Monday, October 16, 2017

Ross MacdonaldRoss Macdonald by Tom Nolan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] recurring patterns in Macdonald's plots which [...] more resembled Dickens' and Faulkner's than Hammetts's or Chandler's. [...] All men are guilty and all human actions are connected. The past is never past. The child is father to the man. True reality resides in dreams. And most of all, everyone gets what he deserves, but no one deserves what he gets."
(George Grella, University of Rochester, on main motifs in works of Ross Macdonald)

Tom Nolan's Ross Macdonald: A Biography (1999) is an outstanding book. The biography portrays the life and works of one of my most favorite writers, the author of "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." As much as I dislike critical hype and hyperbole, I completely agree with these words of a literary critic about Macdonald's series of novels featuring Lew Archer, a California P.I. I have reviewed all 18 Archer novels, written between the late 1940s and the mid-1970s, here on Goodreads. Two of these novels, The Underground Man and The Chill , are in my view near-masterpieces, and deserve inclusion in the so-called serious literature category.

Sue Grafton, an accomplished and popular mystery author, provides a touching introduction to the biography and emphasizes the profound influence Macdonald had on her own writing. Mr. Nolan provides a detailed account of Ross Macdonald's early years. While most of us know that Macdonald is a pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, fewer readers are aware of the author's fractured childhood and checkered youth, when he spent most of his days apart from his parents and was raised mainly by aunts and uncles, continually changing addresses, cities, and even countries - he spent many years of his youth in Canada. After serving in the US Navy as a communication officer, he studied literature at the University of Michigan and obtained the PhD degree based on the thesis about Samuel Coleridge. His first books, non-Archer ones, were firmly grounded in the hard-boiled crime genre. The Archer series illustrates the author's evolution that freed his writing from the constraints of hard-boiled genre and led to the depth of late works that masterfully depict the human condition.

The biography is fantastically rich in details, analyses and interpretations, so for sake of brevity I will just mention the few threads that I find the most important. The dramatic youth, possible mental illness, and tragic early death of Macdonald's daughter, Linda, cast a long shadow upon the author's life and writing. A Newsweek journalist offers perhaps an oversimplified yet astute diagnosis when he writes about Linda and Macdonald's novels: "she's really the one that all those novels are about."

Another major thread in Macdonald's life is his marriage to Margaret Sturm, later Margaret Millar, an accomplished and popular mystery writer who in 1956 won the prestigious Edgar Award for her Beast in View . The couple had married in 1938 and stayed together until Macdonald's death 45 years later. The thread of spousal "competition" is totally fascinating: in the beginning years it was Margaret who was supporting the family financially through her mystery writing when her husband focused on his academic and military careers; but towards the end, it was Mr. Millar whose earnings dwarfed those of his wife's, when he became a worldwide acclaimed author.

The third thread in the biography is focused on sort of a "rivalry" between Macdonald and Raymond Chandler. It may be true that in the early stages of his literary career Kenneth Millar used Chandler's hard-boiled style as inspiration and pattern to imitate. However, he certainly grew beyond the hard-boiled canon. Mr. Chandler used to denigrate Macdonald's literary skills and disagreed with grouping Macdonald along himself and Dashiell Hammett as the three masters of the genre. In fact, some of Chandler's statements might be construed as attempts to sabotage Macdonald's career. I apologize to Chandler's fans but I think his novels are generally inferior to these of Macdonald's and that listing Chandler as Mr. Millar's equal is not justified. To me, only one novel by Chandler, The Long Goodbye is comparable in class to the best of Macdonald's works.

Fascinating biography and I need to toss a coin to decide whether to round my 4.5 rating up or down.

Four and a half stars.


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Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Red Death (Easy Rawlins #2)A Red Death by Walter Mosley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Police and government officials always have contempt for innocence; they are, in some way, offended by an innocent man."

Walter Mosley who comes strongly recommended by a dear friend of mine is another new author for me. I am thankful for the suggestion: I like the novel and will definitely read more books by Mr. Mosley, although it is hard for me to be enthusiastic about A Red Death (1991). Yes, a good book, with solid grounding in social and political issues, but not particularly remarkable. Maybe the "sophomore curse" can be blamed: this is the second novel in the Easy Rawlins series, one that follows the immensely popular Devil in a Blue Dress.

The story takes place about 1953 in Los Angeles. We meet Easy (Ezekiel) Rawlins, an African American war veteran who moved to LA from Houston, as he cleans an apartment building in the Watts neighborhood. However we soon learn that he actually owns the buildings where he works as a handyman. He explains:
"That's why I kept my wealth a secret. Everybody knows that a poor man's got nothing to lose; a poor man will kill you over a dime."
We also learn that Easy was successful as a sort of amateur detective a few years ago and that there are secrets in his past, which is probably a reference to the previous book.

Easy is in serious trouble. IRS is on his back threatening him with a prison term for tax evasion. The woman he had an affair with in the past has just come to him with her little son. Her estranged husband who had been Easy's best friend may be looking for her: he is a killer and "has gone crazy," according to the woman. In addition, one of the tenants - unable to pay the rent - commits suicide in a building that he owns. When Easy is resolved to kill the IRS agent who pursues him he is miraculously saved by FBI: they promise him help in the tax case if he helps them infiltrate the African American community. He is supposed to set a Jewish man, a suspected Communist organizer, for a fall. The captivating criminal plot gets even more complex, there are more deaths, and it is Mr. Rawlins who provides crucial contributions to resolving the case.

These are the times of "Red Scare", suspected Communist hunts, blacklists, arrests, trials, and other kinds of repressions in the U.S. These are also the times when soldiers come back home dead or wounded from the Korean War. The story takes place in some of the poorest African American neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Racism is overt and ubiquitous and the author - who is himself of mixed black and Jewish ethnicity - draws parallels between persecution of Jews in Europe and economic and social oppression of black people in the U.S.

There are several compelling scenes and threads in the novel. The portrayal of a mass in the First African Baptist Church makes a strong impression. Both the suicide scene and the "dental" fragment (I can't say more without spoilers) are graphic and powerful, and I find the thread of the African Migration group very interesting. Sadly, the author's great efforts are damaged by his tendency to provide unnecessary commentary on the characters' motives and his attempts to tell the readers what they are supposed to think as if they were unable to think on their own. Still, A Red Death is a worthwhile read.

Three stars.

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Monday, October 9, 2017

The Dalkey ArchiveThe Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"One might describe a plenum as a phenomenon or existence full of itself but inert. Obviously space does not satisfy such a condition. But time is a plenum, immobile, immutable, ineluctable, irrevocable, a condition of absolute stasis. Time does not pass. Change and movement may occur within time."

Flann O'Brien (pseudonym of Brian O'Nolan) is my literary discovery of 2017. This great yet not widely known Irish writer is the author of The Third Policeman , to me the funniest novel ever written in the English language. His critically acclaimed At Swim-Two-Birds is a masterpiece precursor of post-modern literature. So I am more than a little disappointed with his The Dalkey Archive (1964), an interesting and readable novel, yet in no way even close to the greatness of the two other works.

Dalkey shares two motifs with The Third Policeman: the character of De Selby, the "mad scientist", and the idea that humans and bicycles can morph - perhaps transmute would be a better term - into each other. This fabulously deranged idea, first introduced in Policeman is dwelled upon here and explained via Sergeant Fottrell's Mollycule Theory. Mollycules are transported from a bicycle to a human and presumably vice versa through repeated contact of human body with the bicycle saddle. Alas, because of repetition, what is out-of-this-world hilarious and unprecedented in its sheer audacity in Policeman becomes just slightly amusing here. Also, De Selby is side-splittingly hilarious when he is talked about; when he gets a speaking part in the story the hilarity is much lessened. (In an essay on O'Brien I read that he was unable to publish Policeman during his lifetime, which may explain the repetition of motifs that the author wanted to save from oblivion.)

The plot of Dalkey is demented but not as wonderfully wacko as that of Policeman. Neither is the novel as masterfully constructed as Swim. Mick, an Irish lad in the little town of Dalkey, and his friend Hackett encounter a stranger who happens to be De Selby himself. Over whisky they discuss the erroneous ways of Descartes' philosophy, the nature of time (see the epigraph), and De Selby's plans to destroy all life on Earth by totally eliminating oxygen from the Earth's atmosphere. De Selby leads them to an undersea cave where - equipped with diving gear - they have a lively religious and philosophical discussion with none other than Saint Augustine. De Selby has the power of control over time: bringing back dead people to life is not a big deal for him. Even better, he can easily change one-week-old-whisky to several years of age - a feat quite useful in Ireland, one presumes. By the way, most scenes are accompanied by consumption of certain types of liquids in the form of stout, whisky, gin, or - gasp! - wine.

To me, the Saint Augustine scene is the best in the book, which sort of goes down from there. True, we have plenty of things happen, such as conversations with St. Francis of Assisi, attempts to rehabilitate Judas Iscariot, and - most impressively - several meetings with James Joyce, who had only pretended to have died. Joyce maintains that ... No, let's not spoil the plot as this might be the funniest thing in the novel for readers who do not know the author's other works.

To sum up, neither the insanity nor the originality of the plot reach the top registers. The prose is still wonderful and reading the book made my fascination with English - the language that I would like to master one day - even stronger.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Bland Beginning (Inspector Bland, #3)Bland Beginning by Julian Symons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Adam to Eve: "This breast hard as an apple,
These slim, straight thighs, are built from dung and dirt.
The vitriol sucked from each tautened nipple
Runs in the veins of all whom life has hurt.
"

Bland Beginning (1949) is another classic British mystery by one of the genre's grandmasters, Julian Symons (by the way, it is the 10th book by the author that I am reviewing on Goodreads). As usual, the author delivers an extremely clever and solid mystery, which is literate, well-written, and a pleasure to read, even if it is not my favorite type of mystery or my favorite style of prose.

The Prologue is set in 1949 in a London library where the author searches for literary inspiration for his next novel. There he meets Detective Inspector Bland who mentions his first successful case from a quarter of a century earlier. We jump to 1924 and meet young Anthony Skelton who proposes to Victoria Rawlings, the granddaughter of Martin Rawlings, a minor 19th century British poet. As an engagement present Anthony buys Victoria an expensive first edition of the famous set of poems by Rawlings. They happen to meet John Basingstoke, a young man who is an expert on all things literary; he tells them that the book is a forgery. Trying to learn the truth they consult various experts, including a publishing house employee, Miss Cleverly. Anthony is assaulted, the book is stolen, and pretty soon things get very serious. There are four murders and despite the police investigation, the mystery is solved by Basingstoke's friend, young Bland, then an amateur sleuth.

The mystery plot is quite captivating, but to me characterizations of people, places, and socio-cultural background are much more important. The literary forgery thread is superb. On a lighter note we have an interesting "romantic" thread:
"The battle between two men, one of them physically and the other mentally disfigured, for a woman. Which of them gets her?"
It adds zest to the plot that the romantic configurations change, as dictated by the events. Yet of the main characters, only Victoria is believably drawn, with all her lack of seriousness of purpose. I love how she does things based on how they will look written about in her private diary. Very lifelike character! Alas, other personas are mostly caricatures who serve as devices to move the plot.

Samples of poetry written by the fictional Martin Rawlings in mid 1800s are wonderful. They straddle the boundary between poetry and kitsch, and tend towards the latter, as shown in the epigraph. As a nice bonus the poetry plays a role in the clever solution of the mystery. I love the scenes of the cricket match between two neighboring villages. On the other hand, the novel is full of usual classic British mystery novel clichés. They are almost tolerable, though, because of masterful prose by Mr. Symons. So all in all, not my type of book, but certainly well done job and a great example of its genre. Recommended without too many reservations.

Three stars.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

TimequakeTimequake by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I still like what O'Hare and I said to German soldiers right after we were liberated: That America was going to become more socialist, was going to try harder to give everybody work to do, and to ensure that our children, at least weren't hungry or cold or illiterate or scared to death.
Lotsa luck!
"

Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake (1997), the ninth book by the author that I have reviewed on Goodreads is a major disappointment. I hesitate to offer a sad diagnosis but it seems that Mr. Vonnegut just ran out of things to say. It does not augur well that he himself confesses on the beginning pages that the novel is a rewrite of Timequake 1, the previous version, which, in his words, "stunk." Vonnegut's last novel - he published only collections of essays and various other writings after 1997 - is to me a mess devoid of a central, organizing theme, and close to incoherent rambling. It is painful to say this about a work by the author of one of the best books ever written, Slaughterhouse-Five .

The plot revolves around the concept of a timequake, "a sudden glitch in the time-space continuum" that makes "everybody and everything do exactly what they'd done" before. In Vonnegut's novel this occurred on February 13, 2001, when the time was zapped back to February 17, 1991, and all events repeated themselves. With the end of the repeat period the "free will kicked in again", which caused a lot of trouble but provided opportunities for the story.

I do not like the science fiction aspect of the novel, personified in Vonnegut's favorite fictional character, Kilgore Trout: I do not think it connects in even the slightest way with the realistic passages that portray events from the author's and his family's life. Another reason for the sci-fi aspect leaving me cold is hinted at by the author himself:
"Trout might have said, and it can be said of me as well, that he creates caricatures rather than characters. His animus against so-called mainstream literature, moreover, wasn't peculiar to him. It was generic among writers of science fiction."
There are a few redeeming passages that lift my rating from the cellar. Probably the best of them is the definition of a "humanist" (the author considered himself one):
"Humanists try to behave decently and honorably without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. The creator of the Universe has been to us unknowable so far. We serve as well as we can the highest abstraction of which we have some understanding, which is our community."
The message, if there is any, about free will vs. predetermination is muddled. Unless Mr. Vonnegut just wants to say that we should be more active in our lives rather than somnolently follow the fake life shown to us on TV (or on Internet these days). If only there were more of the social critique in the book instead of Kilgore Trout and timequake stuff... As it is, I find the novel a major failure.

One and a half stars.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

The Rattle-RatThe Rattle-Rat by Janwillem van de Wetering
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"United Europe [...] That's the dream. Why shouldn't it come about some day? All together and still apart? [...] United above all troubles?"

Many years ago a dear friend of mine highly recommended Janwillem van de Wetering’s novels. I had tried to read The Corpse on the Dike and was able to get through just a few pages: I could not follow the bizarrely structured text. About 30 years later I decided to try again and chose a different book - The Rattle-Rat (1985). This time I managed to finish the book only because of my superhuman patience and dedication. I admit the plot is interesting and many characterizations and situations are presented with nice insights and a nice sense of humor but I will not attempt any other book by the author. The problem is that while I understand all the words and almost all sentences in the novel, I do not understand many paragraphs. Mr. van de Wetering’s prose constantly leaves me wondering whose point of view he is presenting at any given time. It seems that frames of reference change frequently within the same paragraph. The fault is not with the translation as I understand the author wrote himself two versions of the book: the Dutch one and the English one.

An Amsterdam Police constable notices a floating fire, something burning in the waters of Amsterdam Inner Harbor. The next morning Adjutant Grijpstra and Sergeant De Gier of the Murder Brigade have to deal with a corpse burned beyond recognition, found in a blackened aluminum rowboat. The autopsy indicates that it might be a laborer's body but the expensive dental work does not quite match. Soon the suspicions as to the identity of the victim focus on a Frisian man and the criminal plot gains an accompanying motif of juxtaposing the northernmost province of Frisia (Friesland) with the rest of the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular.

Many interesting subplots contribute to the story: sheep trade, Chinese immigrants, heroin dealing, prostitution, Hong Kong vs. Singapore triads, and the rare disease of trigeminal neuralgia. Two threads make the strongest impression: Hylkje Hilarius, a Frisian police female corporal, offers a convincing characterization of a modern liberated woman. And of course we have the pet rat mentioned in the title. The rodent plays quite a prominent role in the plot.

There is a lot of humor in the novel, most of it based on contrasting the good Frisians and bad Amsterdammers who wallow in filth. We are told about 167 times that the unnamed commissaris, Grijpstra’s and de Gier’s boss, was born in a city of Joure (city of 13,000 people) in Frisia. There are some funny sexual references like:
"Why does your wife copulate in a cupboard?" Hylkje asked. "So that she may debauch herself in secret."
We have quite a “socially progressive” ending, fitting the image of the Dutch as some of the most progressive people on Earth. And we have this wonderful passage, quoted in the epigraph, about the dream of united Europe: the dream that came true for a while and now is in grave danger of being trampled by nationalistic fervor.

I like most things that are Dutch, I love my memories of Amsterdam, and the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom is my most favorite writer. If only I could understand the paragraphs written by Mr. van de Wetering!

Two and a quarter stars.

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Monday, September 25, 2017

Bill Bruford - The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and MoreBill Bruford - The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More by Bill Bruford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Popularity is a crime from the moment it is sought; it is only a virtue where men have it whether they will or no." (Marquis of Halifax, Moral Thoughts and Reflections (1750), as quoted by Bill Bruford)

Bill Bruford: The Autobiography (2012) is an outstanding work by the famous drummer, a legend in the rock and jazz music community, and the "godfather of progressive drumming." The autobiography presents the 40-year career of Mr. Bruford, from his work in the famed progressive rock bands Yes and King Crimson, through electronic jazz, to acoustic jazz drumming. As far as I can ascertain this is not a ghost-written work: there is little of that characteristic polished, glossy style of entertainment writers and a lot of somewhat endearingly awkward prose of an "amateur" author.

By far the best aspect of the autobiography deserves capitalization: THERE IS NO SHOW BUSINESS GOSSIP in the book! The reader will not learn who slept with whom, who took which drugs, or who fired whom from the band. These kind of issues belong in tabloid magazines and luckily there is virtually nothing of that kind here, with the exception of some gentle fun made of Robert Fripp, the famed leader of King Crimson. This is a really serious book, one that deals with serious issues in a mature way.

Another good feature of the autobiography is that it is not chronological but instead arranged around selected topics from theory, business, and sociology of music, which of course helps the author focus on the serious aspects of his career. He repeatedly "circles in time" and returns to his periods of playing with Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Bruford, and Earthworks.

Some of the topics studied by the author are: the relationship between talent and success in the music world, the differences between being an artist and a craftsman, the theory of music as a social phenomenon, differences between composed and improvised music, and similarities and differences between mathematics and music. The closest that the author comes to the dreaded gossip in his autobiography are passages that portray the interpersonal dynamics on a rock/jazz tour and detailed descriptions of recording sessions. Still, luckily we have no sensationalism here.

Let me just focus on two of my hot-button issues. The first one is about "music as art" versus music as a commodity. Mr. Bruford nicely says that artists create music "to soothe their soul," and he chides the alternative - the focus-group-based, business view of music whose goal is to study "what the market wants and provide it." Alas, the latter approach is prevalent these days.

The other issue dear to my heart is the dramatic shortening of the attention span for modern listeners. Mr. Bruford writes:
"For a whole new generation, listening to a piece of music from beginning to end seems unusual. Through TV advertising we hear slices of Beatles songs, Bach cantatas, jazz and blues pastiche, and - here is the point - all of it incomplete".
The "incomplete listening" goes hand in hand with the more and more common "multitasking," which means that instead of doing one thing well, we do two or more things poorly.

There is a number of cool and catchy phrases in the autobiography, such as "Music begins where language leaves off" and several funny quotes, such as
"The [progress in] technology has benefits (anyone can make a record) which immediately leads to drawbacks (everyone does make a record)."
For a moment I was even toying with the idea of a five-star rating for this interesting, analytical, and insightful book. But no, let's leave five stars for absolute masterpieces.

Four and a quarter stars.


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Friday, September 22, 2017

The Shanghai Moon (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #9)The Shanghai Moon by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Through the years that day has come back at times, unbidden, as terrible moments will. I've always thought every detail engraved on my memory so deeply that I'd never forget a single sight, a single sound. But when I look closely, to try to explain it to you, events appear jumbled and confused. Sounds evade my hearing, sights are inexplicable."

Coincidentally, I have read S. J. Rozan's Shanghai Moon (2009) immediately after Patrick Modiano's After the Circus . The beautifully written passage quoted in the epigraph that comes from Ms. Rozan's mystery/crime novel could equally well belong in the "serious" work of the 2014 literary Nobel Prize winner. Ms. Rozan's book is written extremely well and transcends the usual literary limitations of the crime fiction genre. For a long time into the novel I was sure the five-star rating is inevitable. But then what I attribute to some kind of Ms. Rozan's mental hang-up took over and for the ninth time in her nine books that I have read there is a shootout scene near the end of the story. I used to be angry about the atrocious endings but now I am furious at the author for defacing her own work. Guns should have no place in this wonderful novel: they cheapen it, make it look like a run-of-the-mill crime drama, instead of something very special, a gem that it could have very well been.

This is a Lydia Chin novel (Chin and Bill Smith alternate as protagonists). After their last case together (the great Winter and Night ) Bill has been estranged from Lydia. But now he is back thus allowing the incomparable "chemistry" between the two characters to return. The story is told in two separate time frames: the current (early 2000s) and the past, 1938 - 1946, in Shanghai, China. In the current time frame Lydia is hired by a PI friend of hers who is working for a Swiss attorney specializing in recovery of assets for families of Holocaust victims. The grandchildren of a Jewish woman, Rosalie, who in 1938 escaped the intensifying German persecution in Austria and fled to Shanghai are trying to recover a valuable piece of jewelry. Rosalie is believed to have carried the famed brooch called Shanghai Moon while fleeing Austria. Other jewelry items that once belonged to Rosalie have been found in Shanghai and it is suspected that the brooch might have been brought back to the States. Lydia is hired to conduct discreet investigations in the Chinese community in New York.

Events in the 1930s - 1940s time frame are portrayed mainly via Rosalie's letters to her mother that Lydia has found on the Jewish Museum website. We accompany 18-year-old Rosalie and her younger brother as they travel on an ocean liner to Shanghai and then the story follows their first months as refugees on Chinese soil while their host country has just been invaded by Japan. Later, the civil war in China erupts and the story gets even more dramatic.

Let's make things clear: the Lydia-Bill chemistry, and the current-time criminal intrigue are completely unimportant when compared to the truly masterful portrayal of war times in Shanghai. This is first-class literature and the wonderful prose conveys the sense of the time and place. To use Lydia's words from the novel: "I felt like I'd been in Shanghai, walking beside Rosalie, for weeks." I really did.

While I can fully understand why the book won two major literary awards I am still seething about the author using a gratuitous, stupid shootout scene. She spoils her own ambitious and otherwise very successful work. Yet regardless of how much I hate the author for her moronic act, this badly damaged work still deserves very high rating.

Four stars.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

After the CircusAfter the Circus by Patrick Modiano
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Outside everything seemed light, weightless, and indifferent – like the cold blue January sky.

Reading After the Circus (1992) has been my first contact with the French author, Patrick Modiano, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014. There are many good things about this slim volume, and it has made an impression on me, albeit not one on the order of a masterpiece. First of all, it is a wonderfully short book, not much over 100 pages – one could technically classify it as a novella but it feels like a fully-fledged novel. More importantly, it deals with some of my favorite topics: the transience of memories and non-existence of the past. Yet the most impressive feature is the minimalistic prose. The author's economy of words is fascinating: no word is wasted and there are no spare words that could be removed without harm to the novel.

The book might conceivably be viewed as a thriller, but not of the usual action-cliché-upon-action-cliché variety. There is little action to speak of and the reader’s focus is kept through growing atmosphere of foreboding and menace. Three time frames exist in the novel: in the current time (early 1990s) Jean, the narrator, reminisces events that happened 30 years earlier, and there also is an unexpected detour to the 1970s.

Early 1960s, Paris. Jean is not quite 18 yet, and we meet him as he is interrogated at a police station. He is unable to understand why he is questioned; the reader is even more in the dark as the author points out that Jean is not always telling the truth. Jean notices a young woman - much later we learn that her name might be Gisèle - who is called to the interrogation room after him. He waits for her, they talk, and since she has to move out of the apartment she has been renting and has nowhere to stay, Jean offers her his place. His parents went (fled?) to Switzerland and left Jean the apartment. Gisèle happens to have some strange friends who ask Jean to run an errand: meet a man in a cafe and tell him that another man is waiting outside. The tension is skillfully ratcheted and culminates in a dramatic finale.

To me the following passage (my translation of the Polish translation of the French original) is the key to one understanding of the novel:
"Today I see this scene as if in a fog. In dim light, through the window pane I can make out a fiftyish blonde man in a tartan bathrobe, a girl wearing a fur, and a young man... The light bulb in the lamp is too small and weak. If I could go back in time and return to that room, I would change the bulb. But then, in bright light, everything might well dissipate."
The seemingly all important "now", with all its interconnections, circumstances, relationships is continually dissolving into the past, but the actual past does not really exist, only the dim shadows of our memories.

One can read After the Circus also as a love story - sweet yet very low-key, implied rather than told, and suggested with the faintest touch of the literary brush. There is a strong feeling of autobiographical element in the way the story is told, for instance, Jean is said to be an aspiring writer. Vague references to politics and war are intriguing, particularly the passage where Jean's father asks for the files to be destroyed. What files, the reader may ask. But the files and their meaning existed in the parents' past.

A slight, subtle, and sad story. It reminds me a little of one of the best books I have read in my life, Cees Nooteboom's The Following Story , in that it deals with human impermanence and phantoms of the past, but Mr. Nooteboom does past much, much better. Nobel Prize in literature for him is way overdue.

Three and a half stars.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

High Country (Anna Pigeon, #12)High Country by Nevada Barr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Torture was good. It gave her time."

What a difficult book to review! Nevada Barr's High Country (2004), my fifth book in her National Parks series featuring ranger Anna Pigeon, seems to be composed of two completely different parts: 240 pages of amateurish crime solving and inept, awkward prose, and - in the middle of this dud - a 60-page jewel of a thriller: an outstanding, well-written story of extremely brutal fight-to-death and survival in the unforgiving winter mountain scenery. If I were a suspicious reader, I would immediately jump to a conclusion that Ms. Barr wrote the 60 pages herself (she can write well as evidenced by, for example, Blood Lure ) and then had the remaining clunker ghost-written by someone else. (I prefer not to entertain the idea that it was the other way around.)

Ms. Pigeon works undercover as a waitress in the historic Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley. She is on the assignment because four young people (mainly National Park personnel) disappeared during a period between two heavy snow storms and some kind of foul play is suspected. There had been serial murders in a nearby town so some people suspect a copycat in action. In addition to the investigating the disappearances Ms. Pigeon is facing a constantly growing array of mysterious happenings: a near-death experience of her roommate, presence of some strange men in one of the tent cabins that used to belong to climbers, several attempts on her life, and other events that are hard to explain.

Based on scraps of conversations that she has overheard she sets up to hike in the higher portion of Yosemite Park. Finally, by page 150 or so, the author delivers what I have been waiting for: descriptions of gorgeous mountain scenery. Ms. Pigeon takes the reader onto the Illilouette Trail and to Lower Merced Pass Lake. Here, the truly excellent part of the novel begins. First the author hints at the possible solution of the disappearances and several other mysteries. Then we have the unforgettable thriller sequence where Ms. Pigeon has to fight for her life against extremely brutal opponents. Her survival depends on her using equally brutal means. The fight culminates in one of the most gut-wrenching duels I have seen on pages of thrillers. Gripping, well-written, and not in any way more implausible than the plots of most famous bestselling thrillers.

Alas, good things do not last forever and for the closing part of the novel we are back to pedestrian plot and completely uninspired writing. I feel the need to repeat myself: it is hard to believe that the same author who wrote the thrilling and captivating 60 pages is responsible for painfully clumsy prose full of circumlocutions (for example, "blissfully unaware of the currents of unease"), for editorializing characters thoughts, and other inanities.

By the way, I love the title: a cool double entendre! The rating is the average of five stars for the thriller and one star for the hopeless main part of the book.

Three stars

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

" It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time."

Let me begin with a disclaimer: my enthusiasm about Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is limited not because I do not appreciate the central message of the novel. In fact, I would prefer that of the two human genders the males were limited to reproductive functions (and of course the all important tasks of watching sports, drinking beer, and playing with guns) while women were in charge. I just do not like the novel much as a literary work of art. Similarly, while I have been deeply touched by the message of Orwell's 1984 I do not think it is written well. By the way, Atwood's book was published in 1985, just one year after Orwell's target year. Coincidence? (Just kidding...)

Ms. Atwood's dystopian novel is a classic so I do not need to provide synopsis of the plot, which can be found in zillion places on the Web. In the so-called Republic of Gilead (the term "republic" is used in the sense as in "People's Republic of North Korea" rather than that of Plato's republic) a caste of women called "handmaids" are kept "for breeding purposes" so that for them having "viable ovaries" is the basic social criterion. They are indeed crucial to the survival of the society as the birth rates have plummeted because of pollution and other factors. The policy is set and enforced by Commanders, a caste of males who actually own the handmaids, whose names are like Offred (the narrator's owner is Fred), Ofglen, or Ofwarren.

Among the many powerful and unforgettable scenes depicted in the novel the reader may find the Ceremony most shocking. This the ritual of fertilization attempt of a handmaid performed by her owner in presence of his wife (a higher caste of females). In perhaps the most sarcastic sentence in the novel Ms. Atwood writes that the term "copulating" would be "inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved." She uses a more fitting, seven-letter gerund. Other rituals that stay in memory are Salvagings (remember, this is Newspeak), Testifying, hangings of "criminals" on the Wall, and the most horrific of them all, Particicution, i.e., a participatory execution, a delight for those of us who feel empowered by administering punishment to convicts.

Some of the author's acerbic scorn is aimed at commercialization of religion, for example:
God Is a National Resource
We are introduced to a Women's Prayvaganza and to praying machines: a woman can use a sort of ATM-system to buy a certain number of machine repetitions of a prayer, and her account will be debited appropriately. Superb satire!

I certainly have serious problems with the purely literary aspect of the novel. It is overwrought, over-emotional, and - which is the worst - over-explained. The author seems to underestimate the intelligence of the reader. The images evoked by the prose are powerful enough: why not let the readers form their own opinion and "get the message" without being explicitly told what it is? Still, even if quite imperfect, it is a very important book, and I would be happy to have it among recommended readings for students.

Four stars.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Monsieur Monde VanishesMonsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"He lay down and closed his eyes in a rage, but nothing was as it should be, neither the shadows nor the light, nor the sounds, nor even the twittering sparrows, and his whole being tossed impatiently in the drab limbo."

The Belgian author Georges Simenon is mainly known for his famed series of psychological crime stories featuring Commissaire Maigret (I have reviewed three of his novels on Goodreads, the best of them being Cécile is Dead ). Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1952) is a standalone novel and, in fact, even if it begins at a police station, it is not a detective story at all. I would categorize it as a psychological novella (just about 130 pages) about a man taking a dramatic turn in his life: depending on the point of view, some will call the turn "a midlife crisis" while others "a moment of spiritual rebirth."

Norbert Monde is a successful businessman - he has inherited a brokers' and exporters' company that has carried the family name for over 100 years. Madame Monde notifies the police about her husband's disappearance: he has been missing for three days. The wife truthfully answers the Superintendent's question about her husband, yet the author astutely remarks that "sometimes nothing is less true than the truth."

From then on we look at things from Mr. Monde's point of view. He just can't take the kind of life he lives any more. He cannot sustain the focus needed to run the business while his personal life is in shambles: his first wife left him, he has nothing in common - and never really had - with his second wife. He can't stand her little black, cold, calculating eyes:
"[t]hat fixed stare. That unconscious, immense, haughty contempt, that apparent obliviousness to anything outside herself, [...]"
He considers his grown-up son a failure, nobody remembers his forty-eighth birthday, and he is unable to name even one person to whom he is close. Mr. Monde decides to chuck it all, escape from his dreary life, and perhaps find some sense of his existence. He takes the train to Marseilles and finds a room in a cheap hotel.

The powerful scene of Mr. Monde crying over his meaningless life in the hotel room is to me the highpoint of the novella.
"What was streaming from his whole being, through his two eyes, was all the fatigue accumulated during forty-eight years, and if they were gentle tears, it was because now the ordeal was over."
I find the first half of the novella, a deep psychological study, much better than the rest of the story where much happens, alas at the expense of the sharpness of psychological observations. The reader may find the ending surprising - as I did at the first moment, before I had the chance to think about it a little - but it is quite a fitting ending, from the literary point of view. Thus I am rounding up my marginal recommendation.

Two and three quarter stars.


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Thursday, September 7, 2017

At Swim-Two-BirdsAt Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression."

So begins Flan O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), an outrageously unusual book, breathtakingly different and daring. I am sure there are Master's and Ph.D. theses dedicated to the novel and googling the title yields numerous hits with serious literary analyses of the work. The Guardian lists it among the 100 greatest novels written in English. Time magazine placed it on its list of 100 best English-language fiction books since 1923. Being totally unskilled in the craft of literary analysis, I will just say that it is probably one of the three most unusual books I have read in my almost 60-year reading career, a remarkable and completely unforgettable novel.

I had not known Flan O'Brien - a pseudonym of Brian O'Nolan - until I read his The Third Policeman , a phenomenally hilarious, unconditionally five-star book. At Swim, not that funny but deeper, is an extremely ambitious exercise in the literary art. Many critics consider Flan O'Brien to be an early representative of post-modernism in literature, although others classify him as a modernist, along with, say, James Joyce.

At Swim is clearly intertextual and metafictional - two of the main characteristics of literary post-modernism. It contains three separate beginnings and three endings (antepenultimate, penultimate, and the ultimate one). The narrator - a student of University College in Dublin - is writing a novel in which a certain Dermot Trellis writes a novel which borrows characters and motifs from ancient Irish folk tales and legends. One of the characters in this novel is Trellis' son, who writes about his father at the suggestion of other characters from the novel. Since Trellis' literary powers disappear while he is asleep, the characters in his novel conspire against him: they use his periods of rest to have a good time. In fact, they arrange to simulate the actions that Trellis wants them to perform in his story rather than actually carry them out. We have four "levels" of authorship: Flan O'Brien creates the narrator who creates Trellis who creates characters among which we have his son who writes about Trellis. So who really writes the story?

The novel - a set of loosely connected stories and vignettes might be a better term - is written in a wide variety of styles. It contains an abundance of pomes (i.e., poems), staves, and verses. and it includes figures of speech followed by their identification, for instance
"[I expressed] my whole-hearted concurrence by a figure of speech.
Name of figure of speech: Litotes (or Meiosis).
There are passages of utter hilarity: for instance (note the ſpelling):
Horſe, with a round fundament, why does he emit a ſquare Excrement? Happineſs, what is it? Lady diſturbed in her Bed, your thoughts of it? Light, is it a Body?
Perhaps my most favorite passage of the book begins with "There is nothing so important as the legs in determining the kangaroolity of a woman" and goes through ascertaining that a deceitful kangaroo can shave the hair of her legs, assuming she is a woman, and then - by the way of the mathematical concept of geometric progression - proceeds through truth, which is an odd number, to the fugal and contrapuntal character of Bach's work

And what about a breathtaking passage that seamlessly (and intertextually) combines quotes from John Milton, "What neat repast shall feast us light and choice of Attic taste" with "What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?" by Keats. And the unforgettable monologue by Finn MacCool about the sweetest of all music - the music of nature, a passage that incorporates calls of various birds of the Irish landscape.

While I suspect not every reader will be amused by At Swim I am in awe of the sheer audacity of the author's undertaking, and I am rounding the rating up to - yay! - five stars.

Four and a half stars.

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Monday, September 4, 2017

McNally's Luck (Archy McNally, #2)McNally's Luck by Lawrence Sanders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Recently I had written to a custom hat maker [...] and had ordered three linen berets in white, puce, and emerald green. They arrived on Monday morning, and I was highly pleased. They were soft enough to roll up and tuck in a hip pocket, yet when they were donned and the fullness pulled rakishly over to one side, I felt they gave me a certain devil-may-care look."

Having just read a Supreme Court book followed by a Chandler's noir classic and then by a book about human cadavers, my brain told me to select something purely recreational, a totally thought-free read. So Lawrence Sanders comes to the rescue and the always reliable Archy McNally, the head of discreet enquiries department at McNally & Son, Palm Beach, Florida. And Mr. Sanders delivers! McNally's Luck (1992) has been precisely what I needed - a relaxing read before I tackle the 1939 Irish precursor of post-modern metafiction, At Swim-Two-Birds.

Peaches, the Willigans' feline has been catnapped and the note from the captors indicates that a ransom may be required. Since Mr. Willigan is an important client of McNally & Son, Archy is instructed to locate the missing cat. Soon after that another client wants to hire McNally's help: his wife has been receiving threatening, nasty anonymous messages. Archy quickly establishes that the messages have most likely been composed on the same word processor as the catnappers' note. As usual, the case grows rapidly and soon two murders occur. It is beneficial for the reader that Archy is a friend of Sergeant Rogoff of the Palm Beach Police Department: this way we can learn a lot of background of the two connected cases. It is Archy, also as usual, who finally untangles the entire mess.

Quite implausible, sure, but a wonderfully uncomplicated and fast read that does not engage the brain. And again (see my review of MacNally's Risk ) I must complement Mr. Sanders for the exquisitely florid and circuitous language that provides reading pleasure enhanced by clever puns and word plays. For instance, one of the main characters in a story is a medium, a psychic advisor, and the author calls her "a very rare medium," which made me giggle for quite some time. She is later called a "very physical spiritualist," which is a tastier while less obvious wordplay.

Archy gets infatuated with another character and the couple manages to consume their mutual passion in a really well-written scene that uses neat metaphors instead of awkward physicalities. Archy is a bit of a dandy which lets the author have fun with the puce beret motif. Cat vomit happens to be another motif. Speaking about motives spelled with a "v", the author manages to create a clever twist concerning the killer's motive, a twist that will ensure the triumph of justice.

I am unable to bring myself to rate a piece of pure entertainment fluff, a weightless literary trifle with four stars, but this installment of McNally series comes as close as it can. Big thumbs up and

Three and a half stars.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversStiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and at the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget."

In between birth and death the human self, the mind, the consciousness - or the soul, if one prefers the term - resides within a physical object, the body. Regardless of our beliefs of what happens to the self at the moment of death, the body loses its normal functionality. Mary Roach's Stiff (2003) tells us in quite scientific - and often terrifying or hilarious - detail what happens to that empty vessel that once carried our self. A few weeks ago I have read (and reviewed here on Goodreads) Spook where Ms. Roach studies the question of the existence of afterlife; I appreciated the author's seemingly earnest commitment to the scientific method and, of course, the remarkable humor of her writing. So I expected a lot from Stiff, an even more popular book. And I am happy to say that the author has not disappointed me.

First, let's just enumerate some of the topics: observation of students working on cadavers in a gross anatomy lab, the biology and chemistry of cadaver decay and how the decay manifests itself visually, practices of embalming, use of cadavers in automotive crash tests, in determining causes of airplane accidents, and in studies on weapon and body armor design, harvesting organs from brain-dead patients, organ transplants, decapitation, medicinal use of cadavers, cannibalism, and - finally - methods of cadaver disposal (or, euphemistically, disposition), including freeze-drying and composting.

Sure, the book contains an overload of detail that some readers may call gruesome and sordid, and some others may suspect the author is trying to exploit the pornography of death - the common fascination of human beings with morbid details of death, dismemberment, and decay. Sure, there is some of this here but catering to the death fetish is offset by providing an attentive reader with food for thought on things one does not really care to think too much about. That the whole book does not slide into the ranks of death pornography is due to Ms. Roach's writing skills: her writing would best be characterized by a phrase that she herself uses to describe one of the crash researchers: "neither patronizingly euphemistic nor offensively graphic." Obviously the humor helps: the text is infused with enormous hilarity. Let me just mention the petit bouchon fécal and the story about the misdelivered package that was supposed to contain a cadaver, but instead included a very fine ham, a large cheese, a basket of eggs, and a huge ball of yarn.

So, contrary to what one might expect, this is quite a light book thanks to the author's sense of humor. Yet a reader will have a lot to think about. Most importantly: what is the actual relationship between our "self" and the body it is connected with? After we die, does the empty shell of the body have any connection with the "self"? Is my cadaver anything of value? And more practically: what should be done with our cadaver? Do we want the body to be buried? Cremated? Donated to science and then dissected into tiny pieces? Maybe we want it to be ecologically composted? Even more fundamentally: is it really the cadaver's temporary resident who should decide about the cadaver's disposition?

To me - obsessed with investigating the symptoms of the pandemic Euphemism Disease, the deplorable human trend to solve social and other problems by renaming them - the language issues involved in talking about death are absolutely the most interesting. Why do people prefer to say "passing" rather than "death"? Why "the decedent" rather than "the dead person"? Should the families who donate remains of their loved ones to research be informed what exactly will be done with these remains? As the author writes "[...] in the end [it] comes down to wording," and she presents an example of a statement, which accentuates the positive - contributions to helping other people - and euphemistically omits the specifics, which any family member can figure out if they care to think it through. "But most people don't care to think it through."

Four stars.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Long Goodbye (Philip Marlowe, #6)The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I was still off balance when he hit me. He hooked me with a neat left and crossed it. Bells rang, but not for dinner."

When I had first read Raymond Chandler's The Long Good-Bye (1953), an acclaimed classic of the noir, hardboiled PI genre, I decided it was a masterpiece. I was quite curious about my reaction to the novel 45 years later. Well, I would not call it a masterpiece - in the noir genre I prefer Ross Macdonald's novels, all of which I reviewed here on Goodreads - but it certainly is a remarkable and memorable book, almost but not quite deserving the five-star rating.

The novel is too well known to need presentation of the set-up: the readers may even find an absurdly detailed summary of the plot on Wikipedia. What makes the novel great is the portrayal of friendship between Philip Marlowe and Terry Lennox: it far transcends the usual limited literary range of mystery/crime novels. This aspect makes the novel read like real, high-caliber literature. The friendship is so unexplained, capricious, strange that it feels utterly real. Can one ever forget the gimlets (half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice)? Some literary critics prefer Chandler's Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely, yet even though I read them about the same time as Good-Bye I don't have any recollection of these novels. On the other hand I have never forgotten the opening scenes of The Long Good-Bye, Terry Lennox, and the gimlets. Well, the author himself considers this book his best work.

There is some great prose in the novel. Obviously, the famous passage that begins with "There are blondes and blondes [...]" stands out as some of the most wonderful writing in the genre. Bravura and pure class! There are a few immortal chandlerisms headlined by the "Bells rang" phrase that I use in the epigraph. The reader is also bound to like
"He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel."
But certain aspects spoil the novel a little for me. First and foremost, Philip Marlowe is so cool and so macho that Chuck Norris would instantaneously pee his pants and mewl in submission to him. Mr. Marlowe, an island of honesty, honor, and character in the ocean of corruption, is a hard-to-take cliché. The gangsters, the beatings, the intimidations have quite a cliché feel as well.

I believe there is a lot of Mr. Chandler in the persona of one of the novel's protagonists, Roger Wade, a popular author suffering from a writing block. Mr. Wade's character rings true, perhaps more than any other character in the novel, other than Terry Lennox. And how could I (a crusader against books longer than about 200 pages) not love the passage:
"My books run long. The public likes long books. The damn fool public thinks if there's a lot of pages there must be a lot of gold."
The reader will also find several neat social observations like
"Sheriff Petersen [...] a living testimonial to the fact that you can hold an important public office for ever in our country with no qualifications for it but a clean nose, a photogenic face, and a close mouth. If on top of that you look good on a horse, you are unbeatable."
One can also feel the atmosphere of the times, the Communist scare of the early 1950s and the anti-Red hysteria; Lieutenant Ohls' rant against the rigged social system is memorable.

The novel feels a little dated, in fact more dated than some of Ross Macdonald's works from the similar period. Men wear monocles, etc., but mostly it's the language which dates the text. A "shamus" may wield "a gat" to make a bad guy "scram." The proponents of the PC mind control through restrictions on language will likely be unhappy with the 1950s phrases like "she's a dish," "he's a Mex," with calling women "girls," and with the "sexism" oozing from the magnificent "blondes passage". I hope they will swallow their unhappiness and will not try to follow Stalin or other tyrants by censoring the text, the true snapshot of its times.

Truly great novel! If only Philip Marlowe did one nasty thing, if only he showed one human weakness, I would have rounded the rating up. (By the way, as a Central European by birth and a resident of San Diego, I am enclosing two neat quotes after the rating.)

Four and a half stars.

"Only the nicest people. Absolutely no Central Europeans. Just the cream, the top-drawer crowd, the lovely, lovely people."

"San Diego? One of the most beautiful harbours in the world and nothing in it but navy and a few fishing boats.
"


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Saturday, August 26, 2017

David Hackett Souter: Traditional Republican on the Rehnquist CourtDavid Hackett Souter: Traditional Republican on the Rehnquist Court by Tinsley E. Yarbrough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] he's a very private person and by most modern standards, a peculiar person. He's so solitary..."
(Nina Totenberg of the NPR, on judge Souter's nomination to the Supreme Court)

Again I succumbed to my fixation on the workings of the Supreme Court. Tinsley E. Yarbrough's David Hackett Souter, subtitled Traditional Republican on the Rehnquist Court, portrays one of the perhaps lesser known yet very interesting Supreme Court justices of the recent years. Justice Souter was nominated by George W. H. Bush in 1990 to replace the famed William Brennan, and confirmed by the Senate by an impressive 90-9 vote. The book had been written in 2005 so it does not cover the entire judicial career of Justice Souter who retired in 2009 at a relatively young age of 70 (it feels so good to write the word "young" next to the number 70!)

This a serious, technical, and a somewhat lawyerly book, addressed more for professionals rather than for legal ignoramuses like this reviewer. Of course I appreciate that the gossip factor is kept at minimum and that there is precious little sensationalism in the book. I am just warning unprepared readers that the author occasionally uses terms that need to be checked for meaning.

We read a little about Mr. Souter's youth, about him being a serious, focused student yet not completely beyond engaging in pranks. While an undergraduate at Harvard he decides to pursue a career in law rather than in theology. Then come the Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, study of law at Harvard, and 10 years in New Hampshire Attorney General office, the last two of these in the top job. Judge Souter's straight upward career path continues with the Superior Court and New Hampshire Supreme Court judgeships to culminate with the highest judicial job in the country. Still, despite the relentlessly upward slope of the trajectory, judge Souter is called a "stealth candidate" at the time of his nomination because of slim paper trail of his legal opinions on controversial issues and lack of national exposure. (Let's not forget that the voluminous paper trail and national exposure, combined with the candidate's arrogance, greatly contributed to the famous failure of judge Robert Bork's nomination.)

During the nomination process the conservatives are worrying whether judge Souter is conservative enough, liberals are worrying that the liberal wing of the Supreme Court will be severely diminished, and the press raises the candidate's "reclusive bachelor lifestyle" (wink, wink, note the pernicious and ugly euphemism 'lifestyle'), his lack of experience with "the real world" issues, and even - in a hilarious supposition - compares Mr. Souter to Chauncey the Gardener, the protagonist of Kosinski's Being There , "a strange little man [...] suddenly thrust into the whirl of American politics."

Well, despite the "stealth" nature of his candidacy, Justice Souter soon becomes one of the most important members of Supreme Court. After his first year, mainly spent as a member of the conservative majority, Justice Souter begins to display quite an independent streak and gradually, yet inexorably drifts leftward, to eventually become one of the stalwarts of the court's liberal wing, along Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, and a principal opponent of the "originalist political philosophy" espoused for instance by Justice Scalia. In constitutional conflicts between federal and state power Justice Souter has usually taken a nationalist position. He has become "the Court's most vigorous defender of church-state separation," and has consistently condemned viewpoint discrimination and threats to free speech.

My complete ignorance of constitutional law prevents me from detailed analysis of the author's theses. Anyway, based on the author's claims the things that impress me the most about Justice Souter are that he has never shown any influence of personal beliefs on his rulings, has always tried to base his opinions on the rule of law, and has invariably kept legal precedent in deep regard. Justice Souter has not been a crusader for any cause, and that's for me the highest praise of a public servant.

Three and a half stars.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Reflecting the Sky (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #7)Reflecting the Sky by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Swiftly running water does not reflect the sky."
(A Chinese proverb)

S. J. Rozan's Reflecting the Sky (2001) is already my eighth novel in the Chin/Smith series and - although I quite like it - it is nowhere as good as Stone Quarry or Winter and Night , both winners of many prestigious awards.

The entire novel takes place in Hong Kong where Lydia Chin and her frequent partner Bill Smith are trying to carry out a task for "Grandfather Gao", the infinitely wise patriarch of the New York Chinese community, and a childhood friend of Lydia Chin's actual grandfather. Since another of Mr. Gao's childhood friends, a Mr. Wei, died in new York Lydia and Bill are supposed to deliver a letter and the ashes for burial to Mr. Wei's brother who lives in Hong Kong with the rest of the family. They also are carrying a keepsake for Mr. Wei's grandson, Harry.

The job seems straightforward, but Lydia and Bill face serious obstacles right from the very beginning. When they arrive in the Hong Kong apartment of the Wei family, they find the place ransacked. Harry has been kidnapped. The detectives' job becomes a monumentally difficult task and they get entangled with people involved in serious criminal activities and the Hong Kong police. They have to deal with greed, family obligations, the triads, and even the repercussions of Maoist Cultural Revolution. The plot is really complicated, but the author appears to have a tight control over it, and the complex chains of events are relatively logical and not overly implausible.

As usual for Ms. Rozan's the novel features accomplished prose. Clichés are unavoidable in a book series, but somehow in this installment they are not that conspicuous. The best thing about the novel is the splendid portrayal of Hong Kong. Reading the many descriptions of the city's landscapes and observations of the inhabitants' life I almost felt as if I were there on location. Three magnificent scenes stand out: the sea of thousands of Filipino women congregated in a small park close to the Statue Square. The text paints such vivid images that I felt the need to check the surroundings via the Street View on Google Maps. Lydia and Bill's riding the famous Hong Kong outdoor escalator provides another memorable scene. But the top honors go to the protracted scene that takes place in Mr. Lee's antique shop. Not only Mr. Lee's mysterious and somewhat sinister persona, but also the descriptions of various displayed items, particularly the burial art, will hold the reader's attention.

I suppose that a large proportion of the Chin/Smith novels' readers come back to the series because of the somewhat ambiguous, enigmatic nature of the relationship between Lydia and Bill. The readers will not be disappointed here. The novel contains quite a powerful and in my view psychologically plausible scene between the protagonists. Alas, Ms. Rozan's fixation on gun play in the denouement scenes continues unabated. I would like to understand the nature of that compulsion, particularly in this novel, where guns are not needed by the logic of the plot. So sad that a great author continually feels the need to spoil her work every time she writes a novel!

Three stars.


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Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Natural History of NonsenseThe Natural History of Nonsense by Bergen Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Irrationality must come close to being the largest single vested interest in the world. [...] In fact, everyone in our society not directly engaged in the production and distribution of necessities, transportation, artistic creation, elementary teaching or the maintenance of public order, to some extent, and more or less consciously, preys upon ignorance and delusion."

Finally I have had the opportunity to re-read the book that like no other - with the possible exception of some works by Stanislaw Lem - influenced my thinking during the teen years and helped shape my worldview. I first read Bergen Evans' The Natural History of Nonsense (1946) when my mother gave it to me as a Christmas gift in 1963 or 1964: it shook me and since then I have always tried to follow the lessons of skepticism with respect to a great number of popularly held beliefs.

The author himself calls the book "a study in the paleontology of delusion." His goal is to systematically debunk a wide range of common prejudices and beliefs and to be an advocate of skepticism, which he aptly defines as "the life spirit of science." Yes, the book is heavily dated, but before I discuss some of the prejudices and misconceptions exposed by the author, let me first point out how relevant the author's theses became with the ubiquity of Internet.

Mr. Evans recounts a hoax perpetrated by H.L. Mencken in 1917 when he had published an article about the 75th anniversary of "the first bathtub installed in America." In his article he wrote about the initial resistance of the society to the invention, condemnation as "a menace to health and morals," and the slow acceptance of the invention. Mencken's story was so catchy that it was retold and reprinted thousands of times, and referred to as fact by public authorities. Even when in 1926 Mr. Mencken confessed that the story was a hoax, not many people believed him. Even the second confession did not help. People repeated the story for years and years (it was used as late as 2008). One hundred years later the Internet gives us thousands of fake stories, nonsense, and pure garbage every day. And we do believe these stories. I personally know a Ph.D. in sciences who believes that the contrails of planes are really chemtrails sprayed by "gubmint." I know serious and intelligent people who believe that vaccinations cause autism. The power of nonsense has not changed over 100 years.

The only weakness of the book is that the selection of commonly believed nonsense is quite dated. Hopefully fewer people now believe that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, that lemmings march to their deaths, that there exist "piscatory downpours" (raining fish), that animals know when their death is near, that dogs can find way back home from thousand of miles away, that elephants have phenomenal memory, that children can be raised by animals, that weather conditions during conception influences a person's future, that the so-called "death rattle" commonly accompanies human expiration, that hair can turn white instantaneously, and many others.

While all these examples of nonsense may sound mild and inoffensive, Mr. Evans talks a lot about serious issues: prejudices about race, how physical characteristics presumably determine the intellectual ones, etc. He lampoons the 1940s racial stereotypes of blacks, Jews, Asians, and others. Now we know more about these prejudices, but in 1940s this writing must have been quite courageous.

Not only is the book a loud cry for rationality, it is also frequently hilarious. Some stunning examples: the author quotes a traveler to Java who writes that infants there throw away their cigarettes when they are ready to suck mother's breasts. My absolute favorite is the 1920 research article by Prof. Adolf Gerson who traces the development of human menstrual cycle to the lunar cycle and the fact that early men hunted for their females on moonlit nights. Also, I am not sure if the author used the following example on purpose or just did not notice the atrocious pun it creates: he writes about the hairy Ainus people of Japan who value hirsuteness in their women. I apologize for being offensive if I did not catch the joke.

So yes, it is quite a dated book but since the advent of Internet seems to have strengthened the global embrace of irrationality and confirmed the human propensity for nonsense it remains a vey strongly recommended text.

Four and a half stars, which I round up. I am happy about my first five-star rating in half a year (55 books ago).

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Firestorm (Anna Pigeon, #4)Firestorm by Nevada Barr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Raw, naked power blooming in red and orange and black. Tornadoes of pure fire shrieking through the treetops, an enraged elemental beast slaking a hunger so old only stones and gods remembered."

Firestorm (1996) is my fourth book by Nevada Barr in her National Parks series featuring Anna Pigeon, the ranger. After Glacier, Carlsbad Caverns, and Mesa Verde, Ms. Pigeon is now serving in Lassen Volcanic National Park as an emergency medical technician helping battle the ferocious Jackknife fire that blazes in that Northern California park.

Ms. Pigeon has been on the front line tending to firefighters wounds and bruises; when the spike camp is in the final stages of disassembly she gets a message about a medical emergency. One of the firefighters has suffered a complicated knee fracture on a steep slope and needs to be evacuated up the hill to a helicopter landing spot. Ms. Pigeon along with a few other firefighters and medical crew embark on the rescue mission and this is when they are trapped by a monster firestorm. They barely survive the hellish flames only to encounter a several-day-long period of catastrophic weather that makes rescue from outside impossible. Not only does the group include severely wounded people and victims of second-degree burns but also - guess what - they discover a murder victim and it is clear that the murderer must be among them. There are even signs that someone has tampered with the crime scene.

Like in Blood Lure and in Blind Descent the "nature" part of the story is superb while the criminal thread is weak. In Firestorm the contrast is particularly strong; I feel I am reading two different books: a great one about the wildfire inferno, about the nature dying and being reborn in the flames, and a mediocre crime story full of fake and unnecessary clues. A compelling portrayal of firefighters' lives on the fire frontline, complicated relationships in the camps, and the government bureaucracy of the National Parks Service and BLM are combined with amateurish, implausible, and just plain laughable investigation that Ms. Pigeon is conducting among the firefighting crew.

We again meet Frederick Stanton, a powerful FBI agent, and Ms. Pigeon's romantic interest. His character is not well developed and the reader will feel his main role in the plot is to produce information about crime suspects, which Ms. Pigeon is then using in her ruminations about who the guilty party is. Other characters' portrayals range from well-drawn to pure caricatures. Ms. Barr's prose is clearly better than in Ill Wind, still a bit florid, but the reader quickly gets accustomed to it.

I really, really like the non-crime part of the novel and wouldn't hesitate to rate it with four stars. I really, really dislike the "investigation" part and would rate it with four times fewer stars. Overall, I certainly recommend the book and readers interested in classical whodunits might like it much more than I do.

Three stars.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Sputnik SweetheartSputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] I could hear the cats lapping up my brain. Three lithe cats, surrounding my broken head, slurping up the mushy gray soup within. The tips of their red, rough tongues licked the soft folds of my mind."

My third book by Haruki Murakami and the best so far. Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) comes with a misleading blurb on the back cover. It says "love story combined with a detective story" and is probably aimed at romantic mystery readers. There is not one iota of detective story here. Yes, we have a great love story, and there is a mystery, but one of a more serious, transcendent kind.

The story is narrated by K, a primary school teacher in his mid-twenties. He is in love with Sumire, but she - an aspiring writer and an unusual character overall, taken to calling K on the phone in the middle of the night and asking philosophical questions - treats him as a friend rather than a romantic interest. Sumire falls in love with Miu, a much older woman in the wine import business. Sumire and Miu go on a business/pleasure trip to Europe where Sumire disappears. K is summoned by Miu to a Greek island to help search for Sumire. All this is stated in the cover blurb so I am not giving any spoilers here.

The story is really interesting, well written, and captivating, but is likely just a shell to carry some deeper meaning. This is quite an enigmatic novel and I had thought it would be fun to attempt deciphering the author's design, but I failed. Let me explain: the following passage seems to be crucial in the novel: Sumire calls K before dawn and asks
"What I want to know is, what's the difference between a sign and a symbol?"
K explains that both sign and symbol refer to an equivalence relation between two things but then he describes the semiotic difference in a somewhat unconventional way: in the case of a symbol the relation points in one direction only.

Well, I spotted three instances of unidirectionality in the story: first and the most obvious one is of metafictional nature. Mr. Murakami constructs a sort of alternative reality in the novel. The reality is mapped to the story, but not the other way around. The second is the unrequited nature of the characters' love for each other: K loves Sumire and Sumire loves Miu (there is more, yet it is not essential), but the lovees do not love the lovers back. Third, there is quite a wonderful scene in the novel when one of the characters coexists with a sort of their alter ego, and their interaction is unidirectional. But none of these three cases has much to do with symbols, so my analysis is most likely poppycock.

My inability to "understand" the novel - if there is indeed anything to understand there; a work of art can be just about itself and not be a symbol for anything else - does not diminish the beauty and poetry of the story itself. If I were forced to define what the story is about, I would say it is a about a young woman who seeks transcendence in life and visits the other side. By the way, Sumire is an extremely well-drawn character, life-like and believable. So is K. Maybe not Miu, despite her mysterious past.

There are stories within the story, some fit the mood wonderfully, some less so, which includes the cats that I mentioned in the epigraph. Anyway, I have found Sputnik Sweetheart a very good read and I enjoyed the alternative reality feel, which is - as I understand - Mr. Murakami's trademark. Maybe one day I will read his longer works...

Three and three quarter stars.


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Friday, August 11, 2017

The Indian Bride (Inspector Konrad Sejer, #5)The Indian Bride by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Later, she would never forget this. The last moment when life was good."

I had read Karin Fossum's The Indian Bride (2000) for the first time about 10 years ago, long before Kat helped me find Goodreads. Totally swept off my feet by the sheer emotional impact of the story I was unable to notice some weaknesses of the novel and decided it was a masterpiece of psychological crime genre. This time no five stars from me despite the fact that Ms. Fossum's writing resonates with my sensibilities like very few other authors' work. I admire her quiet, economical, unpretentious prose, her obvious compassion toward people, even the worst criminals, and her quest for understanding motives of human actions. (For once the abused word "resonates" describes the situation precisely: I receive literature on the same frequencies that Ms. Fossum transmits in her novels.)

Gunder Jomann is a fiftyish farm equipment salesman in a Norwegian village. There is something off-center about him: he is slow - not intellectually but rather emotionally - deliberate, stolid but determined, and he has not been following any of the "normal" life paths. It is only now that he has decided on the kind of a woman he wants to marry - an Indian woman. So he travels to Mumbai, finds a woman he fancies, which happens to be the first woman he meets there, and since she likes him too they get married. Nothing can stop them now from living happily in Norway ever after. The story so far has all sweet qualities of a fairy tale, as if it were happening in a magical storybook reality. Alas, the actual reality intervenes, and extremely brutally so.

The story now turns into a tear-jerker, so very sad that even though I had read the book before I was crying again. Ms. Fossum masterfully relays the heartbreaking plot in a sorrowful yet unexaggerated, beautifully quiet prose. The highly melodramatic content is conveyed without making the readers feel that they are emotionally manipulated. There is not a single false note in the prose and I immediately identify with the pain and sorrow.

Technically, this is a crime novel, so we also have a murder, several suspects, and a police procedural thread. Inspectors Sejer and Skarre make their entrance quite early in the novel. The murder is brutal, and when the crime is recounted later in the novel, the story is so savage that I found it hard to read, even though I know this is fiction and even if we are not sure the events happened exactly the way they are told. Ms. Fossum's avoidance of hyperbole emphasizes the horror of what happened. Inspector Sejer is again shown at his trademark slow, patient questioning. One might come to a conclusion that detectives in Norway have too much time on their hands.

Both the beginning and ending of the novel are outstanding. A young man comes home and roughly play-fights with his Rottweiler. This one-page passage masterfully teases the readers with clues, making them think they are so smart to figure them out. I also love the ending, as unusual as it is: it defies the reader's expectations in wonderful ways, which is the best thing one can say about literature in any genre.

Alas, the passages about the village residents reacting to the crime and investigation are weak and "unFossum-like" in sounding fake. Also, the thread that features the over-eager witness overstays its welcome at some point (but I understand that publishers may have some business guidelines about the minimum volume of a crime novel). To sum up, it is almost a phenomenal book, damaged by few weak scenes. I loved re-reading it. I can read Ms. Fossum's writing forever and ever again.

Four and a quarter stars.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. FeynmanThe Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman by Richard Feynman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified - how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know [...] most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don't know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is [...] It is possible to live and not know."

This overlong epigraph illustrates Richard P. Feynman's main thesis presented in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999), a collection of informal writings by the famous physicist, a set that could be called "the best short works of Feynman." It includes his talks, official speeches and lectures, transcripts of TV programs, and even Feynman's "minority report" to the official Challenger disaster report. The Nobel Prize winner, a man universally acclaimed as a true genius, returns to his main thesis several times in this collection. His definition of a scientist is:
"A scientist is never certain. [...] all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty; [...] when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false."
The only statements which can be proven true or false are statements of mathematics, which is one of the reasons that mathematics is not a science. I wish Feynman's words were required reading in colleges, perhaps even in high schools.

The author offers a sharp and convincing critique of pseudo-science where he uses examples of astrology and parapsychology, and returns to his famous "Cargo Science" case that originated from observations of tribal society's customs acquired after their interaction with technology beyond their grasp. Feynman also lambasts the practices of advertising industry and writes that commercials may constitute "scientifically immoral description of the products."

I exclaimed "Yes! How true!" when I read the following fragment:
"[...] we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television words, books, and so on are unscientific."
Feynman is lucky to have not lived long enough to witness the times of total misinformation that now exists thanks to the Internet. He would be horrified!

Feynman writes about other important topics as well. The last piece in the set is entitled The Relation of Science and Religion, where the author distinguishes three main aspects of religion: metaphysical, ethical, and inspirational, and argues that there exists an incompatibility between religion and science in the first aspect, and that there may be conflicts in the domain of inspirational aspect. This is a fascinating discussion, and as a true scientist the author emphasizes that he is not completely sure of his statements.

On a lighter note we have a long item where Feynman reminisces about his times on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. We read about hilarious pranks he pulled: safecracking, sneaking out of the tightly guarded compound, etc. The reader can find an extremely funny (and I mean it literally, "extremely funny") passage where the author is awed by the decision-making prowess of top-level military people: how they are able to decide in just five minutes on momentous issues about which they do not have the faintest idea!

Four stars.


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