Tuesday, September 29, 2015

No Questions Asked (Philip St. Ives, #5)No Questions Asked by Oliver Bleeck
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"How come you're holding your head like that?"
"It's what's called a faintly quizzical angle," I said. "People in books do it a lot."

With an interesting and logical plot, a likeable protagonist, and quite competent writing, Ross Thomas' "No Questions Asked" (1976) would be a great mystery/crime novel if not for the fact that I have read many almost identical books. I do not quite see the point of reading essentially the same thing all over again, unless one faces a three-hour flight and the bookstand does not offer any other choices.

Philip St. Ives, an ex-reporter, is a professional go-between, who makes his living serving as an intermediary in transactions that for various reasons cannot be conducted in the open. This time a valuable old book by Pliny, Historia Naturalis, has been stolen, the thieves want quarter of a million dollars for its return, and the company that insured the book hires Mr. St. Ives to deliver the money and get the book back. Obviously, things do not go smoothly, and our hero is left without the book or the money but with a dead body on his hands. The plot - which moves to Los Angeles - remains plausible to the very end, and includes a satisfying denouement.

Readers who like prose by all kinds of Raymond Chandler's imitators will enjoy this book. There is a lot of cliché macho talk like the fragment quoted in the epigraph, when the narrator is trying to recover after getting clobbered, and a lot of cliché humor inspired by emulators of Chandler's style. Bottom line: good book, but I have read it before. Many times!

Two and a half stars.

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Rituals Rituals by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"They lay still for a time. In accordance with the rules, Inni was sad. As he let the embrace with the bigger Lyda seep away into his memory gap, he felt, as usual, bitter at what was bound to happen next. They would disentangle themselves, maybe wash, he would descend the long staircase like someone descending a staircase, she would fall asleep in her own nest, tomorrow she would drink crème de menthe again, with idiots, and they would die, each one separately, in different hospital beds, ill treated by young nurses who were not yet born"

Having read 99 books so far this year I decided a special item for the "hecto" number is needed. The Following Story , a quietly beautiful meditation on love and human transience, has been my best book (so far) of 2015, so why not "Rituals" (1980), another novel by Cees Nooteboom?

Well, first of all, it is not an easy book to read: I needed almost 10 hours for the mere 144 pages, and my otherwise debilitating insomnia came handy here. Not only did I have to tightly focus my attention to follow the rather complex structure, but also, more importantly, I kept re-reading and re-reading, savoring the cleverness and beauty of many dazzling passages of prose: I could not afford to miss a single word or phrase.

It is not a book one reads for the plot: there is not much of a story in "Rituals". The novel is composed of three episodes that take place at crucial moments in the life of Inni Wintrop, a financially independent Dutch dilettante who dabbles in stock market and art collecting. His wife, with whom he is extremely close - but only in the physical sense - leaves him in 1963, and Inni decides to commit suicide. The second episode takes place ten years earlier, when he meets his aunt and, through her, a Mr. Arnold Taads, a recluse and misanthrope, so disgusted with life that he eventually kills himself. Finally, it is 1973 and Inni meets a Mr. Philip Taads, Arnold's son, who also ends up committing suicide.

From the shallow summary it may seem this extraordinary novel is about suicide, which is not true. The human emptiness of being is the focus: people who have not found love in their life fail to make sense of their existence. While Inni has frequent sexual contacts with many women, he is not in any real way close to them. Arnold Taads rejected his son, who, in turn, has isolated himself from the world in his dark mysticism. Inni and the Taadses are three utterly lonely people who attempt to construct the sense of their being on this Earth by immersing themselves in rituals. For Inni these were the Catholic faith rituals in his youth. Arnold "divided the empty, dangerous expanse of the day into a number of precisely measured parts, and the boundary posts at the beginning and end of each part determined his day." Philip had the Japanese ceremonial of drinking tea to justify his existence.

"Rituals" is an extremely serious novel, and I am using the word 'serious' quite seriously. Yet even with the exceptional writing it still feels opaque, impenetrable, mysterious. Perhaps the feeling that the reader is almost there to understand is the key? After all, what would be left for us in life if we did understand?

Four stars.

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Monday, September 21, 2015

The Lovely LadiesThe Lovely Ladies by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"But there was the delightfully haphazard feeling that is so different from Holland; that things are no longer cut and dried; that one does not know quite what will happen next and neither do the Irish, but they will improvise and the improvisation will be brilliant; the sensation one has in France which is so agreeable, of a clown's nimble sloppiness.... He would like Ireland."

Nicolas Freeling paints a wonderfully vivid portrayal of Ireland and its people in "The Lovely Ladies" (1971), the ninth installment of the celebrated Van der Valk series. The Commissaire - who will famously get killed in the next novel, A Long Silence - is his own non-conformist self, and Mr. Freeling lets us vicariously enjoy the charms of Dublin locations in Van der Valk's company.

The plot begins in a provincial town in Holland where the good Commissaire supervises the criminal brigade. When an elderly man, Mr. Martínez, is stabbed in the street, Van der Valk rushes to the scene but manages to catch only the victim's dying words - "The girls...". Mr. Martínez 's three daughters live in Belgrave Square in Dublin, and the investigation reveals that one of the last people in contact with the victim was a young Irish man, the son of a powerful Irish senator. Van der Valk is sent to Ireland to exercise his tact in questioning the young man, and to prevent diplomatic repercussions. The young man is nowhere to be found, though, and once the Commissaire meets the lovely ladies, things do not go smoothly.

Alas, this is not a novel of the caliber I have learned to expect from Nicolas Freeling. While the depiction of Ireland and the Irish is first-rate and two or three sparkling passages of prose are breathtakingly captivating, the book also contains several long and insipid fragments, for example, the maritime adventures towards the end of the novel. The Van der Valk's "bebitchment" thread and his "sentimental seducation" ring awfully false to my ears. Maybe it is because the ladies do not come through as real people; their characters feel underdeveloped. The mystery of the Lovely Ladies fizzles.

Two stars.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Vendetta (Aurelio Zen, #2)Vendetta by Michael Dibdin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] reflecting on his conflicting feelings about being readmitted to the male free-masonry which ran not only the Criminalpol department but also the Ministry, the Mafia, the Church and the government."

In Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series each of the eleven stories happens in a different location in Italy. "Vendetta" (1990), the second novel in the series, begins in Rome but the most important part of the plot takes place in Sardinia. As I already mentioned in my reviews of three other books in the series ( Ratking , Cabal , and The End Games), Mr. Dibdin's greatest strength lies in masterfully capturing the ambience and character of Italy: one could likely learn more about the country from his books than from many travel guides.

Inspector Zen - after his handling of the Miletti's case where he valiantly fought against the corrupt system and where, even though he did not quite lose the fight, the system won anyway - has been promoted to the Ministry's prestigious Criminalpol division. A very rich owner of a construction company has been slaughtered, along with his wife and guests in his residence in Sardinia, and Zen is investigating. The victim's house is supposed to have had an absolutely foolproof security system, and the shooting has been captured in vivid detail on the security video. Powerful people in the system (politicians from one of the governing parties) again want to use Zen as a pawn in their game. So although, technically, it is the Ministry that sends Zen to Sardinia, in fact it is the politicians who tell the inspector what the results of his investigation should be. Read the book to learn how Zen finds out the way that the tight security of the victims' residence has been breached (I figured this out about mid-book), and whether he finds the murderer.

I love Mr. Dibdin's bitter and cynical - meaning realistic - view of the corrupt system that includes the government, the police forces, the business elite, and - obviously - the Mafia. One can do nothing, absolutely nothing against the system. But I also like the plot: "Vendetta" makes a good detective story and it is a fast, captivating read. The detailed and brutal description of the video recording that shows the murders is certainly memorable. Mr. Dibdin's writing is simple and economical, and he does not refer to human excreta in this installment of the series - maybe the depictions of the bleeding deaths suffice ("bright red blotches appeared all over his face like an instant infection.")

What I do not like is a thread that involves Mr. Spadola at the end of the story; the over-the-top histrionics take away from the impact of the story. Also, the literary device of having a parallel voice in the novel (typeset in italics) is clichéd and tired; fortunately it is pretty marginal.

Three stars.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward TellerBrotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller by Gregg Herken
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Physicists have known sin."
(J. Robert Oppenheimer)

Gregg Herken's "Brotherhood of the Bomb" (2002) is the story of three preeminent American physicists, Ernest Lawrence, J Robert Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller, whose work was crucial for the American nuclear program in the 1940s and 1950s, which led to the development of atomic and thermonuclear weapons. This extremely well researched and documented book is based on many thousands of pages of declassified U.S. government documents, including FBI's "dead files". Even some decrypted secret cables send by Soviet spies were used as sources.

We read about Lawrence's pioneering work with cyclotrons, and we learn about solving the difficult problem of uranium separation ("enrichment"). Then we follow the Manhattan Project, which culminates with the first man-made nuclear explosion on the Trinity site in July 1945 and the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next, the author recounts the protracted and intense political struggle that surrounded the development of thermonuclear weapons, the struggle that cast Oppenheimer - who was opposed to these weapons on moral grounds - against Teller, who had been their steadfast proponent since the early 1940s.

Fascinating "side stories" offered by the author include the account of long-term harassment of Dr. Oppenheimer by many in the government and the military. The persecution, motivated by the physicist's left-wing leanings and contacts, eventually led to the infamous hearings that resulted in stripping Oppenheimer's security clearance. Another side story recounts tenacious, long-term, and skillful spying activities by Soviet agents, including the transmission of ultra-secret documents, which sped up the Soviet development of the bomb by many years. The book ends - somewhat optimistically - with an account of the nuclear test-ban negotiations in 1958.

The subtitle of the book, "The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller", succinctly conveys the author's intentions. Mr. Herken aims at showing some of the famed physicists' human side: Dr. Oppenheimer's moral struggles with the concepts of good and evil, the irrepressible enthusiasm of Dr. Lawrence, and Dr. Teller's unwavering persistence in trying to develop the ultimate superweapon - the thermonuclear bomb. While the documents reflect facts, it seems to me that the author tries to explain the motives of the characters through stereotyping of a kind: we see Oppenheimer as a serious thinker, Lawrence as an accomplished doer, and Teller - despite his undeniable greatness in physics - as a resentful man. How much of this is true, we have no way of telling, but the device makes quite a good story with Oppenheimer in the role of a hero and Teller as a villain driven by "Oppenheimer envy". Anyway, that's how the story reads to me, between the lines.

My rather serious complaint about "Brotherhood" is that the book is overly detailed: it bursts with minutiae. The author writes about too many actions of too many people and includes too many events. I commend the author for looking up all this extremely rich information, but higher selectivity would convey a more focused message and greatly improve the book. The author's obsession with detail is an obstacle in reading: in many places I had to let my eyes just glide over the page. Good book, but one that could be much better.

Three stars.

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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Tsing BoumTsing Boum by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Tschin, Bum, Tschin, Bum, Bum, Bum, Bum!
Can you hear, boy? They're coming! [...]
Our soldiers, our soldiers, what handsome creatures!"

(Wozzeck, libretto by Alban Berg)

The title of "Tsing-Boum" (1969), the eighth novel in Nicolas Freeling's Van der Valk series, is the French spelling of words from Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck. As usual with Freeling's novels, the title is meaningful. Not only does the onomatopoeic title suggest the 'brothers in arms' thread in the novel, but the explosive words also play an important role in establishing the means of the crime and thus they may be essential in identifying the guilty party.

In the Foreword the author recounts the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu, where the French forces suffered a comprehensive and bloody defeat in their war against Viet Minh. The bitterness of this defeat cast a long shadow over the French national psyche for many years to come. The novel begins with Commissaire Van der Valk, who is in charge of the criminal brigade in a provincial Dutch town, investigating the murder of a Frenchwoman, whose husband is a sergeant in the Dutch army. The woman has been killed with a military-type weapon, and her connections with the Dien Bien Phu battle soon come to light. Van der Valk travels to France to uncover the past events that were at the root of the murder.

The novel has three distinct parts: a captivating procedural (one of the best written procedurals I have read), followed by equally interesting sequence of conversations with several high-level military and intelligence types, where Mr. Freeling's virtuosity in portraying complex motives of human behavior shines brightly. Alas, then comes the ending with its gun action, quite silly and incompatible with the deep and reflective tone of the entire book. The ending spoils a potentially great novel.

On the positive side, Mr. Freeling's portrayal of Ruth, the ten-year old daughter of the victim, is masterful - one of the best literary depictions of a child. Ruth comes through as a real person, and I am happy that the plot has her become more than just an incidental character. This and the profound study of the world of ex-professional soldiers make "Tsing-Boum" a worthwhile read.

Three and three quarter stars.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

So, Anyway...So, Anyway... by John Cleese
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I know that this book is supposed to be an autobiography, but the fact is that most of you don't give a tinker's cuss for me as a human being or feel for the many different forms of suffering that make me so special. No, you are just flipping through my heart-rending life story in the hope of getting a couple of good laughs, aren't you?"

While "So, Anyway..." (2014) is indeed John Cleese's autobiography, it would be more precise to classify the book as a 'partial autobiography' as the author covers the early years, from his birth in 1939 to the first Monty Python shows in 1969, and only a few of the later events are mentioned. Mr. Cleese, who has been called - with some justification - "the funniest man alive", writes about his childhood, school and college years, and beginnings of his show business career.

"So, Anyway..." is an interesting, light, and often funny read. Not only has Mr. Cleese been able to make millions of people laugh hysterically at his routines, not only is he an accomplished theoretician of humor, who clearly explains what makes a sketch funny or not, but he is a also a gifted autobiographer, with an understated and sharp sense of humo(u)r aimed at himself. By the way, if one wants to look for "messages" in books, I think Mr. Cleese wants to emphasize in his autobiography that he is primarily a writer of humor rather than just a performer. In my view, though, his wickedly funny sketches might not work equally fabulously with a different performer.

Monty Python's Flying Circus was by far the funniest show in the history of television, with Fawlty Towers also solidly in the top ten, thus it is disappointing that Mr. Cleese writes so little about his work on these shows. I would love to read much more about the team dynamics of the Pythons and I would appreciate at least a short chapter on the "Towers". The book feels incomplete - thus I am allowing myself an incomplete review as well. And half a rating for half a book.

Two and a half stars

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Sunday, September 6, 2015

Child 44 (Leo Demidov, #1)Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"Leo crawled over, feeling the inside of the man's mouth and pulling out a tooth still affixed to a stump of bloody gum [...] Holding the tooth, he squeezed his arm through, finding the remaining nail and continuing to pick away at the wood [...]"

There must be something very wrong with me. At least two people whose judgment I highly value and trust rated "Child 44" with four stars, whereas to me it is one of the worst books I have ever read. In fact, I had to force myself to finish reading: close to the midpoint of the book I completely lost interest and continued only to laugh at ridiculous plot twists. Then, I tossed the book altogether for a week, and finally forced myself through the numbingly moronic ending just in case a scrap of redeeming quality could be found.

"Child 44" is two very different books: one shows the unimaginable suffering of people during the Stalinist period in the Soviet Union, when tens of millions of people died of hunger or in prisons and labor camps. Most of the surviving Russians and people of various other nationalities - which amounts to hundreds of millions of people - were forever deprived of their chance for happiness in life, many of them having to resort to falsely denouncing their family members or friends just to survive. We do need such books as a warning for the future - a warning about how ideology can destroy humankind.

Then there is the other book in "Child 44" - the one about the search for a serial murderer of children, who kills and mutilates the bodies. Leo Demidov, an MGB officer, conducts a private investigation, in defiance of the entire Soviet security apparatus. Demidov is one of those superhuman beings: he undergoes conversion from a cog in the Soviet repression and torture machine to become a modern day Jesus Christ on a quest to redeem humanity. This book rivals "The Da Vinci Code" in utter ridiculousness of plot, total disregard for psychology, and reliance on superficial templates in characterizations. The simplistic, naively-drawn characters of Demidov, his wife Raisa, his archenemy, Vasili, and others belong to the world of cartoons. The plot twists come with the speed of an express train as they get more and more preposterous: the imbecility of the final twists is beyond belief.

The first book, one about the horrors of totalitarian society, is worthwhile. Yet it ends after about 150 or so pages, at which point I recommend throwing the novel away and reading Anne Applebaum's "Gulag" or one of other serious books recommended by the author in "Further Reading". The rubbish of the last 300 pages of "Child 44" irreversibly cheapens the message of the first book.

One star (actually zero, were it legal).

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Friday, September 4, 2015

Strike Out Where Not ApplicableStrike Out Where Not Applicable by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Between the two ancient towns of Haarlem and Leiden is a strip of ground that is famous throughout the whole world. Practically every stranger arriving for the first time in the Netherlands [...] asks 'Where are the bulb fields?'"

Thus begins "Strike Out Where Not Applicable" (1967), the seventh entry in the Van der Valk series and the 28th book by Nicolas Freeling that I am reviewing here. The Dutch location, introduced in the first sentences quoted above, is portrayed so vividly in the novel that I have the feeling of having spent a lot of time there, although my actual memories from Holland are limited to one day in Amsterdam a very long time ago.

There is not much to say about the plot: it really is not that important. Commissaire Van der Valk, after long therapy and convalescent leave following his getting shot and badly wounded on the historical battlefield of Bidassoa, is now in charge of criminal brigade in a small town close to the famous bulb fields of Northern Holland. The owner of a well-known local restaurant dies while horseback riding: everyone believes he was kicked by the horse, except for the local doctor who convinces Van der Valk that things are not so simple as they seem. The Commissaire investigates and eventually has to reach for some non-standard methods in his attempts to solve the case. In the denouement, Mr. Freeling - himself a theoretician of mystery fiction who published an interesting set of essays on "literary masters of crime fiction", Criminal Convictions" - bends the rules of the genre to the point of breaking them. The ending is unexpected and not in the way one expects crime novels to have unexpected endings.

Not only does "Strike Out" offer a brilliant depiction of the Dutch locations, it also is a superb character study. For once, a raving blurb on the book cover has it right: "Nicolas Freeling is at it again, fashioning characterizations with such attentive care that he convinces me I've known the people all my life". I feel exactly the same way and wish I could put it so nicely. Yet, the novel is not a successful mystery, and my unexceptional rating reflects the demands of the genre.

About the title: Van der Valk, who as a policeman would rather try to understand people and worry about the "whys and wherefores", objects to the system whose inflexible rules force him to neatly pigeonhole people and their motives. "Tick where applicable, strike out where not applicable - form filling!"

And, finally, yet another dazzling "Freeling sentence": "Oh mother, the grammar, thought Van der Valk, and cheered himself up with the gentleman who split infinitives, by god, so they would stay split..."

Three and a half stars.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Ratking (Aurelio Zen, #1)Ratking by Michael Dibdin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Zen knew that the truth prevailed, if at all, only after so much time had passed that it had become meaningless, like a senile prisoner who can safely be released, his significance forgotten, his friends dead, a babbling idiot."

I was a bit apprehensive picking up "Ratking" (1987) by Michael Dibdin, the first book in his Aurelio Zen series. While I quite liked the last entry, The End Games whose plot is situated in Calabria, the fourth book in the series, Rome-based Cabal , was pretty lame. Well, it turned out to be a needless worry: this is the best of the three books - obviously, first novels in a series often have that quality - and if only Mr. Dibdin had stuck to his strengths - brutally candid analysis of mechanisms governing the society and an extremely sharp eye in his observations of Italy and its people - this novel would have been great. Still, even if he makes too many concessions to routine conventions of a thriller, it is a pretty good book and I recommend it. And the title is so very fitting! Later about that.

Because of his lack of political acumen while working on the 1978 Aldo Moro kidnapping (the author refers here to a real-life affair that galvanized entire Italy), Commissioner Aurelio Zen was relieved of his duties and assigned to a desk job in Rome. Now, an investigation is ongoing in yet another kidnapping: Ruggiero Miletti, the owner of a company producing hi-fi equipment, was abducted in Perugia several months ago. The family paid a hefty ransom yet the victim has not yet been returned. An important friend of the Miletti family leans on important personages at the top of the police hierarchy and they transfer Zen to Perugia to work the case. Quite obviously Zen is not supposed to solve anything - his transfer to Perugia is just designed to make an impression of something being done; having been discredited in the past he can safely be assumed to become just a pawn in the game. Zen, however, does his best to find the abducted industrialist even though he has to face the corrupt local notables, the corrupt justice system, and most importantly of all, he has to fight against the corrupt Miletti family.

"Ratking" is first and foremost about corruption, corruption so widespread and deeply pervasive that Zen - not being corrupt himself - seems insane. Corruption is so ingrained in the entire system of government, including judicial and police branches, that it appears to be one of the main forces that keeps the system running. Most everybody in the system is corrupt because most everybody benefits from it in some way: of course people on the top benefit more than the ones at the bottom, but even the latter enjoy little perks and scraps of power that they would never get without corruption. Everybody defends the corrupt system because the strength of the system ensures everybody's strength.

The novel takes place mostly in Perugia, and it is no wonder that the author's prose vividly conveys the sense of the city: Mr. Dibdin used to teach at the University there for a number of years. He is a capable writer and the novel is eminently readable, except for somewhat clumsy way of presenting the denouement. Also, Mr. Dibdin must have some hangups about human excreta. In "Cabal" he writes about bowel movements, ear wax, and urine; here we have bad breath and "undisturbed deposits of plaque" on someone teeth. Huh?

So finally: what is a ratking? Is it a "king of rats", the dominant rat in the pack? No, it is not. If you do not know the meaning of the term, please read the book, or look the word up - if you must - on the Web. It matches the thrust of the novel so well (and reminds me of Nicolas Freeling's "dwarf kingdom")!

Three stars.

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