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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Friday, February 10, 2017

A Fine And Bitter Snow (Kate Shugak, #12)A Fine And Bitter Snow by Dana Stabenow
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Falling snow toned a shout down to a murmur and then absorbed the murmur, imposing its own sweet, silent hush on a noisy world."

Dana Stabenow's A Fine and Bitter Snow, my first book by the author, almost gets thumbs-up from me. It is the twelfth installment in the 20-novel series that features Kate Shugak, an Aleut who lives in the "Park", a generic National Park in Alaska, and often happens to get involved with investigations of crimes. Ms. Stabenow, an Alaskan native, has a keen eye for the local geography, sociology, and culture. I have never been to Alaska, but thanks to this novel I feel I have gained at least some basic knowledge about this state.

The portrayal of life in Alaska is the main value of the novel as I don't find the criminal plot interesting. The first one-third of the book serves as an introduction to the main characters and the plot is set up already on the first few pages. Dan O'Brian, the Chief Park Ranger seems to have lost support of the higher-ups in the administration of national parks and is pushed to early retirement. Ms. Shugak, who believes Mr. O'Brian is doing a great job in the Park, begins a campaign to drum up support for the Chief Ranger. But a brutal murder interferes with everybody's plans: Mr. O'Brian might be involved and Jim Chopin, an Alaska state trooper, handles the investigation having recruited Ms. Shugak to help.

The political bent of the novel is quite interesting and particularly relevant right now, just after the U.S. election. The plot takes place soon after the 2000 presidential vote. The new administration, not friendly to environmental issues, finds Mr. O'Brian "too green" for their liking. They plan to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic: while many residents of the area vehemently oppose the plans some others support them expecting the growth in local jobs. The 2016 election promises similar conflicts. Anyway, I quite like Ms. Stabenow's portrayal of making politics: the conversation between Ms. Shugak and a state senator illustrates the dirty ways it is done.

So what do I find wrong with the novel? First and foremost its criminal plot is totally formulaic: all the right buttons are pushed at all the right moments and the action culminates in a cliché dramatic scene that serves as the denouement. Funny, but the author herself puts her finger on the reason of my reservations:
"She was rereading My Family and Other Animals for what was probably the twenty-seventh time [...] and for the present her preference was for books she had already read and enjoyed, ones with no surprises in them."
I am allergic to books that offer no surprises, books that give me what I expect to get - I could as well watch TV for that.

The whole "romantic" thread that deals with Ms. Shugak's affairs of the heart lacks originality. But then I am probably not the right reader of the "will she or won't she" threads, and it is likely that younger readers may find this aspect of the novel worthwhile.

Two and a half stars.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Roads to SantiagoRoads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

" We are in too much of a hurry to remain dead for so long."

Another phenomenal book, non-fiction this time, from my favorite writer. While one cannot expect masterpieces every time from even the greatest authors Cees Nooteboom's Roads to Santiago (1993) reaches the upper regions of my rare five-star rating and deserves extremely slow reading to take full delight of the writing and to wallow in exquisite detail. I made notes about virtually each of the book's 340 pages and my review was originally four times longer - what follows is just a haphazard abridgement.

Mr. Nooteboom describes his travels in Spain - parallel travels as he points out: one in his rented car and another through the past. He is "a pilgrim on the Great Way to Santiago de Compostela"; he retraces the journeys of the faithful on the Camiño de Santiago, also known as St. James's Way, the main Catholic pilgrimage route that dates back well over one thousand years, to the 9th century. The motion through time-space yields a history book - history of Spain, a country with complicated Roman, Visigoth, Arab, Jewish, and Christian roots, yet a uniquely European country. Never in my life have I learned so much about a country from a single book. Mr. Nooteboom writes not just about the famous historical figures, like Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragón and Castille or Philip II, people that most of us have heard about. We meet scores of lesser known personages and - more importantly - the author guides us through the historical processes that were occurring throughout the roughly 1300 years. We are not just reading about Spain - we get immersed in its history and culture.

Travel book, history book, but also a book of remarkable wisdom. On the social scale the author contemplates the nature of history, its relationship with time, and the role of an individual in history, even if - as he points out in a sobering thought - most people believe they have nothing to do with it. In the psychological domain Mr. Nooteboom - who often retraces his steps from his previous trips in Spain - explains, for instance, why people need to relive the experiences from the past: the reason is human "desire to weave a strand of eternity into your own life." Art history is a frequent focus as is, of course, literature: Homer, Cervantes, Nabokov, Borges' universes, and his perplejidad that is life. Incredible!

So many passages took my breath away. The author visits El Burgo de Osma where a copy of the Codex Beato is displayed, also known as Commentary on the Apocalypse: the book contains a map of the world drawn in 1086, "inscribed with Visigothic lettering." In the little village of Santiago de Peñalba he finds a perfectly preserved Mozarabic church dating from 919, with the date carved in stone. How insignificant are the sound and the fury of today when one can touch human-made objects from one thousand years ago! To me the most stunning fragment in the entire book is the study of Las Meninas, a famous painting by Velásquez ("Velásquez paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be"). How can I ever thank the author for showing me the harmonies, the structures of truth and beauty I have never been aware of?

On the La Mancha plateau Mr. Nooteboom follows the footsteps of Cervantes and his heroes: Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and Dulcinea. He has "an appointment with those fearsome adversaries, Don Quixote's windmills" on a long range of hills near Consuegra. He visits Dulcinea's home in El Toboso and offers the stunning line:
"To enter a house that once belonged to someone who never existed is no small matter."
Indeed. The author visits Extremadura and we read - in a rare non-European digression - about Pizarro and the ambush in Cajamarca, Peru, where the conquistadors massacred 2,000 unarmed Incas to commence the wholesale obliteration of Inca civilization. It is a disaster when we lose all our data on a hard disk. We mourn prehistoric paintings when they are defaced. Can we imagine the total destruction of a flourishing civilization? The people, their culture, their mythology, their gods. All gone forever.

And the magnificent, spellbinding, spine-tingling last paragraph of the book - a long stunning forceful paragraph that almost manages the impossible: summarize Spain in awe-inspiring prose. I could go on and on with my raves. The best non-fiction book I have ever read? Yes, I believe so.

Five stars.

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Nocturne (87th Precinct #48)Nocturne by Ed McBain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Three white males, two dead black dudes, and a dead white hooker, Ollie thought, and farted."

I have criticized and even ridiculed the installments of the 87th Precinct saga so many times that it feels nice to be able to recommend yet another item from the series, after above average Ghosts and not-that-bad Vespers . In my partial re-read project I select novels written roughly every five years (between 1956 and 2005), but since my library does not have Romance (1995) I have read a 1997 entry, Nocturne, the 48th novel in the set.

Carella and Hawes catch a murder case of an elderly woman who was a famous concert pianist in her youth. As the painstaking investigation begins the same pair of detectives have to deal with an apparently related killing of a prostitute. And as if it weren't enough, the case is soon connected to yet another murder, a double one, which occurs in another precinct and is handled by the increasingly frequent guest character in the 87th Precinct series - detective Ollie Weeks. The latter murders play quite a prominent role in the plot, and I have been really impressed with the thread featuring the prep school football players. One rarely meets more depraved and repulsive characters than these three nice, all-American boys excelling in the nation's most favorite sport - violence.

The complicated plot involves a voodoo ceremony, cockfighting, a hard-core sexual fivesome, traces of fish on a mink coat, and even a little fun with Italian language - hard not to like the "Boff on gool" bit. We have a comic interlude about trying to register a citizen's complaint over a city government's automated phone system. In fact, if not for the grim thread featuring the football players, the novel would resemble a dark comedy. I suspect that Mr. McBain was inspired by Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

And for once I can forgive the author all his irritating clichés repeated for the umpteenth time: Carella's slanted eyes, the white streak in Detective Hawes' hair, the unkempt Detective Weeks. I can also forgive the completely unfunny bit - repeated in its entirety from another novel - about El Castillo de Palacíos, and the lame and implausible thread with Georgie and Tony. I am so forgiving because for once Mr. McBain unhesitatingly points his finger at what is at the bottom of many ills that plague our society - the pervasive, all encompassing cult, culture, and cultivation of violence:
"The way Ollie looked at it, nobody in this country was really concerned about violence, anyway. If they were, they'd put the V-chip on football and hockey games. What really bugged Americans was sex."
This admittedly bigoted detective, so cliché in his smelly and farty ways, is really good at his job. He is also pretty sharp. And certainly a way more realistic character than, say, Steve Carella.

Three and a half stars.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Body ArtistThe Body Artist by Don DeLillo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] these tallowy secretions, glandular events of the body cosmos, small festers and eruptions, impacted fats, oils, salt and sweat, and how nearly scholarly the pleasures of extraction."

The Body Artist, a novella by Don DeLillo, is probably not the best introduction to this acclaimed author's opus. That's my hope anyway as the book - my first by the author - has not inspired me with awe, although I would have to agree with the Newsweek critic's blurb on the cover: "The work of a masterful writer." Yes, Mr. DeLillo does write extremely well; my problem with The Body Artist is not with the prose but with the higher layer in the structure of a literary work, the level where the prose constructs are transformed into meaning and significance.

We meet Lauren, the body artist, and her husband Rey, a famous art-house movie director. The rather uneventful first chapter is followed by a newspaper obituary, a eulogy to Rey, who apparently has shot himself. What does one do when the closest person suddenly commits suicide? Lauren's world has collapsed and we witness her struggle to come to terms with grief and find some meaning of life without her anchor:
"Now he was the smoke, Rey was, the thing in the air, vaporous, drifting into every space sooner or later, unshaped but with a face that was somehow part of the presence [...]"
Lauren still has her art, though, and she escapes into the routine of preparations for her upcoming performance. The cleansing of her body is highly metaphorical yet it also has a down-to-earth, physical component as quoted in the epigraph above. Toward the end of the novella we are offered a description of the body art that Lauren performs via a press review written by her friend - a totally fascinating report and, to me, the best part of the book. That and the passages when Lauren watches the live-streaming video feed from a webcam in Kotka, Finland.

There is Mr. DeLillo's shining love of and fascination with language, with words that somehow seem to shape reality:
"Somehow. The weakest word in the language."
and also
"Everything is slow and hazy and drained and it all happens around the word seem."
Now who am I to criticize a great author, yet criticize I must as it took me a great effort to get through the first chapter, all 19 pages of I do not know exactly what. Lauren and Rey are having breakfast and Mr. DeLillo describes their routine actions in minuscule detail:
"She poured milk into the bowl. He sat down and got up. He went to the fridge and got the orange juice and stood in the middle of the room shaking the carton to float the pulp and make the juice thicker."
Through deconstructing the routine activities into atomic actions the author seems to be begging the reader to attach some significance to the chains of elementary events, to elevate automatic actions to status of meaningfulness. Well, I believe that meaning is indivisible and we cannot separate it into atoms of individual tiny meanings. Obviously, I must be wrong!

The second peeve of mine is the author's unsuccessful attempt to depict the simultaneous nature of human thinking, the parallel processing of perceptions and thoughts. Mr. DeLillo just intermingles phrases referring to various threads of thought - exactly like an operating system of a computer allocates tiny intervals of processing time to various tasks. For example:
"Ajax, son of Telamon, I think, if my Trojan War is still intact, and maybe we need a newspaper because the old one's pretty stale, and great brave warrior, and spearthrower of mighty distances, and toilet cleanser too."
I believe the multi-tasking of human thinking entails parallel thoughts "dissolving" into each other and accurate rendering of this process in prose - if at all possible - would require more elaborate devices than the author's naive mixing.

Despite the shortcomings - that maybe only exist in my optics - the novella offers the reader a lot of depth and several unforgettable passages. Even with the pretentious first chapter The Body Artist is a worthwhile read and one day I will tackle Mr. DeLillo's longer works.

Three and a half stars.

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