16 February 2017

Happiness is a bookstand ...

So I had to obtain a new bookstand for reading in bed. Which is where I read. You understand, for perfect comfort the book has to be at a certain level and angle. I have the backup cushions, the heating pad, the adjustable reading light, pencil & paper, water, any current medications, a few macadamia nuts ... at least enough nourishment to spend a week there if need be.

The old well-balanced bookstand was wooden, giving a certain confident stability. Placed just so on my lap was ideal. But one of the pegs for holding pages had give up the struggle to hold anything. Poor little peg went missing in the general midden. Then the ledge holding the book began to cave in ... delicate carpentry is not my forte.

Thank you, o excellent companion for years of service. I regret I did not photograph you before going to the recycling room.

The new bookstand ...
Well, first, the search. I could get a new one same as the old one. But such a fundamental, necessary item was sure to have been improved upon over the intervening years, right? Most models on offer seem to assume you want to put your tablet or laptop on it. Such engineering requirements do not accommodate a hefty book with special doohickeys to hold the pages in place. This stage took a lot of online squinting and deliberating. Because your average bookstore does not think to carry such an item.
The choice was made. New bookstand arrives. It is plastic which I already knew.

Feeling warily suspicious because plastic, I hesitate to unwrap it for several hours until the need to relax and read became urgent. It is encased in enough vacuum-wrapped clear plastic to cover the building I live in. Hard plastic. Ruin my scissors trying to release it, fearing a misplaced stab might damage the object itself.

But out it came, all in one piece, unblemished. No bits to sort out, insert, screw in, or stick on. Feather light. Clever page-holder that doesn't slip. Adjustable for choice of inclined angle. With the weight of a book on it, no wobble.
Voilà.
Win-win.

07 February 2017

Library Limelights 126

Camilla Grebe & Åsa Träff. More Bitter Than Death. 2010. UK: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2013.
Thoroughly absorbing! A murder witnessed by a child sets the first scene for what preceded and came after it. Clinical psychologists Siri and Aina are leading a small group of women in a self-help project; all victims of violence, they share their feelings in the hope of avoiding or reducing a lasting trauma. Each violated woman's experience is different, including Siri herself who survived a would-be killer. The individuals are well-drawn, even those peripheral to some of the women's stories. Events that follow the group's initial meetings are swift and surprising. Siri's boundless capacity for empathy with her clients contrasts sharply with her fear of intimacy in her private life.
Without melodrama or obvious clues, the plot moves smoothly through permutations of who the killer could be. There's literally a lot of sweat beading on foreheads. At some point the reader will come to understand the interspersed child reports. And the women will understand that abuse and violence are not their fault or their destiny. Siri's devoted lover Markus offsets the brutality of other men; we want her to wake up and smell the coffee. Her separate clients Mia and Patrik are in a domestic impasse a bit hard on the credibility, but then who are we to know what goes on in a shrink's office? Watching with great anticipation for more from this sister duo!

One-liners:
I'm a psychologist who's supposed to help other people take control of their lives, but I can't let go of my own past. (161-2)
"Love messes you up." (277)
I think about how love isn't always a beautiful, light feeling; sometimes it's a vicious beast: eternally on the prowl, always hungry, lurking at the edge of our existence, ready to take us down. (333)

Resolve, again:
"I care about you, too," I say. And it's not a lie. Because I do care about him, a lot. I just can't handle this suffocating togetherness between the two of us all the time.
"Thanks," he mumbles, and yawns.
And yet again I wonder: Thanks for what? For letting you be close to me? For letting you come inside me? Thanks because I haven't asked you to leave yet?
Outside there's the thunder of the waves as they break against the rocks, rhythmic, like his pulse.
I have to try.
For the hundredth time I promise myself that I will try to be the normal woman he wants, that he deserves. (51)

Bottom line:
As if he can hear what I am thinking, Vijay continues, "It's not as simple as you might think. The definition of violence against women is not clear-cut. It's not just about physical abuse in the home but about threats, psychological abuse, extreme control, underage marriage, conscious underfeeding of girls, checking their hymens. You know."
"So is there a common denominator?" Aina asks.
Vijay nods, runs his hand over the black stubble on his chin, which is becoming increasingly flecked with grey as the years go by. "Power," he says. "Power and control. That's always what it comes down to in the end." (119)

The lion:
"My own mother thought her boyfriend was ... more important than me."
"Oh, honey." Sirrka rubs her knees and shakes her head so that her thin red hair leaves her skinny shoulders for a moment. "Didn't you know that that was ... wrong? It's unnatural to do that to a child."
"Is it?" Sofie asks, looking at Sirrka. "Maybe the abuse is natural."
"What do you mean?" Sirrka looks genuinely confused.
"I mean ... I usually think it's like with the lion," Sofie says, her voice cracking.
"The lion?" Aina asks.
"Yeah, you know, when a male lion meets a new lioness, he always kills her young, because they belong to another male. I think that's probably pretty common. I'm not his, so he rejects me, you know? It's ... nature." (171)


Yasmina Khadra. The Attack. 2005. UK: First Anchor Books, 2007.
I likely wasn't quite ready for this after The Black Widow and still feeling shades of A Disappearance in Damascus. Living in Middle East countries with constant expectation of terrorism defies our senses but it behooves us to try understanding. A naturalized Israeli citizen of Bedouin origin, Amin Jaamar is a distinguished surgeon at a Tel Aviv hospital. His career path amidst a Jewish majority was and is beset with racial ostracism and indignities despite his secular, apolitical life. In their work, he and his colleagues are familiar with the devastating physical effects of terrorist attacks. Then a suicide bomber rips apart his life; the perpetrator was his own wife Sihem.

Stunned and disoriented by the evidence, Amin can only condemn his failure as a husband to notice any signs of her conversion to mujahideen. He feels bound to seek answers to his anguished Why? Now, the intolerance he daily lived with feels insignificant compared to the contempt lashed at him by fellow Arabs as he tries to reconstruct his wife's movements to destruction, to find the people who mentored her. Intifada militants lecture and denounce him for ignoring his roots. Bloody but undaunted, he eventually reaches Jenin, a Palestinian city in the West Bank and the area of his own tribal origins, where he is reunited with remaining family. Taking place at the time of the Second Intifada, the story is beautifully, beautifully written. Read it and weep. But read it.

One-liners:
I take my face in my hands and groan and groan until finally I begin shouting like a man possessed into the deafening roar of the waves. (52)
My tears may well have drowned a little of my sorrow, but my rage is still there, like a tumour buried deep inside me, or like a monster of the abyss, crouched in the darkness of its lair, waiting for the right moment to rise to the surface and terrify the world. (88)
"Every Jew in Palestine is a bit of an Arab, and no Arab in Israel can deny that he's a little Jewish." (242)
Our whole family history comes back to me at a gallop, as magnificent as a troop of mounted warriors on parade. (244)

Grieving:
But how do I put out these red-hot embers I've got burning holes in my guts? How can I look at myself in a mirror and not cover my face, with my self-esteem in shreds and this doubt that's still here, subverting my grief, despite what I know to be true? Ever since Captain Moshe released me to my own devices, I can't close my eyes without finding myself face-to-face with Sihem's smile. (125)

Blaming:
"You need a shrink, not a sheikh. Those people don't have to account to you for anything."
"They killed my wife."
"Sihem killed herself," Kim says softly, as though she's about to wake up my demons. "She knew what she was doing; she'd chosen her destiny. It's not the same thing."
Kim's words exasperate me. (143-4)

Confronting:
"I don't like the way you talk to me."
"There's a vast number of things you don't like, Doctor, but in my opinion, that fact does not exempt you from anything at all. I don't know who had charge of your education but of one thing I'm certain: You went to the wrong school. Furthermore, nothing authorizes you to put on this air of outrage or to place yourself above ordinary mortals―not your social success, and not your wife's brave deed, which, by the way, doesn't raise you a whit in our esteem. To me, you're nothing but a poor orphan, without faith and without salvation, wandering around like a sleepwalker in broad daylight. Even if you could walk on water, you couldn't erase the insult you represent. For the real bastard isn't the man who doesn't know his father; it's the man who doesn't know his tradition." (149-50)

Sihem's truth:
"She didn't hold a grudge against you for prizing so highly the honors you were showered with, but that wasn't the happiness she wanted to see in you; she found it a little indecent, a bit incongruous. It was as if you were firing up a barbecue in a burned-out yard. You saw only the barbecue; she saw the rest, the desolation all around, spoiling all delight. It wasn't your fault; all the same, she couldn't bear sharing your blindness anymore." (227)

Martin Edwards. The Coffin Trail. 2004. UK: Magna Large Print Books, 2005.
Back in cosy old England for a change. A cosy valley in the Lakes District where everyone cosily knows each other but no-one wants to talk about a seven-year-old murder. So cosy, nothing happens ― those back cover blurbs can be misleading! Daniel and Miranda spontaneously buy a dilapidated, secluded cottage to start their life together, abandoning their urban personae. Brackdale village is in hiking country, perhaps notable only for the natural feature called the Sacrifice Stone, where a woman's mutilated body had been found. Daniel's police father and his partner Hannah never found enough evidence to arrest anyone; the village believes the slightly autistic lad Barrie did it, but he too had died the same night.

Policewoman Hannah revives the original evidence in a cold case review, to no avail. We meet the reticent locals as Daniel endlessly speculates about who really dunnit. At a somnolent pace. Then finally something happens. Over three-quarters in, another body turns up. A lot of breast-beating if onlys. Half-baked mythology, amateur dream construction, clichéd relationships ... compelling, not! With its embedded English sentiment and phraseology, best for those who live in that green and pleasant land. And who uses the word dungarees any more?!

One-liners:
For too long he'd played the sober academic, weighing evidence with cool scholarship before proceeding to a measured judgement. (19)
A mere clearing of the throat could express a gamut of emotions and a reproving cough sufficed where others would rant and swear. (57)

Her former boss:
Hannah remembered wild conjectures jumping in her brain like fire crackers. She knew better than to voice her ideas. Ben Kind was a Puritan amongst detectives, addicted to facts and scathing about enthusiasts who got off on theories. Speculation was a dangerous self-indulgence in his book, draining an investigation of time and resources, leeching all the energy out of it. No one ever solved a crime by guesswork. You might as well hire a psychic or peer into a crystal ball. (180-1)

Daniel meets Hannah:
"I don't suppose everyone we speak to will be quite so positive."
"But if it helps the truth to come out ..."
"Daniel," she interrupted. "Just be clear about this. One thing you learn in my job is that the truth is usually the last thing people want to emerge. Guilty or innocent, it doesn't matter. Everyone has something to hide."
"Everyone?"
For a moment he thought she was about to say something else, but instead she stood up and brushed droplets of rain from her coat. "I'd better go." (248-9)

Pessimistic friend:
"Thanks for the kind invitation," Daniel said. "And I'd be glad to offer the occasional article, if it helps. But I don't think I'll be coming back to Oxford yet awhile."
"Your social calendar is already crammed?"
"What I like about this place is that I don't have a social calendar any more."
"It'll end in tears," Theo murmured. "You do realise that, don't you? The world treats escapists roughly, Daniel. They learn that in truth, they cannot escape themselves." (367)


31 January 2017

Library Limelights 125

Leif GW Persson. Bäckström, He Who Kills the Dragon. 2008. USA: Vintage/Random House, 2015.
Meet Backstrom, the total reprobate no police chief wants on his force an obliviously racist, misogynistic, hypocritical, mendacious, obnoxious, narcissistic fantasy artist. But the author cleverly handles him as a tool reflecting the varied personalities of his long-suffering police colleagues. Backstrom heads a murder investigation that branches madly in all directions. His strategy is to put everyone on his team to work while he goofs off for three hearty meals a day in spite of the diet his doctor ordered. At meetings, he issues orders, smiling beatifically at everyone while mentally berating each in turn. In fact, all his inner thoughts about other people are derogatory even as they fantasize about killing him. Backstrom has nothing good to say about anyone but himself.

The murder victim was a harmless elderly drunk eking out his pension ("your standard pisshead" in police parlance). Who could possibly want to kill such an innocuous old man? Then the neighbours are interviewed, his alcoholic friends remember a few things, and the man's past begins to surface. Not before Backstrom no stranger himself to drinking has aggravated every official in the hierarchy above and below him, especially since at least half the extended team members are immigrants to Sweden. It's a complex mystery and amusing if you like your comedy on the black side. Some of it is offensive. If Backstrom is right, the police force is run by lunatics and only he can tie together several recent cases; only he can "kill the dragon" that flummoxes his superiors.

One-liners:
It wasn't exactly the sharpest team he had led in his twenty-five years in violent crime. (21)
Toivonen had been Swedish wrestling champion on several occasions, Greco-Roman as well as freestyle, and he could easily have broken every bone in Backstrom's body without even taking his hands out of his pockets. (121)
Alm must look like a perfect bird feeder if you were a woodpecker, he thought. (248)

Initial team meeting:
Then they had started throwing ideas around. Or one single idea that Backstrom, just to be on the safe side, threw out there all on his own.
"Well, then," Backstrom said, since the others for once seemed to have the good manners to keep their mouths shut and let him start.
"One pisshead has been murdered by another pisshead. If there's anyone here who has any other suggestion, now's the time to pipe up," he went on, leaning forward and resting his elbows heavily on the table, glowering at his colleagues.
No one seemed to have any objections, to judge by the unanimous head shaking.
"Good," Backstrom said. "That's enough suggestions." (32)

Hangover shopping for the new food regime:
Evidently he must have stopped and done some shopping somewhere, because he was carrying a bag full of bottles of mineral water and a plastic pack containing a mass of mysterious vegetables.
What the fuck is this? Backstrom thought, holding up the pack. Those little red things must be tomatoes. He recognized them, and he had even eaten one or two when he was a lad. All that green stuff must be lettuce? But all the other stuff? A mass of weird black and brown balls of varying sizes. Hare shit? Elk shit? And something that mostly looked like maggots but which must be something else, since they didn't wriggle when he prodded them.
What the fuck is going on? Backstrom wondered as he headed toward the shower, dropping his clothes on the floor as he went. (37)

Mentally polling his team:
Just as the meeting was due to start, the head of the crime unit in Solna, Superintendent Toivonen, walked into the room. He nodded to the others with a grim glare before sitting down at the back of the room.
Nine people, one of whom is a proper police officer, Backstrom thought. Apart from him, one purebred bastard Finn, one idiot Lapppractically a bastard Finnone Chilean, one Russian, one pretty little darkie, one attack dyke, one retarded folk dancer, and dear old Lars Woodentop Alm, seriously mentally handicapped since birth. Where the fuck is this force heading? he thought. (96)

Rescue after being attacked:
Then he opened the door and let them in, and went and sat on the sofa with a strong drink. He poured another, just to be on the safe side. Where the hell is this force heading? he wondered. Here he was, in mortal danger for at least a quarter of an hour, until eventually he single-handedly managed to restore order and harmony around him. The best his employers could offer him was evidently five snotty-nosed kids who showed up when it was all done and dusted. Two women, two Negroes, and one poor sod who was evidently only a mulatto and probably got bullied by his colleagues. What the hell is happening to the Swedish police? Backstrom thought. (276)

Ian Rankin. Strip Jack. UK: Orion Books, 1992.
An oldie but goodie (of course!) ... an overlooked early Inspector John Rebus gem. Twenty-five years ago Rebus was a bit livelier and less pessimistic about his fellow man. Also, imminently about to share living quarters with his doctor lover, Patience Aitken. The wife of Gregor Jack MP has been murdered so naturally Rebus spends all his waking hours on it, having developed a certain empathy for the public figure. His superiors like a vagrant confessor as the killer, but Rebus strikes out on his own investigative path, believing someone unknown is trying to smear and destroy the MP.

Jack's marriage had hidden depths. Turns out the wife was part of a hard-partying group of friends close-knit since childhood. One of them killed his wife. One of them hates her own husband. One of them is having a secret affair with another one. Or two. Why was Gregor Jack caught in a raid on an Edinburgh brothel? It's always sheer pleasure following Rebus' adventures and his colleagues' reactions.

Words: (with allowance made for Scots usage)
moggies - mixed-breed cats
haar - a cold sea fog
verrucas - plantar warts

One-liners:
He didn't make waves exactly, but by Christ he splashed like hell. (9)
He had a voice like a peat bog and eyes that gleamed like crystal. (21)
In religion, he might be more Pessimisterian than Presbyterian, but in some things John Rebus still clung to faith. (78)
Watson looked like a kindly uncle suddenly tiring of a precocious nephew. (104)

Moving in?
But the flat itself was what interested Rebus. It was like a shelter, like a children's encampment. You could stand in either of the front bedrooms and stare up out of the window to where feet and legs moved along the pavement above you. People seldom looked down. Rebus, whose own flat was on the second floor of a Marchmont tenement, enjoyed this new perspective. While other men his age were moving out of the city and into bungalows, Rebus found a sort of amused thrill from walking downstairs to the front door instead of walking up. More than novelty, it was a reversal, a major shift, and his life felt full of promise as a result.
Patience, too, was full of promise. She was keen for him to move more of his things in, to 'make himself at home'. And she had given him a key. (27)

A wild ride:
" ... So I'm enjoying my lucky break. That's all I'm doing."
It was not quite all Tom Pond was doing. He was also crossing the Forth Road Bridge doing something in excess of one hundred miles an hour. Rebus daren't look at the speedo.
"After all," Pond had explained, "it's not every day I can go breaking the speed limit with a policemen in the car to explain it away if we get stopped." And he laughed. Rebus didn't. Rebus didn't say much after they hit the ton.
Tom Pond owned a forty-grand Italian racing job that looked like a kit-car and sounded like a lawnmower. The last time Rebus had been this close to ground level, he'd just slipped on some ice outside his flat.
"I've got three habits, Inspector: fast cars, fast women, and slow horses." And he laughed again.
"If you don't slow down, son," Rebus yelled above the engine's whine, "I'm going to have to book you for speeding myself!"
Pond looked hurt, but eased back on the accelerator. And after all, he was doing them all a favour, wasn't he? (204-5)

Dog eat dog:
"It sounds plausible," said Lauderdale. Rebus raised half an eyebrow: having Lauderdale's support was a bit like locking yourself in with a starved alsatian ...
"What about Mr Glass?" asked Watson.
"Well, sir," said Lauderdale, shifting a little in his seat, "psychiatric reports don't show him to be the most stable individual. He lives in a sort of fantasy world, you might say."
"You mean he made it up?"
"Very probably."
"Which brings us back to Mr Steele. I think we'd better have him in for a word, hadn't we. Did you say you brought him in yesterday, John?"
"That's right, sir. I thought we might give the boot of his car a once-over. But Mr Lauderdale seemed convinced by Steele's story and let him go."
The look on Lauderdale's face would remain long in Rebus's memory. Man bites alsatian. (247
)


Daniel Silva. The Black Widow. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2016.
Silva's popular novels feature the Israeli superspy, Gabriel Allon. This time he carefully orchestrates a black widow infiltration of an ISIS network; such women are committed to killing infidels, even suicide bombing, because their husbands or boyfriends were killed for the cause. French Jew Dr Natalie Mizrahi is recruited to become Dr Leila Hadawi, Palestinian convert to ISIS. It's a long, circuitous way to achieve a new identity and the goal, with scenes typically moving back and forth from Europe to the Middle East over months of time. Mizrahi's dangerous mission to learn ISIS plans is not successful enough to stop a massive terrorist attack on Washington DC. Actually, the attack is a huge fail by intelligence agencies of several countries. Coincidentally, both Mizrahi and the arch-villain called Saladin survive all the disaster.

Silva does not let us forget that Israel is on the front line of defence when it comes to Middle East warfare. He dextrously takes us through the politics of international spying and guerilla tactics with his usual attention to detail. His personification of ISIS recalls the prophecy of a victorious caliphate when two great armies meet in Dabiq (Syria). Descriptions of ISIS and its "capital," Raqqa, seem authentic and current. But I found the book in want of tightening up; losing some pretentiously repetitive slogans and mission statements would have been preferable. A few holes in sequence had me asking myself "huh? how did he/she know/find that?" Ultimately Gabriel takes his designated place as head of Israel's intelligence service, a plan that's been unfolding over the last few novels.

One-liners:
There is no worse feeling for a professional spy than to be told something by an officer from another service that he should have already known himself. (95)
An assassin had been placed in charge of Israel's intelligence service. (509)

Two-liners:
"I am a soldier of Allah, but a great admirer of Winston Churchill. And it was Winston Churchill who said that in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." (463)
Na'eem Square, once beloved by Raqqa's children, was now filled with severed heads, not stone but human. They stared mournfully down from the spikes of an iron fence, Syrian soldiers, Kurdish fighters, traitors, saboteurs, former hostages. (269)

The current nemesis:
Navot remained in his office long after Mikhail had taken his leave. The desk was empty except for his leather-bound executive notepad, on which he had scrawled a single word. Saladin ... only a man of great self-esteem would grant himself a code name like that, only a man of great ambition. The real Saladin had united the Muslim world under the Ayyubid dynasty and recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Perhaps this new Saladin was similarly inclined. For his coming-out party he had flattened a Jewish target in the middle of Paris, thus attacking two countries, two civilizations, at the same time. Surely, thought Navot, the success of the attack had only whetted his lust for infidel blood. It was only a matter of time before he struck again. (39)

The courage begins:
"Why am I here?"
"First, we have lunch. Then we talk."
"And if I want to leave?"
"You leave."
"And if I stay?"
"I can promise you only one thing, Natalie. Your life will never be the same."
"And if the roles were reversed? What would you do?"
"I'd probably tell you to find someone else."
"Well," she said. "How can I possibly turn down an offer like that? Shall we eat? I'm absolutely famished." (133)

Lying in wait:
Qassam was now beholden to a man of far greater ambitions. He did not know the man's real name, only his nom de guerre. He was the one from Iraq, the one they called Saladin.
Not surprisingly, Qassam's journey had begun in cyberspace, where, his identity carefully shielded, he had indulged in his unquenchable appetite for the blood and bombs of jihadist pornan appetite he had developed during the American occupation of Iraq, when he was still at university. One evening, after a miserable day at work and a nightmarish commute home, he had knocked on the cyberdoor of an ISIS recruiter and inquired about traveling to Syria to become a fighter. The ISIS recruiter had made inquiries of his own and had convinced Qassam to remain in suburban Washington. (357-8)

25 January 2017

FEC Peace

A shaky status quo reached after the Inmates Committee (IC) revolt. Replacing the duly-elected members of the IC did not happen. The unlikely alliance of Mr. OC and Ms Etoile and their vociferous supporters brought the FEC Upper Levels of Command to their knees. Or so one would conclude from Ms E's frequent, flagrant broadcasting in her throatiest stage voice.

"We won because I," Ms E trumpets, "accused them of human rights violations. We have an ombudsman for that, don't you know? And my journalist pal on the daily tabloid was all set to expose Upper Levels' unfair practices. That kind of publicity would destroy FEC! So of course they backed down."

"No. I beg to differ," Mr. OC is quick to interrupt. "We won because I threatened to go to landlord-tenant court. That lovely little articling law student prepared a brief for us, all set to prove our point. We would've nailed them."
Ophelia murmurs, "She was so cute you wanted to nail her."
Gonzo, smugly: "No more Thomas the Brave Bastard sticking his fingers in our petty cash or anywhere else."

Luther whips out a hat that says Make FEC Great Again to a round of polite applause.
Ms Etoile, briskly: "Good hat. Now, agenda! Agenda, please!"
Bella, puzzled: "I don't get it."
Sheila, wearily: "Am I taking minutes again?"
Luanna, wispily: "What time is this meeting over?"
George, rudely: "Pass the Timbits."
Ophelia, apologetically: "I would have made butter tarts if I'd had more notice."

A new meeting takes shape. A new Kitchen Assistant must be appointed. Ophelia nominates young Sam, hunkiest man in FEC, also demanding a new stove for the communal kitchen ... no-one wants to hear more about the Tupperware-melting episode and the Fire Chief's blistering lecture. Gonzo wants accounting software. George wants beer and wine during the IC meetings (Bella's face lights up). Luanna wants to watch television.

Meanwhile, Upper Levels are keeping very quiet about rumours of recently discovered discrepancies in Thomas the Brave's creative accounting methods for the Communal Piano Fund.

Having defeated the Forces of Darkness Upper Levels, Mr OC is lost in contemplation of a slightly more ornate chair upon which to preside at meetings. Perhaps a tiny bit elevated, the better to emphasize the IC his victory. What else is petty cash good for.

Another feckless day in the life ...


17 January 2017

Library Limelights 124

Douglas Smith. Rasputin: faith, power, and the twilight of the Romanovs. USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
What can I possibly say about the most exhaustive work yet on this most charismatic, often adored but mostly reviled figure in the old tsarist regime? Smith had access to a host of archives in Russia unavailable to a throng of previous biographers. His measured reporting and analysis of each event (personal or political), particularly from 1905 when Rasputin first met the imperial couple to 1916 when he died, are beyond reproach. Familiar with many stories, I do confess picking and choosing my chapters in this epic tome. What becomes very clear is the obstinacy of Nicholas II and especially of Alexandra that protected Rasputin in the face of dissent from so many different levels of society. There is no question he unwittingly played a large part in the downfall of the royal family and the empire.

Smith was able to piece together Rasputin's younger life before becoming an on-again, off-again resident of St. Petersburg and regular visitor to the royal palaces. The man first became revered as one of the peripatetic Siberian "holy fools" and groups of acolytes began to surround him, both peasant and privileged. As his influence grew, so did the jealousy and accusations: (among others) that he took advantage of women (to put it mildly) and that he was a khlyst. The word refers to a Christian sect said to indulge in unholy practices. Whatever, it takes 700 pages to get a feel for, if not understand, the enabling ambiance of the times; in Russian circles of power, gossip and rumour were astonishingly rampant, self-servingly embroidered, and swallowed whole in each iteration. Rasputin was painted in many contradictory terms. The conspirators who ended his life in a bloody confrontation led by Prince Felix Yusupov were likely almost as affected by hysteria as Rasputin's supporters. It seems that Rasputin's holiness fought with, but inevitably succumbed, to his celebrity.
Choosing a few sample passages is near impossible.

Portrait 1914 by T. Krarup in Smith's book; original was destroyed.

One-liners:
Once he had crawled inside my head, Rasputin refused to leave me alone. (5)
Alexandra remained blind to the reality of the situation up until the end. (580)
"When Rasputin entered my study I was shocked by the repulsive expression of his eyes, deep-set and close to each other, small, gray in color." (259)

One of the assassins:
The Felix Yusupov that is described in his memoirs is a caricature of the vain and spoiled aristocrat for whom everything is permitted, nothing is to be taken too seriously, and the entire world and all the things (and people) in it have been created for his own use and enjoyment. Nothing held his attention for long, and Felix's life amounted to a search for intense experiences and thrill-seeking that began with cross-dressing and eventually ended in murder. (185)

The early path:
Life as a pilgrim was hard. Rasputin walked thirty miles a day in all kinds of weather. He begged for alms or worked at odd jobs to earn a few kopecks. He was often set upon by brigands and chased by murderers. The Devil forever tempted him with "unholy desires." Rasputin humiliated himself to test his resolve. He would force himself to go without food or water for days, for six months he wandered without changing his underclothes or touching his body, for three years he traveled across Russia in fetters. In age-old Christian fashion, this mortification of the flesh brought him closer to the spirit of Christ. With time Rasputin gave up his metal chains for "the chains of love." He learned to read the Gospels, to contemplate their meaning, and to find God in all things, especially in the beauty of the Russian landscape. ...
Wonder at the beauty of nature. Conviction of the Devil's presence in the world around us. Struggle with the demands of the body. Disregard for money and material things. Awe at the power of love. Asceticism and unusual religious practices combined with an independent spirit. In these passages Rasputin revealed the themes that would dominate his life. (23)

Alexandra's words:
She was becoming increasingly irritated by Nicholas' weakness and sent him hectoring letters demanding that he "bang on the table" and act like a tsar, for "Russia loves to feel the whip." She passed on Rasputin's advice that he be strong and stand up to the ministers ... She ordered her husband to be "a man" and confessed that "its harder keeping you firm than [enduring] the hatred of others wh. leaves me cold." In exasperation she cried, "How I wish I could pour my will into your veins!" But she could not. The monarchy, as Alexandra saw it, was threatened chiefly by her husband's lack of will. In Rasputin, Alexandra had hoped to find the strength to support Nicholas and his reign. Her belief in Rasputin never wavered, but her hope for the success of his mission to guide Nicholas was fading. (582)

Brent Ghelfi. Shadow of the Wolf. USA: Picador/Henry Holt and Company, 2008.
Speaking of Russia ... Almost catapulting out of a comic strip, scarred and battered Alexei Volkovoy is a one-man wrecking crew. Generally known as Volk (wolf), his skills are employed by a variety of ruthless power-seekers inside or outside today's Kremlin. Controlling oil is power. Russia is still dealing with Chechen terrorists but the vicious attacks are mutual. The novel begins with an explosion in Moscow and continues with more dead bodies. Tough guy Volk, who provides the narrative, begins to find his conscience as he works out the very tangled skeins of greed, betrayal, and horror. Volk lost a foot and part of his leg in a previous book; this time he does not want to lose his Chechen lover Valya.

The cast of characters is longer than your arm. Two Americans are only bit players. References to Putin and deep-rooted corruption at top levels of Russian administration are totally convincing. But cultural warfare, abductions, torture ... the resulting violence is not for the faint. Nevertheless, kudos to an American author who knows every nuance of the necessary background political and geographical. The details are impressive; the writing is excellent and not without strategically placed bits of alleviating humour.

One-liners:
Putin has earned a reputation for being everywhere at once, straddling the ocean, filling the sky, just like Stalin. (48)
To me the differences between American politicians are insignificant, and mostly rhetorical; damn near everyone of them voted to bomb Iraq until the sand turned to glass, all the while condemning Russia for invading Chechnya. (83)
When the institutionalized rigidity of Soviet life vanished suddenly, as if a chunk of the country had fallen off the earth, we had no frame of reference. (183)

The local cop shop:
The station is falling apart for want of repairs it won't get anytime soon. Its white walls are trimmed in green paint cracked like a dried lake bed. The boiler downstairs gasps and thunks, fighting a holding action against Moscow's January freeze. Condensation drips from the overhead pipes, and more moisture wicks from the corners of the ceiling, where radiating brown stains that look like tree rings mark the advance and retreat of past incursions. (116)

Walk with me:
He leads the way out and we cross the bridge to chug along the embankment on the edge of the Moscow River, the big man huffing like a steam engine, his bodyguards trailing some distance behind us like freight cars. The cold and wind turn his face red, but he seems happier to be outside.
"In a hundred years we'll kill each other for different reasons," he says. "But only one kind of world politics matters right now. Petropolitics. The pipes are the asshole of the oil and gas world. Shut them down, how long you think everything else keeps going? And just wait until the crazies in Iran start aiming suicide boats at Persian Gulf tankers."
He stops just before we reach Red Square. One of his men rushes toward us with a cup. Maxim pops off the lid, slugs half the boiling brew inside, and loudly smacks his lips. (172)

In the Caucasus mountains:
"This is a generational problem, Volk," he says on the exhale. "Just like what we have in Afghanistan and Iraq. That kid back there will never know anything except how to fight and how to hate. Unless something changes soon, neither will his children. And they won't even understand why."
I remember thinking something similar in Masha's flat. How long ago was that? Four days I think. Maybe five. The hours in the Lubyanka hole warped my sense of time. ...
"This isn't new," I say. "The highlanders haven't known anything except fighting for a thousand years."
But even as I say the words I know I've evaded the point. The children of the Chechen wars are refugees in their own land. They represent the beginning of a new cycle, not a continuation of what began long ago. A downward spiral that won't end until something catastrophic disrupts it. (248-9)

Arnaldur Indridadson. Voices. 2003. UK: Vintage/Random House, 2010.
We're in Iceland and it's just about Christmas time. Detective Erlendur is on the case of a murdered hotel doorman, a man no-one knew well. In fact the cop decides to book a room and stay in the hotel, to the consternation of the mostly unhelpful staff. Erlendur doesn't like to admit going home is lonely, or that a traumatic childhood memory plagues him just as the slain victim did. While Erlendur grapples with suspicious hotel guests and vinyl record collectors, his attention keeps drifting to his sad daughter Eva Lind. Erlendur's colleague Elinborg fumes about the trial of a father who might have abused his child. Slowly the victim's hidden past comes to light through old acquaintances.

Boy soprano choirs evoke the book's title. Boys growing up without a father's attention, or too much attention, play a part throughout the story line. Sibling relationships also factor in. The police characters are eminently likeable although appearing a bit thick at times ... a reader can see one of the revelations coming from a mile away. Middle-aged Erlandur actually asks a woman for a date (a bit scary considering the man's favourite meal is to boil some smoked lamb). There's something rather homey and comfortable about all this, if one can say that about a crime novel.

One-liners:
The main course every Christmas was a Swedish-style leg of pork, which she kept outside on the balcony to marinate for twelve days, and tended it just as carefully as if it had been the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes. (27-8)
Halldóra was the woman he married a whole generation before, then divorced and whose hatred he earned for doing so. (75)

A confession of sorts:
In twenty-three years he had been faithful to his wife. Two or three times in all those years he'd perhaps had the chance to kiss another woman, but nothing like this had ever happened to him before.
"I lost the plot completely," he told Erlendur. "Part of me wanted to run home and forget the whole thing. Part of me wanted to go with the woman."
"I bet I know which part that was," said Erlendur. (97)

Voices:
"A wolf in his voice?" Erlendur said. "I'm not too well up on ..."
"It's an idiom for when your voice breaks. What happens is that the vocal chords stretch in puberty, but you go on using your voice in the same way and it shifts an octave lower. The result isn't pretty, you sort of yodel downwards. This is what ruins all boys' choirs. He could have had another two or three years, but Gudlaugur matured early. His hormones started working prematurely and produced the most tragic night of his life." (136-7)

Unsolicited advice:
"What's new with you?" Marion asked, puffing on the cigarillo.
"Nothing," Erlendur said.
"Does Christmas annoy you?"
"I've never understood this Christmas business," Erlendur said vaguely as he peered into the kitchen, on the lookout for the chef's hat.
"No," Marion said. "Too much cheer and joy, I would imagine. Why don't you get yourself a girlfriend? You're not that old. There are plenty of women who could take a fancy to an old fart like you." (186)

10 January 2017

Library Limelights 123

Claudia Piñeiro. Betty Boo. (2011). UK: Bitter Lemon Press, 2016.
Argentina. How's that for exotic location? The high-security Maravillosa Country Club (what we would call a gated community) is the suburban Buenos Aires setting for the murder of a high-profile businessman, Pedro Chazaretta. Chazaretta had been acquitted of his wife's murder a few years previously and he died in the same fashion. Journalists for El Tribuno are determined to be first with investigative articles ― almost no cops involved here. Nurit Iscar (nicknamed Betty Boop or Boo after the Flapper cartoon she resembles) is a novelist co-opted by the newspaper to write commentary pieces. Along with crime reporter Jaime Brena and Crime boy who replaced Brena at the paper's most distinguished desk, Nurit uncovers related, sinister events.

But the style! So disconcerting. Run-on paragraphs, sometimes for pages. You catch on that conversations – dialogue! – are taking place within; no quotation marks anywhere. Takes some adjustment in the mind of the reader, especially determining who says what. And yet the plot and the likeable characters suck you in so you make the effort. It flows with ease from one person's actions to the next. Scenes with Nurit's friends Paula and Carmen, discussing their love lives (or lack thereof) are irresistibly funny; so is her unplanned weekend house party. Besides the main hunt for a killer, the story ranges from today's newspaper problems to whether they are obligated to publish the truth at any cost.

Word: entelechy; noun. Actualization of an organism's intrinsic self-potential.

One-liners:
You spend too much time sitting in front of a computer, he'd said; you're going to end up with an arse like a pancake pan. (116)
Before leaving, Comisario Venturini says: Forgive me, I don't want to be impolite to the ladies, and goes over to Nurit's friends, clasping each of their hands firmly between both of his own, a gesture that irritates Carmen and thrills Paula. (131-2)
Being solitary is constitutional, a matter of nature, and not something that changes with the passage of time or whenever the house fills up with people. (274)
When a person kills someone who deserves to die, does that make him any less of a murderer? (301)

Betty Boop:
Do the secondary school girls who today have her image stamped on their folders, their pencil cases, their backpacks or T-shirts know what Betty Boop represents? Do they know that she had to be toned down in the 1930s? Why is a cartoon woman re-emerging so strongly in the twenty-first century? Is Betty Boop simply another marketing product for our unthinking consumption? Nurit Iscar doesn't think so. She doesn't believe that Betty Boop's ubiquity is merely commercial. She still believes in the strength transmitted by the icon, even if it is working subconsciously on those who look to her eighty years later. (65)

BFFs:
In the taxi on the way back to their respective homes, Paula Sibona and Carmen Terrada are discussing their fears of Nurit falling prey again to the devastating Rinaldi effect. Although they can't be sure that they too, in her shoes, wouldn't do the same. That is, they are pretty sure they would do the same. And more humiliating things besides. There are plenty of examples best forgotten, says Paula. And Carmen Terrada adds: I've blanked them all out, believe me. (70)

The ex-lover:
You always were a mistrustful girl, Betty Boo. Clearly not mistrustful enough, she says, standing up. I'd better get going – it's a long way to that blessed country club. Do you think you'll have something for today? Don't put so much pressure on me, Rinaldi. There was a time you liked me pressuring you. Once upon a time, she says, but we're grown up now. It's only been three years. Ah, but I measure them the same way you measure presidential years, she says, and smiles. (84)

Brena on journalists:

But the question is: how do you form that opinion? What values do you respect? What scruples do you have? Many of them will offer up as an irrefutable truth something that's nothing more than their own opinion. Or the opinion of the people they work for. When a journalist departs from the facts in order to give his own opinion, he has to be clear about what he's doing or there's no integrity. It's fine to have opinions, but don't pass them off as facts. The bourgeois ideology tries to present the interests of its own class as natural or normal. Am I disappearing up my own ass, kid? No, not at all, says the Crime boy. (139)

Herman Koch. Dear Mr. M. USA: Hogarth/Crown Publishing/Penguin, 2016.
A very different approach to a mystery, ultimately disappointing IMO. A nameless watcher is obsessed with the prominent writer Mr. M, following him and finally inserting himself incognito into his life. Sometimes we get Mr. M's cynical viewpoint, reviewing his long life and published novels. It's his best-known book based on a true crime, Payback, around which the tale swirls murkily. Who is actually telling us about it ― Mr. M or one of the participants? Reality v. the writer's imagination develops as a theme. Two high school students were suspects in the real-life disappearance of one of their teachers. All three have a point of view.

It becomes tiresome bouncing back and forth in time from one version of the story to another. Too much probing of what Nameless calls mediocrity. Too much dubious appropriation of teenage minds. Too much navel gazing by Mr. M in a long interview that is supposed to illuminate literary arguments. Some credibility issues with the teacher's character as described. I almost gave up after the first fifty pages of agonizingly slow development. Then, sorry, I had to skim over passages. Here is another book dwelling somewhat on whether the truth, if known, should be told. Once engaged, you can foresee the resolution to come.

One-liners:
There are women who say out loud that every man turns and looks when they walk past, and there are women who don't have to say that. (13)
"Tolerance is only possible when one fosters a deep-rooted sense of superiority." (300)

Teacher discomfort:
Now, from the kitchen, I heard the rattling of bottles.
"We've still got ...," I heard Laura say. "Wait a minute, what's this? Eau-de-vie. There's still a little left. You want that? A glass of eau-de-vie?"
No, I said in my thoughts. Not eau-de-vie. But Laura couldn't hear that.
"Well, I wouldn't say no to that!" Mr. Landzaat shouted. "I still have to drive, but one little glass couldn't hurt."
Then he turned to look at me―and winked. He winked, and at the same time he bared those long teeth, all the way up to the purplish gums.
I didn't look at his face, only at his mouth and his teeth. If I had teeth like that I would keep my smiling to a minimum. (58)

Mr. M's obligations:
The library where he's expected to turn up is within walking distance, in a neighbourhood at the edge of his own town. The worst thing about giving a reading in Amsterdam is the audiences. The audiences here radiate a certain self-importance, to put it mildly. What they radiate above all is the fact that they could be attending so many other, perhaps even much more interesting performances, matinees, or concerts. Still, on this sunny Saturday, they are here, with you, in the library. They're raring to go, but make no mistake about it: they're not about to settle for the same old song and dance, not like those provincial bumpkins who, for lack of a richer cultural agenda, go gladly to see an older, visibly dwindling writer. (90)

Comes the truth:
It was one of those moments when you cross a certain line unawares, Laura realized only too late. Suddenly you're on the other side and can't go back. Laura would think back on this moment often, later, the moment when she, without knowing exactly how it happened, found herself somewhere she didn't want to be.
She could feel her face growing hot, and cursed herself. It had all gone too quickly. She knew the question that was coming next, and she knew that she could never lie as long as she was looking straight at Stella.
"Do you like Herman, Laura?" (185)

John Lescroart. Sunburn. (1981) USA: Signet, New American Library/Penguin, 2009.
And now for something totally different from the writer of those immensely popular Dismas Hardy and company mystery dramas ... groan. This reprinted debut novel from Lescroart should have been left in quiet oblivion. Despite the author's apologia that it represents his creative awakening. Am I getting curmudgeonly or what. A group of mostly middle-aged Americans in Spain are finding themselves, one might say. What is the point of life when you can't be yourself, whatever that is? Lea and Doug seem happy together, at first; her brother Sean struggles in his relationship with the volatile Kyra; Mike reviews his personal motivation; Berta and Tony are opaque side players. The narrative switches back and forth.

Many of these relationships and introspectives seem stilted, difficult to grasp in rambling exposition, let alone dialogue. Lea's insistence on a mission to galvanize them out of their torpor falls flat. Plenty of vino tinto fuels clumsy self-attempts at marriage counselling each other. Why do they all have so much trouble acknowledging or expressing their true feelings? You want to kick them hard to stop their false masquerading as being normal and contented. The only mystery is how long the reader can persevere through the trite whining about trust issues. See samples below of pathetic gloomy poorly articulated existential angst.

One-liners:
As long as he never let himself believe her, she could never destroy him, but also they would be nothing more than two drifters pretending to be lovers. (141)
"I don't know if you've ever lived with someone when the spark just went out." (183)

Mike:
But he was more than alone, depressed, and tired. He had decided to give up. It was all so meaningless, anyway.
If only something would happen, he thought. Almost anything. He wouldn't be picky. He turned onto his side and pulled the pillow over his head. But he had to watch that he didn't fool himself. He'd had something he believed in before. Maybe he could resurrect that.
As long as he didn't fool himself. That was the main thing. (44-5)

Sean:
"Should I go away for a while, you think?" he asked.
"What for?"
"I don't know. Sort things out."
"I didn't think things were that bad."
"It's not that things are so horrible. It's that I feel I'm in over my head, like I'm not controlling anything between us. It's all her. Sometimes I feel that her goal is to get me to love her, so that she will have all the power. And the hell of it is, Doug, that I'm powerless against her. I don't want to fall so hard that I won't have any choices left if she betrays me ..."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that if I fall as hard as she wants me to, then I wouldn't be able to live without her, and I mean that literally." (58)

Doug:
"You're blocking yourself off from me and everybody and everything, just because of some stupid intellectual idea you have that nothing affects anything else. That's not true. I affect you, and you know that. You're just not letting anything near you. This galloping unfaith, as you call it, guarantees that your life is empty and will stay empty."
She quieted down. "I'd like to force you, Doug, to let yourself feel something."
"I do feel things," he said feebly.
"Name something that really touches you then."
He was silent. (122-3)


04 January 2017

Leftovers

Whose bright idea was it to cook potatoes in MILK? Instead of water. That was for mashed potatoes, you understand, for the traditional Christmas dinner. Snatches of overheard discussion indicated that with this method the potatoes would mash themselves <insert a touch of skepticism>.


And so it came to be, although it seemed like an inordinately endless time to reach the desirable consistency. Bubbling away there, reducing the stock as it were, resembling porridge. As an observer only, I beamed benignly on the next generation of geniuses in my kitchen.

Much later they all departed the premises, having carefully portioned out the leftovers to share. I got the mashed potatoes. All of them. For some reason a small mountain of left. over. mashed. potatoes.


Thus I enjoyed a creative week of mashed potatoes:
- with leftover ham
- with leftover caribou paté
- with gifted homemade chutney
- with gifted cheese (names & labels lost) and minced chives
- with fresh tomatoes and the last of the cheese
- with arugula, avocado, cucumber salad

Did I mention? It took three days to clean the burnt potato mash off the bottom of my best pot. Fused it was. No-one tells you about that. Or no-one noticed what with the festive wine and turkey and the anxiety about not forgetting the dessert in the fridge.

Memo to self:
1. Potatoes. Cook henceforth the regular way for mashing.
2. Return to reading books.