Monday, January 31, 2011

Ghosts of Belfast and Collusion by Stuart Neville

I read Stuart Neville's Collusion last week, and find myself in a somewhat dissenting opinion from many reviews I've read. Although it is its own tale,with its own hero, I think that readers will be doing themselves a disservice if they don't read Neville's previous novel The Ghosts of Belfast, or, as it's known across the pond, The Twelve, first. It's not that you can't read Collusion on its own, it's that you're basically wrecking TGoB if you do. Collusion ties up too many of Ghosts loose ends to read in reverse order. But do what you will, I can but advise.
In Ghosts of Belfast, former IRA hitman Gerry Fegan must settle some scores--with himself, among other people. Not to be too flip about it, but he sees dead people. The people he sees are the ones he's helped make dead. He seeks revenge on their behalf against the very people who used him to achieve their ends. The story is basically the unfolding of this idea. It's effective, well written and in some ways tidy. Collusion comes along to remind us that things are never as tidy as all that. 

This second novel does include characters from the first, including Fegan. Its central character, however, is new to us. Jack Lennon, a Northern Irish cop, bears a relation to Fegan that neither of them know about. His role is to get to the bottom of some mysterious killings that seem to come out of Northern Ireland's recent past. His interest is also more personal--he wants to be sure his ex-wife and daughter are kept safely out of the way.

The reason this novel is called Collusion is quite clear--it's even spelled out at a certain point in the novel. What's a bit hard for an outsider to Northern Ireland's politics and history to fathom is how much of the tale that unfolds is based on endemic collusion in the real world, and how much of it just makes for good storytelling. The relentless pace of the book, starting right from its slam dunk opening, guarantees a satisfying read for thriller readers, and it's obvious that it would do well on the big screen. Neville cites some of the sources for his central premise at the end. But an American reader is left wondering a bit. Was collusion between all parties really so pervasive in the North's recent history, or is Neville using a bit of poetic license to underscore his premise. In some ways, I think that only someone who had lived through these times or whose parents had would really be able to know the answer.

(This post is part of the Ireland Challenge 2011. Only one book counts towards my goal of 6, as I read Ghosts of Belfast awhile ago.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ireland Reading Challenge for 2011

I really didn't think I was going to do any of these challenges this year. Frankly, they stress me out. But following the example of Bookwitch and Dorte, which I know can only be a good thing, I've decided to go for it--the Ireland Reading Challenge. I'm even going for the hardest level, the Kiss the Blarney Stone level, which is six books by Irish writers in 2011.

The way I see it, I'm already good for one, having just finished Stuart Neville's Collusion, and I know I'll be reading Adrian McKinty's Falling Glass as soon as it comes out this spring. Then I've got a whole host of others up my sleeve, like Ken Bruen, Brian McGilloway and Declan Burke. The thing just writes itself, basically.

Go ahead, sign up. You can take the Shamrock level and only do two...that is, if you're chicken... 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

My Questions about "The Finkler Question"

Tonight [it was actually Tuesday] is the night we meet to discuss our past month's reading of The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson's Man-Booker prizewinning novel about three men who live in London, consider themselves friends, and are no longer young. Julian Treslove is the main protagonist in the book, though the concept of Treslove as a protagonist is a bit of a tall order to fill. Treslove is the kind of guy, now mid-forties, who has wandered through life without really inhabiting it, although he does seem to inhabit it long enough to have fathered a couple of sons who he doesn't really know very well or care very much about. NOr, for that matter, do they him.

Treslove is fixated on the idea of falling in love with a woman who will die in his arms. This doesn't make him a serial killer, as, despite the fact of wishing to be in on their death, he doesn't particularly wish them dead. His ideas of love lead him to a sequence of trysts with pale undernourished types. Unsurprisingly, none of them last very long.

Treslove seems to be the kind of guy who carries some very peculiar ideas in his head, which frankly, are no more interesting for being odd. He's pushing fifty, and seems still to be waiting for life to happen, despite having had the good fortune to have gone to a good school, be handsome enough to pass for Brad Pitt, or, any other famous celebrity seemingly (and quite improbably). He's even worked for the BBC, but despite having left it voluntarily, he feels resentment bordering on rage at having worked there for as long as he did.

As the story opens, he has fallen into the habit--nothing that Treslove does could actually be attributed to purposefulness--of dining with two old friends--one of whom is his peer and friend, though perhaps more rival than friend, and the other their former teacher, who is of much more advanced years. Both of these men are widowers, and though differing in their modes of grief, are in fact sincerly griefstricken. In their grief, Treslove finds them particularly congenial. Why they put up with him is another question.

His friends are both Jewish and Treslove develops a fascination with what this identity means. Much of the book is filled with his desire to try and fathom this, and it gives nothing away to say that the Finkler question is a kind of code in Treslove's own mind for 'the Jewish question'. If the book weren't written by a Jew himself, as my friends assure me Jacobson is, this whole premise would be offensive, and frankly, I am not sure it doesn't remain so in any case. Finkler is only the surname of his successful friend, and is not meant as a derogative, but to my ears it sounds like the kind of slang that has a negative slur built into it.

For me, the farcical elements of the novel are only mildly amusing at best, though it's obvious that Jacobson has put some thought into them. If the story stayed purely on the level of poking fun at a certain class of Londoner, it would be fairly enjoyable but forgetable. But it seems also to want to be truly about loss and grief, and also to tackle the enormous subject of anti-Semitism. In this last, I think it is probably the most successful. At least, it is the most uncomfortable aspect of the book, and the one that seems likely to remain with me.

The Jews of the book are highly successful people, much more successful than Treslove, I think, even at the business of living life. Yet behind the lives of these cultured and sophisticated Londoners, there still lurks the question of the Holocaust. In the aftermath of that history, what ease? Is 'one little anti-Semitic piece of graffiti something, or nothing? When does the defacement of a Jewish cultural center mean justg a bunch of louts and when does it mean something more?

Some of the way these questions are framed are odd to an American. Here, so often anti-Semitism and racism against many other races and cultures often get mixed up in one very foul pot. But the question of Israel, its policies and existence, are probably much the same. Jacobson has his characters discuss these things at length, and much to his credit, I am not really sure where he personally comes down on the issues. I think he might say that we can feel one way, and yet that events might lead us to a wholly different conclusion.

Frankly, I was not terribly engaged by any of it, but then the shootings in Tucson happened. In an oddly synchronous experience, I heard Sarah Palin use the phrase 'blood libel' and then found the term used on the very next page I read of  The Finkler Question. Although, I have no idea what harm if any Palin meant in using the phrase, certain alarm bells went off in the context of the book. Then the fact that Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish struck me as an odd fact in the equation of tragedy  here. I hadn't actually known that, but it turns out that what I know or feel doesn't actually make much difference. Was the targeting of her anti-Semitic or just crazy? Or both?

That is the kind of question that progressively grows in The Finkler Question. Is it something, or is it nothing? Wisely, Jacobsen only poses it--he doesn't attempt to give some definitive answer.

*                      *                       *                     
Well, the book group as a whole liked this book a lot more than I did. I think that the strength of the inquiry into anti-Semitism trumped the weakness of main character for almost everyone else. I put my points across, but at one point one member looked at me and asked if we had been reading the same book. It turns out that when reading novels like this one, we can gravitate towards different things in our evaluation of it. Jacobsen purposely made Treslove empty and infantile. I didn't mind that so much but I did mind having to suffer through countless pages of his introspection. If it served the greater purpose, maybe that can be excused. That, I think is where the group split on this.

It was a great book for discussion, though. I think we all agreed on that. One member actually related that she had discovered that she was Jewish, or half-Jewish or whatever at her father's funeral a few years ago. Her mother was Jewish, but kept it a secret. I don't know how it all came out and it's not my story anyway. But it just goes to show, as Jacobsen points out, that all of these issues are a long way from being over.        

Monday, January 17, 2011

Not New for Long...But Not Long, Either

I don't usually use any of my blogs to promote the place I work. It's not because it's not worthy of promotion, but I tend to like to keep Work and Not Work separate to some degree. Nevertheless, every once in awhile I realize that I should say something about the things I get from the place I spend a large portion of my life at, and one of these things is the number of nice, smart and interesting people I've worked with over the years at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

 Recently, I've had a good example of this in the form of Matchbook Story. I've mentioned this literally tiny publishing venture in other places, but recently it has all come together in a particularly felicitous way for the greater Bookshop community, past and present.. A couple of months ago Michele Norris of NPR visited the bookstore while promoting her new book, The Grace of Silence. By all accounts it was an excellent and thought provoking event, and we are lucky that the man who interviewed her for the event, Rick Kleffel, recorded it, so that you can find it  here under the November 21, 2010 listing. Anyway, somehow it came up that Ms. Norris had become interested in flash fiction, because in her hectic life she doesn't have much time for the longer version. One of the staff members who was helping to run the event that night, the quick thinking Kat Bailey, realized that she had an example of a form that puts even flash fiction to the test. She handed her Matchbook No. 3.

Here is Ms. Norris's blog post about this experience.

So the cool part for me is that the author of the story that struck Ms. Norris is my friend Susan McCloskey, our current events coordinator; the editor of Matchbook Story is my friend and sometime coworker, Kyle Peterson and the sponsor of this particular Matchbook was the Delmarette Cafe, which is co-owned by my other friend and former co-worker, Jennifer Toner. It might sound like cronyism, but trust me, none of us are rich enough to be cronies in that particular way.

Check out Michelle's blog. Submit to Matchbook Story. (It's fun!) and if you ever get to Santa Cruz, you have got to check out Jen's cupcakes.      

Monday, January 3, 2011

Requiems for the Departed, edited by Gerard Brennan and Mike Stone

I don't really want to look at how long ago I mentioned this book on another blog, hoping to give the project a friendly plug. But it took me to December to finally settle in and read it, and right into the new year to finish it. That's not because it's boring. But especially with story anthologies, I really don't like reading too many at one time. It can be a bit jarring to move from voice to voice to voice.

I really think this is a terrific compendium of many of the people writing Irish crime fiction today. A few of the authors, like Stuart Neville and Adrian McKinty I had read before,  and others, like Ken Bruen were names well known to me just by virtue of shelving the mystery section at the bookstore on a fairly consistent basis. And then there were the writers I already had a sense of from interviews they'd done over at Brennan's CSNI site, or Declan Burke's Crime Always Pays blog.

The premise of asking writers for crime fiction that had some connection to the world of Irish mythology was a brilliant one. Readers from other lands such as myself get a kind of double or triple introduction to the myths, the culture and the crime scene all in one. It gives the authors enough scope to do pretty much whatever they want, and it was interesting to see what tales drew which writers. The writing level was consistently high, and I was impressed that although the stories drew on the Troubles at times, there was a decidedly unsectarian cast to the collection.     

I'm not sure I really want to do the 'stand out' stuff, as I think the collection actually reads best as a whole, not picking out individual parts. I know that I'll be checking out the Brian McGilloway Inspector Devlin series now, as well as some long overdue Bruen. But I'll be checking out any of these writers whose books happen to cross my path in the future.

Great job, Mike and gb!