09 June 2016

Library Limelights 110

Tahar Ben Jelloun. This Blinding Absence of Light. New York: The New Press, 2002.
Maybe I'm a masochist. A recent author mentioned this book regarding Morocco and it turned out to be the excruciatingly pitiful story of eighteen years incarcerated in a secret underground desert jail for political prisoners. Ben Jelloun fictionalized his interviews with a real-life survivor into an award-winning first-person account. You bet, I skimmed over much of it. Deprived of light, hunched in cells too cramped to stand up in, ravaged by deadly insects and disease, fed the vilest food and water, the prisoners existed in their own filth. Some strove to reach an out-of-body, transcendent state. A bare handful had survived by the time (1991) an international campaign to release them was successful. Their damaged bodies and brains were scarcely human.

It is shockingly beyond all sensibility and comprehension what we are capable of doing to our fellow man. Rotting bodies and unhinged minds. Abu Ghraib, Bang Kwang, Tadmor, San Quentin, Lubyanka, Devil's Island ... Guantanamo? ... and so many more hell-holes, historic or current, designed to dehumanize their populations. This was the worst. Yet we can't always ignore the dark side.

Quote: "I'm going to die without ever seeing the sun or light again." (158)

To reach his mouth:
I am sitting with my back and head against the wall. My right arm is immobilized. It sticks to the wall as if glued there. I must slowly pry it loose and raise it to my mouth. Easy to say, extremely hard to do. I focus all my attention on my arm. My entire body is in this arm. I am an arm sitting on the floor, and I must push with all my strength to get up. Staring at the arm, I can forget the bitter taste in my mouth and even reduce the pain in my joints to faint twinges. I hear the pain echoing. I can feel it moving away, but not disappearing. I bend my head down to bring it closer to my hand. I feel the bile rising until it nearly chokes me. I lean back quickly, whacking my skull against the wall. Holding my head still, I change tactics: my hand will come to my mouth, not vice versa. It takes hours. I use my other arm for support. I am bathed in sweat. Drops fall on my hand. What is most important is not to move, or think about anything but lifting that arm. (48-9)

Jack Harvey (actually Ian Rankin). Witch Hunt. (1993) UK: Orion Paperback, 2000.
An early Rankin, no Rebus. The copy I read was an older version which did not say Ian Rankin on the front. MI5 "intelligence technician" Michael Barclay joins forces with Special Branch detectives Greenleaf and Doyle to find and stop a notorious female assassin. They don't know if or which political figure she will target during an international summit in London. Barclay's boss Joyce Parry brings a retired operative into the mix: Dominic Elder clearly has some mysterious history with the cunning assassin he calls Witch. The quest to locate Witch before disaster strikes seems hopeless. Elder is an unlikely hunter, scarred as he is in more ways than one. A sweet side story develops between Barclay and a newbie French officer.

The story is a bit slow on the takeoff ― some initial confusion on my part in trying to follow who is connected to which section of British spies and police. Interesting to realize how far technology has advanced since the 1990s (walkie-talkies and fax machines) for criminal apprehension. Never mind the vintage, it's an all-engrossing Rankin thriller.

One-liners: You made up a joke, told it to someone in a pub, and three months later while on holiday in Ecuador some native told the joke back to you. (23)

Barclay muses:
These days there was no black and white: everyone spied on everyone else. This was no revelation, it had always been the case, but it was more open now. More open and more closed. Spy satellites were toys only the very rich and the very paranoid could play with. The spying community had grown larger, all-encompassing, bit it had also grown smaller, forming itself into an elite. All change.He'd actually used the word 'paranoid' in one of his selection board interviews. A calculated risk. If the service didn't want to think of itself as paranoid, it would have to recruit those who suspected it of paranoia. Well, he'd passed the exams and the tests and the interviews. (21)

The patronizing partner:
"So how was France then?" Greenleaf was smiling. Some might have called it a grimace. 
Doyle smiled too: with pleasure. "Mag-ni-fique, John. Just mag-ni-fique. Here ..." He reached into a carrier bag. "Have a bottle of beer. I've another 199 of them in the garage at home." 
Greenleaf accepted the small green bottle. "Thanks," he said. "I'll savour it." 
"You do that, John. That's one franc's worth of best Alsace lager in there. Four-point-nine alcohol, so take it slow, eh?" And Doyle gave Greenleaf a big wink. 
I don't really hate him, Greenleaf thought suddenly. He's smarmy all right, but I wonder how seriously he takes himself. Maybe the whole thing is just him sending himself up. I don't really hate him. It's just gentle loathing. (99)

Elder gets the vibe:
He could almost smell her, almost taste her behind the seaside flavours and aromas. She had been here. And not long enough ago for her taint to have left the place. Was she still here? He didn't think so. But if the hunt started to close in on her, she might just come back. A safe port in a storm. This had been her first lair on arriving in England. It would have meaning and resonance for her. Wounded, she might come crawling back. It would do no harm for Elder to learn the ground, her home-ground. So he walked, stopping to talk with people. (176)


Karin Slaughter. Pretty Girls. USA: William Morrow / HarperCollins, 2015.
Slaughter has out-bizarre'd all her peers (and she's right up there with the bestsellers) with an outrageous psycho killer. Pretty Girls is a beautifully-rendered, compassionate story of a family tragedy ― combined with the most repellent, bloodcurdling scenes. Sisters Claire and Lydia end their estrangement after the death of Claire's husband Paul. Paul had horrifying secrets they learn about, one by one. Together, trying not to panic, they intend to eliminate the threat facing their remaining family. Law enforcement is not trustworthy. Will they unravel the mystery before a killer catches up with them?

But oh, the contrast: inserting shock value takes away from the author's great moments of describing a grieving but lively family. Are we going to call this Southern Noir? Atlanta Noir? I feel this loyalty to Slaughter because I met her at an OLA convention years ago when she was flogging her first book. She steadily proved herself a better and better novelist; she excels in both plots and characters. Let me just say that she can hold her own among top crime writers without the graphic brutality. Although I like the best of the noir genre I question again why, why ― this apparent writers' competition for the most twisted, lurid perpetrator (I really pick 'em, don't I?).

One-liner:
A particularly beautiful woman is a source of terror. (frontispiece; quote from Carl Jung)
"Optimism is a sliver of glass in your heart." (28)

Soon, the guests:
Claire wiped away her tears. She tried to logic down the panic. January was next year. The wake was right now. Claire didn't have to be told how to throw a get-together. The caterers would've arrived an hour ago. The wine and liquor had been delivered this morning. As Claire had gotten dressed for the funeral, the gardeners were already out in the yard with their leaf blowers. The pool had been cleaned yesterday evening while the tables and chairs were being unloaded. There were two bartenders and six servers. Black-eyed pea cakes with shrimp., Zucchini and corn fritters. Coriander-spiced beef fritters. Burgundy beet risotto tarts. Lemon-spiced chicken with dilled cucumbers. Pigs in a blanket with mustard, which Claire always threw in as a joke but was invariably the first thing the caterers ran out of because everyone loved tiny hot dogs. (42-3)

Out of the blue:
Her cell phone chirped in the other room. 
Rick knew better than to ask her to ignore the phone when Dee was away. 
She told him, "Keep going without me. I'll catch up." 
Lydia picked her way past the dogs and a pile of laundry as she made her way into the kitchen. Her purse was in a chair. She dug around in the bag for several seconds before spotting her phone on the counter. There was a new text. 
"She all right?" Rick was standing in the doorway. 
"She probably forgot her book again." Lydia swiped her thumb across the screen. There was a text from a blocked number. The message listed an unfamiliar address in Dunwoody. 
Rick asked, "What's wrong?" 
Lydia stared at the address, wondering if the text was sent by mistake. She ran a small business. She didn't have the luxury of clocking out. Her voice mail at work gave her cell phone number. The work number was on the side of her van alongside a photo of a giant yellow Lab that reminded her of the dog her father had rescued after Julia was gone. 
"Liddie?" Rick said. "Who is it?" 
"It's Claire," Lydia said, because she felt it with every ounce of her being. "My sister needs me." (112-3)



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