Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Fischer vs. Spassky World Chess Championship Match 1972Fischer vs. Spassky World Chess Championship Match 1972 by Svetozar Gligorić
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Throughout its centuries long history, chess has been the game of a tiny minority of mankind. Now, strange things have happened within a few weeks. This incredible match and the even more incredible Fischer have made the whole world read about chess."

The "Chess Match of the Century" took place in summer of 1972 but my fascination with Robert James Fischer ("Bobby Fisher", in short) had begun much earlier. On September 10, 1962, Fischer participated in the Poland vs. USA chess match in Warsaw, and I, an eleven-year-old schoolboy, member of my school chess club, watched the handsome, devilishly smart, well-dressed young American man - so unlike the drab, grim, gray Soviet-style role models - play chess in Dom Chłopa (A Farmer's House) and winning his game against the Polish champion, Bogdan Śliwa. Since that moment, 54 years ago, I have been interested in world chess, although I stopped playing when still in grade school, having realized I did not have any talent. But I followed almost the entire trajectory of Fischer's career, which to me began with the Candidates' Tournament at Curacao in 1962, peaked during the unforgettable summer of 1972, and then gradually declined into reclusion and quasi-insanity that ended in 2008 when the quite possibly best chess player ever died in exile in Iceland.

In his short book Fischer v Spassky (1972) the famous chess grandmaster Svetozar Gligorić gives the background of this most important chess match of the 20th century as well as an account of the insanely complicated process of preparations and the equally unusual dynamics of the match itself. The colossal importance of the match was that it broke the Soviet domination of chess. Players from the Soviet empire had been continuously holding the world championship title between 1948 and 1972, and since the very beginning of his career Bobby Fischer had felt that his life mission was to "wrangle the chess crown from the Russians," as he incorrectly called the Soviet players. Mr. Gligorić provides astute psychological portraits of the opponents: he contrasts Boris Spassky, the reigning world champion, an urbane, highly-cultured man of many interests with the singularly driven Fischer, for whom life was chess, chess was life, and nothing else mattered.

After the protracted negotiations about the venue of the match between the Americans and the Soviets had ended with the Reykjavik, Iceland, compromise Fischer continued the fight to ensure a bigger cut of the match money for himself. There was a moment - the preparations for the match were already complete - when it became almost certain that the match will be cancelled. Luckily, a rich British chess sponsor, James Slater, saved the event by adding a substantial amount of his own money to the prize fund.

The extraordinary process of pre-match negotiations was totally surpassed in its bizarreness by the dynamic of the match itself. In the very first game, Fischer committed perhaps the greatest blunder of his career and lost. He lost the second game by forfeit because he did not show up at the chessboard complaining about the presence of TV cameras, noises from the audience, etc. Normally, a 2:0 lead after two games should be enough for Spassky to retain his crown. However, Fischer was able to prove that he indeed must be considered one of the very best players of all time, when in the remaining 19 games he destroyed Spassky 12.5:6.5. Yet, while demonstrating his absolute chess brilliance, Fischer continued to complain about the conditions of the match and made new and new demands. This led to such bizarre events as testing the players' chairs to make sure they are not used to carry poison and dismantling the "105 glass plates of the huge lighting canopy over the stage," which produced only two dead flies. Perhaps the most hilarious moment came when the Icelandic Chess Federation issued a declaration that "it was not its intention to sue Mr. Robert Fischer."

Of course, grandmaster Gligorić, one of the world's strongest chess players in the 1950s and 1960s, explains every single of the 21 games played between Fischer and Spassky with his own detailed annotations, but that part of the text will appeal only to chess experts.

Overall, while the book is a worthy read, it could be much better. I understand that the speed of coming out with the book was the primary consideration for the publisher: the match ended in August and the book was printed in September, which undoubtedly is why the coverage feels a bit sketchy and the book reads as the series of reports for a daily paper rather than a consistent whole. In fact, I am still waiting for a definitive biography of Robert James Fischer.

Three stars.

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Trial and ErrorTrial and Error by Anthony Berkeley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"'Dear, dear!' said Mr. Chitterwick. 'Dear, dear, dear! Dear, dear!'"

One of the strengths of Anthony Berkeley's Trial and Error (1937) is the plot's ability to astound the reader. Since the basic setup of the story is surprisingly unusual I am not offering any synopsis, even the most rudimentary one. For full enjoyment of this wonderful novel I urge the reader not to peek at any summaries of the plot. The readers should allow Mr. Berkeley, one of the old masters of British mystery, to hit them repeatedly with the unexpected.

I love the novel almost as much now as I did in the early 1970s, when I enjoyed it for the first time. It is a mandatory read for everyone who - like this reviewer - despises clichés in literature. These days I am not eager to read any mainstream mysteries, crime novels, court dramas, etc., particularly the bestsellers: they are almost always totally paint-by-number jobs, where the superficial details of the story may vary yet the deep structure does not deviate from one of a limited set of reusable patterns that have been proven to sell.

Trial and Error is different. The author's main tool is the sophisticated, multidimensional inversion of motifs and patterns. In a run-of-the-mill court drama the police try to pin the crime on an individual, who hires the defense team to avoid getting convicted. Berkeley inverts this pattern: it is the defense who valiantly try to prove that their client is guilty while the police resist and work hard to show the defendant's innocence. Further, in a court of law a person is supposed to tell the truth to avoid perjury. In Berkeley's inversion perjury is needed to tell the truth. While in crime literature murders are evil acts, and murderers are the scum of the earth, Berkeley presents a noble-intentioned murderer and an altruistic, good murder. The death of a character who "truly needs killing" becomes a major inconvenience to the potential killer. The author even inverts the usual paradigm of the doctor-patient relationship, but I am unable to elaborate on it without spoiling the plot. The fun and beauty of inverting the clichés seems inexhaustible in this novel. Even the requisite ending plot twists do not turn the usual way.

The writing is uniformly superb: the precise yet colorful prose paints a vivid portrait of the era eighty years ago and the subtle, Britishly understated humor sparkles. Is Trial and Error a perfect mystery then? Hardly, in one or two places the author relies a bit too much on coincidence and some components of the denouement seem a bit improbable. Still, these minor flaws cannot change the fact that the novel is far, far above anything produced by authors such as, say, Grafton, Grisham, or Kellerman.

And finally - for people who read "whodunits" in order to find "who has done it" - will we learn who the killer was? Yes, we will. Does it make any difference? Absolutely not; it is completely irrelevant to the enjoyment and the power of the story. In fact, I think - that true to the main concept underlying the novel - the truth is not what counts. It is the author's ability to negate and invert the tired and worn clichés of the genre that lifts this book to the almost-masterpiece status.

Four and a quarter stars.

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

War and the American PresidencyWar and the American Presidency by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The war on Iraq meant an overwhelming diversion of attention, resources, troops, and military might from the war on terrorism."

War and the American Presidency (2004) is one of the last works by the famed historian, two-time winner of both Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. He states in the Foreword that the aim of his book is to investigate "the relationship between the Iraq adventure and the national past," yet the finished work offers more and - at the same time - not quite as much as the author promises.

The first chapter presents a brief history of the American doctrine of unilateralism in foreign policy and its connections to the isolationist tendencies always popular in this country. The so-called Bush Doctrine (G.W. Bush) and its consequences are investigated in the chapter entitled Eyeless in Iraq. Mr. Schlesinger suggests that the doctrine - which amounts to relying on preventive war rather than on containment and deterrence - decisively contributed to the failure in containing terrorism. The author then returns to one of his favorite research topics - the concept of "imperial presidency" that he introduced with his well-known book under that very title - and points out to similar aspects of the W's presidency. The chapter contains some hilarious material about quite likely the most incompetent Attorney General in the history of this country, John Ashcroft, but the author also offers quite serious discussion about the Patriot Act.

The final four chapters of this short book seem a little disconnected from the previous material and they function better as separate essays. The author asks "whether a democratic people has a moral obligation to terminate dissent when the nation is at war." The answer, based on American history, is a resounding No, but I wish the author spent more time on investigating the meaning of patriotism. Chapter 5, How to Democratize American Democracy, where Mr. Schlesinger characterizes the American electoral system as a "subversion of democracy" and suggests its technical improvements, only marginally belongs in the book. On the other hand, the next chapter, about the future of democracy, offers insights worth of a much deeper examination than the author is willing to provide: he suggests that religious fanaticism is the "breeding place for the greatest current threat to civilization, which is terrorism."

The book was published a bit too early for the author to notice perhaps even a greater threat to democracy - the emergence of Internet and the consequent devaluation and polarization of information. The last chapter - after the author debunks some basic tenets of Marxism - offers a perspective on "inscrutability of history," and makes an important point that history is indeed inscrutable, but only in the short run.

Other than the lack of consistent focus the book suffers from occasionally incomplete reasoning as evidenced, for instance, by missing connections between anecdotes and stories from the past and the categorical conclusions that the author offers. I am enumerating the weaknesses that I perceive, but - of course - this is a highly recommended work, a must read for everybody interested in history and philosophy of politics. Also, perhaps unfortunately, I am a relativist when rating books and I use tougher criteria for authors who had written great books before. Thus, if this were a work of a fresh Ph.D. in political history, it would likely warrant four stars. I do not believe that as the work of a highly celebrated author, this book deserves such enthusiasm.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

The Ferguson AffairThe Ferguson Affair by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The problem involved: A Nympho Movie Star - An Alcoholic Millionaire - Ambivalent Cops - Assorted Junkies - Ambulance-Driving Ghouls - An Honest Lawyer - Robbery - Blackmail - Kidnapping - Murder - Only Ross Macdonald can weld all these into one absolutely air-tight mystery that bets the reader he can't solve it before the last breath-taking page!"
(Idiotic and misleading blurb on the back cover of the 1971 printing of a paperback)

The Ferguson Affair (1960) will probably be the last novel in my "Re-read complete Macdonald" project. There exist two early novels that I have not read, but judging by the sub-standard Blue City that comes from the same period and which I have recently reviewed here I have very little interest in reading them. Of course Mr. Macdonald (Kenneth Millar in private life) is known for his extraordinary Lew Archer series, all 18 installments of which I have reviewed on Goodreads. Alas, this stand-alone novel - more of a thriller than a detective story - barely rises to the level of weakest entries in the Archer series.

The story is narrated by Bill Gunnarson, a lawyer in the fictional Southern California town of Buenavista. As a public defender he is assigned one Ella Barker as a client, a nurse in the local hospital, who sold a stolen diamond ring to a local pawnshop. Police - who are trying to nab a notorious burglary gang - want to get to the gang leaders through Ms. Barker, but she is too scared to talk. When Gunnarson begins checking the facts of the case, the pawnshop owner is beaten to death. This forces Ella to reveal the truth at least partially and the lawyer learns about the mysterious Larry Gaines, whom Ella saw with a woman resembling Holly May, a movie actress. The woman is married to a rich Canadian oilman who currently resides in California. The presumed Ms. May and Larry seem to have disappeared together. The case expands and eventually involves more murders.

The rather conventional plot is not really worthy of particular praise. The classical Macdonald motif - past events that cast deep shadows upon the present - is underemphasized. Implausibility of situations and conversations and overuse of coincidence as a plot device substantially weaken the novel. Also, I am not really convinced by any of the characters; they do not have the requisite human depth. Mr. Gunnarson's is a particularly bland characterization, and his total dedication to work at the expense of his wife who is just about to give birth to their first child is not at all believable. I find the first conversation between the spouses totally flat, artificial, and full of clichés. People do not talk like that. The second one is better and adds a little zest.

While I generally dislike plot twists, I have to admit that the first surprise sprung by Mr. Macdonald is superb. The second one, in turn, I find cheap, silly, and unnecessary. And the dramatic, cinematic scene of a sort of shootout should better be forgotten.

But the worst disappointment is the writing. I have not found even a one-sentence example of the great Macdonald prose I got accustomed to look forward to, thus I had to use the moronic cover blurb for the epigraph. Also, the writing reads significantly more dated than in the Archer novels. Sort of a fizzling, sad end to my Macdonald project.

Two stars.

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Friday, September 16, 2016

The passion of Poland : from Solidarity through the state of warThe passion of Poland : from Solidarity through the state of war by Lawrence Weschler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"'Please abandon hope,' the voice of the police commander intones in a recent poem by the émigré Stanisław Barańczak. 'I want this square, this brain, this country cleared of hope, so it will be pure as a tear.'"

The book I am reviewing here should be required reading for all people in Poland who have not themselves experienced the exhilarating, dangerous, and often tragic times of Solidarity, one of the most important mass movements of the 20th century. In fact, the reading is even more essential now that the Great Falsification of History is happening in my native country where a gang of scumbags led by Mr. Kaczyński is trying, successfully so far, to transform the truth about the historic events into a "better truth", which would serve their political aims.

A few weeks ago I reviewed here Laurence Weschler's Solidarity. Poland in the Season of Its Passion , a chronicle and analysis of momentous events happening in Poland in 1980-1981, based on the articles the author wrote for the New York Times. That book seemed unfinished: indeed, Mr. Weschler left Poland in October of 1981 and was not able to cover the last two months of the "Solidarity freedom" and the period of martial law that followed. I am happy that I have found The Passions of Poland (1984) by the same author, which covers both the times of the revolution and the subsequent period of government repressions. This now complete work offers a comprehensive study of the Polish revolution that precipitated the fall of the Soviet empire and its ideology and expedited the eventual liberation of the entire Eastern Europe from Soviet domination.

I lived in Poland throughout the entire period that Mr. Weschler writes about and I can positively state that his chronicle of events is accurate and his observations and analysis are truthful and full of insight. In fact, being an external observer, experienced in interpreting political events, he had a much clearer view of what was happening than the understanding I had at the time. I have not found a single passage in the book that I would disagree with. The author has the facts right and, what's much more important, his diagnoses and prognoses are right on target.

The first 96 pages of the book are basically the same as the text of Solidarity that I mention above - I have found only minor changes. The new material takes two chapters, A State of War - October-December 1982 and Epilogue - September 1983, where the dates refer to the time that the author wrote his notes rather than to the dates of actual events. For the reader not familiar with the Polish history of the 1980s, here's a very brief chronology. The Solidarity revolution lasted for about 16 months, from the end of August of 1980 till December 12, 1981, when a group of generals, led by W. Jaruzelski, staged a military coup, declaring "a state of war", and placing the country under the rule of the so-called Army Council of National Salvation. (The martial law could not be called what it was because of the absence of suitable provision in the Polish constitution.) The "state of war" was suspended on December 31, 1982, but the repressions against the Solidarity resistance lasted for many years, to finally end with the so-called Round Table Talks in 1989. These talks and the eventual agreement resulted in the liberation of Poland from Soviet ideology, and the collapse of the regime, which led to similar changes in all Eastern Bloc countries.

There is so much in the book that I can focus here only on a tiny subset of topics. The hundred pages of the new material present all important events that happened in Poland just before and during the state of war (the author also includes an extremely detailed chronology of the years 1939-1983 in the Appendix). One reads about the fateful Sunday of 12/13/1981, the announcement of the state of war on the Polish nation imposed by its own generals: the mass internments and arrests of activists, elimination of almost all civil rights, shutting down the mail and telephone system in the entire country, etc. Then came the full year of nationwide resistance, at the time seemingly futile, yet sowing seeds for the eventual freedom seven years later. While several people were killed by the militarized police in the early days of the martial law, many more were arrested later and scores were beaten during demonstrations. The nation responded with the "passive resistance" - underground press and publishing houses were flourishing, people were wearing resistance signs, and most citizens boycotted the state-controlled radio and TV.

From today's - 34 years later - point of view, the book unequivocally shows who the actual leaders and heroes were: Wałęsa, Kuroń, Michnik, Bujak, Geremek, Modzelewski, Frasyniuk, Gwiazda, Wujec, Rulewski, Walentynowicz, and many others. There is not even a single mention about either one of the Kaczyński brothers: they did not have courage and certainly not the brains to be of any value to the revolution. Speaking about brains, the book shows the great depth of the political analyses that many leaders of the movement had written in prison and then managed to smuggle to the outside world. One of the most interesting passages in the book concerns the argument about the tactics of resistance between Mr. Kuroń and Mr. Bujak.

But to me personally the most resonating passages are the ones about the collapse of plans for the general strike on November 10, 1981, which signified the end of hope for millions of Polish people. The military rulers took several masterful steps like allowing the Polish Pope's visit in the following year and promising to release Wałęsa from internment. Yet the proverbial last nail in the coffin was the capitulation of the Polish church hierarchy and the agreement between the primate, Cardinal Glemp and General Jaruzelski. The beginning of November was precisely the time when I lost all hope for a better future, and these were precisely the events that led me to leave the country.

The review is already way too long so I am leaving out most of the good stuff offered by Mr. Weschler in his outstanding chronicle and analysis of the tumultuous times. It is hard not to love the very ending of the book: the author quotes the Polish graffiti of the late 1982: the famous CDN sign, that means "To be continued." And indeed it was. Solidarity had eventually won and its ideals were alive for a quarter of a century. During its over a thousand-year history Poland survived numerous wars and occupations so it will survive the regressive and populist Kaczyński regime as well, but the human cost will be staggering.

Four stars.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Blue CityBlue City by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"[...] I could see the vigorous movements of his right arm and shoulder up and down, back and forth, as he worked on it with the knife. When I got back to my car a quarter of a mile away, I could still hear her screams - or thought I could."

Ross Macdonald - the pen name of Kenneth Millar - is mainly known for the famous series of novels featuring the wise and humane PI, Lew Archer. I have recently finished re-reading and reviewing on Goodreads the entire extraordinary series, with its last entry, The Blue Hammer . Yet Mr. Millar also wrote stand-alone novels, and Blue City (1947), one of his earliest works, originally published under Millar's own name, does not feature Lew Archer. Instead, it is a thriller set in a fictional Midwest town in 1946.

The narrator, John Weather, freshly discharged from the army, comes back to the town of his youth after a ten-year absence. His father had been the mayor of the town before he was murdered two years ago. The first thing John does when he arrives in town is to help an old man who had his money stolen by two hoodlums. John handily beats them up which instantaneously sets the tone of the story: we have a truly hard-boiled hero not averse to use physical force. It becomes clear that John has come back mainly to find his father's killers and avenge his death. Soon he finds out that the town is controlled by a criminal machine, driven by greed, extortion, and blackmail, and he has to - virtually single-handedly - defeat the criminal enterprise.

The plot is firmly grounded in pulp literature clichés. Seventy years after the book was written they read awkward and often ridiculous. The contrast between this story and Macdonald's much later superb writing, such as in The Underground Man or The Chill is absolutely staggering. It is almost as if one were to believe the same author wrote Ulysses and the plots for reality shows. Well hidden in this heap of stereotypical drivel are occasional glimpses into Mr. Millar's true potential and his literary interests:
"[...] the good people of the town [...] were protected against the lubricity of Rabelais, the immorality of Flaubert, the viciousness of Hemingway, and the degradation of Faulkner."
Yet the absolute majority of the novel is suitable only for adolescent boys: beatings, shootings, blood, and torture, with guns being the main device of human communication.

The "romantic" thread is not well written and contains pearls of prose worthy of Jackie Collins Writing School graduate:
The streams of our desire rose, met, mingled, and subsided. I felt empty, dazed, and spent."
Ouch! Macdonald's favorite cheap plot device - accidentally overhearing peoples' conversations - is used three times. Many dialogues are dated and sound like lines from bad James Cagney movies. In one totally implausible passage, 22-year-old John talks with the cynical wisdom of a 60-year-old. There is a curious passage about Mr. Kaufman and his Marx and Engels' books, Red threat, and C.I.O. agitators. On the positive side, I have learned one new word, 'hoydenish'.

A bad novel by a great writer.

One and a half stars.

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Rings of SaturnThe Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The shadow of night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so [...] one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if levelled by the scythe of Saturn - an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness."

The Rings of Saturn (German original - 1995, the splendid English translation by Michael Hulse - 1998) is my second book by W.G. Sebald, after the magnificent The Emigrants . This work by Sebald again straddles the boundary between fact and fiction, albeit in a different way, and is hard to categorize as a specific literary genre. Were one forced to classify the book, it would likely be called a collection of historical and socio-economic essays immersed in a travel diary, where each visited place is in some way connected with events from the past that provide the material for study. The narrator, named W.G. Sebald - who may or may not be the author himself - embarks on a tour of the county of Suffolk, which is the area in England where the German-born author used to live and work after he had emigrated from his country in the 1960s. Obviously this adds to the perception of authenticity in this travel diary and indeed, the real Mr. Sebald could have walked the very same roads and ridden the same trains that the narrator writes about in the book.

Several themes of Rings made a strong impression on me. In Chapter II the narrator writes about the history of the manor of Somerleyton and vividly describes the current state of Somerleyton Hall. The practices of herring fishing and utilization, related to the visit to Lowestoft, the easternmost point of the British Isles, are investigated in Chapter III. Chapter V offers a truly fascinating essay - to me by far the best part of the book - about the childhood and youth of Polish-born writer Józef Korzeniowski, better known as Joseph Conrad. This is also related to Lowestoft - the narrator explains that the local papers, Lowestoft Standard and Lowestoft Journal were Korzeniowski's "first English tutors." Finally, the reader is offered an engrossing story of silk cultivation and manufacturing in Europe, accompanied by a study of the silkworm life cycle. The silk angle is related to the town of Norwich.

However the most important and recurrent motif in Rings refers to the works of Thomas Browne, the seventeenth century author who wrote about science, medicine, religion, and specialized in esoteric topics, such as burial and funerary customs or cataloguing strange objects (pictures, books, etc.) that are imaginary or whose existence is highly improbable. One will notice how the topic nicely dovetails with Mr. Sebald's inclination to write about events that might have happened. Unsurprisingly, the author juxtaposes Browne's works with the famous imaginary creations of Jorge Luis Borges - the fictional world of Tlön and the bestiary in Manual de zoología fantástica.

Melancholy pervades Rings: Mr. Sebald is a master painter of sorrowful moods. As in The Emigrants he is preoccupied with destruction, decay, and ruins. The book is also a powerful cry about the immensity of human suffering throughout history. About the ethnic cleansing atrocities in the Balkans it says:
"Seven hundred thousand men, women and children were killed there alone in ways that made even the hair of the Reich's experts stand on end, [...] The preferred instruments of execution were saws and sabres, axes and hammers, and leather cuff-bands with fixed blades that were fastened on the lower arm and made especially in Solingen for the purpose of cutting throats as well as a kind of rudimentary crossbow gallows [...]"
Painful and biting sarcasm, reminiscent of the best writings of Kurt Vonnegut, the author reserves for Kurt Waldheim who in his youth had been an intelligence officer for Wehrmacht's Heeresgruppe E, highly praised by his superiors for contributions to military operations that involved executions of prisoners, and who much later, in the 1970s, served as the United Nations Secretary-General:
"And reportedly it was in this last capacity that he spoke onto tape, for the benefit of any extraterrestials that may happen to share our universe, words of greeting that are now, together with other memorabilia of mankind, approaching the outer limits of our solar system aboard the space probe Voyager II."
To be fair, not all human suffering is caused by nationalism, religion, or other canons of ideological purity followed by members of our illustrious species. The following gut-wrenching statement is about the Chinese famine in the late 1800s:
"Parents exchanged children because they could not bear to watch the dying torment of their own."
Thanks to Mr. Sebald's outstanding prose I read most of the book with deep interest. Alas, somewhere in Chapter VIII, in the middle of the convoluted tale of Edward FitzGerald and the Ashburys, the author suddenly lost me and I fell asleep over the pages: not being able to focus on the minutiae of the plot I had to skim the next thirty or so pages. Fortunately, Chapter X, the last one, brings back Thomas Browne and his Musaeum Clausum, which again makes for captivating reading. Yet, overall, I did not like Rings as much as I liked The Emigrants. Of course I recommend the book - Sebald's prose is extraordinary - but not with unlimited enthusiasm.

Three and a half stars.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Blue HammerThe Blue Hammer by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"My chosen study was other men, hunted men in rented rooms, aging boys clutching at manhood before night fell and they grew suddenly old."

"The Blue Hammer (1976) is the eighteenth and last novel in the unforgettable Lew Archer series, by far the best series of detective novels ever written by an American. Archer, a wise, compassionate, and deeply humane private detective, is quite the opposite of the clichés of "hard-boiled" PI's, invariably one-dimensional and moronic. Only Nicolas Freeling's Van der Valk ranks as a comparably interesting character.

Archer is called to the Biemayers' residence in Santa Teresa (the fictional Southern California town modeled on Santa Barbara) because a valuable painting has been stolen from their house. It is suspected that the picture is by Richard Chantry, a well-regarded painter who had disappeared from Santa Teresa 25 years ago. Biemayers' daughter has recently moved out of the house and may be in contact with some disreputable people, such as Fred Johnson, a "perpetual student", who might have been the thief. Archer begins his inquiries with a visit to the store owned by a local art dealer and also talks to Fred and his parents. Soon a man beaten to death is found and the case explodes.

"[T]he case has enlarged enormously since they had hired me," says Archer just the next day. Indeed, the inevitable connections emerge with the events in the deep past (dating back to the early 1940s), and everything seems to be revolving about the missing painting and the identity of a woman who sat as the model. The plot involves more murders and becomes enormously complicated. Eventually though - as usual in Macdonald's novels - Archer realizes "that the thirty-two-year case was completing a long curve back to its source."

While not the best book in the series, The Blue Hammer is probably a little better than average. Lew Archer's late-middle-age maturity and wisdom offset some sloppiness by the author. Mr. Millar (Macdonalds's real name) tries to artificially create tension by rearranging the building blocks of the plot instead of allowing the story to flow naturally. The writing is superb in some passages, for instance the first few pages offer great prose, sparse and economical with not a single word wasted, but some dialogues and summaries of the plot (presumably for the forgetful reader) later in the story are subpar. Too much reliance on coincidence shows again, particularly in the Mrs. Brighton thread.

During his investigation Archer meets a much younger woman to whom he is instantaneously attracted but the romantic thread reads flat and forced despite some unforgettably beautiful passages like:
After a while I could see the steady blue pulse in her temple, the beating of the silent hammer that meant that she was alive. I hoped that the blue hammer would never stop.
This is not only the last novel in the series, but the very last piece of serious writing done by Mr. Millar. His terrible illness (Alzheimer's disease) was already causing the first symptoms.

I have now finished re-reading (25-45 years after the first time) all eighteen books in the series and reviewed them here, on Goodreads. I still believe the series ranks at the very top of the crime/mystery genre, along with the Van der Valk and Martin Beck cycles. Macdonald's often breathtakingly beautiful prose, his sharp eye for Southern California landscapes and mores, and the compassionate and merciful character of Archer, full of human decency and goodwill towards all people, the best friend anyone could have if only he were real, all combine to make the Lew Archer series a literary masterpiece, one that clearly transcends the limitations of the genre.

Why then have I not rated any Lew Archer books with five stars? Why not the top rating for The Underground Man , with its first few pages of utterly magnificent, lean prose? Why not the universally praised The Chill ? I think it is the matter of endings: obeying the classical rules of the detective genre Mr. Millar spins almost impossibly complex webs of plot whose untangling usually comes at the expense of plausibility. I wish the author - at least once - did not provide the solution to the crime.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Sunday, September 4, 2016

BeekeepingBeekeeping by Werner Melzer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Ask your neighbors not to hang out their wash on the first warm day but to dry it indoors."

Bees are my favorite animals. I had read Maurice Maeterlinck's The Life of the Bee when I was a boy, almost 60 years ago, and since then I have been fascinated by bees' behavior and their rich social life. I had read Maeterlinck's The Life of the Ant as well, but ants do not interest me in the slightest: to me, bees are wonderful while ants are just insects. I have read and reviewed here on Goodreads Biology of the Honey Bee , a research monograph by M. Winston. I have always been dreaming about becoming a beekeeper, even more so now, with the honey bee species in grave danger: the bees colonies have begun to dramatically die out due to the ubiquitous colony collapse disorder syndrome. So I was ecstatic when for my appallingly high-numbered birthday my wife bought me a beekeeping starter kit. I have no choice now but to indulge in my dream hobby the coming spring, unless the anti-Zika spraying kills all insect life in our region.

The extremely concise, outright tiny Beekeeping. A Complete Owner's Manual (1986) by Werner Melzer has been (well) translated from German. One might infer the European origins from the sentence used in the epigraph. Why shouldn't the neighbors hang out their wash on the first warm day?
"If the wash is hung outside it may well be spattered with little yellow dots."
Europeans dry their laundry outside more than the Americans do and on the first warm day, which in Germany usually falls at the end of February or the beginning of March, the bees take their cleansing flight, when they defecate for the first time since the fall.

The book is filled with practical, hands-on advice for the complete novice in beekeeping. It begins with a short section Introduction to Bees, about the biology, development cycle, and the social life of these wonderful creatures. Then the basics of beekeeping are introduced: structure of a typical hive, right location for hives, and - most importantly - what a beekeeper has to do, when, and how. The best feature of the book is the chapter Beekeeper Yearly Work Cycle, which presents all the beekeeping chores categorized by months of the year: I like the variety of non-intuitive hints and advice. The book closes with the discussion of the products of beekeeping - honey, wax, pollen, propolis, etc. - and the short chapter on diseases and pests of bees. Beekeeping is indeed an "owner manual", but I doubt whether it is as complete as advertised. Nobody loves very short books more than I do, but I am afraid the author might have overdone the conciseness a little.

I am an applied mathematician and in whole seriousness I will state that at least at this stage I find beekeeping more difficult than even the advanced university math - mainly because of the sheer complexity of detail and the unfamiliarity with terminology. In fact, reading the book made me more intimidated with the perspective of keeping bees than I had been before. I have learned that I need to sign up for beekeeping courses to get some practical training and that I should join a beekeepers' association. Moreover, having read the book really thoroughly I am still quite unclear about many, many concepts; for instance, creating an artificial swarm, making a brood nucleus as a means to prevent swarming, or rearing queens. Also, I would have liked to read more about the mysterious phenomena of swarming and supersedure. I learned a little about these from Dr. Winston's research monograph, but there seems to be little connection between the theoretical knowledge and the practical hints given by Mr. Melzer.

This certainly is a very useful introduction to the wonderful world of beekeeping, but I will need to read many more books before I start playing God and tinkering with an actual hive.

Three stars.

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Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Terrorists (Martin Beck, #10)The Terrorists by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] the police as an organization devoted itself to terrorizing mainly two categories of people, socialists and people who couldn't make it in our class society."

What a major disappointment! The Terrorists (1975), the tenth and last installment in perhaps the best ever series of police procedurals, the so-called Martin Beck series, is the weakest of them all. It is also the longest, 347 pages, which is about 200 pages too many. I am wondering whether the death of one of the authors (Per Wahlöö died the year that the book was published) played any role in the failure. Or maybe the authors did finish the book together, and the shortcomings are just caused by burnout?

Three interconnected threads combine to form the plot. The novel begins with Gunvald Larsson traveling to a South American country to study the newest anti-terrorist measures. The measures dramatically fail: Mr. Larsson gets his custom-made suit ruined by a rather unusual object falling into his lap and has an opportunity to learn how not to prepare security for a state visit. Meanwhile in Stockholm, when a young woman attempts to hold up a bank, she is quickly apprehended, and we follow the robbery case moving through the justice system to quite an unexpected resolution. In yet another thread an assassin kills a porn film director: Martin Beck quickly solves the case, just in time to be appointed the head of an anti-terrorist task force. The group that includes Larsson, Rönn, Melander, and Skacke is responsible for ensuring security during the Stockholm visit of an extremely unpopular American senator. This strand of the plot stays with us to the very end as we follow the good guys' fight to prevent the highly dangerous ULAG terrorist group from carrying out their assassination plan.

The authors attempt to repeat the success of previous books in the series and quite miserably fail. The novel is full of clichés and rehashes stuff from the previous novels. We learn nothing new about any of the characters and everything is exactly as the reader may expect it. Larsson picks his teeth with a letter opener, Bulldozer Olsson's clothing is rumpled, Beck's intuition is phenomenal. Sky is blue, water is wet, fire is hot. The writing or perhaps the translation are less than stellar in many passages, and some conversations sound preposterous.

The authors use, twice, grossly implausible coincidences to move the plot. The social critique and diagnoses, so acute and fresh in several previous novels, sound immature and superficial. The humor is mostly of burlesque quality, way over-the-top, although the passage about an uneaten head of a dachshund is quite funny and the following graphic quote stays in memory:
"Smoking pillars of fire were rising to a height of a hundred and fifty feet. Atop the flaming pillars were diverse objects [...] half a horse with black and yellow plumes in the band round its forehead, a leg in a black boot and green uniform material, and an arm with a long cigar between the fingers."
Perhaps the most puzzling is the authors' obsession with nipples. True, these are truly wonderful body parts both for the babies and for the grown-ups, but do we really need to read FOUR times that Rhea's nipples are big?

Two stars.

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