Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years OldThe Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old by Hendrik Groen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Loneliness is often more difficult to endure when one has company."
(Own translation from the Polish translation of the Dutch original.)

This is the most optimistic book I have read in a very long time. It shows that life can be beautiful and worthwhile even at the age of eighty-four, despite urinary incontinence, troubles with maintaining balance when walking, and memory lapses. All the debilitating and embarrassing limitations notwithstanding the author, about 18 years older than I am, is still in great shape intellectually, which gives me hope that maybe it is not yet time to prepare for that most special one-way trip of my life.

The Dutch title - I have read the book in Polish translation and as far as I know the book has not yet appeared in English - is Pogingen iets van het leven te maken ("Attempts to make something of life", Google translation), with the clarifying subtitle "A secret diary of 83-and-a-quarter-year-old Hendrik Groen." And indeed it is a regular diary which covers the entire year 2013 spent by the author in a nursing home for the old people in Amsterdam Noord. We meet Mr. Groen's co-residents, the nursing home staff and administration and we learn about the daily routine of the elderly, about their loneliness, depression, mental and physical decay, the ever-present threat of Alzheimer, and the life in the shadow of death whose touch the residents can feel every day. But we also read about hope, joy of life, and about love. Yes, love: Mr. Groen's diary is a unique, beautiful and subtle love story, even with a few wonderfully unexpected physical touches.

The diary is also an inspiring document about how people in a hopeless situation can thrive through participation in group social initiatives. Instead of just following the usual waiting-for-death routine Mr. Groen and his gang of very elderly friends take charge of their lives and organize themselves into an OYSA club ("Old Yet Still Alive"): the members develop a regime of frequent outings away from the nursing home. The club activities - such as visit to a casino, cooking lessons, golf practice, amateur painting - make the seniors' remaining years or months worth living. Obviously Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest comes to mind: instead of a mental institution we have a nursing home, but the overall situation is precisely the same. Mrs. Stelwagen, the director, resembles Nurse Ratched, the Big Nurse, the sole authority on every single issue, who skillfully keeps appearances of patients/residents participating in the decision making. Mr. Evert is a senior version of Chief Bromden, and the OYSA club's outings mirror the deep sea fishing trip from One Flew.

While a wholehearted affirmation of life the book is also a passionate cry for allowing people to die with dignity at the time of their choosing. Although in the domain of social issues the Netherlands belongs to the most progressive countries in the world, for instance it is one of the only four countries that allow human euthanasia, the author describes all the painstaking hoops that a very elderly person who wants help with ending his or her life has to go through. Holland also happens to be an extremely rich country and it is even more saddening when Mr. Groen demonstrates how little money that obscenely affluent society allocates for senior care.

Hard to believe but this deep, thoughtful, inspiring and heartwarming book is also extremely funny. I have been laughing out loud every few pages and out of likely a hundred of funny passages let me quote just two: one for its hilarious absurdity:
"Mrs. Aupers has recently taken to walking backwards - she claims it reduces her need to go to the bathroom."
and the other one as an example of sharp political satire which happens to push my favorite button:
"I wonder - since the nice American children get their first weapon, my first rifle for their fifth birthday [...] - whether in the American nursing homes the geezers walk around with their loaded last rifle[s]."

While not a literary work of art Pogingen is a true delight to read and a rich source of joy of life, whatever the circumstances. Despite all the New Year's 2017 Doom and Gloom, this is a book that will make people happier. I hope it will be translated into English really soon.

Four and a half stars.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

The Algonquin ProjectThe Algonquin Project by Frederick Nolan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars


A friend of mine whose judgment I value recommended Frederick Nolan's The Algonquin Project (known outside the US as The Oshawa Project) (1974) as the best political thriller he had ever read so despite my lack of interest in thrillers I was looking forward to reading the novel. Alas, either my friend played a practical joke on me or I confused the title with something else: Project is not a good book at all: its plot is formulaic and ridiculous at the same time, the characters are pure paper, and the author's insights into politics, military affairs, and the spy business seem to have been based on watching television shows and movies.

The plot begins in Berlin in the days immediately after the end of World War II as the military brass of the Allied Forces celebrate the victory over Germany. The four-star General Campion, the legendary victorious war hero and now the Military Governor of Bavaria, refuses to drink to the health of the Soviet officers because he expects that the allies for now will become enemies in the near future and that he will soon be fighting against "the Mongol bootmakers and Siberian potato farmers." Campion is obviously modeled on real-life General George S. Patton, also a "hated hero" and "an awesome legend", the commander often taken to "irrational outbursts" and unable to conform to the tactical meandering in politics. The real general Patton died in a car accident in 1945 and the basic premise of the novel is that there had been a conspiracy on high levels of the US government to eliminate the outspoken general whose inconvenient views interfered with political goals of the moment.

Sure, one can entertain conspiracy theories but Mr. Nolan's fantasy goes too far: for instance, the plot involves a government operative consulting with an imprisoned mobster as to the choice of an assassin to eliminate the general. So ridiculous that I forgot to laugh. In another visit to fantasyland we have a Spanish master handcrafting a one-of-a-kind rifle designed to kill the general. In addition to Salvatore Luciana, the all-powerful, all-knowing mobster, we meet President Truman, the infamous Kim Philby of the British intelligence, and - best of all - Lavrentii Beria, the Marshall of the Soviet Union and the head of the vast NKVD apparatus. We have killers and teams of counter-killers. The action structured in several parallel threads moves fast from the US and Canada, to Naples, Berlin, Munich, London, and even to Bletchley Park, which gives the author a pretext to teach the reader some basic principles of cryptography.

While one has to admit that the plot is interesting, its tenuous connection to even the most improbable of realities and the rather surprising naiveté in the depiction of special forces' work might perhaps work in a cheap TV series but certainly not in a supposedly good thriller. When I think about John le Carré's "Smiley series" with all its depth and authenticity, it is hard not to laugh at Mr. Nolan's plot.

One and a half stars.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Tumble Home: A Novella and Short StoriesTumble Home: A Novella and Short Stories by Amy Hempel
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"This is what happens to me. I start out being myself, and end up being my mother."

A big disappointment! I liked Amy Hempel's set At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom , which - in addition to unremarkable pieces - has three or four memorable stories. Unfortunately I find every story included in Tumble Home (1997) quite unexceptional and the cover blurb that says "Tumble Home is a tour de force" is a misleading statement.

Tumble contains seven short stories - one of them extremely short - and the title novella of about 85 pages. The stories are well-observed slices of life, but there is nothing compelling there, no focal points to hold the readers' attention; they are well-written bagatelles disappointing in their averageness. The microscopic story titled Housewife - it contains only a single sentence! - is particularly feeble: the sentence does not convey any deeper truths nor does it evoke any strong feeling. I love the microscopic story, In the Animal Shelter, from the At the Gates set, which - in just four sentences - tells us a lot about the lives of humans and animals and demonstrates Ms. Hempel's talent. This "story" is just pretentious in its hyperbrevity.

The novella is narrated by a woman, a voluntary patient in a mental institution, who is writing a letter to a famous painter. Although she had met the man just once she uses him as a crutch to help her handle personal problems. As many of the so-called mental patients she is not mentally ill in any way; she just is unable to face the world and cope with the real life. When she was a child her mother committed suicide and now she is one of those millions of people, unloved and unneeded by their parents, whose lives have been damaged and often completely destroyed by their wasted childhood.

I like the novella more than the other stories: it convincingly portrays the maladjusted person's slightly askew view of the outside world and their unconventionally structured thinking with the characteristic jumps in logic and non sequiturs:
"Do you find consolation in a person? In a woman? I found it once with a man, but I lost my combs."
There are a few memorable sentences other than the epigraph quote, for instance:
"A sign of getting better: without getting larger, we seem to take up more room in a room."
Yet overall - despite the insightful and well-written novella - the set has little to offer to a reader and the pretentious shortest story is a laughable effort.

Two stars.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Ghosts (87th Precinct #34)Ghosts by Ed McBain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The chant echoed down the stairwell. [...] The ball bounced, [...] and the words "Hang them, hang them" floated down the stairwell where he stood [...] The air around [...] shimmered; the ball took on an iridescent hue."

Ed McBain's Ghosts, the thirty-fourth novel in his famous 87th Precinct series, is the sixth in my fragmentary re-read of the opus, in which I skip over half-decades. I find it the best of the six novels I have read so far, probably because of its unusual main theme and whimsical treatment of the subject. Also, mercifully, the author does not rely as much on clichés so painfully abundant in other novels.

The best aspect of the novel is that the title ghosts are not metaphorical. Of course while I categorically do not believe in the existence of ghosts, the real, actual ghosts in literature are fully welcome. The phrase "real ghosts" sounds as an oxymoron, but that's exactly what we are dealing with here. Thankfully, the author treats the topic with all seriousness, which indicates his good sense of humor.

The usual protagonists, Carella, Hawes, Meyer et al., investigate a pair of connected murders: a writer, the author of immensely popular book about ghosts, is killed in his apartment and a woman is stabbed to death just in front of that apartment building. The killed writer's girlfriend, a successful medium, plays an important part in solving the case, and is a quite well (unusually for Mr. McBain) drawn character. We also have an interlude, not connected to the main plot, about the crimes - triple murder, robbery, and the theft "of the entire street" (yes, the street gets stolen!) - which happen on the Christmas day that coincides with Hannukah and which surprisingly does not interfere with the enjoyment of the main thread. The good bits offset an awfully formulaic aspect of the solution that I prefer not to reveal. I also suspect that the author selected the initials of the third victim as a subtle joke referring to the character's lifestyle choices, which for once allows me to use this appalling euphemism for a good reason.

I like the not-quite-complete ending that does not assume - as most mystery authors do - that the readers are slow-witted and need to be told things in detail. Yay! I have also learned a new word - "ecdysiastical" (try googling the word and see the hilarious spelling that is suggested). And I like the double meaning of the title. To sum up: while ghosts definitely do not exist they are certainly real. A recommended read!

Three and a quarter stars.

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Kreutzer SonataThe Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

" [...] the world does not contain a scoundrel of however deep a dye who, if he only made a thorough search, would not discover another scoundrel in some respects worse than himself, and a reason therefore for feeling proud of, and satisfied with, himself."

Of the five Leo Tolstoy's novellas The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) is probably as famous as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) but for me only the latter - a penetrating study of the process of dying - may be considered an undeniable masterpiece and one of the best novellas ever written. While a magnificent work and a true classic I find Sonata too disjoint to merit the highest rating; however, I am probably biased against the story because of one of its main themes.

During a long train ride in Russia the narrator meets a certain Mr. Pozdnichev who recounts his life story. Before the tale gets to the gruesome events of Pozdnichev murdering his wife, it is an impassioned diatribe against the hypocrisy of marriage and against the sexual aspects of the union between a man and a woman. While Tolstoy's observations of the institution of marriage are an insightful document of social mores and norms in the 1880s in Russia, I am unable to stomach or even just simply understand the author's apotheosis of the concept of sexual purity. Through Pozdnichev's words Tolstoy seems to glorify
"simple, clear, pure relations with womankind, relations as of a brother towards his sister."
Of course, people should have a right to practice purity but why condemn consenting adults for expressing their humanness through sexual behaviors?

Pozdnichev's sharp and rather extreme views on the institution of matrimony - I understand they at least partly express Tolstoy's own views - provide a lot of food for thought. He chides the marriage meat market: mothers selling their daughters' charms and men falling into the marriage trap. He denounces the inequality of sexes where it is not in the woman's power " to choose her husband, but she must wait to be chosen by him." He writes
"[...] while, on the one hand, women are reduced to the lowest degree of humiliation, they are all-powerful on the other."
The imbalance of the situation where women serve as "an instrument of pleasure", a "degraded, demoralized serf" yet are still in full charge of the relationship through the power of dispensing sexual favors worries the author. Pozdnichev's view of married life as the process of building the "mutual hatred" that starts in the days right after the wedding and keeps growing until further life together becomes dangerous to both parties is, sadly, quite an astute analysis of relationship dynamics in many marriages.

Let's forgive the author his lunatic ramblings about purity: the final part of the novella delivers a near masterpiece in its sharp examination of the nature of rage and the mechanisms of jealousy. The final description of the killing is clinical and unforgettable - it reads with more authenticity that most crime dramas of today. The ending is frightening in its raw power of truth about the human beast.

Four stars.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Laguna HeatLaguna Heat by T. Jefferson Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"For a brief moment Shephard felt that rare emotion, the opposite of déjà vu: not that he had been there before but that he would never be there again."

Laguna Heat (1985) is the debut novel by the three-time Edgar winner T. Jefferson Parker. It does not quite rank with Silent Joe or California Girl, two outstanding works, which - although technically a mystery and a procedural - clearly transcend their genre and belong to "real" literature, but it still is a solid, extremely readable crime novel.

Detective Tom Shephard is the sole member of Laguna Beach Homicide Division transferred there after his "trouble" in Los Angeles where he spent 12 years on the force. In contrast to LA Laguna Beach has had little need for homicide detectives. This picturesque wealthy little seaside town in Orange County and a Mecca for artists boasts little crime, perhaps one murder a year. But the statistics are to be spoiled now: Shephard is on a crime scene where a badly burned body of a well-known resident has been found. Before death the victim was tortured, then had his brains bashed out with a rock, and then was set on fire. Shephard's investigation will widen and will eventually touch events from over thirty years ago.

Shephard is still in psychotherapy after an "officer-involved shooting," a deplorable, vile euphemism for a police officer killing a person. The incident, quite relevant for today's readers particularly because the detective's victim had been a black teenager, has resulted in Shephard's deep trauma, rather plausibly portrayed in the novel. A bit less plausible are the detective's personal connections with the event of the past. His father had been a police officer before becoming a television preacher and the relationship between the two Shephards constitutes the most important motif in the substantial non-police-procedural layer of the novel.

The complex plot is extremely interesting and well paced. The portrayal of Pacific coast locations, my home for the last 34 years, is first class and the characters, at least in some scenes, resemble real people. Most of the book is well written: I like the long passage where Shephard ruminates on his life while in the background his father drones his empty and meaningless "spiritual" phrases on TV. Alas, Mr. Parker decided to include a truly cringeworthy sex scene. There is nothing more obscene than a badly written depiction of a sex act, so I will refrain from quoting the nauseating or giggle inducing complete sentences, but allow me just a few atrocious phrases: "mingled, locked, released," "slick abundance," "spilling in a rush," "he churned harder," and on and on. I am happy that I do not remember any such pearls of prose in the author's later works.

If we forget the debuting author's utter failure in the sex scene, Laguna Heat is a good psychological procedural and a very readable thriller.

Three and a half stars.

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

AdoreAdore by Doris Lessing
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Two little girls arrived at the big school on the same day, at the same hour, took each other's measure, and became best friends."

Another book with symmetry in human lives as the main motif that I have read within the last five weeks. While in Martin Amis' Success (reviewed here) the life trajectories of two protagonists' move simultaneously in opposite directions on the success-failure axis, Doris Lessing's short novella Adore (2003) is built around almost complete symmetry of relationships between several pairs of main characters. Mr. Amis' adolescent-tinged story is more readable and way more fun, but Lessing's mature-themed novella is much deeper.

Adore begins with three pairs of characters walking to the beach: two "handsome women of about sixty", followed by "two handsome men", the women's sons, and the men's little daughters. The idyllic mood of the scene is suddenly shattered as the girls' mothers join the group and take their daughters away from the adults. Something is terribly wrong:
"'No,' she said wildly, the emotion that had been poisoning her at last pulsing out. 'No. No, you won't. Not ever. You will not ever see them again.'
She turned to go, pulling the children with her."
The reasons for this catastrophe will gradually become clear when there emerges an altogether different set of connections between the grown-ups involved in the scene.

The symmetry motif provides a solid structure to the narration and I like the main theme of the novel: rather extraordinary pair of love affairs (symmetry again). Some readers will likely find the theme risqué or inappropriate but I would strongly disagree: no topic in literature should be taboo as long as its treatment rises to the level of a literary work of art. While a lesser author's exploration of an ostensibly inappropriate subject would quite likely be indecent, Ms. Lessing examination of unusual relationships - or for that matter Gabriel Garcia Marquez' or Vladimir Nabokov's treatment of older men's love affairs with adolescent girls - can only help the readers understand the wide scope of what it means to be human. On the negative side, I quite dislike the omniscient narrator's occasional explanations of the characters' motives and behavior. Shouldn't this be left to the reader?

I have read this short novella of 70 pages as a separate book, but it was originally published in the collection The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels. In 2007 Ms. Lessing received the Nobel Prize in literature. This novella, while quite far from a masterpiece, clearly demonstrates the author's potential: the profound understanding of human foibles and accomplished prose.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Burn OutBurn Out by Marcia Muller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"No longer visible by day or night were the brownish-white towers of calcified vegetation - tufa - that gave the lake its name. Years ago, the siphoning off of feeder streams for drought-stricken southern California had caused the lake's level gradually to sink and reveal the underwater towers [...] they were saved by conservationists [...] and now the streams flowed freely, the lake teemed with life."

I wish the descriptions of nature featured more prominently in Marcia Muller's Burn Out (2008): Mono Lake - renamed Tufa Lake in the novel, presumably for legal reasons - and its vicinity are some of the most fascinating places in the US and each visit to Mono County makes me even more happy that I became a Californian. Alas the novel is focused on Sharon McCone, the narrator of the story, rather than on the California landscapes. Ms. McCone, a "full-blooded Shoshone" Native American, a private investigator and the owner of a thriving investigative agency in San Francisco, is suffering from severe depression (the title "burn-out") after almost getting killed on the job. When recuperating on her and her husband's ranch she is forced to return to the profession when she finds the body of her ranch foreman's niece. Ms. McCone hesitatingly undertakes a private investigation, which soon significantly widens to involve many characters.

Unfortunately, Ms. McCone, despite being a college graduate, an accomplished pilot, and a skillful detective, is a singularly uninteresting character. It is a pity that the author focuses so much on the protagonist because the later parts of the story (after about page 130 in hardcover edition) are very interesting and keep the reader glued to the text. The plot reminds me of Ross Macdonald's books in that the crimes of today are caused by people's misdeeds in the distant past and also because the truth is uncovered gradually, bit by bit. Ms. Muller's otherwise competent writing suffers from two major flaws: the incessant stream of detailed descriptions of the characters' basic actions, such as cooking, eating, etc. - probably designed to make the characters seem more realistic - is irritating. (Ms. Grafton suffers the same malady in her late novels about Kinsey Millhone - I stopped reading her at "U"). Second, and even worse, why does the author use this pretentious and annoying manner of quoting Ms. McCone's "inner voice" in italics?

To sum up: interesting plot, great locations of the high desert area near Mono Lake, climactic ending that almost avoids being silly, and a reasonably plausible resolution of mystery spoiled by too much of Sharon McCone and way too many words. This is the 26th novel in a series that has over 30 titles, yet while I would gladly return to Mono Lake landscapes I doubt if I will be coming back to Ms. McCone.

Two and a half stars.

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Monty Python at WorkMonty Python at Work by Michael Palin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I manage to write some more of the 'Twibune'. Helen suggests he should have a friend, so I write in Biggus Dickus, who thpeaks with a lithp."

Michael Palin's Monty Python at Work (2014) is an essential read for Monty Python fans and a must-have book for Python completists. I also hope that the readers who do not know the British comedy masters from late 1960s and early 1970s - if there are any such people on the planet - and even people who know them but do not think they are the funniest item in the history of human entertainment, which should be an even rarer category, will find the book interesting. This work is an edited selection of material from the diaries of Michael Palin, one of the Magnificent Six, often called the "nicest Python", and an author of several popular travel books which still await their turn on my shelves.

Mr. Palin kept his diary since April of 1969 and we witness the entire history of the Pythons: I believe the author recorded every single important event that happened to the group between 1969 and 1983. We read about the pivotal Monty Python Flying Circus TV show, from its first "test" run in front of a small audience in August of 1969 to the fourth and last series aired in the UK in 1974. Next Mr. Palin provides a lively chronology of the troupe's work on their big-screen movies: And Now For Something Completely Different, Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Life of Brian (which was extremely successful in the US), and my personal favorite, Monty Python's Meaning Of Life. The following fragment of the diary entry refers to the famous Mr. Creosote sketch from the last movie, the sketch that contains the unforgettable "wafer-thin mint" line:
Evidently 9,000 gallons of vomit were made for the sketch, which took four days to film [...]
It is totally fascinating to learn how the Pythons created their sketches: some worked in pairs, some alone, and then they ran the drafts in front of the whole group, which provided the most severe and thorough vetting of humor potential. I find the stories about the group's struggles against censorship most interesting. Over the years many individuals and organizations tried to censor the Pythons' work on obscenity, offensiveness or religious grounds and often the attempts proved funnier than the humor itself. There is a priceless passage dated December 19, 1975 that describes the Pythons' New York courtroom argument to defend their sketch about a courtroom argument.

On slightly more serious note, Mr. Palin's modesty is commendable and quite rare in the genre of (quasi-)autobiographies. In most cases he praises the other Pythons' material higher than his own. And on even more fundamental level: I find it quite illuminating to witness the change of the artists' priorities and goals between the times when they were just a relatively unknown group on their way up and the late 1970s when they were enjoying a huge financial success. Even the funniest people on the face of this Earth change their outlook when they come into money.

A hugely informative diary, an interesting read, and an essential source for all Monty Python fans.

Three and a half stars.

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

So Long as You Both Shall Live (87th Precinct, #31)So Long as You Both Shall Live by Ed McBain
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"He had planned something of a big male macho entrance, and he stood now in the bathroom doorway with a towel wrapped around his waist, and saw immediately that she was not in the room [...]"

The less I write about Ed McBain's So Long As You Both Shall Live (1976) the better. Not that it is a particularly bad book: it is quite interesting, readable, and competently written. But the plot of this thriller/police procedural is completely paint-by-numbers and my main problem with the novel is that I have read at least twenty *identical* thrillers. Sure, the names of characters are different, and so are the locations and maybe a few other details, yet the structure of the plot, the sequence of events, the timing, etc., are totally formulaic.

Bert Kling, one of the younger 87th Precinct cops, had survived the tragedy of losing a girlfriend and experienced several unsuccessful love affairs. Now he is marrying Augusta, a beautiful and successful model. We observe the ceremony and the wedding party through the eyes of a photographer. "So long as you both shall live," says the officiating minister, but things do not look promising when the bride disappears on the wedding night. So begins the cliché plot: cops look for Augusta and the procedural/thriller stereotype is followed with unerring accuracy, right down to the dramatic conclusion that includes the precise-to-one-second timing. Yawn.

In this police commedia dell'arte stereotypical dramatis personae substitute for actual people and every paper character plays a strictly predefined role. For instance, the author offers stereotypical comic characters like Fat Ollie Weeks, the uncouth detective, and Fats Donner, the stool pigeon. By the way, the author calls Fat Ollie a "bigot". Since one of the characteristics of bigotry is relying on stereotypes can I consider Ed McBain's writing literary bigotry?

Is there anything I like about the novel? Sure, Kling's wedding takes place in 1976 - a good year for marriages (insert a smiley). But seriously, I am amazed how drastically my tastes in detective books have changed in the thirty or so years since I read this novel the first time! I remember liking all McBain books a lot. Well, I have still about 30 years of 87th Precinct novels to go through and I am hoping to encounter some more originality.

One and a half stars.

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Monday, November 28, 2016

The White AlbumThe White Album by Joan Didion
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political heights, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man's own blood."

My first book by Joan Didion and certainly not the last: I like the clear, lean prose and while The White Album (1979) is quite far from perfection, it is compulsively readable and many passages demonstrate the author's understanding of social mechanisms and the climate of the era. This collection of essays written between late 1960s and late 1970s - a collage of impressions and snapshots of the turbulent and important times of a social and cultural revolution that almost happened - is an indispensable reading for anyone trying to understand the nature of the Sixties and their contribution to the contemporary history.

The title essay and the longest piece in the set is a fascinating portrait of the seminal years of 1968 and 1969. It captures the reader's attention with the most famous and infamous figures and events: the author participates in The Doors' recording session, talks to Huey Newton about his "politics of revolution", interviews Eldridge Cleaver, and discusses the Manson murders with Linda Kasabian who participated in the crimes. Yet what greatly bothers me about this essay is the sensationalist tone, the name-dropping (for instance, mentioning that the author and Roman Polanski are godparents of the same child, etc.), and succumbing to the cult of celebrity so prevalent in this country. Well, writing about celebrities sells thus allowing the author to work on less popular but deeper pieces, so maybe Ms. Didion should be forgiven.

There are in the set several profound essays of which I will mention just the ones that particularly captured my attention. In On the Morning After the Sixties Ms. Didion contrasts her so-called "silent generation" - she went to Berkeley in the early 1950s - with the late Sixties Berkeley students, the generation that wanted to change the world and fully believed it could be done:
"We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man's fate."
Three fascinating essays focus on the beginnings of the serious feminist movement. Ms. Didion shows the lunacy of the "class approach" to feminism, popular in 1960-1970s and juxtaposes the feminist baloney with a story about Georgia O'Keeffe, a woman who rather than talk about feminist issues and publish empty manifestos did a lot to actually help the women's cause.

In the collection the reader can also find a hilarious account of the author's interview with Nancy Reagan and a deep and sad story of the Jaycees "determined to meet 1950s head-on in 1969," people who were "betrayed by recent history". Several less impressive pieces round up this set of essays, yet the collection is a pleasure to read and provides a lot of material for contemplation.

The White Album offers one of the better portrayals of my generation - people who were in college in the late 1960s. Funny how - even though I lived on a different continent and under a so-called Communist regime - I can recognize my own motives and beliefs of these tumultuous times 50 years ago.

Three and a half stars.

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Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Blackheath Poisonings: A Victorian Murder MysteryThe Blackheath Poisonings: A Victorian Murder Mystery by Julian Symons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The extraordinary series of crimes popularly called the Blackheath Poisonings took place in the early 1890s, at the time when the Mortimer family had lived in that suburb on the edge of London for nearly half a century."

So begins Julian Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), subtitled A Victorian Murder Mystery. The adjective "Victorian" made me quite apprehensive as in the past I had been unable to enjoy or even finish many period-piece mysteries. But this novel by Symons is among the best of the many books of his that I have reviewed so far on Goodreads. Very well written, with captivating plot, it does not feel dated at all - not really surprising as the prose is not even 40 years old - and the characters read quite contemporary despite obvious differences in social norms and cultural expectations between the 1890s and today.

The events take place mainly in the suburbs of London, in two splendid houses where the members of the extended family of Charles Mortimer's descendants reside. The mansions are so peculiar and full of character - one is colloquially called "church" and the other "white elephant" - that they almost seem to be actors in the plot. While the first death caused by a sudden gastric problem is originally attributed to natural food poisoning, the circumstances of the second death force the police to commence an investigation. Eventually the mystery morphs into a court drama as we witness the trial of one of the main characters on the charge of poisonings. Most of the plot is told in the third-person narration, but a substantial portion is presented through the diaries of a young man just entering his adult life.

I like the novel more as an account of well-to-do peoples' everyday lives in the Victorian times than as a mystery. Two scenes make the strongest impression given the vivid prose and the author's sharp eye for details. The extended sequence that portrays the last day of the victim's life shows the whole process of dying with brutal candor and reminds me of Tolstoy's masterpiece; I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Symons had used the Death of Ivan Illich as a source of inspiration for his writing: he did quite a brilliant a job. The other memorable passage is the poetry evening scene - a program of recitation and songs - so life-like in its portrayal that I feel I have personally participated in the event that happened over 120 years ago.

In the trial part of the novel the reader has an opportunity to meet Sir Charles Russell, the famous barrister who leads the defense team. Sir Charles reminds me a little of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe character: his presumed genius and somewhat pompous behavior bring the comparison. The verdict in the trial does not end the plot: in a sense it only provides the setup for the denouement, which is a peculiar mixture of the somewhat unexpected and the somewhat disappointing.

Overall the novel is a very good read and in places it seems close to real literature thus transcending the mystery genre. And that the ending fizzles a little? I would like to see a modern-day bestseller than does not disappoint in the end.

The scariest thing I realized while reading the novel is that the year of my birth is closer to Victorian times than to today. Ugh.

Three and a half stars.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: StoriesAt the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: Stories by Amy Hempel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"On the nicer side of not a nice street, between God Bless the Cheerful Giver and his dog, and There But for the Grace of God Go I and his dog [...]"

A few years ago in an anthology of short stories I read a piece - the title I have since forgotten - by Amy Hempel and I liked it a lot: the writing was concise, not a word wasted, yet it strangely produced a poetic and sort of dreamlike effect. So I very much looked forward to reading more short stories by Ms. Hempel. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990) is a set of 16 pieces ranging from short and very short to extremely short. While brevity is a quality that I value highly in literature my reaction to Gates is somewhat mixed: the collection has a few gems, but also several unremarkable, pedestrian pieces.

My favorite is the shortest piece in the set, In the Animal Shelter. In these four short paragraphs, just one half of a printed page, Ms. Hempel tells us a lot about people, dogs, and their not always easy relationship. The desperately sad sentence that constitutes the fourth and last paragraph is deep, subtle, and amazingly sharply observed. What a contrast with the next piece in the set, the ten-page title story, dwelling on the same topics yet marred by an atrociously cheap dramatic effect at the end!

I quite like The Harvest with its slight meta-fictional bent: it almost seems as if the author is telling various variants of the story and trying them for size. In The Most Girl Part of You the reader can detect Ms. Hempel's fascination with the language, and her attempts to show how words affect the reality of the story. The Rest of God is an enchanting account - full of sharply observed situational clichés - of a barbecue party. I also like To Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights out of O'Hare, a charming little trifle of a story. Maybe I like it because of the viciously sharp yet funny sentence:
Because if you are like me, you know that some of us are not the world, some of us are not the children, some of us will not help make a brighter day.
But maybe I like it just because of my terrible fear of flying.

Anyway, the exquisite sentence ending the shortest story is not one to forget but unfortunately I will also remember the cheap effect that spoils the title story. Certainly a worthwhile read but a little disappointment considering the high expectations.

Three stars.

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Saturday, November 19, 2016

Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here! (87th Precinct, #25)Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here! by Ed McBain
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"This modest volume is dedicated to the Mystery Writers of America, who, if they do not award it the Edgar for the best ten mystery novels of the year, should have their collective mysterious heads examined."

The above is a playful epigraph to Ed McBain's Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here! (1971), the 25th novel in the 87th Precinct series, and the fourth one in my selective re-read of Evan Hunter's magnum opus. The author immediately makes fun of his plea when he provides the definition of coercion. Since Hail, Hail is certainly not a good novel the author's self-promotion, even if facetious, may truly be needed.

The book follows the action in the precinct during a period of 24 hours, from one minute to midnight one night to one minute to midnight the next one. We follow ten separate cases - would these be the ten Edgars from the epigraph? - murders, robberies, disappearances and an assault, but also an appearance of ghosts: virtually all these cases are satisfactorily and quickly solved. As usual, the author provides certain police documents in extenso: this time we can read the so-called "yellow sheet" of a criminal, a document that itemizes the history of offenses and the dispositions of court cases. We also have comic relief moments, for example when a businessman, after having been accosted by two prostitutes who partially undressed to entice him, wants to press charges against the women until he learns that he would have to testify against them because the women's "privates" have not been exposed.

When one filters out of McBain's books the trivial psychological observations, cliché characterizations, and the filler stuff about the detectives' personal lives only the police procedure remains - the best and to me the only interesting aspect of the 87th Precinct series. Since Hail, Hail is basically only about the procedure, then the novel should work; yet it does not work at all. While the material would succeed as a series of newspaper reports it does not make a good novel. It is saved from the lowest possible rating by two good fragments: very well written two pages about dangerous nights in Isola (the fictional big city district, clearly modeled on Manhattan) and the passage about a cop freshly promoted to a detective who is so eager to learn the tricks of his new profession that he can barely refrain from wetting his pants. At least something that sounds authentic among all the detectives' personal lives clichés proferred by McBain.

One and three quarter stars.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Greedy Bastard Diary: A Comic Tour of AmericaThe Greedy Bastard Diary: A Comic Tour of America by Eric Idle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"You haven't really lived until you have stood onstage at Carnegie Hall in full drag singing 'Sit on My Face'"

The longest book I have read in quite some time (325 pages!) has left me with a feeling of disappointment. Eric Idle's The Greedy Bastard Diary (2005), a journal from the author's comedy tour of the U.S. and Canada in late 2003, contains entries that were originally published daily on the PythOnline website in the form of what we would call today a blog. The writings about the preparations and performances at the almost 50 gigs that composed the tour are punctuated with reminiscences of events from the author's extremely successful career in comedy. Although the tone of the diary is very light and the book sparkles with high-quality humor several passages are quite serious and moving.

Eric Idle does not need an introduction as a Monty Python member ("the sixth nicest Python," he calls himself), the comedy team responsible for by far the funniest show in the history of world television and in my opinion the funniest ever event in entertainment, one that has never yet been matched in its combination of wit and hilarity. Mr. Idle is the author of many famous sketches - Nudge, Nudge is probably the best known - and the composer of many Python songs of which Always Look on the Bright Side of Life may be the most universally acclaimed. During the U.S./Canada tour that is portrayed in the book Mr. Idle, accompanied by a small team of comedians and musicians, performed both the original Monty Python materials as well as his own post-Python work.

Greedy Bastard is a truly hilarious read: I smirked, giggled or laughed out constantly, and there are funny bits on almost every page. The humor is mostly based on language, apparently Mr. Idle's specialty - remember "The man who speaks in anagrams" sketch? - and spans the whole spectrum: we have silly puns like "You can't make a Hamlet without breaking Eggs" or "The Old Yolks Home", we also have obvious but hilarious gag lines like
"The Aladdin Theater is famous for having screened the longest-running film in history: Deep Throat [...] It ran here for more than twenty years. Frankly I think the movie sucks."
as well as more subtle punchlines:
"[...] for me a show isn't a show without leggy girls in spangly tights putting their legs over their heads, and that's just backstage."
So why am I complaining? What is wrong with the book is the utterly irritating name-dropping: Mr. Idle meticulously lists the celebrities that he met, knew, or was friends with. I do not have time to count all famous people mentioned in Greedy Bastard but here are just some names from about 30 pages of the book: George Harrison, Robin Williams, Uma Thurman, Paul Simon, Lauren Hutton, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bill Maher. There probably are five times as many in the whole book. I find it inexcusable that Mr. Idle had not spent any time with Jesus Christ: an unfortunate omission. Most likely the reason of prodigious name-dropping is that the book is aimed at the American audience - that's where the money is - and Mr. Idle caters to the Religion of Celebrity, the faith whose adherents outnumber followers of any other religion in the United States.

Again, this is an extremely funny book with a few serious, contemplative fragments - the author writes touchingly about his mother's and George Harrison's deaths - so it is a great pity that the name-dropping and the obsession with celebrity make the book so much less readable.

Two and three-quarter stars.

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Doll (87th Precinct #20)Doll by Ed McBain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] the knife slash across her throat poring blood onto the canvas, setting her hair afloat in a pool of red that finally overspilled the oaken frame and ran onto the carpet.
Next door, the child Anna clung fiercely to her doll.

Ed McBain's (the pseudonym of Evan Hunter) Doll, the third novel in my "Selective McBain Re-read" project and the 20th installment in the 87 Precinct series, was published in 1965. I like this book more than the tenth item in the series, King's Ransom , and much more than Cop Hater that gave beginning to the whole series.

Five-year-old Anna clutches her doll and consoles it with soothing words while her mother, a beautiful fashion model, is being brutally murdered in the next room. The strong beginning sets the tone for the entire novel which describes the 87th Precinct detectives, Steve Carella, Bert Kling, and Meyer Meyer conducting the investigation. Carella, a father of twins, is so appalled by the brutality of the model's murder that he neglects to follow the police procedure when he finds the clue that will lead him to the murderer; the nature of the clue is not revealed until the end of the novel. I am unable to provide further synopsis without spoiling the mystery: this is especially important because - for once - the publishers were careful not to provide any spoilers on the cover of the paperback.

The author paces the captivating plot well and Doll is a great short book for readers who like the so-called page turners. Yet the novel is marred by implausibility of several events and the use of situational and dialogue clichés, which are - sadly - the author's trademark. The entire Bert Kling thread, well-intentioned as it may be, comes across as naive, didactic, and stereotypical. The woman torturer is a grossly exaggerated, cartoon-level portrayal and lame, stilted dialogues further spoil the author's effort.

Neither do I care for the manner in which the solution is explained. It does not read well when one of the characters' diary is used to elucidate the background of the case. On the positive side, the author again shows his strength in realistic depiction of the police procedure and several passages are quite well written, above the bare minimum literary competency that characterizes most mysteries and thrillers.

Anyway, I recommend the novel because of its suspense and mystery value. Readers who can tolerate psychological clichés and implausibilities may find this book outstanding. Although my enthusiasm is quite moderate, this installment of the 87th Precinct series certainly makes me want to read more books in the series, from the later time frames. For the next re-read I will jump to the beginning of the 1970s.

Three stars.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Fates Worse Than DeathFates Worse Than Death by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average American child watches 18,000 TV murders before it graduates from high school."

I share a substantial portion of my worldview with Kurt Vonnegut so when I read his books I must feel like the huge majority of Internet users who read only the stuff that they agree with: we crave confirmation that we are so very right. Alas this also means that I probably tend to overrate Vonnegut's books even when they are not that outstanding. Fates Worse than Death (1991) is not a very good book at all - unfocused, repetitive, tedious in places - yet I still like it a lot. How can one not like reading things that one agrees with?

The subtitle, An Autobiographical Collage, aptly characterizes this collection of speeches, short pieces of writing, and ruminations on various topics, which makes Fates quite similar to Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons , although Fates is a significantly less cohesive work. Even if the 1945 bombing of Dresden is still a major topic I will omit it here because I have already written about it in reviews of other works by Vonnegut, including his absolute masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five .

One of the other main themes is the environment. Note the book was written over a quarter of a century ago, when worrying about climate change, etc. was not as popular as it is now. Mr. Vonnegut had been passionate about the human race destroying the planet for our children and grandchildren well before most of us began thinking about it. While speaking at MIT he begged the graduating class to take an oath that they will use their extraordinary technical skills only to the benefit of the planet.

Mr. Vonnegut spends a substantial portion of the book attacking the deadly one-two punch of what I call the "American culture of murder." A US citizen is born and raised in the parareligious cult of guns as devices signifying and guaranteeing freedom; this cult is continually reinforced by the never-ending stream of murders depicted by the TV and entertainment industry (as mentioned in the epigraph). The author says:
"Who needs a Joseph Goebbels to make us think killing is as quotidian an activity as tying one's shoes? All that is needed is a TV industry [...]"
Book censorship is a topic that should be dear to members of Goodreads and Vonnegut's books had been banned in certain places, ostensibly for vulgarity but in reality for not conforming to the views of the majority of people.
"There is the word 'motherfucker' one time in my Slaughterhouse-Five [...] Ever since that book was published, way back in 1969, children have been attempting to have intercourse with their mothers. When it will stop no one knows."
Clearly the m-word corrodes the moral fiber of the society. Another hilarious passage is devoted to "the wittiest limerick in the world", which is "so obscene that it could never be made public in any form." We can read the unspeakably obscene poem courtesy of Rita Rait, the Russian translator of Vonnegut's works.

On a serious note, the theme that speaks to me the strongest in the entire collection is the author's rant about the insanity of encouraging people "to do their best at loving [other people]." The natural inability to love other people leads to hate; people should be told to respect others instead. Vonnegut says "I like to think that Jesus said in Aramaic, 'Ye shall respect one another.'" Anyway, Fates, objectively, is not an above average work, yet I almost love it because I respect the author's intentions.

Two and a half stars.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

The Night of the TwelfthThe Night of the Twelfth by Michael Gilbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love."
(William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 4, Scene 1, as quoted by one of The Night of the Twelfth characters).

Although Michael Gilbert's The Night of the Twelfth won the Current Crime's Silver Cup for the best British crime novel of 1976 I do not find it that remarkable. This solid, erudite and well-written novel of suspense cum police procedural is indeed a pleasure to read, yet it is far from exceptional. For instance, in the same year my favorite British mystery author, Nicolas Freeling, published Sabine , also far from a masterpiece but more memorable than The Night.

The night of June 12 (of probably 1975), Brading, West Sussex, south of London. The body of a missing 10-year-old boy has been found and it bears signs of torture. Since this is the third similar murder the police task force, "Operation Huntsman," moves into highest gear. The plot switches to Trenchard House preparatory school, located not that far from the place where the boy's body was found: we meet the headmaster, several teachers, and the school staff who are getting acquainted with a new instructor. Trenchard House is not just an ordinary prep school: many of its pupils are children of important people - one of the kids is the son of an Israeli ambassador. When Jordanian terrorists break into the Israeli Embassy in London and hold three people hostage the police offers protection for the school pupils and the personnel, who are in the middle of rehearsals for the school production of Twelfth Night (note the title). Eventually, as expected, there emerges a connection between the murders and the school and the denouement is precipitated by one of the boys' terrifying experience. In fact, though, the solution of the murders case is found independently by three different people, which is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the novel.

Great characterizations of a very interesting cast of characters make the reader feel these are real people not just devices that move the plot. Particularly the boys, aged about fourteen and younger, are shown vividly and oh-so plausibly, especially when they talk like adults who they believe are not as smart as they are. Yet the plot itself is not that interesting and an impatient reader may easily lose focus. For my taste there is a bit too much of the characters talking about the case: the plot should rather talk through the facts. Only the ending is quite exciting and it includes a sort of car chase, which - in a coincidence that I have found pretty funny - involves members of police force from Crawley, West Sussex, where at that exact time in 1975 Robert Smith himself, the leader of The Cure and focus of the book I have reviewed here just over a week ago Never Enough was attending St Wilfrid's Comprehensive School.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Friday, November 4, 2016

SuccessSuccess by Martin Amis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"His nasty hair thins by the hour; his polychromatic teeth (all of which bear the variegations of cheap dental work, surfacing like invisible ink as the fillings live and the bones die) now taper darkly off into the metallic hecatomb of his jaws - the bent, self-pitying mouth, the appallingly malarial eyes."

Martin Amis' third novel, Success (1978), my seventh book by the author, is a compulsive and hilarious read. It is hard not fall in love with the sharp, nimble, and funny prose of this phenomenally gifted writer. Yet this book only confirms my reservations as to the lack of depth in his fiction works. Although Success is more substantial than the infantile Dead Babies , it shares with Babies the obsessive focus on the sexual sphere. And similarly to Time's Arrow it is basically a one-gimmick novel. While in Arrow the gimmick is time running backwards, the contrivance here is juxtaposing the protagonists' life trajectories that move symmetrically in opposite directions.

Terry Service is Gregory Riding's "foster-brother". He was adopted by the Riding family having survived extremely traumatic experiences in his childhood and the loss his parents. Terry and Greg, both in their twenties, live together in a London flat and we follow one year of their life: each month's events are first told by Terry and then by Greg. When we meet them in January Terry is desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get laid; Greg's sexual life is varied, rich and satisfying: of course being bisexual helps a lot in finding dates, as Woody Allen once famously pointed out. Terry is ashamed of his job - he works as sort of a telemarketer - and in fact worries about possibly getting fired. Greg works in a posh art gallery and is highly appreciated by his employers. While Terry is short, squat, and balding, Greg is an extremely attractive and handsome young man. Class differences are hinted at: Terry's background is working class while the Riding family has always been well-to-do. In real life success would breed success and failure would foster further failures. but Mr. Amis decided to examine the opposite situation: the brother's trajectories reverse their momentum and at the end of the story the brothers' relative positions are completely inverted.

The reverse trajectory ploy is too contrived for the novel to have a serious pretense to realism. Events happen not because of their natural dynamic but because they suit the author's pre-conceived outline. While Terry's ascendancy from debilitating insecurity to success is plausible and shown convincingly - after all some people do grow out in their twenties of the adolescent obsession with sex and turn to focus on things that are important - Greg's rapid descent is harder to buy. No wonder: it must be difficult to plausibly explain the transformation of a king of massive bisexual orgies into a pant-shitting bundle of fear.

The novel invites the readers to work out their own interpretations. Some readers will focus on the "posh vs yob" class stereotype, but it hardly can account for degree and rapidity of trajectory reversal. One may prefer to focus on the sibling rivalry and see the first upturn in Terry's trajectory as the main reason for the beginning of Greg's downhill slide. Other readers may consider the influence of Terry's first contact with the unions as critical. Some may see the events happening to Ursula, Greg's natural sister, as the precipitating factor. Well, I am equally justified in my half-serious suggestion that the crucial turning moment comes in May, when Terry stops wanking. One can only admire the book's openness to a variety of readings; let's hope this was the author's intention.

On the negative side, the thread about the traumatic events in Terry's pre-adoption childhood feels just too convenient for the story - the author needs an additional axis of symmetry to the narrative structure. But Mr. Amis can write so fantastically well! Humor sparkles on almost every page. The voices of two narrators are remarkably different. This is some of the best writing about the mechanics of sex, and one can even find a depiction of a bisexual orgy that is kept in perfectly good taste. Even using the word "fuck" 48 times in the space of four short paragraphs on one page makes sense and should not offend anybody. Same with a few paragraphs about incest. Yes, incest.

Three and a half stars.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

King's Ransom (87th Precinct #10)King's Ransom by Ed McBain
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"He could not quell the persistent feeling that something would go wrong.
And yet he couldn't figure what.
He was not, you see, a Bible-reading man.
He did not know that the meek shall inherit the earth.

Ed McBain's King's Ransom (1959) is the tenth novel in his famous 87th Precinct series. I am re-reading a few of the 55 books in the series, choosing from different periods. Evan Hunter, which is almost the real name of Ed McBain, wrote the series between 1956 and 2005; just imagine - a series that lasts half a century! I have already reviewed the unremarkable first installment, Cop Hater .

The story in this novel begins when the members of the board of directors for Granger Shoe company meet informally to discuss ways of making the company more profitable: the idea is to modernize the shoe designs at the expense of their quality. At the same time the fight for the control of company is ongoing and it is crucial to secure as much percentage of the voting stock as possible. The largest shareholder, Doug King, keeps secret his own plans of gaining complete control. Meanwhile, the detectives in the 87 Precinct are working on the strange case of various electronic items getting stolen from ham radio stores. But when Mr. King receives a phone call that his son has been kidnapped and the ransom is half a million dollars (over 4 million in today's money) Carella, Meyer, Hawes, Parker et al. have a more pressing case to pursue.

The plot is quite interesting if totally stereotypical. The two threads - kidnapping and the fight for control of the company's stock - are skillfully woven into the story. Except for one major "miraculous" occurrence late in the plot, I find the events quite plausible. The author is faithful to his goal of ensuring the authenticity of the mystery's procedural aspect. Thus the reader is shown copies of various police documents: a picture of the actual tire tread pattern accompanied by a plethora of technical details, schematics of an electronic communication device, etc. There are no reasons to suspect that the technical aspects of the police procedure are not shown truthfully.

While I like the authentic feel of the technical side and the clever entanglement of the two threads, many facets of the novel are quite subpar. First of all, clichés abound in characterizations and not a single character feels like a real person. Worse are unsubtle attempts of the author to weave moral/ethical considerations into the stereotypical plot. Several scenes have the feel of being artificially attached to the story with the sole purpose of illustrating a moral or ethical dilemma. I find the conversation between Mr. King and his wife particularly offensive in this respect: it reads like a scenario for discussion in an ethics class rather than part of the plot.

Not exactly a bad novel, but not quite even an average one.

Two and a half stars.

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Friday, October 28, 2016

In Defense of a Liberal EducationIn Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] the central value of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think. Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly, and reasonably quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill."

It so happens that the topic of my 100th reviewed book this year is exceptionally close to me for professional reasons. Since for almost 35 years I have been teaching in the area of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines in a fine liberal arts college, a part of a university that includes several professional schools with which our college competes for excellence, Fareed Zakaria's In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015) is an essential read for me. Even though the book has disappointed me a little, I still wholeheartedly recommend it for readers who are not sure why liberal education matters in this age of science and technology.

Mr. Zakaria presents the main arguments succinctly and convincingly: liberal education teaches students how to think, how to write and speak, and most importantly, how to learn. Voices grow in this country calling for more "skills-based learning," which is needed "for the nation to stay competitive." While the need for more and better STEM education is unquestionable, Mr. Zakaria tries to explain why that change should not be allowed to happen at the expense of the broad, liberal education. The professional skills acquired without simultaneously learning how to think and learn may be good enough for the graduate's first job, but not for the next ones.

Most of the topics discussed by the author - while close to my professional focus - are too specialized to be discussed in this brief review so I will just mention some highlights (and lowlights). I like the inclusion of detailed history of liberal education, from its Greek origins about 2500 years ago, through the first university in Bologna in the 11th century, through Islamic madrasas and English colleges, to the current-day liberal arts institutions, headlined by the most famous ones, such as Harvard or Yale (Mr. Zakaria's alma mater). Also, the author's speculation on possible directions of evolution of higher education in the Internet age makes interesting reading: the concept of MOOC is explored in some depth. However, the deeply harmful impact of the instantaneous access to massive (dis)information available via Internet is virtually not examined at all.

Further on the negative side, the book could do without the autobiographical details of the author's (and his family's) own education, nor do I see the relevance of the chapter In Defense of Today's Youth. I do agree with the points the author makes in that chapter but they seem to belong to a different book. Many passages are rambling and lack tight focus. There are so many detours and digressions that one might suspect the author of padding the volume to reach some presumed minimum size of the book.

Overall, In Defense is a flawed yet worthwhile work.

Three stars.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Shotgun RuleThe Shotgun Rule by Charlie Huston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"George sees Paul about to pull open the passenger door.
-- Shotgun!
Paul flips him off.
-- [...] I called it on the way over here.
-- You can't call shotgun until you see the car.

The bickering over the shotgun rule typifies the adolescent world depicted in Charlie Huston's novel. I omitted the swear words: they would not belong in the review even if I do not mind them in the novel. The adolescent themes and tone are not what is wrong with the book. The unbearably extended climactic scenes of The Shotgun Rule (2007) made me so angry that I was about to hurl the book against the wall and watch how the binding disintegrates and the pages of moronic text turn into paper rags suitable for cleaning the floor. The inane prose reminded me of the vile word vomit of Jerzy Kosinski's Steps or Chuck Palahniuk's The Fight Club. Yet I should not waste time for anger in my old age: having finished reading the novel I will admit that despite the extended violence sequence Mr. Huston's book is not a piece of repulsive trash like the two "master works" mentioned above. I loved the author's Six Bad Things (a near-masterpiece) and Caught Stealing (a very good book), so I am not biased against Mr. Huston. It is just that Shotgun - well intentioned as it may be - does not work.

Time is about 1984. Place: somewhere in the vicinity of Livermore or Pleasanton, east of the Bay Area. George, Andy (George's younger brother), Paul, and Hector are teenagers from working class families: they are trying to find their place in the world and going totally wrong about it. They drink a lot, use drugs, occasionally even run dope and burglarize houses. They just do not know any better. George and Andy's parents try hard to properly raise the kids, but the father's sister herself pushes pills she steals from the hospital where she works. Paul's mother is dead and his father is a secret heavy drinker. Hector comes from the first Latino family on the "white" block - not an easy situation. And even if the parents were absolute stars, the boys are at the age when all adults become totally stupid and worthless. The plot begins with the kids attempting a robbery. It does not end well: they get mixed up with a variety of criminals, which leads to the utterly moronic climactic scene.

Sam Peckinpah portrayed unbridled violence in his movie Wild Bunch, where the extremely violent scenes have a surreal, almost ballet-like quality. Tarantino's movie Pulp Fiction is ostensibly very brutal yet deep down there it is a comedy. Mr. Huston - despite having shown that he can write great prose - utterly fails here in trying to convey the horror of violence. About 20 pages of senseless brutality - maiming, torturing and shooting - produce an opposite effect to the desired one: the reader gets tired and bored rather than terrified. In fact, I was unable to stop giggling about the monotony of violence and it reminded me of Mr. Palahniuk repeating the same phrase one hundred times in hope that repetition is what serious literature is about. One paragraph, one page depiction of brutal acts would have a stronger effect. Also, the coolest than cool shtick with Geezer (one of the bad guys) needing help with remembering long words, such as "relevant," "summation," or "composure" is unfunny and annoying.

One more thought. I do not quite buy Mr. Huston's portrayal of what drives Andy, "the spaz". The little brother is not like other boys: he is good at math and able to learn the high-school material on his own in a record-short time, which obviously makes him a total freak. While the thread of the older boys taking care of Andy in their own way is touching, I do not believe for a moment that it was pride and courage that helped Andy survive. In real life it would be cunning and mimicry skills.

Two stars.

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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Letters to PoseidonLetters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The pain of time, our greatest asset. Rust, decay, mould that turns into music, something different from your eternal nectar. The final tally of our days, a gift no-one can take from us."

The sight of an elderly man about to cry on San Diego trolley is not something one would like to see. One tends to feel awkward and move to a seat farther away, just in case. But there is no drama at all, the would-be tears are not born of sadness, and the geezer passenger is just overwhelmed by emotion. The geezer is me, I am reading yet another book by Cees Nooteboom and his prose again reaches my inner core and moves me close to tears. I do not exactly know what makes Mr. Nooteboom's writing resonate with me stronger than any other author's but the sheer beauty of his prose sends shivers through my spine. Maybe what touches me the most is the thematic range of his work that focuses on human ephemeral existence, the convolution of time and space, and the European culture.

Letters to Poseidon (2012) indeed includes a set of 23 letters from the narrator to the god of the sea interspersed with 56 short pieces of prose - one could call them postcards - about things that have caught the author's attention. He explains himself: "My letters will be about things that I read, that I see, that I think. That I make up, that I remember, that surprise me." Many letters are framed as questions: How do the forgotten gods feel? "What do the gods actually think of us?" Yet I think it is the postcards that provide the depth to the collection.

The main motif of Letters is the juxtaposition of the immortal gods who "always are" and live outside of time with the transience of humans who are inescapably immersed in the time's flow, and who eventually will disappear as if they have never existed. Yet these transient, ephemeral beings are able to create magnificent cultures and mythologies that feature these very gods. It is the art that allows humans to achieve near-immortality despite the curse of time as the author shows in Poseidon VI (from which I have taken the epigraph) about Elliott Carter's composition Scrivo in Vento influenced by the 14th-century poem by Petrarch.

A few snapshots of Nooteboom's letters and postcards. The piece called River about Leticia, a city in Columbia, near the borders of Peru and Brazil, on the bank of the Amazon, brings memories of The Following Story where the travel up the Amazon serves as an unforgettable metaphor of human life and death. The piece Hesiod, in which the author stands on the same shore where the Greek poet, a contemporary of Homer from about 700 years BC, wrote his Theogony:
"The landscape across the water is his landscape, [...] the water at this hour is the same violet-dark as it was back then. [...] His poem is almost three thousand years old, but he would recognise everything here, the way the evening slowly shifts to darkness, the motion and the sound of the water as the sea flows into the strait of the bay, the waves as a slow, surging, never-ending recitation of light and dark sentences that now accompany his poem."
This is the Mediterranean Sea, where it all began, the birth place of the Greco-Roman culture, the source of the never-ending stream of near-immortality from Homer and Ovid, through Dante and Petrarch, through Kafka and Beckett, to the present.

Uh-oh... I like the book too much and am unable to finish the review... I have recently read and reviewed Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 Consider Nooteboom's prose where in the piece Books he writes:
"I hear a furious murmur that grows ever more insistent, like a choir singing through clenched teeth, an atonal, malevolent buzzing that reveals no meaning at all, the stifling lament of ink and paper, the sound books make when they know they are being burned or drowned, the keening of words that will never be read again."
I wish Mr. Bradbury could have written this well.

Less-than-a-page-long piece Veils is about the world below the surface of the sea, on the other side of the "shifting silver" membrane that separates the two worlds, about the "domain of silence" where "words still exist, but are stripped of their sound, ghosts consisting solely of language." Another short piece, Blood Moon, touches on the expanding universe, Einstein's theory of relativity, human language, the calls of the curlews and owls, and ends with a pastoral fragment - quoted after the rating - that almost made an old man cry on the San Diego trolley.

It is hard to believe Mr. Nooteboom has not written Letters in English: the collection is wonderfully translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson. The book ends with substantial Notes and Illustrations that annotate the prose pieces. It is my least favorite aspect of Letters, but in some way it makes the work a little similar to W.G Sebald's The Rings of Saturn .

Four stars.

"[...] the moon has already climbed above the oleasters, the red has long since turned to ochre and the ochre to silver, the voice disappears into the distance, there is rustling all around me, the owl has found its first victim, the shriek of the field mouse echoes the pain of one substance transforming into another, and then a light mist rises, draping a veil over every secret."

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

At Close QuartersAt Close Quarters by Eugenio Fuentes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"He was positive that, if there was a cardinal virtue in a military man, it wasn't courage, strategic intelligence, ambition or equitableness, but pride, and that all other qualities depended on it."

Since I had enjoyed Blood of the Angels , the first novel in the Cupido series by Eugenio Fuentes I was looking forward to reading his At Close Quarters (2007). In the former novel I liked the formula where the main character, private detective Ricardo Cupido, stays largely in the background and the plot focuses on everybody else. The author tries to use the same formula here but the book does not work for me quite as well. One of the reasons may be the presence of Cupido's companion and helper, Alkalino, and the cliché "detective and his sidekick" interplay between the two characters. The intriguing setup of the novel deserves a better treatment than that.

Samuel, a divorced, lonely small business owner becomes enamored of Marina, a woman whom he sees from his window every day as she drops off her child at the school-bus stop. He sets his camera to automatically take street pictures so that he can get her photos even when he is out at work. The camera captures Marina's images but also a lot more: Samuel can see the scene of a horrible accident (it reminds of the great Antonioni's movie, Blow-Up from 1966). Meanwhile, the woman's father, major Olmedo, a high-ranking officer at the local military base is about to present a report, commissioned by the government, that will recommend closing of the base for efficiency reasons. Obviously almost everybody on the base is against the closure so the major has many enemies. Also other people have serious personal grudges against Olmedo, so when he is found in his house shot dead and the police recommends the verdict of suicide, Marina cannot believe it and hires Cupido to investigate the case.

The plot - there are many additional threads - follows all characters who might have had reasons to kill Olmedo. I find only the base-closing thread interesting. Mr. Fuentes's observations of the paradigm change in the Spanish army, from the old, personnel-based force to the new model founded on information and technology, are fascinating. There is a moving scene of the last pledge of allegiance to be executed at the San Marcial base. Alas, other threads are not on the same level. Schopenhauer-reading Alkalino is a paper-thin character and formulaic threads that involve Bramante, Ucha, and Beltrán threads lack depth.

Cupido's method of "firmly yet gently asking questions" is supposedly very effective yet the author has not been able to explain why it is so and everybody seems just to be saying how good Cupido is in the art of detection. By rearranging the accounts of events the author artificially structures the plot to enhance the mystery-solving aspect. Also, when several characters face moral dilemmas and the plot forces them to make choices the author is not quite successful in avoiding naiveté.

Yet overall, marginal "thumbs up" from this reviewer. Superficial psychology is balanced by the outstanding military policy thread and the silliness of the Alkalino thread fails to overshadow the great premise of the novel.

Three stars.

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

ShopgirlShopgirl by Steve Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"To Lisa, Prada is as recognizable as her own mother, and seeing Mirabelle draped in the perfect Prada shift provokes in her a deep guttural growl. [...] The only thing Lisa can think to do [...] is trim and coif her pubic hair. This is a ritualistic act of readiness, a war dance, that is akin to a matador's mystical preparations for battle."

I had not known that Steve Martin, the actor and comedy performer whom I remember mainly from the good old days (1970s and 1980s) of Saturday Night Live is also a writer, and quite a good one at that. Looking for short books to read I found his novella Shopgirl (2000) and it has proved to be a worthy read: my rating would be even higher if not for a major flaw that I mention later. In this unconventional take on a contemporary love story Mr. Martin presents a fresh literary voice, unlike any I have heard before.

Mirabelle is a decoratively pretty young woman who works in the Neiman Marcus' glove department in Beverly Hills. An aspiring graphic artist, with a Master's in fine arts, she suffers from depression: she has been unable to find a companion who would offer her attention and tenderness. Mirabelle lives an uneventful life amidst the vacuousness of the L.A. scene, occasionally dating a loser named Jeremy. She meets Ray, a man more than twice her age, very smart and very rich but - despite being on the wrong side of fifty - emotionally still an adolescent.

Shopgirl is mainly about the affair between Mirabelle and Ray but despite the tiny volume of the book other threads are present as well: in particular the thread involving Mirabelle's father, a bitter Vietnam veteran, is interesting and non-trivially developed. Mr. Martin offers generous helpings of satire about beautiful yet brain-dead people of the LA high society: the world of fashion and cosmetic surgery, populated by utter morons like Lisa from the epigraph of this review. Several psychological observations are top notch, for instance the account of the typical male obsession with female skin:
"[...] he cannot tell if the surface he glimpsed under Mirabelle's blouse was her skin or a flesh-colored nylon underthing."
Ray builds a complex structure of thoughts, scenarios, and images around this small piece of skin, and it provides several weeks worth of material for his mental self-pleasuring.

All would be really great if not for the author's absolutely infuriating manner of explaining in his own words why the characters do what they do and editorializing about their motivations. It feels like Mr. Martin is not sure whether his prose is good enough to portray the characters as real people whom the readers will be able to understand on their own, without his help. Or maybe he doubts that the readers are at all able to understand the characters' behavior. (Or maybe he provides pre-packaged answers to book-club questions about the meaning of the plot - just kidding). Either way, the author's elucidations are totally jarring and spoil the whole great effort.

If not for the author's running commentary, Shopgirl would be an extremely readable sweet little love story, offbeat and enchanting, not at all cliché or silly. With the commentary I still recommend the novella but what a waste of a great idea!

Three stars.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Closed for Winter (William Wisting #7)Closed for Winter by Jørn Lier Horst
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] another bird struck the car, a black ball hurtling through the air before bouncing off the bonnet and disappearing above the windscreen."

"meh, Adjective 1. Uninspiring, unexceptional."
Oxford dictionary

Meh is precisely how I would describe Jørn Lier Horst's "Closed for Winter (2011), a highly acclaimed novel, a readers' and critics' favorite and winner of the Norwegian Booksellers Prize 2012. The back cover blurb say "Top class crime writing," "Classic police procedural from an author who knows what he is doing." Well, yet again I demonstrate my inability to appreciate great crime novels: I have found this procedural slash thriller tedious and tepid. Worse, the writing - or perhaps the translation - is far from impressive. Another unexceptional Scandinavian attempt to capitalize on Stieg Larsson phenomenon: not a bad book, but oh-so-totally paint-by-numbers.

This is the seventh book in the apparently successful William Wisting series: the protagonist, Chief Inspector in the CID in Larvik, Southern Norway, has just returned to work after taking a sick leave caused by burnout ("mental exhaustion," says the translator), when a man finds his summer cottage broken into and burglarized. What's worse, on the door of the neighboring cottage he finds blood spatters and then a dead body. CI Wisting heads the investigation which eventually has to deal with several murders and may involve connections to Lithuanian gangs and drug trafficking in Western Europe. Another thread has Wisting's daughter, Line, a journalist and an aspiring writer, experiencing problems in the relationship with her boyfriend. The thread turns out to be important not only in the "fluff," personal layer of the novel; it also plays quite a substantial role in the criminal story.

There are some non-standard, neat touches in the plot - the hearse carrying a victim's body to the autopsy disappears, Wisting's car with the full documentation of the case is stolen - but the general structure of the relatively complicated plot is based on a cliché template and I have been able to predict a few outcomes even though I am usually the last reader to figure out the plot twists. And - as mentioned quite early in the novel - dead birds keep falling from the sky. Thousands of them. Yet the author does not even manage to take full advantage of such a promising twist.

The English translation occasionally sounds awkward and unnatural, but maybe the Norwegian original is not that well written. One can find cheap and tacky passages like:
"Wisting wondered what the missing eyes had gazed on not so long ago, and when they had last looked on the woman in the photograph."
The passage is about a dead man whose face "had been ripped open by the seagulls' beaks and claws." I am also curious why the author almost always uses both the given name and the surname of incidental characters. If it is the Norwegian custom, then it's fine, of course, one can get accustomed to it, but it reads awkward.

The part of the novel that I quite like is Wisting's visit to Vilnius to get statements from Lithuanian witnesses. Clichés abound, but at least it breaks the monotony of a run-of-the-mill procedural. Bottom line: not a bad book, readable, and perhaps even interesting, but not even remotely close to the best European crime writing of today, as represented by the works of Denise Mina, Karin Fossum, or Henning Mankell.

Two and a half stars.

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