16 September 2018

Lost & Found: A Doily



My wonderfully skilled grandmother. Crochet, embroidery, smocking, you name it. And they were merely adjuncts to her training as a seamstress. She met the height of fashion at the turn of the twentieth century. How many saved items do I have like this? Most fabulous of all, a pristine, crocheted, ten-foot long, grand dining table cloth. To a child with a dining room table.

08 September 2018

Library Limelights 171


Linden MacIntyre. The Only Café. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2017.
The author could not have chosen a more complicated back story: civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s. First of all, we have Cyril Cormier in Toronto, son of largely absent father Pierre. It's now five years since Pierre went missing-presumed-dead in a boat explosion in Cape Breton. Cyril the newbie journalist becomes curious to learn more about his refugee father, but meeting a shadowy character from Pierre's obscure past is scarcely informative. The role of Cyril's fellow reporter Nader is equally nebulous as Cyril's colleagues and some undercover agents take an interest. We hear the story of Christian Arab Pierre's youthful, horrendous experiences in between his son's incomplete discoveries. Incomplete and obscure are applicable descriptors. Let's say it's not easy in this context to follow the timeline of war in Lebanon.

Pierre's early PTSD ‒ and so it must be ‒ does not prevent him from becoming a successful mining executive in his new country. But Cyril will never know exactly what his father's early life was like; in fact he seems rather slow at picking up on the slight clues being offered. Talking with Ari, the Middle East figure, reveals little, as do most of Pierre's diaries ― the one of the crucial time period being missing. The author's post-notes mention his own involvement in Lebanon at that time but it's mainly up to the reader to fill out assumptions, and possibly research further references to warring factions and destroyed places. I admire MacIntyre's books in general, with this almost a trip down memory lane for him. In the end, it's complicated and not quite like a novel.

One-liners:
The father that he knew had been a very private man, a paragon of professional and personal discretion, an introvert, in fact. (5)
For Aggie Lynch anything east of the Don Valley meant vulgar and not a little unpredictable. (5)
But for Pierre a single image would continue to roil the darkest places in his memory. (67)

Three-liner:
Memory is sentiment. The future impenetrable. Anxiety a waste of time and energy. (149)

Suspicions:
Suzanne continued smiling, appraising, interested, civil. A smile that could have led the moment anywhere she wanted it to go. "I didn't get a last name," she said.
"No? I suppose you didn't." Ari laughed and turned away. "I'm with a friend just now but I'll come back. Can I get you anything?"
Cyril looked at Suzanne and she shook her head. "We're fine," he said.
Ari nodded and walked away.
"I know him from somewhere," Suzanne said as he disappeared through the curtain.
"Really?"
"But then again." She picked up her drink, then put it down and clasped her hands, chewing on the corner of her lip. "Just my imagination, I expect. He's out of central casting."
"How so?"
"IDF. Israeli military macho. The confidence, the poise. Hard to imagine these were the most vulnerable, paranoid and victimized people in the world until just a few generations back." (127)

In the midst:
It was a long time ago but Fadi's words came back. The future is a harvest of consequences. They were in Fadi's office near the port, watching a group of stoned Kata'ib outside firing automatic rifles in the air, randomly and for no reason.
"A harvest?" Pierre said laughing. Fadi, everyone said, was far too educated. The rattle of the automatic weapons resumed.
"It's raining bullets somewhere," Fadi said.
"It's crazy," Pierre said.
"But it will be worse afterwards, when we try to return to what we think is normal ... that's when they'll be a problem. This, for them, is normal. They think this insanity is freedom. A licence to do anything they want. I don't want to be the one to put that back in the box."
"Put what back?" Pierre had asked.
"Anarchy," Fadi said. "That's the harvest we've planted here." (149)

Silent observation:
Pierre smiled. This curious habit of English speakers amused him—always looking for concurrence. Right? Eh? You know? You hear what I'm saying? Am I right or am I wrong? Meaning please agree with me. Arabs and Frenchmen rarely worry about concurrence, tone. (149)

Pierre examines his near-confession:
He sat in the large captain's chair tilted back against the wheel, alone and going nowhere. There was an old moon, one sliver away from fullness, hanging heavily over the Mabou hills and it flooded the cab with light. It was a distraction, if only briefly, from the hovering anxieties Angus Beaton left behind.
He shifted his position and the chair tilted, springs in the rocking mechanism creaked. He struggled to quell a feeling of regret for having gone too close to irrevocable disclosure. To blab or not to blab, that is the question. Whether or not 'tis in the mind nobler to disclose. But disclosure is rarely noble. Disclosure is transactional. Disclosure is a ruse to create trust. He had heard so much disclosure of "facts" that were lies, emotions that were false. Deception through disclosure. Engagement. Empathy. The best interrogators were the ones who were capable of manufactured empathy. (157)



Rebecca Fleet. The House Swap. Large Print. USA: Random House, 2018.
Caroline and psychologist husband Francis swap their flat in Leeds for a week in a small house in Chiswick. Why? Change of scenery, a holiday for the non-affluent, a base for visits to London. Also, the couple are still working on some marriage issues. Caroline's passionate affair with Carl is over; Francis has apparently conquered his drug addiction. But odd reminders of her extra-marital affair crop up in this stranger's house, triggering unease. Caroline knows nothing about the owner of the house. A brash neighbour who claims the very same Carl as her boyfriend creates even more anxiety. All this Caroline hides from Francis.

Soon we see that Francis is not the only one with an addiction. Caroline herself, who narrates the bulk of the story, is/was addicted to sex with Carl. Is it really over in her mind? Or his? Her narration is directed to her ex-lover - "you" - as she reviews the affair and its consequences. Occasionally we get words from Francis, but never from Carl. Emails from the mysterious house owner begin to torture Carolyn, someone who knows the secret she hides. Menacing events continue to prey on Caroline while we realize something yet unknown, something more sinister is behind the house swap. Psychological suspense at its best, an author definitely worth watching.

Caroline:
All I can think about is the tiny circle of warm air where my hand is touching his, and all at once I realize, with a clarity that shakes me, that this could really happen. (51)
I stare around at this stranger's kitchen, and I find myself breaking away, walking fast through the rooms, trying to find some chink in their anonymity. It's a show home, a shell. (102)
My phone feels hard and heavy in my hand. I want to look at the email again. I want never to have seen it. (129)
Even without the drugs, Francis is impulsive. I can't predict what he might do. (134)
I could change her expression, I think, if I told her what was really happening here. (287)

Francis:
Nice enough face, but I can see from ten paces that it's been metaphorically stamped all over by some woman's stilettos. (78)
She's so fucking good at being angry and all I can do is stand here and wonder how the hell it all went so wrong so fast. (180)
If you can't even look me in the eye, I think, don't think you can tell me what to do.
Some days it still feels as if I'm walking the most fragile of tightropes, that there's no way that the violent batterings of my mind can be contained by this thin shell I live in. (335)
Take your feelings out to lunch, my sponsor said to me a while ago, and then tell them to fuck off. That's what I do. (337)



Irina Reyn. The Imperial Wife. USA: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2016.
Who is the imperial wife? Catherine the Great, subject of a novel written by minor academic Carl Vandermotter? Or Carl's wife Tanya Kagan who misguidedly rescues his dull efforts? Tanya is the Russian art expert at a large New York auction house; very aware of being an immigrant from the old Soviet Union, she burns with energy and ambition. Mixing with impossibly wealthy oligarchs is her business but befriending one of them is unconvincing. Tanya is smitten by Carl's physical perfection, his quiet demeanour, and his family's upper class background – the opposite of her own. The arrival at the auction house of a significant piece of Catherine the Great's jewellery promises to elevate Tanya to the professional status she wants.

Contrasted with the life of those two, the parallel story of Catherine II of Russia is awkwardly expressed with little substance to her imaginary inner thoughts and aspirations. The only persuasive aspect is descriptions of her wreck of a husband, the childish, irascible Emperor Peter III. Is the author reaching for comparison of two strong women? Two women who by marriage find themselves far from their beginnings, recognition and power within their reach. Yet in near-thoughtless attempts at supporting her husband, Tanya does not comprehend that she thereby emasculates him. Tanya's story has much of interest, Catherine's less so in Reyn's hands.

Tanya and Carl:
As Carl talks, it is as if America itself is welcoming me inside. (60)
Hadn't I once dreamed of being embraced by her like this, the ultimate proof of my belonging in their family? (243)
"I'm trying to tease out the history so it'll be comprehensible to the layperson." (265)
Wasn't this what Russian women did every day? Pass off their own accomplishments onto their husbands, so the men remained above them as saints to be admired? (271)

Catherine and Peter:
On his person, there are few signs of maturation or masculinity. His skin is the lifeless color of parchment, a face punctuated by the faintest of chins. (27)
"So the rumors are true? He just plays with soldiers all day?" (84)
She has watched how the court treats Peter as dispensable symbol and perhaps a fool is preferable to a wily despot. (84)

Admonitions from a Russian Jewish mother:
No man wants a daunting woman.
No man wants a woman who earns more than him.
No man wants a woman who is too opinionated.
No man wants a woman who values career over family.
No man wants a woman who is vocal about being confident, who makes the first move, who picks the date activity, who makes a reservation, who has male friends, who does not greet him in full makeup, who serves her own food first, who wears sneakers, who admits to being hungry, who drives while he's in the passenger seat, who doesn't cook, who's messy, disorganized, complains, confronts, acts like a martyr, plays sports, watches sports, lounges, remembers past slights, fails to forgive. Women are very particular things here. (76-7)

Tanya reflects:
Wear the pants. CEO. I'm used to people assuming I'm the alpha in my marriage. Yes, I am more competent, more efficient; taking care of others comes naturally to me. Faster to have me accomplish something than Carl with his lack of attention to details, his indecision. It was during our honeymoon that the terrible thought occurred to me. Weak. (134)

Suffering writer:
Carl's zigzags of self-confidence depressed me and I hated the contours of that feeling. I couldn't understand all those tortured nights Carl spent staring at a blank screen, deleting and adding, pouring himself countless cups of coffee, complaining about the agony of the craft, of the ticking tenure clock and his own lack of talent. His protests of how soul-wracking writing was, how I could never truly understand the extent of his torment. Privately, I hoped his anguish pointed to some kind of authenticity as an artist. What I was ignoring was a transformation before the prospect of failure, my placid, life-coasting husband shrinking before me. (264)



29 August 2018

Library Limelights 170


Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar. 1962. UK: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2018.
It behooves me to upgrade my reading material with some classics like this. Yet it's hard to say much about the sad, lost, depressed, young Esther Greenwood depicted within, always conscious of the relevance to Plath's own life. When and why did a gifted intellect go off the rails? At times reckless (physically and verbally), at times paralyzed by depression, Esther drifts away from friends and college aspirations. She makes lists of her inadequacies. Aware that "something is wrong with my head" she half-heartedly tries suicide in different ways ... until she seriously damages herself. Lack of self-esteem can become a killer.

Institutions and treatment of mental patients in the 1950s-1960s are almost like looking back across centuries (yet One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest informed those of us of a certain generation, right?). Perhaps our attitude toward them has changed, if spokespeople and education are doing a good job. May the world of psychiatry be able to lift away each bell jar under which so many people suffocate and struggle. Esther's words and story will always ironically bear a certain freshness for us that she could not feel herself. Beautifully written even with grim humour, let's sample her own words:

● Betsy was always asking me to do things with her and the other girls as if she were trying to save me in some way. (16)
● I never feel so much myself as when I'm in a hot bath. (27)
● The words fell with a hollow flatness on to Jay Cee's desk, like so many wooden nickels. (38)
● It wasn't the nice kind of rain that rinses you clean, but the sort of rain I imagine they must have in Brazil. (46)
● The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn't thought about it. (77)
● Mr Willard must have thought I was crying because I was so glad he wanted to be a father to me. (87)
● Then I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel. (115)
● The reason I hadn't washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly. (122)
● Doctor Gordon's features were so perfect he was almost pretty. I hated him the minute I walked in through the door. (123)
● He just wanted to see what a girl who was crazy enough to kill herself looked like. (163)
● I didn't think they had woman psychiatrists. This woman was a cross between Myrna Loy and my mother. (174)

Electro-convulsive treatment, 1950s style:
I shut my eyes.
There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.
Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.
I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done. (137)



Ivan Turgenev. Fathers and Sons. 1862. UK: Arcturus Publishing Company, 2018.
Right. Next in the classics department: a nineteenth century view of life from the Russian countryside. Arkady has finished at university and brings his friend Bazarov to visit his parents. Bazarov is a committed nihilist whose iconoclastic talk and sometimes vicious tongue immediately infuriate Arkady's elegant, old-fashioned Uncle Pavel. Nonetheless, Arkady idolizes his friend, taking him to visit family connections in the area. Both men immediately fall for the beautiful Anna; Bazarov, contemptuous of "feelings" and abstract thinking, who spurns art and creativity, is dazzled by her dispassionate opinions and bewildered by his devotion to her. But Anna has little or no feelings for anyone. It's a slice of life at a time of slow change in Russia; the emancipation of serfs is beginning. The difference between two generations could not be more pronounced, with Arkady eventually reverting to the very ways that Bazarov dismisses so sardonically. Then tradition demands a duel that involves some unbearably polite protocol.

One-liners:
▪ Pavel Petrovich met her at a ball, danced a mazurka with her, in the course of which she did not utter a single rational word, and fell passionately in love with her. (41)
▪ The estate had only recently been put on to the new reformed system, and the new mechanism worked, creaking like an ungreased wheel, warping and cracking like homemade furniture of unseasoned wood. (47)
▪ A young servant in livery conducted the two friends in to a large room, badly furnished, like all rooms in Russian hotels, but filled with flowers. (94)
▪ "If a woman can keep up half-an-hour's conversation, it's always a hopeful sign." (161)
▪ "Yes, my dear fellow," he commented, "you see what comes of living with feudal personages." (203)

Two-liners:
"Well, am I going to consider them, these provincial aristocrats! Why, it's all vanity, dandy habits, fatuity." (38)
"A pretty farce we've been through! Like trained dogs dancing on their hind-paws." (182)

Critical youth:
"Your uncle's a queer fish," Bazarov said to Arkady, as he sat in his dressing-gown by his bedside, smoking a short pipe. "Only fancy such style in the country! His nails, his nails ‒ you ought to send them to an exhibition!"
"Why of course, you don't know," replied Arkady. "He was a great swell in his own day, you know. I will tell you his story one day. He was very handsome, you know, used to turn all the women's heads."
"Oh, that's it, is it? So he keeps it up in memory of the past. It's a pity there's no one for him to fascinate here though. I kept staring at his exquisite collars. They're like marble, and his chin's shaved simply to perfection. Come. Arkady Nikolaitch, isn't that ridiculous?"
"Perhaps it is; but he's a splendid man, really."
"An antique survival! But your father's a capital fellow. He wastes his time reading poetry, and doesn't know much about farming, but he's a good-hearted fellow." (27)

Anna the enigma:
Like all women who have not succeeded in loving, she wanted something, without herself knowing what. Strictly speaking, she wanted nothing; but it seemed to her she wanted everything. She could hardly endure the late Odintsov (she had married him from prudential motives, though probably she would not have consented to become his wife if she had not considered him a good sort of man), and had conceived a certain repugnance for all men, whom she could only figure to herself as slovenly, heavy, drowsy, and feebly importunate creatures. (108)

Bazarov's mother Arina:
In her youth she had been pretty, had played the clavichord, and spoken French a little; but in the course of many years' wanderings with her husband, whom she had married against her will, she had grown stout, and forgotten music and French. Her son she loved and feared unutterably; she had given up management of the property to Vassily Ivanovitch ‒ and now did not interfere in anything; she used to groan, wave her handkerchief, and raise her eyebrows higher and higher in horror directly her old husband began to discuss the impending government reforms and his own plans. She was apprehensive, and constantly expecting some great misfortune, and began to weep directly she remembered anything sorrowful. ... Such women are not common nowadays. (146)



Stefan Ahnhem. Eighteen Below. 2016. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2018.
No question, this was the most complicated plot ever. The reader must pause at times to refresh the locales (well, I had to) as scenes switch between Helsingborg in Sweden and Helsingør in Denmark ― across the Øresund from each other. Fabian Risk in the first and Dunja Hougaard in the second are the main police detective figures, working on separate cases. Past novels in the series ensure their paths will cross in the most unexpected way. Fabian is burdened with Astrid his alcoholic boss, Sonja his unresponsive wife, and two recalcitrant teenagers, Theo and Matilda. Dunja has ongoing issues with Sleizner, the ex-boss who blacklisted her, plus currently being forbidden to investigate crimes against the homeless.

Wealthy Swedes have disappeared or committed suicide; when bodies are discovered, some had been kept in freezers. That's ghoulish enough, prompting desperate police work. But the violent nature of the crimes is over the top, taking the edge off a very compelling story. Victims galore as the different criminals exhibit fiendish originality ― in one case a mystery man whose identity changes like quicksilver, in the other some sociopathic young people. Complex personalities among the good guys only increase the pace from one suspense point to the next. Mixed feelings overall from me but no denying the author's talent.

Two-liner: Fabian could only capitulate in the face of Astrid's leadership. She had come in stumbling at the finish line, but had already lapped them several times. (54)

Fabian:
He'd had the chance to save his colleagues, but instead he'd frozen with the gun in his hands. (68)
The burning flame of their relationship had shrunk down to a tiny pilot light. (129)
"I want you to end your relationship with my wife and withdraw your commission." (145)
Fabian wasn't an alcoholic, but loneliness scared him just as much. (389)
Dunja:
As if that sleazeball Sleizner would be satisfied with just firing her; that was only the beginning of his plans. (59)
This time he would persist until she was so far past rock bottom that she would never make it up again. (78)
The rage inside her was thundering louder than road construction, and as soon as she had enough strength she'd ask him to leave. (437)

Unpredictability:
This kind of thing was what frightened her more than anything else. Seemingly random acts of unprovoked violence. Impossible to protect yourself from, coming out of nowhere while you were on your way home from work, wondering what you should buy for dinner. And chance was the only factor that decided whether the victim would be you or someone else.
Happy slapping.She'd heard the term before, had read about it in the newspaper and seen clips on YouTube. She knew exactly what it was. How it had started in England among working-class teens who had lost all hope for the future, how with the advent of smartphones they'd started going out in gangs, hunting down unsuspecting members of the general public.
The goal: a good laugh, and likes. (162)

Relentless harassment:
The problem was, no one knew what the hell Hougaard was up to. It was hardly surprising that Sveistrup was clueless, but so was everyone else he'd contacted. No one had seen her at the police station or near the scene of the crime. She wasn't at home either. It was like she had purposely gone to ground and was making sure to keep under the radar. No one had any idea what evidence she had sniffed out, whether she had any suspects, or how close she was to a breakthrough.
The nightmare scenario was that she would succeed in solving the case. If she did, all Sleizner's arguments against her would collapse. He would no longer be able to stop her from returning to Copenhagen. (308)

18 August 2018

Library Limelights 169


Kati Hiekkapelto. The Exiled. UK: Orenda Books, 2016. 

Anna Fekete is a detective in her adopted country of Finland but now on vacation to visit family in Serbia. Her family had immigrated during the Balkan War but later her mother returned to their native land, to ethnic Hungarians within Serbia's boundaries. At this time refugees are streaming through Serbia to reach Hungary, hoping for asylum in an EU country. The theft of her purse at a local fair and the death of the thief sets a chain reaction for Anna, beginning with the local Roma community. Racism extends to both minority groups. Warnings from local police and old friends do not dissuade her from a quest for whoever killed the thief. Her home town of Kanizsa is a real place (Kanjiza in Serbian), a border town across the river from Hungary. People smuggling is not unknown.

But amidst reacquainting herself with her roots and contradictions about the theft, Anna realizes there is an ominous connection to the long-ago murder of her father. Peter, a sympathetic and smitten policeman, agrees to help her; her family, her mother especially, refuses to discuss the past. Anna also questions her own existential identity. A complicated story, boding well for the next in the series. Apparently the "blossoming" of the Tisza River becomes an annual festival and tourist attraction when millions of mayflies congregate, causing a great natural spectacle ― had to satisfy myself it was real, but no thanks. Bugs in your face, your hair, everywhere. Nevertheless, the Serbian countryside is lovingly described. [I have omitted diacritical marks, except in the quotations.]

One-liners:
Centuries of oppression and rejection would hardly be forgotten the minute Anna told people she wanted to help. (98)
How odd that he seemed to know her father so well when religion had meant so little to her family. (108)
To her great astonishment she wanted to go back and dance some more. (172)

Gender and race:
Kovács Gábor and the chief of police exchanged glances. Anna saw in their expressions all the thoughts they weren't saying out loud. Does this woman think she knows better than us? Is this woman going to get difficult? Woman, woman, woman. Worse still, a woman who had grown up abroad. The men's faces said more than a thousand words. 
"Say something, then," Anna snapped to Ernó and Tibor. 
"We ... I ... Anna, listen, it was just some nameless gypsy," Ernó said, almost under his breath. 
"Some nameless gypsy? Why do you keep on using the word gypsy over and over? Don't you know it's an offensive term? They are Romani. And what the hell difference does it make what ethnic group he belonged to? They are human beings, and a human being is dead!"Anna forced herself to swallow her anger. (28-9)

Past and present:
Who am I? What makes us who we are? Our language: I have two of them. Our home: I have two of them as well. Work, friends, hobbies ‒ all far too superficial. Our family, our roots. What do I have left of those? The memory of my father. A memory suddenly now prodded with a burning iron, branding me so that the smell of burning skin rises into the air. She wanted to talk about her father, about Áron. But she didn't know how she could ever bring up with her mother what she'd heard at the wedding. 
The weight in Anna's chest felt heavy and her legs were like lead. They carried her somewhere, one step at a time. Toward Péter's house. Anna didn't even attempt to withstand the will of her feet. (176)

More weight:
For the rest of the journey home he didn't say another word. Why do I get the impression that all my father's grey-haired old friends seem to know something? Or that they sense something, at least? Why won't they open up. Is it because I'm not asking the right questions? Or am I just imagining this? 
The grass verge was dotted with blood-red poppy flowers. They made Anna think of Dzsenifer and her skirt. Uneasy thoughts and worries about the girl's wellbeing weighed Anna down. She felt as though there was something she had missed. Something simple yet crucially important, something that would unravel this mess in an instant. 
As they drove back towards the town, they saw groups of refugees trudging along the road. There were more than there had been a week ago, far more. Anna winced as she thought of the cows that wandered the fields around Velebit. At least they had shelter every night. (226-7)


Carol Shields. Larry's Party. Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1997.

It's shameful to admit I have not read Shields before this. This title had always appealed to me and I was not disappointed. We get to know Winnipeg man Larry Weller as much as he knows himself, full of questions and contradictions, puzzles and fears. A rather ordinary man of working class origins, but no ordinary writing. This is genius at work, making us care about a guy who works away at a pleasant job (florist), fumbles his first marriage (Dorrie), and finds his special creative element (hedges). Larry moves on to Chicago, in demand as a builder of the outdoor mazes that fascinate him. He and second wife (Beth) seem well-suited; and always in the background, occasionally to the forefront, are his growing son Ryan and endearing sister Midge.

Still, Larry feels something missing, words he needs to learn, feelings he needs to express. He's a product of an entire generation of basically inarticulate parents. Eventually Beth goes her own way and Larry moves back to Canada at a pinnacle of success, ever experimenting in his maze commissions with the interaction between humans and nature. Then with the encouragement and assistance of girlfriend Charlotte, he throws a dinner party when both his ex-wives happen to be in town. Maybe subconsciously he knew something important would be resolved for him. Everyone freely over-shares. Reading Shields is sheer pleasure. Who could not identify with some aspect of Larry's sensitive thoughts as he ‒ often wonderingly and tentatively ‒ explores his role as a man?

One-liners:
It strikes Larry that language may not yet have evolved to the point where it represents the world fully. (95)
A more profound reading of the maze related to the difficulty of life and life's tortuous spiritual journey. (215)
She was a woman devoted to texture and to small exacting shifts of comfort. (279)
"A man these days is no more than an infrastructure for a penis and a set of testicles." (319)

Two-liners:
Sometimes Larry sees his future laid out with terrifying clarity. An endless struggle to remember what he already knows. (88)
"Well, what exactly do you want, Larry?"
If only he knew. (168)

A-mazing:
The word obsession feels too boxy and broad for the round cavity of Larry's mouth, so he simply says to friends or family or anyone who asks, that he's "into" mazes. A hobby kind of thing. He plays it down. He doesn't know why, but he'd rather not let people know how "into it" he really is, that it's like a ripe crystal growing in his brain and taking up more and more space. 
It's not only mazes themselves he thinks of, but the idea of mazes, and the idea is a soft steady incandescent light bulb at the edge of his vision; it's always there, it's always switched on. He can turn his gaze at will and watch it, casting its glow on the subtle sleeping aisles of shrubbery around his house, their serpentine (ser-pen-tine) allure, their teasing treachery and promise of reward. (92)

Dorrie lets loose:
"He won't be the first kid born out of—" 
"Don't say it. I hate that word." 
"Wedlock?" 
"You said it. I told you I hate that word and you said it." 
"No one uses it anymore. No one pays attention to that stuff." 
"How about your sister Midge? She thinks I did it on purpose, trapped you, her baby brother, stuck a pin in my diaphragm or something. Well, I was the one that got trapped." 
"Why worry about what Midge thinks?" 
"What about your parents. How come they're always going around saying Ryan was premature, the darling wee thing? Eight pounds. Uh-huh! Tell me about it." 
"Because they don't know what else to say." (196-7)

The party:
"You really think this is a good idea? It seems—"  
How did it seem? He put the question to himself. A forty-six-year-old man hosting a party? You don't see it happen often, a single man, twice divorced, paying off his social debts, inviting his friends not to a restaurant, but into his own space for an evening of conviviality. A table set. Talk, laughter. Food and drink raining down. Most men in Larry's position receive rather than dispense hospitality. That's Charlotte's opinion. Such men receive and receive and receive. It can go on for years, this social imbalance, before anyone thinks to question it. Some state of emergency must occur to make a reversal seem inevitable. (288)


Yrsa Sigurdardottir. The Day is Dark. UK: Hodder& Stoughton, 2011.
Having enjoyed previous novels featuring Icelandic lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir, I found this one blah. Off goes Thora with banker boyfriend Matthew to Greenland, to make a report for his bank. Berg Technology, contracted to prepare a new mining site there, had been guaranteed by the bank; now some workers have strangely disappeared and the others refuse to return. One of them, Arnar (not to be confused with Alvar), is suicidally depressed in a detox centre. The east coast of Greenland is virtually an icy desert in extended hours of winter darkness. Thora has seven people of various expertise in her investigating group, including two Berg employees familiar with the site. Inexplicable findings — human bones in the company office, an unidentifiable murder video, and being shunned by the nearby native villagers, contrary to custom — are not the suspense builders they should be.

Enter Igimaq the Greenlandic traditional hunter. More mystery: Why is he haunted by thoughts of his daughter? Is he a killer? Still, nothing happens for a long, long time. I got impatient and then I lost interest. Police finally come when the body count goes up. The author would have us spooked by folk tales of decades-old settlement deaths and the consequences of Berg entering a forbidden native region, but it's not working. The decline of the Greenlandic way of life deserves attention, but references to spirits and animal lore are all too vague, as are the repetitive activities of Thora and company, sitting around waiting. Scary, it's not; compelling, it's not; credibility for many events is problematic. A great deal of the action is narrated second-hand, unsatisfactorily, blunting the climax if you can find it. I will be very cautious about trying the next book.

One-liners:
Warm showers would have lightened their moods but all the pipes in this part of the camp were frozen, making that a distant dream. (106)
Thora drifted off to sleep wondering how long a corpse could stay suspended in ice. (109)
"I never took part in the bullying, but I was a silent witness, which is hardly better." (206)
"Because the more souls the dead can seize, the more powerful they become." (309)

Encounter with locals:
"You shouldn't be here," said the woman. A dull odour of alcohol was carried into the car on her breath, which formed thin white clouds in the cold air. 
"In the village?" asked Thora. "We just wanted to ask a few questions. There are two men lost, and they might possibly have come here." 
"You should go home," said the woman, still staring at Thora expressionlessly. "Back to your home. Wherever that is." 
"We're leaving soon." Thora wished that she understood what was going on. Now her Danish would really be put to the test. She started speaking and although her vocabulary was childish she hoped that the gist of what she wanted to say came across. "Are you opposed to the project or did the employees of the Icelandic company do something to you?" 
The woman gave Thora an inquisitive look, not unlike the one Thora had just given her. "You're staying in a bad place. No one should be there. Go home." (147-8)

Arnar:
He wanted a drink desperately, despite having resolved to stop. Surprisingly enough, it wasn't the effect of being drunk that tugged at him; instead he missed the dreamless sleep, the ability to drink away his consciousness and turn off his brain, allowing it to rest. Even his bad conscience could not hold out against the alcohol. It always won. (197)

Igimaq:
What was already dead could not be killed again. Igimaq wasn't actually scared of death, nor did he understand those who said they wished to live longer than was natural. To create the conditions for a new life, you had to clear space, and it would soon be his turn. He accepted this completely, but nevertheless wanted to have some say in his own death. He wanted to die as he had lived, under the open sky with his rifle in his hand, in harmony with nature, which could strip him of his flesh after he drew his final breath. He did not want to die with his heart in his throat, fleeing something nameless as it snapped at his heels. (348)




07 August 2018

Library Limelights 168


London Rules mean cover your arse (as opposed to Moscow Rules: watch your back) and are a specialty of Jackson Lamb and his crew of espionage rejects. Herron opens his newest novel with his signature prowl through a dawn Slough House: delightfully literary satire sets the tone. Not that the slow horses are ever given anything faintly important or active to do as MI5 Service members, but then somehow find themselves ever on the short end of a greasy operational stick. In this case, the normally-ignored Roddy Ho's massive ego leads him obliviously, blissfully, into a honey trap. Seems Ho has been pillow-talking, bordering on treason; now someone is trying to kill him which would likely satisfy his team members. 

The pundits at "Five" are busy trying to contain terrorist attacks. The mystery perpetrators seem to be working to a plan unearthed by Ho and passed to his girlfriend. When the connection is made, Emma Flyte appears as the new head of the MI5 Dogs ‒ internal security ‒ to lock down Slough House. Those of us faithful readers know how well that will work. Stopping the terrorists' destablization plan is a serious effort; slow horses disperse to protect politician targets. The political commentary is sly but pointed, as always. Preparing for the MI5 blame game to land on Slough House, Lamb is weaving his own web to protect his "joes" who are inept at hiding anything from him. Best suggestion: Do not read this book until you get the first in the series: Slow Horses. Guaranteed you can't stop.

Word: apophthegm ‒ an aphorism, a maxim

One-liners:
At other times, Lamb prefers the direct approach, and attacks the stairs with the noise that a bear pushing a wheelbarrow might make, if the wheelbarrow was full of tin cans, and the bear drunk. (9)
Never did harm to be seen shopping where ordinary people did, provided they were the right kind of ordinary. (46)
He wasn't sure how long he could keep this pretence up, where he was nominally one of the nation's protectors but actually an irrelevant drone. (158) River
The guard probably had him down as a local joe, working undercover in a food bank queue. (213)
It was as if she were perpetually geared up for departure, and always knew where her nearest exit was. (221)

Two-liners:
"We're Slough House. We're pretty much made to measure, if they're looking to hang someone." (222)
Now was not the time to see her boss sink beneath the waves, not with them both on the same liner. She wanted him around until a lifeboat moved into view. (260)

Lamb-isms:
"I'm bloody glad I'm not you." (15)
... events so painfully compromising to the intelligence services as a whole that—as Lamb had observed—it had put the "us" in "clusterfuck." (18)
"It's been brought to my attention that you arsewipes are not happy bunnies." (29)
"He's left for the evening," Catherine said. "I know. I felt the average IQ rise." (61)
"You look like all your birthdays came at once." (82)
"Slaughtering a bunch of pedestrians is one thing. But they failed to whack Ho twice, and let's face it, he's a walking wicket." (146)
"Well, I'm an incurable optimist, as you know," he said. "But I expect it'll all go to shit, as usual." (146)

Slow horses' comments about each other:
Shirley Dander was unnervingly calm; the kind of calm Catherine imagined icebergs were, just before they ploughed into ocean liners. (12)
Louisa might be an ironclad bitch at times, but at least she doesn't think with a dick. (24)
"He's a brand ambassador for twattery." (67)
Plus, of course, he'd murdered that guy not long ago: three bullets to the chest of an unarmed, manacled man. (136)
"I bet his phone's smarter than he is." (142)
It was like being trapped with an eight-year-old. (142)
So descending through a skylight was Shirley's idea of subtle. (154)

The quiet bit:
In some parts of the world dawn arrives with rosy fingers, to smooth away the creases left by the night. But on Aldersgate Street, in the London borough of Finsbury, it comes wearing safecracker's gloves, so as not to leave prints on windowsills and doorknobs; it squints through keyholes, sizes up locks and generally cases the joint ahead of approaching day. Dawn specialises in unswept corners, in the nooks and chambers day rarely sees, because day is all business appointments and things being in the right place, while its younger sister's role is to creep about in the breaking gloom, never sure of what it might find there. It's one thing casting a light on a subject. It's another expecting it to shine. (7)
MI5 honchos:
"You're going to have to decide which flag you're flying. The Service doesn't exist to further the interests of the party in power. In fact, the party in power is arguably our natural enemy. Given that it's holding the purse strings." 
"We serve the nation, Diana," Whelan said. "And the party in power is democratically elected to lead that nation." He turned back to the glass wall, and the worker ants beyond, but continued talking. "I tried to get hold of Flyte earlier, but she's not around. I was told you had her on something." 
"She's at Slough House. It's in lockdown. And can stay that way until we've determined what connects Jackson Lamb's pet nerd with Abbotsfield. Has he talked yet?" 
Whelan said, "I was leaving him to soften up. A crew was sent to his house, they've collected his IT. Quite a lot of it, apparently." (205-6)

Paul Bowles. "A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard," (1950), Bowles, Collected Stories and Later Writings. USA: The Library of America, 2002.
Let's face it: I am a philistine when it comes to some wayward literary icons. Bowles' sensibility leaves me cold. A friend pressed me to try him on, wearing down my resistance (The Sheltering Sky never appealed to me with its aimlessness) because of the magic word camels. "A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard" consists of four short stories with zip-all to do with camels. I do appreciate the sole mention expressed by one character who muses, "A pipe of kif before breakfast gives a man the strength of a hundred camels in the courtyard." The stories are largely underlined by mostly idle men finding the day's supply of kif and/or finding the money to pay for it. Not that I'm against self-medicating or medical cannabis usage, and I try to comprehend descriptions of altered reality or outright hallucinating, but ... not my world.

Of the four stories, the most incomprehensible is "He of the Assembly." I really had trouble with shape-shifting characters. Lines like these:
"The sky trembles, and the earth is afraid, and the two eyes are not brothers." (242)
"Hashish in your heart and wind in your head." (245)
"The eye wants to sleep but the head is no mattress." (246)

Oh well. I'm not spending a lot of time on this. "A Friend of the World," "The Story of Lahcen and Idir," and "The Wind at Beni Midar" are the other three stories. They do make some sense but it's a threadbare life. Bowles is considered "one of the most powerful writers of the postwar period." Yes, of course the man writes well ... if in long, long paragraphs. Does he try to capture fundamental Moroccan society, the place he chose to be light years away from his American upbringing? ... not his primary intention, perhaps. The men depicted (all at one time or another bemoaning, or enjoying, the effect of kif in my head) seem to run on crude instinct alone, mere instruments of folly. Their actions and occasional thoughts expose banal lives they scarcely control in an obscurely ominous universe. Pipe dreams, I say.


Olen Steinhauer. All the Old Knives. USA: Picador®/St. Martin's Press/Pan Books Limited, 2015.
Dinner for two. Carmel, California. And thus unspools the fictitious but realistic story of an airplane hijacking at Vienna's Flughafen; four terrorists end up killing the entire planeload including themselves. Henry is an experienced "joe" ‒ longtime CIA agent ‒ posted in the Vienna embassy. Celia had been admin in the same venue. Years later, Henry is wrapping up yet another investigation to determine who betrayed their own agent on that plane. Celia is now a contented mother and housewife, having mysteriously aborted her former relationship with Henry. What really happened the night of the hostage-taking summons both facts and emotions in their dinner meeting. The savvy reader will eventually understand what has to happen.

Each one of the group of CIA personnel present in Vienna on the fatal night is under suspicion. The initial investigation was a whitewash. Duplicity ‒ what else? ‒ is the reigning modus operandi in espionage. And of course, cover your arse is imperative when something goes wrong. Henry grills them all again seeking the truth, with Celia last on his list—Celia, the love of his life. Steinhauer is a master at shifting the perspectives and timeline while details of the event slowly emerge over fine food and wine. Sheer reading pleasure but ... (shudder) an off of writer.

Word: aniconism – denial of representational art, as in some religions

One-liners:
Perhaps it's only those who don't know us at all who are able to see us most clearly. (6)
"He's building a case off of a terrorist's disinformation." (15)
I've ended up in a town that pities gin drinkers. (35)
"The ability to admit ignorance," Vick says philosophically, "is a rare and beautiful virtue." (84)
She found a crucial piece of evidence and went out of her way to keep it under wraps. (219)

Two-liners:
"I got married, I moved back to a country I hardly know anymore. My life is upside down." (40)
"Welcome to California. Don't take any of us at face value." (40)

Brass tacks, almost:
"I never said I was a good drone." 
She shakes her head. Chestnut spreads across her shoulders. "You cover your butt," she says. "That's the first rule of office life, and if you haven't figured that out you're going to end up without a pension. If someone in the embassy is leaking information to terrorists, the very first thing you do is keep it to yourself. The second thing you do is scour the phone records, because if you don't your ineptitude is going to come out somewhere along the way. Some joker from Interpol, say, is going to point it out years later and smear your name all over the diplomatic cables." 
I nod, point taken. "Did you find anything?" 
"Of course not," she says. "But I was obliged to try." 
She's lying, of course. This is why I've come to her doorstep. (140)

Their former chief, Bill:
He looked so damn old. An old man whose life was dictated by the whims of his wife. Whose life once represented the pinnacle of national service. Whose hands once sifted through the dirt of international affairs. Now he was a shadow of all that grandeur: a too-pale man hunched over his pint. He looked scared, and in a way, I was too. I was taking my baby steps toward freedom, and here I was faced with a man who had given up all his freedom. It was all too easy to imagine myself looking like him one day. (142)

01 August 2018

And Another Thing ...


Second edition of CAMELOGUE now available!

All the camel adventures you never knew you were missing. It's a personal photographic chronicle of chasing camels in Arabic countries encumbered only by gender, age, opportunity, and gentle self-delusion. Arabic is a tad over-stated in that two of the countries are not ‒ the United States and the Netherlands. Highly recommended for lovers of animals and warm climates.

Most of the stories reflect the writer's pull to ancient civilizations. Strange, baking one's tender body in near-isolated deserts; entering sand and mountains that storied nomads have crossed since time began. Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, among others. Maybe you too can briefly lose yourself in a different world.





Some of the experiences were divine. Others were funny or disappointing, interacting with a variety of characters who tolerated this dilettante. Impersonating a world traveller is serious business. One must never stop smiling and inventing new sign language gestures. Some adventures first appeared on this blog and then on CamelDabble TravelBabble at https://camelchaser.blogspot.ca.




Now 110 pages, approximately half the book consists of edited past adventures; the rest is added adventures 2012‒2017. Created at and for sale on Blurb.com, $15.00 Canadian (less in USD equivalent). Link: http://www.blurb.com/b/8605379-camelogue