Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Emperor of Ocean Park

I'm abandoning this book at p. 149. It's going very slowly. I find it way too wordy, and in general a bit self-indulgent and ultimately sloppy as a work of fiction. There are digressions, almost riffs, that seem to have little to do with anything -- just too much detail. In the guise of character development, the author imposes on us his candidate for the best DVD ever made and preaches to us about the importance of community service.

Most of all, though, the characters are simply not sympathetic. The narrator, in many ways an alter ego of the author, tells us so often that he is not really a nice man that you begin to believe it. One of his least endearing qualities is his devotion to a calculating, selfish and blatantly unfaithful wife. Other characters are cardboard.

The book is hyped as a window on the world of upper middle class African Americans, which, not too surprisingly, is remarkably similar to the world of upper middle class white Americans, except for occasional flashes of what the author/narrator must think is attitude. Ho-hum.

Stephen Carter has a lawyer's facility with words, but the prose in the end is pedestrian. There are occasional witty remarks and some nice turns of phrase. If I was spending a lazy week at the beach, I might have the patience for this, but I need something more substantive to sustain me in the workaday world.

I rarely decide to abandon a book. It usually just happens that I put it down one day and don't pick it up again, and then find myself starting something else. Occasionally, I'll come back to a book I abandoned and for some reason find it more appealing. Might happen here, but I doubt it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

In memoriam: Kirkus Reviews

The news last week that Kirkus Reviews would fold after 75-some years was greeted largely with a ho-hum or, in some quarters, outright glee. Kirkus was famous for being negative and one agent was quoted as saying "Good riddance."

The point of the pre-publication reviews -- Library Journal and Booklist are two other standard reviewers -- is to help librarians decide what to order. When newspapers did book reviews, they also helped editors decide which books to review, so they were influential beyond the tiny circle of actual readers. And of course they provide jacket blurbs if your book doesn't get a lot of reviews in other media.

My first book, Debt Shock, happily displayed a blurb from Kirkus Reviews on the paperback edition: "Unequaled in its astringency and vigor...With one terse, wry, inarguable statement after another, Delamaide...lays bare the crisis that made headlines." Because Kirkus had such a reputation for negative reviews you felt doubly good if you got a good one, and didn't take it personally if you got a bad one.

The review for Gold was somewht more tepid, though not out-and-out negative. "A modestly effective end-of-the-financial-world thriller involving skulduggery on and off the commodities exchange....Tidy plotting, solid background, and brisk pace make an appealing debut until the story, along with the gold market, collapses near the end." Oh well.

Finally, Kirkus had some kind words for Superregions: "An engaging look at Europe's economic prospects, forcefully demonstrating that the continent's future will depend on furthering regional alliances that transcend outmoded and restrictive national boundaries. ...Superregions is full of good ideas, and a fine guide for researchers, businesspeople and others interested in Europe's -- and everyone's -- future."

Sadly, my hiatus in publishing has outlived Kirkus Reviews. They were by and large kind to me, so I don't mind standing up at the memorial service and murmuring some praise. I always had the feeling that those librarians and editors, if not the blurb writers, appreciated having a more skeptical point of view in looking at new books. After all, you can't buy or review all of them.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Hungry Tide

It doesn't get more exotic than Amitav Ghosh's novel of the tide country in the Bay of Bengal. Tigers, crocodiles and river dolphins teem in this parallel narrative of a present-day marine mammal researcher and the story of a little-known massacre a generation earlier.

Along with Ghosh's beautiful, literate prose, there are stories with human emotions -- in all their resplendent ambivalence -- that are at once so firmly embedded in their Indian and Indian-American characters and yet so universal that the reader is carried along in a tide of the author's making.

Piya, the Indian-American researcher; Kanai, the New Delhi yuppie; and Fokir, the unlettered fisherman form an unusual love triangle -- in fact with Moyna, Fokir's wife, two intersecting triangles -- and this drama is quite moving when it reaches its climax.

The parallel story of Nirma and Kumus, with Kanai, Nilima and Horen bridging the time gap adds a whole dimension to the main narrative and the two stories build slowly to their crescendos in virtual lockstep. Nirma, the wannabe revolutionary who becomes a rural headmaster and failed writer, is the dreamer out of step with reality. His wife, Nilima, is more practical, realistic, focused on the moment. And yet in the end, it is Nilima who is left with a some bitterness, conceding that one practical idea Nirmal had amidst his dreaming was responsible for saving numerous lives. Horen, who ferries people around in both narratives, turns out to be not such a minor character.

Ghosh's prose is at time lyrical and the reader is willing to hear the most beautiful speeches from the most unlikely characters. Horen, taciturn through the book, erupts near the end with a soliloquy that Shakespeare would have been proud of, and Moyna is able to articulate the hidden undercurrents of emotion. When she asks Kanai to remind Fokir, her husband, that Piya is only here for a short time, Kanai wants to know why he should be the one to talk to him and not her.

"Only a stranger can put such things into words," Moyna says. "Because words are just air...When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard. You can't blow on the water's surface from below...Only someone who's outside can do that, someone like you."

One small bonus from reading this book is an appreciation for Rilke's Duino Elegies, which Nirmal quotes often, referring only to the Poet. But there are many rich bonuses -- an excursion into cetology, a branch of the study of marine mammals; a tour of the Sundarbans archipelago extending from Calcutta into the Bay of Bengal and sheltering the city from cyclones; a view of the mixed Hindu-Islamic culture along the border between India and Bangladesh; a history lesson about the massacre at Morichjhapi. Ghosh is not afraid to stand things on their heads -- by showing, for instance, the potential damage the West's obsession with saving tigers can have on the poor in those regions.

But The Hungry Tide is above all a novel, with romance, adventure and stories that enrich our understanding of how people think and feel.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Joseph Finder is the acknowledged master of the corporate thriller and I enjoyed his earlier books, Power Play and Paranoia. But he seems to have lost some of crackle and pop in this book. The pages keep turning, but the payoff is not great.

For one thing, he strays in this book away from a purely corporate world, setting the book in DC and making a fictional version of Blackwater the central corporate entity and mixing politics, kickbacks and mercenaries into the story.

One annoying thing, which is difficult to pull off and which doesn't really work here, is switching back and forth from first person to third person in the narration.

But the main problem is that the hero, Nick Heller, who is the first person narrator, isn't as interesting as Finder's earlier protagonists. In fact, none of the characters, with the possible exception of Heller's teenage nephew, arouses much sympathy or takes on any real dimension. This may have been true in the earlier books as well, but it was less noticeable then. Several of these characters are simply plot devices garnished with a tell-tale trait that don't really convince. There is no love interest for the hero, who plays protector to his sister-in-law and nephew (his brother is the one who vanished), and no back story for that dimension either.

But Nick Heller is of course an ace, an ex-Special Forces, martial arts, all-around know-it-all. For some reason, he kept reminding me of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther character, but without the charming quirks. Finder had better luck with his business types. He can't match Flynn or Balducci or Silva on the op hero. The sister-in-law is a virtual nonentity, and the DC police officer role seems written for Morgan Freeman to play.

The plot, too, in contrast to the earlier books, is fairly derivative. There are a couple of twists, but the main line of the plot was never really in doubt. The climax and the denouement are a bit out of sync and both fall flat.

In short, if you want to read a book by Joseph Finder, read Power Play and give this one a pass.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Zero

This book by Jess Walter, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006, is a bit like Don DeLillo meets John Le Carré meets T. Coraghessan Boyle. DeLillo's influence -- White Noise, Libra, even The Names -- dominates but there is also an original voice, the same that I encountered and liked in Citizen Vince. Walter's narrators are intelligent and empathetic. The books are sophisticated and postmodern but nonetheless compelling in the fluency of the prose, the satirical humor and the genuine emotion they portray.

The narrator in The Zero, Brian Remy, has gaps in his memory, so his narration careens from a Memento-like absence to a Being There type of simplicity.

This is a story of 9/11, or as Walter says in the interview included in my paperback edition, a story of 9/12. The author plays on all our shared images of that specific tragedy, while universalizing it by avoiding any specific references to the World Trade Towers or Ground Zero, which becomes simply The Zero. The president and the mayor (The Boss) remain nameless. The plot is complex, rendered more so by the memory gaps the reader shares with Remy, but handled with such grace by the author that you can actually follow it. Some of Remy's observations are mordantly funny, and some of the secondary characters, such as Remy's old partner Gutarek or his new colleague Markham, are wickedly satirical.

While the paranoiac and reactionary behavior of the government in the wake of 9/11 is the mainspring of the plot, the emotional punch comes from Remy's dazed and confused perspective in the wake of 9/11, his tenuous connection to what is left of reality, his suspected complicity in abandoning the ideals we are supposed to be defending. The book is cynical, but Remy remains an idealist -- an unhappy and ultimately defeated idealist.

I liked Citizen Vince and loved The Zero. I had bought the latter when it came out in paperback and had it sitting on my shelf for a couple of years. Of the three "9/11 books" I've read recently -- see my posts on Netherland and The Relucant Fundamentalist -- this is for me the one that really begins to plumb the depths of what it means. I went to a reading of Don DeLillo's at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square many years ago and asked him during the Q&A session why he wrote Libra. He said the real question is why did they shoot Kennedy. An author's task, he said, is to examine and render society's traumas, as DeLillo did with Libra and Walter does in this book.

I was in New York at Ground Zero shortly after 9/11 and so many of Walter's descriptions here capture the poignancy of the moment so well (Walter was working on assignment in New York at the time and saw much of the aftermath firsthand). His character laments at one point that by bulldozing away all the rubble the authorities robbed the battleground of its meaning and turned it into another hole in the ground. The subsequent controversy over the what to do with Ground Zero shows the truth of that.

Walter has since written The Financial Lives of the Poets, which seems intriguing, and has two earlier detective-type novels set in his home town of Spokane. Janet Maslin wrote of Walter in a New York Times Review that he was a "ridiculously talented writer" -- a blurb-writer's dream, but in this case an accurate description. I've gone from being a fan to being a devoted fan, and look forward to reading his other books.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Most Wanted Man

This book appealed to me when I saw it in Politics & Prose because it is set in Hamburg, a city I lived in for two and half years and visited again for the first time in a long time in September. It is classic Le Carré -- smoke and mirrors, betrayal upon betrayal, a pervasive cynicism limned with the slightest glimmer of hopeless idealism.

But I'm still puzzling over Alan Furst's over-the-top praise for the book in his NYT Book Review piece, blurbed on the cover, that this is Le Carré's strongest, most powerful novel. It is certainly accomplished, but far from being his best novel. It is detached, almost passionless in its understatement, and much less moving than A Constant Gardener, which while technically not as perfect has an undercurrent of genuine passion and outrage, and characters that have more depth and humanity.

It is more a return to the gray world of espionage, but without the looming menace that Cold War espionage lent to both fiction and reality. The main protagonist, Tommy Brue, is a British merchant banker who is basically as flat as the characters in the earlier and now largely forgotten Single & Single. While Le Carré is clearly fascinated with the possibilities of a banker as hero, he has yet to find the right formula to make it work.

Brue, 60, in his futile love for a young, attractive lawyer is more pathetic than anything else. It is difficult to relate to any of the other characters in what is virtually an ensemble cast, in the way that one could relate to George Smiley, as remote as his world was to most of us. Brue is a pale shadow even of Harry Pendel in The Tailor of Panama, also pathetic but a good deal more complex and interesting. Annabel, the lawyer, scarcely emerges as anything more than an old man's fantasy.

For some reason, Le Carré felt obliged to be discursive about espionage and terrorism in a couple of long set pieces couched as briefing presentations by characters, including one whose only role was to make a discursive presentation. Why, really, when his showing already conveys the message so much better? Is he afraid we don't get it. Yes, Gardener had some of that, too, but the reader was more willing to forgive it because of the evident sense of outrage.

There is a hint of outrage here, but submerged in the ultimate sense of futility as all of the characters fatalistically play their roles in a scenario they know is doomed. There is little surprise in the denoument, either for the characters or the reader, though at least in the second half of the book the pace does carry you along easily enough.

There is also little sense of Hamburg, though Le Carré is clearly familiar with the city. But whereas he could convey a compelling sense of place when it is London or Berlin or even Bonn or Africa, there is no real sense of a specific location here. Perhaps Hamburg's charms are too subtle to figure in a drama of this type.

Despite the impressive blurbs and the NYT Bestseller emblazoned the bland cover, I was totally unaware of this book's existence until I saw it in the bookstore. Perhaps Furst overpraised it in the hopes that Le Carré would someday hype a book of his, though why Le Carré would feel the need to do that is a mystery.

One is reminded in these late Le Carré novels of late Picasso, where the artist could make a fortune signing his name to pieces still better than what most other painters were producing but not possessed of the same vitality and originality as his earlier work.

The author does succeed in transferring some of the moral ambiguity of his Cold War thrillers into the post-Cold War environment of the "war on terror." But, again, it seems to lack the menace or urgency of that earlier setting. The book is not a waste of time, but don't believe the hype.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Emigrants

It's a mystery how a Bavarian living in England and writing in German can produce such shimmering prose in translation. Perhaps it's because W.G. Sebald, who headed the British Centre for Literary Translation at the time of his premature death, reviewed the translation himself, or because the translator is also a poet, or because the prose in the original is so powerful -- or, most likely, all of the above.

What a dazzling vocabulary, which carries the reader along in a torrent of detail rendered so deftly that you become entranced. The prose captivates the reader as the author takes you so effortlessly through a maze of memory and recollection, recountings and memoirs and brings you to the poignant moment between life and death. This is simply an outstanding book.

Several people, notably John Marks, have recommended Sebald to me and I did start some time ago to read Austerlitz without finishing it. Perhaps my mood is different now or this book is more accessible, but in any case I finally understood what they were talking about.

In narrating his encounters with the four emigrants of this book -- are they real, fictional? -- Sebald verges into the phantasmagorical so slyly you scarcely realize it's happening. But it's a fantasy rooted always in mundane detail. A great uncle is accompanying an heir who doesn't just take part in an air show in France but in the Quinzaine d'Aviation de la Baie de la Seine at Deauville in August, 1912.

One of the most appealing aspects of Sebald's prose for me is his devotion to geography. When I was writing Superregions, it became clear to me how important it is in understanding how people behave. The whole ghostly theme of this book is "wandering out" of your native home (the German title is Die Ausgewanderten) to a different setting.

The combination of Sebald's love of words, his attention to detail and his focus on geography yields some especially nice passages: "So I flew once more to New York and drove northwest along Highway 17 the same day, in a hired car, past various sprawling townships which, though some of their names were familiar, all seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Monroe, Monticello, Middletown, Wurtsboro, Wawarsing, Colchester and Cadosia, Deposit, Delhi, Neversink and Niniveh -- I felt as if I and the car I sat in were being guided by remote control through an outsize toyland where the place names had been picked at random by some invisible giant child, from the ruins of another world long since abandoned."

In typical fashion, Sebald takes you from upstate New York in 1984 just a few pages later via Uncle Ambros's memoir to Jerusalem in 1912, after passing through Deauville in 1991.

Sebald's attitude to his native Germany is decidedly ambivalent. He describes a grotesque fellow passenger on a train ride in Germany and observes: "I could not say whether the physical and mental deformity of my fellow-passenger was the result of long psychiatric confinement, some innate debility, or simply beer-drinking and eating between meals." And yet two pages earlier, another memoir (real, fictional?) lovingly described Sebald's own native countryside: "In the summer of 1921, soon after our marriage, we went to the Allgaue, and Fritz took me up the Ifen, the Himmelsschrofen and the Hohes Licht. We looked down into the valleys -- the Ostrachtal, the Illertal and the Walsteral -- where the villages were so peaceful it was as if nothing evil had ever happened anywhere on earth."

These are largely dark stories of despair, where the simple pleasures of life in the end are overcome by humanity's sad fate. The Holocaust and its impact is an abiding theme of Sebald's work and in this book, the tragedy is everywhere. But it's not just the Holocaust. Rather, that overwhelmingly evil event is just an extreme manifestation of the human condition.

I look forward some day to reading this book again, perhaps in German. It is so rich, it's clear that one reading only scratches the surface. Sadly, because of an automobile accident that killed Sebald at age 57, we will only be able to enjoy him by reading and rereading the handful of works he has left behind.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Three author friends of mine are about to see years of work crowned with publication of their books early in the new year. They are all serious books, scheduled for publication after the holiday season, and I’m looking forward to reading them. I’m very happy for my friends, who have worked very hard on these books and wish them every success.

Water: The Epic Struggle For Wealth, Power, And Civilization by Steven Solomon is due out in early January. It’s certainly been an epic task for Steve to boil down, no pun intended, the history and politics of so essential an element as water to a manageable length.

Steve found a working structure and dove into the task (don’t know why these water images come to mind) with immense energy. He wants the book to help frame the discussion of what is sure to be one of the globe’s biggest issues in the coming decades, much as Daniel Yergin’s book about oil, The Prize, helped establish the policy discourse about that resource.

Steve’s forte prior to taking on this project was business and finance, and his 1995 book on central bankers gains new relevance in light of the current financial crisis. He has a tremendous analytical capacity and a deft journalistic style that is sure to bring this subject to a wide audience.

Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power by James McGrath Morris is due out Feb. 9. Jamie has put in hundreds of hours and thousands of miles in tracking down new source material for this biography.

Jamie came to Pulitzer after writing a biography of a New York World editor Charles Chapin in The Rose Man of Sing Sing (still in print!). He has devoted himself full-time to bringing out the first full biography in a generation of one of the most famous men in American journalism.

Jamie uncovered the unpublished memoirs of Pulitzer’s brother, brought to light formerly secret government documents, and found some financial and business papers in a St. Louis trash bin.

He worked and re-worked the text with his editor to get a book that is both authoritative as a biography and readable for what is likely to be a wide audience familiar with the name from journalism’s most distinguished prize.

What a story! Born in Hungary, Pulitzer arrived in this country not speaking a word of English to go on to become one of the greatest press barons in our history. But in his success, he became an obsessive and isolated Howard Hughes-like character, virtually blind and sailing the world in his yacht to avoid noise.

Jamie is a born biographer, who relishes the small, telling details that bring people to life. He is enthusiastic about life and loves his work, and that is bound to infuse this book with a compelling vivacity.

Keeping The Feast: One Couple's Story Of Love, Food, And Healing In Italy by Paula Butturini is scheduled for publication Feb. 18. This memoir is certain to break readers’ hearts as Paula relates the sorrows and joys of what she and her husband, John Tagliabue, have gone through since he was shot covering the 1989 Romanian revolution for the New York Times.

John has written about his subsequent depression in the Times magazine in a searing, personal narrative. Paula puts it in the context of their life together in Rome, dealing with the effects of his illness and yet creating an environment of warmth and happiness for themselves and their daughter.

I haven’t unfortunately had the chance to visit them for years, but I know firsthand the kind of warmth they can create over a bowl of polenta or pasta from a very happy visit with them in Rome at Christmas time some years ago, or from the Thanksgiving dinner in Berlin where I first met them, before John’s terrifying experience in Romania, but in the aftermath of another family tragedy.

Paula is a journalist who has covered everything from revolutions to the Vatican, and has written a number of engaging travel pieces for the Times over the years. But I’m sure what will give the book its wide appeal is her strength of spirit and her incredibly human warmth, which is a balm for anyone fortunate enough to cross her path.


Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian American who was falsely imprisoned in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But Dave Eggers' narrative nonfiction is not about a confrontation between the U.S. and Islam after 9/11. It is a book about what a colossal f---up the rescue efforts were. It is above all a very personal story about how one man reacted to danger and responsibility and how that affected his family.

Zeitoun was arrested in flooded New Orleans on suspicion of looting. He was arrested along with another Syrian American and two white Americans. Under the circumstances, the arrest itself was not a grievous miscarriage of justice. The subsequent treatment of all four men and the violation of their civil rights was.

Zeitoun is released on bail after 20 days. He did not eat or sleep well during his captivity, so he lost 20 pounds and looked a good deal older. His family, worried literally sick because he had no opportunity to call them, and especially his wife, were traumatized.

But the others arrested with Zeitoun on the same flimsy evidence were held much longer -- six to eight months. We are not even sure from Eggers' account if one or the other of them wasn't actually guilty of looting.

Zeitoun himself, whom the reader comes to know fairly well, castigated himself for his "hubris" in staying in New Orleans because deep down he wanted to emulate the heroism of his older brother, a champion swimmer who was prematurely killed in a car accident in the full blossom of youth. Even if he was justified in staying through the storm to take care of his house, his business and his rental properties, and even if he was able to help rescue stranded people in the first days of flooding, he owed it to his family, he felt in retrospect, to have availed himself of emergency evacuation possibilities as the crisis dragged on.

He didn't evacuate and although he evaded encounters with armed gangs he was in suspicious enough circumstances to get arrested. He was together with the other three men in his rental property, where the landline phone still worked, with a blue and white motorboat that had been seen in a looting incident and electronic equipment piled on the dining room table to save it from the flood waters. It didn't help that two of the men arrested had large amounts of cash with them.

The narrative of Camp Greyhound and the Hunt prison is riveting and dramatic. In some ways it overshadows some equally interesting narratives. The back story of Zeitoun growing up in Syria and roving at sea for 10 years before settling in Louisiana and courting his wife, Kathy, a young divorcee and convert to Islam.

The narrative of Katrina and its aftermath was for me the most gripping. Like a good catastrophe film, the book eases into the event showing people going about their lives as usual, as radio bulletins of increasing seriousness warn of Katrina's approach. Zeitoun's family evacuated and he remains in his home, placing buckets to catch leaks as the storm blows over. He uses his secondhand canoe to silently paddle through flooded neighborhoods, hearing cries for help and summoning rescue teams for an elderly couple, a disabled woman and others. He hears dogs trapped in a couple of houses and finds a way to feed them, returning every day to give them food and water. He visits his rental properties, his mosque, he pitches a tent on the flat roof of his garage to escape the heat and odor of the house.

Zeitoun is a resourceful, honest man that you cannot help but admire. Whatever his motivation, he responds generously and courageously to the unexpected crisis resulting from the storm. Perhaps it would have been wiser to evacuate, but it was hardly hubris to stay. He could not anticipate the grief that would come to his family when his arrest made him suddenly incommunicado. One tie keeping him in the city was the need to feed those dogs, who in the end died of starvation during his captivity, a note of true pathos.

Eggers tells the story resolutely from the point of view of Abdul and Kathy Zeitoun. We are asked to swallow without comment Kathy's feeling of "liberation" as a woman in Islam, even though we know that women in Islam do not enjoy anything like what we would consider equality or freedom. The generosity and caring of the Muslims in the narrative are contrasted with the callousness of the non-Muslims, including Kathy's own family. It is all true, but of course it is not the whole story.

The book is what is now called narrative nonfiction. Dialogue is fabricated on the basis of recalled conversations. Interior monologues are based on long interviews with the subjects. There are touching family photos. In his earlier book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers, by his own account, compressed incidents and timeframes. Since he makes no mention of it here, he presumably is not doing it in this book. In any case, the book reads like a good novel. It takes us inside characters, it transports us into a dramatic situation, it moves to a climax and it leaves us transformed in some small way.

While Eggers' earlier book, which I have not read, was a type of memoir, this is more journalism the way Tom Wolfe envisioned it in The Right Stuff and his other early works. The writing is elegant but not showy, letting the story grip the reader directly. It is artful, but the art achieves a transparency like that described by Roland Barthes in The Degree Zero of Writing -- the language does not refract or distort the meaning but conveys it with great lucidity.

Zeitoun reduces the drama and catastrophe of Katrina to a personal story that each of us can relate to. It gives the freefloating outrage that all of us instinctively feel about the criminal incompetence of the rescue efforts a focus on a genuine injustice and real harm to a family. It shows us that just because the Zeitouns, like so many others in New Orleans, are able to move on, damaged but resourceful and hopeful, does not remove the injustice that was done. Probably few will ever pay for the crimes committed, but that is no reason to forget the misdeeds and no reason not to punish those we can.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

It's easy to say that the third volume in the most popular trilogy since Lord of the Rings is not as good as the other two. But it may actually be the one closest to Stieg Larsson's heart as he wrote about political corruption for a Swedish audience.

Larsson, who died prematurely, presumably had no inkling that his saga of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist would become a runaway international bestseller, and this third volume is heavy with Swedish domestic politics. What was a simple detective story touching universal themes in the first volume becomes almost a roman a clef in the third.

So it takes a certain amount of devotion to make it through the first half of this 600-page tome. One of the problems is that Salander is so little present. Another is the somewhat ponderous development of the complex plot. Larsson would have benefited here from the chance to work with an editor.

However, once Salander is on the scene again and the laboriously established plot gains some momentum, the reader can cruise at high speed through the second half. Salander is as quirky and intriguing as ever, with that gritty integrity which makes her so admirable. Blomkvist and Berger are their flawed, narcissistic selves.

There's much less discipline in this volume. The Amazon Monica Figuerola is an over-the-top fiction as Larsson indulges a highly personal fantasy. She's as perfect as a robot, with the same amount of appeal. Blomkvist's sister Annika Giannini, too, is always just right. Ditto for several other characters. The evil villains are perfectly evil. Prosecutor Ekstrom borders on pure satire and is somewhat entertaining as a result.

But Salander and a neatly unfolding plot keep the reader's interest. The epilogue is not a throwaway and should really be just the last chapter, tying up the loose end that is so conspicuously dangling when the main plot comes to its conclusion. To call it contrived would be an understatement, but at least the loose end gets tied up.

So I would probably rank the trilogy 2, 1, 3, with the second volume, The Girl Who Played With Fire my favorite simply because it keeps Salander at center stage for the most time. For its thriller quality, the first volume, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is probably the tightest.

Sadly, there will be no further adventures for Salander, nor any further thrills from Larsson's fertile mind. Not sorry to be finished with Blomkvist, Berger and Millennium -- they're all a little too smug and too full of their role as the guardians of Swedish freedom and democracy. What I will miss is Larsson's feeling for the profound corruption in society and its basis in personal corruption, the underlying current that moves these entertaining volumes along.

What is Salander's appeal? Grit, yes; integrity, yes; an ability to cut through cant to the heart of the matter, yes. But I think at heart it's her vulnerability -- she is a victim who overcomes her hurt but remains vulnerable, literally to the last minute in this long saga. And her realization, at the end, but really throughout, that the only real protection is reliance on her friends.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

This is a brave, hard work showing the abyss that separates the West from Islam. At times a realistic narrative, Mohsin Hamid's novel veers into parable, with the narrator, the young Pakistani Changez, representing Islam and Erica, his white American girlfriend mired deep in a psychosis with self-destructive tendencies, representing the West.

It is also the best one-sided dialogue since Daniel Quinn's Ishmael, where a seductively compelling voice carries you along through a story almost against your will.

How does it end? There is a tension throughout the narrative. Who is the American Changez is talking to? Why does the waiter in the restaurant appear menacing? Hamid sets up a scenario of mutually assured destruction and leaves the reader the choice of outcome.

The realistic portion of the narrative -- Changez's career in New York and budding love affair with Erica -- is sharply drawn and readily recognizable. A bright foreign student fits in so well that his colleagues can forget he is foreign and be blissfully unaware of the deep and different currents that run through him. It is the catastrophe of 9/11 that bring these hidden currents to the surface.

There are some striking similarities to Netherland. Both stories involve foreigners who come to New York to work in finance. Both protagonists have their foreignness brought home to them by the terrorist attacks. Both end up going home. For all our globalized markets and economy, an individual's roots in culture and family will exert a pull in times of stress.

Hamid's work is more radical, because Joseph O'Neill's protagonist in Netherland is European, with much more affinity for his host country. It is hard even with the most open mind to accept Changez's feeling of happiness at the destruction of the World Trade Center, but it's important to keep your eyes open and acknowledge the reality of it.

I'll admit I had to check my globe to see where Lahore is located -- right on India's western border. That antagonism adds another layer to the book's conflict. It is not just Islam vs the West, but also against the vast Hindu state on its borders. Pakistan is as artificial a creation as Israel, a refuge based on religion. Oddly, Changez's description of the market, the tea, the food kind of make me want to visit Lahore.

The author bio says Hamid, who grew up in Lahore and attended Princeton like his protagonist, now lives in London, which has become a mecca for diversity. Like other writers from the subcontinent, Hamid has a wonderful, flowing style that is somehow entrancing to read. I'll look for his earlier book, Moth Smoke, and for his next one.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The English Major

This book was a pleasant surprise. There was something fresh and striking on virtually every page -- at times wry or outright funny, or poignant, or, sometimes, wise.

I had read Jim Harrison's Warlock many years ago and liked it well enough. So the other day when I saw this on the new fiction table at Politics & Prose, I picked it up, liked the opening and bought it.

Cliff is 60. His wife of 38 year divorced him and they sold his farm in the process. His dog, Lola, died. He embarks on a road trip to cope with his loss, guided by a harebrained scheme to rename all the states after he's seen them and to rename the state birds, and other birds, while he's at it. He carries a child's jigsaw puzzle of the 50 states and throws the piece for a state away once he's been through it.

Part of Harrison's talent is that he makes all of this seem perfectly natural. Cliff is quirky, flawed, but very sympathetic. He has enough self-irony and self-deprecation to avoid falling into pathos. "Here I was at sixty with no home to return to but that didn't make me unique," he says at one point. "Time tricks us into thinking we're part of her and then leaves us behind."

Harrison has published several volumes of poetry and the distilled insight threaded through this book shows a poet's sensibility. But always down to earth. The newly liberated married man -- though he also had an affair at the end of his marriage -- picks up a former student of his for part of the road trip. The sex-hungry, narcissistic Marybelle fulfills the fantasies of a lifetime for Cliff but in the end it is too much. He wakes up one night in a motel room unhappy with his situation. "I had an irritating hard-on when what I wished to be was a monk in a cool room reading a Latin text by candlelight."

Cliff misses his wife, Vivian, at least he Viv he remembers from the early years of their marriage. He misses Lola, too, his main companion in life after Viv went into real estate and became increasingly estranged. When Cliff stays with his son in San Francisco, the son, Robert, wakes him up one morning with the greeting, "Poor old Dad, you look beat up." Cliff tells us, "I didn't take offense because I had had a pleasant dream of Lola sitting beside me on the John Deere."

On his road trip through several Western states (don't worry, he doesn't make it through all 50), Cliff stops often to take photos of the local cattle, with a comment about how they compare to the cattle on his farm. My mother, who grew up on a farm, always remarked about the cows we saw whenever we traveled together.

He is also attentive to birds, noting the state bird in each new state and sometimes coming up with a different name for them. He is dumbfounded when a drinking buddy on the road tells him about a quote found in the journal of a schizophrenic who escaped from an asylum: "Birds are holes in heaven through which a man may pass."

Cliff comes to terms with his new losses, as he always has, beginning with the accidental drowning of his brother, who had Down syndrome, when he was a child. He grieves, he weeps when he sees what the new owners have done with his beloved farm, he cobbles together an uncertain future, he gets a new dog.

It's a quick, wonderful read, a homespun picaresque that is often touching. I won't wait so long to read another Jim Harrison novel, and I'm very curious now about his poetry.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Dead of Winter

This book was a disappointment. The rugged, vigorous language I loved in the earlier Rennie Airth books was still here in parts, particularly in the descriptions of the English countryside. But the dark, brooding menace of his earlier books -- River of Darkness and Blood-Dimmed Tide -- was barely present here.

One of the reasons was the curious absence of John Madden, whose trouble psyche added such resonance to the psychologically disturbed criminals he was chasing in the earlier books. Why Airth or his editor thought it would be a good idea to set this book more than 20 years later, and make Madden merely one player in an ensemble cast baffles me.

Oddly, Detective Inspector Angus Sinclair has as big a role in this book as Madden, and he is a consummately colorless individual. He is little more than a spouter of dialogue and an admirer of Madden's way too flawless wife, with a feeling that is more cloying than creepy. His dialogues with his superior, Bennett, are totally flat and seem interminable as the plot advances at a snail's pace through their insipid dialogue.

Airth has clearly set the stage for Lily Poole to take over the baton in the next book. Perhaps she will be entertaining on center stage. But Airth has lost his distinctiveness by consigning Madden's darkness to history.

The plot itself, if you're willing to stick with the plodding development, has a couple of nice twists. The ending has its drama and suspense but is remarkably similar to the endings in the other two books.

Sadly, it seems that Airth, who relaunched his literary career with River of Darkness, has run out of imagination. I can't recommend this book, though I would still urge people to read at least River of Darkness.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Read all day

At first it strikes you as a little nutty, the latest 365-day project. But if anyone doubts that Nina Sankovitch is serious about reading, even though she has read a book a day for the past year, they should read her thoughtful and helpful reviews.

The New York Times ran a story about her project Monday. Her Web site,, has the reviews.

It is the list of authors that hooked me. Sankovitch resolved not to repeat any author (nor to read any book she had read before), so she has an impressive list of 350 authors. 350 authors! In less than a year!

All of us have adopted the mantra "So many books, so little time," but Sankovitch's project shows us how relative this is. She stopped reading the New Yorker and limited her TV viewing to a single program (NCIS). Obviously she doesn't have to work -- which of course earned her a number of resentful comments on the Times Web site. But, hey, she has a law degree from Harvard, has worked as an environmental lawyer and chooses not to work right now because she can -- lucky her.

In the Times article, her only point is that everyone should have time to read a book a week, and it's hard to argue with this. In any case, her example is revelatory and certainly inspires me to try harder to make time for reading.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

660 Curries

I finally cooked a recipe from 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer and it was delicious. I've decided to cook my way through the book over the next year -- 365 days, 660 curries. Just kidding, but I've been wanting to write that since seeing Julie and Julia.

Started with a very simple chicken curry with tomato and coconut milk. It was quick and easy and perfect for a week night. You just sautee some red onion, garlic and ginger, then sear the 1-inch cubes of chicken breast with curry mix, add the coconut milk and simmer till cubes are done (only a few minutes), remove the chicken and thicken the sauce, add tomato and cilantro, pour sauce over the chicken and serve.

I was going to grind the Madras curry powder myself from the component spices (coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, cloves, fenugreek seeds, black peppercorns, thai chiles, and turmeric) but Wholefoods didn't have either whole fenugreek seeds or thai chiles so I just used some of the packaged curry powders on my shelf. Obviously, though, the real secret to this cuisine is to grind the spices fresh and I will just have to improve my sourcing for ingredients.

I bought this book some time ago after reading about Iyer being International Association of Culinary Professionals Teacher of the Year. I have other Indian cookbooks, including a couple of the classics by Madhur Jaffrey, and I like Indian cuisine, but I've found the undertaking daunting. This book seems to me to make Indian cooking accessible in the way Julia Child did for French cooking.

Curry of course refers not primarily to the powder or the sauce in a dish -- though that is the way most Americans would define it -- but to the dish itself. The frontispiece of the book defines it this way: "Any dish that consists of either meat, fish, poultry, legumes, vegetables, or fruits, simmered in or covered with a sauce, gravy or other liquid that is redolent with any number of freshly ground and very fragrant spices and/or herbs."

It was a revelation to me the first time I went to Indique how the spices could burst with flavor when freshly ground. In the meantime, my favorite area Indian restaurant is Passages to India in Bethesda, where again that freshness is paramount.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Lost Symbol

Dan Brown is an undeniably clever guy. He put together a mix of religion and esoterica into a serviceable thriller plot and got one of history's most widely read novels. He tries to reproduce the phenomenon in his new book, using patriotism instead of religion, and fails to get the mix right.

For one thing, there is way too much esoterica. Long patches of dialogue read like Wikipedia texts, turning the novel into an encyclopedia of arcane knowledge. Layer on a Washington, DC, edition of Trivial Pursuit and you've got mystery nowhere near as potent as Jesus establishing a royal bloodline.

The weakness of Brown's protagonist, Robert Langdon, becomes glaringly apparent in the absence of a riveting plot. A symbolist who remains a cipher, Langdon is almost totally devoid of personality, and is not even a two-dimensional character. It's appropriate that the bland Tom Hanks plays him in the films. Once again he has a female helper, but once again Brown shies away from anything like full-throated romance.

Brown's compression technique -- having the action take place in a 24-hour period -- has been intensified to a 12-hour period, that defies credibility. One character who has survived torture, dismemberment and emotional trauma, instead of being in a state of shock, is blithely discoursing about arcane matters within minutes of his rescue.

Personally, I like a lot of the arcane stuff, but this book is top-heavy with it and often repetitive. It is of course at the top of the bestseller list from pre-orders alone, and Brown has created a franchise that will survive this book and go on to another bestseller. But this is no Da Vinci Code and is really only mildly entertaining as a thriller.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I met Mark Feffer through a mutual friend when I was living in Princeton. He kindly invited me to take part in a panel discussion in Trenton after I'd moved to DC.

His book, September, is a post-apocalyptic tale of a handful of survivors from a deadly virus in and around the Trenton, Lambertville area. It is a much gentler narrative than Cormac McCarthy's The Road or all the Mad Max stories of road savages.

It is an interior monologue of the protagonist, Rand Gardner, in the form of a journal. The disappearance of civilization as we know it alters his life only on the outside. Inside, where we spend most of our time, he has the same issues, insecurities and quiet accomplishments he has always had.

Mark's writing is smooth, non-intrusive. I found myself drawn inexorably along with Rand's musings. There is a dramatic confrontation as a climax, but no horror as in so many other books in this genre. I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it.

In the absence of electricity, the characters in September are reduced to a pre-industrial lifestyle, going back really not that far, to, say the early nineteenth century. They build fires, boil water, and, realizing that canned goods won't last forever, re-learn the arts of fishing and gardening.

All the buildings and roads of ex-urban culture are intact, but the physical geography of the Trenton area re-emerges as the characters ski in the winter and bike in the summer to visit each other. Seasons are magnified in importance with the disappearance of much that protects us from weather.

A gentle irony permeates the book. One family has decided to settle in a mall, so that all the legacy products of a vanished civilization -- bedding, tableware, sporting equipment -- are readily available. Rand rebuilds an old-fashioned mechanical typewriter and bikes to the next town in search of ribbons for it.

The focus of the book, though, is the caution that characterizes interaction between the survivors. For the most part, they live alone, separated by miles, meeting only occasionally. The post-apocalyptic setting allows the author to show the distances between people in a physical manner. The reader quickly grasps, though, that these distances are the same in our own civilized world, only masked by the convenience of our lifestyle.

Monday, September 7, 2009

This Boy's Life

I like Tobias Wolff's writing. It's lucid, lean and pulls you along. His descriptions are so deft and his observations so acute that he startles you virtually on every page. I'm grateful to Peter Koenig for the tip to read Wolff.

I read Old School when Peter first mentioned Wolff a couple of years ago, and liked it. This Boy's Life was even easier for me to relate to because I had an odyssey of sorts with my mother after my father deserted us. How poignant the way the narrator sums up their lives toward the end of the book: "We were ourselves again -- scheming, restless and poised for flight."

I say narrator because even though this is branded as a memoir and Old School is a novel, both are autobiographical and actually can be read as a sequence. It is a convention to allow memoirists to render conversations from 40 years ago in quotes as if they were reporting a verbatim dialogue, when of course it is invented on the basis of what may be a very flawed memory. So I consider this memoir to be as much a fictional narrative as Old School, or, to put it the other way around, what's compelling about both books is the universal experience that transcends the characters and makes it irrelevant whether it is Tobias "Jack" Wolff or the unnamed narrator of Old School.

Having said that, I have a problem with the narrator in both cases. The person portrays himself as fundamentally dishonest -- a liar and a cheat. We are apparently supposed to accept this and find it sympathetic because at some level at some point in our lives we are all dishonest -- with ourselves or with the world around us. The process of self-discovery seems to be to realize that dishonesty in ourselves and to stop the evasiveness.

In Old School, the narrator is caught and punished for his dishonesty. So, eventually, is the narrator in This Boy's Life. However, in the latter case, the punishment is by way of a postscript. We are told about his problems at the Hill School, not shown.

We are led to believe in This Boy's Life that evasiveness is a form of survival, that his dishonesty is a form of affirmative action to make up for his disadvantages. It's the reasoning that gives us a Jason Blair -- the end justifies the means.

And the narrator's childish dishonesty -- don't all children lie and cheat is part of the message -- is less grievous than the mature dishonesty of those adults in his life, whether those who oppress him, like his stepfather, or those who help him, like the Hill alumnus who gets him into the prep school.

In any case, I'm ambivalent about this narrator. The punishment in This Boy's Life does not introduce a note of morality, only a certain inexorability. But maybe I'm missing something.

I bought a collection of Wolff's short stories, A Night in Question. I'm not a big fan of short stories, but I wonder if Wolff's gifts aren't best suited to this genre. And perhaps I will be freed of this unsympathetic narrator.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Booklog August

Two books I bought this month were for research for my MarketWatch column. The Family is a scary expose of a cult-like conservative Christian community that numbers many congressmen and other Washington insiders as members. My column on it is here.

The Federalist is of course a classic. I only needed to consult one of the 80-some papers, but figured this is a good one to have on the shelf.

Bought new books by a couple of thriller writers I like: Rennie Airth-Per my posting on Robert Goddard; Daniel Silva-Gabriel Allon starting to sound a little the same, but still good writing; Christopher Reich-Not as good a writer, but clever ideas. Plus a new writer I want to try, Baltimore resident Daniel Fesperman. Not sure if the Michael Chabon book counts as a thriller, but I've been eyeing it since it came out and finally crumpled and bought it.

Mark Feffer is an acquaintance from my Princeton days. He is primarily a Web designer with an editorial background. His novel is POD and I'm actually enjoying it a lot.

The book an Alice Waters is part of my new interest in food writing, though I'm having trouble getting through Omnivore's Dilemma.

Booklog August 2009
Bought: The Dead of Winter-Rennie Airth; September-Mark Feffer; Family-Jeff Sharlet (research); Alice Waters and Chez Panisse-Thomas McNamee; Rules of Deception-Christopher Reich (bargain); The Secret Servant-Daniel Silva (bargain); The Federalist-Hamilton, Jay, Madison (research); The Amateur Spy-Dan Fesperman; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union-Michael Chabon.
Started: The Family; This Boy’s Life-Tobias Wolff; September-Mark Feffer.
Finished: Every Man Dies Alone-Fallada.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Julia Child

Julie & Julia is a movie about food, about love and about loving food. It is also a film about writing and publishing and the joy of success. I think it works really well, and it's hard to understand some of the reviewers' initial criticisms after seeing the movie.

Meryl Streep is of course great as Julia Child, the American in Paris who truly did change the world with her cookbook. But the other part of the movie, Julie Powell cooking her way through Julia's book and blogging about it, creates about as successful a blend of stories as you can imagine.

For the first time ever, the New York Times reports this morning, Mastering the Art of French Cooking will top the bestseller list next Sunday as a whole new generation of home cooks discovers Julia's masterpiece. This would not have been possible, really, without the role model played by Amy Adams, making this 40-year-old cookbook relevant for today's twenty-somethings. It proves that Julie Powell's effort always was a respectful homage, despite Julia's own criticism, to Julia's original accomplishment.

And Amy Adams, proving herself once again to be the versatile actress she is, holds up her own end, and makes Julie's story, as a personal story, as uplifting as Julia's. Of course, Julie Powell's kitchen in Queens is not likely to find its way to the Smithsonian, and her impact is not of the historic nature as Julia's, but for the purposes of this movie, it turns what could have been a hagiographic biopic into an inspiring human comedy. (Credit is also due to the third genius at work in this film, screenwriter and director Nora Ephron.)

Julie Powell had an extremely clever idea to cook 524 recipes in 365 days and blog about it, and her blog, from what appears of it in the film, was charmingly written with a distinctive voice. Yes, she's riding on Julia's back to success, but Julia herself owes a lot to Larousse Gastronomique and generations of French chefs. The book based on her blog is now out in a new paperback edition with the title, Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.

The Julia part of the movie is based on My Life in France, a totally charming memoir of the Childs' sojourn in France and Julia's discovery of food and cooking. Dan Burton recommended it to me more than a year ago and it was a true revelation. Aside from the lovely depiction of postwar Paris, the book relates the back story to so many of the recipes in Mastering, adding so much to the appreciation of these descriptions.

Like so many others of my generation, I came to cooking through Mastering. I took up cooking as a hobby when I was living in Hamburg as a way to do something with my hands that was a break from reading and writing all day as a freelancer. Julia's famously foolproof recipes introduced me to so many basic techniques.

Later, in Paris, I was able to go to Cordon Bleu myself -- not for the full program as Julia did, but just a single eight-week class. I took another course later at Anne Willan's Ecole de la Varenne, but always relied on Julia's original book as my touchstone for cooking.

The very revolution that Julia inspired has given us thousands of cookbooks that take all of us into wonderful new ventures in nouvelle cuisine, new American, fusions and all the other exciting stuff that's happening in cooking. Julia's recipes now can seem dowdy and unhealthy. The Times article quotes so many recent purchasers of Mastering as being astonished about the amount of butter and other fat used in the recipes.

That's what's so exciting about Julie Powell's contribution to the movie. She ignored all that and singlemindedly and singlehandedly made Julia relevant again. Now my neighbor is suggesting that we get together with a third couple and cook up a menu from Mastering -- a suggestion I'm sure is being repeated a thousandfold around the country.

I've cooked many of the recipes from Mastering, including the de-boned duck that Julie saved to the end. I've done the carbonnades (beef braised in beer) more often than the boeuf bourguignon featured in the movie, and have repeatedly used her recipes for cassoulet and ratatouille. I may have attempted the aspic early on, but not recently. Living in Europe, I never had the chance to watch French Chef on TV, but the descriptions and drawings in Mastering were generally clear enough to attempt the most ambitious dishes.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Every Man Dies Alone

Hans Fallada can take you from wry irony to terror to a heartbreaking poignancy in the space of a few pages. From the opening chapter's Eva Kluge and her effort to keep her layabout husband out of her apartment to the Gestapo appearing one moment as a the Keystone cops and the next as the loathsome evil they were, the reader is carried along a roller coaster of emotions in this novel about German resistance during the war.

For Fallada, there are good people, and there are bad people. The good people make mistakes and even the bad people are human. But they are bad, irremediably bad. What makes for a good person? At some level, there is integrity, a line that cannot be crossed. Anna Quangel and Trudel Baumann, both good people, crumple under Gestapo torture or are betrayed by their own cowardice, but at some point there is within them a moment when they stand up to the terror. Integrity requires courage, and sooner or later, good people are called upon to display that courage.

Otto Quangel, foreman at a furniture factory that is now making coffins to bury dead troops, breaks with his former disengagement with the world and embarks on the quixotic mission of dropping treasonous postcards in various Berlin buildings. He dreams of his fellow citizens passing these missives furtively among each other, encouraged by this act of resistance to stand fast themselves against the oppressive Nazi regime.

But in fact all but a handful of the postcards are turned into the police by those who find them. These terrorized individuals don't even dare finish reading the cards but turn them in as quickly as possible. Instead of sowing resistance throughout the capital, Quangel is only keeping one Gestapo inspector busy pushing pins into a map of Berlin as each new card narrows his search for his quarry.

When Quangel sees the apparent futility of his resistance, he simply resigns himself to his fate. His fall ensnares all who are close to him, so that his act is beyond futile -- it is fatal for him and those in his life.

But it is a martyrdom that is still better for all concerned than subjection to an evil regime. This is Fallada's message and his condemnation of the German people who failed to resist. They are for him like Enno Kluge -- the cowardly, pathetic shirker who falls victim to the Nazis without ever understanding what happened to him.

Fallada succeeds in creating a novel of ideas without introducing a concept. His characters are everyday people from wartime Berlin, whose motivations are not articulated but speak loudly through their actions. The good people inspire by their hesitant courage, and leave the reader wondering what he or she would do in their place.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Robert Goddard

It's hard to pin down what I like about Robert Goddard. I picked up Into the Blue as a used book or remainder some years ago, and got around to reading it last year. It's not great literature, but the setting in Greece was appealing, the plot was reasonably intriguing, and the prose was clean and efficient, and sometimes bordering on lyrical.

It was probably the protagonist, Harry Barnett, that kept me reading, though. He is a down-to-earth character, almost a man without qualities, who has lost his way. And he doesn't really find it the course of the novel. But if he is shut down emotionally as the novel begins, he has revived by the time it ends.

This same character, then, appears in Into the Sun, which I read last month on the flight to France. Yes, just sat and read it for five or six hours until I finished it. No Greece this time, and a plot that veered into science fiction. But Harry Barnett kept us on the ground. There was too much coincidence in resolving Harry's dilemma, when he conveniently runs into an old acquaintance to get him out of trouble in Washington. But again, that lean, efficient prose carries you along and Harry's humanity gives you plenty to relate to.

There is something about the language of British writers that is a little grittier than the English Americans use. Rennie Airth is another little known British writer who has a fabulously organic style, an earthy prose the must reach deep into Anglo-Saxon roots.

Airth had an earlier career of writing novels that are all out of print. He has started writing again with a detective who was scarred by World War I solving mysteries in semi-rural England of the 1920s. But these are not your standard English cozies. River of Darkness and Blood-Dimmed Tide are brooding, sometimes brutal, mysteries that explore the darkness of the human spirit, starting with that of the protagonist, John Madden. (Somewhat serendipitously, when I went to check the titles on Amazon, I found that a third John Madden book, The Dead of Winter, was just published July 23, so I ordered it.)

Contrast the muscular prose of a Renee Airth, or even the more workmanlike but still able-bodied language of a Robert Goddard, with that of Alan Furst, an American writer who enjoyed his initial success in England before he became a favorite of the literati here in the U.S.

I started out as a big admirer of Furst, and considered him a role model for my own writing with his atmospheric suspense tales set in Europe between the wars or in the early years of World War II. Furst bravely defied the conventional wisdom that American audiences require an American hero or at least an American setting by featuring European -- continental European, not even British -- protagonists in a purely European setting. He has of course paid the price. While he now has a following in the U.S., he is not likely to break into the bestseller list.

Furst writes in an elegant, elliptical style. He watches old movies from the 30s to glean his sense of atmosphere and translates that brilliantly into prose. His characters are chilly men of the world -- I don't think I've seen a convincing female character in his work -- who arouse little sympathy in the reader. As his novels, each with a title more vague than the last, continued to come out with daunting regularity, I lost my enthusiasm for Furst. Unless you are willing to play his game and cast a youthful Jean Gabin as the protagonist, his books tend to be a little dull.

So I've read The Polish Officer, Kingdom of Shadows, The World at Night, Dark Voyage, and perhaps a couple of others -- I honestly don't remember. I started Foreign Correspondent and Blood of Victory but abandoned both out of boredom. I will probably give them another chance when I'm in a more forgiving mood. The protagonists become indistinguishable from one another and the shadowy plots turn into a big question mark: Who cares?

So I have a couple more Goddard novels on the shelf to read in due course. And I will have the new Rennie Airth by Tuesday. I may break down and get Furst's Spies of Warsaw now that it is in paperback. But I know from experience that if I pick up a Goddard or an Airth I truly will have trouble putting it down, whereas, as the wag quipped, if I put down a Furst novel I have trouble picking it up again.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Nordic crime fiction

The runaway international success of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels marks what may be the apogee of Nordic crime fiction. It's Raymond Chandler meets Ingmar Bergman as the moody, complex protagonists solve their mysteries in clear, crisp prose. (Ironically, Henning Mankell, creator of Inspector Kurt Wallander, is actually married to Bergman's daughter.)

The international following for these writers started with Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (a husband and wife team) and their series about Martin Beck in the 60s and 70s. I read a number of those in English while I was living in Europe. One of the novels, The Laughing Policeman, was made into an American film starring Walter Matthau (with the action set in San Francisco and the character called Jacob Martin). Derek Jacobi played Beck in a 1980 international production of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke.

Beck was the quintessential troubled man, who goes through a divorce during the series. He is gloomy about his work -- and who wouldn't be with all the crime and death. The Nordic characters brood about evil and the difficulty flawed police have in fighting it. Beck introduced this atmosphere to the world at large.

Kurt Wallander is Martin Beck's successor. He is actually a little unhappier and a little gloomier than Beck. He drinks and eats junk food as well as any Chandler hero, but he generally muddles through and gets the job done. While Beck operated in Stockholm, Wallander is based in Ystad, in southern Sweden near Malmo, so that Denmark and the Continent are more present in these novels.

Kenneth Branagh is playing Wallander in a BBC series that has appeared on PBS. Branagh brings his customary verve to the role, but he is not really at all as I have imagined the character. Branagh is too energetic, too alert, whereas Wallander often appears almost befuddled, which is an endearing quality.

Hakan Nesser seems to follow the tradition. Inspector Van Veeteren appears in English in Borkmann's Point, which engages like the books of his Swedish predecessors, but does not break any new ground.

It is Stieg Larsson who breaks new ground. His protagonist is a business journalist, not a policeman, who is less cynical about the human condition. But the novels are taken over by the "girl," Lisbeth Salandar, a character of real complexity who takes on astonishing depth in the second novel of the trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire. There is mystery, but the Larsson books are as much character-driven as plot-driven. By the second novel, journalist Blomkvist (who mirrors Larsson in real life) fades into the background as Salander grows stronger. The third novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, will be released in the UK in October of this year.

Larsson, according to Wikipedia, was the world's second-bestselling author last year, after Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini. Sadly, the Swedish writer died in 2004, leaving behind the manuscripts of the trilogy.

A Swedish miniseries of the trilogy is scheduled for broadcast next year, and Hollywood, again according to Wikipedia, is interested in doing an American version, with the likes of Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp looking to star and Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese to direct.

Larsson seems to owe as much to American and British mystery writers as to his Swedish predecessors, but there is nonetheless a pronounced Nordic element to his novels. Perhaps it is the long winter nights and endless summer days, or the feeling of being on the edge of the world.

I started a book by a Norwegian mystery writer, Jo Nesbro, called Redbreast, but got bogged down and have abandoned it for the time being. The main character seems interesting but we see so little of him in the first part of the book that I lost interest.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Book reading

In our multi-tasking, agenda-driven environment, with its flood of audiovisual entertainment, taking time to sit down and read a book seems almost slothful. Books are read while commuting on trains, on a long flight, or in bed before you turn out the light to sleep.

I don't read enough. I spend all day on the computer and my eyes are tired at night. After dinner, it seems so much simpler to park myself in front of the TV and watch a program, any old program, or something I've recorded, or a new DVD from Netflix, or now some streaming video from Netflix, say a wildly popular British TV series.

We have friends who watch much less TV than we do and they get more books read. I think sometimes film can bring you many of the same rewards that a good book will do, and in such a vivid and stimulating way. But most of what's on television, including those British series, is really just a waste of time.

I do try now to take some time after work and before dinner to sit down and read.
On the weekend, there are errands, dinners, a great outdoors beckoning on a nice day, and it takes some discipline to steal a couple of hours to sit down and read a book.

Who knows, maybe blogging will give me an added incentive to expand that reading time (in short, put reading into my agenda-driven life!).


This novel by Joseph O'Neill is not as big a book as its hype makes out, but it's a lovely tale of how human life can be. It is probably not the most profound meditation on the effect of 9/11 in New York, as one blurb has it, and the echoes of Great Gatsby heard by another critic are very faint.

On its own terms, however, Netherland is a wry and poignant love story, a compact and layered slice of life where the novelist effortlessly segues from high finance to pick up cricket.

It is perhaps the passion for cricket that is the freshest element in the book, because who would ever think it could be so much fun. And yet in O'Neill's loving description of the game and what it means to the players, you find yourself as the reader being infected. Washington, like New York, has what appears to be an active amateur cricket league, though I haven't found anyone willing to go watch a game with me.

O'Neill writes in a clean, literate style and is so deft with his characterizations that you see the people and forget you're reading a book. What more can you ask for from a writer?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Cloud Atlas

It's hard to describe the charm that David Mitchell exerts to draw the reader along in this odd book narrating six different stories in different periods. It is probably the voice in each narrative, so distinct, so different from the others in style and tone. Even the futuristic dialect of a post-apocalyptic world, which could have become simply ennervating in less skillful hands, captivates the reader. Not to mention the pre-apocalyptic but dismal future world where more brand names are generic (all cars are fords, all movies are disneys, etc.).

The sheer imagination used in creating these different worlds, interlinked only in the most subtle way, helps carry the reader along. The individual plots, too, have their own suspense, plus, somehow, the suspense of seeing how these stories are linked.

Thematically, Cloud Atlas glorifies independence of spirit in the face of a cynical and often cruel world. The protagonists triumph in greater or lesser fashion, but they preserve their integrity against often unspeakable corruption. If you subscribe to the theory that they are in fact each one the reincarnation of the previous one, then of course it is a single protagonist who succeeds in this endeavor over the course of centuries. But that is really a superfluous consideration, because each narrative stands on its own, and, related or not, the six protagonists show different ways to maintain integrity.

I now have two further books by David Mitchell on my shelf, waiting to be read. I'm a fan.

Book buying

Buying books can of course be an addiction. Most book lovers will buy more books than they can read and, as books have become cheaper relative to other things, it's hard to put on the brakes.

During my years living in France and Germany, I learned to buy an English-language book I wanted when it was available, whether I planned to read it in the near future or not, because it might not be available when I was ready to read it. Books would sit on my shelves for years, but often enough I would finally get around to reading them.

Now back in the U.S. in the age of Amazon, it is much less likely that a book will not remain available. But I still have a tendency to buy books now that I have an interest in, even though my reading stack is already a mile high.

So this week I saw a couple of Josef Roth novels on the remainder shelf at Politics and Prose and snapped them up. Radetzky's March was so good, I'd read anything of his. Also, since I just finished watching the John Adams miniseries on DVD (loved it!), though I should get the McCullough book while the paperback is available. Besides, it has this wonderful large print. While I was at it, picked up Meacham's American Lion to fill out my burgeoning collection of presidential biographies. (Also bought David Stewart's Impeached last month.)

These books may sit for some time on my shelf before I have a chance to read them. But they're there.

Here is what I intend to make a monthly feature -- a log of books that I have bought, started and finished. It's not complete for this first month, because I only just had the idea, but I will try to keep it up to date.

Booklog July 2009 (not complete)
Bought: Beyond Recall-Robert Goddard; Past Caring-Robert Goddard; Hotel Savoy-Josef Roth; The Silent Prophet-Josef Roth; The Omnivore’s Dilemma-Michael Pollan; In Defense of Food-Michael Pollan; Jewish Study Bible (don’t ask); John Adams-David McCullough; American Lion-Jon Meacham.
Started: Out of the Sun-Robert Goddard; Every Man Dies Alone-Hans Fallada; Redbreast-Jo Nesbro; The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Finished: Out of the Sun; Cloud Atlas-David Mitchell.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hans Fallada

I've started reading Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, a new publication in English of a book originally written shortly after the war. It was reviewed very positively in the NYTBR a few weeks ago.

I have a connection of sorts to Fallada because one of his other books, Ein Mann Will Nach Oben (loosely, A Man Strives to Get Ahead) was filmed as a miniseries when I was living in Hamburg 1978-80. I watched it religiously -- this was the time before VCRs, Tivo or DVDs, so if you wanted to see something you had to be parked in front of the TV when it was on. It was a very affecting story about a young man who arrived in Berlin at the turn of the century -- the Gruenderzeit in Germany -- and worked his way up the ladder of success, leaving behind the small group of friends he met when he first came to the city.

Every Man is set during World War II and deals with resistance to the Nazi regime. I've only just started, but John Marks, a discriminating reader whose tips are very reliable, loved the book. Already some early scenes have been surprisingly moving.

I've pretty much abandoned Redbreast by Jo Nesbo. It's not a compelling read in any sense, neither from style or from plot. Too much jumping around between past and present.

Also just starting The Omnivore's Dilemma, part of my new interest in food writing (see my food blog, You Are What You Eat).