Sunday, April 30, 2017

China Trade (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #1)China Trade by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"A bright sunny day in Chinatown brings everybody out, even in the cold. [...] [The] music came from the words they spoke: the Cantonese and English I understand, the Mandarin and Fukienese and Spanish and Korean that I don't. The percussion was their footsteps slapping and tapping the pavement in syncopated rhythm."

Having just read S.J. Rozan's Winter and Night, the eighth novel in her Chin-Smith series and having liked it a lot, I was curious about the earlier books in the series. China Trade (1994) is the first installment and - while an entertaining read - it is otherwise completely unremarkable, quite unlike Winter which was the deserved winner of several major mystery/crime drama awards.

Lydia Chin (Ling Wan-ju, really), a young P.I., is hired by her friend, a member of a Chinese community organization, to investigate the theft of two crates of collectible porcelains that were prepared for an exhibition. Naturally, Lydia enlists the help of Bill Smith, another P.I. who is her frequent collaborator and aspiring boyfriend. Right at the beginning of the investigation, they learn about the murder of a young Chinese man with possible connections to the case. Lydia is severely beaten up: members of the Golden Dragons gang want to scare her off the case. In fact, two competing gangs are involved in the plot as well as the staff of a local museum, several art collectors and importers, and rich donors. Another murder occurs and the provenance of the porcelains (the use of the word "provenance" is sort of a running joke) may be the key to the solution.

The elegantly structured criminal plot progresses fast and the obligatory (sigh!) "twists and turns" stretch the limits of believability but luckily do not rise to the idiocy level. In the later part of the plot Lydia and Bill arrange a contract on themselves: the implausible but audacious device is used with some skill. This is quite a well-written novel that does not much rely on padding: as many as 200 of its 260 pages are really needed - a good score!

The colorful portrayal of New York's Chinatown enlivens the novel and the continuous banter between Lydia and Bill provides a counterpoint to the criminal line of the plot. Readers who watch sitcoms may enjoy the repartees: most of them are as inane as the ones on TV but a few are actually witty. Of course, the uncertainty about the actual nature (and the future) of Lydia - Bill relationship provides a sort of backbone for the whole "detective and the sidekick" template: the novelty here is that both PIs are on equal footing.

Alas, clichés abound. Instead of the usual "the hero leaps over tall buildings in a single bound" cliché, we have Mr. Gao, a wise and all-powerful Chinatown patriarch, who could change the trajectory of the moon, if requested, and quote several Chinese proverbs in the meantime. Yet despite the silly banter, the implausibilities, and the clichés, the novel somehow did not manage to irritate me too much. Good writing, I guess, is the secret.

Three stars.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Somebody to Love?: A Rock-and-Roll MemoirSomebody to Love?: A Rock-and-Roll Memoir by Grace Slick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"When the truth is found
To be lies
And all the joy
Within you dies
Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love [...]
"

One of the few vividly remembered scenes from my teenage years: Warsaw, June 1967, I am taping Jefferson Airplane's Somebody To Love off the radio via mike onto my toy portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. I want to be able to listen to Grace Slick's mesmerizing, vibrating, powerful voice day and night. Airplane, a pioneering band from the San Francisco scene, was an important factor in my rock education, one of the first steps in the evolution from simple pop harmonies to progressive rock, and eventually to jazz and classical. And of course it was 1967, the Summer of Love. Music was the most important thing, music was love, music was the rebellion and the beacon of imminent revolutionary changes.

Somebody To Love? (1998) is a rock memoir of Grace Slick, the supremely gifted vocalist of Jefferson Airplane and the author of the groundbreaking song White Rabbit, with its "Feed your head" call to arms. A thorough chronicle, the bio goes over Ms. Slick's childhood and youth, and her association with Jefferson Airplane. It then recounts the pop "maturity" of Jefferson Starship, and finally, the complete sellout of Starship. Ms. Slick tells us a lot about her outsized love of drugs and sex, and about her never-ceasing search for actual love.

The parents' world of the 1960s is crumbling, hippies wear flowers in their hair, Haight Ashbury becomes the center of the Universe, and the memoir manages to convey a little bit - not enough - of the taste of those tumultuous times, despite the overflowing stream of trivia, juicy tidbits, and names of famous artists and performers.

The memoir is ghostwritten by Andrea Cagan: the authorship is obvious in that the prose is well structured, readable, yet kept in utterly sensationalist, name-dropping, gossipy and "cutesy" style. I would like to believe that Ms. Slick's real persona is well hidden beneath the tabloid writing. I would like to hope that one of the heroes of my youth is not as trivial as the book makes her to be. One can always hope.

Amidst the mind-numbing gossipy prattle are some worthwhile passages that elevate the book almost to the three-star ranking. The experimentation with peyote is reported in a dry and objective tone. I hope that the reported attempt to drug President Nixon in the White House is based on fact as the story is hilarious. Ms. Slick's exposition of her lyrics to White Rabbit sounds heartfelt and her recounting of love scene with Jim Morrison happens to be well-written and deeply personal: maybe Ms. Cagan let the singer write herself for a while?

To me the best thing about the book is the juxtaposition of three music festivals: Monterey Pop, when the music really took off, then Woodstock, the absolute peak of the era, followed by Altamont, where everything turned commercial: people wanted to cash on the phenomenon, and thus the phenomenon begin dying. The personal aspect of the stories makes the diagnosis more compelling. I wish the book were less "polished" with the syrupy, superficial varnish because the smooth read hides the potential depth. Still, I marginally recommend it for several worthwhile fragments.

Two and three quarter stars.



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Monday, April 24, 2017

FloatersFloaters by Joseph Wambaugh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"She lay halfway up the steps on her back, her little skirt hiked above her red panties. A coil of intestine, pink as bubble gum, lay on her thin milky thigh."

What an exasperating read! Joseph Wambaugh's Floaters has an interesting and well-constructed plot, a richness of believable technical and procedural detail, and a solid grounding in external events. Yet the pedestrian writing and inferior characterizations prevent from considering this book a worthwhile addition to the crime drama genre.

The plot is located in San Diego in 1995 and revolves around the challenger series to the celebrated America's Cup yachting competition: the winner of the series will gain the right to challenge the American team who are the cup holders. The story is composed of several intertwined threads: the main four plot lines feature the "Keeper of the Cup" - a member of the San Diego Yacht Club who travels with the cup where it is needed, two San Diego prostitutes, a group of officers from the San Diego Police Department, and two "water cops" - members of the San Diego Harbor Unit. The main premise of the story is an attempt to tinker with the regatta to prevent the powerful New Zealand team from winning the challenge. Meanwhile the cops are trying to set up a vile pimp for a fall, there are two murders, and the plot moves fast to keep the reader interested.

While plotwise the novel is a good read there are hardly any real people among the main figures: the characterizations are as thin as paper and most of them are just caricatures. For instance, detective Letch likes garlic in his food, and the odor of his body, mentioned twenty or so times, is almost all that we learn about him as a person. But the worst is the "humor." Crude jokes - like comparing some politicians of the era to the shape of human excrement - would be OK if only they were funny: alas the author fails in this respect. He also seems to be bent on titillating the reader with the "porn of death," as evidenced by the epigraph.

On the positive side the reader will learn a lot about the yachting community: the whole entourage of a major yachting competition and the "cuppie" culture (cuppies are groupies of the Cup) are believably portrayed. Since the author is a former member of the Los Angeles Police Department I hope that the procedural and technical details of police activities are as accurate as they seem in the novel. Having lived in San Diego for over a half of my life I appreciate the location of the plot - and a nice mention of my workplace of 35 years - although I wish the local character of this city came through even stronger.

Good plot, inept psychology, atrocious attempts at humor.

Two and a quarter stars.


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Friday, April 21, 2017

Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations With Gerald R. FordWrite It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations With Gerald R. Ford by Thomas M. DeFrank
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] the simple ground rules we'd already established: nothing he said could be printed until after his death."

Thomas DeFrank, the author of Write It When I'm Gone (2007), was a Newsweek correspondent and journalist when in 1973 he was assigned to cover Vice President Gerald R. Ford. At that time it was gradually becoming clear that Mr. Ford might soon become the 38th President of the United States. The relationship between the author and Mr. Ford - something more than a professional acquaintance, perhaps even friendship - lasted for one third of a century until the politician's death in 2006. The book, based on 16 years of interview sessions that had begun in 1991, is a memoir of Mr. Ford's political career viewed through the prism of his conversations with the author.

To me absolutely the best aspect of the book is that the only unelected Vice-President and the only unelected President of the U.S. comes across the pages as a real person. Not "an accident-prone bumbler" as portrayed in press and comedy (SNL) but indeed a "most remarkably guileless political figure." While not gifted with a commanding intellect, charisma, or communication skills, Mr. Ford appears to be a fundamentally honest and surprisingly warm person of goodwill.

The reader will learn a lot about Mr. Ford's short presidency troubled by his pardon of R.M. Nixon and ended by his defeat to Jimmy Carter in 1976. We also read about Mr. Ford's withdrawal from the 1980 presidential race. One should not expect to find any earth-shattering revelations in the book: for example, I have found only two fragments that surprised me. Mr. Ford makes a strong point to stand by the Warren Commission report (he was a member of the Commission) and seems to claim that all conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination are absurd, yet, at the same time, he "forewarns" that the report, so far unreleased in its entirety, contains "stories" that can be "harmful" to some people. How's that for equivocation? The other surprise is the extreme dislike that Mr. Ford had for Ronald Reagan, moderated only by the decency with which the half-term president talked about the two-term president at the time when the latter was dying of the Alzheimer disease.

Two items of personal interest: several conversations with Mr. Ford occurred when he was over 90 years old. Although physically frail, and perhaps not too eloquent, he was still in full command of facts. This should be a huge source of hope for us geezers. The other tidbit is just a tiny personal connection: at one point the book mentions the 1996 presidential debate which took place in the building that I sometimes lecture in and in preparations to which I participated, albeit in a totally minuscule way.

Well written, interesting book, certainly worth a read. I'm including two strong quotes after the rating.

Three and a half stars.

"He was an ordinary guy in the noblest sense of the term, a steady, solid Michigander whose old fashioned virtues were the perfect antidote for a nation desperate for stability and civility."

"He considered Reagan a superficial, disengaged, intellectually lazy showman who didn't do his homework and clung to a naïve, unrealistic, and essentially dangerous worldview."

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

LaBravaLaBrava by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"LaBrava got Nobles down on his spine, head hard against the wall to straddle his legs. Worked free the bluesteel revolver [...] and slipped the blunt end of the barrel into his open mouth. Nobles gagged, trying to twist free.
LaBrava said, 'Suck on it. It'll calm you down.'
"

Not an easy review to write as I am forced to demonstrate my own incompetence. Elmore Leonard's LaBrava received the prestigious Edgar Award for the best novel in 1984 and yet I have been unable to find anything remarkable about the book. While readers are not expected to fully agree with literary critics my disagreement with the Edgars' jury is rather vehement: LaBrava has a moderately interesting story, but then nothing else stands out. Flat characterizations, stereotypes, and uninspired prose. I have always believed that the art of writing should be the most important criterion when judging a book, not whether it tells a good story. Well, I might have been wrong.

The scene is Florida in the early 1980s, much changed for the worse in comparison with the golden times of 40 or 50 years earlier. We meet a once famous movie actress, Jean, her close friend Maurice, a professional photographer, real estate owner and manager, and Joe LaBrava, an ex-government operative with Secret Service experience. Two hustlers round off the set of main characters. The opening scene in a County Crisis Center is quite interesting: all characters appear here and the men are looking for Jean who overindulged in alcohol and caused a street scene. The author then takes about a hundred pages to leisurely build the criminal intrigue. It is only about page 150 that the reader begins to realize what the plot is all about. I did not particularly enjoy the denouement although it is reasonably elegant and not that implausible.

I have a serious problem with characterizations: I don't feel the protagonists of LaBrava are real people - they are just vehicles to move the plot, instances of cliché templates of certain types of people. We have a "big hunk of a man with a tiny brain," a "small hustler short on imagination but long on criminal history" and a "basically good guy torn between his sense of duty and his heart." The plot includes many little side stories that may be interesting to readers who like to learn about how it supposedly is in the real world of crime, yet I fail to grasp how these stories contribute to the novel.

The intrigue - while ingenious - is just a movie plot. The novel reads exactly like a script for a potentially successful crime movie, but is this really enough to make the story a good novel? Let me paraphrase the viciously biting critique of an author (I am substituting Mr. Leonard for Mr. Crichton) offered by Martin Amis in his The War Against Cliché "Story is what Mr. Leonard is good at. People are what he is not so good at. People and prose." On the positive side, I quite like the clever connection of the plot with 1950s movies and the tastefully written love scene. The Florida sense of place comes across a little, certainly better than the psychology stereotypes. The characters talk in a language used by "people in the know", for instance, we hear them talk about "the coast" - only one coast is "the coast" in this country of two coasts.

Worth a read? Certainly, if one reads books solely for the story.

Two and a half stars.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Alfred and GuinevereAlfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Schuyler has a pitch-perfect ear for children's voices, and the story, told entirely through snatches of dialogue and passages from Guinevere's diary, is a tour de force of comic and poetic invention."
[from an uncredited blurb on the back cover]

James Schuyler's Alfred and Guinevere (1958), "officially" a novel, but a novella volume-wise, comes highly recommended by several literary critics and many readers as a charming story of a summer spent by two children - a bright window into the magical world of pre-adolescent siblings. Alas I am not as enthusiastic about this novel: probably because I have had the pleasure of reading Amelie Nothomb's masterpiece Loving Sabotage (as well as almost equally good The Character of Rain ). I find Ms. Nothomb's depiction of children's universe more insightful; it is in her books that I can find a little bit of the child that I used to be about 60 years ago. Mr. Schuyler's work, clever and charming as it is, does not come across as wonderfully natural and compelling.

The author never exactly states how old Alfred and Guinevere are, except that the boy is clearly younger than his sister. In fact, I find it one of the best aspects of the novel that we, the readers, may choose the kids' age: I chose Alfred to be seven or eight and Guinevere eleven or twelve. Their father leaves for Europe for business reasons, their mother follows him, and the children are left behind to spend the summer at their grandmother's house in the country. The author lets the reader see the adult world only through the children's eyes: the mechanisms of the grown-ups' universe are obviously opaque to the children. They create their own causal structure of events, which is influenced more by views of other people, adults or kids, than by the actual "facts." Mr. Schuyler succeeds in inducing a sense of some menace that lies underneath the innocent story of one summer, but it is we, the readers, who need to select the menace of our choice.

I like the circular structure of the book: it begins and ends with the bedtime talk between the kids, which sets up the axis of this generally plotless novel. The symmetries seem to go even deeper: I am curious about a mysterious piece of conversation between the children that appears on the sixth page: it is explained by the children's dialogue near the end of the book, exactly six pages from the end. I wonder if this was done on purpose by the author noted for his poetry, a genre that requires precision of literary structures.

However, I tend to disagree with the high praise for the author's "pitch-perfect ear for children's voices." True, many passages are indeed written in the way that children think - some of Guinevere's writing and most conversations between the children - yet other fragments sound awkward and too sophisticated even for precocious pre-adolescents or, in some passages, seem to be artificially infantilized.

Certainly a worthy read but - to me - far from a masterpiece that it is purported to be.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Midnight Sun (Blood on Snow, #2)Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I had to push the barrel of the rifle so deep into my throat that I almost puked [...] Suicide. The first time is the most difficult."
(my own translation of the Polish translation of Norwegian original)

I picked Jo Nesbø's Midnight Sun (2015, the Norwegian title is Mere blod) in hope that in the new series - the Olav Johansen novels - Mr. Nesbø will get away from the degraded quality of the later Harry Hole plots (see for example my review of Phantom . Nesbø is the author of some really good novels, for instance, The Redbreast is a solid four-star book, but quantity seems to have permanently vanquished quality in his work. Alas, despite a relatively interesting beginning, this novel again devolves into completely ridiculous mess.

Jon is on the run from the infamous Fisherman, an Oslo drug-trade boss for whom he has worked as an enforcer. He seeks to hide in Finnmark, the remote northeastern part of Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle. It is the land of summer midnight sun, inhabited by indigenous Sami people, many of whom are followers of Laestadianism, a conservative Lutheran movement. Jon meets a young woman, the daughter of one of the elders in the sect. She has just lost her husband and since it had not been a particularly happy marriage and since her son idolizes Jon she is not averse to spending time with him. Alas the Fisherman's people are in pursuit and soon they discover Jon's hideaway.

While the passages about life among the Laestadians, the culture of the Sami people, the nature north of the Arctic Circle are engrossing - I wish there was much more of the good stuff - the mystery plot deteriorates from moderately interesting, to quite silly, and then to outright absurd. When reviewing Phantom I was ridiculing the scene where Harry cuts the throat of someone who is cutting his throat. Mr. Nesbø achieved the impossible in Midnight Sun: he wrote a scene so utterly preposterous that he must either be making fun of his readers or holding their intellect in low regard. Not only is the scene ridiculous, it also caters to amateurs of death porn: the reader quite literally visits a decaying corpse and witnesses the little critters' feeding activity.

In the ending the author attempts to wrap up the story so that the plot holes are not too obvious and that the implausible yet somehow obligatory happy ending can be reached. Yuck! Still, to be honest, Mr. Nesbø's prose reads competent (in Polish translation anyway) and I enjoyed reading about the land beyond the Arctic Circle. The "romantic" thread is not that bad either, if a bit tepid. So the novel is not a complete failure.

One and three quarter stars.


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Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Dying AnimalThe Dying Animal by Philip Roth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

""The transition from thinking of someone in the way you've always thought of that person [...] to whatever signifies to you [...] that the person is close to death, is dying, I experienced at that moment not only as a shock but as a betrayal."

Philip Roth's The Dying Animal (2001) closes the David Kepesh trilogy that the author began with The Breast and continued with The Professor of Desire, a book that I have not read and now doubt that I ever will.

The book under review, ostensibly about the human animal dying, revolves around three deaths: one - George's - is shown in its entire horrifying detail. Two other deaths, Consuela's and Kepesh's own, are still in progress. Consuela reaches to sexually colored acts to qualm her fear of dying. Kepesh seems to be clinging to life mainly through indulging in sex. Even the graphic description of George's death is "enriched" by sexual motifs. I suspect that Mr. Roth's goal is to show the eternal dance of Thanatos and Eros and illustrate his thesis that "[s]ex is [...] the revenge on death." But then why all the juicy bits? Why the details of physiology, like the fascination with bodily fluids, and why the mechanics, like describing the hand moving a particular way? Why do I feel soiled when I read a book by Mr. Roth, despite the obvious depth of his writing when he occasionally focuses on something other than sex?

While The Dying Animal deals with crucial questions of human existence and contains truly outstanding passages of prose its main focus and the underpinning of the entire literary structure is the study of professor Kepesh's sexual urges and the ways in which he achieves gratification. To make it clear, there is nothing wrong with portraying characters overwhelmed by sexual obsessions: Mr. Roth himself did it in a masterful way in his extraordinary Portnoy's Complaint . Yet the intensely exhibitionistic way that the author writes about the "chaos of eros" and the inclusion of salacious details make it clear to me that he just plain likes writing about sexual behaviors. The reader is entitled to wonder: maybe Mr. Roth achieves gratification by exposing his private erotic thoughts to the world?

Some readers will likely find offensive the combination of male erection and breast cancer, accompanied by Schubert's Death and the Maiden quintet. I find it pathetic instead. References to menstruation are just pretentious and immature. It is symptomatic that for me the highpoint of the novel was the mention of Velásquez' Las Meninas because it reminded me of a true literary masterpiece I have recently read - The Roads to Santiago.

Philip Roth may be a great writer, but this compulsion to exhibit his personal obsessions turns me off. It's like Facebook, minus the cat pictures.

Two stars.


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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Winter And Night (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #8)Winter And Night by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"BUILDING MEN BY BUILDING CHARACTER THROUGH COMPETITIVE SPORTS."

What a pleasant surprise! A really good novel in the crime drama/private detective genre. Having known nothing about the book or the author in advance I did not expect much and was ready for the usual crime-novel-grade sloppy writing, thin characterizations, abundance of clichés, and disappointing ending. I was wrong on everything except for clichés: S.J. Rozan's Winter and Night (2002) is a very satisfying read, quite a well-written novel, and - as a great bonus - it carries a powerful social message. I was not aware that the book had won four major awards, including the 2003 Edgar and Nero Awards, and was shortlisted in three other well-known contests. Of course one, two, maybe even three juries may be wrong, probably not seven, though.

Bill Smith, a private detective, and - as I have later learned - one of the protagonists of almost all novels by the author, is called at night by New York police about his 15-year-old nephew, Gary, who is in custody. Bill offers the boy his place to stay, but the youngster escapes. The search for Gary takes Bill and his partner Lydia Chin to Warrenstown, a small town in New Jersey, where Gary's parents live. A girl from Gary's high school is found murdered and Smith and Chin get involved in the murder investigation, possibly connected to their search. The secrets and sins from the town's past begin to emerge: we learn about a rape and murder that happened there 23 years ago. Also, some events in Bill Smith's past cast long shadows on the current case. The complicated plot wraps up rather implausibly but quite elegantly on a Pied Piper motif.

Despite all the awards, this is not a great novel. Clichés abound. The four major ones are:
(1) the Teenage Genius Hacker Cliché - 'nuff said,
(2) the Detective's Unusual Hobby/Skill Cliché - Bill Smith plays classical music on the piano,
(3) the Dark Secrets of the Detective's Life Cliché - and even worse, they are intertwined with the plot,
(4) the Climax Shootout Scene Cliché - mercifully it is not as bad here as in thousands of other books.
Well, originally I had planned to add "the Detective and the Sidekick Cliché", but then I learned that in the other books in the series Smith and Chin alternate as "sidekicks," so I will give it a pass. Also, the Lydia Chin's character is really written well and she almost feels like a real person. Anyway I don't yet quite know why all the clichés do not bother me that much in this novel: maybe because the writing does not feel pretentious?

Finally, what I love about the book: Warrenstown is a football town - its entire life is centered on football - nothing else counts. Bad things are swept under the rug as long as the local team keeps winning. The novel boldly shows the monumental chasm between the claims of competitive sports building young men's character and what the sports might really do: promote and justify violence and corruption. Young men get their character built so well that they feel entitled to rape young women. Winning excuses everything. A painful truth in this cliché-ridden yet amazingly alluring novel.

Three and three quarter stars.

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Monday, April 3, 2017

The Book of Proper NamesThe Book of Proper Names by Amélie Nothomb
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"But being ten years old is the best thing that can happen to a human being."

Regrettably The Book of Proper Names (2002), my seventh short novel by Amelie Nothomb, does not come close to the greatness of her masterpiece Loving Sabotage or two other outstanding novels The Character of Rain and Hygiene and the Assassin. So while I really wanted to love this book by one of my favorite authors it has left me feeling less than enthusiastic.

The protagonist of the story is a girl named Plectrude, so named by her mother to guarantee the child an extraordinary life. The mother's plan succeeds but probably not in the way she wanted. Plectrude is born in jail where her young mother awaits judgment for killing her equally young husband. Plectrude is adopted by her aunt when the mother commits suicide and the girl's name seems to work its spell: the aunt is totally and completely enchanted with her new charge. Plectrude is trained to become a ballet dancer - the best of the best - and we follow the girl's education in a Paris ballet school. If this brief synopsis sounds a little demented it's because the story is indeed a rather demented fairy tale for grown-ups. Nothing's wrong with this, of course.

The main problem with the novel is its lack of focus. It reminds me of improvised stories that parents produce to put their children to sleep. They just keep talking, making up the tale on the spot, inventing plot twists that lack any conceptual continuity: the sleepy children will not notice anyway. Ms. Nothomb's sweet yet incisive study of childhood turns into theory of ballet, the psychology of characters is subject to drastic changes, observations from childhood are mixed with ruminations on Moliere's The Misanthrope and the author indulges in moralizing in an incongruous metafictional context.

I am sad that Ms. Nothomb's extraordinary talent for capturing children's beliefs, behaviors, and rituals is not used with a greater sense of purpose. The novel could well have been an ode to childhood with its glories and horrors, and instead feels like an inconsequential trifle, its potential damaged by bracketing the fascinating childhood story between two sets of sensational yet trite events. There is a lot of good stuff in the novel: the message about lunacy of parents who avenge their own life failures by trying to live vicariously through their children, or the astute observation how children tend to affix reality to words - since words refer to reality, reality should refer to words, they seem to reason. The snowman and corpse episode is recounted so vividly that I almost remember it from my own early life. Nor can one forget the magnificent metafictional twist that concludes the novel. Yet despite these and other goodies, The Book left me hungry for a more extraordinary work, which Ms. Nothomb had amply demonstrated in the past that she can produce.

Two and a half stars.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

The Pianist's HandsThe Pianist's Hands by Eugenio Fuentes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"My hands are a pianist's hands too. And yet I've scattered small corpses all over the city with them."

This disquieting quote comes from the first page of Eugenio Fuentes' The Pianist's Hands (2003). Yet a reader who expects another run-of-the-mill story about serial killer of children will be disappointed. While the small corpses are indeed abundant, they are of different variety. This is my fourth book in the Ricardo Cupido series and despite several major reservations about Mr. Fuentes' work I still like the series because of the author's idiosyncrasies and his tendency to keep the protagonist in the background. I will keep searching for his other books as the author's European-flavored clichés are so refreshingly different from the overused American ones.

The novel features two interconnected threads taking place in Breda, a fictional city in Spain: a failed concert pianist makes his living by producing the aforementioned small corpses while the police and Cupido deal with a suspicious death in a construction company. When one of the partners falls to his death the investigation reveals several people who might have benefited from his demise. Of course, it is Cupido who eventually solves the case, via a revelation of sorts. One of the two minor threads is focused on the detective's elderly mother and the other on an affair of the heart between the deceased partner and one of his employees.

Luckily, Mr. Fuentes does not continue his gratuitous obsession with semen that spoiled my previous read of this author The Depths of the Forest . Unfortunately, the author still indulges in rather gratuitous scenes of cruelty. This time though my major complaint is Mr. Fuentes' propensity for amateur, superficial psychology and shallow sociological observations. The sweeping and stereotypical characterizations of the "country people" provide an acute example. The author also uses a particularly clumsy plot device offering a piece of important information conveniently late, along with an implausible explanation why it has not been available earlier. We can also find a totally incongruous bit about the Wittgenstein brothers - the philosopher and the painter. An awkwardly written sex scene that oscillates between weird pathos and plain ugliness suggests a possibility of imperfect translation.

Yet again, the author redeems himself in my eyes through producing a feel of unsophisticated innocence, charming and sweet naiveté that permeates the text, like in his Blood of the Angels . I also feel the allure of strange off-centeredness of the novel. The reader will not be able to confuse this novel with any of the current US crime/mystery bestsellers whose distinguishing feature is that they are all the same. Like these bestsellers Mr. Fuentes' mystery is also not very good but in quite a novel and amusing way.

Two and three quarter stars.


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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Waitress Was NewThe Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"You really are a useful thing in other people's lives when you're a barman."

First a micro-review of this micro-book: Not much of a story, no overt message, yet a good read: well-captured everyday life, unadorned with literary frills.

Dominique Fabre's novella The Waitress Was New (2005) with its 110 half-size pages may be - gasp! - a bit short even for me. However, what is does not exhibit in terms of volume it makes up by being thoroughly unusual: the novella is a quiet celebration of the ordinariness of everyday life. People's behaviors and characterizations are the focus and there is only a slightest whisper of what might be considered a "story."

For Pierre, the narrator, a lonely aging barman in Café Le Cercle in Paris, working the bar is the only sense and focus of his existence. While hints are dropped as to his dramatic past: divorce(s), drugs, serious illness, Pierre is almost serene these days. Not that he is actually happy: he is just accustomed to a tolerable degree of unhappiness. No dreams, no hopes, but also no major worries, except for anxieties about not having secured enough work credits for the full pension after almost forty years of employment.
Quiet, peaceful life filled with listening to the bar patrons' troubled stories, observing their behavior, reading Primo Levi's books in the evenings, and conversing with his long dead mother. In the tiny wisp of a plot his boss' marital life is in trouble and Pierre, rather unsuccessfully, is trying to offer emotional support to the boss' wife. The thinness of the story emphasizes that anything that "happens" is really incidental to the melancholy account of Pierre's days who is already sort of on the other side, seemingly resigned to the fact that he will spend the remaining years of his life occupied with waiting for death.

Good, extremely short read, which at first does not feel depressing. This comes later - I am sure that's precisely what the author intended - when the reader reflects on what it means to be old and completely lonely. One will not find much solace in this book, but why should one: life is a pretty grim business and the end comes too soon.

Three and a quarter stars.


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Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Drowned Boy (Inspector Konrad Sejer, #11)The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"There's a lot you don't know."

I do have "a thing" for Karin Fossum's prose and have rated several of her novels with five stars. I love that she writes about everyday matters and captures the extraordinary meanings of completely ordinary, everyday events. She teaches us the truth and beauty of little things using narration closer to a whisper than to a scream. She is a serious mystery writer who has not yet succumbed to the allure of commercialism. While The Drowned Boy is certainly not Ms. Fossum's best book I still like it a lot.

Inspector Sejer is called by Jacob Skarre to the scene of an accident. Carmen, a very young mother, found her sixteen-month-old boy drowned in a pond. Despite Carmen's and her young husband's lifesaving efforts the boy dies. Neither Skarre nor Sejer are certain what exactly happened as Carmen's version of the accident does not quite ring true. Yet it is not the mystery of the boy's death that provides the main narrative axis of the plot, but the moral and ethical questions raised by Ms. Fossum. When making momentous decisions should we follow our moral standards or are obligations to other people more important? And an even tougher question: when a honestly reasoned decision happens to be the most convenient one, is it still OK to follow it?

I'd rather Ms. Fossum did not solve the mystery of what happened to the boy; the resolution is based on an awkward literary device - a diary that is way too erudite considering its author. On the other hand I like the in-your-face artifice of the denouement: the author makes it patently clear that there should not be a solution and one is provided only because it is expected by readers. This is one of the main reasons I love Ms. Fossum's novels: she does not really care about the "story" - she cares about her characters instead. Another major reason of my attraction is that Ms. Fossum never judges her characters but tries to understand them instead.

This is not a book for younger readers (meaning below 40, 50 or 60, whatever one's definition of "young" is). For instance, Inspector Sejer suffers bouts of dizziness and, of course, worries about brain tumor. This provides a lighter counterpoint to the serious main thread, but to me, a true geezer, it is clear that the author is one of us, the 60+ crowd, who have "been there, done that."

I have a problem with the translation by Kari Dickson (she did not translate any of the other novels by Ms. Fossum that I have read). The sentences, especially the dialogues sometimes sound unnatural and the prose does not sound right. For instance, someone roughly estimates the distance to be 165 feet. Yes, 50 meters is 165 feet, but no one would use such an exact number in a conversation.

Flawed yet wonderful read.

Three and three quarter stars.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger: The Authorised BiographyEdge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger: The Authorised Biography by William J. Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"John Schlesinger is eulogized as the man who made Midnight Cowboy, but Sunday, Bloody Sunday is his masterpiece, [...]"

Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger (2005) transcends the biography genre: it is much more than a vacuous enumeration of stages of life and professional achievements of an artist. This authorized biography of the great British film director offers a moving tribute not only to the great master and his art but also to the loving and enduring relationship between him and his partner. True, the reader will find some name-dropping, tabloid-style gossip, and even some "Hollywood dirt" on the pages of this massive volume (over 500 pages - the longest book I have read in many years), but these snippets appear incidental to the main thrust of the story.

I need to disclaim that Sunday, Bloody Sunday and Midnight Cowboy (SBS and MC henceforth) are two of the best films I have seen in my life. In fact, depending on my mood, SBS might be the film that I love most of all, so the admiration for Schlesinger's work may have biased my reception of the biography.

I agree with all the praise the author heaps on MC, indeed a masterpiece, a "psychedelic trip [...] with its otherworldly, dreamlike feel", a film that reflects the "time of huge and tumultuous upheaval in American society," and - along with Easy Rider - heralds the 1970s, the best period in American cinema. MC signifies the beginning of the New Hollywood era, with its ambiguous messages, lack of old-style heroes, and candidness about sexual matters (MC is the only X-rated movie ever to win Academy Awards), including homosexuality. Yet to me MC ranks below the stellar regions of little-known SBS, a "piece of chamber music," a penetrating study of a unconventional love triangle, and "a monumentally beautiful" film.

In the biography non-linearly structured so that the stories of the director's creative path are framed by vignettes of "today" (2003) we read about the director's work on over 20 movies: in addition to MC and SBS I find at least three other outstanding works: Billy Liar that made a huge impression 50 years ago on the teenager that turned into me, Darling, a film that epitomizes the Swinging Sixties in London, and Marathon Man with the unforgettable "Is it safe?" torture scene. We learn that at least three Schlesinger's movies were colossal artistic and commercial flops. We also read about Mr. Schlesinger's acting career and his later opera and stage directing. His last years are revealed as well, the years when he could not or would not speak, after having suffered two strokes.

The author seems to emphasize Mr. Schlesinger's uncommon approach to his homosexuality. He was sometimes ostracized by the gay community about not "coming out" of a closet (anyway, not early enough). The author points out that the director had never been in the closet, that he had never done anything to hide his sexual preference. So why would he have to come out?

And finally there is the extraordinary love story between John Schlesinger and Michael Childers: real love story that included not just living together, not just wanting to spend all your time with your partner, but also wetting your lover's lips when he is dying.

Four and a quarter stars.


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Monday, March 20, 2017

Fiddlers (87th Precinct, #55)Fiddlers by Ed McBain
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] the French are peculiar. To them, ambulance means lighting, music, mood, the whole setting"

Fiddlers is the last novel in the monumental 87th Precinct series that spans half a century and includes 55 volumes published between 1956 and 2005. Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) died the year that the book was published. I have re-read and reviewed here selected installments - this is the twelfth one - spaced, roughly, by five years.

A talented violinist, a Vietnam vet blinded in action who has been earning his living playing in a night club, is shot to death. Carella and Meyer Meyer catch the case, but soon more detectives from the 87th get involved as there occur further killings committed with the same weapon: it becomes clear that the police have a serial killer on their hands. Of course we meet all the familiar characters: Bert Kling, Cotton Hawes, Arthur Brown, Andy Parker, Richard Genero; Ollie Weeks also offers a substantial contribution. The plot interweaves the detective threads with the story of the killer told in parallel.

Unfortunately Fiddlers is not a memorable ending to the series that many critics and millions of readers consider a pinnacle of the police procedural genre. The setup and the structure of the novel are totally formulaic. I have read at least 10 books that have the exact same premise and the same narrative approach - the intertwining of the detectives' and killer's threads, and they really read as identical books. Only the names, the locations, and some minor details are changed.

A more specific complaint of mine is that the book consists almost exclusively of dialogues, pages and pages of conversations, as if it were a TV script. The term "novel" hardly fits here. There are sparse narrative pieces - in fact, one is sweetly lyrical.

There are a few good bits about Fiddlers so that it is not a complete waste of time. We have a completely changed Fat Ollie Weeks. Ollie is on a diet and - gasp! - he begins to fall behind in his pursuit of bigotry: he is dating a Latina police officer! Fortunately, we have Det. Parker to carry the torch of cliché bigotry. And we have a little originality in Bert Kling's thread - his cliché troubles with affairs of the heart get a strange twist. The title is sort of a double entendre, not stellar, but not that bad either.

I am rather happy that I have finished the re-read project: although I do not exactly regret re-reading these selected installments of the series, I would like to offer a mean-spirited, sarcastic rendering of Mr. McBain famous motto:
The city in this novel is generic.
The people, the places are paper-thin placeholders.
The plot and the narrative structure are based on cliché templates.


Two stars.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 by Martin Amis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart."

While reading The War Against Cliché (2001), a voluminous collection of literary reviews by Martin Amis, has been a lot of fun it has also been a deeply humbling experience. Comparing Mr. Amis' deep, witty, polished reviews with my own attempts is like comparing paintings by Velázquez with a toddler's smears. The reviews in the collection are gorgeously written and very funny, often viciously and sarcastically funny. At the same time the reviews expose the author's cynical and common-sense outlook on our crazy world. Mr. Amis is an extraordinary writer in terms of the literary technique. In fact, I much prefer his reviews to his fiction (I have reviewed several novels on Goodreads, for instance, Time's Arrow , Success , and many more), which - although interesting and very readable - are no match for the excellence of his literary reviews.

I guess my admiration for this collection is mainly due to the fact that Mr. Amis addresses several topics that are my idées fixes about literature and its perception:
1. Most books are too long.
2. Cliché is a rot that begins on the surface of a book, i.e. in the language, and diffuses toward its deeper layers: moods, emotions, meanings.
3. Readers might benefit by shifting their focus from the story told in a novel to the artistry of the story teller.
4. Nothing in art conveys reality better than well-written fiction.
(After the rating, I include Mr. Amis' quotes that illustrate the above four points.)

Quite a few reviews in this set are devastating and devastatingly funny. About Michael Crichton's writing: "Animals [...] are what he is good at. People are what he is bad at. People, and prose." Thomas Harris' Hannibal is obliterated as a "novel of such profound and virtuoso vulgarity." Andy Warhol's self-absorption and vacuousness are made severe fun of. And on the topic of "funny": there is a passage in the review of Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, which is one of the funniest anecdotes I've heard in my life. I strongly recommend checking out the story to which the punchline is "That's how good Drenka was."

Mr. Amis conveys his loving admiration for great literature and offers extended analyses of works he calls "Great Books": among them Don Quixote, Ulysses, and Lolita. Yet another wonderful feature of this collection is that the pieces are engrossing even when they are about things that do not interest me in the slightest, such as football and poker.

Four and a quarter stars.

Some great quotes:
On books that are too long:
"There are two kinds of long novel. Long novels of the first kind are short novels that go on for a long time."
Alas, the majority of long novels fall into this category. On the second item in my list above the author writes:
"Cliché spreads inwards from the language of the book to its heart. Cliché always does."
Nabokov's quote (on Emma Bovary's reading habits) re-quoted by Mr. Amis illustrates the third item:
"The subject may be crude and repulsive. Its expression is artistically modulated and balanced. This is style. This is art. This is the only thing that really matters in books.
And on the power of fiction:
"[...] when fiction works, the individual and the universal are frictionlessly combined."


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Monday, March 13, 2017

The Depths of the ForestThe Depths of the Forest by Eugenio Fuentes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"There's a Numa in every forest, a fanatic guardian who has just one mission: to make sure that the wild woods stay wild."

Depths of the Forest (1999), my third book by Eugenio Fuentes, could easily be the best of the three, if not for the author's bizarre obsession that I ridicule later. It is the fourth entry in the Ricardo Cupido series, and the earliest one that has so far been translated into English. It is similar in structure, tone, and style to the later installments The Blood of the Angels and At Close Quarters .

The story takes place mainly in a fictional Spanish nature reserve and in the nearby town where Cupido lives. A talented painter and art gallery owner Gloria Garcia Carvajal is brutally murdered while walking in the forest: Gloria's boyfriend does not have confidence in the police force and hires Cupido to find the killer. The detective's investigation offers the reader an opportunity to meet quite a sizable set of suspects: Gloria's ex-lovers and admirers as well as her business partner. The most fascinating thread involves Doña Victoria, who used to be the owner of the lands on which the nature reserve was founded, and who has been involved in a protracted legal battle about the land ownership.

However, when another young woman is murdered in equally brutal way, it becomes apparent that a crazed serial killer is at large and that Gloria was not the particular target. From the whodunit point of view the plot is very interesting, and the book is for the most part compulsively readable. The denouement, a little in the Nero-Wolfean style, is a bit disappointing though.

I like the author's descriptions of nature: the forbidding forest with its ominous atmosphere comes alive on the pages and the mysterious cave paintings keep the reader in suspense. We are also offered a funny relief moment when Cupido recalls his youthful activities in the cave. Probably the best aspect of the novel is the characterization of Gloria - her portrayal is vivid, lively, and completely lifelike - I could imagine I have personally known Gloria despite the fact that she is only talked about and known from her own writings.

Brutal, cruel scenes have their place in literature, provided they make sense in the context. The killing of a stag is one of the most harrowing scenes I have encountered in quite some time: I recommend more sensitive readers skip the three page-fragment that begins with "They lowered the stag to the ground..." The brutality is justified in the plot, though, and it conveys a powerful message about people who use suffering of others, be it animals or other humans, to further any cause they are obsessed about.

Sexual references of even the rawest, most vulgar kind are also legitimate components of a literary work of art - again, as long as they are justified in the context - yet I have been stunned by the author's "sementics," his demented antics on the topic of semen of animal (three references) or human (another three mentions) origin. One of these references even uses the phrase "It was all so horribly gratuitous that I was nearly sick." Well, dear Mr. Fuentes, semen is not gratuitous, but your way of mentioning it certainly is.

Semen-free Depths would be a very good book, both as a detective novel and even perhaps as actual literature. With the gratuitous bits, I still recommend it, albeit with hesitation.

Three stars.


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Friday, March 10, 2017

K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous MountainK2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"As they forged on down into the darkness, the two Austrians lost track of Mrufka. They assumed she was just behind them, but they would never see her again."

As a clumsy person afraid of heights the closest I have gotten to mountaineering was to conquer Orla Perć, a difficult tourist hike in Polish Tatra Mountains. Yet since childhood I have had a love for mountains and have always enjoyed reading climbing books. K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain (2009) by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts is an important book for me for another reason. My wife and I used to be friends with Dobrosława "Mrufka" Wolf, one of the climbers who perished on K2 during the disastrous 1986 season, and the authors shed some additional light on the tragedy.

Mr. Viesturs is one of the very few people who managed to conquer K2, the "Savage Mountain", considered the hardest mountain on Earth to climb: he certainly is the right person to write about the history of K2 expeditions. He focuses on six most dramatic seasons in the K2 history, but also recounts his own successful ascent during the 1992 expedition. Of the perhaps 50 or so authors of mountaineering books I have read, Mr. Viesturs comes across as the most cautious. In fact he keeps insisting that his decision to continue the 1992 climb that resulted in reaching the summit had been wrong and that he is alive just because of luck. This was the only time that he violated the motto he used to live by:
Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.
The first two attempts to conquer K2 date back to the beginning of the 20th century: one of them involved the famous "occultist and egomaniac" Aleister Crowley. The other attempt, led by the Italian Duke of Abruzzi had been more serious: the climbers had found the now classic route. The members of the 1938 American expedition led by Charles Houston achieved the elevation over 7900 meters. One is unable to refrain from smiling when the authors quote Houston's enjoyment of a "restful cigarette, which seemed especially welcome at these high altitudes." I wonder which activities that we now consider as perfectly normal will be considered suicidal 79 years from now - eating chocolate?

The next American attempt turned into what the authors describe as "one of the most enigmatic expeditions of all time." The climbers reached the height of 8400 meters, but three team members died in a still not completely explained tragedy, with conflicting versions of critical events in existence. In deep contrast, yet another American attempt in 1953 was, in the authors' words, an "embodiment of team spirit and the standard to which all expeditions should aspire." Only an unusually brutal storm prevented the expedition from succeeding. It was finally in 1954 that an Italian team conquered K2: again there had been some controversial events during that attempt and the revelations that emerged fifty years after the climb justify the authors' viciously funny critique of the failed leadership in that successful endeavor.

My friend, Dobrosława Wolf, known as "Mrufka" (phonetic transcription of the Polish word for "ant"), died in August 1986. 13 climbers died on K2 that summer and the authors describe the tragedy and try to cast light on its reasons. Unusual crowding of the route, unequal technical skills of multi-national climbers, lack of permits and resulting haste all might have contributed to the drama.

K2 is one of the best mountaineering books I have ever read. I like the authors' serious, even-handed approach, their staying away from cheap sensationalism and "macabre delight in tragedy" while not avoiding sarcasm and humor when they are called for. And I truly appreciate Mr. Viestur's insistent emphasis on safety to the extent possible in the extreme conditions of high-altitude climbing. The book ends with a fragment about Mr. Viestur's family, sweet but incongruous with the entire work.

Four stars.


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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Monkeewrench (Monkeewrench, #1)Monkeewrench by P.J. Tracy
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"The minute he'd seen that cross carved into Mary Kleinfeldt's chest, he'd had the bad feeling that this was probably one of those crimes that would haunt his old age."

It may seem vicious of me to review this book immediately after Lolita but I do not exactly set the order of books I read: other than alternating so-called "serious books" with "entertainment books," the order is random. Monkeewrench, the debut thriller by P.J. Tracy (a pseudonym of a mother-daughter writing duo) comes highly recommended as one of the more popular books of 2003 and is mentioned on several lists of best thrillers of that year. Since I am unable to share any of the enthusiasm and the book barely escapes my lowest rating I am curious about the criteria used by people who make these lists: if they have not been directly paid by authors they probably praise the book's premise without actually reading the novel.

The setup is indeed interesting. We seem to begin with three separate threads. An elderly, devoutly religious couple are slain in rural Wisconsin: the woman has a cross carved in her chest. A jogger is shot in Minneapolis. We are also introduced to five members of a software development team who work on a video game about catching a serial killer. There are more murders and - no surprise - a specter of a serial killer emerges. Life seems to follow the video game as the authors unsubtly tell the reader. All threads eventually merge and culminate in an eventful, cinematic rather than literary climax, followed by a sappy ending.

I can forgive the authors the smart-aleck, cuter-than-cute, oh-how-funny-but-not-quite, wink-at-the-reader writing style. I can forgive the plot clichés and virtually non-existent character development that makes the detectives and game developers feel less real than cartoon characters. The one thing that I am unable to forgive is that the book is twice longer than it needs to be. About 200 pages (out of ridiculous 409 pages) contain nothing but filler stuff, pointless fluff text that does not move the plot, does not enrich the characterizations, and does not tell the reader anything interesting. Pages,
pages,
pages,
pages,
....
and pages of padding and stuffing whose absence no reader would be able to notice.

The attempt to exploit the intersection of real world and the universe of computer games is not successful. The authors try to convey the computer developer mystique, yet they lack basic knowledge (for example, "comparative analysis software" would not be needed to merge two lists) and just reveal their naïveté. Events slow down, magically, in preparation for each major step in the plot. Lame! A congenital defect is used as a plot device. Lame! I usually give writers a lot of leeway as far as offensiveness is concerned, but not when supposedly touching fragments tastelessly combine with feeble attempts at irreverent humor. The novel fails on so many levels!

One and a quarter stars.

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past; an echo on the brink of a russet ravine, with a far wood under a white sky, and brown leaves choking the brook, and one last cricket in the crisp weeds..."

I read Lolita for the first time in high school and now, after my current re-read, it seems to me that I had then read a completely different book. It should not be a surprise: there is no way that awkward teenager of 1960s and this cynical geezer of 2017 are the same person. While the teenager was fascinated with the taboo topic and oh-so-adult plot, the geezer could not care less about the taboos and the story but is awed by the magnificent prose. So these two different people agree that - for different reasons - this is indeed an extraordinary work, and its inclusion in various lists of best English-language novels and the most celebrated books in the history of literature is justified.

In his Lectures on Literature (according to Martin Amis' The War Against Cliché) Nabokov tries to teach people how to read, tries to make the readers "share not the emotions of the people in the book but the emotions of its author." In my own uneducated way I have been following this advice, caring less about what the authors are writing about and more about how they write. In simpler words, when reading a serious book I focus on the prose. And from the lush and lovely alliterations of the first paragraph to the ending invocation, Lolita is an amazing, jaw-dropping celebration of English language. One can find a dazzling language jewel on each of the three hundred or so pages and spend hours deciphering the elaborate structures of word plays, allusions and puns. I have been amazed by the unparalleled virtuosity of style, the constant changes in literary conventions and narrative structures and strategies.

This very dark comedy is a vicious satire on the American popular culture, the moronic world of commercials, the travel industry, road trip literature, etc. But then there is the ostensibly main topic of the novel that has offended and disgusted thousands and thousands of readers and I should at least mention the general subject of Humbert Humbert's (HH from now on) "pederosis." Yet unlike that teenager with whom I share the body, now I can only view the subject from the perspective of art, Nabokov's exquisite art of language. When reading I often make little notes to myself and when I read through the scene that happens on the candy-striped davenport, after HH catches the apple that Lo has been eating, I just sat there in amazement, and wrote in big letters on my note paper "I am stunned." Yes, some the most extraordinary pages of English prose I have read in my life.

A perfect novel then? Oh no, definitely not! The "afterword" entitled "On a Book Entitled Lolita", where the author seems to defend the novel, weakens the book's impact. As a work of art - great art! - the novel completely defends itself. Also, the author writes:
"Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss [...]"
Maybe I am obtuse but what then does Nabokov mean when he quotes "an old poet":
"The moral sense in mortals is the duty
We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty."
Of course, Nabokov is right when he says that literature is not in the business of conveying "morals", but then - as I see - he seems to flout his own rule.

I actively dislike the very short fragment that takes place in Beardsley School when HH notices "another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck," and the text suddenly escapes the world of metaphors where the rest of the novel safely resides and moves for a moment, along with Dolly's red-knuckled hand, to the physically literal sphere. The movie-style ending also seems incongruous with the rest of the novel: the film adaptations have cheapened the novel enough.

So while it feels unnatural to assign any rating lower than maximum to Lolita, my reverence is muted by reservations.

Four and a half stars.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Last Dance (87th Precinct, #50)The Last Dance by Ed McBain
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

" As he sang, his voice became a choir of voices, the voices of a hundred tribes with as many different backgrounds, joining together in this shining new land, to become at last a single strong united tribe."

The Last Dance, the 50th installment in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series, is the penultimate novel in my selective, half-decade-skipping re-read of the famous set. Strangely, the world shown in this book published in 2000 seems as close to the New York's universe captured at the time of the first novel (1956) as to the world of 2017. The plot is a mixed bag of good parts combined with unbearable clichés and filler stuff.

A woman calls the police to report that her father has died: Carella and Myer catch the squeal and despite the father's history of heart condition they suspect death by hanging. Alas the captivating first chapter is followed by the appearance of Danny Gimp, the informer, from whom Carella wants to get "the word on the street." Ugh, double ugh. I forced myself to go on reading and wade through the clichés and stupefying silliness: Monoghan and Monroe, Ollie Week shtick with his food-stained ties and W.C. Fields imitations, and other tedious stuff repeated for the umptieth time. But I am happy that I did not toss the book because the author suddenly decides to quit repeating his previous novels and offers quite interesting events in the plot. There are more murders, detectives from other precincts join the investigation, international connections emerge, and the whole mess has not an implausible ending, luckily devoid of idiotic plot twists.

The reader will find a few powerful passages, like the one I quote in the epigraph, and some serious issues are touched as well. Ed McBain writes bitterly about the state of race relations in the country. Unfortunately his cynical diagnosis - that nothing has improved and very little is likely to change - stands validated now, 17 years later. He writes about gross incompetence and pervasive corruption in the "correctional" business. The business side of sex services in a go-go joint is explained in detail. On a lighter side we have a parody of the famous Hold the chicken scene from Five Easy Pieces and Fat Ollie Weeks hires a piano teacher to help him learn to play exactly five songs.

Well, The Last Dance manages to escape a very low rating but I feel relieved that my next novel to re-read in the series, Fiddlers (2005), will be the last.

Two and a quarter stars.

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia - Scientist, Writer, RevolutionaryA Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia - Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary by Ann Hibner Koblitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"To the best of our present knowledge, Kovalevskaia was the finest woman scientist anywhere in the world before the twentieth century."

Ann Hibner Koblitz's A Convergence of Lives (1983) reads in part as a research monograph, in part as a traditional biography, but also a little like a captivating historical romance. The subtitle of the book - Sofia Kovalevskaia: Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary - clarifies the flowery title, even if it is misleading: mathematics is not really a science. Dr. Koblitz's book will be interesting for many readers: for mathematicians and historians of mathematics, for people interested in the 19th century European history, and for all readers who are into biographies and roman historique.

Dr. Koblitz's work is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of feminist ideas: the book shows the pioneering and influential role played by Kovalevskaia in assuring women the same rights as men in all aspects of life, including in academia, in the traditionally male-dominated fields of human knowledge. Sofia Kovalevskaia demonstrated she could achieve as much as the most prominent male mathematicians of the 19th century. In addition to doing brilliant math she also successfully stormed the job world of academia, when in 1874 she obtained a doctorate, as the first woman in the modern times, and then in 1883 when she secured, as the only woman in Europe, a teaching position at the University of Stockholm (the next woman to hold such job was Maria Skłodowska-Curie, 23 years later).

Sofia Kovalevskaia's interest in mathematics dates back to her childhood, but what got her hooked on math were not the usual arithmetic or basics of algebra but rather more advanced math ideas, such as the concept of asymptotes or "squaring of a circle." In one of the most unusual real-life coincidences the nursery room of Kovalevskaia's house during her childhood was wallpapered with her father's notes from differential and integral calculus lectures. No wonder then that some of her first interests were the actual calculus problems. Among famous professors she learned from and then collaborated with was Karl Weierstrass, one of the most renowned figures in the history of mathematics. She also had numerous contacts with the eminent Russian mathematician, Chebyshev.

The biography is solid on the social and political background of the great mathematician's life. Introduction will be useful for many readers as it presents the socio-economic conditions prevalent in Russia in the second half of the 19th century, and in particular explains the "nihilist movement" whose name and goals may be radically misunderstood in modern days. Having come of age in the 1960s I feel strong kinship with children of the other turbulent sixties - 1860s.

In the social arena during mid-to-late-19th century the reader may find interesting the Russian concept of "fictitious marriages": these were unions of convenience, real only in the legal sense, allowing young women to leave the country to study abroad. Such was Sofia Kovalevskaia marriage, although in her case the union was indeed consummated several years later.

Readers will be interested in Sofia Kovalevskaia's contacts with Fyodor Dostoyevsky: in fact at one point she might have developed a youthful crush on him while her sister was close to being engaged with the writer. Sofia herself was a successful writer, playwright, and a poet: her literary output includes a memoir, a partly autobiographical novel, and several plays and essays.

Convergence is meticulously referenced. Up to one-fourth of each page is dedicated for footnotes that specify the sources of various items of information. The almost 20-page bibliography is impressive and from the Introduction we learn that the author spent a lot of time working in Russian (at the time they were in fact Soviet) archives.

In sum, a worthwhile, interesting, readable yet solid book, highly recommended. Of course being a mathematician I may be a little biased in my enthusiasm. In fact I am right now teaching the partial differential equations course and will soon lecture on the famous Cauchy-Kovalevskaia theorem.

Four stars.


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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Rogue LawyerRogue Lawyer by John Grisham
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Like many, this trial is not about the truth, it's about winning."

John Grisham's Rogue Lawyer (2015), an extremely readable novel, has left me with strongly ambivalent yet mainly negative feelings. I am impressed by Mr. Grisham's cynical view of the justice system and his condemnation of power-abusing police, corrupt prosecutors, unprincipled judges, and clueless jurors yet I strongly dislike this book because the author shamelessly caters to the readers in that virtually all threads of the plot end well so the book feels customized to satisfy the readers' expectations and maximize the sales.

Sebastian Rudd, a "street lawyer", is a defense attorney in a "dismal, backwater, redneck town," who lives in motels and often works from a van as he is frequently threatened either by criminals or by the so-called innocent people who hate him for defending worst of the worst criminals. Many stories are interwoven in the novel: Mr. Rudd is defending a man accused of murdering two little girls. He meets with his ex-client, a convicted crime lord and killer, just hours before his execution. He is also defending an elderly victim of a horribly botched SWAT operation. He is juggling these and several other cases while being involved in an ugly custody battle with his ex-wife.

The quite interesting if occasionally implausible plot serves as a pretext to paint a convincingly grim picture of the entire corrupt justice system, which is always in the service of politics, and where cases are decided not based on truth or guided by the idea of justice but rather by political aspirations and expediency of the key players. Also very strong is the derisive portrayal of "warrior cops", the SWAT team members, men who are emotionally still teenage boys in love with military fatigues, face paint, and powerful weapons, who love to shoot at anything because it is even more fun than playing shooting video games:
"These guys think they're part of an extreme, elite force, and they need their thrills, so here we are in another frantic hospital with casualties."
The author chastises the so-called innocent people as well. While Mr. Rudd is often asked "How do you represent such scum?" some people don't just ask, they want to punish the lawyer for defending the most heinous criminals. Yeah, lynching would be a good solution. The jurors get their share of ridicule too: for their excitement at participating in the trial, for their simple-mindedness, and for strange hierarchy of values like when they value a dog's life more than that of a human. I like the passages that describe the voir dire procedure. Having personally been a part of such a procedure during jury duty I can attest to the realism of the depiction: potential jurors lying through their teeth to get on the jury, panting and salivating at the prospect of meting out punishment and putting some excitement in their lives.

I admire Mr. Grisham's smooth writing and plot construction. But this fairy tale for adults - characters we root for always win and bad guys lose all the time - is so slick, so nauseating in its pandering to the reader's expectations, so blatantly commercial that I find it below par.

Two stars.


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Sunday, February 19, 2017

How to Be AloneHow to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"But the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone."

While Jonathan Franzen is mostly known for his novels, such as The Corrections, How To Be Alone (2002) is a compelling collection of 14 essays on topics ranging from dying of Alzheimer's disease, through the role of novels and novelists in the modern society, to the economics of the incarceration business in the United States.

In the first and the most touching essay, My Father's Brain, the author recounts his father's struggles with the disease whose "[...] particular sadness and horror stem from the sufferer's loss of his or her 'self' long before the body dies." The father's unexpected flashes of apparently total lucidity in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease, akin to a drowning person's last attempt to emerge out of the water and scream for help, and particularly his last lucid sentence spoken in a clear voice, will haunt the reader.

In Imperial Bedroom Mr. Franzen examines the issues of privacy in the world of businesses that need more and more data about their customers: his sharp diagnosis is well-reasoned: Americans do not really care about privacy. Note that the essay was written in 1998, in the early phases of the Internet. Now, in 2017, virtually everybody exposes their innermost secrets on Facebook (some, like this reviewer, on Goodreads instead) thus relinquishing their privacy with glee. The author bemoans the little-noticed yet alarming fact how the private sphere of human lives encroaches on the public sphere.

Control Units is another strong essay: the author visits the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado, "America's toughest federal prison", and in particular the ADX (Administrative Maximum Facility), with its notorious isolation cells. The amusing story of local hustlers in Cañon City, Colorado, trying to sell to the federal Bureau of Prisons the land for the future correctional center is well told. But what really makes an impact on the reader is the realization how big the correctional business is and how "our political economy's solution to the crime problem" is to "lock away the problem." Readers may also be impressed by the realization that both the occupants of the maximum security prison and their guards stretch the boundaries of what may be considered the human species.

The penultimate item, Meet Me in St. Louis, is again a touching, wonderful story about not being able to return to the past: the house of one's youth, although still standing, is gone forever, never to be entered again. The author describes a TV crew producing footage of him returning to the city of his youth; he exposes the nauseating fakeness of TV shows and their shameless manufacturing of emotions to sell to the viewers.

Several essays are focused on the status of novels in the contemporary world, which yields an opportunity to analyze the overall modern culture, or rather lack thereof. Mr. Franzen offers sharp views on politicizing art:
"Obsession with social health produces a similar vulgarity: if a novel isn't a part of a political solution, it must be part of the problem."
He provides a wonderful disclaimer, though:
"I understand my life in the context of Raskolnikov and Quentin Compton, not David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld."
where we should substitute whatever names are currently en vogue in the TV intellectainment.

Three and three quarter stars.


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Thursday, February 16, 2017

City of Lost Girls (Ed Loy, #5)City of Lost Girls by Declan Hughes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"He wonders about the killing in threes, about the concept of the Three-in-One Killer. It is preposterous, on one level, like something from a comic book [...]"

Yet another crime novel with a promising setup that fizzles into a disappointing ending. This seems to be a rule these days with the bestsellers of the genre and I have a simple explanation: while the publisher can easily "sell" a book through blurbs that broadcast the enticing premise, for obvious reasons the failure of the ending can never be shown, and the reader becomes a victim of "false advertising." Or maybe I am the only one to get tired of struggling through books that promise so much in the beginning only to degenerate into a preposterous (the author's own word) mess towards the end.

Am I also the only reader tired of the "serial killers with patterns" in crime/mystery books? They have become a staple of the genre, so repetitive, so much like tens or hundreds of other books I have read that I am unable to distinguish one book from another - all of them are just slight variations of the basic template.

Am I also the only reader tired of the killer's monologues, obligatorily shown in italics, interspersed with the threads featuring the detectives or other characters? I have read hundreds of such books so there must be thousands and thousands of them. It feels like reading the same book, again and again and again.

City of Lost Girls (2010) by Declan Hughes is another installment in the Ed Loy series. The Irish private eye who previously worked in California returns to Dublin and is hired by the famous Irish movie director, Jack Donovan, to investigate nasty anonymous letters he has been receiving. Mr. Loy happens to know the director from Los Angeles, where Mr. Donovan was working on a movie. The importance of the letters soon fades when female extras begin to disappear from Mr. Donovan's movie set and Ed Loy recalls the still unexplained similar disappearances of extras in Los Angeles some 15 years earlier. When the detective quickly identifies the four possible suspects, all connected to the movie crew, the plot begins to lose energy and falls into boring, formulaic tracks. At about middle of the book I lost most of my interest and continued scanning pages to find out which additional clichés or convenient coincidences the author will employ.

The plot fiasco is especially painful because it is a well-written book. The author, a once recipient of the prestigious Shamus Award, is certainly a good writer. Early in the novel we have a great conversation between Ed Loy and the director's first wife. The woman comes alive from the pages of the dialogue, not an easy feat for crime novel authors most of whom seem to focus on the plot rather than on prose. Is Mr. Hughes really in such a need for money that he has to churn out books which he is unable to finish well?

Two stars, one for the author's potential and the other for this sad failure of a novel.


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Monday, February 13, 2017

Joanna Lumley: The BiographyJoanna Lumley: The Biography by Tim Ewbank
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"It's called colonic irrigation, darling, and it's not to be sniffed at."

The other day I happened to watch Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, which reminded me of the original British TV show that aired in the 1990s on Comedy Central. I liked the show a lot because of its sharp, over-the-top, politically incorrect humor. The best thing about the show and the movie is the character of Patsy Stone played to the outrageous hilt by Joanna Lumley. Since I also liked Ms. Lumley playing Purdey in the 1970s cult classic The New Avengers I reached for the book Joanna Lumley: The Biography (1999) by Tim Ewbank & Stafford Hildred. By the way, I have already reviewed biographies of Patrick Macnee ( Blind in One Ear ) and Diana Rigg ( Diana Rigg: The Biography ) so this book completes the trilogy about the principal actors of Avengers, British TV series from the 1960s and 1970s.

The biography chronicles Ms. Lumley's life and career from her childhood to the times of her international fame, the times when, as the authors say, "Joanna knew perfectly well she was becoming famous for being famous." Alas all this is told in a way that is dangerously close to the fluff and tabloid gossip columns style. For instance, I do not think the readers gain much by learning rather intimate details of Ms. Lumley irregular physiology. Also, the style is inadvertently funny in many passages as illustrated by the phrase that the actress was "impecunious for so long," a particularly stilted circumlocution. Even the passage where Ms. Lumley talks about her desire to downsize her consumption and "just want[s] to have less of everything," perhaps intended to be touching, sounds too much like tabloid fodder. On the other hand, I enjoyed the account of the Summer of Love 1967 and the London scene at that time.

Finally, we get to the early 1990s and the making of the memorable Ab Fab show (almost on the same level of comedic excellence as John Cleese's Fawlty Towers, if grounded in a completely different style, but directed by the very same Bob Spiers). The show's protagonists are self-obsessed Edina, a fashion PR agent, played by the writer of the show, Jennifer Saunders, and the "chain-smoking, hard-drinking, drug-taking, sexually aggressive ex-model", and currently a fashion magazine editor, Patsy, played by Ms. Lumley. Ms. Saunders' writing is absolutely fabulous as evidenced by the immortal quote about colonic irrigation as well as hundreds of other equally funny lines. But I am afraid Ms. Saunders' splendid writing would not account for much if not for Joanna Lumley's inspired, no-holds-barred, delightfully overacted and absolutely fabulous performance as Patsy.

The sheer irreverence of the show's outrageous humor, totally "unfettered by considerations of taste," made Ab Fab a great hit in the UK. Yet the humor proved unacceptable for the US: "The political incorrectness which is at the very heart of the comedy's appeal frightened the networks to their core [...]" The biography will likely be a good read for people interested in minute details of stars' lives and the part of the book about the modern-day U.S. censorship has some sociological value. I love Joanna Lumley's acting, I respect Ms. Saunders' writing, but I am afraid this biography is not far enough from something to be sniffed at.

Two and a half stars.

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