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.

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.

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.

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)

"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.

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)

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.

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.

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)

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)

"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)

"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


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.  

30 December 2016

Library Limelights 122

Joseph Kanon. Los Alamos. USA: Island Books/Dell Publishing, 1997.
It's a work of genius, integrating a murder mystery with the last days of the Manhattan Project in New Mexico. Security at the site was rigidly enforced for the several thousand scientists, support workers, army personnel, and occasional civilians in order to protect America's biggest secret. Only a handful know the atomic bomb is about to be born. Investigative journalist Michael Connolly is brought to the "Hill" to solve the crime and above all, keep it quiet. He doesn't trust his boss, the real-life General Groves; internal surveillance on everyone is routine. An unexpected love affair almost derails Connolly as he sees the surrounding desert through rapturous eyes.

Kanon grips the reader right from the get-go. It may be a novel but the background research is painstakingly authentic. He does not ignore the moral ambiguity about "tickling the dragon," using a fictional scientist as a touchstone. But historical figure Robert Oppenheimer is central to the project and its "gadget" (as he calls it) and indeed to the story, held in awe by his peers for his vast expertise as well as his remarkable intuitive ability. Oppenheimer's chosen band of scientific colleagues includes German and East European refugees, complicating Connolly's hunt for murder suspects. The problem is far from over after reconstructing the murder scene. A truly powerful work that no crime-writing fan should miss.

He felt like someone brought home to dinner on approval and wondered if Emma regretted bringing him, now that it was his approval she seemed to care about. (95)
The whole mesa seemed on edge, like some extension of Oppenheimer's nervous system. (446)

"You mean you write propaganda?" Mills said, intrigued. "I've never met anyone who did that."
Connolly smiled. "No. Not propaganda. That's big lies, fake stories―the stuff Goebbels used to do. We don't make anything up. You couldn't, these days. We just look at it right, make people feel better about things. So they don't get discouraged. We don't have heavy casualties, we meet fierce resistance. A German advance is a last-ditch counterattack. No body parts, dismemberment, guts hanging out, just clean bullets. French villages are glad to see us―I think they must be, too. Our boys do not get the syph―or give it, for that matter. We don't mean to bomb anybody by accident, so we never do. The army isn't up to anything in New Mexico. There is no Manhattan Project."
Mills stared at him, surprised by the casual cynicism of the speech.
"Just a few rewrites," Connolly said. "For our own good." (31-2)

The Anasazi:
She guided him through the site, pointing out the masonry patterns, the low chamber entrances, the arrangement of the rooms, so that what had been an inexplicable maze of stones now became real, filled with imagined life. People had lived here, moving from ceremonial kiva to irrigated field to storage room. The valley floor had hummed with noise. As they walked from room to room, the place began to make sense, there was an order to things, and he wondered suddenly if years from now people would walk like this on the Hill, picking their way through its buildings and rituals and puzzles until they arranged themselves in the simple pattern of a town. Maybe it would keep its mysteries too, and maybe they would seem just as inconsequential. (230)

He thought of Eisler in his lab, those desperate seconds lowering the cube before it went critical. The trick was to stop in time, before the dragon turned. But what if it took on a life of its own? What if simply starting the process demanded its only conclusion? He looked around the Hill―clothes near the McKee units flapping on lines in the bright, dry air; a repairman high up on one of the overhead transformers; soldiers in jeeps―and it seemed to him utterly ordinary. Everyone was just getting on with the day, making a bomb. (385)

Vendela Vida. The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty. USA: HarperCollins, 2015.
Woman arrives in Casablanca, Morocco, and immediately all her ID and cash are stolen. Crazypants woman borrows new identity and allows herself to flow with it, masking her deep internal wounds. Paranoid and suspicious of everyone she meets, she fumbles with hotel staff, policemen, embassy clerks, and film crews. Yes, film crews, because she lucks into a local movie-making set and meets famous American actress. One thing leads to another in a deadpan sort of way, always underscored by her unspoken, subversive reactions.

Told as second-person narrative, the style is irresistible, hysterically funny at times. Yet this is an edgy portrait, gradually disclosing a tormented psyche. The missing tourist scene in the Meknes souk is hilarious despite leading to the major revelation. Slim as the book is, it's not a mystery, not a thriller, but a masterpiece of its own.

A psychiatrist friend of yours once told you that a telltale sign of a mentally unstable person is that she's never dressed appropriately for the weather. (59)
This is how it is in these countries―the glasses are so small and you are always thirsty. (88)

After the theft:
"We already have policemen on the street and in the markets looking for the man."
Of course they're scouring the markets. That's the first place the thief would go. To the markets to sell the computer, the phone, the camera.
"How many policemen?" you ask.
"Seventeen," he says.
Seventeen policemen. You try not to show how impressed you are. But seventeen policemen! The police chief is a serious man. But why not eighteen policemen? Where's the eighteenth policeman? (24)

Creeping paranoia:
The unlikely duo sit down on the chaise longue next to yours. "Sorry to interrupt your swim," says the pale practical woman, not seeming at all sorry.
"Yes, our apologies," says the tattooed man, seeming a little more apologetic. His tattoos bear words in Arabic and one, DESTINY, in English. He speaks with a slight British accent. Your guess is he studied in London as an exchange student. Now it all makes sense. They work for Interpol. You eye the elevator door, assessing whether if you run, you can escape. But the tattooed man looks athletic. You have no chance.
"We saw you downstairs," the pale practical woman says. "Did you see us?"
What is the right answer? The pale practical woman is American. Maybe she works for the embassy. ...
"No," you lie. "Maybe." (79)

Finding confidence:
There's a reason why you finally arrived at diving as your competitive sport. With diving your face was virtually unseen. It was all about the shape your body made in the distance as you dropped from a high board and disappeared deep into the water. By the time you came up for air, the judges had determined their score. It had nothing to do with your face. (87)

Pass or fail?
The bodyguard stands up.
"Did I fail the interview?" you ask.
"Not at all," he says. "I know people. I can tell you're a forthright person, Reeves." You don't know if you want to laugh or cry at this statement, but given that this appears to be the end of the interview, you simply nod.
"Well," says the practical secretary, never one to admire silence for long, "I have a room key." (97)

Karin Fossum. The Caller. (2009) UK: Harvill Secker, 2011.

Fossum's familiar Inspector Konrad Sejer and his partner Skarre ponder a series of bizarre pranks. None of them are life-threatening but all have devastating effects on the victims and their kin ― ideal fodder for the author's trademark psychological suspense. Personal security has been violated; an entire town becomes frightened. It seems disappointing, at first, that we know who the culprit is (like, where else can this go?) but of course the real questions are ― how far will he escalate, when does a prank turn into something evil, does a copycat come into play? Then murder happens.

The victims are ordinary people, even a little boring at times in their circumscribed lives, but nevertheless it's impossible not to make the Everyman connection. Having profiled the perpetrator, Sejer feels some compassion is warranted when he meets the abused Johnny. However Sejer's instincts are not always on target; in fact, the policeman is experiencing some alarming medical symptoms. I venture to say he survives, as there have been two more books since in the series. Classic Fossum in her sparse but elegant prose.

"When you're dependent on others you grow pious as a lamb." (45)
"When the rats go to sleep," it said on the box, "they will never wake up again." (47)
Someone who has a father has a place to go when things fall apart. (179)

Johnny's turmoil:
I can deal with almost anything, he thought. Year after year I've held my tongue. But the day is coming when I will get up and take my gruesome revenge. She doesn't know it, but that day is very close. I just need the right moment. To hell with the consequences ― life is a drag, and so is death. When I get my revenge people can do what they want and think what they want, I won't care. That's why I'm better than them. (127)

Karsten's despair:
The time that had lapsed since the incident with Margrete had left its mark on him in many ways. Cracks had appeared in the foundation, small fractures which continued to expand, and which meant his life was about to collapse. He had a more fiery temperament, which was manifested in his gait and other gestures ― something testy and jagged ― and he slammed doors more forcefully. Sometimes, when he was completely honest with himself ― for example in the evening, after a few beers ― he knew he wasn't in love with Lily any more. No, it was worse than that: he had begun to dislike her. He couldn't handle her femininity, her fear and vulnerability. Whenever he had these thoughts, despair filled him instantly, because maybe he was the one who had failed them.
He hadn't been able to protect them.
A stranger had come from outside and blasted their relationship to smithereens. (190)

Second thoughts?
"You trust this feeling? He tricked everyone for a long time. Why should you trust him now?"
Sejer shrugged. "Intuition is important. And I believe that mine is especially well-developed. After many years on the police force, after meeting so many people from all walks of life, I believe people use their gut feelings more than they realise. That's what carries us through life."
"But the police have to assess facts and clues and things like that?"
"Of course. And we haven't found anything at the crime scene which would indicate sabotage. So it's word against word."
Matteus looked hard at his grandfather.
"I think he's trying to pull one over on you." (289)

21 December 2016

Holiday Cracker on a Tiny Scale

Expressed so much better by other people:

Santa Claus has the right idea. Visit people only once a year.
~ Victor Borge

Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened.
~ Anon.

The past isn't dead; it isn't even past.
~ William Faulkner

I finally got it all together. Now where did I put it?
~ Anon.

Don'tcha wanna keep on moving'
Don'tcha wanna get undone?
~ Murray McLauchlan, "Down by the Henry Moore"

I don't feel old. I don't feel anything until noon. Then it's time for my nap.
~ Bob Hope

From the 2016 Limelights:
The word DEVIL appeared in four titles I read this year.
The Word EVIL appeared twice.
What does that tell you?
Absolutely nada.

To all a most Happy Festivus from the rest of us.

10 December 2016

Library Limelights 121

Nathan Dylan Goodwin. The Spyglass File. UK: CreateSpace, 2016.
Goodwin surpasses himself! Morton Farrier, forensic genealogist, is hired to help adoptee Barbara fill in the missing war years around her birth. She tracked down her now-deceased biological mother, Elsie, but Elsie's war years as a married woman are a black hole. Our hero dives into an impressive number of record sources with ease ― some familiar, some esoteric, including many relating to the Second World War. Goodwin uses cleverly paced flashbacks wherein Elsie tells her own story that never quite answers the consuming questions: who is Barbara's father and what happened to him?

Elsie joins the WAAF Wireless Service because of her German language skills ― long days and nights listening to aircraft transmissions, translating, reporting ― 1940s life in England is faithfully recreated. As he gathers pieces of Elsie's wartime life, Morton would not be Morton if he were not attracting sinister threats. While he labours over the often strange or surprising documents he uncovers, his own unsolved adoption secrets prey on his mind. Readers will seldom find a better or more challenging plot. Only one small paragraph appeared corny to me (to use the 1940s vernacular), out of place in the overall feeling (p. 265). It was fascinating to learn so much about WAAF contributions to the war effort. Spyglass was well-crafted, absorbing, and highly recommended. Please bring Morton and Juliette back again!
See nathandylangoodwin.com;

She was certain, as she waited for her door to be flung open, that the moment she ceased to think about her heart and lungs, they would stop working. (70)
"I'm going to go to my nice safe job catching murderers, burglars and rapists, whilst you get on with your highly dangerous job ordering birth certificates and leafing through tired old documents." (156)

At the aerodrome:
He shook her hand vigorously. "Nice to meet you, Sergeant Finch."Elsie couldn't help but smile. He was a young man―no older than twenty―trying to impress his friends. He had a boyishly smooth face, with short dark hair, but carried a confidence beyond his years. There was no way, in any set of circumstances, that she would go near a boy like him. Without thinking, she stretched out the fingers on her left hand and glanced down at her wedding band, inadvertently also drawing it to his attention."Lucky guy," he muttered. "Not that that's a problem for me." (50)

Family secrets:
The letters hung between them, he trying to offer them, she refusing to take them."Why me?" she asked."I just can't do it."
"Come on, you're not a teenager opening your exam results. Just do it," she said. "Besides which, I don't want to be blamed if you decide afterwards that it wasn't such a good idea after all."
Morton lowered the letters and stared at them, unsure if they were a blessing or a curse to his investigations into his own family.
Juliette sat herself down at the table and folded her arms, waiting, as if for the commencement of some grand performance. (85)

Official Secrets Act:
"Come in here a moment, would you." Jean stepped back, allowed Elsie inside, then closed the door behind her.
RKB swept his hair over again and sighed. His eyes locked with Elsie's. "Listen, Elsie, we've just heard from Number Eighty Wing with the probable location for tonight's raids. I'm afraid it's Coventry."
Elsie took the news with a fresh stab to her insides. She nodded, unable to speak. She knew the protocol, knew that she wouldn't be allowed to warn her parents. (141)

A stint on Malta:

The women headed to the back of the vehicle and clambered in. It was some kind of personnel transporter and Elsie was pleased to see the hard wooden seats entirely empty. She was beginning to grow tired of the attention two women in uniform were gathering on the island. It was like being permanently surrounded by a clowder of tom cats in heat. (214)

Roslund & Hellström. Cell 8. UK: Quercus, 2011.
A most unusual fiction, from a prominent Swedish crime-writing duo. John Meyer Frey was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and scheduled for execution in an Ohio prison. But years later he is discovered living in Sweden on a Canadian passport. The resulting political storm around extradition from a non-death penalty country to a death penalty country affects everyone who ever came into contact with him. Ewert Grens is the Swedish detective leading the investigation; Edward Finnigan is the murdered girl's grieving father; Vernon Eriksen is the prison officer in charge of the American death row; Ruben Frey, father of the convict. Initially, John is not a particularly sympathetic character. He remains curiously obscure throughout even as we wonder whether he was actually guilty of the original crime.

At first this felt like a thinly disguised polemic for death sentence reform. The mystery is slow to develop; so is our understanding that in prison Frey had been mourning his girlfriend. We get to know the warmer-blooded characters surrounding him, interspersed with bleakly objective prison scenes. It's not your usual style of crime writing but it becomes very absorbing. The climax is shocking. Certainly worth pursuing more titles from the same authors.

Ruben seemed to have shrunk a little with each trip; the heavy man was still rotund but it was as if he had deflated, as you do when your expectations fade. (179)
Thorulfe Winge wasn't tired and he didn't complain, he almost relished it, he was good at dealing with madness and diplomatic wrangling, and those around him had absolute faith that he would come up with the solution that was now taking shape. (275)
Ewert Grens was another person in his suit and tie and on his way to dance with a woman for the first time in twenty-five years. (280)

"What are you up to?"
As if you cared, you little arse-licker. Ewert Grens loathed his boss. Just as he loathed, in principle, everyone in his workplace. It was not something he tried to hide. No one could avoid noticing. But this whippersnapper, a cocky little superintendent, was too young and too self-important to even tie up his own shoes.
"What do you want?"
He heard his boss taking a breath, bracing himself.
"Ewert, you and I have different roles to play. Different areas of responsibility. For example, it is me who decides who is employed here. And where."
"That's what you say." (53-4)

Facing a loss:
Oscar ran down the hall, tripped over the doorframe into the bedroom, fell on the floor, and then a short silence reigned until he decided he wasn't going to cry, and got up instead, the final steps over to the bed with his arms stretched out in front of him.
"Daddy! You're home again!"
John looked at his son, his whole face was one big smile. He leant forwards, lifted him up, held him close until the thin body started to wriggle, already tired of being still and wanting to break free. He followed the five-year-old, who continued to run through the flat as if he was discovering it for the first time. He heard her steps too, looking towards the door, at Helena who was standing there. (74)

 Ian Rankin. Rather Be the Devil. UK: Orion Books, 2016.
Perfection is settling in with a new Rankin and a supply of popcorn. Dialogue-heavy, always a pleasure. Two investigations by separate sections of Police Scotland threaten to meld because Edinburgh's rising criminal boss, Darryl Christie, has ties to both. Siobhan Clarke leads one; Malcolm Fox, having recently been promoted, represents the elite Organised Crime and Counter-Terrorism. The now-retired John Rebus bedevils both with his fixation on a cold murder case. We get more murder, disappearance of a major person of interest, a mysterious Russian, and the sly hand of not-quite-retired crime boss Big Ger Cafferty, nemesis of Rebus.

Really, the best part is the complex interaction among the three investigators. Their previous resentments are healed; their trust in Rebus extends to sharing ongoing information. Of course Rebus is not one to sit back, but plays the blithe catalyst to the consternation of Clarke's colleagues. Rankin plays his characters so deftly, and they are numerous, that I couldn't guess who proved to be the criminals. It's not amiss to mention that Rebus has a bad cough ― he has quit smoking ― but the prognosis other than COPD is not altogether clear. Is Rankin preparing us for the worst?!

Rebus being Rebus, the truth would not have been the whole truth; the man always liked to know just a wee bit more than anyone else sharing the stage with him. (87)
"That's what I like about spending time with you, John – you never fail to light up a room with that positive attitude." (181)

Still, best not to dwell – that was what Arnott's mum had always said when there was bad news, didn't matter if it was close to home or half a world away. Best not to dwell. (233)

Work togetherness:
Fox led the way back into the CID suite, but Clarke signalled toward the corridor, and he followed her, stopping as she turned to face him.
"Ask me how happy I am about all of this," she hissed.
"I did try phoning ..."
"You could have left a message."
"So you do know I tried?"
"I was a bit busy, Malcolm."
"You've not driven the length of the M8 twice already today – I'm the one who should be cranky."
"Who says I'm cranky?"
"You sound cranky."
"Livid is what I am." (33-4)

Rebus' companion Deborah:
" ... And I happen to think that you should be concentrating on yourself right now instead of old cases and new."
"I'm fine, Deb."
"I don't think you are."
"Who have you been talking to?"
She shook her head. "I've not gone behind your back, John – and no doctor or consultant would dream of discussing a patient with a third party."
Rebus stared out of the side window: nothing to see except one of the vans, maybe the one that had transported Robert Chatham from the quayside. "I can handle this," he said softly.
She reached for his hand and gripped it. "You're a stubborn old bastard and you'd rather go to your grave than let anyone see a weak spot in the armour you think you put on every morning." (96)

Healthy alternatives:
"How's your tomato juice?"
"A shot of vodka wouldn't harm it. How's your low-alcohol beer?"
Rebus screwed up his face.
"The state of the pair of us," Fox muttered, causing Rebus to chuckle. They sipped in silence for a few seconds. Rebus rubbed foam from his lips with the back of his hand. (180)

02 December 2016

Library Limelights 120

Alafair Burke. The Ex. USA: HarperCollins, 2016.
Happy dance – to hook up with Alafair after years of absence. And what a potboiler this is. A man accused of shooting down three people in a park hires his ex-lover, lawyer Olivia Randall, to defend him. Jack Harris presents the most bizarre explanation for his innocence, but evidence is sorely lacking. One of the victims was the aggressive father of a young man who gunned down numerous bystanders in a previous mass killing; one of those victims was Jack's wife. Convicting Jack looks initially like a slam dunk for the prosecution. The story, and tension, unfold from Olivia's narration and her certainty that she knows Jack better than anyone. Until ... is it possible Jack has a dark side she never suspected?

Evidence piles up against Jack, including incontrovertible gunshot residue. Guilt over her shabby treatment of him in their past relationship is a recurring, twisting undercurrent for Olivia. She calls in favours and risks losing professional credence. The author has the facility of drawing the reader right into the middle of it. DNA wins out: she is the daughter of crime-writing master James Lee Burke. I've missed several Alafair novels in the past; time to stockpile for the future!

When white noise fills my room, I can be anywhere, which means I'm nowhere, which is the only way I can sleep. (9)
The lobby of her apartment building would be up to any discerning New Yorker's standards, even Charlotte's, with overstuffed furniture, gleaming white tables, and fresh flower arrangements the size of beach balls. (57)
I think being able to use one little four-letter word to convey a hundred different thoughts is pretty fucking creative. (96)

Convincing her partner:
"Don, I have a feeling."
"A feeling? Dear girl, you pick today of all days to suddenly have feelings?"
"Oh come on. I've heard you say a cop feels hinky. Or a new client feels like the real deal, truly innocent. This isn't just me believing in an old friend." I heard Don scoff at the choice of the word "friend," but I pressed on. "His side of the story is just too bizarre to be fabricated."
"Are you listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth? You're basically saying it sounds too much like a lie to be a lie. You need more than that kind of logic to vouch for a client." (38-9)

Her assistant:
Charlotte and Buckley were with me in the entryway when I let him in, but he didn't bother with introductions. "Are you trying to get us both fired? Don's been riding my ass all day, asking me where you are, making me promise to loop him in. I don't know what you're working on, or why Don's pissed, but I feel like one of those little kids caught in the middle of their parents' divorce."
Coming up for air, he registered the presence of a teenager and the small dog smelling his pant leg, and looked at me as if I'd led him into an Ebola outbreak. (70)

On one side were my suspicions. I had been so convinced from the second Buckley called me that Jack had to be innocent. But what grounds did I have for my assumptions? On the other side was my guilt. This was Jack―good, honest, and decent. Who was I to suspect him of something so heinous?
And then there was a voice trying to reconcile the two sides. Maybe he was guilty. Maybe he was an angry, vengeful psychopath. But if he was, who had made him that way?
Me. I did that. (155-6)

Legal tactics:
When I walked into the courtroom, Scott Temple was already at a counsel table. He shot me a sideways glance as I crossed the bar, and then continued to look at his notes.
"Can we talk about why we're here?" I asked. I wished Don was here to ask the question, but he had texted me to say he was stuck in Judge Gregory's courtroom and might be a few minutes late.
"The way you talked to me before pulling me in here on a so-called Brady violation? The frog and the scorpion, Olivia. No more side deals."
Scott had always been one of my best resources at the DA's office. I may have resolved to continue working for Jack, but I did regret burning a friend on his behalf. (257)

Graham Hurley. Turnstone. UK: Orion Paperback, 2001.
A turnstone is one type of bird that DI Joe Faraday likes to watch on his time off, in the greater Portsmouth environs. Shared bird-watching with his deaf son J-J helped them communicate and learn from each other. But J-J is an adult now, in flight from home to Joe's profound dismay and worry. But Joe's work schedule keeps him searching for a missing man despite his superiors' disapproval. Meanwhile, his colleague and nemesis, Paul Winter, is up to his usual underhanded tricks, withholding police evidence and trying to force a murder witness into becoming a snitch.

Winter runs into drug-related activities, in his gleeful quest to control the lowlifes. Joe begins to uncover a sinister plot hatched during the Fastnet yacht race. Both detectives meet women who fascinate them. Juanita is a real piece of work while Ruth reminds Joe of his long-deceased wife. Portsmouth itself is a deeply embedded character; its natural beauty and man-made deterioration are equally compelling. A bit much of the bird and boating details for me but Hurley's novels are far too well-crafted to complain. Since this book, Hurley went on with the same police characters to create more, several of which I've eagerly consumed.

After their recent run-in, Faraday sensed at once that his uniformed boss was in the mood for building bridges. (162)
It was several minutes before Faraday realised that the small, ghost-like, Asian-looking woman who'd let them in was in fact Oomes's wife. (189)

Meeting with the boss:
" ... They think there might be a stress problem."
"Who with?"
"You." He frowned, peering hard at Faraday with his muddy little eyes. "Is there a stress problem?"
Faraday wondered where to start. Should he tell him about J-J? About the lad's fantasy affair with some French social worker? Should he tell him about the nights he lay in bed, listening to the lap-lap of the tide, trying to work out where the last two decades had gone? Should he describe the moments when he sometimes paused on the stairs, frozen by the memories behind one of Janna's photographs? Should he share the bewilderment and disgust he increasingly felt, tidying up the wreckage of other people's lives? Should he confess, just occasionally, to an anger so intense and so deeply rooted that he felt capable of murder himself? (53-4)

Always on the edge:
Getting out of the car, Winter smiled. These were the kinds of strokes he enjoyed pulling most, stepping outside the system, turning his back on the paperwork, running private informants, inching his way into the heart of the action without anyone – anyone – being any the wiser. Then, at a time of his choosing, he would cash in all that information, all those carefully harboured secrets, step into the spotlight and take the applause he so richly deserved. (58)

The big picture:
From here, the view of the harbour was uninterrupted. He loved this place, not simply the waterfront but the city itself. He loved its busyness and its blunt, unvarnished ways. He loved the rough pulse of life that pumped through the pubs and endless terraced streets. Portsmouth wasn't the city you'd choose for sparkling dinner parties or dainty conversation, and for those two blessings Faraday was eternally grateful. In a country which had largely sold its soul, it remained uncursed by money. (266)

Deborah Campbell. A Disappearance in Damascus. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016.
This is not fiction. Subtitled A story of friendship and survival in the shadow of war, it's a graphic reminder that here in the first world we have no idea what desperation feels like. In 2007 Canadian investigative journalist Campbell had already spent years reporting on Middle East conflicts; her in-depth articles for major news magazines required periods of social immersion locally, sometimes undercover. Then in Syria, she sought interviews with Iraqi refugees from the post-Saddam Hussein chaos of warring militias; flooding Damascus, the only country that would accept them, they clearly portended the tidal wave to come toward Europe and the West. Ahlam, the independent, whirlwind facilitator in the Iraqi refugee community (among countless humanitarian tasks she undertook to help her people) was Campbell's "fixer" and interpreter. The two became close, so much time together witnessing the plight of overwhelmed people targeted for death if they returned to Iraq, under suspicion by Syrian authorities, desperate for employment or acceptance by another nation, endless examples of political-social-cultural clashes and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The general fear among Syrians was don't being your war to our country. (But we know what happened, right?) Ahlam was finally, inevitably arrested in 2008 on serious but false charges. Campbell and others became desperate to find her, try to get her released. Catch-22 ― enlisting assistance or intervention from NGOs could achieve the opposite: reinforce the lie that Ahlam was a spy, a traitor, an undesirable. And Campbell had to examine whether she herself, by being watched, had unwittingly endangered her friend. It's not possible to summarize the webs of bureaucracy, fear, deceit, stress, angst; I would have to quote the entire book. A powerful, must read: we owe it to ourselves to gain insight into today's Middle East:

About Ahlam:
She had been, when I knew her in Damascus, more alive than anyone I've ever known. (311)
She is one of those influential fixers and local experts, seldom visible despite their importance, who have done so much to show the world to itself. (325)
"Wherever you are, begin," she often said, quoting her father. "Begin and the rest will follow." (192)
That hard lump of grief, which she took out from time to time, usually alone, fired her public activity, her obsessive drive to solve problems that had no lasting solutions. (89)
Accusations that were laughable but extremely dangerous: rumours have an afterlife because rumour is soon treated as fact and becomes fact through repetition. (275)
[prison] "You can stay there for years," were his final words, "and nobody will know where you are." (283)

About Campbell:
The Middle East fashioned a century ago has become what the Ottoman Empire was before it: fragile, quaking, rife with rebellions. (104)
I could not have imagined that I was witnessing a final act―that this age-old tradition of pluralism would shortly disappear, adding millions of Syrians to the millions of Iraqis seeking refuge in the outside world. (189-90)
Only now was I coming to understand the sense of fatalism so common in the East, where most of what happens is determined by forces beyond one's control. (209)
The sense of powerlessness was humbling. It is how most of the world lives. (288)

Immersive journalism:
And so it begins. The paranoia. The fear. It spreads out in waves and infects everyone around you. It infects your mind, your thoughts. You begin to monitor your actions, your words, to see how the watcher might view them, and it is always the same way: with suspicion. You begin to regard others in the same paranoid fashion. Is that person asking me questions, so nonchalantly, seeking information on behalf of someone else? Am I replying appropriately, reacting in a way that could be construed as having nothing to hide? (187-8)

Uprooted young people:
They were all of an age when they should have been assuming the mantle of adulthood, learning a trade or cramming for university exams, looking around for a mate, but the war had frozen them in time. The society that raised them no longer existed; its values and expectations no longer made sense. (172)And:"They aren't being educated anymore, they see nothing but violence. They've become easy to brainwash and they are caught between Saudi Arabia and Iran." (215)

A veteran of the Gulf War:
I said something often said about the war: "This will end badly." He fixed me with an unblinking gaze, as if to compel me to remember, and answered: "This. Will. Never. End." (289)