Sunday, December 31, 2017

Murder to Go (John Putnam Thatcher, #10)Murder to Go by Emma Lathen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"To-oo Make Life Bright
Have Chi-i-cken To-oo-nite!

Murder to Go (1969) is my first novel by Emma Lathen, a pseudonym of a mystery-writing duo of economists, Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart. Alas, it is not a particularly auspicious introduction to the authors. I may try to read another book of theirs, but my interest has substantially decreased. Wikipedia tells us that all mysteries by Emma Lathen are situated in the world of business and that each novel deals with a different type of industry. While indeed the complicated business/finance/economics matters are presented in a way accessible to a layman reader like myself, I tend to be less interested in business activities than in watching gray paint dry on a gray wall.

John Putnam Thatcher is a senior vice-president of Sloan Guaranty Trust, "the third-largest bank in the world". The bank happens to be financing the Chicken Tonight company, a chicken dinner home delivery franchising operation that has been booming under the leadership of Frank Hedstrom. Mr. Hedstrom "built up a million-dollar business - almost overnight": he is a "boy wonder" in the business world and he is planning to expand into other areas by taking over an insurance company.

But then 72 people in six states are hospitalized with acute food poisoning and the health authorities quickly establish that Chicken Tonight is to blame. The seemingly accidental poisoning was in fact the result of tampering with the food ready be delivered. One of the victims dies so that the police and other government agencies now have to deal with murder. The authorities suspect a disgruntled employee. However, it is actually Mr. Thatcher who solves the case and uncovers business machinations that underlie the tampering.

We learn a lot about various aspects of franchising business and gain insights into the basics of finance:
"When trouble befalls a debtor, there is a period when he covers up, when he minimizes his predicament, [... when] he is the one who does the worrying. But let things go really sour and positions get reversed. The creditor does the worrying, and the debtor holds the whip hand."
The novel also provides slight comedy relief: one of the threads describes preparations to celebrate work anniversary of a high-ranking employee of the bank. The preparations are so elaborate that they virtually bring all other activities of the third-largest bank in the world to a standstill.

This competently written and somewhat engaging mystery might be quite interesting for readers interested in business intrigues. Certainly not for me.

Two stars.

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Friday, December 29, 2017

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern WomanFifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"She's a phony. But she's a real phony."
(O.J. Berman, Holly Golightly's agent in Breakfast at Tiffany's.)

Funny how one (mis)remembers things. I vividly remember the place where I read Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's in summer of 1965, but I only vaguely remember the book. On the other hand, I do not remember, even roughly, when I watched the movie based on the book, but I vividly remember Audrey Hepburn in her iconic black dress and her long cigarette holder. Sam Wasson's Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. (2010) is an detailed story of making of that movie, and the title refers to the exact time and place when the shooting began on October 2, 1960. The book was awarded the honor of New York Times' Best Book of the Year so I am happy that I like it a lot too.

The reader will be impressed by the completeness of the author's study. In addition to obvious aspects like Capote's story on which the movie story is based, Audrey Hepburn's performance, and Blake Edward's direction, Mr. Wasson discusses a variety of other factors: Edith Head's costumes, Givenchy dresses, Mel Ferrer's (Ms. Hepburn's husband) meddling, Henry Mancini's music, the "Moon River" song, and many others.

Two aspects of the study appeal the most to me. The author succeeds in explaining one of the sources of the movie's success: the change in social norms and attitudes regarding depiction of women in movies that was happening between the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The author also stresses the movie's role in furthering that change in social norms. Before 1960s the women in films were portrayed either as "saints" or "sluts." Breakfast breaks with this stereotype: its heroine, Holly Golightly, is basically an expensive call girl, presented as a kooky plaything, sweet and very likeable:
"It was one of the earliest pictures to ask us to be sympathetic towards a slightly immoral young woman. Movies were beginning to say that if you were imperfect, you didn't have to be punished."
The other aspect I find very interesting is the author's clear understanding that making Hollywood movies is not about art, not about entertainment, and - of course - not about changing social mores and climate. It is ONLY about business, ONLY about making money. The actor's skill, the screenplay, the director's talent are just tools to make money for the producers:
"... the crude reality of supply and demand contends that great talent, no matter how awesome, must be a salable commodity marketable to its era..."
Creating a new star, creating a new look for women are a business. Even the famous Little Black Dress worn by Holly had to be appropriately "packaged" for ensuring maximum business.

The reader will find many other fascinating observations and analyses: for instance, I love the fragments about how movie censorship worked in 1960 - from today's point of view the practices seem totally insane. Passages about the French author, Colette, noticing Audrey Hepburn and about the Givenchy's dresses are fascinating. And of course the never boring persona of Truman Capote is towering in the background. If not for the overly florid language, painfully pretentious chapter titles, and abundance of gossip tabloid stuff, this could be a truly great book.

Three and a half stars.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Helvetesilden (Inspector Konrad Sejer, #12)Helvetesilden by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It was always the small things, the links between people and where they could lead."

Another great book from Karin Fossum, one of my most favorite mystery writers. So far I have reviewed nine of her books on Goodreads, and rated two of them ( Black Seconds and The Murder of Harriet Krohn ) with five stars, a very rare rating for this very picky and fussy reader. Of hundreds of authors in the crime/mystery genre that I have read in over 50 years, Ms. Fossum joins only Nicolas Freeling and Denise Mina in the select trio of mystery writers for whom I feel a deep, total, and virtually uncritical admiration. They just seem never to have written anything that I wouldn't at least like a lot. (After the rating I am trying to explain the reasons why I love Ms. Fossum's books so much.)

As far as I know Hell Fire (2014) is the newest work by Ms. Fossum to appear in English translation. Inspector Sejer is on the scene of a brutal murder of a young woman and her five-year-old son. The story shifts to half a year earlier and we meet a single mother, Mass, living with her adult son, Eddie, who has not quite adapted to societal norms and is unable to hold a job. We follow the two parallel and interleaving threads: one of Bonnie and Simon, the future victims, and the other of Mass and Eddie.

Of course we know almost right away who committed the crime, but the mystery lies in the reasons and motives. Many readers will not be disappointed in the denouement, which is one of the most unexpected for Ms. Fossum. I prefer her usual unsurprising ones.

Bonnie is employed as a home health aide; to me the best thing in the novel is the portrayal of her work with the elderly and handicapped. The scene of cleaning Erna's house, after first dressing the table legs in multiple pairs of socks, is unforgettable. Erna, one of the background characters, is painted so vividly that I could swear I know her. Also, the novel is desperately sad. It shows, without being overtly didactic, the social consequences of broken families and unwanted children.

Translation is far from stellar. Not being a native speaker of English I have been able to spot numerous awkward phrases. I have doubts about several words: for instance, the alcohol that characters drink in the novel is likely the Scandinavian specialty, akvavit, for some reason translated as eau de vie. Sure, it means the same thing, but they drink akvavit in Norway, not eau de vie.

Hell Fire is certainly not a five-star book. While I loved reading it - I will probably never not love anything written by the author - there is not much in it that wouldn't feel as just another instance of a standard template of a Fossum's novel. It sort of reads as the author's manifesto "all my novels are like this."

Four stars.

(I revere Ms. Fossum's novels for four reasons. First, she is not much interested in the whodunit aspect of the story. People and their motivations are her main focus. This is precisely what interests me: I want to know why rather than trying to figure out who did it. Second, and perhaps most important: Ms. Fossum is never judgmental: even the brutal murderers of children are portrayed in her novels as human beings. It would be so easy to condemn the evil beasts that they are, but instead she tries to comprehend what made them commit the acts of brutality. To grossly oversimplify, I don't think she believes people are born evil.

The two other reasons for my adoration of Ms. Fossum's work are related to her writing. Other than the crime that sets up the plot, nothing much seems to happen in her stories. We do not have any "twists or turns"; we read about ordinary, everyday events, and ordinary life. Inspectors Sejer and Skarre thoroughly and patiently do their work, and Sejer then conducts his slow questioning of the accused. Finally, I love Ms. Fossum's quiet, understated writing style: no big words, no flourish, no hyperbole. Just the "small things.")

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Friday, December 22, 2017

The Year of Magical ThinkingThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"If the dead were truly to come back, what would they come back knowing? Could we face them? We who allowed them to die? The clear light of day tells me that I did not allow John to die, that I did not have that power, but do I believe that? Does he?"

An important book, particularly for people of my generation, people for whom death is no longer a quasi-fictional event that only happens to other people. The Year of Magical Thinking (2006) is a non-fiction book in that it describes actual events that happened to actual people. It focuses on two main topics: the psychology of grief after death of one's closest person and the rituals of magical thinking in which people indulge after the death shatters and disintegrates their world.

For 39 years Ms. Didion had been married to John Dunne, the well-known poet. Indeed, he had had heart troubles earlier in his life and had undergone several procedures, but recently everything has been fine with his health. And suddenly, over dinner, he dies of a massive coronary. The phrase:
"How could this have happened when everything was normal."
becomes a sort of leitmotif of the entire book which describes Ms. Didion's thoughts and behaviors during the year that followed. The major trauma of the lifelong partner's death is compounded by a serious, continually life-threatening illness of her adopted daughter Quintana Roo, who has to be hospitalized during the author's mourning.

One of the main points the author is making is that we are unable to know what grief is until it hits us personally. When it does it becomes a catastrophe that we are completely unable to imagine and is in no way similar to the simplistic depictions shown on TV and in the movies. Grief overwhelms us and debilitates us; it is more powerful than anything we can summon against it:
"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. [...] We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind."
Ironically, the copy of the book that I read had a stamp of "Self Help" genre: Ms. Didion clearly tells us that there is no help for grief, no 'healing' is possible, and that no one can ever learn how to mourn.

Probably the most fascinating passages in the book are those where the author recounts numerous episodes of magical thinking during her year of mourning. The term 'magical thinking' refers to people's belief that events may happen that are not subject to the usual, scientific rules of causation. For instance, we think that 'if only we did this and that, the unavoidable event would not have happened.' Ms. Didion hauntingly recounts the moments she thought she was guilty of her husband's death because she "had allowed other people to think he was dead." She writes the following about her thought half a year after her husband's death:
"'Bringing him back' had been through those months my hidden focus, a magic trick. By late summer I was beginning to see this clearly. 'Seeing it clearly' did not yet allow me to give away the clothes he would need."
The reader will find so many more important topics in Ms. Didion's compelling work; for instance she writes about changing attitudes to death or the sickening tendency to use euphemisms instead of dealing with painful reality. However the most important message of the book is simply that death is final, and we humans are just not built for that.

Four stars.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Dirty BlondeDirty Blonde by Lisa Scottoline
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"'Against the door,' Cate heard herself say.
'Whatever,' he murmured , easing her back against the door in the dark hallway. She was on fire, and his hands grabbed at her skirt, pushing it up. He moaned when he felt bare skin.

In my previous life of a reader interested only in mystery and crime novels I had read several legal thrillers by Lisa Scottoline, in the Rosato & DiNunzio series. Fortunately, Dirty Blonde (2006), the book that I selected to refresh my acquaintance with the author, is a standalone novel. Unfortunately, even if I am marginally recommending it, I do not like the novel much. The clever setup and the first 80 or so pages are the best things about the book.

We meet judge Cate Fante as she is attending a party celebrating her appointment to the district court. When the party is over Judge Fante drives to a bar, meets a guy, and lets him touch her intimately. We soon learn that in her free time Judge Cate solicits casual sex in seedy bars. The double entendre of the title works really well! Ms. Fante is a highly qualified and conscientious judge, who cares not only about the law but also about so-called justice (Ms. Scottoline knows pretty well that these two often have very little in common). She also helps her best friend raise an autistic son to whom she is a godmother.

Judge Fante begins her district court career by presiding over a trial where the plaintiff, a lawyer named Marz, sues a Hollywood producer for stealing his idea of a very successful TV show. Judge Fante's verdict follows the law but not her idea of justice. The outcome of the trial sets up one thread of the plot: the producer is soon killed and Mr. Marz apparently commits suicide. Another thread is preposterous: Judge Fante learns that a TV series is in preparation based on her work as a judge and detailing her sexual escapades. At that point the novel loses any semblance of plausibility and devolves into a TV-show-like silliness, with ridiculous twists and turns.

We have to endure inanities like Cate's playing a detective, good cops arresting good cops, FBI involvement, shenanigans in the court building, etc. Many pages in the later part of the book are just pure space filler that does not serve any purpose in characterization or advancement of the plot. Probably the publisher has an acceptable range of the number of pages and Ms. Scottoline was a bit short. We also have a syrupy happy ending, quite implausible considering the plot.

Other than the beginning and the setup I like the well-written and touching passage when Judge Fante visits her mother's grave and the rather incongruous but interesting reference to Centralia, a coal-mining town in north-eastern Pennsylvania. Stories about the horrendous underground mine fire and the plight of the anthracite coal miners suffering from the black lung disease are moving but all that is not enough to like the novel much.

Two and a half stars.

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Friday, December 15, 2017

AmsterdamAmsterdam by Ian McEwan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] it seemed to Vernon that he was infinitely diluted; he was simply the sum of all people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all."

I finished reading Ian McEwan's Amsterdam (1998) - my first novel of this quite famous author - only few days ago but have been too busy since then to write a review. Alas, I am finding out that I have already forgotten much about the novel and need to reach to my notes to refresh memory. It does not seem like an auspicious introduction to the author.

The novel begins with a formidable sentence:
"Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill."
Molly, a well-known restaurant critic and photographer, has died rather suddenly of a rapidly progressing brain disease. Her funeral ceremony is in progress: Clive, a famous composer, and Vernon, the editor of Judge, a popular London tabloid, reminisce about their times and sex they had with Molly. Another Molly's former lover, Julian, who is currently the foreign secretary and has his sights set on the position of Prime Minister, is also a subject of the conversation. Molly's husband, George, completes the quintet of the main characters in the novel.

After the interesting opening - the conversation in the crematorium is quite a nice piece of real literature - the novel morphs into a sort of mystery. George finds compromising photographs from Molly's past, and all three former lovers become involved in the plot that focuses on whether to publish the pictures in Vernon's magazine. Unfortunately, I could not care less for the plot: it is of as sensationalist quality as the stories in Judge that Mr. McEwan is ridiculing.

On the other hand, there is some good stuff in the novel as well. For instance, I appreciate the author's sense of humor: Clive has been commissioned to compose the Millennial Symphony to be performed at the dawn of 2001, the task he envisions as something on the order of Beethoven's Ninth. When he finishes the work by composing a sort of current-day Ode to the Joy, the Ninth final movement, he contemplates whether he is a genius - a hilarious fragment of prose.

Obviously, the best passages in the novel have nothing to do with the plot. In addition to the outstanding beginning, the account of Vernon's hectic day as an editor of Judge and the description of the workplace politics are first rate. Yet perhaps the best fragment of the novel shows how Clive composes the key musical motif for the final movement of his masterpiece: while hiking near Allen Crags in the Lake District he hears a bird's piping sound on three notes. That sound becomes the inspiration for his monumental work but prevents him from paying attention to more important things that are happening at the same time. Realistic, well written, and funny! The ending is probably supposed to be funny as well, but I find the comedic payoff somewhat feeble.

Amsterdam is an easy read (maybe a warning sign?) and one can find quite a few thoughtful quotes in the text. While Mr. McEwan is certainly a gifted writer and his accomplished prose is a pleasure to read I do not think that the highly polished sentences add up to much.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

On the Line (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #10)On the Line by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"Focus! Christ, Smith, focus"

What an extreme disappointment! This is my tenth novel by S.J. Rozan, the author of remarkably good Winter and Night and Stone Quarry , an author whom until now I would have trusted not to be able to produce bad novels. Even the weaker installments in the series, for instance, Mandarin Plaid, were at a decent level. Alas On the Line (2010) is a completely different story. Juvenile, utterly implausible, and brimming with clichés worthy of the greatest Masters of Formulaic Thrillers.

Bill Smith is practicing Brahms piano sonata when his phone rings: Lydia Chin manages to say a few words but then the kidnapper interrupts. An electronically altered voice tells Mr. Smith that he has 12 hours to find Lydia. Otherwise she dies. The kidnapper, once wronged by Smith, is now exacting his revenge. Our hero is invited to a game: he will be offered a series of clues and if he does not solve even one of the puzzles, Lydia will be killed. Yeah, as lame as that. If you are new to the series: Lydia is Bill's detection business partner, and also his unrequited (as far as we know) love. Please read better books by S.J. Rozan than this one. This mess is not worth your time.

Mr. Smith enlists the help of Linus, Lydia's "kid cousin", a teenager computer whiz, and his girlfriend, Trella, who is "barely old to drink". Linus and Trella are accompanied by a canine superhero named Woof. So Smith, Linus, Trella, and Woof are the crew to battle the Super Evil Villain in the series of puzzles. Later in the story they are joined by a "piece-of-work pimp and his boys." I am not sure even Mr. Patterson would stoop so low with the plot.

And now combine the canine-enhanced juvenile crew with murders of Chinese prostitutes, the murders being parts in the puzzles set by the Super-Evil Villain. Combine the human drama of torture and death with the (maybe unintended) humor inherent in the composition of the good guys' team. The combination is putrid.

The clues left by the ArchVillain are usually booby-trapped. When the dramaturgy of the story requires explosion, BAM! There it is. Obviously Mr. Smith knows what the booby traps are. So lame! The puzzles are based on loose associations related to popular culture. Of course, Smith and the crew are instantaneously able to decrypt all the references. It reminds me of the most atrocious cliché of the last 50 years of thrillers. Suppose a computer geek needs to get into a passworded computer system: the genius sits at the keyboard, thinks for seven seconds, makes a guess, and the guess is right!

I would like to say: FOCUS!, S.J. ROZAN, FOCUS!!!

One and a half stars.

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Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Life of Raymond ChandlerThe Life of Raymond Chandler by Frank MacShane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Unlike James, Joyce, or Conrad, who were all in exile from worlds they detested, Chandler was in exile from a world he thought he loved. Instead of his adored England, he lived in a place where values seemed to shift with the tides."

Seven weeks ago I reviewed here the biography of Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar). Since Macdonald has often been compared to Raymond Chandler it seems worthwhile to compare their biographies. I do not find Frank MacShane's The Life of Raymond Chandler equally brilliant work, but it is a solid, informative, and interesting book, and I recommend it without any hesitation. I also need to provide a disclaimer of sorts: I consider Ross Macdonald to be a better writer than Mr. Chandler and I hope that subjective judgment does not color my comparison between the biographies.

The author depicts Mr. Chandler's life trajectory chronologically, in a conventional manner of a biography, from the writer's birth in 1888 in Chicago, childhood in Nebraska, then his youth in England (and Ireland), brief time spent in the British civil service as an Admiralty clerk, and equally brief stint on a newspaper job. Next, Mr. Chandler returns to the U.S., settles in California, marries Cissy, and lands a well paying job as an auditor in an oil company. Continual struggle with drinking and self-doubt plague him until his death in la Jolla in 1959.

Mr. Chandler's literary career is presented in detail, from his early "cloy and saccharine" poetry, through several years of writing crime stories for pulp magazines, to his novels, beginning with The Big Sleep, peaking with The Long Good-Bye and ending in an unremarkable Playback.

Mr. MacShane has selected the motif of Chandler's lack of sense of nationality as the main conceptual axis of the biography. Much of Chandler's worldview must have been affected by the shock resulting from his encounter with the loose concept of culture in California after having grown up in a rigid class structure of England.

The other leading motif in this biography is Mr. Chandler's struggle to escape the categorization as just a mystery writer. Chandler detested the basic premise of classic, deductive detective stories and was more interested in people than in the plots. I agree with the author that Chandler managed to escape the genre-writer niche only in his masterpiece: the Time reviewer observed that The Long Good-Bye
"crossed the boundary between good mystery and good novel"
Mr. MacShane contrasts the formulaic character of Hammett's Sam Spade, who "is not a person at all" with Chandler's Philip Marlowe, tough and clever yet human. Well, I tend to disagree: even in the outstanding Good-Bye Marlowe is at most half a person. It was finally Ross Macdonald who created a believable PI character in his Lew Archer.

I find it rather surprising that to me Chandler's novels feel so much more dated than Macdonald's even though their most productive years are less than 25 years apart (1939-1953 vs. 1949-1976).

And finally a personal connection: La Jolla, California, the place where Raymond Chandler spent the longest period of his life. I know all streets where he rented houses: my family and I used to live just a mile or two away, albeit some 25 years later.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Long DropThe Long Drop by Denise Mina
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] all the hope he will ever feel is sucked out through his soles into the wet, treacherous earth..."

Denise Mina is one of my absolutely favorite writers and of the six books of hers that I have reviewed here on Goodreads, I have rated two with five stars (Garnethill, a masterpiece transcending the crime/mystery genre and The Dead Hour , a great crime novel) and three others with four stars. So I was really looking forward to reading Ms. Mina's newest work, The Long Drop (2017). Even if I do not think it is one of her better books the novel is definitely a very good read and I wholeheartedly recommend it. The fact that it is a standalone novel is an added bonus. I deeply appreciate Ms. Mina stopping each series that she had begun at three installments. It is more difficult for a writer (as Ms. Mina herself confirmed during her conversation with readers on Goodreads) but the tedious repetitive literary routine is thus avoided.

After 12 purely fiction crime/mystery novels, Ms. Mina sort of ventures into the field of the so-called "true crime". Despite the standard disclaimer about "fictitious characters and events" this is a fictionalization of the real-life story of a famous American-Scottish serial killer, Peter Manuel, convicted in 1958 for seven murders, and suspected of even more killings. I have read about twenty books in the true-crime genre, and this is the first one that I really like. I have been trying to understand why and the simplest explanation I have is that while most true-crime books attempt to show fictionalized events as true, Ms. Mina does the opposite: she writes about true events as fiction. And nothing conveys truth better than well-written fiction.

The novel intertwines events that happen in two time frames: the night of December 2/December 3, 1957, and the second half of May of 1958. The memorable December night begins when a famous and successful Glasgow lawyer accompanies his client, William Watt, whose family was murdered, to meet Peter Manuel. Manuel wants to sell information about the murders. We follow Watt and Manuel in their night-long voyage from one pub to another, we witness their drunkenness progress through a number of stages, and we read about the grim lives of various characters involved in the story. The other time frame presents scenes from Manuel's trial.

Ms. Mina presents a masterful picture of the working-class Glasgow of the late 1950s, the Glasgow of nightmares. She depicts the lives of men whose daily routine involves either extremely hard physical work or crime, daily heavy drinking in pubs, and the unifying pattern - vicious beatings they administer to their wives and children. In the meantime, the overlords of the economic crime, the masters of robberies, extortions, and protection racket, such as Dandy McKay, the real rulers of this working-class city, are beyond prosecution, untouchable by police as the crime lords, the police, and the city government live in perfect symbiosis. This is an extremely dark novel, made even darker by Ms. Mina cynical and thus deeply realistic portrayal of the basest human instincts.

At the beginning I had some difficulties connecting with the characters, but then I read the gut-wrenching passage about the father of one of the murdered girls:
"...his wife is waiting for him. She puts her arms around him and he sobs into her hair.
Mr. Cooke thinks about the weeping woman in the gallery. His unique desolation was all he had left of his Isabelle. Now the crying woman has taken that as well. He has been robbed again."
From that moment I could not put the book away: at times it shook my deeply and I appreciated the terrific prose.

I admire Ms. Mina for trying something different than repeating Alex Morrow stories. She is a great writer and even if not all her works are masterpieces they are all wonderful and worthwhile reads.

Three and a half stars.

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Travels With My AuntTravels With My Aunt by Graham Greene
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] I thought of Mr Visconti dancing with my aunt in the reception room of a brothel behind the Messagero after swindling the Vatican and the King of Saudi Arabia and leaving a wide trail of damage behind him in the banks of Italy. Was the secret of lasting youth known only to the criminal mind?"

I am quite ambivalent about Graham Greene's Travels with My Aunt (1969): on the one hand novels that are funny in a demented way are one of my favorite genres. Alas, on the other hand, Mr. Greene's novel serves as a vehicle to tell a huge number of loosely connected stories, which - in turn - happens to be one of my least favorite genres. This balances out to a marginally positive recommendation based on various pearls of wisdom scattered throughout the text and some hilarious scenes.

The beginning sentence of the novel neatly sets up the plot:
"I met my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother's funeral."
Immediately after the funeral, Aunt Augusta invites Henry, the narrator and a retired banking executive, for drinks. She tells him that he is not his mother's son, but rather a product of his father's affair. And so begins their friendship, of a sixty-something man with his seventy-something aunt. They could not be less alike. While Henry is a quintessential banking executive whose life is utterly organized, predictable, and boring, Aunt Augusta has a strong streak of anarchy in her, lives to travel, and knows some very, very, very strange people. She manages to infect Henry with her carefree attitude to life and they begin traveling together.

Their travels begin modestly, with a Brighton outing, but the range escalates to Paris, Boulogne, then on the Orient Express to Istanbul, and finally Argentina and Paraguay. The set of characters is even more impressive: first of all, there is Wordsworth, a Sierra Leone-born man, ostensibly Aunt Augusta's valet but in fact a man who attends to all her wants, and the mysterious and powerful persona of Mr. Visconti. My favorite character is Tooley, a very young woman whom Henry meets on the Orient Express. They smoke pot and she tells him about her life tribulations and about her father, a CIA operative.

The avalanche of colorful stories assaults the reader with the richness of tantalizing details: as an example, just on one page the author mentions marijuana and acid experiences, CIA, and the fear of castration. Future is being told from tea leaves, we learn about a porn movie theater in Havana, we are told about confession taken by a fake priest during World War II, and a suitcase stuffed with cash is toted across various borders. Tooley's father keeps a detailed record of his daily urinations and a character is arrested for using a wrong-colored handkerchief to blow his nose. We have a whirlwind of fast-changing locales in Europe, Asia, and South America, so the novel may even be viewed as a travelogue of sorts.

I have been totally exhausted and frankly bored by this maelstrom of stories, but it is quite likely that other readers will find the novel exhilarating. What redeems the book for me are the occasional tasty nuggets of literary brilliance and astute observations like
"Luckily in middle age pleasure begins, pleasure in love, in wine, in food. Only the taste of poetry flags a little [...] Lovemaking too provides as a rule a more prolonged and varied pleasure after forty-five."
True! Alas, the express train of my life left the station called "Middle Age" many years ago.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

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

"I won't label [her] as Rubenesque, but she was abundant and all the more stirring for it. Her body was vital, overwhelming. I hung on for dear life and, in addition to my pleasure, had the added delight of being a survivor."

Having just finished Inside Mr. Enderby a rather dark and serious novel I decided it was time for some mindless entertainment and a pure leisure read. Lawrence Sanders comes to rescue and the always dependable Archy McNally, of McNally & Son, a debonair, gourmet, dapper, and a very manly private investigator responsible for conducting discreet inquiries in his fathers law firm. We are reminded that Archy is not a lawyer himself as he had been expelled from Yale Law for streaking naked across the Philharmonic stage in a Richard Nixon's mask: can one not love such a character?

The firm's client is Ms. Fogarty, a high-level employee of a funeral-home chain (Mr. Sanders allows himself to chide the euphemism 'grief counselor', thank you!), who has noticed an unusual uptick in the company's business in recent months, and wants to make sure nothing illegal is going on. Obviously, Archy is the one to conduct his trademark discreet inquiries, alas this time he is burdened by having an apprentice helper: his acquaintance Binky Watrous needs a job. The case quickly grows to involve some serious crimes and really bad people; even special agents of the FBI make their entrance. Of course, it is Archy who figures everything out but not soon enough: quite serious things happen, serious enough not to fit the light-hearted mood of this story.

Archy in his role as the narrator is again using florid language full of cute periphrases, which to me is perhaps the best feature of McNally's novels. The language is artificial yet somehow, magically, it does not sound artificial. The prose is perfectly suited to depiction of sex scenes. The descriptions do not use physiological terms, do not rely on heavy metaphors, and do not sound awkward and embarrassing as most of such writings do in non-top-shelf literature. They are simply funny:
"Zing! Went the Strings of My Libido."
or further on the same page:
"She owned a body as solid as the figurehead of a Yankee clipper [...] but there was not an ounce of excess avoirdupois on her carcass. Believe me; I searched."
On the negative side, I like this installment the least of the three I have read so far (two others being McNally's Risk and McNally's Luck ) Binky Watrous, a dweeb and an expert in imitating birdcalls, is not an interesting character at all. Not worth all that focus. In fact, most characters are caricatures, including the FBI special agent Kling, except for two strong female characters, Ms. Fogarty, and Mrs. Sarah Whitcomb, the funeral-home owner's wife. I also liked the mention of Boleslaw the Bashful, the king of Poland (1243 - 1279). Overall, not too bad as pure entertainment.

Three stars.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Inside Mr. EnderbyInside Mr. Enderby by Anthony Burgess
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anthony Burgess is mainly known as the author of A Clockwork Orange , which I reviewed here on Goodreads, and which owes a large part of its popularity to the outstanding film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick. While Inside Mr. Enderby (1963) may not convey equally powerful artistic vision, it is still a remarkable novel and, to me, it deserves almost as high a rating.

A truly magnificent chapter opens the novel. Children from the future, on their Educational Time Trip, visit a great poet of the past, a Mr. Enderby, who is sleeping in his rented flat. They explore his body and also his bedroom, kitchen, and - most importantly - his bathroom: this the only place where Mr. Enderby is able to create poetry. The Muse visits him only when he sits on his "poetic seat."

After this remarkable introduction we follow events in Mr. Enderby's life in a relatively linear fashion, beginning with him receiving a notice of winning a small poetry prize. The award ceremony is an unforgettable scene, with its speeches and poetry readings punctuated by Mr. Enderby's emissions of wind. He meets a journalist from a women's magazine; she will play a significant role in his later life. We follow comical adventures related to Mr. Enderby's inebriation in London, a wonderfully demented story that concludes Part 1 on the novel. Two other parts take place mainly in other locations: in Italy and in the north of England. The ending is in a way similar to that of Clockwork Orange, as improbable as it may seem.

While this is a very funny novel - I was laughing out loud many, many times - it is also extremely dark. It offers a pessimistic view of contemporary culture (contemporary in 1963, but then we only went downhill thanks to TV and Internet), yet the main message seems to be the damage that broken childhoods inflict on people. Mr. Enderby had been traumatized by his stepmother, from whose intimidating specter he has been trying to escape all his life.

It is Mr. Burgess' prose, though, that I find the main value of the novel. From its breathtaking beginning through many unforgettable passages - for instance, Mr. Enderby's horrific experiences in Castel Gandolfo - I have been savoring the author's writing. The text is richly sprinkled with fragments of poetry, mostly of Mr. Enderby's authorship. Many passages are truly hilarious like the one where the poet is trying to ascertain whether he is in command of his male qualities:
"He stealthily felt his way down to find out what was his body's view of this constatation, but all was quiet there, as though he were calmly reading Jane Austen."
On the other hand, I am not a particular fan of Mr. Enderby's (or perhaps the author's) severe obsession with the non-decorative aspects of human physiology: burps, farts, dandruff, urine, belching, boil-scars, vomit, ear wax, teeth-picking and the like, which permeate the novel. Yet Mr. Burgess' brilliance in handling the language, the syntax, the sound, and the vocabulary are so masterful that they can carry whatever content is thrown there, even the ugly detritus of our body works.

Three and three quarter stars.

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Broken PennyThe Broken Penny by Julian Symons
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"[...] an awful conformity of the human spirit. [...] Draw the curtains close, turn out the lights, pretend that knocking at the house next door does not exist, put cottonwool in your ears against the screams, be thankful above all that it is not your turn, perhaps it will never be your turn."

What an exasperating read! A few morsels of wisdom - like the above passage that reminds me of Pastor Martin Niemöller's famous quote "Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me" - and few fragments of good prose are buried in a ridiculous story. It is hard to believe the plot so silly comes from one of the "grandmasters of British mystery", Julian Symons, the author of the very good The Progress of a Crime that I rated above four stars. I have read and reviewed here on Goodreads nine other novels by Mr. Symons; they are all better than The Broken Penny (1953).

The protagonist of the story which takes place in Europe in the early 1950s is Charles Garden, once a sort of "professional revolutionary." He had been connected with various leftist causes such as the fight against Franco's regime during the Spanish Civil War. Mr. Garden is summoned to meet his acquaintance at the "Central Liaison Organization", an obvious front for one of the departments of British intelligence. He is supposed to convince a certain Professor Arbitzer, a deposed and exiled head of a coalition government in an unnamed European country, to return there and lead the popular upraising to overthrow the Soviet-imposed Communist government.

Treachery and murder, all connected with politics, begin to happen while the plot is still located in the UK. But soon the group of main characters leave on a secret plane flight to Prof. Arbitzer's country. By the way, they take a dog with them for this secret mission; yeah, the plot is that ridiculous! There are more killings and treachery when the story moves to that unnamed country, somewhere in southeastern Europe, where the Soviets installed their puppet governments after World War II.

I find the utterly idiotic plot offensive. The author tries to convey some deep thoughts about the human cost of political struggle and revolution yet his sincere and well-expressed humanistic concerns are completely defiled by silly sequences of plot events. I love demented novels, but only when intended by the author; here it is clear that the author does not know how preposterous the story is. The two final monumental plot twists undo all previous plot twists and leave the readers twisting with anger.

I am also angry about offensive clichés: for instance, anything that is wrong with a woman can be cured by two strong slaps on both sides of her face. A woman thus righted will then begin to behave properly and fall in love with the slapper. Obviously. All that cr.p from a really good author who can write beautiful sentences like:
"How the past overwhelms us as soon as it comes washing through any gap in the high wall we have made to keep out the seas of memory, what a mistake it had been to turn left instead of right."
Other than a few good sentences the best thing in the novel is the character of good old Mr. Goldblatt, Mr. Garden's employer. Readers beware: the blurb on the cover "High grade thriller" is a barefaced lie!

One and a half stars.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme CourtSupreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court by Jan Crawford Greenburg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[The Court] was jurisprudentially unmoored. During Rehnquist's reign, the justices were in a constant struggle over which of their competing legal theories was most relevant. They had their own philosophies about the law, so the Court could legitimately be characterized as liberal one day and conservative the next."

Another good book on the workings of the Supreme Court of US - likely my most favorite non-fiction topic. Jan Crawford Greenburg's Supreme Conflict (2007) is one of the best works in this particular niche that I have read. I like it as much as the great The Nine and more than my most recent "Supreme read" David Hackett Souter , but maybe only because I am a complete ignoramus in the area of constitutional law. (After the rating I list the links to my reviews of five other Supreme Court studies that I have read recently.)

Ms. Greenburg's book starts - with a literary flair and suspense - on the last day of the 2004-2005 court Supreme Court term, when everybody is expecting the gravely ill Chief Justice W.H. Rehnquist to announce that he is stepping down. This does not happen and it is Justice Sandra O'Connor who soon announces her retirement. The reader will learn the reasons for this unexpected turn of events.

The subtitle of the book, The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court, aptly describes the content. The author states that her work has been based on more than one hundred interviews, which included nine justices, many federal courts judges, and other high-ranking officials. Almost all of these interviews have been conducted "on background", meaning that the interlocutors might have been more willing to say things that have not been well known publicly.

Any history of Supreme Court between 1980s and 2000s will necessarily emphasize the influence of three justices: Rehnquist, "the boss", Sandra O'Connor, and Anthony Kennedy. Ms. Greenburg particularly focuses on Justice O'Connor, and in my view based on six other books about the highest court during that period, rightly so. I do not think any other justice had more impact on the eventual court rulings than Justice O'Connor. The author shows the mechanisms of her tremendous influence, based on her being a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. With seven out of nine justices nominated by Republican presidents, the Court was neither conservative nor liberal. Ms. Greenburg writes:
"The Court was ideologically adrift, and its course usually depended on which way O'Connor - and to some extent, Kennedy - chose to go."
Later in the book the author quotes a clever metaphor of "hedgehogs and foxes." Hedgehogs "who know one big thing" and foxes, "who know lots of small things."
"[They] bring different skills and perspectives to the Court. The foxes understand compromise and consensus. [...] The hedgehogs [...] think there are right answers in the law. Scalia is a classic hedgehog who is guided by an overarching theory [...]"
Ms. Greenburg uses Justice Breyer as an example of a "fox", but Justice O'Connor would be a more fitting example. My personal view is that the foxes are right: There are no right answers, not in the law and not anywhere else. Compromise and consensus are the only ways of achieving something.

There is a lot of interesting background information on the failed nomination of judge Bork and on the intense disagreements between justices O'Connor and Thomas (the author tries to defend Justice Thomas, but I do not find it very convincing: for me a pragmatist is always right and a dogmatist always wrong). The successful nomination of Justice Roberts (later the Chief Justice) is well portrayed and the best fragments of the book are about the frenzied search for a female candidate when W.H. Rehnquist dies. The convoluted, nasty, and eventually failed process of nominating Harriet Miers shows one of the uglier aspects of politics. A really interesting, very informative, and well-written book!

Four and a quarter stars.

John W. Dean The Rehnquist Choice
Jeffrey Rosen, The Supreme Court; The Personalities and Rivalries that Redefined America
John Anthony Maltese, The Selling of Supreme Court Nominees
Martin Garbus, The Next 25 Years: The New Supreme Court and What It Means for Americans
John Paul Stevens,Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

One for the Money (Stephanie Plum, #1)One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

""I lined my eyes in midnight blue, gunked them up with mascara, painted my mouth whore red, and hung the biggest, brassiest earrings I owned from my lobes. I lacquered my nails to match my lips and checked myself out in the mirror.
Damned if I didn't make a good slut.

Janet Evanovich's One for the Money (1994) is the first novel in her long-running series featuring Stephanie Plum, a bounty hunter. The series that always uses numerals in the titles has now reached the 24th installment but I am not sure whether I will read another one. While the protagonist is a relatively interesting character, the prose is marginally competent, and there are some smidgens of socio- and psychological observations, the literary convention completely puts me off. The novel is set up as a "light-hearted mystery" yet it deals with such light-hearted events as deaths, beatings, and torture. While I quite like "light prose" and am certainly interested in books that deal with life-and-death events I do not think that mixing the two conventions works.

The novel begins with the following cool passage:
"There are some men who enter a woman's life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me - not forever, but periodically."
Then Stephanie reminisces playing "choo-choo train" with Joe Morelli when she was six years old. Several years later their paths cross again, "behind the case filled with chocolate éclairs". And then again, three years later, when Stephanie tries to run the guy over with her car.

Well, Stephanie has now been laid off her job as a lingerie buyer, anything that could be sold or pawned is gone from her apartment in the predominantly Italian neighborhood of Trenton, New Jersey, and she desperately needs a job. She blackmails her cousin Vinnie to get a skip tracing job in his bail bonding company. And guess what: her first case is to track Joe Morelli, who became a cop in the meantime, as he did not show for a court appearance in a case where he is suspected of killing an unarmed man.

Well, this light-hearted, rather inane caper involves an ex-special-forces operative schooling Stephanie in the craft of bounty hunting (yeah, right), her grandma shooting a heavy gun over dinner, a whitish substance - probably not tapioca - smeared on her door, and two well-intentioned prostitutes telling Stephanie what the "word on the street is" (ugh). Several people die, some are tortured, but Stephanie keeps strutting her light-hearted stuff. Sweet!

Other than the rather plausible and well-portrayed relationship between Stephanie and Joe and their interesting "story" one thing I really liked in the novel is the reference to how Stephanie removes the distributor cap from her car's engine to render it safe from stealing. This reminded me the days over 30 years ago when I needed to do it every evening when parking the car in front of our apartment building in San Diego.

Two stars.

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bagombo Snuff BoxBagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"My longtime friend and critic Professor Peter Reed, of the English Department at the University of Minnesota, made it his business to find these stories from my distant past. Otherwise, they might never have seen the light of day again. I myself hadn't saved one scrap of paper from that part of my life."
(Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in the Introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box.)

I am not sure that the collection of early short stories Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., one of my favorite authors, should have been published. I suspect that the publisher's eagerness to make a buck off the great author's name may be more to blame than Dr. Reed's zeal. Mr. Vonnegut himself seems to be aware of literary weakness of the stories: he writes in the Coda:
"Rereading [some of the stories] so upset me, because the premise and the characters of each were so promising, and the denouement so asinine, that I virtually rewrote the denouement before I could stop myself."
Further in the Coda the author is even more critical of these early stories that date back to the 1950s when they were published in such magazines as Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Argosy, Redbook .

Most of the 23 stories collected here are completely unremarkable and instantly forgettable. They are overtly and overly didactic, aimed at readers with teenager-like worldview, and just plain sophomoric. The endings, clearly meant to be "surprising", are quite predictable. The weakest story, A Night for Love is trite and unbelievably syrupy. This Son of Mine aims at psychological depth yet what we receive is a maudlin, sentimental mess. And this mess comes from my beloved author of Slaughterhouse-Five !

Some stories in the set are a little better. Souvenir rings true as it is based on Mr. Vonnegut's experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany, yet it is marred by atrociously cheap ending. A Present for Big Saint Nick is partially redeemed by being just nasty enough at the end. The only story that I like is Der Arme Dolmetscher, again referring to the author's war experience, but maybe I like it just because of the phrase "Where are your howitzers?" (Vo zint eara pantzer shpitzen?), which reminds me of Monty Python's Hungarian Tobacconist's Sketch.

Dr. Reed points out two interesting aspects in his Preface: the stories feel quite dated because the women play secondary roles in all of them and the men are completely defined by jobs they have. Well, these observations are way more interesting than the stories themselves.

Also, to be clear, my one-star rating is relative: what merits one star for Mr. Vonnegut, would bring a much higher rating in the case of a less talented author. This set of stories ranks nowhere near even the weakest entries in Vonnegut's literary output, such as, say, Deadeye Dick or Mother Night . To compare it with the author's great books such as Bluebeard or Breakfast of Champions is absurd, not even mentioning his masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five .

One and a half stars.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

DeceptionDeception by Denise Mina
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"She lets out a sigh so small, so intimate, it makes me want to cry. It's as if she's brushing her lips past my ear, a small breath easing from my throat, past the palate, brushing between her lips, and out. She takes in a tiny rasping breath to compensate before she carries on, and when she does, her voice has changed. "

What a phenomenal writer Denise Mina is! It's been quite some time since I last reviewed her novel Blood Salt Water . And I still am due the re-read and re-review of her masterpiece, Garnethill, one of the best mysteries I have ever read, and a piece of high-class literature. Deception (2003) is a stand-alone novel and a wonderful one at that: aren't we all a wee tired of Alex Morrow? Ms. Mina and Ms. Karin Fossum are by far my favorite current writers in the genre. I love to read their prose, rich, subtle, evocative, and astute psychologically (both of them) and sociologically (Ms. Mina).

Deception is framed to appear as a true crime novel. The bulk of the book is the set of diaries of Lachlan Harriot whose wife Susie has been pronounced guilty of murdering Andrew Gow. Gow had in the past been convicted of serial murders of five prostitutes, but then released on appeal since similar murders happened while he was in prison. Susie was a psychiatrist in the mental hospital where Gow had been under observation after confessing to his crimes. She was fired when she took home the prison documents related to the case and then accused of murdering Gow when she had found out that he married another woman.

The plot is captivating and I lost the proverbial "many hours of sleep" not being able to put the book away. But to me the super interesting plot is the least important aspect in the novel. Also, I am not quite convinced by the logic of the surprising denouement. The two extraordinary aspects of the novel are Ms. Mina's outstanding prose (see the epigraph) and the psychological truth of characters she's portraying on the pages. The five-page scene of Lachlan's second visit to see Susie in prison is a masterpiece of prose that overwhelms the reader with psychological depth. This is the actual, real life, captured by a master writer who knows the subject. (Let's not forget Ms. Mina's research in the areas of criminology, criminal law, and connections with mental illness in female offenders when she was working on her PhD thesis). Also, the whole passage of Lachlan's family descending upon him to help is very well observed. And so hilarious! The family row scene is almost on par with the unforgettable four-actor scene from the same author's Gods and Beasts

All the main characters, Lachlan, Susie, Yeni, are rich, life-like portraits of real people. Lachlan, the narrator, is an off-center, peculiar, idiosyncratic character yet I recognize in him various people I have known and I feel I have known him for a long time. His trajectory in the plot is really well designed and what happens at the end is really obvious when it does happen, in the hindsight.

And finally, one of my main reasons of being on the verge of a five-star rating of this book: the stunning thread that provides a solid psychological and sociological analysis of the phenomenon of women's emotional investment - sometimes leading to marriage - in male prisoners who have been convicted of heinous crimes, like serial murders or rapes. This theme dovetails nicely with the motif of people selling the sordid stories of their relatives' lives for money, and the whole repugnant feature of the human race: the interest in celebrities of WHATEVER kind, murderers and rapists included. The author writes, in a fictitious article from Guardian:
"[Stevie Ray] has given up his job at the minicab firm where he met Gow and is dedicating himself full-time to managing Gow's career as a serial killer and celebrity."
Are there more despicable creatures on Earth than humans?

Four and a quarter stars.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

JailbirdJailbird by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"She believed, and was entitled to believe, I must say, that all human beings were evil by nature, whether tormentors or victims, or idle standers-by. [...] We were a disease, she said, which had evolved on one tiny cinder in the universe, but could spread and spread."

I am ambivalent about Kurt Vonnegut's Jailbird (1979). On the one hand the author pushes many of my hot buttons and I agree with his choices of human failings to lampoon - human race as a disease affecting the universe is a brilliant metaphor - but on the other, the diagnoses and solutions he offers are way too simplistic and naive. There are some brilliant passages in the novel but many others are ridiculous, childish, or just plain silly.

Jailbird can be divided into two, quite disjoint parts. The first is a memoir of one Walter F. Starbuck, the son of a Polish chauffeur and a Lithuanian cook working for an American millionaire. Thanks to his parents' employer's sponsorship Mr. Starbuck graduates from Harvard, but then - during the grim days of the Depression - he becomes a Communist. Much later he is interrogated by Richard Nixon himself during congressional committee hearings. The future president remembers him and Starbuck obtains a job in Nixon's White House, as a Special Advisor on Youth. He becomes one of the scapegoats in the Watergate affair and goes to prison.

I find the first part realistic, almost "historical", and captivating. Vonnegut focuses on the issues of labor movement in the US. He writes:
"Labor history was pornography of a sort in those days, and even more so in these days. In public schools and in the homes of nice people it was and remains pretty much taboo to tell tales of labor's sufferings and derring-do."
One of the most dramatic fragments of the novel is the depiction of the fictitious Cuyahoga Massacre where the soldiers killed fourteen protesting workers of the Cuyahoga Bridge and Iron, wounded scores of others, and - the worst of all (sarcasm!) - caused serious stutter in Mr. Starbuck's future employer. Another dramatic fragment depicts the factual story of executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, anarchists convicted of murder, but guilty only of "dangerous radical activities."

The novel's second, present-time part that begins on the day of Starbuck's release from prison is a sort of fantasy tale:
"This is just the dream of a jailbird. It's not supposed to make sense."
Here we encounter The RAMJAC Corporation that owns 19% of the entire wealth of the United States and the story focuses on Mr. Starbuck's connections with the mysterious Mrs. Graham who is the majority stockholder. I am not enthusiastic about that part of the novel, not only because I dislike fantasy in literature, but mainly because it dissolves the stronger message of the novel's "historical" part. Although I burst out laughing over the hilarious commentary on the average American level of literacy: Vonnegut writes about an invention needed in the times when "it was getting harder all the time to find employees who understood numbers well": images of products are put on the keys of a cash register rather than numbers.

Vonnegut's trademark sarcastic view of humanity is made clear by the numerous references to the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of teachings attributed to Jesus Christ in which he predicts that the poor in spirit would receive the Kingdom of Heaven, the meek will inherit the Earth, that the merciful will be treated mercifully, and so on. I wonder why the author does not quote the most striking phrase from the Sermon: "You cannot serve God and wealth" because "no one can serve two masters." Would the author be not bold enough to say that capitalism and Christianity cannot coexist?

Infuriatingly uneven work by the author of the great
. Here Vonnegut editorializes way too much and does not let the power of his fiction speak for itself. The beautiful passages about Starbuck's wife and his girlfriend virtually disappear buried deep in well-meant yet inept propaganda.

Two and a half stars.

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Lady in the Lake (Philip Marlowe, #4)The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips."

Raymond Chandler's fourth novel, The Lady in the Lake (1943), is not as remarkable an achievement as The Long Good-bye or the popular favorites The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely. Yet it is a solid, engrossing, and very readable mystery with some well-developed characters, and also a novel that conveys the sense of the times.

Philip Marlowe is hired by a well-to-do businessman, Mr. Kingsley, to find his wife, Crystal, "who has been gone a whole month." She sent him a telegram from El Paso telling him that she is going to Mexico with a man she met and that she plans to get a divorce. But the man in question denies going anywhere with Crystal and her car is found in San Bernardino. Marlowe quickly discovers a connection with Kingsley's wife doctor, whose wife committed suicide some time ago. There are hints of excessive drug prescriptions.

Marlowe goes to Kingsley's cabin on the fictional Little Fawn Lake (maybe modeled on Big Bear Lake) where he meets the caretaker, Mr. Chess, who tells Marlowe that his wife also disappeared. They go on a walk around the lake and accidentally discover the drowned body:
"Then the face came. A swollen pulpy gray white mass without features, without eyes, without mouth. A blotch of gray dough [...]"
Mr. Chess recognizes his wife. I am not giving any spoilers as this is just the beginning of a very complicated plot that involves many characters and an intricate tangle of connections between them.

Several characterizations, for instance Sheriff Patton's and Miss Fromsett's, are well written: the characters are not caricatures but almost feel like real people. Even Philip Marlowe is not as cartoonishly perfect as in The Long Good-bye. On the other hand, the characterizations of Captain Webber and Lt. Degarmo are one-dimensional and not psychologically plausible.

The sense of place and time is well rendered. The fictional Bay City is obviously modeled on Santa Monica (I seemed to recognize the place even though I was there for the first time 40 years later than the time of the story). Most memorable are the references to World War II. Marlowe has to cross a dam at the end of the Puma Lake to get to Kingsley's cabin. There are sentries on the dam and the drivers are told to roll up car windows. After Pearl Harbor attack, the protection of water systems and dams was a national priority. They were military zones and to prevent sabotage twenty-four hour protection was in place; the criminal plot of the novel takes advantage of the circumstances.

On the negative side, there is an awkward, implausible scene with Ms. Fallbrook. Also, the author uses some truly cheap tricks in the denouement, like for instance:
"[...] went back to the house the next morning. That's just one of those things that murderers seem to do."
Sure, the murderers in mystery books often do things convenient for the plot. Despite the weaknesses, I recommend the novel.

Three stars.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

Kurt Vonnegut. Great Writers.Kurt Vonnegut. Great Writers. by John Tomedi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] an essentially pessimistic outlook is advanced in almost all of Vonnegut's novels. [...] One of the few bright spots on the dim palette of Vonnegut's fiction is the place of decency, humanity, and kindness in a modus vivendi."

Since I am slowly working through Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s literary opus I thought it might be interesting to read the great author's biography. The first of the two that I found in my university library is a "critical biography" Kurt Vonnegut (2004), written by John Tomedi and published in the Great Writers series. This is a serious book, a monograph with a clear research bent. The author focuses on the analysis of the writer's work rather than on his life story.

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my most favorite authors even though I really like only few of his books and do not care much for several others. So far I have reviewed here on Goodreads 10 out of the author's 30 works (14 novels and 16 other books, including both fiction and non-fiction) and the average rating is not impressive. But then I think a writer who has created a masterpiece like Slaughterhouse-Five deserves all his works to be read even if most of them are failures of some kind.

I share several of Mr. Vonnegut's concerns that the author of the biography identifies as main themes in Vonnegut's work: dark pessimism about the nature and future of the human race, total randomness of life, skepticism as to the power and role of science in society. Moreover, in almost all of his works Vonnegut attempts to determine "what's wrong with America", and I agree with many of his diagnoses: the culture of greed and commercialism, the glorification of violence, and the cult of guns. Mr. Tomedi's book also made me realize that my identification with Vonnegut's ideas is not only based on the commonality of negatives. As shown by the fragment I used for the epigraph Vonnegut offers human decency and kindness as the rays of hope, "bright spots on the dim palette" of his fiction. There is nothing that I value more in people than the notion of decency and that's one of the main reasons why I cherish works by authors such as Coetzee, Macdonald, or Vonnegut.

I also share the author's outrage at the fact that Slaughterhouse-Five was "banned from several school district's libraries and reading lists, and even burned in a few communities." Grim is the future of a country where great books are burned while commercials on TV poison people's minds 24 hours a day. Speaking about TV, Mr. Tomedi offers the following great observation:
"[...] people try to imitate the unrealistic world of stories in reality. One result is the expectation that reality will behave like a story. Television is a prime culprit."
An interesting tidbit I learned from Mr. Tomedi's book is that Vonnegut's rejected Master's thesis, Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales, attempted to provide a graphical description of structure of stories from wide-ranging cultures, which reminds me of the famous (for an Eastern European like myself) study by Vladimir Propp, Morphology of a Folktale.

To sum up, the biography is a worthy read, and I recommend it, although it suffers from frequent repetitions of themes and it reads more like a collection of essays about individual books by Kurt Vonnegut rather than as a synthesis of analyses.

Three stars.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Murder Through the Looking GlassMurder Through the Looking Glass by Andrew Garve
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"A substantial part of Warsaw's population, including regiments of children, seemed to have been marshaled on to the bleak, windswept platform. They stood in orderly files behind a screen of security police [...] holding aloft red banners inscribed with such slogans as 'The Peoples' Democracies Strive for Peace' and 'Ban the Atom Bomb'"

Andrew Garve's (pseudonym of the British journalist and author Paul Winterton) Murder through the Looking Glass (1951) begins with the Warsaw scene quoted above. A British "peace delegation" gets on board of a train to Moscow to demonstrate support for the peace-loving, people-friendly Soviet rule in the U.S.S.R. The narrator, a British journalist, George Verney, is already on the train which he boarded in Berlin. Having spent several years in the Soviet Union during the war, fluent in Russian, Mr. Verney is on a new journalistic assignment, and he welcomes his fellow travelers with quite an unease as he has seen enough of the Communist regime in his past. By the way, the author revels in his brilliant literary pun of having a group of "fellow travelers" become fellow travelers of Mr. Verney.

The non-criminal aspect of the story is really interesting and the author manages to convincingly present a bunch of characters deluded by Soviet propaganda: some of them may even be well-meaning. But this is a crime mystery, so we have a murder: an important member of the delegation is found dead, his head bashed with a bottle. Our narrator who happens to be the first on the scene discovers some clues. We witness his private investigation that parallels the one conducted by the infamous MVD (successor to NKVD). And, obviously, it is he who eventually discovers the truth.

The entire criminal thread and the private investigation in particular are rather ridiculous, and a reader may infer that the functionaries of MVD are almost like regular police in other countries, only slightly corrupt and inhuman. The mechanisms of widespread, systematic torture and killings of millions of people in the Soviet Union are not mentioned, except for one gentle allusion, even though Stalin is still wielding his monstrous power.

Other than the crime plot, I liked the story as I could easily recognize several aspects of the Soviet life. I too departed for Moscow - more than once - from the same train station in Warsaw. I also have always made fun of Soviet phraseology and in particular of the "stormy applause" expression ("Бурные аплодисменты"), and I also learned how to open a bottle of vodka by smacking its bottom hard. I too had to stay in several Soviet hotels and experienced the "protection" of floor manageresses, the search for recording bugs in the furniture, and the ubiquitous radio loudspeakers tuned to the official propaganda station. My visits to the U.S.S.R. were in the 1970s however, so it is funny how little things changed between 1951 and the end of the 1970s.

Bottom line, a readable book, if we do not pay too much attention to the crime plot.

Two and a half stars.

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Sleepless NightsSleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"What is wanted is history, the man in the raincoat, wearing the loops of his ideas, the buttons of his period. Some men define themselves by women although they appear to believe it is quite the opposite; to believe that it is she, rather than themselves, who is being filed away, tagged, named at last like a quivering cell under a microscope."

I am wondering why Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights (1979) is classified as a novel. Probably for business reasons: the publishers are likely to believe that non-novels do not sell. Well, here's a spoiler: Ms. Hardwick's work is certainly not a novel. While some might call it autobiography, it is not that either. Somewhere I have seen a reasonably fitting term - "scrapbook of memories," but then are those really "memories"? How do we know which passages are "real" and which are "fictional", if we put aside the question what the terms "real" and "fictional" mean in literature? Maybe it is a collection of stories connected with the author's past? Nah, none of the passages are proper stories: they do not begin and they do not end. They just suddenly arise from a tangle of words and they dissolve in another tangle. I would like to call Sleepless Nights a set of poetic impressions about life. About people, about places, and about passing.

People come alive from the pages: The brilliant passages about Billie Holiday dazzle with the power of observation and literary virtuosity as do the impressions about Josette and her sister, and about an unnamed man from the narrator's youth and the "warning word disgrace [she] carried with [her] for years and years." The "red-cheeked homosexual young man from Kentucky", the narrator's long-time friend, is the subject of another scintillating portrait.

Places: Kentucky (the author was born in Lexington, in 1916), New York and the West 67th Street, the jazz clubs and the streets. Then Maine. But also Holland. To me, Part Eight, about the narrator's (and presumably the author's) time in the Netherlands is one of the highpoints of the book. Ms. Hardwick captures the literary aspect of Europeanness:
"Amsterdam, a city of readers. All night long you seemed to hear the turning of pages, pages of French, Italian, English, and the despised German. Those fair heads remembered Ovid, Yeats, Baudelaire and remembered suffering, hiding, freezing. The weight of books and wars."
The short chapter about Holland made me remember Nicolas Freeling and his many books about that country. How similar the prose is, how Ms. Hardwick's and Mr. Freeling's cadences evoke the same images and feelings.

Passage of time: The brief visit that each of us pays to the realm of the living. Ms. Hardwick writes, beautifully:
"Where is my life? he seemed to be saying. My plates of pickled mussels, the slices of cheese, the tumblers of lemon gin?
Sleepless Nights is also about women. How they are the subjects of human history, rather than just being filed away as memory objects (cf. the epigraph). The characterization of the narrator's physical relationship with a certain Alex is masterful and so different from the way men usually describe the relationship.

An excellent, mature read, a book to remember. In addition to all the previously mentioned good stuff, the ending is strong and we can find a most wonderful fragment of Hölderlin's poem - in a beautiful translation - that I quote after the rating.

Four and a quarter stars.

"Alas for me, where shall I get the flowers when it is winter and where the sunshine and shadow of earth? The walls stand speechless and cold, the weather vanes rattle in the wind."
(Friedrich Hölderlin, "Hälfte des Lebens", translated, presumably, by Elizabeth Hardwick)

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Hard Truth (Anna Pigeon, #13)Hard Truth by Nevada Barr
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"She held [the flashlight] backward and the light blasted her retinas. Startled, she dropped it. Found it. Pointed it in the right direction. "Holy shit," she whispered.
Then the screaming began.

Hard Truth (2005), another National Parks series mystery by Nevada Barr, is the weakest of the five installments I have read so far. In fact, I actively dislike the ending of the novel, badly written and simply in bad taste. Until about page 235 (out of 320) it seems an interesting and worthwhile addition to the series. The story is located in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, where Anna Pigeon is now employed as a district ranger. But then, towards the end of the story, the writing dissolves into pornography of violence.

Three young girls have gone missing in Rocky Mountains National Park six weeks ago, and the intense search has not yielded any results. But now a paraplegic climber, "handicamping" in the park with her aunt comes across two girls, disheveled and covered in mud, feces, and blood. The girls are incommunicative and in a state of shock. When the parents - members of a conservative Christian sect - are notified, instead of being extremely happy, they all lawyer up and prohibit their daughters from being tested for rape and questioned by psychologists or police. Ms. Pigeon is having difficulties in fulfilling her law enforcement duties - finding the third girl - because the parents suspect the involvement of Satan. The whole affair acquires a different flavor when Ms Pigeon finds evidence that someone has been torturing animals. The possibility of a brutal series killer cannot be excluded either.

The absurdly prolonged ending with its barrage of gratuitous violence and brutality overwhelms the reader. It is not just that the scenes of mental and physical torture are excessive but they are also badly written. In High Country Ms. Barr wrote great, captivating scenes of a prolonged ferocious duel between a good person and a bad one. Here the passages depicting brutality are simultaneously disgusting and ridiculous. For instance, a character repeatedly stabbed with a knife and just about to die is glad about the cordovan-colored socks they are wearing as they do not show how much blood is being lost because of their color. Cringeworthy and embarrassing for this usually competent author.

I also wish Ms. Barr wrote more about the Rocky Mountain National Park, which my wife and I visited just a year ago (our thirty-second National Park). The author does know how to write about nature, which she proved in other books in the series. Instead of just mentioning the names such as Sprague Lake, Loomis Lake or Deer Mountain I would love to read more about these wonderful places, with similar skill as the author has exhibited before.

I will probably look for more National Park series mysteries by Ms. Barr, but I am unable to recommend this one.

Two stars.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

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

"Already breast to breast and toe to toe, [the birds] made their sinuous necks as erect as flagpoles. They tilted their heads back as far as they would go. They pressed their long throats and the undersides of their jaws together. They formed a tower, the two of them - a single structure, pointed on top and resting on four blue feet."

I am slowly working through Kurt Vonnegut's opus and the ninth book of his that I am reviewing here does not get my recommendation. Galápagos (1985) is to me among the bottom tier of Vonnegut's works and the author's failure makes me wish I have rated higher some other novels, such as the great Bluebeard or the very good Breakfast of Champions ( Slaughterhouse-Five being in an altogether different category of masterpieces of world literature). Galápagos is a cautionary fantasy tale about the ills of mankind. The fantasy overhead of the novel obscures the message and diminishes its worth.

The story is located in Ecuador in 1986 but is told from a vantage point one million years later, after humans have evolved away from their twentieth-century form, away from having huge brains. In 1986 the entire world is in the throes of financial crisis that causes severe hunger on all continents. The fertility rates are dwindling to zero. Six tourists are preparing to board "the Nature Cruise of the Century", from Guayaquil to the Galápagos Islands. While the cruise does not proceed exactly as planned and while not all participants get to the islands, those who do - as well as some stowaways - will have a tremendous impact on the future as they will be the ancestors of the modern (i.e., year 1,000,1986) humans.

The fable implies that the homo sapiens' big brains are responsible for the immense vastness of human stupidity, greed, and love for violence. Not only the individual people are vile, like one of the main characters, James Wait, a marital swindler and accidental murderer, but also the entire repulsive, failed human race demonstrates that it has evolved in a completely wrong direction and deserves annihilation. This is the same motif as in Slaughterhouse-Five but there it was masterfully told, without fantasy gimmicks, and the one-million-year perspective does not provide any payoff here.

One of the few things in the novel that I like is a wonderful passage where Mr. Vonnegut compares a missile that acquires a target to the culmination of sexual intercourse. This image will stay in my memory. Is there a well-written novel focused on the boys' and men's fascination with weapons and killing as being derived from the penile-based sexual drive? If there is not, there should be.

In addition to the overall clumsiness of the story and the overabundance of fantasy components I do not like the story's take on evolution. While the mention of Darwin's work on Galápagos provides a nice addition, the whole evolutionary motif is trivialized and just plain silly. As to the storytelling itself I do not think that the innovative trick of providing an asterisk in front of the names of characters that are just about to die works at all.

Two loose comments: in Mr. Vonnegut's commentary - as usual, he editorializes a bit too much - he seems to be emphasizing that randomness plays much more important role in evolution of species than the natural selection mechanisms. As a proponent of randomness as the guiding force of everything and anything, I would strongly agree.

On another note, the author refers numerous times to two devices: Gokubi, a hand-held translator, and its advanced model, Mandarax, that is a sort of repository of knowledge. One might say that Mr. Vonnegut, as a purported sci-fi writer, predicted the advent of cell phones, Google, Wikipedia, and the like.

And, of course, my usual personal peeve about Vonnegut's novels: the recurring character of Kilgore Trout. In his better novels he sort of disappears overwhelmed by other, good stuff. Here he does not...

Two stars.

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