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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Monday, October 10, 2016

Never Enough: The Story of the CureNever Enough: The Story of the Cure by Jeff Apter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Smith was on such a high at Glastonbury that when he wished the masses a 'happy tomorrow', the persistent rain actually stopped falling. Only a star could do that."

Two of my most cherished memories of the 1980s: my wife and I totally mesmerized watching Close to Me, The Cure's music video on MTV in 1985. Then, two years later, my five-year-old daughter and I dancing like crazy to The Cure's Just Like Heaven in our small rented apartment.

Fast forward 13 years: in 2000 my then grown-up daughter takes me to The Cure's concert at the SDSU Open Air Theater, where - at the age of about 50 - I was the oldest person in the huge crowd of young people. They thought I was a journalist on an assignment: such a geezer could not like that kind of music. 16 years further into geezerhood I still often listen to The Cure's music to interrupt my usual rotation of Bach, Coltrane, and Sonic Youth. (And both my wife and my daughter are here on Goodreads. Hi!)

Jeff Apter's Never Enough (2005) fully delivers on the promise of its subtitle - "The Story of The Cure." Of course it is mainly the story of Robert Smith, the band's "creative force and focal point," author of music and lyrics of the majority of songs, guitarist, vocalist, front-man, and the visual symbol of the band. Mr. Smith has also been the only permanent member of the band, since their first concert in 1973 when they were still in high school and performed under the name Obelisk. Forty-three years later The Cure still perform and Mr. Smith still fronts the band. (By the way, I have a lot of respect for him for non-music-related reasons, but that's a topic for another story.)

Mr. Apter patiently and in meticulous detail leads the reader through all twists and turns of The Cure's artistic and personal biography. We learn about the band's beginnings when, after five years of performing at obscure venues, they got their first break thanks to music that combined "urgency and futility of punk with bittersweet melodicism." Then came the limited success of their dark-period music: The Cure's second album Seventeen Seconds (1979) was called "a study in sorrow and bleakness" and the enormously influential fourth album Pornography (1982) contained songs that sounded as "odes to nothingness" and conveyed "pure self-loathing and worthlessness." Of course Robert Smith's creativity was the driving force that engendered the band's moderate success in the early 1980s, but the author is right to point out The Cure's luck in finding the right people at the right time. First they happened to find the tireless and clever manager, Chris Parry, and later they received support from the hugely influential BBC DJ, John Peel, who recognized the quality of an early song by The Cure - Boys Don't Cry - perhaps the best post-punk-influenced pop song ever.

But The Cure's greatest breakthrough - when they metamorphosed from an ambitious, post-punk, goth-influencing, alternative music band into the world's pop stardom - came with the video age, when they met an extremely talented video maker Tim Pope, and when Mr. Smith began writing ambitious pop songs (no, it is not an oxymoron), such as The Walk, Just Like Heaven or the memorable superhit Lullaby, that were accompanied by top-quality music videos by Mr. Pope. The Curemania began sweeping the world in 1985 and reached its peak in 1987. In 1989 The Cure's probably best album ever, Disintegration, was released, to be followed by several others. While The Cure's story, told in the book, ends in 2005, the band is still active and performs on worldwide tours, but their most recent - and likely the last - album, 4:13 Song was released in 2008.

Never Enough is a solid, extremely informative, balanced, objective, and well written (!) biography of the band and of Robert Smith's undaunted creative leadership for over 40 years. Mr Apter credits a lot of the band's success to Smith's "ability to pen killer tunes," and his "unshakeable approach to his craft." I will not dwell on various other aspects of the band's career - particularly the issues of extreme boozing, drug use, and personnel changes - one needs to read the book to learn about all that.

Obviously The Cure's music is not the highest form of art, but while their early period, the time of searching for their own voice and making their own imprint on the post-punk movement, yielded interesting if imperfect results, their pop period produced some of the most ambitious and compelling popular music ever written, far, far above the usual "cookie-cutter pop."

Four stars. (Of course, five stars for Robert Smith.)

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Friday, October 7, 2016

Cop Hater (87th Precinct #1)Cop Hater by Ed McBain
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The city in these pages is imaginary.
The people, the places are all fictitious.
Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique.

So goes the epigraph to Ed McBain's Cop Hater (1956), the first novel in the acclaimed 87th Precinct series of police procedurals. Ed McBain is the pseudonym of a prodigious writer of various types of fiction Evan Hunter (whose birth name - to make it even more complicated - was Salvatore Lombino). The 55 novels in the series were published over half of a century, between 1956 and 2005. I read almost all of them a long time ago and liked them quite a lot. The famous epigraph, used as the header for all 55 novels, belongs to the canon of detective clichés along with Dragnet's "The story you are about to see is true."

The 87th Precinct is located in a fictional Isola district of a very large city, obviously modeled on New York City's borough of Manhattan. The precinct detectives, overworked fighting crime in the "troubled neighborhood," constantly face grave danger. The plot begins when one of the 87th Precinct cops is murdered; detective Steve Carella, the protagonist of the novel and, in fact, of the entire series, plays a major role in the investigation. More cop killings happen and the detectives' work gets even more difficult when an ambitious journalist conducts his own amateur investigation, which interferes with the case and causes big trouble not only for Carella.

McBain indeed delivers on the epigraph promise. The investigatory techniques and the police procedure are shown in meticulous detail, and there is no reason to doubt that they are realistically rendered. To enhance authenticity the author provides copies of various documents included in the case file: Pistol License Application, Coroner's Preliminary Autopsy Report, Conviction Card, etc. It is the human component of the novel that the author fails at: while the cops working the procedure are shown believably, the cheap, cliché, emotional manipulation dominates most of the non-procedural parts of the novel, which almost caused me to toss the book about its middle.

Other aspects are even sillier: for instance, the detectives routinely talk in a bar with "stool pigeons" to find out what "the word on the street" is (the same investigative method was used by detectives in such cultishly bad series as Starsky and Hutch). Danny Gimp, the informer, knows everything about everybody: why don't cops solve every single case instantaneously if the complete information is included in "the word on the street?"

While the sights, the sounds, and the smells of the City are vividly portrayed, the tired clichés abound, like the repetitive references to the heat wave. And what about the irritating didacticism about press meddling in cops' affairs? Detective Carella, not an intellectual but an honest, hardworking, tenacious, well-meaning cop, reads Ulysses and yet the conversations with his girlfriend, Teddy, do not surpass the high-school level of depth.

Even with a good ending, better than in most modern-day bestselling thrillers, this is not a good book overall, which has killed my motivation to re-read all installments in the series. I will instead select a few entries from the different decades, just to check the author's so-called "trajectory."

Two stars.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Memories of My Melancholy WhoresMemories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"There's no greater misfortune than dying alone."

Gabriel García Márquez was 78 years old when his sublime novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2005) was published. Cees Nooteboom was 76 in 2009 when he published the collection of short stories
The Foxes Come at Night . The two books, written in the twilight of their authors' lives, although completely different formally, thematically and stylistically, are so much alike in their depth, honesty and the clarity of message. Both are imbued with wisdom coming from long life experiences, both are unencumbered by worries about the near future and immune from pressures of currently prevailing social norms. And while Foxes is the best book I have ever read about what it means to die, Memories is one of the best books about what it means to live.

The first sentence sets up the plot:
"The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin."
Indeed the narrator - a journalist, a scholar, and a once teacher - finds, with the help of a local madam, the suitable object of his desire: the average age of this unusual couple is 52, you "do the math." Although what transpires during that night is less than what the old man has planned, the gift he receives is priceless. The narrator spends the night watching the sleeping girl, not wanting to wake her up. Instead of a "libertine night", he - who had "never gone to bed with a woman [he] didn't pay" and whose tally of women he had been with at least once had 514 entries just by the time he was fifty - experiences an epiphany about what he had been missing all his life: love.

The narrator and his virgin continue having their unusual nightly rendezvous and after a few months he states:
"At the beginning of the new year we started to know each other as well as if we lived together awake."
He is now "mad with love" and his life finally begins making sense whereas before meeting the girl he had contemplated writing about "the miseries of [his] misguided life" (in a neat metafictional joke he had planned to title his writings Memories of My Melancholy Whores).

Twisting and turning plot keeps the reader interested, and we are offered several asides that tease us with alternate readings: for instance, "[...] just as real events are forgotten, some that never were can be in our memories as if they happened." Yet to me one reading is obvious: the loud affirmation - in the face of not-that-distant death - of life not completely wasted on pursuit of unimportant things. This is a totally optimistic book - not something that I usually praise - because it helps us face the looming end with lesser fear: we know that we have experienced love and we can hope not to die alone.

Of course the novella is beautifully written (and well translated by Edith Grossman). Similarly to Chronicle of a Death Foretold it is almost a masterpiece, but not really in the class of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Maybe, if I live to 78, I will rethink the rating. I take issue, though, with the narrator's statement that Bach's six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello are "the most accomplished pieces in all of music." No, that would be either Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin or Beethoven's Late String Quartets.

But seriously: when I had finished writing this lame but heartfelt review I allowed myself to take a peek at the readers' reviews of the novella on and found a high proportion of negative and disgusted (!) reviews. Readers use words and phrases such as "paedophilia," "geriatric dysfunction," "lack of interest in the issues of poverty that pushes children into prostitution," etc. I believe this is the first time in my about 500 book reviews that I will purposefully insult the clueless readers. If you find this book disgusting or worthless, you wouldn't know true love if it bit you on your ass.

Four and a quarter stars.

And yet another gorgeous sentence from the novella:
When the cathedral bells struck seven, there was a single, limpid star in the rose-colored sky, a ship called out a disconsolate farewell, and in my throat I felt the Gordian knot of all the loves that might have been and weren't.

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Saturday, October 1, 2016

Smallbone Deceased (Inspector Hazelrigg, #4)Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"John had, by now, reached that well-defined stage in intoxication when every topic becomes the subject of exposition and generalisation, when sequences of thought range themselves in the speaker's mind, strewn about with flowery metaphor and garlanded in chains of pellucid logic; airborne flights of oratory to which the only obstacle is a certain difficulty with the palatal consonants."

Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) is an acclaimed British grandmaster of mystery, crime drama, and thriller genres and his Smallbone Deceased (1950) has been widely hailed as a masterpiece and ranked among the Crime Writers' Association's Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time as well as among the Mystery Writers of America's Top Mystery Novels of All Time. Well, I would not rank it that high, but the novel is compulsively readable, masterfully written, and its best feature - to me - is its delightful lack of political correctness. Being a contrarian I enjoy reading things that are likely to provoke the ire of the Speech Police, such as calling grown up women "girls", stating that "women never reason" and the like, some of which I would not even quote because I am not a courageous contrarian. Anyway, if the reader thinks that speech/language should be censored to conform to what the majority of people agree with, this may not be the right book to read.

Horniman, Birley and Craine are an established law firm in London, specializing in trusts, deeds, and inheritances. The senior partner, Abel Horniman, has just passed away (a recommended euphemism for "died"), they have hired a new lawyer, one Mr. Henry Bohun, previously a research statistician and an actuary (yay!), and the firm seems to be back on track when a gruesome and shocking discovery is made. The hilarious subtitle of the chapter is A Capital Asset Comes To Light, and indeed a very capital asset is uncovered and we have a case of murder. Chief Inspector Hazzlerigg conducts the investigation and enlists Bohun to help since the two men share military past and the mathematician-turned-lawyer is - too conveniently for the plot -definitely free of suspicion. The case is elegantly solved and the solution eloquently explained but not before another murder takes place.

The novel feels quite dated - perhaps because of the writing style - to me it seems much older than its 66 years, even if there are many books published in the 1950s that read quite contemporary. This is not a problem at all, of course, as the novel offers a vivid portrayal of the late 1940s in the UK, the times of food rationing and electricity cuts. The characters "listen to the wireless," and I am curious how many young people today know what "a wireless" is. I find the portrayal of business activities and customs of an old-style British law firm way more interesting than the criminal plot, but then I am never much into the mystery component of mysteries, and definitely not into trying to solve the whodunit. I am told the author offers enough clues for a smart reader to figure out the guilty party.

I enjoy the colorful characterizations and the wonderfully rich language: now I know what "puisne mortgage" is, what a "conveyancer" does, and what "muniments" are. I have learned about "negative Aschheim-Zondek" as well and the financial trick central to the crime is quite clever. On the other hand, the author's phrasing the characters' thoughts in complete sentences is irritating. Even worse, what is the role of Mr. Bohun's para-insomnia in the plot? It seems completely redundant and his being a mathematician (gasp!) should be enough of a shock for the reader.

A very good book, just not exactly right for me, even though there exists a personal connection - I once had a privilege to talk over the phone to the author's daughter, an accomplished writer herself, Harriett Gilbert of the BBC.

Three and a half stars.

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