ridiculously botched, the situation is not that bad here: the fragments presenting the mechanics of the Gadget sound plausible (I have had some exposure to theoretical physics), although there are probably too many details, and they are accompanied by overly simplistic calculations. Rather unexpectedly for a book written by a master of psychological crime drama, it is the psychology that does not have enough depth and lacks plausibility in the first half - only in the first half - of the novel.

Oh, but how can I not like the mention of PDP-11/40. I used to work on PDP-11 series computers in the late 1970s, at about the time the novel was published. These were wonderful times for scientific computing: no Internet, no Facebook, just the real stuff.

To sum up: the topic of terrorism is perhaps even more relevant these days than 40 years ago, and save for its first 40% the book is a good read - truly a nail-biting thriller in latter parts - with a splendid, powerful ending. Not my kind of Freeling, though.

Two stars.

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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Giving Offense: Essays on CensorshipGiving Offense: Essays on Censorship by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The punitive gesture of censoring finds its origin in the reaction of being offended. The strength of being-offended, as a state of mind, lies in not doubting itself; its weakness lies in not being able to afford to doubt itself. "

J.M. Coetzee's Giving Offense (1996) is a collection of 12 essays about the nature and essence of censorship, its various aspects and manifestations, and its effects on the society and on the artists (the subtitle of the book says it simply: Essays on Censorship). While a profound and highly scholarly work, meticulously researched and referenced on over 50 pages, this set of philosophical and literary criticism analyses is not at all impenetrable thanks to Mr. Coetzee's unsurpassed lucidity of writing. The depth and elegance of the author's analyses are so much above my ability to explain them that I am embarrassed writing this review, feeling like an elementary school kid tasked with annotating Finnegans Wake. I will thus limit my highly unqualified comments to a few selected essays, although each of the 12 fascinating studies deserves detailed analyses by scholarly-inclined readers.

Chapter Four, entitled "The Harms of Pornography: Catharine MacKinnon", is a devastatingly sharp critical analysis of Ms. MacKinnon's writings. Mr. Coetzee points out the parochialism and limitedness of some of her central ideas, as evidenced by her sole focus on the Western world, and her lack of interest in the widespread objectification and denigration of women in the world of advertising. Coetzee is at his most forceful when he criticizes what I would call a severe intellectual fraud perpetrated by Ms. MacKinnon who relativizes truth to gender and interprets female sexuality as a "construction of male power".

Allow me a personal aside here: Coetzee's writing resonates with me so strongly because he observes the social phenomena not from the perspective of what is "right" and what is "wrong" (which, of course, depends on who defines the rightness or wrongness and when and where the definition is constructed), but purely from the perspective of logic - through examining whether the arguments are valid. Coetzee's reasoning is so resoundingly refreshing because it goes strongly against today's prevalent mode of social discourse, driven by the so-called Political Correctness movement, the mode that eschews calm, logical analysis and instead focuses on attempting to right past wrongs, thus - incidentally - introducing new wrongs.

In Chapter Six, entitled "Osip Mandelstam and the Stalin Ode", the author offers an analysis of censorship and - more importantly - of self-censorship in 1930s, the darkest, Stalinist period of the Soviet history. In the next essay, "Censorship and Polemic: Solzhenitsyn", Mr. Coetzee, among many fascinating threads of analysis, mentions both proscriptive and prescriptive aspects of Soviet censorship and - most interestingly - describes "the dynamic of spiraling mimetic violence precipitated by a collapsing of distinctions", referring to a dialectic embrace between the enemies (Solzhenitsyn vs. the regime).

Out of the remaining chapters I would like to mention one on the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, which is a little outside the main thrust of the collection. While it indeed deals with issues of censorship, it focuses more on the universal and humanistic values of Mr. Herbert's poetry and on his use of allusiveness as a "mode of humanistic affirmation", and his recognition of irony as an ethical value. In Chapter Eleven which deals with relationship between the philosophy of apartheid and the system of censorship in South Africa, Mr. Coetzee - who is a mathematician by education - introduces the "algebra of mixing blood" - a sharply ironic device to illustrate the madness of apartheid philosophy.

Giving Offense is one of the most profound books I have ever read. It took me almost 20 hours to get through the 240 pages - the effort was totally worthwhile and I am happy that the onset of my senility has so far been slow enough to allow me the enjoyment of the read.

Four and three quarter stars.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Cook bookCook book by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"When, after setting out on that solitary swim across the entire ocean which is the first reading of Proust, we reach the first and the most famous seamark, the episode in which he eats the petite madeleine, then we know at once that whatever else Proust may be - at the least he is the most acute and penetrating of prose fiction writers - he is going to tell us more about food than we ever dreamed exists [...]"

Nicolas Freeling's The Cook Book (1972) is a companion to his wonderful The Kitchen: A Delicious Account of the Author's Years as a Grand Hotel Cook , which I reviewed here two years ago. Mr. Freeling, universally acknowledged as one of the very best writers of the crime/mystery genre in the second half of the 20th century (to me, of course, he is the best, by quite some margin), and a great writer in any genre, worked as a cook for the first 15 years of his adult life. Not only does he know what he is writing about but he writes about food so well that his cook book reads better than 99% of current fiction.

The Cook Book is - to borrow an apt phrase from the blurb on the back cover - a "fortuitous blend of the culinary and the literary". Mr. Freeling provides thirty-odd recipes for a wide variety of dishes, such as bouillabaise, beef bourguignon, nassi goreng, lapin à la bière, osso bucco, fricandeau à l'Oseille, Dutch pea soup, cinammon lamb stew, moussaka, etc., with the recipes embedded in fascinating prose - which is Freeling's true specialty - about literature, social mores, European history and culture, culinary fads and the like. One can find many hilarious passages, e.g., "The Germans eat blutwurst off a wooden plate, and the less said about this the better", "Nero [Wolfe], plus a whole gang of gastrologers, is busy tasting a most nauseating concoction of - I quote textually - celery, cayenne, pepper, chervil, tarragon, thyme, parsley, chives and shallots - and the author of this amalgam gets, one is mightily relieved to note, a knife stuck in him."

I applaud Mr. Freeling's fanatical zeal when he ridicules the notion of providing precise amounts of ingredients in recipes and specifying accurate cooking times (I realized long ago that my need to know exactly how long to cook something indicates that I am a very bad cook). I love his heartfelt tirades about the modern trend to suppress "all sense of smell" in supermarkets and against banquets of any kind ("ghastly things", "the most uncivilized ways of eating dinner"). I agree with his praise of choucroute (sauerkraut) and, in general, of pig-and-cabbage combination. Of course, what I love the most is the constant stream of literary references: not only to Proust, but also to Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Alexander Dumas, Rex Stout, and others. A very good read!

Three and a half stars.

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Monday, November 30, 2015

Exercises in StyleExercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
My rating: 1 of 5 stars


At least a part of my acute disappointment with Raymond Queneau's famous Exercises in Style (1947) makes little sense. Despite the title that clearly refers to style and restricts the scope of the work, I had expected something like Kurosawa's Rashomon, where different accounts of the same event are provided by several people, from different points of view, thus yielding contradictory yet somehow complementary stories. Mr. Queneau obviously delivers on his promise and the book illustrates how a simple story can be told using different styles (manners) of writing.

A passenger on a Parisian bus describes how he noticed a fellow commuter, conspicuous by his long neck, having a slight altercation with yet another passenger. Later in the day, the narrator sees the same long-necked man talking to another man and being told that he needs another button in his overcoat. This is it! This is the entire story that Mr. Queneau tells 99 (yes, ninety-nine) times, using different writing styles.

While some retellings read well - for instance, the story told as a dream (#7), as a blurb (#24), the Tactile telling (#56), and, perhaps most impressively, the Opera English style (#83) - and some others are clever and funny - like the retelling entitled Awkward (#50), which indeed reminds me of my own lame writing, or the Parts of Speech (#74) list, where the author offers a buffet of words for the reader to construct the story DYI style - many are just plain graceless and devoid of any charm or humor - for instance the "styles" that omit the beginnings of words, their mid-parts, or endings. It is because of the weak, forced retellings that the whole book has - to me - a belabored, artificial feeling. I hesitate to say this, but the quantity by far dominates the quality.

One needs to praise the translator, Barbara Wright, for superbly handling the job that must have been really difficult. Alas - at least in my slow-witted and simpleminded view - the book itself is an inconsequential literary trifle.

One and a half stars.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The FollyThe Folly by Ivan Vladislavić
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Practice makes perfect, and Malgas was something of a perfectionist. He practised seeing the new house until it came out of his ears. He popped open its rooms as if they were Chinese lanterns and stretched out entire wings like concertinas. He telescoped columns and slotted them into moist sockets on balconies. He unrolled floors and stacked up stairs. He rollercoastered reams of tiles over the rafters.
Then, in the wink of an eye, he did all of these things again in reverse.

I could consider Ivan Vladislavić's The Folly (1993) the second enigmatic book in a row that I have read this week, after Nicolas Freeling's This Is the Castle. Yet books can be considered enigmatic only if one looks for some meaning hidden under layers of prose, some messages that can be filtered out from the text. I believe that the prose in a book can stand on its own, without needing a crutch of some deeper truths to be gleaned from it. I think this is the case in Mr. Vladislavić's hilarious novel: it does not need interpretation and should be taken as is. The author seems to have had fun writing the book, and I certainly have had a fun time reading it.

Mr. Nieuwenhuizen (which, of course, means "new house", and which - for sake of brevity - I will abbreviate to N.) arrives to take possession of his property - an empty plot of land, overrun by weeds and covered with trash - and sets a camp there. When visited by Mr. Malgas, a curious neighbor (whose wife calls him Mr while he calls her Mrs), N. claims that he intends to build a house on the (p)lot. Mr - who runs a hardware store and is quite bored with his uneventful life with Mrs - is intrigued with his new neighbor's plan and tries to help him by procuring various potentially useful objects. Gradually, he seems to be gaining N.'s confidence and is allowed to help in the activities. When they finish clearing the lot, N. begins preparations to design a plan of the house. Pretty soon, while Mr gets more and more involved in the project, the reader begins to understand that N. does not have any intention to build anything. Still, the building plan is created, in the form of a tangle of strings held by huge nails hammered into the ground (N. sometimes resorts to using his forehead to accomplish the task). The crucial moment comes when Mr discovers an ability to visualize, at will, the building as if it were a real object. From there things go quickly to their logical conclusion.

Not only does the author seems to be having immense fun constructing the delightfully surreal plot but also he constantly plays with the language: in fact, I have had more fun with the quirky prose than with the bizarre plot. For instance, take the snippet "She switched off the set, belatedly, and the image died down into two coals under her eyelids. Remember, embers, mbrs, mrs, s." Wonderful! Take the lists of words that begin with a 'c'! Take N.'s peculiar way of moving around, reminiscent of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. Not to forget the overall hilarity of situations and dialogues between Mr and Mrs, who is more grounded in the so-called reality and less than impressed with the ongoing "construction activities".

There are a few items that probably go deeper than the pure surrealism and language play, but I am unable to quite grasp the author's intent (if indeed he had any). The most intriguing are the references to small-scale models of actual houses: the house-shaped mailbox as well as the models of houses, which N. conjures and juggles with like a magician. Is it a sort of literary mise en abyme? Also, the author - more than once - writes about how Mr's fingers either fit or don't fit into the ear of a mug. Curiouser and curiouser!

To sum up: while The Folly is a fascinating read that I have fully enjoyed, I still prefer books which - in addition to masterly form - resonate with me on deeper levels.

Three and a half stars.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

This Is the CastleThis Is the Castle by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] it was like asking "What is a novel?" Characters, a catastrophe, said Mauriac laconically; how right he was. One dealt in characters and one tried to understand the catastrophes."

Mauriac's laconic definition of a novel, as cited by Nicolas Freeling in This Is the Castle (1968) gives us a possible hint about how to interpret this enigmatic entry in the author's literary output. So while I do not claim to "really" understand the book, I suspect that Mr. Freeling - at least to some extent - is playing a game with the readers, teasing them with metafictional tricks. Let's begin with an outline of the plot.

Monsieur Dutheil is a popular French novelist whose books - although far from top-rated by the literary critics - sell so well that he lives "in a manor house with a formal garden, and an estate with vines and everything, and a view of the Alps as well as the Jura". He lives in this opulent house - which is the castle from the title of the novel - with his family and a great number of Spanish servants. His publisher accompanied by a literary journalist from New York are coming from Paris to visit the author. The plot leisurely - extremely leisurely! - follows the everyday events in the castle as well as the two travelers' progress. They arrive in the evening, in time for a formal dinner, but before it begins an altercation occurs between Dutheil and his almost grown-up daughter. The night falls, and then - an impatient reader would say "Finally!" - a dramatic event occurs. Or does it?

Until quite close to the end of the novel nothing much happens: we can just admire masterly drawn characters. And then Boom, we have a catastrophe, in full affirmation of Mauriac's definition of a novel! But did it in fact occur? The reader cannot be sure whether the events really happen (where "really" means within the world of the novel) or perhaps Mr. Freeling is inviting the reader to a meta-novel, in which he writes about a novel about the novelist? Even though I deal with recursion on an everyday basis, I am too obtuse for that level of metafictional discourse.

As usual, Mr. Freeling dazzles the reader with superlative prose, thus showing that there is no need for an enthralling plot to make a book worth reading. Let me just mention the three wonderful fragments: the account of Dutheil's first experience of physical love, the stunning two-page "knickers passage" - a sort of stream of consciousness, coming from Nora, Dutheil's personal secretary, about that particular item of women's clothing, and a clever allusion to Julien Sorel from Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir.

Is there then any deeper "meaning" to This is the castle? I do not know. It is a good read, though, certainly not a waste of time.

Two and a half stars.

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

One Foot in the GraveOne Foot in the Grave by Peter Dickinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"He slithered his feet over the edge of the bed and pushed himself slowly up till he was sitting.
So far so good, but to stand he would have to make a single effort - there could be no halfway resting stage without her arm round his shoulders to steady him. He took two long breaths, clutched the iron bedhead with both hands and heaved, willing grip and arm muscles to remain taut through the blackness. It came and went with the familiar faint roaring [...]

A disappointment. I had high hopes for Peter Dickinson's One Foot in the Grave (1979) because almost 40 years ago I read his outstanding A Pride of Heroes (U.S. title: The Old English Peep-Show), which I would rate with at least four stars. Alas, this book is not even close to that level: it fails as a mystery/crime novel, and the writing - although accomplished - is not as superbly memorable as in the other novel.

Retired Detective Superintendent James Pibble (a recurring character in several crime novels by Mr. Dickinson's) is convalescing in a luxury nursing home, after suffering a major stroke. Not only is he physically frail but also his mental functions are impaired: he suffers blackouts and periods of diminished consciousness. We meet him when he performs a valiant effort to get up from his bed - see the epigraph - then he manages to dress, leaves his room, and proceeds with utmost difficulty to a water tower that belongs to the nursing home complex. In the tower - after crawling up the stairs - he finds a dead body. This is not the only death in the novel, and Mr. Pibble, blessed with improving lucidity, will be helping the police in their investigations.

While the book does not deliver as a crime drama, it is somewhat redeemed by sharp psychological observations of Mr. Pibble's mental frailty - the blackouts and periods of marginal consciousness are portrayed with great insight as are all the "paraphernalia of sickness and the obscenities of age." I also like the romantic thread: yes, the 64-year old Pibble, physically and mentally infirm, and a female nurse in her late twenties like each other a lot, and there is even some talk about marriage. One should also note the author's cleverness in not divulging the purpose of Mr. Pibble's escapade to the water tower, which to me would be the only interesting mystery in the novel; unfortunately, a reviewer spoils it on the back cover of my edition. What I do not like, with quite some vehemence, is the thread about settling the old scores between the villains whom Pibble dealt with in the past, the bent police inspectors, and criminals who have since acquired a status of legitimate citizens.

Finally, like Mr. Pibble, I am 64, so allow me a personal comment: it is quite sobering to realize that one is just a CVA away from a vegetative and minimally conscious state.

Two and a half stars.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Dresden GreenThe Dresden Green by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"He had not wanted Louis never to know what hit him. He enjoyed waiting for knowledge to dawn, and that was why he smiled. If the man had not had this revolting instinct of sadism it would all have gone perfectly smoothly, but Louis had a reaction that belonged, properly, to a Louis who had been dead for twenty years [...], the Dresden days as he called them, that he hated, dreaded."

The Dresden Green (1966) is Nicolas Freeling's seventh book, another non-series entry (yay!), and the thirty-fourth work of his that I am reviewing here. It is a straightforward psychological crime/suspense novel, with a somewhat unusual twist - an alternative history component. Mr. Freeling uses a twist of this kind also in his Double-Barrel , where I do not think the fictionalization quite works; here it does not hinder the plausibility of the story.

The setup of the novel is quite audaciously unusual. Louis Schweitzer, born in Alsace, the land that separates and links France and Germany, works as a simultaneous translator, specializing in Russian, for the European parliament. One weekend, when hiking in suburban woods, he finds a fatally wounded man, who tells him - in Russian - that an extremely valuable object is hidden nearby. And so Mr. Schweitzer finds the famous Dresden Green Diamond, acquired in the early 1700s for the Dresden collection by Augustus II, the Elector of Saxony and the King of Poland. Mr. Freeling suggests that at end of the Second World War, during the "liberation" of Dresden by the Soviet army, the soldiers looted the diamond. (While the Green Diamond indeed exists and is exhibited in Dresden, its disappearance belongs to the alternative history.)

The further part of the novel reads as a tense and well-plotted suspense story. While Mr. Schweitzer appears to be a rather meek and gentle person, he in fact has a dramatic military past. He served in the French resistance in the early years of World War II and - when captured by Germans - he was forced to serve in their army on the Russian front. His young wife and little child were killed during the massive bombing of Dresden by American and British forces in February of 1945. This other Dresden connection and Mr. Schweitzer bitter war memories drive the plot.

There is an unexpectedly touching and captivating romantic thread in the novel: Mr. Shweitzer falls in love with Madame Wisniewska, a Polish translator also working for the European parliament. But - perhaps most of all - I love the ambiguous ending where Mr. Freeling performs a neat meta-literary trick.

A very good read and a top-shelf suspense story.

Three and a half stars.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Life of Hunger The Life of Hunger by Amélie Nothomb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I was too exhausted to do anything. Dragging myself to the bar was a huge effort: only the prospect of whisky made me capable of it. I drank to forget that I was thirteen."

Yet another charmer from Amélie Nothomb. I loved reading this little book after having to endure the vapid vile vomit from Mr. Palahniuk. While The Life of Hunger (2004) is definitely not in the class of Ms. Nothomb's masterpiece Loving Sabotage and does not reach the allure of her The Character of Rain or Hygiene and the Assassin , it is an eminently readable book - sweet, delightful, funny, and often quite deep.

Ms. Nothomb, a daughter of a Belgian diplomat, describes her childhood and youth spent in various countries, where her father was posted in his foreign office jobs. She remembers her first conscious years spent in Japan, her beloved nanny Nishio-san, and writes about her Japanese kindergarten, yȏchien. At the age of five, the family moves to Peking (Beijing), which - in the early Seventies, the time of fierce Maoism - was not a particularly pleasant place to live (Ms. Nothomb fictionalized some of her childhood experiences from that time in the extraordinary Loving Sabotage). She loves her stay in New York, where her father was serving at the United Nations. The family then moves to Bangladesh, a country of poverty and hunger (as she writes, dying was "the chief occupation in Bangladesh"), and Burma and Laos come next. Finally, at seventeen she begins her studies at the Free University in Brussels.

Ms. Nothomb frames her charming memoir as the story of hunger: not just hunger for food (although the descriptions of her appetite for sweets - and alcohol - are hilarious), but the "generalized hunger", the "[...] terrible lack within the whole being, the gnawing void, the aspiration not so much to a utopian plenitude as to simple reality [...]", which in her case took the form of hunger for love and for books. To me, the hunger metaphor does not quite work, but this delightful childhood memoir - not altogether devoid of serious notes - is rewarding even without it. And the beginning passages about Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), an Oceanian archipelago, the land of permanent plenitude, the land that has never known hunger, provide a rewarding bonus.

Three and a half stars.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fight ClubFight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

From an online dictionary:
1) sophomoric, adjective, pretentious or juvenile.
2) pretentious, adjective, attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.
3) juvenile, adjective, of, for, or relating to young people

"Sophomoric", "pretentious", and "juvenile" would be the three most fitting characterizations to appear on the back cover of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (1996). It is a great book for adolescent boys, which category also includes allegedly grown-up men who have matured only in the sense of their numerical age. Adolescent boys crave one thing the most: being perceived as adults. They love talking about death - of which they have no concept whatsoever - because it is such a grown-up thing which allows them to pretend that they are mature and Know About Life. They are fascinated with guns, fighting, explosions, devastation, physical pain, spilled blood, rivers of blood, pools of blood... these are so grown-up! So mature!

The novel is an embodiment of pretentiousness not only in its topic: the author has chosen a histrionic writing style, full of exaggerations, text formatting affectations, and stupefyingly boring repetitions. The mantra "The first rule about fight club is you don't talk about fight club" appears about one hundred times. The novel is Mr. Palahniuk's desperate cry to the world: "I am writing Something Very Interesting! I am writing about Death! I am writing about GUNS!!! I am writing about Cancer! I am writing about Pain! I am a real writer!"

For non-adolescent adults Fight Club is a worthless piece of junk. Of the roughly 400 books that I have reviewed here it is close to sharing this rare distinction with Jerzy Kosinski's Steps. I wasted several hours of my life, hours that I will never get back, to finish reading these two books in hope that maybe I will find an iota of some redeeming value. And while I had eventually found one moving passage in Kosinski's atrocity, I did not have any such luck here. Up to the very end I hoped that I would find at least one sentence to indicate that this is a big joke, a hoax to amuse the readers. But no, Mr. Palahniuk remains serious to the very end and thus ensures that his work is complete carp (with dyslexic apologies to the fish).

(The edition that I have read contains an Afterword. I have been unable to stop giggling reading Mr. Palahniuk's self-important and pompous proclamations about how great his book is. I burst out laughing when at some point he mentioned Citizen Kane.)

Zero stars.

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Monday, November 9, 2015

The Underground ManThe Underground Man by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...]Ross Macdonald, a mystery novelist who didn't so much transcend the genre as elevate it, showing again (like Hammett, Faulkner, Collins, Dickens, Greene, and many others since Poe) how the crime story can at any time become art." Tom Nolan, in Ross Macdonald: A Biography

Indeed, Ross Macdonald's prose can reach the level of high literary art. The first chapter of The Underground Man (1971) is magnificently written - pure, classic Macdonald: sparse, minimalistic, economical prose. On just six pages the author - through dialog and laconic observations - establishes the characters of four people and sets the serious and somber tone of the novel. I do not think Raymond Chandler had ever been able to match that level of literary brilliance. Not that the entire novel is a masterpiece, but the first six pages are truly extraordinary and should be used in creative writing classes.

Lew Archer (Macdonald's Philip Marlowe) is a private eye in the 1960s Los Angeles. A woman hires him to find her little son taken away by her husband, Stanley, who has been seen with a teenage girl. Stanley is obsessively looking for his father who left his mother 15 years earlier and whose whereabouts are unknown. We meet the mother, a rich and rigid woman, and the parents of the girl seen with Stanley as well as the parents of another young man, deeply embroiled in the happenings. There are two murders and Archer finds out that Stanley's disappearance has roots in events that occurred 15 years ago, in which all these parents have been involved in one way or another. The plot is much more complex than my clumsy summary of the setup is able to convey, but the events unfold logically and plausibly.

The novel's plot is set against the backdrop of a raging Southern California wildfire, and this setting resonates with me deeply. I remember the first time I read the novel - a little over 40 years ago in my native Poland - when the scenes of the forest fire made a very strong impression on me. At that time, I found them as exotic as, say, stories about Papua New Guinea or steppes in Mongolia, yet now I live in the area and have been almost as close to several California wildfires as the characters in the novel.

Mr. Macdonald (in private life Kenneth Millar) uses his favorite motif - one that dominates most of his novels (I have read all 18 of them, but this is the first one that I am reviewing here) - how the deeds of the previous generation affect the current one, how we pay for the sins of our fathers and mothers. I prefer to reframe that central theme as a rather sobering thought that when we hurt people close to us, we may be bringing doom to our children.

The title is masterfully chosen: a man's body is twice buried and twice dug out, and it all makes perfect sense in the plot. Mr. Macdonald's writing - so accomplished in some passages - suffers a little form overuse of annoying similes, for example: "Armistead sounded resentful and betrayed, like a sailor who had come to the edge of a flat world" and (on the same page) "He glanced around the harbor restlessly like a sailor who had gone to sea in his youth and never moved back ashore." Still, very few books in the genre are written this well.

Four stars.

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Friday, November 6, 2015

Fear and Loathing in Las VegasFear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time - and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened."

The epigraph is a fragment of the famous "wave speech" in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream" (1971). Alas, the "wave speech", a passage about one-and-a-half-page long, is the only thing in the novel that rises above mediocrity. About 15 years ago I watched Terry Gilliam's failure of a movie based on this book and since then I have wanted to read the original work, thinking that Mr. Gilliam - one of my favorite directors - botched the screen adaptation. Well, now I know: Mr. Gilliam did a better job than Mr. Thompson.

The plot is well known, so just a brief summary: Raoul Duke, a sports magazine writer, and his attorney and sidekick, Dr. Gonzo, travel to Las Vegas to report on an off-road race for motorcycles and dune buggies, and later to write about the District Attorneys' Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. However, Mr. Duke, a self-proclaimed Doctor of Journalism, is unable to fulfill his professional duties as both he and Dr. Gonzo are permanently and massively high (so high that in real life they would end up in an ICU) on an impressive array of drugs: mescaline, LSD, cocaine, uppers, downers, raw ether, amyls, and of course gallons of tequila, rum, and beer. Oh, I forgot the pineal gland extract from a live human being. They hallucinate around the clock and use more drugs and alcohol attempting to interrupt the delirium.

Clearly, Mr. Thompson wanted to write a definitive novel about the demise of the Great Dream of the Sixties and the decay of hippie culture. Yet one beautifully written passage (the above-mentioned "wave speech") does not redeem the whole text, whose only impact - as far as I can ascertain - is shocking and tantalizing the readers with descriptions of intense drug use and detailed depictions of hallucinations. Towards the end, there is another serious fragment in the novel, where the author probes the history and politics of the youth movement in the Sixties, until the "orgy of violence at Altamont" (December 1969) effectively ended the movement. The seriousness and depth of this passage is totally incongruous with the rest of the book. The ending is also strong and resonant, but all the good fragments add up to maybe five pages out of 200.

One and three quarter stars.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Well-Known SecretA Well-Known Secret by Jim Fusilli
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] I knew that whatever tolerance I'd developed for this fetid game, this depravity, this charade of life, had been exceeded. And now I was sick of everything: sick of taxis, of midtown, of the small whitecaps on the gray Hudson, of the scavenger seagulls; sick of stumbling across death while life continued for the corrupt who readily corrupt, and, having done so, thrive."

Jim Fusilli's A Well-Known Secret (2002) is a continuation of his Closing Time . In fact, I feel like I have never stopped reading the first book and this is its second part. While the crime plot is different, almost all leading characters are the same, and they have not changed much. I have hoped for more substantial changes in the second installment of the Terry Orr's series, but the author went for replicating the success of Closing Time.

Terry Orr, an ex-writer, now a P.I. in New York, is asked by his housekeeper to find her friend's daughter, Sonia, who disappeared after being released from prison. She had served a very long sentence on a Murder One conviction for a brutal slaying of a diamond dealer. Terry begins the search, but when another murder happens it becomes clear that the roots of Sonia's disappearance are buried deep in the past, and Terry has to solve a 30-year-old case, working against some members of the police force, but with the help of his friends in the DA's office.

When reading A Well-Known Secret one has a feeling that the crime thread is incidental to the two main stories: the story of Terry and his precocious 14-year-old daughter, Bella, who are trying to overcome the extreme trauma of losing Terry's wife and son at the hands of a madman a few years earlier. The other thread that feels more important than the "crime plot" is the story of the post-9/11 New York. The novel conveys, with chilling accuracy, the sense of the place and the pain of the deep wounds in the city's collective psyche.

Even though the novel is for all practical reasons a rehash of Closing Time, I enjoyed it because it is well written. I can forgive authors a lot if they write well. I am even willing to forgive them writing the same book all over again.

Three stars.

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Friday, October 30, 2015

What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of AmericaWhat's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Kansans just don't care about economic issues [...] Kansans have set their sights on grander things, like the purity of the nation. Good wages, fair play in farm country, the fate of the small town, even the one that we live in - all these are a distant second to evolution, which we will strike from the books, and public education, which we will undermine in a hundred inventive ways."

The main thrust of Thomas Frank's What's the matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, published in 2004, has not lost its relevance in 2015, particularly with the elections coming in the U.S. the next year. The author is trying to elucidate the phenomenon that seems beyond rational explanation: why have a large majority of people living in Kansas - the typical working class population who had solidly voted Democratic before 1980s - switched to supporting conservative Republicans? Why have they begun voting against their own economic interests? Why are there more supporters of conservative agenda among working class people than among those who profit from that agenda? Cutting taxes, reducing government, weakening regulations and customer protection - all these goals favor the rich and hurt the poor and the middle class by reducing or eliminating altogether the social safety net that covers the people who cannot afford to cover themselves. A conservative platform is always pro-business: business owners should be free to reduce salaries, cut and outsource jobs, reduce maternity benefits, avoid paying for medical care of their employees, etc. Why then do the poor people and the exploited people in Kansas vote en masse for the agenda that favors the rich and helps the economic exploiters?

Mr. Frank's answer is clear and convincing. The conservative Republican movement - unable to gain support of the working class on the economic issues - appropriated the religious and social agenda and captured the cultural anger of the working, "ordinary" people, the anger aimed at promotion of "disgusting counterculture", liberal judges, attempts to expand gun control, availability of abortion, liberal media, atheist scientists, immoral decadence, and the secular-humanist disease in general. Much of this anger comes as a backlash against the excesses of the "liberal Sixties", and anti-intellectualism is one of the main unifying themes of the conservative movement.

The leaders of the movement have managed to frame the political choices as the struggle between - on the one side - authentic, hard-working Americans, who enjoy hamburgers, cherish guns, and fervently pray to God, and - on the other - depraved, latte-guzzling, Volvo-driving, liberal, Eastern elite whose ideas are alien to the original values of the true Americans. The conservative leaders have understood that people's cultural, moral, and religious convictions drive their political choices.

The unspoken underlying motto of the conservative movement is to "socialize the risk and privatize the profits". The beauty of the monumental swindle performed by the right-wing ideologists is that the working class people - who will carry the burden of the business risks and will not participate in any of the profits - happily vote to ensure their own poverty and irrelevance, getting instead the feeling of superiority of their religious, moral, and cultural convictions.

In my view (here I need to disclaim that this paragraph is not about Mr. Frank's book) during 11 years since the book was published the situation has gotten worse: one reason is the further polarization of society caused by the universal access to Internet, which allows people to read only the news and articles with which they agree. Another reason for growing support of the conservative agenda are the obvious excesses of the liberal-backed political correctness movement, particularly in the area of diversity enforcement. Yet another new factor is the poor people's fierce resistance to the Affordable Care Act, the law that helps them get access to quality health care: in the authentic American way they prefer to not have any health care rather than to follow some socialist-flavored Canadian or European models.

What's the Matter with Kansas is a meticulously researched work (over 40 pages of notes and references) of unparalleled clarity and thoroughness. I have two critical comments: the author is passionately liberal, and his strong bias shows through his writing. His logically sound and factually correct argument and conclusions would be more effective if they were presented in a cold, unemotional style. My other gripe is that everything in the book is binary, black or white: people are either conservative or liberal. True, the polarization is increasing but there are still substantial numbers of people who agree with some tenets of each side - conservative and liberal - but disagree with some others. There are still some centrists out there.

One of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read.

Four and a half stars.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Capital CrimesCapital Crimes by Lawrence Sanders
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"Kristos snarls like a cornered beast, lurching about and clawing. He uses his hard strength like a bludgeon. He savages them. He pierces, rends, splits, and tears, full lips drawn back from animal teeth, claws unsheathed."

There are numerous fragments of "prose" as unbelievably bad as the above fragment that describes a sex scene in Capital Crimes (1989). I refuse to believe that Lawrence Sanders himself wrote this abomination of a book. It must have been written by a ghostwriter, and I am just curious why Mr. Sanders, a competent author of many solid crime novels, was so short of cash that he allowed to have his name soiled. Even I can write better than the anonymous hack responsible for this insult to the word "novel".

Not only is the author unable to write prose that can be read without giggling, but also the plot is ridiculous and full of clichés. Brother Kristos has "piercing eyes" and his gaze is so intense and powerful that almost all people are instantaneously hypnotized into following his preaching. He claims he is a "brother of Christ, an apostle sent by God to bring you salvation". When he is not sipping vodka straight from the bottle, eating herring fillets, and having sex with his female acolytes and followers, he is a seer, and has the powers of healing people and farm animals. When the hemophiliac son of the president of the United States hurts himself the good brother stops the bleeding and thus becomes the spiritual advisor to the president. He gradually increases his influence on politics and no wonder: the vice-president is a cretin, and high level government officials discuss politics on the level of kindergarten.

Of course the inspiration for the plot was the story of Grigori Rasputin who achieved similar position in the court of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia. How can one botch such an enthralling story so badly? Capital Crimes is a Really Bad Book, whose every chapter, every page, and every passage richly deserve a big fat zero.

One star (so minuscule that one can see it only with an electron microscope).

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

ValparaisoValparaiso by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] he was on his way. A way that would eventually lead him across the South Atlantic, around the dreadful cape, up the icy iron coast of Chile, to the sweet mimosa climate, and the beautiful hills and bay of Valparaiso."

Valparaiso (1964) is Nicolas Freeling's fifth novel, and the thirty-third work of his that I am reviewing here. It is Mr. Freeling's first non-series book and the readers hooked on Van der Valk's character must have been disappointed when the novel was published. While I love one-off books as they demonstrate that the writer is trying to be a real author rather than a Machine That Churns Out Series, this novel is not an extraordinary achievement. It is a good, solid, psychological suspense story, yet somewhat modest in the scope of the author's plans.

Raymond Kapitan lives on his yacht Olivia anchored on the island of Porquerolles on the southern coast of France, surviving on a meager inheritance left by his uncle. His life's dream is to sail to Valparaiso in Chile and enjoy its "beautiful hills and bay". Two fateful moments have defined Raymond's life: one when - in his youth - he was humiliated by his then lover's rich and powerful father, and the other - twenty years later - the conversation with Natalie, a vacationing actress with whom he is having an affair, provides the ultimate turning point.

Of course, being Mr. Freeling's work, Valparaiso is extremely well written, yet it is not as virtuosic and erudite as several later novels. The characterizations of all main characters are superbly drawn, and the portrayal of yachting life on the Mediterranean Sea is totally convincing compared to other similarly-themed books I have read. The novel also offers some references and similarities to Joseph Conrad's (Freeling's favorite author) Lord Jim, but it focuses mainly on human impotence against the vagaries of fate.

I am again reminded that there must be something quite wrong with the way I rate books. Valparaiso is just a good book and nowhere near a masterpiece, yet I find it so much better than my previous read, a work considered by many a tour de force - with the average rating of 4.09 (!) on Goodreads - Pop. 1280 . I was briefly considering giving Mr. Thompson's book - despite its lack of narrative consistency and its sole intent to shock the reader with the vileness of the main character - a two-star rating. Had I done that, Mr. Freeling's novel should have been awarded with well over four stars, which it clearly does not deserve. I focus too much on author's writing skills - that's what is wrong with me.

Three and a half stars.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Pop. 1280Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"I figure sometimes that maybe that's why we don't make as much progress as other parts of the nation. People lose so much time from their jobs in lynching other people, and they spend so much money on rope and kerosene and getting likkered-up in advance and other essentials, that there ain't an awful lot of money or man-hours left for practical purposes."

Since I did not rate Jim Thompson's Getaway highly, I have been curious about another well-known work by the author, purportedly the master of early hardboiled crime fiction. Alas I like his Pop. 1280 (1964) even less. Much less, in fact.

Nick Corey is the sheriff of Potts County (somewhere in the south of the U.S.), which has a population of 1280. The title of the novel is accurate only at its beginning: the population size is a bit smaller at the end because "somethin' done went and happened to" several people in the meantime. While Nick has only four things on his mind - retaining his job as the election nears, having sex, sleeping, and eating - he has difficulty to focus on his priorities: people do not conform to his wishes, some even need killing.

The author is trying to shock us by showing that people kill other people for simple convenience and then they go to church to praise the Lord loudly and beautifully. Well, I had been shocked before and it is not news to me that the human race would place high in the Worst Scum of the Universe contest.

The author confuses the narrator's voice with his own. While the plot is narrated by Sheriff Corey, it is often the author speaking, as in the wickedly funny fragment quoted in the epigraph. The overall hilarity of this work about utter stupidity and vileness of people does not raise it, in my view, to the two-star level. Well, I should listen to the author's advice and stop wasting time vilifying him. Back to work.

Only the nauseatingly cruel and brutal scene of preparing to execute Uncle John will stay with me.

One and a half stars.

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Così Fan Tutti (Aurelio Zen, #5)Così Fan Tutti by Michael Dibdin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Everybody in Naples is more or less a gangster, my dear. It's a question of degree."

Zen again. Così fan tutti (1996) is my fifth novel by Michael Dibdin featuring the unconventional, unpredictable, and often unlucky police inspector Aurelio Zen. This time the plot takes us to Naples (the Italian name Napoli - coming from Greek Neapolis - sounds much better, of course), and is closely based on motifs from Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto to Mozart's famous opera buffa Così fan tutte. Note the one-letter difference in spelling of the titles - tutte is feminine while tutti masculine - the substitution is not insignificant for the novel!

Zen is posted to a lowly job of a harbor detail commander in Naples. He tries very hard not to do much in his new job and avoids any involvement in police work, which suits his subordinates fine since they are busy running various lucrative businesses, including a brothel, from the police station. Meanwhile, crime keeps happening in the city: local businessmen disappear, literally treated as garbage by sanitation crews. Zen is supposed to work on the case of Greek sailors knifed in the port by an American counterpart, but he does not exhibit much diligence, instead helping a middle-aged widow arrange an intrigue that aims at breaking her two daughters' infatuation with local hoodlums (this thread of the plot borrows heavily from the opera's libretto).

The romantic intrigue is purely farcical, and the crime-related components of the plot are not the main focus of the story. The author is at his best providing a biting, satirical look at Naples' local character, proving again his superb observation skills and smooth writing. This layer of the novel is also truly hilarious - just imagine the situation when the police force, mourning their comrade fallen in action, are so extreme in their grief that even the whorehouse operating on the police station premises needs to be temporarily closed.

The operatic ending of the novel offers a truly clever denouement. Readers who - unlike myself - like plot twists will love the avalanche of surprises. Revelation are stacked upon revelations, and most of them actually do make sense.

While a lightweight and broad farce, Così fan tutti is a well written, funny, and readable book.

Three stars.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

ArletteArlette by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"... this was all exceedingly odtaa."

One would think that the acronym craze, the use of LOLs, ROTFLs, AFAIKs, BTWs, etc., began with the birth of the Internet. Apparently not, as evidenced by the "odtaa" acronym used numerous times in Nicolas Freeling's "Arlette" (1981). This is the U.S. title for the novel, I presume, as in the U.K. it was titled "One Damn Thing After Another". The use of the d-word would conceivably hurt sensitive American readers.

The novel describes further adventures of Arlette Davidson, the widow of Commissaire Van der Valk, who runs a one-person "counsellor in personal problems" bureau, thus continuing the story that began in The Widow . One of Arlette's clients is a snobbish woman, a Consul's wife, whose son - after his release from prison where he had served time for selling heroin - escaped to Buenos Aires. Other clients include a police sergeant, who is about to quit the police job not being able to handle the stress and the lack of compassion so common for the force, and a cleaning woman, whose son - while committing a burglary - has been shot dead by the property owner. The woman was badly mistreated by the police while trying to get an apology from the man.

While I find the plot interesting and paced well, I am in total awe of Mr. Freeling's superbly accomplished yet very, very readable writing. His erudite prose is accessible, sophisticated, clever, and quirky, all at once. This is the assured prose by a master of narration, enriched by historical, social, psychological reflections and observations, prose that flows effortlessly, page after page. I wish I could read such prose forever, especially when I feel down, saddled with every day worries.

In addition to the subtle joke involving the acronym (Mr. Freeling refers to a book, whose title explains the acronym, yet his own book has the same title), three other passages deserve high accolades: Arlette's and Arthur's melancholy-filled trip to the house bought by Van der Valk for his retirement (by the way, this is probably the same house that Mr. Freeling lived with his family in the later years of his life), the supremely funny Evelyn Waugh's quote "feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole", and of course the dreamlike, almost hallucinatory ending of the novel, where Arlette experiences nightmarish adventures, which involve being subject to inexplicably brutal treatment by high-level functionaries of a foreign government. On the other hand, the whole silly episode where amateurs stage a burglary is way below the level of the novel, and made me wince.

Still, a very good, enthralling yet intellectual and literary read.

Three and three quarter stars.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

BrokenBroken by Karin Fossum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"This severed bridge, so majestic. But a beautiful construction nonetheless, he could see that: simple but ingenious, beautiful and arched, delicate yet strong. But also amputated [...] It certainly was broken."

Karin Fossum is one of my favorite authors: her writing transcends the genre as she has been able to convey some truths about the human condition under the guise of crime/mystery writing. This is my 12th novel by Ms. Fossum but only the seventh that I have reviewed here (I rated two of her novels, Black Seconds and The Murder of Harriet Krohn with five stars). While publishers - based on the extremely successful Sejer/Skarre series - call her the Norwegian Queen of Crime, I would rather assign the title of Queen of Little Things in Life as she focuses in her works on motives of everyday human behaviors. To me, the most important facet of Ms. Fossum's art is that she treats all characters as humans, regardless of whether they are saints or child molesters, and that rather than praise or condemn people she tries to understand them.

Broken (2005) is not an Inspector Sejer novel; it is a one-off work, and for this alone I hold the author in high respect. I find it difficult to admire authors who become readers' slaves by getting irrevocably bound to their series' protagonists. One of Ms. Fossum's motives for writing this non-series book might have been to show that she is a real artist - a creator rather than just a replicator of a successful, money-making template.

The novel is an exercise in metafiction. It is narrated by a middle-aged female author (obviously an alter ego of real-life Ms. Fossum - even the birthdates are the same). Potential literary characters line up in front of her house trying to become protagonists of her next novel; they are waiting for their stories to be told. When one of them manages to convince the author to write a book about him, she names him Alvar Eide and builds his character through a series of vignettes - a lonely, mild-mannered, naively well-meaning, and socially awkward man, who works as a salesman and factotum in an art gallery. He meets a young woman, a heroin addict, who uses him and his good intentions to get cash for her fixes and to crash in his apartment. The fictional plot moves forward to its natural if somewhat dramatic conclusion.

However, the metafictional layer of the text just plain does not work. Other than a modest meditation on how writers create their characters and build the plot, I do not find much redeeming value in the "meta-" aspect here. Perhaps I am spoiled by having read works of such masters of the metafictional genre as Coetzee and Nooteboom but I find the conversations between the author and Alvar pretty much inane.

The title of the novel seemingly refers to a painting that plays an important role in the plot. Yet it might also refer to Alvar himself, a broken human being, devoid of basic mechanisms of coping with reality. I hope that maybe one day, when asked during an interview why she called the book "Broken", Ms. Fossum will mischievously answer: "Why? It is simple - the title reflects breaking the monotony of the Sejer series..."

Two and a half stars.

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