Monday, September 22, 2014

Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, by Leif GW Persson

Let's get one thing out of the way from the beginning: this book  is something of a slog. Remember how everyone said that they loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, except that it packed in too much information? (I didn't actually mind that, though I had other problems with the book.) Well, this book takes information loading to another degree entirely.


On top of that, the translation is often infelicitous--a pet peeve being that women never seem to laugh in the book, they only giggle; the pacing is not what you would call action packed; and the many, many characters are not as individuated as they might be. (This is one of those books where a cast list of characters would have helped.) Some of them, though important and recurring, are never referred to by name--the special advisor, the Stockholm chief constable, and the prime minister being the main ones. And there is an overabundance of characters saying something and then thinking something else privately to themselves, rendered in a repetitious and heavyhanded fashion.


I wasn't obligated to read this book for any reason. Why then, did I persist? Well, partly because I knew that if I did not continue now, I would never have the heart to begin it again, which I would have had to do to have any idea what was going on. But more, as time went on and the journey became harder, because I felt that despite the less than literary rendering, the author genuinely had something to say.


Have you ever read a spy novel or thriller where there's a lot of action and exotic locales, but where the characters are cartoonish and their motivations clichéd? Well, this book is the opposite of that. Persson obviously cares very deeply about what he's really trying to get across, which is basically an indictment of the Swedish police, government and secret service and he's had to write a vast, complex and deeply cynical tale to do it. Despite my complaints, it is actually woven together thoroughly for such a multi-faceted story. Characters that appear at the beginning and disappear for a long while are there again at the end. We may have lost track of them, but Persson hasn't.


The story begins with a falling body. The opening, in fact, promises a book that is not much like the one we actually end up reading, full of character, incident and dark humor. Along about page 97, however, the readership is likely to be thinned out considerably, as we are treated not only to a wholly new cast of characters, but also an extremely dry discussion of the internal and external aspects of the Swedish police structure. And I suppose chapter subtitles should have been a clue, but it took me longer than I care to admit to realize that this thread of the story actually takes place before the part we have just read. They are parallel tracks through the same incidents, but the second one is slightly earlier in time. Knowing that in advance may help you to sort out the timeline here better than I did.


My sheerly intuitive sense of what Persson had in mind in undertaking this was fleshed out by some helpful comments Philip Amos made over at Detectives Beyond Borders recently. Although author notes in the book tell us that Persson is a leading Swedish criminologist, Amos told us that he was actually fired for blowing the whistle on the Justice Minister, who was deeply implicated in a prostitution ring. (The justice minister is another figure in this book that is never mentioned by name.) And he speculates that crime fiction was a way for Persson to 'get the word out' on some of the shadowy activities of various Swedish institutions.


The story Persson is trying to tell in this novel is about another of the great unsolved political crimes, that of the assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme in 1986. We circumambulate this figure without getting to meet him directly, but Persson describes an intriguing figure to say the least. A Kennedyesque figure, in fact, which makes it appropriate that I should have learned more about him, purely by chance, on the comment thread of a post about another chronicler and speculator on political and conspiratorial crime, James Ellroy.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

In Patagonia at EIL, and other assorted news

Just a quick post to say that there's a new book review up on Escape Into Life by Julie C. Graham on the classic travel book In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin and you can  find it HERE. To my chagrin, I've never read any of Chatwin's acclaimed works, but in putting up a couple of supplemental links to the review in case readers are interested in going further, I discovered something that I had long been curious about. At the time Chatwin died in 1989, he was said to have picked up some rare tropical disease. Somehow I managed to miss the later disclosure that he had actually died of AIDS. He was one of the first British celebrity types to get or least show symptoms of the disease so his lack of candor is understandable and makes me realize what a long way we've come. But it's funny the effect these kinds of evasions have. For years I've retained really only one thing about Chatwin, and that was the dying of a puzzling tropical disease part. And it's subtly affected my whole idea about intrepid traveling and its hazards. Of course there are hazards to intrepid traveling, it's just that Chatwin's particular fate isn't one of them.


And I learned from Wikipedia just now that Chatwin's memorial service was held at a Greek Orthodox church in London. It was attended by Salman Rushdie, one of his close friends. That day happened to be the day that the notorious fatwa was pronounced upon Rushdie. This was chronicled later by both Paul Theroux and Martin Amis. One of those odd little nodes of British literary history.


***
In other news, I was thrilled the other day to see that Karen Joy Fowler had made the Booker Prize shortlist for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Fowler is a resident of the Santa Cruz area, and I happened to read the book in galley form before publication, which frankly was probably the best way in the world to read it as there were absolutely no spoilers. Anyway, it's a terrific book, and although I haven't read the others on the shortlist, I hope she wins.
Fingers crossed.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham up at EIL


This week my review for Escape Into Life is about the new book The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle For James Joyce's Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham. As I try to stress there, you really don't have to have any interest in Joyce at all to enjoy and be taken up by this multifaceted book on early 20th century culture in the U.S. and Europe.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

a book bundle at Escape Into Life plus a little bit of news about Adrian McKinty

I did something a little different at Escape Into Life for the book review feature on Friday, which was to do some capsule reviews of some books I'd written up elsewhere. In brief I was kind of struck by how I seemed to find myself in the South Seas any time I opened a book this summer. I've reviewed a couple of these books here, but hey, you might have missed them. Anyway, for some capsule reviews, or really more like brief descriptions of Darwin's Armada by  Iain McCallum, The Signature of All ThinEgs  by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty check out my post HERE.


Speaking of The Sun is God,  the American version is out on the 9th, which is just a couple of days away. It should be easily available wherever you buy books these days.






And speaking of Mr. McKinty, word has reached us that the third book in his Troubles Trilogy, In the Morning I'll Be Gone, has just won the Australian Crime Writer's Association's prestigious Ned Kelly Award. If you haven't gotten around to the Sean Duffy books, I personally would start at the beginning with The Cold Cold Ground, but you won't be lost if you jump in on book three.


"Troubles Trilogy" turns out to have been a bit premature, as in an extremely well-timed coincidence, McKinty has recently announced that he is working on number four in the series. Read all about Gun Street Girl HERE, and if you're so inclined, follow the link there to a five chapter preview.




Congratulations, Adrian. As I've often said, we'll say we knew you when.

















Monday, September 1, 2014

Ten Classics I Haven't Read Yet

Never mind David Foster Wallace or David Mitchell, or Murukami, Bolaño or Javier Marías. What about all those classics I haven't read that have been around all my life?


Just for kicks, here are ten of them. Maybe this will prompt me to read at least one of them before too long:


1. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man--James Joyce

This is probably what started me on this thread. Despite the fact that I am in a longstanding group devoted to reading Finnegans Wake, and despite having read The Dubliners and Ulysses, I have yet to get to this book, proving that it is not always the most formidable work of an author that we have the most resistance to.


2. Treasure Island--Robert Louis Stevenson

This may be one it turns out I have read. I did read one Stevenson classic when I was a kid, I just don't remember which one. Having read Kidnapped a couple of years ago, I am still not entirely sure if I'd read it in the distant past or not. In any case, there are a couple of Treasure Island spinoffs that I'd like to read, but not till I've read the original, so this is becoming an ever deepening spiral of neglect. (The two spinoff novels are Silver--Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion and Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine.)


3. Madame Bovary--Gustave Flaubert

This is one of those books that I've made a start on multiple times. I've even read a very intriguing piece of literary criticism called Crack Wars by Avital Ronell, which studies Madame Bovary as "the first addict". My most recent attempt was after reading Lydia Davis' piece in The Paris Review about translating the book. I bought a copy of her translation. So far, no luck in pursuing it any further.


4. The Scarlet Letter--Nathaniel Hawthorne

How I managed to get through high school and have no contact with this one, I'll never know. I have actually read a fair amount of Hawthorne--stories, The House of Seven Gables, even the intriguing The Blithedale Romance, which explores utopia, 19th century style, but his most iconic work, no. I believe this was even read by a book group I was in, but I still managed to evade it. Demi Moore as Hester Prynne didn't lure me in either. And no, I didn't see the movie.


5.  Lolita--Vladimir Nabokov

As may now be apparent as a pattern here, I have read some Nabokov, Speak, Memory being my initial inroad, and though I wasn't crazy about it (or him) it did lead me to some of the early works (Mary, The Defense), and I liked them. I then attempted Ada for some reason, and was put off. I have a couple of copies of Lolita somewhere, due to various resolutions. So far nothing. I have seen the first movie of this, which I liked, so it's not that kind of resistance. I have heard that Jeremy Irons reading of it is excellent, so maybe this is the way to go.


6. The Forsyte Saga--John Galsworthy


If I was a very strict list maker, this one might not really fit, as it is more than one book, and isn't typically one on everybody's list of must reads anymore. Luckily I'm not a stickler for uniformity so this one gets in as one I've probably been thinking I was going  to read since I was a teen. I think this because I know at some point we were given the first six books as a Christmas present. Pocket books, red and green. What I remember is that for some reason we were given six and not nine, which I think was the set at the time, and told, let's see how it goes. I am not sure that six was the lucky number. I have wanted to read these for various reasons over time, not least because I was in conversation with my aunt about whether PBS had cast the Masterpiece Theatre version correctly. Conversation might be the wrong word, as I didn't watch the show, wanting to read the books first. Yeah, that was going to happen. I have read the initial set up about the house and family at least twice if not more, but I seemed destined not to know how all the dilemmas about the house or property or whatever it is get resolved.


7. The Plague--Albert Camus


I don't know if this quite fits here either, as I have never had all that much interest in reading this book. I suppose I like the idea of saying I've read it more than the actual prospect. I did finally read The Stranger not that long ago, and I thought it very good, although I seem to disagree with most people on what is really happening in it. The book that should probably really stand in place of this one is The First Man, his incomplete autobiographical novel. My aunt recommended this to me, and I had every intention of reading it while we could still talk about it, but alas, that didn't happen.


8. The Death of Ivan Ilyich--Leo Tolstoy

It's short, and I've read Anna Karenina and War and Peace, even the battle scenes, so why is this one beyond me?


9. The Odyssey--Homer


Okay, not a novel. I've read The Iliad, I even learned to say the opening lines in iambic pentameter in Ancient Greek, but The Odyssey continues to be out of reach. Not that I haven't seen practically every version dramatically rendered of it over time. And I must have read some extremely abbreviated children's version or something, because I feel as though I have always known all that happens to our hero. The Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens, Penelope--all of it. So maybe it just isn't novel enough. But as someone who has read Ulysses, and plans to read it again, there really is no excuse.


10. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy--John le Carré

I hope you weren't expecting some dramatic, perhaps shocking finish. I could have said Moby Dick, but come on, no one's actually read that, have they? No, this is just one that I've meant to read and meant to read and even the lovely new edition and the movie hasn't resulted in that happening. Again, I've read early work, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and I've opened this and liked the writing very much but it just haven't happened yet. Maybe I still don't quite forgive him for his diatribe against Salman Rushdie when the chips were down.



This one I did read.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Death in a Cold Climate, by Robert Barnard

As much as I like to tackle big, ambitious books, there's a time and place for lighter books of entertainment too, and after a spate of the heavy hitters I was in the mood for an old-fashioned mystery novel. I had picked up Death in a Cold Climate awhile ago, after reading about it on Martin Edwards' blog and now seemed like the perfect time to settle into it.

I've read a couple of Barnard's mysteries in the past, and always thought of him as a quintessentially British sort of writer, so was surprised to find that this book is set in the city of Tromsø, Norway. One might think this an odd choice, but in fact, Barnard was a professor of English there for ten years, and in some ways its more surprising that Death in a Cold Climate is the only one he wrote about Norway. I was interested in it partly because, having been published in 1980, it somewhat predates the big wave of Nordic Noir that has swept over us in recent years.

"It was midday on December 21 in  the city of Tromsø, three degrees north of the Arctic Circle."

So, though most of the photos you will find of Tromsø portray a bright sunny city, this is a midwinter's tale.

A young man, a stranger, appears in town, and is shortly after dispatched to his Maker. Winter is indeed a factor in the lag time between his death and the public knowledge of it. In between these events, we get to know those who frequent the Cardinal's Hat--"a Dickensian, cellarlike restaurant" where foreigners meet and mingle with Norwegians who want to practice their English. It's a nice device for bringing in both natives and foreigners into the list of suspects, because it doesn't take too long for Detective Fagermo to discover that the murder victim is an English speaker.

The mystery itself is I think a convincing one, but what I most enjoyed I think was Barnard's observations about the people and the place itself, which Barnard describes as the equivalent of an outback town, and a city of exiles. More wry than caustic, he is not above taking a poke or two at the natives. Not that the British and Americans who appear in his pages aren't in for a few barbs themselves.

The character of the murder victim did seem a little mystifying, though. Fagermo must build up a picture of who he was to even investigate the crime, so we are treated to quite a few past encounters. Some of them are somewhat at odds with each other. In the end, I think we continue to see him through a glass, darkly.

Although there are some amusing asides, not all of them resonated with me. And I still think the slyness of the Author Notes in front is one of the funniest bits:

"Setting a book in a real town always involves the danger that the reader will assume that the characters as well as the topography are based on reality. I should like to insist, therefore, with even more force than usual, that though I have remained fairly faithful in depicting Tromsø, the characters are entirely fictitious: the policemen are not Tromsø policemen, the students are not Tromsø students, and above all the Professor of English is not Tromsø's Professor of English."


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Safekeeping at EIL

Just a quick note to say that I put Julie C. Graham's review of Abigail Thomas' Safekeeping: Some True Stories of a Life up over at the Escape Into Life website at the beginning of the weekend. Julie was interested in the non-linear and sometimes dizzying approach to memoir that Thomas takes as she talks about marriage to three different husbands. And I was interested to learn in the process of putting the post up that the father she also describes is Lewis Thomas, he of Lives of a Cell fame. Perhaps talent for the essay is a hitherto unsuspected genetic trait.

I should also note here that Julie  has a two part essay on the adventures of women travelers that just went up at Storyacious. You can find these HERE and HERE .

And what have I been reading, you ask? Well, several things. A Robert Barnard mystery, a new book on censorship and Ulysses, a Swedish political thriller, and another classic British mystery centered around a school. But all in good time, my friends. All in good time.