Saturday, December 21, 2013


Whether due to the Icelandic original or the translation, the simplicity of the language in these mysteries by Arnaldur Indridason is part of their appeal. Simple declarative sentences, deft descriptions, matter-of-fact depiction of emotions -- it all keeps the reader moving along against the backdrop of this forbidding climate, this claustrophobic society where violence is rare but hardly unheard of.

In this book, Arnaldur gives Erlendur a break, sending him off to brood with a question mark as to whether he will ever come back. That leaves Elinborg in charge, his female deputy who plays just a supporting role in the earlier books. With her as the protagonist, it is certainly less intense. While Erlendur will muse about the fate of man and the sadness of his relationship with daughter, Elinborg's thoughts go to tandoori cooking or the more normal challenges of dealing with an adolescent son.

The mystery here is a man bites dog type of thing as the first chapter sets up what looks like a fairly predictable scenario, only to have a twist turn it all upside down. There are clues, a couple of red herrings, but the readers feels as Elinborg does at one point that almost anyone she has encountered could be a suspect. There is little action. Elinborg interviews, reflects, interviews again. She takes a couple of trips outside Reykjavik but the most dangerous thing she does is follow a teenage girl to a cemetery at night.

The mystery, characterization and sense of place carried the book, but I wouldn't want to see Elinborg take over the series. Erlendur adds a dimension of darkness that pairs nicely with the climate. Even in this book, his unseen presence gives  hints of turbulence underneath.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling and other fails

I'm not surprised it didn't take readers long to figure out that Robert Galbraith was a pen name for J.K. Rowling because The Cuckoo's Calling is so obviously written from a woman's point of view. Not, as Seinfeld would say, that there's anything wrong with that, but it does make you wonder why Joanne Rowling, or her publishers, are so keen to mask her gender, first with the neutral "J.K." and now with a masculine pseudonym.

But that's not my beef with this book. I loved the Harry Potter books for the language, the wit, the bright turns and twists of plot, the sheer unbridled imagination. I can understand why Rowling would want to use a pen name to write something else without being overshadowed by these crossover children's books, but I don't think mystery thriller is her genre.

I found this book, after an opening with some energy, plodding and tedious. Cormoran Strike (points for finding an unusual name) won neither my sympathy nor my interest one-fourth through a 455-page book. A thriller requires suspense, and there is none here. Mildly quirky characters are puzzling over the apparent suicide of a super-model whose life and death is about as interesting as you would suppose, but after 120 pages there's no threat to anybody. Galbraith/Rowling seems happy to meander through London and its pubs letting the story develop ever so slowly while her hero drinks and smokes and mopes over the break-up with his girlfriend.

Strike is a war amputee with a prosthetic replacing the lower half of one leg. It's an interesting nod to Zeitgeist but somehow in a taut thriller there has to be a reason for this. And then my pet peeve -- the author seems to think we need to know every other page or so that her hero smokes. I'm not a fan of smoking in real life and, absent compelling reasons to the contrary, find the habit in fictional characters off-putting. Generally it seems to me an author is being defensive about what is presumably their own habit. I do put up with it if I like the book otherwise -- as in the Chet and Bernie series (though I'm baffled why that author should be so insistent about it in what is clearly a young adult crossover).

The most interesting character in Cuckoo is Robin Ellacott, a young woman who winds up temping for Strike and displays the pluck of a typical Rowling character. Why Rowling couldn't write under a name like Penelope Galbraith and feature a female protagonist like Robin is the only real mystery I see in this whole undertaking.

I've not had much luck with George Pelecanos in the past, but his work on "The Wire" and other screenplays is so obviously brilliant I gave it another try with an earlier novel, Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go. I'm abandoning it one-fifth of the way through because I'm bored. Bored, I say. The hard-boiled dialogue falls flat and the whole shtick of the detective-bartender-alcoholic just seems dated. It's no wonder that Pelecanos abandoned the first-person narrator Nick Stefanos (get it, a Greek-American) fairly quickly. After the initial set-up -- a mildly interesting binge that results in Nick being sort of passed out by the Anacostia River so that he can sort of witness a murder -- the story gets bogged down with the hero drinking and smoking and moping not just about his girlfriend but about his pitiful situation in general. Enough said.

I also gave up on Swamplandia, again one-fifth through it. This is clearly more serious stuff. Karen Russell's book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (another nail in the coffin of that exercise) and Russell was a recipient of one of the latest genius grants. The writing is fine, but the first-person narrative by the 13-year-old (precocious) daughter of an alligator wrestler doesn't do much for me. The story is supposedly based on Russell's own background, though I find that hard to believe, and the language in any case is too self-knowing and artificial to be convincing. I would be tempted to attribute the success of this book to the chick lit-ization of modern publishing.

I of course reserve the right to return to any of these books in a different mood and find them wonderful. But I don't think so.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


My review of Martin Cruz Smith's new Arkady Renko mystery, Tatiana, appeared today in The Washington Independent Review of Books:
Both Martin Cruz Smith and his detective hero Arkady Renko have grown older and wiser and mellower since they burst onto the literary scene with the 1981 thriller Gorky Park. Renko, who started his career as a rebellious militia investigator in the Soviet Union, is now a rueful detective in Vladimir Putin's corrupt and Mafia-ridden Moscow.
Renko reflects on this while pursuing his new case. "Whenever Arkady visited the university, he could not help but measure his progress in life against the precocious student he had been. What promise! A golden youth, son of an infamous general, he had floated easily to the top. By now, he should have been a deputy minister or, at the very least, a prosecutor, ruler of his own precinct and feasting at the public trough. Somehow, he had wandered. … Instead of bending, he pushed back, and so guaranteed his descent from early promise to pariah."
While the first Renko novel started with the shocking discovery of three corpses in the snow, their faces and fingertips removed to prevent identification, this new case begins with the more sedate demise of a crusading journalist, the Tatiana of the title, who plunges to her death from the balcony of her apartment. Renko's superiors don't even want to consider the case a homicide, but the detective is convinced, after listening to tapes found in her apartment, that Tatiana's murder is linked to an interpreter's notebook she had acquired documenting a mysterious meeting in Kaliningrad.
It is the notebook that is the thread tying Tatiana's fate with two other murders — that of the interpreter, whom we see briefly in the arresting prologue, and a gangster we meet as he is being lowered into his grave. Solving the mystery of Tatiana's death, deepened further by the disappearance of her body from the morgue, involves sorting through the mixed motives of an over-the-hill poet of some renown who was her former lover and of Renko's own neighbor and sometime lover, an ambitious journalist herself. Renko's ward, a chess prodigy searching for direction in life, gets into the mix as he tries to decipher the interpreter's symbolic shorthand and find out why this meeting in Kaliningrad has led to so many deaths.
The case takes Renko to Kaliningrad and some skullduggery, shootings and chases over dark beaches there. It is in all a satisfying romp through settings rendered exotic by their very remoteness. Smith's prose, always compelling, has become even more deft and incisive over the years. Even his casual observations carry some bite, as when Renko comes across his neighbor Anya together in a bar with the son of the late gangster and joins them for a drink: "They drank, listened to the thunder and poured some more, as if they were old friends gathering before a storm."
A younger, brasher Renko might have turned this encounter into a confrontation, but this mellower version politely excuses himself to leave the two alone. He worries about Anya's motives and intentions, but doesn't judge her and lets it go. When his investigations in Kaliningrad offer another opportunity for romance, Renko falls into it without any great expectations, though there are hints this relationship will offer greater fulfillment.
All that said, this latest installment in the saga of Arkady Renko, while masterful, is a bit thin. It is relatively short — in spite of the publisher's best efforts to puff it up to nearly 300 pages with a generous font and leading. The descriptions, while often evocative, are sometimes too skimpy. With the exception of the beaches outside Kaliningrad, we actually see little of anything, so that the Russian setting is more of a mood than a place.
Kaliningrad, for instance, is a great backdrop for a murder mystery. This geographic anomaly, a Russian exclave squeezed in between Poland and Lithuania, was historically the German Königsberg, a jewel of the Baltic famous as the home of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. It was leveled during the war and rebuilt by Stalin in an unrelenting Communist aesthetic. Smith tells us repeatedly how ugly it is (and it is, I've been there), but once Renko finally reaches the city, the author never really shows it to us. He takes Renko to the Monster — the massive, unfinished party headquarters that stands as a monument to the folly of Stalinism — but it is dark and we don't really see it.
Smith, who daringly pioneered this mix of mystery and thriller in dark and foreign landscapes with Gorky Park, has in a way been overtaken by writers following in his footsteps. Alan Furst has perfected the moody and atmospheric tales of moral ambivalence, while Nordic writers such as Jo Nesbø and Arnaldur Indriðason take us now to the frozen north and hidden corpses. The stench of post-Soviet corruption comes through more strongly in books like A.D. Miller'sSnowdrops.
In any case, Smith's fans will welcome his latest novel and new readers can find plenty to divert them. To fully appreciate the world sketched in Tatiana, however, those unacquainted with Arkady Renko might want to go first to one of the earlier books in the series, to Gorky Park or Polar Star or any of the other novels in the long and consistent saga of an individual trying to preserve his integrity in an endemically corrupt society.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


Africa is a confusing place in Norman Rush's short stories. It is confusing for whites, who are disoriented after being uprooted and transported to an alien culture. It is confusing as well for Africans, who feel displaced by the white invasion.

So there is tension, lots of it. Rush's skill as a storyteller brings that tension down to a personal level in his minutely drawn microcosms of the clash between whites and blacks in Botswana. Blacks are always involved, even when the story is about whites. Even "Bruns," the story of a European volunteer who apparently martyrs himself to thwart Afrikaner exploitation of the blacks, is ultimately about the black population, even though the narrator is a white anthropologist telling the story of a white mechanic victimized by white settlers.

"Near Pela" is the claustrophobic tale of two white couples driving through a trench in the bush. The Land Rover is claustrophobic enough, but its confinement in the tracks it must follow makes it even more so. And the vehicle become an emotional hothouse as a woman sympathetic to the plight of blacks caught in a drought and threatened with famine is stonewalled by her husband and gets no support from the other couple.

"Thieving" is an attempt to view white people through the eyes of a native boy. It is the most artificial of the stories as the game attempt to reproduce the language and thought processes of an untutored native fails ultimately to convince. Through a veil, we watch the wife drift completely away from reality, to the point where she has to be institutionalized.

The last three stories all involve Ione, an American woman who relieved the boredom of her life in New Jersey by seducing men and who finds it can help her cope with Africa as well. In "Instruments of Seduction," she seduces yet another fellow expatriate in a fairly desultory manner, because this white man, a doctor, is preoccupied with a hostile encounter he had in an African bar (meaning a bar patronized by Africans rather than just expatriates). In the next story, "Official Americans," Ione plays a supporting role as the mysteriously seductive expatriate who helps an AID worker driven half-crazy by dogs that bark all night to seek relief with a native witch doctor who turns out to be a fake. "Alone in Africa" has Ione finally giving up and fleeing dry, dusty Botswana for more agreeable climes, and hunting grounds, in Italy, leaving her dentist husband alone at home. Frank spends a lonely evening sitting around in a ratty bathrobe drinking wine and is easy prey for a young African woman in the neighborhood to tempt into straying (though Frank claims to be faithful to Ione and is apparently unaware of her hobby).

The moral compass of these whites is spinning hopelessly without any pole to orient them. In our book group discussion, we compared these stories to Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari and kicked around notions of compassion fatigue and the general difficulty of maintaining empathy in a hopeless situation.

Ultimately, the feeling you get from these stories is that whites don't belong in Africa. Expatriates seem to be largely misfits and they were probably misfits at home, too. On the other hand, Rush seems fatalistic. Whites aren't going to leave, and whites and blacks seem destined to live together in this tension and confusion.

The stories are compelling and finely crafted. The variety of tone and language is stimulating. The unflinching view of an ambivalent environment is daunting, relieved only in part by the mini-catharsis of each story.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thereby Hangs a Tail

Is Chet the new Archie Goodwin? This fanciful comparison occurred to me reading the third in Spencer Quinn's series of detective stories narrated by Chet the dog.

Chet displays the same wry, deprecating humor that Archie has in narrating Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries. Like Archie, Chet is slavishly devoted to his brainier colleague. But when it comes to action, it is this narrator who has the upper hand.

Chet drinks only water; Archie drinks only milk. Chet has no life outside his work with Bernie; Archie has very little. Bernie, of course, is more active than Wolfe, but still much of the "leg" work is done by partner Chet.

I've read all of the 70-some Nero Wolfe mysteries and probably would happily read as many Chet and Bernie stories if the author can write that many.

My interest, however, flagged a bit in this third installment, whether from saturation or a drop-off in the quality. The starting point -- acting as bodyguard to a show dog -- was not too exciting. The actual murder mystery developed slowly and haphazardly, with the plot fraying into numerous loose ends that were never satisfactorily tied up.

Nonetheless, it had the elements that make me a fan -- humor, readability, sympathetic characters, Southwest setting (why so coy about telling us whether it's Arizona or New Mexico?).

Two more in the series were on remainder at Politics & Prose so I will try the next one in print. The covers clearly do portray a Border Collie mix, whereas the description of Chet -- from his 100-pound-plus weight to his backstory as a police dog -- mark him as a German Shepherd mix. Only explanation I can think of is the publisher wants a cuter, less threatening dog on the cover.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Dog On It

Spencer Quinn's series of detective stories narrated by the dog Chet gives new meaning to the expression, "It's a dog's life." What makes these novels so addictive, aside from just the wit and entertainment provided, is the chance to see life from a dog's point of view. And, as Chet would say, "Life is good." He doesn't have to worry about the finances of the Little Detective Agency being in a mess (his human partner, Bernie, doesn't seem to worry much, either). Such worries as he does have evaporate as soon as a treat or a scent or a pat on the head intervenes. It's nice to put yourself in his paws, so to speak.

In this book, the first of the series, Bernie and Chet have to find a missing teenage girl whose parents are divorced. The plot has some of the same elements as The Sound and the Furry, with Chet at some point being separated from Bernie and at another point playing a key role in rescuing him.

In both cases of separation, Quinn reminds you how vulnerable dogs are in a human world. It is not really that hard to restrain them and once restrained, they are limited in how they can react. Then, if they do manage to escape and rejoin their human master -- as Chet presumably always succeeds in doing -- they can't tell you anything about it.

The climax in both books comes when Chet gets a chance to spring, literally, into action. This of course, as we know from Rin Tin Tin, is where dogs come into their own. Their speed, their strength, their single-mindedness is what makes them such formidable partners. Teeth help, too.

All that said, I will try to take a break from the series, partly to keep from finishing them off too quickly and partly to keep that endearing freshness. I did read the little squib e-short story, "A Cat Was Involved," which fills in the back story of how Chet and Bernie met. However, it was a half-baked effort to cash in on the series popularity and the story actually worked better when it was suggestive, rather than have all the details filled in.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

God's Crucible

This nonfiction book by David Levering Lewis is subtitled "Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215," so it illuminates what we treated only briefly in school as the Dark Ages. Lewis's dense narrative is authoritative and comprehensive, and I found what I read of it intriguing and enlightening.

However, it is a dry and essentially academic book so my sessions usually ended with me falling asleep in the chair and I was only able to read "in" it. Some of our book club members were much more thorough. They generally concluded it is indeed interesting to see that period of Europe from the "other" side, but found Lewis a bit too glowing in his descriptions of Islam's contributions and a bit too negative about Europe.

When one of our members read a passage about how Europe might have been happier if Charles Martel had lost at Poitiers, given the years of feudalism that lay ahead in Europe, my question was whether now in the 21st century one would be happier in Europe or Saudi Arabia. In both cases, there has been an organic evolution from the 8th century. Nor was the intervening period in Europe without its accomplishments.

I can't say whether this book explains where Islam went wrong, but no one in the group mentioned any explanations. In discussing how much further advanced the Muslims were in the arts and sciences than Western Europe in this period, I made the point that everyone was more advanced -- the Byzantines, the Alexandrians, and the Persians whose defeat opened up the Middle East for the Islamic jihad. There is no indication that something intrinsic about Islam lends itself to creativity and innovation in the social sciences -- rather the opposite.

The book launched us into a discussion about the influence of religion in general. Why are the major religions that still dominate globally all so old? Does religion really drive events or do political leaders use religion to bind and motivate their followers? We agreed that religion as a touchstone of ethical values and as community were probably as important as belief in the supernatural in perpetuating these old and often reactionary institutions.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Sound and the Furry

I'm hooked. Hokey as the books may sound, Spencer Quinn's Bernie and Chet series, narrated by the canine member of the partnership, Chet the Jet, has captivated me.

It's not only Quinn's rendering of the doggy viewpoint, which is something of a tour de force, it is the Carl Hiassen-level humor he employs in narrating his simple mysteries. I use the plural, even though I've only read the one, the latest, because I'm confident the same mastery is maintained throughout the series.

It is of course a sleight of hand to have a dog narrate a story using vocabulary much more sophisticated than what he professes to not understand in the dialogue. But like any good illusionist, Quinn distracts you from this conundrum with his portrayal of Chet living in the moment, losing his thread of "thought," getting distracted by anything remotely resembling food. There is Chet's total lack of self-awareness, so that even as he's narrating the story he becomes aware of his instinctive actions -- barking, growling, snatching a chicken wing, carrying a straw hat away with him -- only when Bernie calls him on it.

Anyone who has spent time with a dog, interacted with a dog, or who just likes animals can't help but appreciate the consistency with which Quinn portrays the simple joie de vivre of the narrator. Whatever depredations the human characters engage in, the reader feels upbeat because Chet feels upbeat.

Bernie Little is not that much different than your typical PI -- flawed, undisciplined, broke -- but seen through the prism of Chet's narration, his heroic side comes to the fore. Not that he's any more heroic than the rest of us, but he is a hero in Chet's eyes, and it's contagious.

The plot itself is not half-bad. You scarcely notice, immersed as you are in Chet's being in the moment, that the plot is moving along, clues are being uncovered, red herrings identified, villains chased down and clients rescued. In this case, Bernie and Chet go to Louisiana bayou country to find a missing person and unravel a mystery involving a ton of stolen shrimp and birds dying of petroleum immersion.

Bernie's choice of vehicle -- a well-used Porsche -- is a plus because it reminds me of my brief ownership of a well-used Porsche. There is little description of Chet in this book -- perhaps there is more detail in the earlier books -- beyond the fact that he weighs 100 pounds-plus. So I have taken to imagining him as a shaggy German shepherd mutt. Once, when he sees Bernie and himself in a mirror, Chet is amazed, saying it looked like Bernie with a tough-looking member of the nation within (Chet's expression for the parallel dog population), realizing only belatedly that it's -- ME.

So I've already downloaded the first book of the series, Dog on It, and will work my way forward. I'm hoping I'll be able to ration them and not just binge-read the whole series.

Spencer Quinn is a pen name for Peter Abrahams, who has written numerous thrillers and young adult books under his own name. Stephen King is a fan and listed four of his novels in his book recommendations in On Writing. So now I've downloaded Lights Out as well.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Operation Napoleon

After Steve Berry's sunny romp through Tudor monuments in London, I was ready for some Icelandic winter and Arnaldur Indridason provides it, in spades, in this thriller outside his Erlendur series.

Wikipedia, by the way, tells me that Indridason is a patronymic, not a surname, and the correct second reference to the author is Arnaldur. Which explains why his heroine in Operation Napoleon is referred to by everyone simply by her first name, Kristin, with never a surname. I supposed it explains why Erlendur just has a single name, too.

The glacier is the most compelling character in a thriller that goes pretty much by the numbers. But that is a big plus, because, as I've mentioned before (Arctic Chill), this brooding Nordic atmosphere has a lot of appeal for me. The other immediately noticeable difference from the Berry book is that the language, even in translation, is earthier, more robust. I knew a scholar once who was immersed in ancient Icelandic and other Germanic-root languages, and I think there's an Anglo-Saxon resonance here that is missing from our pasteurized American language.

Otherwise, Arnaldur is lucky he stumbled onto Erlendur, because it allowed him to take his writing to another level and make the breakthrough to an international audience that he would never have reached with more books like this one. The only characters with any dimension to them are the Icelandic characters, and they are in the minority. We have a cast of Americans who struggle to reach two dimensions, and one, Kristin's romantic interest, Steve, who is so flat he is virtually invisible. When he (*spoiler alert*) finally meets his demise, the reader feels absolutely nothing (and Kristin's grief hardly seems heartfelt).

The plot itself is another alternative history. Spoiler alert only for those who are easily surprised -- Operation Napoleon is about a World War II plot to spirit he who shall not be named to a remote island exile rather than death in a Berlin bunker. Arnaldur has some fun playing with a cargo of Jewish gold or plundered art as disinformation regarding the German Junker plane that crashed on an Icelandic glacier in the waning days of the war and whose recovery in 1999 was the obsessive goal of American military intelligence.

In any case, the spunky heroine's ability to elude trained assassins and baffle the not-so-intelligent military is the thin plot that plays out against the dramatic background of Iceland's winter. Nor is it exactly a Hollywood ending for said heroine. Even though she survives her ordeal, her life is permanently marked by her experience.

Arnaldur has the opportunity to air Icelandic grievances about American high-handedness and arrogance in a vastly unequal "alliance" (it's like saying Finland was an "ally" of the Soviet Union), and it's fine to let the mouse have his little roar. In the end, he is no harder on the U.S. government apparatus than our own thriller writers. The politics stops just short of being distracting, but suffice it to say, the writer is on much firmer ground with his Erlendur procedurals than with an imitation thriller.

The King's Deception

Steve Berry sells a lot of books, but I think he owes most of his success to Dan Brown. This inoffensive but undistinguished novel is the latest in his Cotton Malone series and has many elements of the Brown formula -- a twist on a famous historical figure, exotic historic locales that act as time machines to unraveling the mystery, action compressed if not into 24 hours then a very brief span of time, a protagonist who is oddly hollow and characterless. With no sex and little on-stage violence, The King's Deception could qualify as a crossover for the young adult set, especially given the prominence of two adolescent buddies.

But it's enough for me. I enjoy thrillers about odd historical twists and can put up with undistinguished writing as long as it's not clumsy. The book has historic locales aplenty. In fact, Berry even acknowledges in a writer's note that he was able to add more because that volcanic ash from Iceland that year kept him in London three days longer than he planned. So if Cotton Malone's odyssey during the novel seems a bit random and arbitrary, it's because it is. So we see Hampton Court and the Tower of London and the Middle Temple of the Inns of Court, and get to visit some underground sewers.

It hardly requires a spoiler alert to divulge that the premise of the book is that Elizabeth I was an impostor. The real princess died in her teens and the impostor who succeeded to the throne was in fact her illegitimate nephew -- and a man. All the usual arguments -- the fact that Elizabeth never married, was known as the virgin queen, wore clothes that disguised her figure, never let anyone touch her or doctors examine her, insisted that portraits show her as a 25-year-old -- are marshaled to support the thesis.

Well and good, though the plot Berry has concocted around this kernel of alternative history is pretty far-fetched. A CIA operative of dubious character is pursuing the truth about Elizabeth in order to blackmail the British government into not granting a compassionate early release to the Lockerbie terrorist, diagnosed with terminal cancer. While this is clearly a true outrage for the author and his characters, Berry may be overestimating its power as a spring for this kind of plot.

But it gets worse. The reason the British would be susceptible to this blackmail is because the truth would render Elizabeth's reign illegitimate, and call into question the legitimacy of all her actions, especially the leases she gave in the Irish counties that now constitute Northern Ireland. In short, all hell would break loose because Irish nationalists would discover a new reason to challenge the British presence there. Berry may also be overestimating the devotion of the British to the rule of law, or at least the ability of American readers to suspend disbelief about such an improbable consequence.

The villainous and manipulative head of MI-6, or, as Berry snarkily insists, the SIS, to call it by its proper British name, is a knight of the realm, though anything but chivalrous. The CIA operative turns out to be ot only a cad, but a traitor and meets the fate that thriller writers have for his ilk. The female British agent from the Serious Organized Crime Agency who goes rogue from her service to help Malone is as bland and two-dimensional as her name, Kathleen Richards, would suggest. There is no romance in the novel, and Berry tells us in the Epilogue that the brief fling she and Cotton had afterwards was just that, no doubt keeping things open for Malone in a later episode to finally be reunited with his long-suffering ex-wife.

I was in the mood for some light reading, and it doesn't get any lighter than this.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Beautiful Ruins

Jess Walter's masterpiece is the rare book you feel should not be reviewed beyond just saying: Read it. I've been a fan of his since Citizen Vince and even went back to read one of his early Spokane detective stories, but Beautiful Ruins raises his work to a new level.

The fabulously layered novel depicts the intertwining of two, three, five and even six lives after a chance encounter in Porto Vergogna, the fictional sixth Terre Cinque, and the runt of the litter. The owner and manager of the Hotel Adequate View is hoping to attract American tourists when a young actress diagnosed as mortally ill comes to stay at his little hotel. What follows is something between a romp and an epic that combines biting satire, incredibly poignant insights into human relationships, and above all a story about how each individual must come to terms with regret.

It is not a sound-bite type of novel but a couple of lines in the excruciatingly elegant climax tell you much about the book: "At that moment, Pasquale Tursi [one of the two main characters] felt wrenched in two. His life was two lives now: the life he would have and the life he would forever wonder about."

A few pages and decades later, Dee Moray/Debra Moore, the other main character, reflects on whether she is at peace or not: "But other times, honestly, the whole idea of being at peace just pisses her off. At peace? Who but the insane would ever be at peace? What person who has enjoyed life could possibly think one is enough? Who could live even a day and not feel the sweet ache of regret?"

Wise enough out of context, these brief quotes are like a mule kick in the narrative. Walter skips through time and place, through points of view, darting from Liguria to Hollywood, to Rome and London and Edinburgh, to Idaho and Seattle, to the American frontier and the retreating Germany army, never once losing the reader or the thread of a narrative of human emotions -- hope, betrayal, forlorn love, unrequited love, death, loss, and above all the realization that your intentions are not always aligned with your actions, that this is the human condition and that you must live with it. There are choices, they have consequences, but there are also many things outside our control that will determine our lives. But they are always our lives.

The author's use of the movie "Cleopatra" and the raging love affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a pillar of the plot and a meme for life itself is brilliant, and particularly telling for someone like me who lived through the hype at the time. On top of everything else, I actually encountered Burton the summer I interned at AP (1974) when I was sent to join the press mob greeting him when he stepped off a ship at the New York pier. Walter's depiction of Burton as the deeply flawed human being behind the great actor must stand as one of the best portraits of him in fiction.

And yet Burton, though he plays a major role, is a minor character in this sweeping novel which at one time or another deftly portrays an aging Hollywood producer determined to make a comeback, a wannabe screenwriter who learns the art of pitching, an ambitious but ambivalent production assistant, a lost but talented musician, a would-be novelist whose magnum opus is a single opening chapter and a cast of minor characters who nonetheless have vivid personalities of their own.

What more can you ask for from a 337-page novel?

Monday, September 16, 2013


It seemed like a good idea to finally read this thriller that begins with a priest falling to his death from the dome of St. Peter's shortly before re-visiting the basilica for the first time in 20-some years. And this novel by newspaperman William Montalbano has the other distinction of anticipating the election of a Latino pope by a decade and a half.

The church portrayed by Montalbano is a flawed, very human institution. His protagonist, former Miami cop Paul Lorenzo, is somewhat casual about his vow of chastity in his new vocation as a lay brother. The suggestion is that most churchmen are not faithful to their vows and chastity is probably an outmoded idea, anyway. Lorenzo sought refuge in an order -- never really a good motivation -- because he botched an escort for a Latin American cardinal, stole a million dollars in drug money that fell into his hands as a result, and lost his wife and daughter in a kidnapping-hostage taking when the drug gang sought revenge.

That Latin American cardinal becomes Pope Pius XIII and Lorenzo becomes a fixer for the new pope, who goes by "Tredi" for the Italian for thirteen (tredicemo). The pope himself is a target for the drug gang's revenge and thwarting their plans drives the plot.

Montalbano, who died prematurely of a heart attack before this book was published, was a prize-winning journalist and a good writer. He spent seven years as the Vatican correspondent for the Los Angeles Times after many years covering Latin America, so he knows the world he describes from firsthand experience.

But when it comes to portraying churchmen and religious life, it is clear that his firsthand experience is as an outsider. It is fine to be cynical and worldly wise about the motivations and behavior of clerics, but it fails to do justice to the genuine idealism and altruism you find among those who dedicate their lives to God and manage to maintain their integrity. It might make the reader feel in the know when Brother Paul sleeps with his on-again, off-again girlfriend -- a former nun -- but there is a whole dimension missing in this depiction of the faithful. It may be well observed that religious life is just another career for many, but for others it is truly a life of faith, and there is no hint of that in Montalbano's characters.

Even the pope, despite his penchant for working the occasional miracle, seems to keep his faith at arm's length, like the cassock he takes on and off.

Brother Paul, then, who was a royal screw-up as a policeman, husband and father, and is anything but a model religious as he gets a chance at redemption, is a hard sell for the reader's sympathy. The plot itself is an improbable mix of the by-now standard drug cartel by-play and dirty Vatican politics. The identity of the eventual papal assassin is clear from the moment he enters the story, and only someone with Lorenzo's track record for slow-wittedness would have missed it.

The climactic scene in Umbria -- I read the book on a vacation to Umbria and Rome -- is somewhat contrived and fairly low-key as a climax. I left the book at the house we rented. It's fine for the airplane or for a vacation when you're looking for some mindless entertainment.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Lincoln Deception

An accomplished author of several nonfiction historical books, David Stewart predictably comes up with a good story. But his skill in a debut novel at creating characters, crafting dialogue and pacing narrative is less predictable and a real treat. In prose that is lean and nimble, Stewart draws the reader into a novel that is part detective story and part buddy trip, with a dash of picaresque, as his characters seek to uncover a Confederate link in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln 35 years after John Wilkes Booth shot him in Ford Theater.

Stewart drew his inspiration from a short passage in his historical research indicating that Mary Surratt, one of Booth's co-conspirators who was hanged, confided a secret about the assassination to John Bingham, the lawyer who prosecuted her, before she died. In Stewart's fictional re-creation, Bingham in turn tells his doctor, Jamie Fraser, about the secret on his deathbed, without revealing what it is. This sets Fraser off on a quest to unravel the mystery.

There are enough contemporaries still alive in 1900 that Fraser's quest is anything but hopeless, as he pores through Bingham's notes and research on the assassination for possible leads. His quest takes him to other writers and researchers as well as to relatives of co-conspirators. Not all of the people he contacts wish him well, nor does everyone tell him the truth. Along the way, Fraser teams up with Speed Cook, a black former baseball player and would-be newspaper publisher. He also embarks on an unexpected and improbable romance with a former actress who has links to the Booth clan.

Stewart deftly situates the reader in the past as his familiarity with contemporary source material enables him to provide the telling detail while avoiding clumsy anachronisms. His language is vaguely archaic without ever being stilted, and frequently lightened with witty observations in the dialogue and point-of-view narration. The history detectives pursue their clues from Ohio to New York, Baltimore and Washington, often just ahead of powerful interests who do not want them to find out Surratt's secret. There is action and adventure when they do fall into the clutches of the villains.

The question of whether or not the Confederacy was actually involved in Lincoln's assassination, or what their motives might be given that Lee had already surrendered, is probably more interesting to professional historians than to the general reader. As one of the characters observes, knowing isn't going to bring Lincoln back. The resolution thus may seem anti-climactic to those who are expecting a blockbuster surprise. But this is not a "what-if" novel in the burgeoning alternative history genre. Rather, it is a creative imagining of details that fit with the known facts but remain hidden to us so far.

It is the journey rather than the destination which makes The Lincoln Deception such an engaging read. It is a chance to step into a time machine and play history detective with very well-informed guide.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Havana Queen

State Department veteran James Bruno combines his insider's view of the complex machinery of the U.S. government with his firsthand experience of Cuba to create this compelling scenario of how the Castro regime may, finally, come to an end.

Bruno's great sense of place, already evident in his earlier thrillers, comes to the fore, taking the reader to the streets of Havana and Santiago and to the bizarre world of the Guantanamo Line, where one of the world's last remaining Communist regimes and an illegal American occupier coexist.

Against this colorful backdrop, Bruno creates a fast-paced plot of the endgame in Cuba, as the corrupt regime of the Castro brothers faces its own group of militant rebels determined to throw them out just they had ousted Batista in the 1950s. An intrepid FBI agent of Cuban heritage, Nick Castillo, is drawn into this drama, making common cause with the rebels even as he falls into an ambiguous relationship with the designated heir of the Castros, Che's (fictional) daughter, Larisa Montilla.

The action includes the inter-agency conflict between the FBI and the CIA embodied in Castillo's own discordant relationship with Kate Kovalchuk, an "ice princess" paired with Castillo to find out just what is going on in Cuba as hardship and government paralysis drive the people to rebel against the failed regime.

Bruno has a healthy respect for the tenacity of a corrupt regime to cling to power. He also depicts how foolish it would be to underestimate the extent to which Cuban intelligence has infiltrated our own government with all-too-real vignettes of traitors at work. Just because the Castros are incompetent in running a country doesn't mean they aren't masters of espionage and sabotage.

In fact, in a final act of defiance, the dying regime in Cuba is ready to strike at the very heart of its giant nemesis to the north by setting in motion a plan to assassinate the president of the United States even as all is lost.

This is the dramatic denouement as rebel forces appear to win the day in Havana and Santiago, forcing Nick and Kate to return to the States in a last-ditch effort to foil this final plot.

Bruno's timely novel will have you checking the news to see how much of his scenario is taking place right now. His sympathetic portrayal of a society waiting to rejoin the civilized world will have you rooting for them, too, and the day when this last bastion of Leninism joins the dustheap of history.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Geneva Trap

The settings and, for lack of a better word, the tradecraft move this lightweight thriller by Stella Rimington along. The author, a real-life M as the former DG of MI-5, has written a series of novels featuring Liz Carlyle as an agent. While this one, at least, lacks the panache of a James Bond tale, it has that reliable, competent prose that well-educated Brits bring to their writing and a view of true-life espionage with its feet firmly planted on the ground.

This one takes place largely in Geneva and Marseilles, as well as London, and that was part of its charm for me because it gave me a chance to revisit some places I have fond memories of. A brief side-trip to rural southern France, evocative of the Bruno novels, didn't hurt, either.

The main plot involves foiling an effort to infiltrate and sabotage an Anglo-American drone program. A subplot, unrelated except that involves the same characters, starts with protecting a former member of a cult-like counter-culture group and ends with foiling a plot to attack a G20 meeting in Avignon.

The British intelligence services portrayed here are not Le Carre's gloomy, traitorous dens any more than they are Fleming's fantasies. Rather, they are workmanlike versions of a domestic police force, where ordinary, fairly well-trained officers get on with their business. They are mostly pretty nice. Liz Carlyle is, of course, quite sympathetic, and her superiors and co-workers, despite some personality quirks, are at least well-intentioned. Her boyfriend in the French intelligence services is also nice; ditto for his co-workers and superiors. The pragmatic, conscientious agents in Switzerland are also...nice. Even the Russian traitor is nice and the North Korean mole comes across as an unfortunate waif. The only real meanies are the Russian pulling the strings of the drone plot and the French lowlifes plotting the G20 assault.

There is a slight sense of danger, and Liz lets herself get taken in a way bordering on incompetence, but she is charmingly rescued at the last minute by said French boyfriend (who himself was charmingly rescued at the last minute by a female colleague).

Perhaps intelligence work really is this congenial, at least viewed through the prism of a stiff-upper lip grande dame. If Le Carre and his imitators are too gloomy, these may err in being too cheery. But you have those great settings and that authentic tradecraft.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dark Star Safari

Paul Theroux wants you to know exactly how hopeless Africa is. To prove it he undertook a journey overland from Cairo to Cape Town, largely through East Africa, bringing his vastly cynical powers of observation to yet another trip.

As I said in our book group discussion, I am in awe of Theroux's writing -- his ability to observe and describe places, people and situations. He is a compelling writer with great talent.

His venturing into places like Ethiopia and Sudan, which most of us will never visit, gives the reader a precious view into these societies.

That said, I found I could read this book only in small doses. His unrelenting cynicism and condescension and general unlikability put me off. We discussed in the group whether you have to like a writer to like his or her book. The problem is that in travel writing, which is essentially a memoir,  the writer's personality will intrude, which doesn't necessarily happen in other genres.

I finished only about a third of the book before our discussion. And, though I consider it better than the 3 or 4 earlier books of his I've read, I will probably put it aside for a while, and finish it, if I do, at a later date.

One of the points I made about Africa is that we see it as ridden with ineradicable problems because we are demanding that they organize their society the way we do. Africans lived happily in more primitive circumstances until two centuries ago, when Europeans invaded in a serious manner. In a global economy, of course, there is no way to preserve that primitive society. But rather than let Africans evolve at their own pace and in their own way, we have imposed a Western template on them that does not seem well suited.

Perhaps, I suggested, the inevitable Chinese colonization of Africa, as that ravenous economy scours the planet for natural resources, will provide new impetus for modernizing African society.

Maybe Africa is hopeless. But at various points, India, China and Brazil also seemed to have insurmountable problems. They have not yet succeeded in overcoming all of them, but they have advanced considerably.

Theroux's anecdotal account of his idiosyncratic journey through Africa makes for entertaining travel writing, but it is hardly the basis for any considered judgement about the future of the continent. It may already be outdated and someday, no doubt, it will appear as quaint as the 19th-century travel journals do to us today.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Graham Greene

"One never knows when the blow may fall." Anyone who thinks the book can add nothing to the marvelous Carol Reed film "The Third Man," need read no further than this first line to realize that some of Graham Greene's genius could not be translated into film.

This was one of the revelations from taking part in Jim Grady's 2-hour "seminar" on Greene at Politics & Prose. Grady -- author of the novel that led to one of the best spy films of all time, "Three Days of the Condor" -- has a keen eye for what makes a book suspenseful, but also dramatic in the full sense of the word.

He said one of the keys to Greene's success was his insistence on the necessity of morality. "The writer takes a moral position," Grady said. He recommended John Gardner's On Moral Fiction for a further discussion of that aspect. (I have The Art of Fiction on my shelf, and have now ordered the other one.)

The mood of dark disorientation holds for the novel The Third Man as well as the movie. Oddly, the book was published after the movie came out. Greene said he needed to write a fuller treatment in order to write the screenplay. Differences between the two come from changes made in the course of filming.

The ability to suddenly drive home a universal truth with a dazzling economy of language makes this a far more finished work that the modest introduction might suggest. "We never get accustomed to being less important to other people than they are to us" is a sentiment almost anyone can identify with.

Then there is the great line delivered with such panache by Orson Welles in the movie: "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace - and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."

In discussing The Third Man together with The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana, Grady said he was looking for "noir" novels. The three books also took place at pivotal moments in American history -- Europe as the Cold War began, Indochina as surreptitious American involvement began, and Cuba before Castro's coup. And, Grady noted, in all three, the hero was responsible for the death of someone important.

I didn't have a chance to re-read American and Havana for this discussion, so I remained mostly passive. I felt, perhaps because I had read it recently, that the discussion on Third Man was more stimulating. I remember finding Quiet American chilling. At the time, it it fit in with a class I'd had in college where the teacher talked about the dangerous naivete of Americans, as illustrated in the class by Herman Melville's Benito Cereno

In the P&P discussion, one participant noted the similarities between Havana and Tailor of Panama, so exactly parallel you might think Le Carre was paying homage to Greene. The latest chronologically, it was the lest favorite of the group, seeming more like a satire or farce than a genuine noir novel.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Inheritance of Loss

Kiran Desai's prizewinning autobiographical novel is a searing picture of how poverty and corruption can damage the human spirit. But the victims are not the poorest. While the young woman Sai -- even the name tells you who she's modeled on -- appears to be the main character, this is really a book about two men, the judge and the cook, known primarily not by their names but by the titles telling us their place in society.

The judge, Sai's grandfather, is a tortured, almost monstrous, human being, emotionally deformed by years of suppressed feeling. His violently misogynist treatment of his wife, shown in repeated flashbacks, and his generally misanthropic behavior cannot even be redeemed by his devotion to his dog, who bears the equally generic name Mutt. It is the cook who steals the show. He is the one who feels genuine affection for Sai when the orphan is taken -- somewhat inexplicably -- into the judge's semi-derelict mansion in Kalimpong. It is the cook who lives for his son and for his son's sake sends him away to make his fortune in America. It is the cook who pities the beggars who beseech the judge for help, the cook who searches the mountains for the missing Mutt, the cook in the end who is reunited happily with his son even while the province is gripped by civil strife.

Next to the judge's travails and the cook's quiet triumph, Sai's adolescent crush on her immature tutor, Gyan, is something of a subplot. Sai realizes she wants a life with wider scope in a foreign country and Gyan learns he wants a life with a much narrower scope and prefers the cowardice of tranquility to the boldness of revolution. Their brief fling is nothing more than the typical coming of age love affair. Even Gyan's betrayal of the judge's family seems relatively trifling against the larger backdrop of the social turmoil depicted in the novel, though it could have ended tragically.

Desai's uncompromising look at the squalor and cruelty of Indian society beneath the thin veneer of civilization was found to be depressing by most members of my book group. The situation seems virtually hopeless. The only escape is literally to leave the country -- as Sai plans and as we know from Desai's success is what she does -- or to accept the limited human happiness available in the small things of life, as the cook, his son, Biju, and Gyan ultimately opt for.

However, Desai is equally uncompromising in her scathing depiction of Biju's exploitation as an illegal immigrant in the U.S. Far from making his fortune -- or having any chance to do so -- Biju scrapes through the underbelly of New York, living in circumstances more squalid even than he would have at home. India, as his eventual homecoming makes clear, also offers the luxury of familiarity, in every sense of the word.

The book is beautifully written. Some book club members said the book was slow, at least at the beginning, but I found the powerful writing compelling from the first page. The descriptions, the insights, the turns of phrase carry the reader on a torrent. So many examples, but to cite just one:
[The judge rejects the supplications of two beggars] In this life, he remembered again, you must stop your thoughts if you wished to remain intact, or guilt and pity would take everything from you, even yourself from yourself....This was why he had retired. India was too messy for justice; it ended only in humiliation for the person in authority....If you let such people get an inch, they's take everything you had -- families yoked together because of guilt on one side, and an unending greed and capacity for dependence on the other -- and if they knew you were susceptible, everyone handed their guilt along so as to augment yours: old guilt, new guilt, any passed-on guilt whatever.
The historical setting -- a separatist uprising in the 1980s to establish an independent Gorkhaland -- provided further education in the multi-ethnic composition of India and the resulting tensions that we remain largely oblivious to. The racial strife and the recurring resistance to the overlay of British colonial administration create a toxic brew that occasionally overflows into violence. The drama of this uprising gave added depth to the novel.

Likewise, the portrayal of the monsoon period -- the relentless corrosion of the constant rain -- was so vivid you felt drenched and lent further drama to the action of the novel.

The book, in short, is a consummate piece of writing and a very satisfying read.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

William Trevor

Some 48 of Trevor's short stories from various earlier volumes are collected in Selected Stories, which is the latest book for my serial reading after short stories by Hemingway and Somerset Maugham.

I'm still early in the volume but certain patterns in the stories are already clear. They deal with ordinary people and their ordinary desperation. They are quiet stories about the disappointments, the betrayals large and small that accompany even the seemingly most insignificant lives.

"The Piano Tuner's Wives," the first story in the collection, relates the revenge the second wife of a blind piano tuner takes on the first wife by revising her husband's picture of the world, robbing him of the tangible memories he has of that first marriage. Another story has an old, tired couple's gay son stand them up for his annual birthday celebration, sending instead his current protege, who manages to betray all of them. A story called "Child's Play" portrays a boy and a girl in what we now call a blended family re-enacting the illicit affair and messy divorces that brought them into the same family until each of the "wronged parties" rights themselves. This meant the children were no longer able to control their own world through their fictional play. This gift was now lost and, the author concludes "Helplessness was their natural state" -- a line that can stand for all of Trevor's characters.

The writing is both closely observed and suggestive, economical and evocative. The characters take on layers of personality in the quick, telling sketches. The stories are literary watercolors, not oils, but satisfying vignettes of lives that scrape by with only the barest glimmer of hope.

I'll have more to say as a I finish more stories.

The Hare With Amber Eyes

Updated July 21
This is one of the best books I've ever read

This memoir by Edmund de Waal is enjoyable on several levels. It is a captivating account about a family, the Ephrussis, that once enjoyed the fame of the Rothschilds, but, mysteriously, has vanished from history. It is a history of art collecting written by a ceramicist. Best of all, it is beautifully written. One of the blurbs alludes to W.G. Sebald and I had already recognized the similarity of this memoir to the dreamy fiction or fact narratives of this German writer turned Englishman (though presumably De Waal's is all fact). The author manages the same blend of specific and universal, and in this case the specific is also reminiscent of Patrick Leigh Fermor's virtuoso use of language to describe places far removed in space and time.

De Waal's tracing the Ephrussi family to the Rue de Monceau and Parc Monceau, which I got to know well when I worked for Edouard Cointreau there, was icing on the cake for me. All the reading I've done about the Rothschilds and the history of finance also makes this memoir resonate in a special way.

I have to suspend my reading for a week or two to focus on a book for book club, but I wanted to put down some of these initial impressions while they were fresh. I'll add to them when I finish the book.

Update July 21

The charming Paris story continues in Vienna as De Waal moves on from Proust to Musil and Roth, evoking a magical history of cafes and society as his collection of Netsuke move from Paris to "Zionstrasse" in Vienna and the Palais Ephrussi on Schottengasse and Ringstrasse.

It turns out that this idyll of wealth and luxury is building to a climax that is as moving as it is horrifying, as De Waal chronicles in his measured understatement the consequences of the Anschluss and the humiliation and expropriation of his rich ancestors. The exile of his great-grandfather Viktor and his wife Emmy is moving, as is the narration of the persecution of Jews that brought an end to the Vienna of Freud and Mahler. The pitiful fate of an assimilated Jewish family that proved its loyalty by keeping its money and its life in a city threatened by Nazism is moving. The poignancy of how the Gentile servant secreted the little Japanese figurines and preserved them for the family is a miniature act of courage and generosity in a world turned upside down.

De Waal mentions that the Ephrussi summer home in Kovecses is recalled by Leigh Fermor during his trip across Europe in 1938. The Ephrussi bank figures in The Radetzky March. The Ephrussis in fact are a thread through European history, a transnational family that mocks the artificial divisions of borders and nations.

The short episodes of the netsuke with his great-uncle Iggie and their move to De Waa;'s house in London are followed by an short and elegaic visit to Odessa. Elegy in fact describes the book as a whole, for it is a vivid portrayal of a ghostly parallel universe, now forgotten, where fame and wealth were always hedged by a fragile acceptance in society.

It is an epic story, told with modesty and understatement through the narrow lens of a collection of Japanese sculptures and what they witnessed.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Varieties of Scientific Experience

This posthumous edition of Carl Sagan's 1985 Gifford Lectures, rediscovered and edited by his wife Ann Druyan, was our book club selection for June. It stimulated an interesting discussion on natural theology, agnosticism, religion and ethics. I didn't read the whole book but a good part of it, including the key chapter on "The Religious Experience."

My view was that Sagan's ability as an astronomer to vividly describe just what a pathetic speck in the universe mankind is doesn't really help me much. I'm just as much an agnostic regarding man's place in the universe and his momentary existence in the epochs of time as I am about religion and God in general.

Certainly, given what we know now about the universe, all religion is revealed to be a social mythology. The notion of a personal God who is attentive to mankind's prayers, intervening in our lives and taking us up into heaven is, in the context of the entire universe, as improbable as the idols and superstitions of primitive tribesmen.

Just as certainly, there is a spiritual dimension to the human personality and real experiences that can only be called religious. For me personally, Teilhard de Chardin's effort to reconcile his religion with his scientific understanding in the teleological notion of God's becoming is as close to satisfying as a natural theology is likely to get. Some in our group argued against it, saying evolution does not in fact mean progress. But I'm not sure Teilhard was speaking of just progress as part of the becoming.

In any case, what is more important to me is the ethical consequences of whatever belief or value system one has in life and I found this missing in Sagan's book (it might have been in a chapter I didn't read but no one corrected me when I said this in the meeting). For this reason, I could just as well have skipped it, since I already accept his scientific view of the universe.

But the book occasioned a good discussion about things you rarely get a chance to talk about, so that alone made it worthwhile.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Under the Color of Law

This is my second Michael McGarrity novel featuring Kevin Kerney, who is embarking in this book on his new job as police chief in Santa Fe. I downloaded it to read during my trip to Santa Fe and it was a hoot to have the hero driving down Cerrillos and investigating at the College of Santa Fe (since closed), all very near to where I was staying.

McGarrity is an engaging writer and he captures New Mexico well -- and that is enough for me. Just as well, because there's not much else. Kerney, who debuted in Tularosa, which I enjoyed, is a bit more robotic in this book, though he was not particularly colorful in the other one. His improbable long-distance marriage to an Army intelligence officer doesn't really work on any level -- not as romance, not as dramatic counterpoint, not as plot device. In fact, it is more distracting than anything else.

The plot is also improbable. A Washington insider on the make mobilizes his minions to cover up his involvement with a new technology that will make him very wealthy. While a plot involving government operatives carrying out "sanctioned removals" seems less far-fetched every day, the depiction of the psychopathic hit person here is fairly two-dimensional. Ditto for Kerney's police cohorts, who greet their new chief with suspicion but are converted into loyal followers by his sagacious decisions.

The novel -- not quite thriller, not quite police procedural -- falls into a genre crack. Tularosa also had an adventure story element missing in this book. It was, as is generally the case with series, better than this new book.

Perhaps I'll read another McGarrity on another trip to New Mexico, or sometime when I'm homesick for Santa Fe. He provides a reliable read with a great sense of place for some easy-going relaxation.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

This historical novel by Richard Zimler is compelling and well-written, but tough going. The narrative covers several days of the 1507 massacre of "New Christians" -- forcibly converted Jews -- and makes for often gruesome reading. Zimler spares few details of dismemberment and burning, sudden death and suffering in the frenzy of persecution.

But those tragic events are the backdrop for a mystery involving betrayal within the Jewish community. Berekiah Zarco's beloved uncle, the leading kabbalist in the community, is slain during the riots not by Old Christians but by someone within his inner circle who knew his secrets. These are not kabbalistic rituals, but the safekeeping and smuggling of forbidden Jewish manuscripts. Berekiah, a young illuminator and would-be kabbalist, finds his uncle's body in compromising circumstances but knows from the manner of death and location of the body that one of possibly half a dozen people was the culprit.

He sets himself to find out who killed his uncle and to avenge him. He must fight his own grief and the skepticism of the grieving survivors in his family, while avoiding the ever-present risks of the sectarian violence.

Zimler narrates all this with a tactile feel for medieval Lisbon and an authoritative understanding of the Jewish milieu. He never takes time out to pendantically explain kabbalism, and in fact this esoteric Jewish practice does not play a major role in the plot. Rather it colors the characters and lends further mystery to the action.

The story is about remaining true to your beliefs in a time of deceit, and loyal to your comrades when betrayal can save your life. Many of the characters make some compromise to survive, but there is a clear line separating those whose faithlessness costs the lives of others. Berekiah comes to see that his uncle's killer is not the only villain.

Unraveling the mystery is an intricate and sometimes bewildering process as Berekiah suspects and then clears each of his uncle's inner circle, only to have them fall under suspicion again as new evidence emerges. The reader has to do some work to keep track of the comings and goings of the characters.

The story is framed by Berekiah in later life in Constantinople and his decision to go back to Lisbon and bring his remaining family away from Christian Europe into the safety of the more tolerant Muslim domains. The portrayal of Old Christians, and especially the Dominican Inquisitors who fomented the massacre, is unrelentingly harsh. The bleakness and cruelty of medieval society portrayed here is reminiscent of Arras under the plague in Andrzej Szczypiorski's A Mass for Arras

Berekiah is skeptical that Christian Europe will ever be safe for Jews and of course the events of the 20th century bear this out. But neither are the Muslim domains and perhaps the real lesson is that no one is ever safe from bigotry.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Thriller fails

I try to support Politics & Prose by choosing books at random based on what they display on the tables. The books are attractive, I sometimes know the authors, and the blurbs and opening pages convince me to buy. But lately I've been striking out, coming home with books that I quickly become disappointed with.

The latest was Don't Cry, Tai Lake by Qiu Xialong, featuring his Inspector Chen in Shanghai. I've had his Death of a Red Heroine on the shelf for some time but never gotten around to reading it. I gave this book quite a while, a good halfway through it, letting the exotic setting in a resort outside Shanghai, the plot about environmental decay and the author's penchant for quoting poetry, both classical Chinese poetry and Chen's own verses carry me along. But it was just plodding along. The writing, aside from the poetry, is lackluster, the characters like a literary version of naive art, and the mystery anything but compelling.

This miss closely followed an earlier purchase of Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon. I've read several of Kanon's books, though I didn't think his later novels matched the quality of his debut, Los Alamos. Obviously, the setting in postwar Istanbul intrigued me, but I found the beginning of the book at least quite dull, sort of Alan Furst without the drive (just as the later Furst books seem to lack any oomph). It may be that I'll pick this up another time and get into it, but I'm leaving it aside for now.

The first strike of the three was The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri, the new novel featuring Inspector Montalbano, which I've already commented on.

Let me indulge in a quibble. My theory is that an author will not have a main character who smokes unless the author him(her)self smokes. Camilleri leaves you in no doubt because he's holding a cigarette in his author photo in the best 1950s fashion. I accept that culturally, in Sicily and China, for instance, a lot more people still smoke and it's perfectly logical to have a character with this habit. But at this point I personally just find it offensive and while I might be willing to overlook it in a crackerjack book that I can't put down, it just becomes another annoyance if I'm plodding along in a dull narrative. In general, I think it rarely contributes in any significant way to atmosphere or characterization and sometimes even seems to be a passive-aggressive act of defiance on the author's part. So fine, ohne mich.

One of the advantages of buying books online is that you can do a little research before actually making the purchase. While the star ratings may be a little dubious, they do win in credibility with numbers and you can always look for outside reviews. Most of my online purchases start the other way -- I run across someone who raves about a particular book and go to Amazon for the purchase after some cursory due diligence. I will continue to browse at P&P, but I will be more cautious about impulse purchases.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

We Live in Water

This terrific collection of short stories by Jess Walter is a virtuoso performance by one of my favorite authors. The stories range from the touching quest of a homeless man to buy a birthday present for his son in "Anything Helps" to a Cloud Atlas-like future world in "Don't Eat Cat."

Most are set in the Pacific Northwest where Walter, a native of Spokane, lives, and they feature normal men and women -- mostly white, mostly poor -- who live there. Walter's characters drive vehicles they need to park on a hill in order to start and a disturbing number have amputations from diabetes. The protagonists are flawed, often deeply so, and there's a fair amount of murder and mayhem.

But these characters generally are trying to carve out some bit of integrity in their lives, whether it's a father who puts himself in harm's way to make sure his little boy makes it home safely or a mechanic who stands up to a boss who systematically cheats a senile customer. They are not perfect, but they are trying to be better. In many of the stories, it's the responsibility of parenthood, the desire for their children to do well and be safe -- even if the parent has screwed up his own life -- that motivates them.

All of this told in an array of voices that once again matches the virtuosity of David Mitchell, with a comfortable American twist. Walter reminds me most of early Don De Lillo, with the same wry, post-modernist view of the world. It's a perfect book for serial reading, following on the short story collections of Hemingway and Maugham.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Odds Against Tomorrow

It's not often that I just go read a book after reading the review, but the NY Times Book Review's article on Nathaniel Rich's new novel struck the right chord. The book is witty, laugh-out-loud funny and satirical but the humor does not completely mask the hard edge.

Mitchell Zukor is obsessed with catastrophe and channels his affinity for it into a lucrative career as a futurist, forecasting scenarios for corporate clients. While many of these people seem to view his advice as simple catharsis -- by imagining the worst, they somehow avoid it -- Mitchell never forgets that he is talking about a possible reality and never really relaxes.

The hook used by the Times reviewer is that the catastrophe that plays out is one all too realistic after Hurricane Sandy led to widespread flooding in Manhattan. Once the tidal surge covers most of Manhattan in water, it is like Sandy meets Katrina, and Mitchell's trip in a canoe is reminiscent of Zeitoun's real-life meanderings through a flooded New Orleans.

I'm a big fan of catastrophe films. It's embarrassing how many times I've watched Dante's Peak, Volcano, Contagion, Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon, 2012 and so on. And yet, Mitchell's encounter with this all-too-imaginable catastrophe is not science fiction or fantasy but a drama about how we cope with existential fear in our fragile environment.

Rich is screamingly funny in articulating these fears -- from the consequences of climate change, to nuclear and terrorist threats, up to asteroids hitting the earth. The week after the Boston Marathon bombing and the day the Times reports that a Midwest scarred by drought is now covered with floodwaters makes them seem anything but remote.

Rich is a post-modernist writer in the vein of Don DeLillo and Jess Walter -- sardonic, cynical, but deep down idealistic about human nature. Mitchell remains sympathetic even in the disturbing end of the book when, having survived this catastrophe, he accepts the consequences of what this means for how he lives his life.

There are two women in Mitchell's life -- the mystical Elsa and the pragmatic Jane. He is subservient first to one and then to the other, breaking free only after he has had to make his choices about dealing with catastrophe and mastering his fear. At least, we presume he has mastered it, because his life is changed and he is for once truly independent.

Mitchell's parents and his FutureWorld employer offer humorous sidelights, but it is Jane -- ambitious, bright, sexy, vulnerable -- who brings what passes for normalcy in our society into conflict with Mitchell's own quest. He deals with Jane's various temptations even as he seeks answers to Elsa's mysterious exile in a survivalist farm and her own way of dealing with a mortally dangerous heart condition.

This is an imaginative, ultra-timely, idiosyncratic portrayal of the dark side of our modern world -- the fears we try to keep at bay but which are never far away.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Panda's Thumb

I was glad when somebody in my new book group suggested this collection of essays by Stephen Jay Gould as our selection for April. It had been sitting on my shelf (shelves, really, since it moved with me several times) for a good 30 years.

I'm glad I finally got to read (most of) it, but I understand now why it sat on my shelf for so long. Gould is an entertaining writer, witty and widely read. But these are unredacted columns he published on a monthly basis in the 1970s. This means the essays are pointed and informative, but also somewhat repetitive and shallow, and by now out of date.

As I said during our discussion of the book, what struck me most was how his openness to the facts of science challenges the reader to face up to legacy notions of creationism, intelligent design, and progress. Gould's full-blooded Darwinism leaves no room for a divine plan or a special place for mankind in creation. Even his concession that our cultural evolution is "Lamarckian" in nature -- we are able to pass on acquired attributes -- begs the question of how much progress mankind has actually made. There may be a way to reconcile this science to faith, but that's not my challenge and I'm not sure how it would be done.

I didn't get through all the essays, but I think the book served its purpose for me after the several I did read -- it opened my eyes to looking at the fact of the world we live in, the scale of time that it's in and the perspective on life that it brings. At one point, Gould observes that a mite who has impregnated his sisters before birth and dies a few brief moments after birth has made the same contribution to carrying on his species as Abraham and all his decades. Funny, true, but a pointed reminder that life is so much more than our biological function.

I have two or three other books by Gould sitting on my shelf, but I have the feeling that the window of opportunity for me to read them and get something from them has passed. I was not as enthralled by the science and scientific method on display here as some of the other members of the book group. I don't think that reading some more old columns with variations on the theme would enrich my life significantly, at least not in comparison to the pleasure or learning from alternative choices. So I may finally be able to pack these natural history books up to give away.

I also have several books by David Quammen. It's clear that the idea of natural history -- a holdover from my dinosaur phase? -- intrigued me. Quammen wrote the lead review in last Sunday's NYTBR, a history of the discovery of gorillas. I'll have a go at one of those to see how I like that author before packing them up, too.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Woodrow Wilson

When I first joined Goodreads some time ago I hoped it would be that virtual book club that would let you discuss whatever book you wanted to read with other like-minded people without spending time reading books you weren't interested in. I could never make it work that way for me. The 50-state mystery challenge, for instance, never generated any real discussion, only people ticking off another state. But what can you say, really, about a mystery set in Utah if no one else has read it?

So now I'm trying something different -- joining in a common reading of the biography of the 28th president by John Milton Cooper Jr. This is a lot like being in a real book club and deciding you like the book other people chose, but I have been interested in Wilson for some time. Also, there is actually a reading schedule of about a chapter a week and a discussion thread for each week.

If I keep with it and comment often enough, I will probably update this post with my successive comments. The first one, today, covered the Prologue and Ch. 1, pp. 3-32 in the book:

It's interesting how little most of us know about Wilson or how vague our impressions are. What struck me is the claim that Wilson was not "Wilsonian" any more than Marx was "Marxist." Put me down for one of those who thinks of Wilson as a woolly-headed idealist. I look forward to Cooper's evidence debunking that idea.

The other thing that struck me about these opening pages was the description of Wilson as a transformational president. This is certainly the aspiration of the current occupant of the White House and it will be interesting to compare notes on the two presidents.

Update April 14 (chs. 2 and 3):

This quote from Wilson about how he lacked a scientific mind caught my eye: "I have no patience for the tedious toil of what is known as 'research'; I have a passion for interpreting great thoughts to the world." p. 51 Cooper. Even though Cooper goes on to say it was not quite true, it's an insight into Wilson's brimming self-confidence.

What surprised me most in these two chapters was the portrayal of Wilson as a passionate lover of his wife and a father who plays tag with his children -- only because my knowledge of him was limited to stern photographs like the one on the cover. I might have thought he was a taskmaster and disciplinarian so these anecdotes certainly round out the picture.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Arctic Chill

It's hard to explain the charm of these Nordic thrillers set in the icy, dark winter, but I suspect it's the quality of the writing as much as anything else. At the end of this procedural by Arnaldur Indridason, his detective, Erlendur, is asking himself how people live in Iceland:
As so often before at this darkest time of the year he wondered how people had survived for hundreds of years in a country with such a harsh climate. The frost tightened its grip as evening fell, whipped up by the chill Arctic wind that blasted in from the sea and south over the desolate winter landscape....The wind howled and shrieked between the buildings and down the empty streets. The city lay lifeless, as if in the grip of a plague. People stayed inside their houses. They locked their doors, closed their windows and pulled the curtains, hoping against hope that the cold spell would soon be over.
Erlendur is, as this shows, the brooding sort. He broods about his wayward children, whom he neglected when they were growing up. He broods about his cases -- here the seemingly pointless death of a 10-year-old Thai immigrant child as well as a wife gone missing. He broods about his dying superior, whose hand he holds as he passes away and whose urn he buries shortly before the passage cited. Above all, he broods about his lost brother, whose hand slipped out of his during a blizzard and who was never found, dead or alive, though Erlendur survived by burrowing into a snowdrift. (The reader, of course, wonders if the brother some day will turn up alive.)

The plot, involving the child of a Thai mother and Icelandic father, dealt with racism and nationalism. The contrast between the sunny, optimistic disposition of the Thai woman and the dark, brooding Icelandic mentality intensified the racist undertones. And yet, the bigotry was of a relatively gentle sort, and the nationalism was not as heavy-handed as in Jo Nesbo's portrayal of Norway.

The names of the characters are wonderful. You feel like you've been transported to Valhalla or are sailing with a group of Vikings -- Ragnar, Sigridur, Elinborg, and so on. The only reasonably familiar name was that of the dying superior, Marion Briem, and one character commented how odd this name sounded. Indridason doesn't spare us the names of Reykjavik's streets or Iceland's mountains, but he is not nearly as punctilious as Stieg Larsson is with Stockholm.

The plot develops, quirky characters and potential suspects come and go, clues are tenaciously followed up and finally enable the detectives to unravel the mystery. Nothing can bring back Elias, the 10-year-old boy whose Thai name, Aran, meant forest, and who wrote in his exercise book, How many trees does it take to make a forest?

The brooding Erlendur is a complex character whose preoccupations are not as obvious as Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander. Other characters also have some depth and in this book a whole new side of Sigurdur Olli, Erlendur's deputy, is developed. I liked Silence of the Grave and this confirms me as a fan of the series.

I picked up this book after two "fails." The cover and opening lines of The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri had beguiled me when I saw it on the table at Politics & Prose. It was the latest in his series featuring Inspector Montalbano, procedurals set in sunny Sicily. The Italian setting appealed to me and I knew there was a TV series based on the books. However, I just couldn't get into it. Montalbano was a scruffy old detective constantly firing up his cigarettes, arguing with his lady friend, and saying fairly inane things to his colleagues. Camilleri's descriptions of the environment had none of the detail or sense of place that Indridason brings to Iceland, let alone the sheer lyricism. The characters seemed shallow compared, in retrospect, to Erlendur, Sigurdur Olli and their cohorts. Maybe the earlier Montalbano books were better; maybe at some point I'll try reading them in Italian.

The other "fail" was The Coffee Trader by David Liss, which has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I liked A Conspiracy of Paper the plot involving coffee trading in Amsterdam -- in the same Jewish community that Spinoza lived in (as portrayed so dramatically in the play "The New Jerusalem") -- had a lot of appeal for me. I was well into the book when I noticed I was bored -- stiff. The stilted language which worked in the earlier book to carry the reader back in time simply seemed stilted this time. The pace was languid and it was when yet another character noted for the dozenth time that Jews were not allowed to trade with Gentiles under threat of excommunication that I realized I wasn't enjoying this book. Maybe another time, but I don't think so.