Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Seacoast of BohemiaThe Seacoast of Bohemia by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Travelling through the mountainous heart of Idaho and exploring its scenic wonders is not conducive to writing a book review, especially when the book just read is rather a big disappointment. Here’s then just a token review of Nicolas Freeling’s “The Seacoast of Bohemia”, the fifteenth and penultimate novel in the Henri Castang series.

Commissaire Castang, a high-level bureaucrat in the European Community, is contacted by a woman whose son has been missing for four years. She has just received a phone call from the child and knowing that Castang used to be a police officer she asks him to find her son. Since the woman’s father was an SS captain during the war, Castang realizes that the keys to the abduction lie in the past. The case leads him and his wife Vera to Germany and the Czech Republic. Castang soon discovers connections with some criminal activities on the Czech border, and it is actually Vera who is instrumental in solving the case. The theatrical finale takes place in Denmark.

The plot is rather feeble, not always plausible, and the denouement, slow in presentation, leaves a lot to be desired. Of course the writing is accomplished, but Freeling’s inimitably erudite and quirky prose is mostly absent. One virtuoso passage, which beautifully explains what marriage is about, certainly the best thing in the novel, does not save the book. To me, “The Seacoast” is the weakest of the almost 30 Freeling’s books that I have read so far.

Two stars.

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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Diana Rigg: The BiographyDiana Rigg: The Biography by Kathleen Tracy
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Having just recently read "Blind In One Ear", a memoir of Patrick Macnee, who played the inimitable Mr. Steed in the 1960s British cult series The Avengers (see review
here), I could not resist picking the biography of Ms. Diana Rigg, who played the unforgettable Emma Peel in that series. It is ironic that Ms. Rigg, a great British stage actress, who have won numerous acting awards for her performances in Medea (Tony Award), Rebecca (Emmy Award), Abelard and Heloise (Critics Award), Mother Courage and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and others, who was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire for her stage career, is mostly known for a role in a TV series. On the other hand, it is not a surprise that the series in which both leads were played by real actors rather than TV hacks is widely considered one of the best cult series in the history of television.

Alas, while Mr. Macnee's memoir – thanks to the author’s perhaps unexpected literary gifts and his great sense of humor - is a pleasure to read, Ms. Rigg's biography, authored by Kathleen Tracy, is barely readable; in fact, it is likely the worst biography I have ever read. Ms. Tracy's method is to quote long passages from hundreds of interviews with Ms. Rigg and with people who have known her, and to use her own words only to interpret the quotes and provide segues from one quote to another. Even worse, the bio is full of pages and pages of completely irrelevant asides. For instance, why do we need to read minute details of Mr. Lazenby’s career, why do we need to know what he did before acting in a movie with Ms. Rigg and after? Why would we want to read about Ms. Blackman's and Ms. Shepherd's careers?

It is a pity that the author limits herself to a mechanical, cut-and-paste approach in this biography, instead of examining in depth such fascinating issues as, for example, Ms. Rigg’s relationship with feminism: while the character of Mrs. Peel is both pre-feminist (these are the 1960s) and post-feminist (as she takes feminism for granted), Ms. Rigg strongly denies any feminist bent of her own. I would also love to read more about what Ms. Rigg herself thinks about her various stage performances – the mechanical listing of titles, critics’ blurbs, and awards does not make for an interesting biography.

One and a half stars.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

You Who KnowYou Who Know by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Voi che sapete che cosa ė amor" is the title of Cherubino's aria from Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro". You who know what love is. Nicolas Freeling's titles - as quirky as they are - make perfect sense. "You Who Know" (1994) is a surprise - almost a regular thriller! And it is a good one plus we get the usual great, unmistakably Freelingesque, idiosyncratic writing. We even have a stream-of-consciousness fragment (transpiring on a Deutsche Autobahn, of all places). It is the fourteenth novel in the series featuring Henri Castang, a high-ranking French police commissaire, now serving as a Brussels bureaucrat.

Castang's friend, an Irish diplomat also employed by the European Community, has been shot and the commissaire is sent on an unofficial mission to cast light on the killing and - which is obvious but cleverly left unsaid - to make sure no political undercurrents can be found. Castang and his wife, Vera, travel to make inquiries in Ireland, in England, and in Lugano area, in the Swiss - Italian Alps. I am not one to appreciate plot a lot, but here we have a Whole Lotta Plot.

The Grand Finale is spoken rather than acted, so mercifully there are no silly final action scenes! Instead we have an Aristotelian catharsis - "a certain emotional cleansing of the spectator". Great job (particularly if one does not like formulaic, paint-by-numbers thrillers)!

Four stars.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Girl in a BandGirl in a Band by Kim Gordon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Sonic Youth" is the seminal alternative rock band: over 30 years of their activity they influenced countless performers in various genres. Formed in 1981 and grounded in New York's No Wave music movement, they will be remembered as the most innovative avant-garde rock band of the late 20th and early 21st century. Their unique brand of music is hard to categorize: it has been described as noise rock, post-punk, even grunge. "Sonic Youth" is also my most favorite band - I love their music based on quirky tunings, hefty dose of dissonance and noise, all that in addition to their post-punk sensibilities, and some truly beautiful and hypnotic melodies. Also, the members are geezers of almost my age (fifties and early sixties), so what's not to like? Thus, when I read the critics' praise for Kim Gordon's (the bass guitarist and occasional vocalist of the band) book "Girl In A Band" (2015), I ran for the library. Well, this is quite an interesting book, compulsively readable, yet marred by a flaw that I explain later.

"Girl In A Band" is not a biography of Sonic Youth, nor should it be. To get that one should read David Browne's "Goodbye 20th Century". In this memoir Ms. Gordon writes about her childhood in Los Angeles, her parents, and then about the vibrant No Wave arts scene, in which she immersed herself after moving to New York in 1980. She also writes about the most important men in her life, one of them being her brother, Keller, with a history of mental illness.

The book is not just about music and arts; I appreciate various sharp observations made by Ms. Gordon: for instance, she identifies the differences between Los Angeles with its "diffusiveness, its lack of an attachment to anything other than its own good reflection in the mirror" and New York City: "In contrast to always-new L.A., where everything had its place, New York was a jumble, all colors, shapes, angles, altitudes." And I am completely sold on the phrase that refers to Mike Kelley's images: "They were a perfect symbol of American culture, where newness replaces the old, messy, fragrant, real, humanized form of anything, lest we ever be reminded of dying." Great stuff, and there is more!

I find the memoir damaged by vitriol spewed at the unnamed woman who took Thurston Moore (Ms. Gordon's ex-husband and the guitarist of Sonic Youth) away from her, after a 27-year apparently successful marriage. Maybe I am dense or old-fashioned, but shouldn't she rather blame her ex-husband for this serious affair and for destruction of their marriage? There is a bit too much about "the woman" in the book: it might seem that exacting revenge on her has been one of the reasons for writing the book.

Still, this will not stop me from loving Sonic Youth's music. Its quality transcends the band members' personalities and I will listen to them along with Bach, Coltrane, and other "serious" stuff.

Three stars.

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Village BookThe Village Book by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nicolas Freeling's "The Village Book" (2001) is a moving farewell to his readers. Some of us are fortunate not to know, even roughly, when we will die: it is clear from this book that the author knows his time is almost over. He is trying to make sense of the years that have been allowed to him and to reassure himself that his existence has mattered at least a little bit. And despite the ominous shadow of death, he writes without even a slightest trace of anger, despair, or bitterness; instead the book shines with love for his parents, his wife, his children, his small piece of land in the Vosges, and first and foremost for his greatest love - Europe.

"The Village Book" is not a memoir or an autobiography. It is rather a collection of vignettes, stories, and passages about people and places that have been most important to the author. First, there is "The Tale of Anne D.", the story his mother, an unforgettable character, a convert to both Catholicism and Communism, a constant wanderer, who travelled from France to England to give birth to Nicolas, then came back to France, and later moved between various residences in England and Ireland. The author inherited his mother's peripatetic nature: he himself lived in England, Holland, and finally settled in France. Mr. Freeling's wife is Dutch and of his five children two were born in the UK, two in Holland, and one in France.

For the last 40 years of his life Mr. Freeling lived in Grandfontaine, France, a village in Alsace, located on the exact border demarcating historically French- and German-influenced regions. That land witnessed hundreds and hundreds of years of bloody wars between the two European powers and incessant shifting of frontiers: the author writes of "this blood-fertilized heartland I call mine" and then he says "[...] this is the gift to me of Grandfontaine, to have forged me into a European".

Bitter, cynical wisdom has always been Mr. Freeling's trademark, so I am tempted to fear that the belief expressed in "The Village Book" in the human ability to finally overcome nationalism (at least in the case of Europe) and the belief that a war between France and Germany is no longer possible may be a sign of impending senility. I would love to believe that the great historical experiment of uniting Europe, which was in its early years at the time of the writing, will succeed. Now the European Union is even more impressive than in Mr. Freeling's years (from Grandfontaine, it is as far to Kraków as to Madrid, the author observes). Yet almost exactly 70 years ago a German extermination camp, manned by compatriots of Bach, Goethe, and Schiller, was located in Struthof, a few miles from Grandfontaine. Will people ever learn?

There are many beautiful passages in the book, particularly about trees, plants, mushrooms and such (it almost sounds like a fairy tale when the author writes how he can walk out of his house door to pick wild strawberries and cèpes); I enclose one such beautiful fragment after the rating.

Out of a thousand or so writers whose books I have read in my now 60-year adventure with avid reading there is none whose prose would resonate with me stronger than Nicolas Freeling. While perhaps there are few (very few!) writers who have mastered the literary craft even better than him, I still prefer the eruditely chatty, rambling, quirky prose of Mr. Freeling, always full of wisdom and so fiercely European. Mr. Freeling writes about Grandfontaine: "I have written forty books, half of them here". Well, I have so far reviewed twenty, so I am just about half done and very much looking forward to the remaining twenty.

Four and a half stars.

"I walked then much, in the woods, and often by myself. On still, sunny afternoons the trees, grave and gothic, would begin quite quietly to move, and then one had to beware. Or in deep silvered winters, behind the curtain of stalactites masking a fissure in rock, there were voices which the ear did not quite catch. Under ice trees groan, and make sudden loud complaint. Betimes one has to push oneself, to banish the fiend that close behind does tread."

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Blind in One Ear: The Avenger ReturnsBlind in One Ear: The Avenger Returns by Patrick Macnee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Patrick Macnee is the unforgettable John Steed from "The Avengers", the cult British TV series from 1960s (remade in 1998 as a US movie; it has nothing in common with the recent same-titled movies based on comics). The series, running in the 1961-1969 period, was shown all over Europe, in the US, and in many other countries. It is widely considered one of the best cult series in the history of TV, a sentiment that I readily agree with. "The Avengers" might in fact be the second- or third-best series I have ever watched, mostly thanks to Mrs. Peel - by the way, Diana Rigg's bio is waiting on my shelf - and John Steed. (I am sure there can be no doubt which cult TV series is by far the best in the history of mankind, right?)

"Blind in One Ear" (1988) is Mr. Macnee's autobiography: the author first leads us through his unusual childhood in an aristocratic and truly idiosyncratic family. Mr. Macnee's Mama watched little Daniel Patrick "through the bubbly blur of Dom Perignon", the feared "Uncle" Evelyn wanted "to make a good woman of him", and his Pa was rarely around. Patrick matriculated from Eton, often considered the best public (meaning exclusively private) school in the world, although his final period at the college was marred by quite some naughtiness. This part of the memoir is totally fascinating. Alas the story of long, long years of young Mr. Macnee trying to succeed as an actor, moving from place to place, including the US and Canada, waiting for his big break is, frankly, boring; even frequent dropping names of actors whom he met and worked with, like Laurence Oliver, Richard Burton, Vivien Leigh, Montgomery Clift, and many, many others does not relieve the monotony.

The Big Break comes in 1960 when Mr. Macnee is hired to play John Steed, one of the two leading characters in "The Avengers". He stars in four separate series (with Ian Hendry, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, and Linda Thorson), not to count the much later "New Avengers" (with Joanna Lumley as Purdey). The role of Steed has completely defined his legacy, which Mr. Macnee is first to admit: the series "brought the fame and money I'd always longed for", he writes.

"Blind in One Ear" is mostly a good read: the author is quite honest in assessing his successes and failures, the first third of the memoir is enthralling, and the writing sparkles with sly humor throughout the book. Here's just one small sample: "[...] my true moment of greatness came when I was asked whether I'd met Vivien Leigh. My answer was received with awe. Then a second question was asked. I had to say that although I'd longed to, I had not."

Two and three quarter stars.

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Those in PerilThose in Peril by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although Nicolas Freeling's "Those In Peril" (1990), the twelfth novel in the Castang series, is a marked improvement over the previous entry, it does not reach anywhere near Mr. Freeling's usual stellar level. While the novel has its peaks, some of them quite high, it suffers from a major flaw, which I discuss after the synopsis. Maybe the author is beginning to feel a burnout caused by the series being too long? Maybe the Castang formula has worn out? Well, I will refrain from going on my trademark rant against "series literature".

Commissaire Castang, sacked as a result of politically embarrassing happenings described in "Not As Far As Velma", is "promoted" into a backwater job in Fraud Squad of the Fine-Arts Division of Police Judiciaire in Paris. The job allows Castang to travel widely: for instance, he dines in the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg (then still called Leningrad), and spends a few days in New York, all at the taxpayers' expense. The criminal plot is pretty thin, which - of course - is fine; one does not read Freeling for the plot: an expensive stamp collection has been stolen and, more importantly, a classmate of Castang's daughter is sexually abused at school. The suspicions focus on Monsieur Dampierre, a television personality and a member of the Academie Française, who teaches advanced literature in an afterschool enrichment program.

So what's wrong - to me - with the novel? It is the way that Commissaire Castang plans to demonstrate the suspect's guilt. To clarify, I do not mean "morally wrong", let's not go into debating the moral issues of entrapment, etc. I find the whole design of the baiting scheme totally far-fetched and I do not believe any responsible person would choose to act like that (alas I am unable to explain this more clearly without spoiling the plot).

There are some very good parts in the novel - perhaps not the top-level Freeling but close - the New York trip episode is written with typical Freeling-esque panache. The ending is wonderfully cynical, ooops, I mean realistic. And there is a cute meta-prose reflection "For Auctor thus to address Lector in ponderous parenthesis is ridiculous, but the Who Did It convention encapsulating most crime fiction is no less so" (one of these sentences that I love so much). I would also love to quote a hilarious sentence about Alice and Lewis Carroll's wardrobe item, yet some readers might find it offensive.

Three stars.

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Iron Curtain : The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956Iron Curtain : The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 by Anne Applebaum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Being a Pole I am lucky to have been born several years after the end of World War II. I was spared the unspeakable horrors and atrocities committed by Germans during the war and occupation. I was also spared the horrors and atrocities that accompanied the Russian liberation of Eastern Europe and were still happening behind the Iron Curtain during the first 10 or so years after the war. My first memories that relate to politics date to 1956, which was the year demarcating the terrible period of High Stalinism and the tough-but-not-all-that-dreadful times of late 1950s to early 1980s.

Anne Applebaum's "The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe: 1944-1956" is a monumental work, meticulously and exhaustively researched (almost 70 pages of references), well written and compulsively readable; in addition I have found it tremendously illuminating. Based on what my family and older friends had told me about the 1940s and 1950s I can see how historically accurate the text is. At the same time I have learned so much about an important period in my native country's history.

The book is divided into two parts: "False Dawn" which deals with the years from 1944 to 1948 - the years of liberation from German occupation and subsequent enslavement by the Soviet ideology - and "High Stalinism", which investigates the 1949 - 1956 period. The author focuses on three countries that were undergoing the process of "Stalinization": Poland, Hungary, and East Germany (the so-called "German Democratic Republic"). Historically and socially, the countries are quite different, yet the fates they suffered in that gruesome period are very similar.

"The Iron Curtain" offers a broad panorama of the times and utilizes a wide array of angles of view. The individual chapters illustrate various aspects of the process of "Stalinization": the Communist leadership, the security apparatus, the armed anti-Communist opposition, massive ethnic cleansing, the indoctrination of youth, the role of radio (the main mass media at the time), the so-called free elections and referendums, the nationalization of industry, the role of small business, the persecution of church and the religion's role in leading the resistance, the show trials, the elimination of all civic and social institutions, the creation of homo sovieticus, the so-called "socialist realism" dictate in arts and culture, the reluctant collaborators and passive opponents of the system, and finally the revolutions against Stalinism, which began in 1953 and culminated in 1956.

While Ms. Applebaum's work - she is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her "Gulag", and in my view she deserves another award for the "Iron Curtain" - is extremely thorough and rich in detail, the best feature, to me, is its structural concept: interweaving the serious historical study approach with deeply resonant personal stories of people. It is yet another testimony to the quality of the author's work that various reviewers identify different central themes of the book. The motif that resonates with me the most is one that the author mentions at the end of the Introduction "I sought to understand how ordinary people learned to cope with the new regimes, [...] how they came to make terrible choices the most of us in the West, nowadays, never have to face." The motif of ordinary people, present throughout the entire book, forcefully appears close to the end, where Ms. Applebaum writes about "the system's ability to get so many apolitical people in so many countries to play along without much protest".

As a pragmatist and an ideology skeptic I have been particularly impressed by the story of Wanda Telakowska of the Ład group, a "reluctant collaborator", a true positivist, who worked very hard - and successfully! - to preserve the notions of beauty and harmony in art design for mass-produced items despite the then prevalent grim model of socialist realism. She managed to convince the "Sovietized" people at the top of power hierarchy that reconstructing Polish culture after the war was an important goal.

It took me way over a month to read the book as I read every single sentence with full attention. I needed to know about that horrible period. I owed it to my parents, grandparents, and all the people who had to suffer so much. I had an obligation to learn about those times and tell that to others. "The Iron Curtain" should be a mandatory reading to help people understand how totalitarianism works, how dangerous an ideology can be, how easy it is to mislead millions and millions of people and how it is possible that even after almost everybody quits believing, an ideology can thrive for long years.

Four and three quarter stars.

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Not As Far As VelmaNot As Far As Velma by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In Raymond Chandler's famous "Farewell My Lovely" Philip Marlowe is searching for Velma Valento; Chandler's phrase - "You could see a long way, but not as far as Velma has gone" - serves as one of the epigraphs in the Nicolas Freeling's book. "Not As Far As Velma" (1989), the eleventh novel in Henri Castang series, has a wonderful and apt title, yet in most other ways I find it a big disappointment. My two-star rating might have even been lower if not for the tremendous ending, which partially redeems this mess of a book (I would have never expected that I could use such a phrase referring to a Freeling's novel).

A painter living in Paris, Monsieur Marklake, an elderly Auschwitz survivor, is visited by functionaries of Police Judiciaire who tell him that he had been the last guest to sign the register in a hotel whose owner has disappeared. While M. Marklake is positive he has never stayed there, he is curious and visits the town where the hotel is located. He meets Commissaire Castang who is responsible for the investigation of the hotel owner's disappearance. This is just the starting point of the plot, which involves Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Contras, the French National Front, the bombing of a convent, the briefcase full of money, the Catholic bishop with leftist leanings, the Basque nationalist movement, and memories of horrors from Auschwitz.

With the crowded plot reminiscent of ridiculously implausible political thrillers, Mr. Freeling's excellent writing helps, but even his prose is less dazzling than usual. The novel badly lacks cohesion and focus, and several overlong conversations between the major characters will tax the reader's patience. The stunning ending is truly memorable, yet "Not As Far As Velma" should be avoided as an introduction to Nicolas Freeling's opus. People who read it as their first book by Mr. Freeling may find it the last.

Two stars.

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Friday, July 3, 2015

In the Dutch MountainsIn the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Cees Nooteboom's "In the Dutch Mountains" (1984), a metafictional take on Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen fairy tale, the story is written by Alfonso Tiburón de Mendoza, an Inspector of Roads from Zaragoza, Spain. Not only does he write the story, but more importantly, he also writes about writing the story. To him writing a story is like building a road: "you are bound to arrive somewhere some time."

Once upon a time the Netherlands were a much larger country than they are now. They consisted not only of the flat, civilized North but also the mountainous South, less organized, rougher but freer. The story - let's switch to the literary present tense - is about Kai and Lucia who are perfect and perfectly beautiful - they are so perfect that that the perfection of one enhances the perfection of the other, and they love each other infinitely. They work as circus illusionists, and when they go to the South in pursuit of a job, Kai is abducted by henchmen of the Snow Queen who resides there. Lucia sets about finding him, and the story sets about getting to its natural outcome.

Tiburón talks to the reader about the story, thus creating a metastory and telling the story itself becomes the story. Tiburón also ruminates about the nature of fairy tales and compares myths, stories, and fairy tales. He explains that a fairy tale is "an intensified form of a story, while a story is [...] an intensified form of reality." Whereas a novel compresses reality, a fairy tale compresses it to the extent "that animals can be heard to speak." Remarkable!

If it all sounds as if "In the Dutch Mountains" were just a literary study, something like a modern version of Vladimir Propp's "Morphology of a Fairy Tale", it is because I have no ability to convey the poetry of the story ("Philosophers are failed poets," Tiburón says; well, I am a failed philosopher.) Rarely do I agree with cover blurbs but the one by Julian Barnes is spot on: "A poet's fairy tale, elegant and beguiling." Yes, yes, and yes, and well written too. Yet the whole package feels a little cold to me - like the Snow Queen.

To end on a positive note, I love the epigraph at the end of the book, taken from a wonderful poem by Wallace Stevens. The quote begins with the memorable verse "Let be be finale of seem." No, no typo here, and it is so fitting!

Three and a half stars.

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