20 October 2016

Library Limelights 118

Chris Carter. An Evil Mind. USA: Atria Books, 2014.
Another contender for the sadistic sweepstakes among crime authors. The book is the latest in a series (new to me) about Robert Hunter, an LAPD detective. This time, he is co-opted by the FBI to work with agent Courtney Taylor. They are to interview a captured serial killer in order to identify his many victims and locations of their bodies. Turns out the killer's real name is Lucien Folter, stunning Hunter who was his roommate at university; the two had been very close, both studying psychology. Folter has advance-planned every step of the interview. He bargains with the FBI to locate a still-living victim, meaning he will accompany the two agents on a field trip. You know bad things will happen.

This is not yer average psychopath here. Lucien's stated ambition for conducting a murderous twenty-year spree is that his meticulous diaries will provide the foundation for an invaluable reference work of pyschopathic behaviour. And he wants to force his old friend into impossible choices. Describing the suffering and torture inflicted on some victims can only be borne with a glazed speed-reading. I won't be looking for more Carter books. Guys, could we pleeease get off Silence of the Lambs and back to old-fashioned detective work?

Hunter took a deep breath while trying to remember the details.
"The crazy possibility of someone becoming a killer for an altruistic purpose," he finally said. "Lucien argued how groundbreaking it would be for criminal-behavior psychology if a fully mentally capable individual went on a killing rampage, escalating his or her way through different levels of violence, and experimenting with different methods and fantasies, while at the same time taking comprehensive notes of everything, including feelings and psychological states of mind at the time and in the aftermath of each murder. Some sort of in-depth psychological study of the mind of a killer, written by the killer himself ... by choice.
"He believed that a notebook, or even a series of notebooks, filled with such true accounts would become an encylopedia of knowledge, a bible of sorts to criminal-behavior scientists." (191-2)

And he follows up from this ...
Lucien saw a muscle flex in Hunter's jaw, but still he continued.
"As I've said before," he continued, "under the right circumstances, anyone can become a killer. Even those who are supposed to protect and to serve." His dead stare could've frozen ice. "Remember, Robert, a murder is a murder. The reasons behind it have no relevance, whether it was justified revenge or a sadistic urge." He brought his face to less than an inch from the Plexiglas. "So one day, you still might become the same as me." (248-9)

Annie Proulx. Barkskins. USA: Thorndike Press (Gale large print), 2016.
Personally, I will grab anything Proulx writes, even if it's a telephone book. Epic and odyssey are pale words in the face of this oeuvre that roams across three centuries of "taming" and "civilizing" North America. Proulx's mastery of language and contemporary idiom was never more evident; her wit flares in the essence of each character. And that's six (or more) generations of various family members, some of whose legacies entail more respect or notoriety than others. The cast of characters descends from two men of the late 1600s ― Charles Duquet and René Sel ― bound to work for a New France seigneur. One family evolves as a lucrative logging and timber giant in Quebec, the Maritimes, New England, and farther west; the other, as Métis and indigenous, ultimately turns inward to the loss of its mobility and identity, its literal and figurative roots. As each family line explores alternatives, we get details of lumbering, fishing, sailing, and other trades and crafts. Their destinies ebb and flow with marriages, alliances, partnerships.

Destroying the magnificent forests for European markets, then to make room for burgeoning settlements, took place on an unprecedented scale. It pushed the fur trade farther and farther west and north; it affected the aboriginal livelihood in fishing and hunting; it fostered huge whitemen fortunes in resources and transportation development. Proulx has the gift for encapsulating the growth of the continent such that we can only gasp at the rapaciousness, at the same time feeling personal intimacy with a range of key (fictional but representative) players. The seeds of ecological awareness are planted fairly early upon deaf ears, thus the painfully slow-growing environmental consciousness. Two serviceable, but not entirely satisfactory, genealogy charts assist us with names and relationships. It would be no surprise if Barkskins begins to appear on award lists. Genius.

Words: ukases - edicts; from Russian
capric - goatlike
maenetic - this one eludes the usual dictionaries; either archaic or drill-down scientific term
champertous - sharing in proceeds of litigation by supporting one party
albedo - inner rind of citrus fruit; also used in meteorology & astronomy terminology

It was, they often told one another, like walking on a web of tightropes, but they swam in money as in a school of sardines. (179)
The Mi'kmaq had lost their spirit world to the missionaries' God. (570)
He was garrulous and obsequious, sprinkling yes sirs around as though casting handfuls of seed on new-raked soil. (431)
He fell onto the bed and she swarmed over him like ants on honeycomb. (474)

Two solitudes:
They stood opposed on the nature of the forest. To Mari it was a living entity, as vital as the waterways, filled with the gifts of medicine, food, shelter, tool material, which everyone discovered and remembered. One lived with it in harmony and gratitude. She believed the interminable chopping of every tree for the foolish purpose of "clearing the land" was bad. But that, thought René, was woman's talk. The forest was there, enormous and limitless. The task of men was to subdue its exuberance, to tame the land it grew on ― useless land until cleared and planted with wheat and potatoes. (74-5)

"We will stay here," said Duquet to Forgeron, "as the thieves have prepared a camp for us." He tried to speak calmly, but he was filled with a greater anger than he had ever experienced. After all the injustices he had suffered, after all he had done, crossing to the New World, escaping from Trépagny, learning the hard voyageur trade, working out a way to use the forest for his fortune, learning to read and write and cipher, traveling to China, all the business connections he had made, these Maine vermin had come to steal his timber. (182-3)

A priest writing to France:
Many of their tales tell of Women who marry Otters or Birds, or Men who change into Bears until it pleases them to become Men again. In the forests they speak to Toads and Beetles as acquaintances. Sometimes I feel it is they who are teaching me. ...
To them Trees are Persons. In vain I tell them that Trees are for the uses of Men to build Houses and Ships. In vain I tell them to give over so much hunting and make Gardens, grow Grains and Food Stuffs, to put order in their Days. They will have none of it. Therefore many French people call them lazy because they do not till the Earth. (202-3)

Cousins meet:
Bernard followed his nephew up on deck and saw Outger. He resembled Charles Duquet though he lacked his father's muscle mass and shrunken jaw. Limp yellow hair stuck out from under his tie wig, but the pale eyes had the piercing Duquet focus. He was thin and very white, obviously one who lived indoors. (302)

And agree to disagree:
Outger examined Bernard, displeased at what he saw ― a heavy, aging man, somewhat gimpy.
"Welkom, broeder," said Bernard. Outger pursed his lips.
"Please to remember, Bernard, that we are not brothers. My parents may have adopted you and the others, but we are, most emphatically, not blood brothers."
"I am in no danger of forgetting that. Yet we were ever closer to your father than you yourself."
He was surprised when Outger laughed. "Yes, yes. But that's hardly an enviable distinction. The man was a brute."
"He was also a very good businessman, to our mutual advantage ― yours as well as mine. A great pity for Duke and Sons when he vanished." (303)

James Duke catches up with family:
"But now he [Outger Duquet] is gone. His half-breed daughter lived in flagrant concubinage with an Indian in Outger's house on Penobscot Bay. They produced an army of Indian brats. They are quite unknown to us." (439)

Kuntaw dies:
The October air was sweet and every faint breath a pleasure. Wind stirred and he said, "Our wind reaching me here." A small cloud formed in the west. "Our small cloud coming to me." The hours passed and the small cloud formed a dark wall and approached. A drop fell, another, many, and Kuntaw said, "Our rain wetting my face." His people came near him, drawing him into their eyes, and he said, "Now ... what ..." The sun came out, the brilliant world sparkled, susurration, liquid flow, stems of striped grass what was it what was it the limber swish of a released branch. What, now what. Kuntaw opened his mouth, said nothing, and let the sunlight enter him. (765)

11 October 2016

Library Limelights 117

Michael Koryta. Those Who Wish Me Dead. USA: Little Brown and Company, 2014.
Everything anyone wants to know about mountain hiking and forest fires! Koryta's crackling prose leaves you as breathless as the real thing. Allison and Ethan live in the Montana Rockies where he teaches outdoor survival training to young teenagers: boot camp for bad boys. A federal marshal convinces Ethan to accept among his summer group a vulnerable witness to a murder. No-one except the boy Jace knows his real identity, having assumed the name Connor. He's being hunted by a pair of stone-cold villains who leave deadly consequences wherever they go. Connor has to adapt to his new persona as he learns the ways of nature.

But the killer Blackwell brothers are not far away as a forest fire begins to rage. The dialogue between the two men, and with their victims, reminds me of some oddly polite, stilted nineteenth-century language usage, such as in the TV series Deadwood ... increasing the fear they induce. Connor manages to team up with ex-firefighter Hannah to try to escape both the hunters and the inferno. Allison and Ethan don't fare as well at rescuing. The pace and characterization only falter a little when Ethan struggles with his own will to survive. Great straightforward suspense.

Word: wilder - (as in wilderness); someone led astray in an unfamiliar, frightening, and confusing place

Trouble might come for you when you showed fear, but trouble doubled-down when you lied about being afraid. (3)
Not a bad liar, Hannah, you are not bad at this at all, a damn fine dishonest woman when you need to be. (200)
It was the old test, his favourite training exercise, and his most familiar role: he was the wilder again. (278)

Connor, off the grid:
Montana was better than the safe houses, better than being surrounded by people who knew you were in danger. That just fed the fear. They'd thrown every distraction they could at him, from movies to music to video games, and none of them worked, because none of them could pull his mind away from those memories ...This was better. He hadn't believed it would be, because he'd be out here without anyone he knew, but he'd been wrong. Montana was better because it forced distraction. Video games and movies hadn't been able to claim his mind. Out here, the land demanded his mind leave the memories. He had to concentrate on the tasks of the moment. There were too many hard things to do for any other option.Connor Reynolds marched along the trail, and Jace Wilson rode secretly inside of him, and both of them were safe. (72-3)

Typical brother exchange:
" ... Young Jace is very smart. Very resourceful."
"And maybe very alone in the woods."
"If they find him first, it's trouble."
"We find him first, it's easy."
"This is what we were promised from the beginning. So far, nothing has been easy."
"So it goes with some quests, brother. We must earn our reward today."
"How I treasure your bits of wisdom. Let me never say otherwise."
"I appreciate that." (170-1)

A friend in need:
"I need you to try," Allison whispered. She rested her face against the horse's neck, feeling his heat, remembering the way he had warned her of the arrival of the Blackwell brothers in the night. What if he hadn't, what if she'd not had a chance to at least grab the bear spray? He'd saved her once already, she realized, and she was asking more of him. She was afraid it would be more than he could give.
"I'm hurting too," she told the horse. And Lord, but it was true. (289)

S.J. Watson. Second Life. US: Harper/Collins, 2015.
Oh yes, this novel is just as stunning as her first one (where I didn'tgive it full due). Julia Wilding's grief over her sister Kate's unsolved murder leads her into a spiral of addiction she keeps hidden from her husband Hugh and son Connor. Only Kate's friend Anna seems able to understand, helping her seek Kate's killer online. It's Julia's narrative, compelling and frightening, as she self-medicates not with her former alcoholism but with the new cyber sex: Lukas becomes her clandestine lover but may not be whom he seems.

As suspicions and eventually threats torment her, Hugh thinks Julia is losing her grip on reality. Her self-justifications and self-delusions carry the reader on her slippery descent to desperation. She fears Lukas is playing a sinister game, she fears her marriage will disintegrate, she fears for Connor's life. Late revelations galvanize her to protect Connor and Anna at any cost. How can the suspense possibly end, we wonder, and can't stop reading. Watson has his fingers right on the pulse of human frailties as well as today's Internet dark side.

One-liner: Was that the moment my life slipped out of one track―recovery, stability, sobriety―and into another? (48)
All his pretense has gone, leaving in its place nothing but a heavy malevolence. (237)

Killing the pain:
Soon I will go home―back to my real life, back to Hugh and to Connor, back to Adrienne and Anna, back to life without my sister―but perhaps if I do this first it'll be different. The pain of her death will not have faded, but it will be blunted. I won't care quite so much that the person who took her life is still free. Instead I'll be thinking about this moment, when everything feels so alive and uncomplicated, when all my pain and sorrow have shrunk down, condensed and transformed to this one thing, this one need, this one desire. Me and him, him and me. If I sleep with him again there'll at least be one more brief moment when there's no past and no future and nothing else exists in the world except for us, and it will be a tiny moment of peace. (162-3)

We talk some more, sip our drinks, but the evening is winding down. After another fifteen minutes of chat we hear a car pull up outside. A door slams, there's the pip-pip of the alarm, and a moment later footsteps up the path and the doorbell rings. I look over to Anna who says "He's early!" She looks electrified, like a little girl waiting for the postman to bring her birthday cards, and I feel a curious excitement too; I'm looking forward to meeting this person, this man who has given Anna such transparent, uncomplicated happiness. Who has helped her grieve for Kate and move on. (270)

Lillian Beckwith. A Proper Woman. UK: Dales Large Print Books, 1986.
A quick read at 268 pages, no mystery, no detectives, no manhunt. More like a time warp. Anna Matheson lives in a remote crofting community on a Scottish island, working the fields and animals with her brother Mata. Once as a child she briefly meets the itinerant Jimmy Pearl, who wanders freely, collecting and selling river mussel pearls. The early deaths of her parents oblige her to care for her young brother and lose her dream of becoming a school teacher. Anna's noticeable lack of suitors as she reaches her twenties is explained midway through the story. Everything changes when Mata brings home his city bride Jeannie who despises the circumscribed village life. Anna's ultimate choice is either a dreadful marriage or be homeless. Her husband Black Fergus McFee is a brute of a man. Anna's trials seem endless but fate intervenes, credible or not ― it's a story! ― yet highly evocative of Hebrides life in the 1930s in its ordained simplicity and connection to the land.

Her mind's eye formed a vivid picture of the nightly ritual: her father sitting at the kitchen table with the Gaelic Bible open in front of him, his head haloed by the lamplight as he read aloud the chosen chapters. (18)
"Are you telling me you do not like to see the sky ablaze with shimmering stars and the moon lit by silver as it rises above the black hills?" (44)

Jeannie disappoints:
"A bairn would settle her," they said. "What's Mata about that he has not given her a bairn yet? Is he not 'all correct,' as they say of the bulls here?"
Anna grinned weakly. "Right enough, a bairn would settle her," she agreed.
But as time went by it seemed to Anna that Jeannie, instead of showing a willingness to settle, grew more restless and peevish. With strained generosity she continued to attribute her sister-in-law's moods to the fact that she had now been married to Mata for more than two years and as yet she was showing no sign of pregnancy. A woman in such a situation must be troubled, thought Anna, whose view was that children were the desired fulfillment of marriage and could never come too soon. (63-4)

A proposal of sorts:
"Seeing my mother's gone, I'm thinking I could do with a woman about the house," he said. "Maybe you'll do me."
Anna's indignation flared. "And I am thinking there will be no shortage of women of your own kind to choose from," she flashed back at him.
"You'd do well to think about it," he advised, letting her outburst glance off him. Turning, he strode on.
"Never!" she cried, and heard in reply his jeering laughter borne to her on the night air. (97)

04 October 2016

Lost & Found: Flat Penny

See this? We don't have them in Canada any more. Too inconsequential; troublemakers.

Remember that? What we did as kids. That's pretty much what mine looked like. If I could find it. If I ever saved one of them.

That was good for at least a half day's adventure. Hiking to the railway track on a hot summer day and carefully placing the penny on a rail. Carefully, meaning you had to mark the spot somehow, remember the point.

Hide in the bushes until the train had gone by. Of course the penny was no longer on the rail and had often spun off on a mysterious trajectory. Great competition ensued to be first to find it.

Lost, but not exactly found. This house lacks a decent flat penny.

27 September 2016

Library Limelights 116

Stefan Ahnhem. Victim Without a Face. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2015.
Back to the blood and gore in Sweden, a first novel from an experienced screenwriter. Cop Fabian Risk has just moved back to his hometown of Helsingborg from Stockholm when his new colleagues face a meticulously clever psychopath who is, literally, engineering the deaths of all his childhood classmates. Worse, Fabian could become one of the victims, yet none of the police can penetrate the killer's disguise. We come to know individuals on the investigating team well, plus a few Danish counterparts across the Øresund ... and their many strained relationships, marital and workwise.

While the killer's technological stunts verge on the improbable, they don't overshadow the message of school bullying; Ahnhem uses the device of an anonymous diary to reinforce it. So many threads as the climax builds with unbearable suspense from scene to scene, it kept me up way too late at night. Decidedly, Ahnhem knows how to deliver heartstopping action and memorable characters. Will we see more of Fabian Risk? ... please!

The princess cake he had just eaten was sitting in his stomach like a ton of bricks, keeping all his feelings from coming out. (187)
She had made a few attempts to poke a hole in the silence, which was taking up all the air in the car like an expanding balloon. (535)

Impatient to interview a patient:
"Dunja Hougaard?" asked the attending physician. He looked at her without batting an eye.She nodded.
"When I say stop, it's over. Do not keep going. Okay?"
Dunja already disliked him, and she continued along the corridor without answering."I hope you acknowledge the massive exception I am making for you. The responsibility for this patient's life rests with me and no-one else," the doctor went on, taking a left into another corridor. "And I intend to fulfill that responsibility." He stopped at a door guarded by two uniformed officers, and fixed his eyes on Dunja. "I hope you understand the gravity of this situation and that I can count on you to spare my patient any unnecessary digressions during your questioning."
"I suggest you open the door before he gets Alzheimer's." (182)

Father-son heart to heart:
"Do you miss your friends from Stockholm? I understand if that's what you ―"
"What friends?"
"I don't know. The ones you used to play with?"
Theodor rolled his eyes.
"Or hang out with, or whatever you call it," Fabian went on, feeling like a blind man on a tightrope. "But you'll make new friends here. Well, maybe not right here. You'll have to leave this room and go out and ―"
"Are you done?"
Fabian nodded, realizing that he probably would have reacted just as Theodor did to a dad like him. He left the room and couldn't help feeling a certain amount of relief. (189)

Pain in the neck:

He smelled smoke and felt something get hotter and hotter. He turned around quickly, but he couldn't see anything that might explain the smell. Could he really be dreaming after all? Was he at home, asleep in his bed? The crackling sound was now right behind his ear, which suddenly stung with a terrible, sharp pain. Only then did he realize he was on fire. (272-3)

John Sandford. Deadline. New York: Berkley/Penguin Random House, 2014.
Another action-filled, often amusing crime novel with the irresistible Virgil Flowers. The fickle man has changed girlfriends from last I heard, which is neither here nor there. Doing a favour for his friend Johnson Johnson involves chasing a dog-theft ring in a hillbilly section of Minnesota. But Virgil then uncovers a meth lab and a well-established conspiracy of town worthies who are massively defrauding the county. When the murders begin, he calls in his allies Shrake and Jenkins to protect him while he systematically deconstructs the district school board one by one. One imagines his BCA (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) boss, Lucas Davenport, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. The final scene of dog liberation is hilarious; the wording functions as well as an IMAX camera view. Sandford plays it all like the master he is.

"He said you looked like a hippie who's lost his faith, or a cowboy who's lost his horse." (133)
"Lucky for you that you talked me out of being an alcoholic, or we'd both be drunk in a ditch somewhere." (404)

Meeting the locals:
"What about these dogs? You find them yet?"
"Not yet," Johnson said. He was uncharacteristically grim. "Come on inside. I got a whole bunch of ol' boys and girls for you to talk to."
"We're having a meeting?"
"We're having a lynch mob," Johnson said. (11)

Virgil understands:
The current attorney general had already hinted that he was going to run for the governor's office, and between now and then, would not be averse to favorable publicity that portrayed him as a protector of the people, a defender of freedom, but also a sincere, heartfelt, and honest spokesman for the larger and richer special interests.
As it happened, the Buchanan County school district presented a perfect chance to protect the public: it largely voted Republican, so, since the AG was a Democrat, a vigorous prosecution wouldn't piss off anybody critical, and would generally show up the Republicans as the pack of thieving, money-gouging, scheming hyenas that all true-blue Americans knew them to be.
That was the general idea; the actual words would be repackaged into something much softer and much, much more hypocritical. (332-3)

Cool as they come:
Virgil walked around to the driver's side, tagged by the yellow dog. Virgil looked at the dog, and the dog looked at Virgil. The dog had golden eyes, and it looked past Virgil into the empty passenger side of the truck.
Virgil said, "All right," and waved his hand, and the dog hopped up onto the driver's seat, then crossed to the passenger seat and sat down. Virgil said to the dog, "With my lifestyle, I can't have a dog."
The dog nodded, and looked out through the windshield, ready to roll.
D. Wayne said from the backseat, "When I get you―"
"Shut the fuck up." And to the dog, "Really. I can't. I'll give you a lift back to Trippton."
The dog nodded again and smiled a dog smile.
Virgil said, "Really." (396)

Karin Fossum. Calling Out For You! London: The Harvill Press, 2005.
Here's the dependable author of the Inspector Konrad Sejer series, meticulously laying background before a crime occurs. Gundar, having lived all his fifty years in a Norwegian village, goes to India to find a bride. Happily, he finds and marries Poona. Sadly, Poona is viciously murdered near the village upon her arrival. It's up to Sejer and his sidekick Skarre to determine among the villagers who is withholding information, who might be lying, as they anxiously gossip among themselves. Sejer is expert at processing body language and words of witnesses, but even with a great capacity for compassion his own feelings are impossible to articulate.

Really, the story is all about reactions to the crime and how they can change the people interacting around it. In the end is the murder truly solved? The only conclusion reached is peace for Gundar and the post-op recovery of Sejer's beloved dog. The rest is a rather restless cliffhanger: Gundar's sister Marie is still in a coma, the accused murderer is going to trial without direct evidence, and a disturbed teenager is hunting Skarre. We make our own conclusions? A bit disappointing in that regard. "Calling out for you!" ...? The title's relevance escaped me.

One-liner: The mother was like a broom the way she swept potential obstacles away from her son's path so that he would slide effortlessly straight into the goal. (184)

Inside Sejer:
Sejer walked on. He never wasted much time thinking about his own affairs. However, deep inside this formal character was a huge appetite for people. Who they were, why they behaved as they did. Whenever he caught a guilty person and obtained a genuine confession he could close the case and file it. This time he was not so sure. Not only had the woman been killed, she had been beaten to a pulp. To kill was in itself extreme. To destroy a body afterwards was bestial. (73)

Press conference:
"Are we to understand, then, that you consider this a particularly brutal crime? In the context of Norwegian crime in general?"
Sejer looked over the crowded room. "I do not think it would be constructive to compare unrelated cases, in terms simply of brutality. Not least for the sake of the deceased. Nevertheless, I am willing to say that, yes, there is in this killing evidence of a degree of savagery which I have not had to witness at any time hitherto in my career as a policeman."
He could already see the headlines. Simultaneously, he thought of all the things he could have achieved during the hour the press conference lasted. (94)

"You're saying he's a psychopath."
"That's your term, not mine, and by the way that's a concept I have never quite got to grips with."
"So you're going to go on wearing him down until you get a confession?"
"I'm trying to the best of my abilities to get him to a place where he understands that he has to make a confession. In order to move on."
"What if you don't get it? Do we have enough to go to court with as it stands?"
"Probably not. And that worries me."
"How is it possible to smash someone up the way the killer did without leaving traces of himself?"
"It happens all the time." (229)

15 September 2016

Library Limelights 115

Ahdaf Soueif. The Map of Love. UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999.
Someone ‒ who? ‒ recommended this novel and what a quiet tour de force it is in the "family saga" genre! Anna Winterbourne's story takes place in pre-First World War Egypt; that of Amal Hanim and and her cousin Isabel Parkman is 100 years later, just before the recent millennium. Their lives intersect as the cousins are mesmerized by Anna's journals and letters, long buried in an old trunk. Anna marries into a notable (fictional) Cairo family to the dismay of her English peers who occupy and oversee the beleaguered country as Ottoman influence fades. The love of her life is the brother of her friend Layla, Sharif Basha al-Barudi who mingles with every real historical figure of the era and behind-the-scenes politics. His personality is not lost on the generations that follow. Meanwhile in "real" time, Isabel has fallen in love with Amal's brother, the acclaimed symphony conductor, Omar Ghamrawi.

The dual love stories unfold in intriguing segments, beautifully integrated from different perspectives — the novel's construction and development is a marvel. This is Egypt as we would rarely see or hear of it, a struggling nation brimming with vitality and affection and amazing detail of ordinary life. A plain pedigree chart and a glossary assist the reader with relationships and terminology. The Map of Love was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (1999); the author is a well-known journalist and political commentator living in London and Cairo.

[Anna] And imperceptibly, a conviction must have grown in my mind that if a creature of such little significance as myself can be said to have a destiny, that destiny bore, somehow, a connection to Egypt. (101)
[Amal] Across a century and across two continents, this trunk has found me. (104)
[Sharif] British brains and Arab hands is Cromer's recipe for Egypt. (262)

I had not even known that Isabel existed. And now here she is, in Cairo. And in love ― although she has not said so ― with my brother. When we sit and talk on my balcony we are ― if I let myself be fanciful ― soothing the wounds of our ancestors. But I still want the story. I empty the trunk , carefully, slowly, item by item, and there, among the tissue paper, the fabrics, the glass, is a small blue book. (104)

Isabel goes to the home village with Amal:
She throws back the linen sheet and sits up in Layla al-Ghamrawi's big brass four-poster. Through the fine gauze of the mosquito netting she can see, on the wall, facing her, the portrait of Sharif Basha al-Baroudi. Now she can make it out only dimly, but she has studied it well. From the heavy gilt frame he looks down at her, the fez set squarely above the high forehead, the eyebrows broad and black, almost meeting above the straight nose. The thick moustache covers the upper lip; the lower lip is firm in a strong, square chin. And all the arrogance of the face is perfectly focused in the eyes: proud, aloof and yet, if you look carefully, sad also. ... And it is in that face, more than in the face of his father out in the hall, that Isabel sees Omar el-Ghamrawi. (178)

"Problems? What problems? Every problem has a solution." 
Zeinab Hanim sits back, her eyes still wide and fixed on her son. 
"She — you know her. I am thinking of Lady Anna." 
"Lady Anna? The Englishwoman?" 
He nods, watching her. 
She lowers her eyes and lets out a long breath. When she lifts them to his they are full of concern. "You don't have enough problems already?" 
"I told you." 
"She is English." 
"I know." 
"And she is the one you want?" 
"It would seem so." He smiles. (279)


Could we have lived our lives ignoring politics? The Occupation determined the crops that the fallah planted, it stood in the face of every industrial project, it prevented us from establishing our own financial institutions, it hampered our wishes for education,it censored what could be published, it deprived us of a voice in the Ottoman parliament, it dictated what jobs our men could hold and it held back the emancipation of our women. It put each one of us in the position of a minor and forbade us to grow up. And with every year that passed we saw our place in the train of modern nations receding, the distance we would have to make up growing ever longer and more difficult. It sowed distrust amid our people and pushed the best among them either to fanatical actions or to despair. (472)

John Sandford. The Devil's Code. NY: GP Putnam's Sons, 2000.
Prolific Sandford ... another great character from his pen: Kidd (known only by his surname) is an artist, a burglar, and a computer hacker. Yes, quite a skill set. When his colleague Jack is killed in a suspicious scenario, his sister Lane asks Kidd to investigate. Kidd's sometime partner-in-crime, crackerjack thief LuEllen, decides to hang with them. Immediately they are plunged into a whirlwind of internet and corporate conspiracies. Their reliable clandestine fellow hacker Bobby is almost arrested in the blame for a global DoS attack on government systems and Kidd too is being hunted even as he closes in on the killers. It's all believable. Depend on Sandford to provide non-stop excitement and smart dialogue.

Word: azimuth - a horizontal angle of incredibly precise measurement that I don't need to know about.

LuEllen was unimpressed by pain; her own or anyone else's. (69)
Paranoia is good for you, if you're a crook; but it doesn't make life any easier. (86)
CNN had a story, but like a lot of CNN stuff, most of it seems to have been garbled by a mentally challenged paranoiac. (111)

LuEllen's recent resumé:
"I've been working pretty hard. I did a hundred and seventy thousand in Miami a couple of months ago, scared myself brainless."  
"Come close?"
"Not to getting caught, but the people ... bunch of peckerwood meth manufacturers. If they'd figured me out, they would've cut me up with a chainsaw, and I shit you not." (69)

Killing Time:
An hour out of Washington, with nothing to do, I got out the tarot deck and did a couple of spreads. LuEllen watched with mixed skepticism and nervousness, and finally said, "Well?" 
"Just bullshit," I said. "Confusion." 
"Let me cut the deck." I gave the deck a light shuffle, and let her cut it. She cut out the devil card. The devil represents a force of evil, but not usually from the outside, not a standard bad guy. The devil is usually inside. He sits on top of you, controlling you, without your even being aware of it. 
"That's bad," she said. "I can tell by your face." (102)

Modern times:
Once upon a time, agency operatives could tap any phone call or radio transmission in the world; they could put Mao Tse-tung's private words on the president's desk an hour after the Maximum Leader spoke them in to his office phone; they could provide real-time intercepts to the special ops people in the military. 
No more. The world was rife with unbreakable codes—any good university math department could whip one up in a matter of days. Just as bad, the most critical diplomatic and military traffic had come out of the air and gone underground, into fiber-optic cable. Even if a special forces team managed to get at a cable, messages were routinely encoded with ultrastrong encryption routines. 
The NSA was going deaf. And the word was, they didn't know what to do about it. They'd become a bin full of aging bureaucrats worried about their jobs, and sinning further and further out of the Washington intelligence center. (104)

Zoë Ferraris. City of Veils. NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
My reading often veers to an Arab-centric world because I find its many cultures fascinating, because we should know more about Islam and its diverse manifestations, and because the literature is not that abundant here: grab it when you can. Ferraris makes an even more complex mystery than her previous Night of the Miraj (Finding Nouf in some editions) and proves her authentic knowledge of religious and social life in Saudi Arabia. The most difficult ― and for us, the least comprehensible ― are the fundamentalist restrictions on men and women from developing healthy relationships. Nayir, the desert guide, and Katya, the medical forensic assistant, are still trying to sort out their feelings for each other, Nayir being a pious Muslim and Katya rather more liberal in attitude. Awkward and stilted describes most of their interactions.

The two are involved again in a Jeddah police case being investigated by inspector Osama. To her gratification, Osama begins to rely on Katya's help with witness interviews. In this way, the author scrutinizes daily practices and problems in several households; sometimes seen through the eyes of Miriam, a western woman, whose husband has suspiciously disappeared after the murder of a young Saudi woman. Stolen Quranic documents generate some scholarly discussion. The scariest sandstorm ever! Entertaining, educational and highly recommended.

Word: hierophantic - interpreting religious rites and mysteries

"There's an old Islamic saying," he went on, "that heaven is crowded with beggars, and hell is overflowing with women." (13)
She had come to Saudi expecting―half hoping, half fearing―that the intensity of this country would finally turn him off, but in fact his affection for it had only grown stronger. (15)
Yes, Katya can have her "friend" over for dinner, but she won't be allowed to see him. (127)

Airport Customs and Immigration:
Getting into line for what promised to be an interminable wait, Miriam adjusted her attire―a floor-length cloak, a headscarf to cover her hair, and a burqa,[*] a rectangular piece of black fabric to cover her face. The burqa fastened at the back of her head with a simple piece of Velcro, but somehow hers never stayed on. ... Some women wore their gear with innate ease. They swanned through the streets, happily at rhythm with the swing of their fabric, swishing along. ... 

And then there are the women like me, Miriam thought, the ones who seemed to get stuck in their cloaks like like plastic dolls in Saran Wrap on a hot summer day. Always fussing and adjusting, yanking, tripping, catching their headscarves before they could slide to the ground. (17)
* [In Saudi Arabia, unlike most Moslem countries, the burqa is the headpiece, not the entire body cloak.]

Miriam's impertinent questions:
"So I thought there wasn't really any dating in this country," she said. 
He looked at her then. "It's improper, yes. But some people do it." 
"Just not you." 
"It's improper." He was beginning to feel foolish. How could he explain? 
"So when can you see her?" she asked. 
"We work together, sometimes." 
"But you said you weren't with the police." 
"She asks for my help sometimes." (251)

Away from it all:
The mountains seemed to cut out half the sky. Because of these mountains, Saudi was mostly desert. They kept the monsoon rains from reaching the rest of the country. They always felt like a gateway one had to pass to reach the true goal: the wide, barren, unforgiving Empty Quarter. 
... At a roadside market he stocked up on food and water. The vendor had a camel-driven sesame oil press, and Nayir went to greet the beast, but it made an ugly gurgling noise in the back of its throat, and he backed away. After performing his ablutions in the parking lot with a bottle of water and kneeling by the side of his car to pray, he ate a quick meal of canned fava beans and set off. 
Only when he began to see the camel-crossing signs did his heart open in his chest, his worries left, and his body seemed to start breathing again. (314-5)

05 September 2016

Library Limelights 114

Emma Beddington. We'll Always Have Paris. UK: Macmillan, 2016.
Emma, Emma, Emma! My favourite-ever blogger! Her first book, my eagerly awaited long-distance package arriving via Scotland and Holland. I'm one of her countless fans who feel as if we know her, but new personal details are disclosed here. The crazy self-disparaging humour of her blog (BelgianWaffling) carries over perfectly to an autobiographical account of her long obsession with trying and failing to be French. For reasons related to her blog, I expected the book to be about cake. French pastry, that is. Well, that's in it too. Blogging became her outlet for expressing what she cannot speak ― and this is a woman who writes for The Guardian!

But the real story follows her struggles to adapt and adjust her goal as husband and children enter her life. Is her wish to be French really a painful search for independence? ... Trite fare? Not from English-born Emma who admits along the way that she has "a bottomless well of Britishness, stewing like tea in a WI urn." Her yearning is sprinkled with bits of French literature classics, even as she notes numerous unpleasant realities of living in the City of Light. Turns out that concierges and landlords and shopkeepers and people on the street terrify her. In the most hilarious way. Olivier, the love of her life, is a caring, all-forgiving man, steadfast through her yo-yo phases of self-discovery. Eventually choosing a home in Brussels is a compromise, not a failure.

Words: veronal - the brand name for an old barbiturate
oxytocin - a hormone related to human reproduction and bonding
rumspringa - a rite of passage in Amish/Mennonite communities when youngsters have freedom to explore something of the world and relationships with each other, finally being expected to choose staying with the church or not.

If only I had given birth to puppies instead of children, perhaps everything would have been different, I think, a little sourly. (311)
On some level, I suppose I think that Belgium will be like France with training wheels, and Brussels like Paris for the psychically feeble, but it becomes very obvious to me very soon after we move in that I am wrong. (231)

The Parisian apartment:
In our block the promiscuity of collective living is less a conduit for immorality than a resented source of constant conflict. Everyone wants peace and no-one can have it, so we peck at each other mechanically like battery chickens. As the new chickens on the block, we draw a considerable amount of the available ire.
First, we mark ourselves out as undesirables by having children. Next, unforgivably, we get the lift wrong. I know this because a smartly dressed middle-aged couple knock on our door, brimming with outrage, to tell us so. Apparently, by failing to close the creaky concertina door correctly, we have blocked the lift on our floor. Finding the lift incriminatingly stuck here, this couple have identified us as the culprits.
"IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE," says the man, putting his face, which has become puce, close to mine. He is wearing a dark red paisley scarf tucked into a fine dark tweed jacket and he smells of deliciously expensive aftershave. Probably Guerlaine, I think, and start wondering what it is, but my reverie is interrupted by his wife, who looms over his shoulder in patent heels, a short, tight Catherine Deneuve-style skirt and a cloud of disapproval to add "SO inconsiderate!" (82-3)

Everyone's a critic:
Outside our handsome building full of people who hate us is all of Paris, gorgeous dreamy Paris, the city of all my childhood dreams. Unfortunately everyone there seems to hate us too.
Perhaps hate is too strong; it's more that they find us tremendously irritating. My mere existence seems to be an affront to much of Paris, which is a serious blow to my belief that I am a French person trapped in an Englishwoman's body, just waiting for the opportunity to emerge, ice cool, uncompromising and unapologetic. 
Day after day, walking to the shops and the market, I am subjected to a surprising – to me at least, used to the blanket indifference of London – barrage of criticism. I thought the social contract of capital cities (you leave me alone, I leave you alone) was the same everywhere in Europe, but it appears I was wrong. Strangers, passers-by, stop to tell me I am walking too slowly or in the wrong place, that my toddler needs to stop shouting or that his sticky fingers have no place on that shop window. The baby attracts a particular brand of ire, which is mainly directed at how he is dressed. Why, women ask me, incensed, is he not wearing a hat (it is May and 20◦C)? Where are his socks (he has probably taken them off and dropped them)? Why have I not brought a blanket (see above, May, 20◦C)? (101-2)

Deidre S. Laiken. Death Among Strangers. USA: Landmark/Macmillan (large print), 1987.
George is a divorced cop in small-town upstate New York, obsessively devoted to his job and ambivalent about his new relationship with Elizabeth. The vicious murder of a young girl absorbs him while Elizabeth secretly dallies with Gary, a magnetic, itinerant photographer. She comes to realize there are depths to her own nature that scare her, although all the characters appear to stumble with their own feelings, let alone the ability to express them. Seeing (as opposed to looking at) another person as they really are is a recurrent element, along with the complexities of parent-child trust. The vague and dubious abnormal psychology left me impassive.

"A photographer is like a thief―only people don't miss the things he steals." (227)
She hoped that after a while he would become part of her past, melting silently into her gallery of old lovers. (252)

Elizabeth reflects:
He had been here, at the door. That meant he remembered where she lived. Perhaps she would see him again. But of course that was no longer important. She went into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face and touch up her lipstick. A futile gesture, but she was too nervous to do anything else.
Looking into the bathroom mirror, she almost expected to see another face staring at her. This has got to stop, she thought. Perhaps all this talk about death and danger, and the very real possibility that a murderer was in the vicinity, was creating her discomfort. Who wouldn't be frightened? (79)

Can numb be hungry?
There were times when Gary felt the intensity of his obsession with photography. At other times he felt only the numbness and the hunger to stretch the limits of his vision. Danger fueled his art. Walking the thin line between the possible and the unthinkable excited him. Gary believed risks were necessary. There was nothing safe about the worlds he wanted to explore, nothing ordinary in the forbidden portraits he longed to create. (112)

Another kind of danger:
He was more aware now than ever that he did not have the protection of his uniform. This place, these people were out of his jurisdiction. He was putting his career on the line for a girl he didn't know.
By the time George reached the third floor, he felt the familiar fear. He had experienced it first as a young cop walking a beat. It had returned that rainy night when he had approached what he thought was a disabled car by the side of the highway; it was the same fear that had surfaced as he dragged the body of the murdered girl from behind the gravedigger's shed.
Then he felt the rush―an equal mixture of terror and excitement. (213)

William Trevor. Felicia's Journey. Toronto: Vintage Books/Random House, 1994.
This is a small literary gem of a "thriller," a prize-winning novel for the author. His descriptions of working-class Irish and English life are evocative and resonating. Teenaged, pregnant Felicia leaves Ireland to find, in England, the boy Johnny who abandoned her. With only the slightest of information at hand, she searches factory towns to find him, meeting colourful characters on her mission. One of them, Miss Calligary, is a door-to-door evangelist who wants to assist. Another who befriends her is Mr. Hilditch, who keeps his secret fantasy life to himself.

It's not an uncommon tale ― the plight of an innocent "abroad" ― but the milieu through which Felicia moves and which Hilditch inhabits is populated with finely-drawn human beings, people on the lower end of the social scale. Anxiety over her failing quest, hampered by the overly solicitous Hilditch, brings memories of home increasingly to her mind. A little depressing, ultimately. Atom Egoyan made an equally praised movie (1998) based on the book with minor story alterations.

One-liner: Listening, not saying much herself, Felicia feels that all of it is more like a dream than reality: she has never in her life met people like this before, nor even known that such people exist. (88)

At home:
Her father would be on the way back from Heverin's with the Irish Press, her brothers' heavy morning footsteps just beginning. In the bedroom she left behind, the jigsaw pieces would be scattered on the bedclothes and on the floor, the few the old woman managed to interlock fallen apart, the jigsaw tray slipped down between the bed and the wall. In a moment there would be the bedpan, her father having to heave the old woman on his own. (32)

On the streets:
As they walk, Lena talks a lot. Stale as old cabbage, a prison social worker is; another one's called Miss Rubbish. She was lucky, this time, with her cell-mate. "Wants me to go in with her when she gets out, Phyllsie does. Some type of dodge she has with the benefit. I wouldn't go in with no one, Felicia, I give it to her honest. Now I've found the boy I ain't looking for nothing else. Me and George stick together, Felicia, know what I mean? I wouldn't want nothing dodgy there, not with young George. Don't know the meaning of it, the boy don't." (105)

"You said you couldn't face them, dear. You said it to me several times in the car. I'm nervous for you, dear."
"I have to go."
"You weren't at all well in the car. I thought I'd have to send for assistance the way you were in the hall. You can't set out on a journey in that condition, dear."
"I shouldn't have done it."
"What's done's done, dear. No one ever got rich on regrets. What about the bright side, eh? For as long as you want it, Felicia, there's a welcome at Number Three. You have your own little room now. The sensible thing would be if we took it day by day." (148)