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.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This was the fourth of the long novels I somehow found myself reading at the behest of one reading group or another during the late spring and early summer, and I thought I'd tackle my 'review' of the book in a slightly different way than I usually do. My regular book group decided to make this a two part read, and so, though I finished it several weeks ago now, it is still up for me in some way. As I await the upcoming late August meeting, I find myself somewhat reluctant to attend and talk about it further. So this post will be some sort of exploration of why that may be.

I never read Eat, Pray, Love, which launched Gilbert onto the bestseller list. During my years with the bookstore, I suffered from what I like to call the bookseller's disease, which is a kind of aversion to books that soar to mass popularity. Part of it has to do with the fact that those books don't need any further help from me and that other books could benefit from my endorsements. But I also had a sense that grew over time that books with such mass appeal were popular for other reasons than purely the quality of their writing. In the case of Eat, Pray, Love, I had a feeling that it spoke to a particular readership--'women of a certain age', as they say, and that as inspirational as it might be to that apparently very large group, it was probably fairly standard in its prose.

So I was surprised on opening The Signature of All Things to find that I was in the hands of an excellent writer, one whose sentences took surprising twists and turns. It was only after starting the book that I realized that before there was Eat, Pray, Love, there was a short story collection called Pilgrims, which was a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway award, and a novel, Stern Men, which became a New York Times Notable Book. In other words, despite two or three non-fiction works recently, Gilbert's initial aspirations were more literary than journalistic.

I am not going to reveal too much about the plot here, or any more than I can help to discuss my impressions, but the story begins with Henry Whittaker, a poor English boy who no one is much looking out for. Henry is the type to pull himself up by his own bootstraps if ever there was one. His adventures and misadventures take him to sea, and through shrewdness and other things not so admirable, he manages to amass a fortune and move to America, where he and his rather formidable Dutch wife have one daughter. The rest of the novel is about the life of this daughter, Alma.

Now, many readers will fall in love with Alma, who, though curiously constrained in many ways, especially for the heiress of a vast fortune, proves to be a pretty formidable person herself. For me, though, the book loses a fair amount of steam when it stops chronicling the rascal Henry Whittaker and turns him into just a mean old irascible patriarch. The opening chapters of The Signature of All Things approach Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in energy, because they follow a similar dynamic figure. For me, it was a little hard to take a lot of interest in the fairly passive Alma after such a dynamic scoundrel, especially as it seemed to be more the author's decision to render her so rather than something that grows naturally out of her character. Alma has her innings, but they don't come early.

There was another peculiar quality of the book for me. Periodically through the course of Alma's life other characters are introduced, and with the exception of one or two, all quite vivacious. Gilbert actually writes very compelling dialogue, but instead of using this gift to give Alma companions, she seems to go out of her way to stifle these relationships in their infancy. I don't want to give away plot points, but it's a bit as though  in Little Women, which is set in an America close in time to Alma's own, Jo had had to go and live with Aunt March and never really gotten to know her sisters, or Laurie had made a brief appearance, only to be sent to boarding school. The remainder of the book would be about how Jo managed to occupy herself in the brief intervals of time when Aunt March didn't need her. She might have found a botanical avocation similar to Alma's. But even Jo March couldn't make grass growing that exciting.

Now don't get me wrong. I looked at a few of the copious reviews of this book on Good Reads, and most of them are not in agreement with me. My criticism is not of craft but of plotting decisions, and that's a very subjective kind of judgement. But when I had reached the halfway mark, I was struck by how oppressed I felt by a curious joyless quality. Things actually livened up a bit shortly after that, fortunately. Though as it's Alma we're talking about, not for long.

The title is taken from a book we learn about after this halfway mark. It is Jacob Boehme's The Signature of All Things that's being referred to here--Boehme being a mystic who believed that God is constantly leaving us clues in nature. This is not very much down Alma's alley, for better or worse. She's a sort of early Darwinian. I mention the title partly because the other day I happened to come across a rather famous passage from Ulysses, where Stephen Daedalus is walking along the strand and thinking:

"Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if  no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane."

And here was me thinking he'd come up with that himself. It turns out that Joyce too is using Boehme to illustrate an idea, and according to this commentary it was Boehme's sense that a thing could only be encountered through its opposite that Stephen is thinking about, which, if I recall right, Gilbert delves into a bit too. Alma Whittaker certainly does meet her opposite, but whether she knows herself better as a result I will leave it for other readers to decide.

In any case, for a long book, and one I had some resistance to, The Signature of All Things was not at all a  slog, so don't let me put you off it. Give it a go, and if you're so inclined drop a line here and tell us what you think. It's not going to hurt my feelings at all to find out you loved it. 


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Line of Fire by Barroux reviewed at EIL

Just a quick note to say that my review in remembrance of the opening of WWI is up at Escape Into Life. I chose a graphic novel by a French artist named Barroux because it chronicles the opening days of the war, when so much that we know now was unknown and even unimaginable. As a graphic novel, it is a quick read, but also because it is a graphic novel, it will be worth revisiting to notice elements you haven't before. Read all about it HERE.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cuckoo for Coconuts--The Sun is God, by Adrian McKinty (with apologies to General Mills)

Adrian McKinty, most of whose previous novels have centered around Irish identity in one way or another, has cast that question aside for this outing. The Sun is God (reputed to be the dying words of painter J. M.W. Turner) takes what is known of a real life cult of German nudist sun worshippers as a departure point for a murder mystery.

It's 1906 and Will Prior, a Yorkshireman who has washed out of the British military police after being demoralized by an atrocity he became inadvertently  involved in during the Boer war, has now washed up on the shores of German New Guinea, where he hopes to lead a quiet life running a German rubber plantation. Of course, there'd be no story if everything was that simple. He is summoned by the local powers that be to look into the mysterious death, or deaths, on the nearby island of Kabakon, which has been taken over by one August Englehardt, the charismatic leader of a small group of people who believe that sun worship and a diet of coconuts will lead them to immortal life.

It may actually be an advantage here if you are new to McKinty's work, as this is some ways from his more usual "Tough guy fiction at its gory, heartstopping best" (as The Miami Herald has dubbed it). In fact, it reads in parts like an Agatha Christie novel, with its cast of suspects neatly gathered--or trapped--on a tropical island. And even the era has more of a Golden Age of Mystery feeling. It's interesting in our century to look back at the beginning of the last one, and realize that there may be many unusual things about this time and place, but before two world wars, it would not have been unusual for a disillusioned Brit to throw in his lot with German colonists.

And in fact, Prior and the Cocovores (as the islanders dub themselves) have one large thing in common, which is their disillusionment with the modern era and the shape of things to come. From our present place in history, it would be hard to say that they were entirely wrong.

Christie might have captured some of the quirks of the characters, but it is McKinty's mark upon the genre to have Will discussing Schopenhauer's bleak philosophy with one of the other characters. It makes sense--it's because they share Schopenhauer's verdict on life that these people have come to this island in the first place.

I  did have a bit of trouble with the way Will consistently denigrated one of the other characters, though only in his head, of course. I won't say who--it will either be obvious to you or it won't. If you find yourself with similar qualms, though, all I can advise you is to not give up on the story because of that. Suffice it to say that you will have your restitution.

(I was reading the British edition of this book, and the American one won't be out until early September. If you're waiting for that, here's a picture of the American cover, so you won't walk right past it, as it's quite a different take on things.)