Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Wampeters, Foma and GranfalloonsWampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"And it strikes me as gruesome and comical that in our culture we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems. There is an implication that if you just have a little more energy, a little more fight, the problem can always be solved. This is so untrue that it makes me want to cry - or laugh."

Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1964 - 1974) is - as Kurt Vonnegut describes it himself - "a collection of some of the reviews and essays I have written, a few speeches I have made." This very uneven collection, in which the "meh" pieces overshadow the interesting ones, is a rather disappointing mix of deep insights, well-aimed bitter sarcasm, trademark Vonnegut's pessimism, aimless ramblings, and even outright failed pieces of writing.

One of the best essays, Excelsior! We're Going to the Moon! Excelsior!, is about the space program, its tremendous costs and meager benefits. More importantly, though, it is about profanation of great human ideas and iconic symbols of progress by commercialism through "schlock merchandising schemes" of advertising. I also like the Address to Graduating Class at Bennington College, 1970. It is a well argued, grim manifesto of pessimism that contains statements like "Everything is going to become unimaginably worse, and never get better again", where the objects of author's sarcasm are well deserving of scorn. The piece about the war in Biafra is, in turn, extremely serious, dramatic, and as moving as the unforgettable Slaughterhouse Five

The story Teaching the Unteachable satirizes summer writing schools; Mr. Vonnegut, who was an instructor at one of these schools, states the obvious "You can't teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do." On the other hand, I am completely unable to "get" the short play Fortitude that features, among others, a Dr. Frankenstein. As much as I have been trying to give the benefit of doubt to one of my favorite writers, I don't think the text makes much sense. One of the pieces in the collection is Mr. Vonnegut's interview for the Playboy magazine. Playboy used to have some top-notch conversations with famous people, alas the one here, rambling, unfocused, and superficial, is certainly not one of them. The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky is another aimless piece.

So while I agree with Mr. Vonnegut's deeply pessimistic opinion about many aspects of our society, primarily about the commercialism that soils every lofty idea it encounters, I am unable to recommend the collection. Let's at least end with another neat quote:
"Earth is such a pretty blue and pink and white pearl in the pictures NASA sent me. It looks so *clean*. You can't see all the hungry, angry Earthlings down there - and the smoke and the sewage and trash and sophisticated weaponry."
Two stars.

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Galton CaseThe Galton Case by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] money was never free. Like any other commodity, it had to be paid for."

The Galton Case (1959), yet another novel in my "Re-read Ross Macdonald" project, is the eighth book in the extraordinary Lew Archer series. I like it quite a lot more than many earlier entries and - since I am finally trying to read the novels in chronological order - let's hope that Macdonald will keep improving for me. In fact, I can't wait to re-read The Chill which was the book I loved the most some forty years ago. So far, one of the later novels, The Underground Man tops my Macdonald's rankings.

Lew Archer is hired by Mr. Sable, who serves as the personal lawyer for an elderly, ailing, and very rich Mrs. Galton. Nearing death she wants to make amends with her son Anthony, whom she had shut out of her life some 20 years earlier because of his unacceptable life style ("[...] somehow he became fascinated with the pitch that defileth. And the pitch defiled him", cool phrasing by Mrs. Galton, by the way). But since Anthony had disappeared long ago Sable wants Archer to find out what happened and - if Anthony is still alive - get him back to his mother to let her forgive him or at least determine with certainty that he had died.

The actual setup of the story is more complicated, though: Mr. Sable's houseman, Peter Culligan, is found murdered and the search for Anthony Galton becomes inextricably linked with the Culligan's thread. The story - which takes Lew Archer to San Francisco, to a small town of Luna Bay on the California coast, and later even to Detroit - is captivating and well told. I have been able to follow the plot without feeling lost, which has happened in the case of several other Macdonald's stories. Yet the author's storytelling has one fundamental weakness. "I hate coincidences" says Archer in his narration in the sentence that opens Chapter 7. And then, in Chapter 14, he tells Sable that "too many coincidences came together," Unfortunately, the entire plot is driven by major coincidences. While coincidences do indeed occur in real life and account for many strange twists of human histories, they make an inferior literary device in mystery novels.

The characters are well drawn: it is a pity, though, that Mr. Millar (Ross Macdonald's real name) does not flesh out the character of Cassie Hildreth, Mrs. Galton's distant cousin and paid companion. There seemed to be nice chemistry in the making between Archer and Ms. Hildreth. The writing is smooth but I regret that only very few quotable passages can be found in this novel. Other than the epigraph, perhaps only the following fragment that describes Archer losing consciousness during a severe beating, is worth quoting:
"Then it was a light surging away from me like the light of a ship. I swam for it, but it rose away, hung in the dark heaven still as a star. I let go of the pounding room, and swung from it up and over the black mountains."
Three stars.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Chronicle of a Death ForetoldChronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on."

I have just finished reading, consecutively, two translations of Crónica de una muerte anunciada - a magnificent novella, stunning in its design and literary form - first the English translation by Gregory Rabassa and then the Polish one by Carlos Marrodán Casas. I even checked out the original Spanish version from a library and asked my wife, who reads Spanish, to translate a passage that I found not quite clear in either English or Polish. This double reading feast has confirmed for me the greatness of Chronicle, yet I am not quite ready to round my rating up to five stars, for which I am apologizing later in this review.

This brilliantly structured and beautifully written novella tells a story of an inevitable killing, a killing which is a natural and expected consequence of events that take place in an inflexible world of rigid socio-cultural norms and traditions. Santiago Nasar gets up early to prepare for the expected visit of the bishop, but his fate has already been sealed and in just about an hour and a half he will be "carved up like a pig", slaughtered in an honor killing. No one can do anything about it in advance: "There is no way out of this, [...] It's as if it had already happened." Virtually all residents of the town know that the killing is about to take place: in fact many line up in a town store to get the latest news about whether the deed has already been done. Many others profess that they are trying to prevent the killing yet are powerless to carry out their intentions. Everybody is in a state of total incapacity to do anything about what must and will happen. The author - this is my reading - cannot allow anyone to prevent the deed: stopping it would be tantamount to violating the cultural praxis that regulates the society.

I am not qualified to discuss in any depth the main themes of this fascinating novella: the reader can easily find hundreds of web pages with reviews and analyses written by professional, learned literary critics. I am submitting just a few unorganized, amateurish thoughts. First, this is by no means a "magical realism" work. There is no magic at play: the story reflects the most objective reality. This is the world of a culture where honor is the pre-eminent category and the loss of honor can only be redeemed by death. In this world while the people who carry out the honor killing may be guilty before the state, they are certainly innocent before God, as having discharged their duty.

This is also the world of machismo, where men show off their masculinity by shaving with butcher knife, where the main qualification for a wife is to have been "raised to suffer", and where there is "no public misfortune more shameful than for a woman to be jilted in her bridal gown." The quote that for me absolutely stands out and - in a sense - summarizes the author's intent is an extraordinary paraphrase of purported saying by Archimedes:
"Give me a prejudice and I will move the world."
There is even a healthy dose of black humor in the novella: not only in the vapid excuses that various characters offer for not being able to prevent the killing, but most spectacularly in the early scene of preparing the rabbit stew: there is a Czekhovian purpose in the brutal imagery of throwing the rabbit intestines to the dogs.

The aspect of Chronicle that resonates with me the strongest is that the plot is like an ensemble play, written for so many characters: each of them just doing their part, each of them just an actor rather than an agent, speaking the words that have been written for them well in advance. The author tells us: "the other actors in the tragedy had been fulfilling with dignity, and even with a certain grandeur, their part of the destiny that the life had assigned them."

And finally, the hard part of this review: the rounding down of my four-and-a-half star rating. In my previous review I granted five stars to a mere police procedural ( The Laughing Policeman ) How do I have the cheek to rank a police crime novel higher than a distinguished work of literary art that Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novella unquestionably is? Well, had I not read One Hundred Years of Solitude - not just one of my all-time favorite books but undoubtedly one of the best books ever written - I would have rated Chronicle with the highest rating. But I had and so even if I dearly love this splendid novella, I do not think it is as superbly magnificent as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's most famous work. It has not taken my breath away. Maybe I have been hoping for a little magic?

Four and a half stars.

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Laughing Policeman (Martin Beck, #4)The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The cold bright light made every detail stand out with the sharpness of an etching. The whole bus seemed to be full of twisted, lifeless bodies covered with blood."

My main problem in reviewing The Laughing Policeman (1968), the fourth entry in the famous "Martin Beck series" of police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, is how to convincingly justify rounding my four-and-a-half-star rating to five stars. Obviously, as a novel, as a work of literary fiction, this crime drama is nowhere near the greatness of, say, J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace or C. Nooteboom's The Following Story . While the prose is good and the plot is absolutely captivating, while there are virtually no clichés that tend to ruin most mystery novels, and while the characters are full-bodied and vividly drawn, the book - quite obviously - is not a masterpiece of literature. So why five stars? It is simply the best police procedural I have ever read, a pinnacle of its genre. I read it for the first time forty-something years ago, and the current re-read has not changed my enthusiastic opinion of the book. By the way, I am not alone in this high praise: the book won the Edgar Award for the best novel of 1970 from the Mystery Writers of America.

Stockholm, Sweden. November 1967. Most of the police force are busy controlling the massive demonstrations: thousands of people are protesting the Vietnam War in front of the American Embassy. A man walking a dog runs towards a police patrol to report a city bus that has driven off the road and stopped with its front door open. In the bus the patrolmen find nine people shot, eight to their death - the greatest mass murder in Sweden's history. One of the victims is Ǻke Stenström, a detective from Martin Beck's homicide squad. Beck and his crew of Kollberg, Larsson, Melander, Rönn as well as detectives called from other Swedish regions embark on a long and painstaking investigation with virtually no clues available in the beginning.

The story follows the investigation, detailing every small step, each iota of progress and the many dead ends. No other crime novel is better at showing the team effort, the meticulously patient work that involves searching for clues, gathering and analyzing them, the various re-enactments and brainstorming sessions. Yet even with the most dedicated work of large teams of people, success would not be attained if not for individual sparks of intuition and brilliance, like Melander's crucial question "What could Stenström do?" or Kollberg's insights into and experience with sexual behaviors. Of course, nothing much would be achieved either without quiet, assured and steady-handed leadership by Martin Beck.

The portraits of detectives and other characters are superbly drawn and several passages are indeed masterpieces of psychological observation. I have always remembered the conversations between Kollberg and Asa Torell, Ǻke Stenström's girlfriend, and they indeed stand out as luminously as I had found them in the mid-1970s. There is not a single false note in the characters' psychology. The superbly convincing and powerful ending, devoid of any idiotic plot twists, stands out as the epitome of criminal story denouements.

Considering the bloody setup of the novel, it may seem strange but there is a substantial amount of humor in the novel. Not only do Kristiansson and Kvant provide the usual laughs, but we also have the monstrously stupid detective Ullholm, "a man who knew most things and understood everything." We also have some sexual humor: Kollberg asks his wife to stand on her hands, naked, and then receives a sort of vaccination from her. I like the generous dose of black humor: for instance, a psychiatrist in a mental hospital, while evaluating a man who murdered his wife, tells Kollberg that the patient is much better after he finally got what he needed: "to be rid of that bitch he was married to."

One of the most compelling passages in the novel is a fragment I have remembered for forty-something years: it quotes the text on a sign carried by a little girl during the anti-American demonstration - I am unable to repeat it because of decency concerns - and describes what the policemen later did to the little girl after they had seen the sign.

Four and a half stars, rounded up.

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Franny and ZooeyFranny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Franny suddenly tried with one hand alone to get a light for her cigarette. She opened the matchbox compartment successfully, but one inept scratch of a match sent the box to the floor. She bent quickly and picked up the box, and let the spilled matches lie."

I have a recollection of buying the English edition of J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey (1955, 1961) at the International Book Fair in Warsaw, Poland, in 1968. I bought it along with the author's famous The Catcher in the Rye. (Remember the iconic red cover with yellow title?) I read the latter almost instantaneously as it is a great book for a teenage boy eager to lap up the wisdom of the world packaged and portioned for easy consumption. Alas, I could never get into Franny and Zooey although I tried several times during the intervening forty-eight years. Finally, last week - aided by the patience of old age - I succeeded in conquering the book, still the same copy that I brought from my Old Country.

Franny and Zooey are two separate works: the former is a 40-page short story while the latter is a novella of about 150 pages, which to me is the ideal size of a book. Franny is the youngest of seven siblings of the Glass family - with Zooey being the next youngest - who used to have their own TV show for children. Franny is a college student undergoing a sort of intellectual breakdown. She loses faith in her education, despises the snobbery of college, and quits the theatre department at her university; instead she is captivated by a book about a Russian mendicant pilgrim and the power of "praying without ceasing", meaning the non-stop invocation of the Jesus Prayer. Franny is basically a detailed account of a single conversation between the title character and her boyfriend, Lane, held when she comes to visit him in his college. Most of the conversation happens during their lunch, and they talk at (rather than to) each other so that not much communication takes place.

The plot of Zooey, the novella, happens some time later, when Franny comes to her parents' home. Her mother, Bessie, is concerned about Franny's breakdown and asks Zooey to talk to her, help her shake the funk and recover from the "Jesus Prayer phase". The novella covers a few hours of conversations between Zooey, Bessie, and Franny.

Both stories are, basically, protocols of the protagonists' minute psychological and emotional states, precise micro-observations of second-by-second behaviors of individual people and interplays between them. Here's another representative example, in addition to the epigraph quote:
"Lane sat up a bit in his chair and adjusted his expression from that of all-around apprehension and discontent to that of a man whose date has merely gone to the john, leaving him, as dates do, with nothing to do in the meantime but smoke and look bored, preferably attractively bored."

Both works are extremely well written: the prose is compelling, the psychological observations convincing, situations plausible and characters realistic. Mr. Salinger offers an insightful analysis of human attitudes, pretenses and affectations, motives, and behaviors. In addition to analysis, though, I would love to have some - for lack of a better word - synthesis, that would transcend the observations.

So, while I certainly recommend the book, the recommendation is not exactly full-hearted. Some passages seem a little pretentious: for instance - unless my irony detector is not calibrated properly - I think that Mr. Salinger offers the following passage full of turgid and empty phrases in all seriousness:
"However innumerable beings are, I vow to save them: however inexhaustible the passions are, I vow to extinguish them; however immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to master them; however incomparable the Budda-truth is, I vow to attain it."

Ouch! Anyway, I definitely have to re-read The Catcher in the Rye; maybe my stellar rating needs revision.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Monday, June 13, 2016

The DoomstersThe Doomsters by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Try listening to yourself sometime, alone in a transient room in a strange town. The worst is when you draw a blank, and the ash-blonde ghosts of the past carry on long twittering long-distance calls with your inner ear, and there's no way to hang up."

The Doomsters (1958), the twelfth novel in my "Re-read Ross Macdonald" project does not satisfy the "re-" criterion as I had never read it before. Alas it does not provide a particularly memorable entry in the Lew Archer series either: while a few passages - like the one above - are beautifully written, the novel also has several bad fragments of prose (one is quite remarkably awkward) and uses some suspect literary devices.

Carl Hallman, a highly agitated young man, knocks on Lew Archer's door waking him up in the middle of the night. He tells Archer that he escaped, along with a friend - whom Archer co-incidentally used to know in the past - from a state hospital where he was staying on a manic-depressive diagnosis. Carl tells Archer that his father, a powerful California senator who died half a year ago was in fact murdered. Carl blames his brother, Jerry, and his wife, Zinnie, for conspiring to prevent him from inheriting the father's wealth. Archer convinces Carl to go back to the hospital and promises to investigate, but Carl assaults him on the way there and escapes. Obviously, Archer begins the investigation on his own.

The plot involves murders and is quite complicated, luckily not as bizarrely complex as in several other Macdonald's books. Some of the major characters are Mildred, Carl's suffering yet supportive wife, a Dr. Grantland, an ambiguous character whom Carl also blames for his troubles, and Rose Parish, a dedicated nurse, warm person, and an attractive woman with whom Archer almost falls in love. We also learn that the death of the Senator's wife, a few years ago, might have been a murder.

At about 80% into the novel (page 150 of my old Bantam Books paperback edition) there is a real howler of very bad prose that starts with "Mind if I peel myself an apple?" Those awkward, stilted, grating sentences read as if taken from a current bestseller rather than a novel by a Grand Master of American Mystery Fiction. What's worse, Macdonald again relies on a cheap literary device: Archer is able to overhear private conversations.

I have found the ending very trying: when reading the last 40 or so pages my feelings evolved from extreme irritation, through resignation, to - in fact - grudging admiration. There are several endings, nested within each other, like Russian Matryoshka dolls. While endings in many Macdonald's books teeter on the edge of implausibility, here I was afraid the author finally had let the plot fall down the void of ridiculousness. Fortunately, the bogus endings turn out to be distractions only, and the ending that really ends the story is, in fact, somewhat plausible, well-written and touching. But why the need of these fake denouements? The reader can easily see they are not the real endings as a lot of text still remains when these diversions are spun.

Two and a quarter stars.

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Friday, June 10, 2016

The Childhood of JesusThe Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"He looks into the boy's eyes. For the briefest of moments he sees something there. He has no name for it. It is like - that is what occurs to him in the moment. Like a fish that wriggles loose as you try to grasp it. But not like a fish - no, like like a fish. Or like like like a fish."

I would have never expected this to happen: here is the first book by J.M. Coetzee that I do not quite like and am unable to recommend, particularly for a reader for whom it would be an introduction to the author's work. The 17 books of the Nobel Prize winner that I have read and reviewed here on Goodreads include such masterpieces of fiction as Disgrace or Waiting for the Barbarians and several great collections of literary criticism writings. My lowest rating among the seventeen books is the three-star one for Slow Man . Alas, The Childhood of Jesus (2013) does not rise to the three-star level.

Middle-aged Simón and five-year-old David arrive in a refugee city of Novilla, somewhere in the Spanish-speaking world. The author tells us that Simón and David may not be the characters' real names and that Simón does not remember or perhaps does not even know where they came from. Their past seems to be a closed book: they only remember being on a boat where the boy had lost a note with his mother's name. They begin their new life in Novilla, where Simón finds a job as a stevedore unloading sacks of grain from ships, and where his first order of business is to find the boy's mother. That he does, but the author strongly suggests that the boy is really a stranger to Inés, the young woman who has been quite randomly chosen by Simón for her role as David's mother.

Roughly the first half of the book describes the life in Novilla, where almost all residents are refugees without any memories of their past lives. This part of the novel is highly non-realistic. For most writers the lack of realism in supposedly realistic prose comes from their deficient writing skills. Of course, with J.M. Coetzee being an absolute master of prose, this is not the reason and the blatant lack of realism must clearly be intentional. Let me go out on a limb and impersonate a literary critic: perhaps the first part of the novel is a sort of "thought experiment"? What if people were devoid of basic human passions such as envy and greed? What would life be in such an environment? Can we imagine how life would look if people never wanted more than they have? (By the way, is there a more un-American concept than eliminating greed?) How would life look like if everybody felt "goodwill, much goodwill", the all-encompassing "warmth and goodwill", but no strong emotions towards everybody else? Mr. Coetzee answers: everything, even warmth, would then be lukewarm. Things would not have "their due weight," for instance, music - in its "unremitting, even-tempered melodiousness" - would "lack weight," and so would lovemaking. The author contrasts the new, placid humans with the old ones: "In the old way of thinking, no matter how much you may have, there is always something missing. The name you choose to give this something-more that is missing is passion."

The second half of the novel focuses on the boy: his brilliant intellect allows him at the age of six to learn - on his own - how to read and write yet he is completely unable and unwilling to follow the directions set out for him by other people, particularly by his inept teacher at school. This part of the novel is much more realistic and, based on my limited experience with children, the psychological portrait of David is totally convincing and plausible; David is one of the more memorable young child characters I have ever met on pages of a book.

I am too obtuse to understand the novel and I do not want to read "professional" reviews - before I write my own - to learn what the critics "get" from the novel. My perception is of a major disconnect between the two parts of the book: the "thought experiment" of the first half is fascinating as an idea but failing as fiction. While the second part is very readable, what is the deeper meaning in this realistic portrait of a brilliant yet indirectable child? Or maybe there is not supposed to be any? But then what does the portrait of David have in common with the apparent main theme of the first part - lack of human passion?

Several passages in the book are - to put it mildly - unusual. The toilet in Inés's apartment overflows and Simon has to clean the mess:
Who would have thought, at the moment when he first beheld this young woman on the tennis court, so cool, so serene, that a day would come when he would be having to wash her shit off his body!,

The recurring motif about numbers, particularly about the discrete nature of integers, is fascinating and deep (Mr. Coetzee has a degree in mathematics) yet, again, I am missing the connection - likely my fault. I am also curious whether including - on the very same page - references to both the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (the "thing in itself", Ding an sich) and to Heraclitus's well-known saying "you cannot step twice into the same waters" has been done on purpose. Is it how Mr. Coetzee displays his very dry sense of humor?

David Attwell in his book J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing (which I review here) writes about Coetzee's struggles with the issues of realism of fiction. Mr. Attwell quotes Coetzee who feels "bound to produce" realism "if the book is to be written", but who also seems to have - with each next novel - less patience to provide sufficient layers of realism to ground his fiction in. The Childhood of Jesus may be a perfect manifestation of the author's impatience.

And finally, there exists an alternative explanation of my not being able to "get" the novel: maybe I am just not smart enough to get it.

Two and a half stars.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (Martin Beck, #2)The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"There was something fundamentally wrong with all this. Something was quite definitely not as it should be. What it was he did not know."

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966) is chronologically the second book in the acclaimed "Martin Beck" series of Swedish police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Yet for some reason the Vintage Crime series by Random House lists it as the third installment and thus I have read it after the outstanding Roseanna and very good The Man on the Balcony .

This is not a typical entry in this very Scandinavian series: the major part of the story happens in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, at that time a country behind the Iron Curtain. It all begins when Inspector Martin Beck, who heads the Stockholm homicide division, leaves for family vacations on a small island in the Stockholm archipelago. Not even 24 hours into his vacations Beck is recalled to work by his boss: the Foreign Office needs someone experienced, discreet, and trusted to investigate the disappearance of a well-known Swedish journalist in Hungary. The diplomats want to prevent the case from developing into a new Wallenberg affair. Beck goes to Budapest where he retraces the steps of the vanished Alf Matsson; he ends up staying in the same hotel and even sleeping in the same bed. Local police first treat him with distrust but eventually Beck establishes a friendly working relationship with Szluka, a Hungarian police inspector. Scarcely any progress is made for several days other than Martin Beck's developing a hunch - quoted in the epigraph - about "something fundamentally wrong" with the case. There is a rare violent sequence - with Beck almost getting killed - and we also have an embarrassing quasi-sex scene in the novel. The action returns to Sweden, where patrolmen Kristiansson and Kvant grace the plot with their presence, and even in some way contribute to solving the case.

I had spent almost half my life behind the Iron Curtain (the circumstances in Poland were quite similar to those in Hungary) and I can vouch that the realities of life in a so-called Communist country are well captured; I also appreciate that the authors refrain from cheap political propaganda in either direction.

Although I am not much into the mystery aspect in crime novels I have to admit that from the "mystery point of view" the authors created a top-notch plot, with a clever and surprising ending. As much as I dislike plot twists, the one here is unexpected yet logical. Alas, there is not much of what I usually look for in Sjöwall and Wahlöö's novels - sharp societal observations and analyses.

Not exactly my kind of book, but I recommend it: a purely plot-driven novel, with a good sense of place and somewhat realistically drawn characters.

Three stars.

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Saturday, June 4, 2016

Armageddon in RetrospectArmageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Now, if others will rid the earth of vanity, ignorance, and want, mankind can live happily ever after."

Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007, two weeks before he was scheduled to give a lecture in Clowes Hall, Indianapolis, the city of his birth. The text of this address is one of the pieces in Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), a posthumous collection of Vonnegut's previously unpublished writings assembled and prefaced by his son, Mark, who actually delivered the lecture on April 27, 2007.

The speech is a totally fascinating mix - quite typical for Mr. Vonnegut - of the deep, the provocative, the hilarious, and the outright silly stuff. How can one not love the morbidly funny passage "As a Humanist, I love science. I hate superstition, which could never have given us A-bombs."

Vonnegut is mainly known for his masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five , one of the best books I have ever read, and for several other novels that combine penetrating social critique with elements of science fiction (for example, Breakfast of Champions ). The author returns to the Allied catastrophic bombing of Dresden in February of 1945, which is the main topic of Slaughterhouse, in the third piece of the set, Wailing Shall Be in All Streets, where he repeats:
The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and willfully executed. The killing of children - "Jerry" children or "Jap" children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us - can never be justified.

The remaining stories in the collection are focused on the themes of war and peace. Three of them have made strong impression on me. In Great Day the narrator describes how he joined the "Army of the World" in 2037 and sort of participated in the 1918 bloody Second Battle of the Marne. I am wondering whether Mr. Vonnegut saw Zbigniew Rybczyński's magnificent short film Steps, which shows American tourists from the 1980s immersed in the famous Odessa Stairs massacre scene from Eisenstein's 1925 movie Battleship Potemkin. Vonnegut's short story is almost as powerful as Rybczyński's film and has perhaps a more intriguing ending.

Spoils is a sickeningly sad story about Allied soldiers looting German houses immediately after the end of the war in 1945. The title short story, which happens to be the last piece in the collection, is only tangentially related to the theme of war. Instead - in the best Vonnegut's tradition - it is wickedly and intelligently funny. It also contains the wonderful quote that I used for the epigraph. Regarding this pearl of wisdom, though, I am afraid that if we miraculously managed to eliminate human vanity, stupidity and greed, nothing would remain of our civilization.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Ivory GrinThe Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"It was a colored sketch of a young woman. Her pale blond braids were coroneted on her head. Her eyes had the dull gleaming suavity of tile. Wilding had caught her beauty, but she was older in time than in the picture."

Ross Macdonald's The Ivory Grin (1952) is a bit out of the chronological order in my "Re-read Macdonald" project - I couldn't find my copy and had to use the library. Anyway, the book is almost exactly as old as I am and its age shows: not so much in the plot as in the writing, which is not so crisp and economical as the author's much later novels.

A bejeweled middle-aged woman, who identifies herself only as Una, hires Lew Archer to find her ex-maid, Lucy Champion, who supposedly had stolen some jewelry. Archer takes the case although - or maybe precisely because - there clearly is much more to the story than the client has revealed. Archer traces Lucy and - this being a Macdonald's novel - the plot gets almost ridiculously complicated: a young handsome man, Charles Singleton, the son of a rich and reclusive woman is missing. A doctor, his wife, and a receptionist are also involved. Archer encounters another PI working on the case, and we meet an ex-gangster, who seems to be insane. Several bodies are found. A mysterious blonde woman, "a Nordic Aphrodite rising from the Baltic", seems to have connections to every aspect of the case and provides a towering presence in the background. It is hardly astonishing that the plot sounds so very pulp: after all Kenneth Millar's writing roots are in pulp literature. Yet - almost surprisingly - the author manages to tie all loose ends neatly to make this interesting story somewhat convincing, not the least through the humanity of Lew Archer's character and the writer's sympathy towards all people no matter how flawed.

The plot leads us from Archer's office in West Hollywood (8411½ Sunset Blvd.), through Bella City in San Fernando Valley, opulent oceanside mansions in Arroyo Beach, to secluded mountain cabins near the Eagle Lookout on the Sky Route, high in the coastal range; save for West Hollywood and the Valley all these places are fictional but as a long-time Southern California resident I can vouch that the terrain and character of the region come through vividly and the California landscapes are alive on the pages.

The plot, though extremely convoluted, has kept my attention and the mystery of the blonde woman is quite captivating. However, the author relies too much - and not for the first time - on the lame device of overheard conversations. Yet Macdonald's major sin in this novel is his overuse of similes. "Her bosom heaved with remembered anger, like the aftershock of an earthquake." "The state blacktop unwound like a used typewriter-ribbon under my headlights." "[...] he backed away from her, flushed and cowering like a browbeaten German wife," "I left the question turning like a knife in her brain." While I might be allergic to similes - some of them are in fact clever, well, maybe not the one about a German wife - my library copy came with dubious similes conveniently underlined, so at least I am not alone in my tsk-tsking.

An engrossing story with some realistically drawn characters, yet the writing is not up to Ross Macdonald's usual high standards.

Two and three quarter stars.

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