Saturday, January 30, 2016

Brief Interviews with Hideous MenBrief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The way she concluded that something was wrong with her was: either something was really wrong with her, or something was wrong with her for irrationally worrying about whether something was wrong with her."

Another difficult review to write as I feel passionate about the book, both about its greatness and its shortcomings, but lack the tools to convey my passion with. David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) is a magnificent literary work, marred by overlong, repetitive, and self-indulgent fragments. Obviously I feel ridiculous criticizing an accomplished writer, yet I truly believe that in this work he frequently loses control over his prose and lacks economy of expression.

Brief Interviews might be called a collection of short stories if not for the fact that many parts of the set are not stories at all: the author himself calls them "short belletristic pieces". A substantial portion of the book is composed of interviews - as promised in the title - in which we only follow the answers provided by the patients, but the questions asked by a psychologist or psychoanalyst are left to be guessed at. Instead of a summarizing review I will offer a few thoughts about the pieces that I love and the ones that I had to struggle with to finish reading.

The set has a stunning opener: the piece called "A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life" contains only 79 words, and takes less than a quarter of a page. These brilliant five sentences read like poetry. Another outstanding short story, "Suicide as a Sort of Present" - one of the last pieces in the book - on mere three pages tells so much about the mother-son relationship, while managing to avoid cheap elucidation and forcing the reader to think.

"The Depressed Person" is a masterpiece of a story about a terminally self-obsessed woman who finds the roots of her depression in the one-upmanship (and one-upwomanship) games of her divorced parents who used the daughter's orthodontic treatment as a means to show that one cared for her more than the other. The story is masterfully written in professional psychoanalytic jargon, and it makes me angry to realize that millions of people have been severely damaged in life by succumbing to psychotherapy.

While the piece entitled "Signifying Nothing" reveals deeper layers of father-son relationship, it is also extremely funny. Many interviews are absolutely hilarious: I will just mention a story about a malformed body part (no, not that one) serving as a "pussy magnet", or about the bondage exercises - with the use of double-slip knots and the works - that lead to rather unexpected climax. On the other hand, I find "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko", despite all its clever puns and word plays, and "On His Deathbed [...]", another contemplation of the father-son relationship, unbearably long and virtually unreadable.

The short story "Forever Overhead" resonates with me as strongly as anything I have read in my entire life. The story describes - on just eight pages - how a boy celebrating his thirteenth birthday approaches the pool jumping tower, climbs it, and jumps. The reason for my total fascination with the story is that when I was a teenager - and before I found out that I had no writing talent - I had wanted to write a short story where taking a jump from a tower into an emptied pool was a metaphor for coming of age.

To sum up, Brief Interviews is a seriously flawed masterpiece: awesome, extraordinary literature mixed with insufferably self-indulgent prose.

Four stars.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Night CrewThe Night Crew by John Sandford
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"Louis, calling from the truck seventy-five feet away, excited: 'Jesus, Anna, we got a jumper on Wilshire, he's on ledge.'"

I liked several books by John Sandford (a pseudonym of John Camp): three or four early installments of his "Prey" series as well as some shorter-series works are pretty good reads. Alas, Night Crew (1997) is much below the level one could expect from the author. The beginning is promising, with an interesting setup and competent writing. Unfortunately, as is the case with most bestselling mystery/suspense/crime novels, after a good start the plot fizzles. The phenomenon is so common that one could undertake a study to examine how badly the later parts of novels compare with their beginnings and also how early the sudden drop of quality occurs. Here, the plot flatlines already before page 50.

The "night crew" is a group of video freelancers who cruise the streets of Los Angeles, waiting for fires, shootings, high-speed chases, and other emergencies to film them and then to sell the footage to TV stations. The plot begins with the crew, Anna, Creek, Jason, and Louis, filming a "liberation raid" on the UCLA campus, where the commandos are freeing the laboratory animals from their cages. The action quickly moves to a "jumper", a young man on a ledge of a tall building, threatening suicide (see the epigraph). This part of the story is plausible, moves fast, and the writing resembles the John Sandford that I know. Tense, edgy, high-strung prose perfectly captures the situation dynamics.

Alas, the good stuff is over quickly and we meet the "two-faced man", who assumes the role of an arch-villain. Yeah, right... There are thousands of crime/mystery novels with arch-villains, every single one being more arch- than every other. Since it takes imagination to invent something new for the plot and since readers seem to buy the stereotypical arch-villain stuff, why not copy hundreds of other plots? Until the very end the plot stays mundane, artificial, and implausible. A grieving father, who has just lost his son, is flirting away with Anna. The romantic thread between one of the crew and a female police detective is even sillier. Did Mr. Camp hire an inept ghostwriter? Overall: a waste of time.

One and a half stars.

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Children's BachThe Children's Bach by Helen Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"and Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!"

Novellas and short novels are my favorite literary forms so when I came across a literary critic's review in which he ranks Helen Garner's "The Children's Bach" (1984) among the "four perfect short novels in the English language" I just had to run to the library. And now that I have finished reading this wonderfully skinny (the covers are thicker than all 95 pages together) literary gem, I can understand Don Anderson, the Australian critic, who made that categorical statement. While I do not think it is a perfect novel, it is indeed a very good book, and Ms. Garner's literary craft is of the highest caliber.

Dexter and Athena Fox are an early-middle-age married couple living a comfortable and apparently happy life - loving and being friends with each other - raising their two sons, one of whom, Billy, is developmentally disabled. One day Dexter runs into Elizabeth, a woman he knew when they were students together and whom he has not seen for almost 20 years. Elizabeth's much younger sister, 17-year-old Vicki, apparently in need of a mother figure, moves into the Foxes' house to be close to Athena. Elizabeth still keeps in touch with her ex-lover, Phillip, a popular musician who's taking care of his 12-year-old daughter Poppy. They all become frequent guests at the Foxes, which leads to a major disruption of Athena and Dexter's routine.

The synopsis sounds like a schmaltzy melodrama type of plot, but the truly terrific writing makes the whole difference. Ms. Garner has mastered the most important skill of a writer - the difficult skill of deleting as much text as possible. She could have churned out a standard 400-page bestseller, full of the usual vapid fluff, but she went for quality instead and removed everything non-essential from the book. What remained is indeed close to perfect. I was re-reading many stunning fragments of prose several times to savor the superb writing craft of the author.

The Children's Bach is first and foremost about Athena. Until Dexter's random meeting the trajectory of her life had been straight and clear - almost on autopilot - defined by the need to be there for Dexter and the family. Athena has never wondered "what if" and when she suddenly finds that question staring her in the face, she takes a tentative step into the unknown.

The reader has a chance to learn about the characters through their music: Dexter sings arias from operas, Athena practices Bach's preludes, Phillip plays guitar in a rock band. And Billy's music - most dramatically - consists of the steady sound patterns, the rhythms of "the rushes and pauses of the swing" that soothe him during his unpredictable attacks. Athena's music is the most difficult - "Bach is never simple, but that is one reason why we should all try to master him" - but is it not better to try and fail rather than to comfortably follow the routine. Or is it?

Four and a quarter stars.

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Safe House (Burke, #10)Safe House by Andrew Vachss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"First conviction for gang-fighting, [...] Age thirteen. [...] attempted murder with a handgun. Subsequent adult prison sentences for armed robbery, hijacking, and assault with intent."

I like to alternate between the so-called serious books and pure entertainment reads, and I chose Andrew Vachss' novel Safe House" (1998) as a breather between critically acclaimed works by J.M. Coetzee and Helen Garner. Mr. Vachss is a lawyer specializing in child protection and has experience as a federal investigator and social services caseworker; this experience clearly shows in the novel, which contains compelling stories of women's abuse. Safe House, whose main theme is the fight against stalkers, is the tenth book in the Burke series. Since I have not read any other entries in the set I have had some difficulties getting into the novel: its extensive menagerie of characters is intimidating to someone who is not a Vachss' reader.

In the novel - and presumably in the whole series - Burke, an ex-convict (see the epigraph) and a career criminal available for hire, is a force for good. He is helping his old prison pal, Hercules, who has gotten into trouble while doing a job for a nebulous organization that assists stalking victims. Hired by Crystal Beth, an active member of the organization, Burke works with her to find a dangerous abuser of women, who feels untouchable because of his connections to law enforcement. Burke and Crystal - soon linked not only by a common purpose but also mutual attraction - work in a world where the distinctions between law and crime are blurred and the main actors have connections to both sides.

The theme of stalking and women abuse is important and timely. The reader has no doubts that the horror stories which Crystal Beth and her co-workers share with Burke are based on common real-life events. On the other hand, most everything else in the novel is subpar. The protagonists are not real people, they are just devices to carry the plot, caricatures that exist only on paper. The silliest feature of the novel is Burke's unrelenting quest to be cool and to demonstrate the absolute self-control. His utter cool is utterly ridiculous. The apotheosis of coolness becomes the main motif of the novel at the expense of plausible psychology and realistic grounding of the plot in social issues.

One and three quarter stars.

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Monday, January 18, 2016

Diary of a Bad YearDiary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"On the wall a framed scroll in some foreign language (Latin?) with his name in fancy lettering with lots of curlicues and a big red wax seal in the corner."

Another great book from J.M. Coetzee, and this is my 18th review of his work here on Goodreads. The paperback edition of Diary of a Bad Year (2007) has an additional word on the cover, Fiction, in small print. I wonder whether the extra word comes from the author or rather from the publisher: if it were the former it would reinforce the intentional ambiguity of the book's genre, otherwise it may be just a trick to increase sales. Diary is a cleverly structured (and metafictional, see later in the review) combination of non-fiction and fiction. A collection of "strong opinions" on various topics, ranging from the US and Australian politics, through social and cultural issues, to art and usage of the English language (for instance, the rampant overuse of the phrase "in terms of") constitutes - in terms of volume - the main part of the book. Yet the reader will find the fiction component of Diary more important: it introduces a 70-year-old South African writer - identified only as 'C' - living in Australia, and working on a collection of essays in which he presents his strong opinions on a variety of topics. The fictional thread is first narrated by C; then Anya, the other main character, adds her narrative voice. The format of the text is unusual: most pages are divided into three horizontal zones to allow the three threads to run parallelly to each other - the synchronicity plays a role in several places.

In the laundry room of his condo complex C meets Anya, an attractive young Filipina who lives with her boyfriend in the same building, and hires her to be his secretary to type up the manuscript from his voice recordings. It is true that C is losing motor control and cannot type well, yet one can guess that Anya's good looks and her wearing a short skirt have not been unimportant for the hiring. As the work on the manuscript progresses, they learn more about each other and while there is never anything inappropriate - the euphemistic abuse of term 'inappropriate' being another of C's language peeves - about their relationship, at the touching conclusion of the book they become as close to each other as possible without any romantic entanglement.

Mr. Coetzee says - in C's voice - that writing the essays gives him "[a]n opportunity to grumble in public, an opportunity to take magic revenge on the world for declining to conform to my fantasies [...]". C is most vocal about the US administration's shameless use of torture: this was written in 2005-2006, when - as C writes - the "criminals in high office" were "active in every way to subvert laws and conventions proscribing torture". But the majority of C's strong opinions are more fundamental rather than topical. He rants about the idea of the market playing the role of God in modern democracies, and points out one of the major shortcomings of the democratic system: "It is an elementary fallacy to conclude that because in democracy politicians represent the people therefore politicians are representative people." To me, C's thoughts on cultural issues are the most compelling, for example, his take on the fact that faking things becomes the norm in modern society: "In the present 'culture', few care to distinguish - indeed, few are capable of distinguishing - between sincerity and performance of sincerity, just as few distinguish between religious faith and religious observance."

J.M. Coetzee is a mathematician by education, so it's no wonder that C writes about the Zeno's paradox and about the meaning of probability; this is where I should perhaps relate the most, but I have found his thoughts on music, including a touching tribute to J. S. Bach, and the discussion about ownership of body parts even more interesting. The grim passage about mass slaughter of animals that occurs daily all over the world is hard to read and should serve as a wake-up call to us humans: our humanness is clearly in question.

The most fascinating characteristic of Diary is - to me, a devotee of recursion - its multi-faceted and multi-level self-referentiality. Using C's voice Mr. Coetzee writes about his own writing and examines the authority of authors. Even the famous and successful author, he says, like Tolstoy, is an "ordinary [man] with ordinary, fallible opinions." The authors, he continues, do not have much wisdom to offer, and "wisdom is not what they [deal] in." Thus, in a sense, C's words undermine the significance of what Mr. Coetzee himself writes about. For instance, he teases the reader by first offering - as C - a magnificent passage "On the birds of the air", where he describes a certain magpie he knows from the park - "the magpie-in-chief (that is how I think of him)" - and then, in the words of Anya, says that he - C - knows how to "draw the reader in (for example, in the bit about the birds in the park)", thus pointing out how easy it is to influence a reader using purely literary devices. Also, Diary likely contains the most touches of humor among all the 18 works by Coetzee I have read so far. I would rank the sentence quoted in the epigraph among the Top 10 Funniest Moments in Otherwise Really Serious Literature: it does not take much guessing to figure out what this scroll in some foreign language might be.

To me, the book has its most powerful moments in its later part, called the "Second Diary", which opens with the description of a "troubling dream" - a disturbing and desperately sad C's dream about his death. The motif of death returns at the ending, which - despite the grim topic - is uplifting and extraordinarily moving. Diary of a Bad Year takes some time to draw the reader in, but once we are in, this is one of Coetzee's better books.

Four and a half stars.

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Friday, January 15, 2016

Back to Bologna (Aurelio Zen, #10)Back to Bologna by Michael Dibdin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"King Antonio perched naked on his throne, sweating, groaning, imploring. Then his expression changed to one of alarm, almost of fear."
(At the end of the review you can learn why Antonio is groaning on his throne.)

Michael Dibdin's Back to Bologna, my seventh book in the Aurelio Zen series, is quite different from the other six: it is an expressly comedic and satirical ensemble piece type of novel, with several seemingly unrelated threads developing separately until they all intertwine at the end of the story. Almost entirely gone are Mr. Dibdin's cynical and usually fascinating observations of Italian law and society. What remains is mostly silly plot and a few moderately funny scenes scattered among rather lowly humor.

Lorenzo Curti, the owner of a Bologna football club - actual football, not the U.S. variety - is killed and Aurelio Zen, now in the high police rank of Vice-Questore and recuperating from some kind of gastroenterologic surgery, is sent to Bologna to serve as a liaison (which means he is supposed to do nothing whatsoever) between the local investigation and the Ministry in Rome. Aurelio's relationship with his partner, Gemma, is at a critical point, and they are both contemplating separation. In Bologna, Vincenzo, the son of a powerful lawyer, gets involved in some suspect activities, while his roommate, Rodolfo - a graduate student of the famous semiotics professor, Edgardo Ugo - is dating Delia, an illegal immigrant from Ruritania (sic). The lawyer hires a private detective, Tony, to follow Vincenzo. Meanwhile, Romano Rinaldi, a celebrity chef whose TV cooking show pulls in millions of viewers, feels insulted by a statement made by Professor Ugo. All these separate threads proceed parallely to a moderately satisfying conclusion that combines the participation of everybody: Aurelio, Gemma, Vincenzo, Rodolfo, Edgardo, Delia, Tony, and Romano.

Only the thread that involves the pompous professor Edgardo Ugo - the satire is probably aimed at Umberto Eco, the world's foremost semiotician - is really funny, particularly the discussion of relative values of semiotics vs. skills of building retaining walls. The celebrity chef thread is moderately funny, more so if one believes that programs shown on TV have some relation to reality.

Mr. Dibdin again succumbs to his inexplicable obsession with human excreta: the sentence quoted in the epigraph comes from a passage that describes the detective's defecation and the size of his stool. In another prose jewel we can read about a discharge of foul-smelling pus. Mr. Dibdin should have consulted a psychiatrist.

One and three quarter stars.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The JaneitesThe Janeites by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. Gawd bless ’er, whoever she was."
(Rudyard Kipling, The Janeites)

While The Village Book (2002) is the last work of Nicolas Freeling, it is a non-fiction entry - along with The Kitchen Book , Cook Book , and Criminal Convictions - The Janeites is his thirty-seventh and last novel. Written in 2000 and published in 2002 it completes the magnificent collection of fiction by one of my most favorite writers, and certainly the one I love the most among the so-called popular writers. One needs the "so-called" qualifier here because even if Mr. Freeling indeed wrote a few books that gained wide popularity, won major literary awards, and converted millions of readers into faithful followers, calling him a popular writer is a misrepresentation. Throughout most of his career he did not care about popularity as evidenced by strictly avoiding all kinds of crime novel patterns and clichés that please the readers and make money for the author, focusing not on the plot development but rather on most sophisticated, erudite, and idiosyncratic prose full of often obscure literary references as well as sociological, psychological, and historical observations (I am enclosing a representative snippet of such prose at the end of this review), and - perhaps most spectacularly - by killing off in mid-case his main detective, Commissaire Van der Valk. Many later novels by Mr. Freeling are at least somewhat enigmatic, and tend to challenge the reader: one does not read this author to be easily entertained: one has to work hard to earn the rich payoff.

The Janeites is perhaps the strangest of all thirty-seven novels by Mr. Freeling. It is not as disturbingly enigmatic as Some Day Tomorrow (#36) and not as full of sadness about the life past as One More River (#35). In fact, this short novel is quite readable - for Freeling's standards, of course; one still has to focus on the reading as the author is not too fond of saying things straight - and is rather upbeat and optimistic. The premise is based on the idea from Rudyard Kipling's short story, also titled The Janeites, about a group of soldiers in the trenches of World War I, who find solace and comfort that helps them hold on to life in reading works by Jane Austen, "extraordinary books [in which] she discards everything bar the moral essentials [...]".

William, a retired security chief, who in his time used to provide protection for dignitaries on the highest level of French government, has cancer, and Raymond, a Jesuit doctor, and a medical researcher suggests reading books by Jane Austen as a form of therapy. Raymond's romance with a high-class call girl annoys another of her clients, a powerful official who demands exclusivity. So when Raymond is assaulted to scare the woman away from him, William - drawing on his expertise in security business - tries to track down the assailant. Meanwhile Raymond meets Josephine, William's about-to-be-ex-wife, and they fall in love with each other. Thus we have a triangle "the husband, the wife, and the lover". Of course, this being a Freeling's novel, no one should expect any clichés. So we also have "We're three friends. Got to rely on each other." They may all be Janeites, after all. The plot quickens toward the end - a bomb and guns are used - but soon it winds down in a somewhat unexpected, fell-good denouement.

The sheer audacity of the novel's premise - reading Jane Austen's works as a cure for cancer - is stunning: one needs to read the book to believe it; no summary can reflect the quirkiness and strangeness. As usual in Freeling's books we have a colorful panorama of characters, extraordinarily erudite prose, several sophisticated dialogues (they could be called "sparkling", if not for their depth). The Janeites is not Mr. Freeling's best book, and it is definitely not recommended for a novice trying to get acquainted with the author. This strange and strangely charming book is a must read for anyone who likes their literature well outside the usual bounds.

Three and a quarter stars.

This is my forty-first review of Nicolas Freeling's book: I have reviewed them all here, on Goodreads. I have had enormous fun reading and reviewing - one the most fun experiences in my life. Some day tomorrow - to borrow the author's wonderful title - I will try to write an essay about Mr. Freeling's literary output. Some day tomorrow...

To end my adventure with Nicolas Freeling's writings, here's my favorite snippet of his prose - and, in fact, of any prose I have ever read - coming from his novel Wolfnight .

"English is a language where intonation counts above almost anything. Such a phrase as 'I, um, don't feel quite convinced' is meaningless on paper, is viva voce worth a page of prose, and a prosy page at that. The American language is quite dissimilar. It will produce a single word like 'candyass' worth in itself a paragraph, embedded within volumes of such polysyllabic hermeticism, such thick, black, deathly-boring opacity as to make Henry James kneel and beat his pure marble brow howling against the dirty deck whence all but he had fled. The French, than whom - it's a very than-whom people all round - none can be more vacuously orotund, are (the same ones) obligingly terse. On occasion."

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Saturday, January 9, 2016

Tribeca BluesTribeca Blues by Jim Fusilli
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"The patient, a 37-year-old male, is a historian by trade who suspended his career following the sudden, violent death of his wife and son some five years ago."

The patient is, of course, Terry Orr, still looking for Raymond Weisz, the madman responsible for the death of Terry's family. Tribeca Blues is the third installment of Jim Fusilli's series, following Closing Time and A Well-Known Secret , both pretty good novels that I rated with three solid stars on Goodreads. I did not expect much from the final novel in the series - after all, how many interesting variants of the same book can one produce - but neither did I expect that the novel will be so bad. I lost interest even before the middle of the story and I have been gnashing my teeth in frustration, forcing myself to finish reading.

In addition to the usual thread covering Terry's search for Weisz we have a story about Terry's and Diddio's friend, Leo Mallard. Leo dies, leaving a letter in which he asks Terry to find his ex-wife, Loretta, and "make her pay" for destroying his life. To me the worst thing about the novel are the totally unexpected turns of events. While some readers may enjoy the stunning plot surprises, I find them implausible, contrived, and just plain silly. The author must have tried hard to invent the most unlikely plot twists, and he succeeded at the expense of the realism and quality of the novel.

Absent is the wonderful portrayal of New York and the author's great sense of the place - the best aspect of the first book in the series - is nowhere to be seen. In the second book Mr. Fusilli was able to capture the deep wounds in the post-9/11 city's collective psyche, and this is also absent in Tribeca Blues, save for two token mentions. Even the thread involving Bella, Terry's 15-year-old daughter, has no spark in the third novel. What's worse, several dialogues are unforgivably cringeworthy, most notably the conversation between Terry and Loretta, and the Daniel Wu shtick is lame. The book escapes my bottom rating only because there are several fragments and passages, where - despite Mr. Fusilli's efforts to make the plot as ridiculously twisted as possible - his writing talent shows.

One and a half stars.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Nomad's Hotel: Travels in Time and SpaceNomad's Hotel: Travels in Time and Space by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Time differences are the prerogative of the living, at least they are when it concerns the past."

Having read several novels by Cees Nooteboom - and having fallen in love with some of them, particularly with the sublimely beautiful The Following Story - I have finally read one of his non-fiction writings, Nomad's Hotel, a great collection of travel pieces. While the notion of travel usually involves moving in space, Mr. Nooteboom emphasizes the temporal dimension of travel. The set is subtitled Travels in Time and Space, and it is not an accident that the time dimension is listed before the spatial one as in many stories in the collection the author focuses on traveling with us through the past of a given location.

One of the pieces I love the most is Forever Venice. Mr. Nooteboom uses the 1906 Baedeker to navigate this city some 80 years later. He stands in the place where Petrarch and Boccaccio used to stand, trying to see what they were seeing over six hundred years ago, in this unique city that has now entered the second millennium of its existence. He visits the island of San Michele, the burial place of famous artists, and writes about the stunning fragment of Alejo Carpentier's Concierto Barrocco, where the early eighteenth-century masters, Handel and Vivaldi, visit Igor Stravinsky's grave.

In another wonderful piece Mr. Nooteboom describes his 1975 stay in the Gambia, an African country named after its main river. Attempting to interview the Gambian president, he gets arrested for "failing to dismount from [his] bicycle briskly enough when Sir Dawda Jawara passed by". He also sails up the Gambia river on a riverboat called Lady Wright; the description of the trip is totally hilarious. Consider this portrayal of an English lady: "She is sturdy, enveloped in a flowery frock, and with a sort of face that can move mountains. English dog breeders have often striven to reproduce such faces, but they still look better on people."

The piece titled That Earlier War: the Memorial in Canberra brings other emotions: sadness and deep anger at the barbarity of human species. Mr. Nooteboom writes about the Australian soldiers who perished in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign; rarely can one read such a ferocious and powerful condemnation of the politicians and generals who - on a whim - send young men to die. When one person's senseless death is a tragedy, what about deaths of 7,500 young men, simple pawns is the human slaughter chess game played by Churchill and others, comfortably seated in their London clubs, sipping brandy and smoking cigars? Mr. Nooteboom saves a profound reflection for the end: "There are lots of children at the memorial. I notice how the girls have a different way of looking from the boys." For the girls it is not the adventure, he notices; it rather "has to do with destruction." This reinforces my proudly sexist belief that women should be politicians and military leaders, while men should keep playing with plastic guns and other toys.

As usual, I am experiencing another failure in trying to be concise in my reviews, so very briefly: in An Evening in Isfahan Mr. Nooteboom guides us through the 3000-year history of Persia, in other pieces he writes about his journeys to Munich, the Aran Islands, to the "edge of Sahara", Mantua, Zurich, and Mali. In all stories, he is a traveler who "is searching for the extraordinary within the everyday environment of others", in addition to moving through time and space. A great read!

Four stars.

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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Some Day TomorrowSome Day Tomorrow by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] a great big stretch of life - over fifty years - got compressed abruptly into a tight small ball."

This is an outstanding book to begin the 2016 reading year: beautifully written, for the most part totally captivating, thought provoking, and inviting the reader to work really hard on understanding. Some Day Tomorrow is the fortieth (yes, 40th) book by Nicolas Freeling that I have read and reviewed here; I am already worrying about the coming pains of withdrawal - only one more book is left. Anyway, after some weaker entries from Mr. Freeling that I have recently read, this is one of the best works by my favorite "popular" - how misleading the word is - author. It may even be his best book, but to make sure I would need to read it again. Well, some day tomorrow...

Although Mr. Freeling has been known as one of the most successful crime/mystery authors, it needs to be said up front that Some Day Tomorrow is not a crime novel, even though the plot involves a murder, police investigation, court actions, etc. Readers who look for a police procedural or a crime drama, ones who are interested in "Who has done it?" should steer away. There are no solid answers given and the readers are welcome to construct their own explanations and make their own decisions. Also, this novel is clearly not about the plot: the story is less important than the way it is told.

For the most part, the prose in the novel is a stream of consciousness of one Hubertus van Bijl, Bert for short, an almost 70-year old Dutch horticulturist, an owner of a well prospering "Planten & Bloemen Handel" business, on the brink of retirement. Despite having a loving and caring wife of 40 years, a wife whom he also truly loves and respects, he happens to have brief sexual affairs: one with a 17-year-old girl and the other with a 60-odd-year-old wife of his best friend. Bert has recently undergone a radical operation for prostate cancer, his world seems to be crumbling, and he is inclined to reflect on his life. When Carla, a 20-year old student is found murdered in the dunes, Bert naturally becomes the main suspect in the murder: he has been seen with her in town, he frequently takes walks in the dunes, and an even younger girl admitted having sex with him.

The novel is a stunningly written, realistically rambling account of a sixty-year story (from the 1930s to 1990s) of three generations of van Bijls business and family. It is a sweeping panorama of changing cultural and societal mores in the Netherlands, a study of the Dutch national character and of Dutch foibles and habits, and a captivating portrayal of the Zandvoort area of Holland. The novel also offers an unconventional, frightfully penetrating study of a basically decent and honest man, who tries to understand and explain to himself the motives of his behavior.

It is exceedingly rare to find well-written, non-gratuitous sex scenes. In almost all books I know (with over 50 years of rather heavy reading) such scenes are either ridiculous, highly technical (i.e., driven by anatomy, spatial geometry, or physiology), or - at best - pornographic. The two scenes in Some Day Tomorrow - one between a late sexagenarian and a teenager and the other between two sexagenarians - feel completely natural: the writing does not exhibit any erotic or pornographic tone, and is certainly free of ludicrous euphemisms and hyperboles. And the Carmen Sternwood reference is precious!

To end this overlong review, I need to mention two problems I am having with interpretation (these are my problems, not the author's). Mr. Freeling uses quite an unconventional literary technique in the novel: most of Bert's stream of consciousness is told - obviously - in the first person. Yet, quite often the author switches to the "he, Bert" narrative form. I have failed trying to find a pattern, a rule that would explain the changes. It is possible that the novel's "I" is Mr. Freeling himself, who pops in and out of Bert's personality. After all, the 72-year-old author is almost the same age as Mr. van Bijl, and he switches identities whenever it is convenient.

But the greatest mystery of the novel is its cryptic last part, which seemingly does not have much in common with the remainder of the story. Mr. Freeling writes about Carlos Castaneda's book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, without even once mentioning the author or the title; some detective work on the Internet has been needed to find the references. This has been a fascinating task, but the mystery remains. Maybe Mr. van Bijl is descending into madness. Or maybe Nicolas Freeling is. Maybe some day tomorrow I will understand...

Four and a quarter stars.

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