Monday, December 29, 2008

Nicola Upson - An Expert in Murder

I love Josephine Tey. I’ve read all her mysteries. How excited was I to find out about a new crime series featuring the writer as character? Very excited.

Did “An Expert in Murder” live up to my expectations? Not even a tiny bit. I swear I was skimming the last 20 pages and didn’t even understand the big revelation in the end, that well. It didn’t seem very likely but what’s even sadder is that I didn’t care enough to go back a single page to try and understand it.

Personally I find “An Expert in Murder” has many faults the first being its length – for a period crime novel (and the first in a series no less) certainly it could do with less than 288 pages, many of which are rambling, rambling, rambling. The characters suffer from the same problem being too many and sharing the characteristic of having little substance.

I detested the part where Upson has her Tey state to friends that she only uses physical characteristics to support personality traits when she’s stuck in her writing – really, if that were the only reason couldn’t she have some up with another gimmick? Considering she uses it in almost every book and all…

Very, very disappointing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Julian Barnes - Flaubert's Parrot and The Pedant in the Kitchen

Since “An Expert in Murder” is turning out to be a disappointment I stopped reading it and picked up Julian Barnes’ “Flaubert’s Parrot” (1984) and liked it so much I immediately started “The Pedant in the Kitchen” (2003) which I just finished.

“Parrot” and “pedant” are two very different books – the first a novel that, until about half way through reads like pure non-fiction, and the second a collection of columns on food, cooking, recipe books etc.

“Parrot” delves into the life of Flaubert in various ways as our protagonist attempts to solve a biographical puzzle: which one of two surviving stuffed Amazon parrots is the actual one which sat at Flaubert’s desk while he wrote “Un coeur simple”?

A bit pedantic, do you think? To spend so much time around a tiny bit of trivia regarding a book not even considered one of the author’s most important? But then Barnes is a self-proclaimed pedant – in the kitchen and elsewhere.

“Pedant” is much lighter and funnier in tone – maybe because as Flaubert himself affirmed each subject calls for a specific style – and makes much of the ways in which cookbooks toy with our amateur aspirations, providing unrealistic photos, vague quantities and plain crazy instructions.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Olga Grushin - The Dream Life of Sukhanov

I was going to write a great review for this book. It would start something like this:

“1985 was the year the Russian painter Marc Chagall died. It is also the year we meet Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, the year when his waking life as the successful editor of the Soviet publication Art of the World, married to the daughter of the most revered national painter and father of two, starts slowly to mesh with a series of increasingly vivid dream-memories, triggered by long-lost faces, newly discovered relatives, the colors and streets of Moscow.

In these waking dreams Sukhanov comes to remember a time when he first (despite himself) loved art –a time when Botticelli and Dalí were not examples of decadent capitalism but magicians that made him dream as a child and strive to open new doors as a young artist; when his own father was in real life striving to discover the science that would make some of the last paintings of Chagall come true in the shape of men with wings and when the iconic paintings of Andrei Rublev stood for proud spirituality instead of feeble-minded belief.

As the daydreams become more intense and prolonged Sukhanov’s waking life starts to crumble – with Perestroika round the corner, old party dinosaur’s such as himself were no longer wanted around - and the irony that he has become expendable precisely because he has forced himself to embody the Soviet official view on art does not escape him. Midlife crisis can be painful enough without the aid of a regime disintegrating around you.”

But never mind all that. What I really want to say is that “The Dream Life of Sukhanov” is my favorite book of the year. I confidently state it today, the 17th of December. Beautiful language, a good story, food for thought and further reading, it has it all. Wonderful.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Gory in Gotland

Unseen - Mari Jungstedt

This is a huge spoiler, so don’t go any further if you are considering reading "Unseen".

If you were 32 years-old and had, at age 12, spent some months brutalizing a shy school colleague going so far as to shove his underwear in his mouth while kicking him, would having your best friend (who participated in the attacks) brutally murdered and found with her underwear stuck in her mouth, ring a bell?

Maybe not. Maybe it would take two other bodies and 300 hundred pages more for you to connect the dots. Maybe it sounds to you like it could happen – after all we bury so much of our childhood that we don’t particularly want to remember.

To me it sounded unthinkable and a little impossible, although it did explain why Jungstedt made us follow this female character throughout the book, her struggle with her marriage and adultery with a reporter sent to idyllic island of Gotland to cover the initial brutal murder. Throughout the book I kept thinking “what does this character have to do with anything?”, “why do I have to read about her? and also “why is she such a whiner?”.

I has high expectations for "Unseen", and let me say the first chapter is great. It’s great because it made me care about the victim and want to know more about her, her boyfriend, her life and, of course find out why she was murdered. But "Unseen", strangely, moved completely away from the characters and ambiance it so successfully created in the first pages. It becomes convoluted, pushing and pulling between the chapters focusing in the police inspector, the childhood friend of the first victim (mostly concentrating on her failing marriage) and first person discourse of the (unknown) killer. I felt Inspector Knutas didn’t receive the attention he deserved. There are many characters introduced throughout the book, with a level of detail that made me believe they would be important to the story, instead they are summarily dropped after one appearance – the victim’s boyfriend, the circle of friends, the man who finds the body, the tv station editor and others.

I do appreciate I writer who isn’t afraid to up the body count and press the gore button, but Unseen never captured me, there were too many characters, too little focus or intention in the plot which seemed to flutter around. And the ending…maybe I’m being too harsh, but honestly when I read it I went “what the ?!#$?” and not in a nice way either.

I described the ending to my husband and asked him whether it sounded believable to him. It did not. So there you go – in our house we remember every stinkin’ kid we ever kicked around and left crying, underwear shoved in mouth, and know they’re out to get us.

Insane in Iceland

Last Rituals - Yrsa Sigurdarsdottir

In “Last Rituals” a German student is found murdered in Reykjavik University. More than murdered actually, because someone has seen it fit to remove his eyes. Harold Guntlieb had a life-long fixation with witchcraft a subject dear to his grandfather who, in the confused times that ensued the II World War, was able to procure numerous artifacts and documents related to the German Inquisition.

Tracing the origins of the infamous “witch-hunting manual”, XVII century Malleus Malleficarum, has somehow led him to Iceland, the only European country, where men, rather than women were persecuted as witches.

Since the Guntlieb family has difficulty believing such an horrific crime was committed by a drinking / drugging buddy of Harold, they decide to send their private security/ trouble-shooter to the Island (yes, they are filthy rich). Matthew Reich daunted by the obvious problem of navigating a foreign police and law system not to mention the language issue, hires Thóra Gudmunsdottir, a lawyer and divorced mother of two as a guide and aide.

The verdict? Hmmm, it’s a nice book, very readable; the historic subplot was very well thought out, the investigation in itself quite interesting. I really liked Thóra’s character very much. What I didn’t like were many of the chapters spent following Harold’s University friends – they were very silly, very blair-witchery 2…boring!

So let me put it this way, when a new Sigurdardottir book comes out – if it features Thóra I will definitely get it. If not, I’ll still consider it.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Ann Fessler - The Girls Who Went Away

This book changed my opinion on adoption forever.

I grew up thinking that adoption was the ultimate altruistic gesture, and could never make sense of people who spend absurd amounts of money trying to get pregnant (or get someone else to be pregnant for them), when there are so many children needing homes. However, I have to say I never (knowingly) met anyone who was adopted.

Then, in the last couple of years I started reading more on international adoption. First off, I was absolutely chocked at how expensive it was – but it seemed like a wonderful idea to rescue children of poorer nations.

But a couple of thoughts started creeping in – like, if the birth mothers had even half of the money prospective parents pay for these adoptions wouldn’t they choose to keep their babies; is it ethical to pay pregnant teenagers in developing countries (an amount irrelevant to the adoptive parents, but very significant to the girls and women) – I mean, isn’t that the same as basically encouraging them to serve as incubators?

And what of the ethnicity of the child – at what cost do they grow up estranged from their culture, surrounded by different values and obviously to all not the biological children of the couple parenting them?

Harsh as it may sound I believe there is a component of vanity in international adoption – because if a baby is obviously not related to you, then everyone down the street can come to the conclusion that you adopted. In some ways, it seems like it puts parents on a pedestal.

Even with these questions floating around in my mind, I must admit, I never gave much thought to birth mothers. For some reason (because that’s the image society has enforced over the decades in order to maintain the unassailable social acceptance of adoption) I believed that the majority of girls and women who surrendered these children, went on with their lives, except maybe for some melancholy on the baby’s birthday.

“The Girls Who Went Away – the hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade” changed that perception completely – Ann Fessler (an adoptee herself) provides tens of first person testimonials of American girls between 14 and 22 years old who gave up their babies for adoption in the fifties and sixties – their lives were absolutely thrown off track by this traumatic event.

Their stories are eerily similar – most wanted to keep the baby, some, more mature, were quick to understand that, since absolutely no-one was willing to give a helping hand this was the best option – they convinced themselves they were making a choice where society made sure there was none.

These girls were pushed towards giving up their babies, by parents, boyfriends, priests and social workers who made them feel as if the only right thing to do in order to save their families social standing, good name, their own future etc was give up the baby. They were made to feel as if they alone (boyfriends were never held accountable) were to blame and as if the only thing to do was to yield power to someone else. They were, gently in some cases and violently in others, led to the only socially acceptable path – pretend it never happened: go away on vacation or to visit relatives (in reality to horrible institutions for “unwed mothers”, were they were routinely abused and brainwashed by seemingly inhuman nuns and social workers) when the pregnancy started to show, give birth, sign the papers surrendering the baby, loose the weight, go back to school or work and never speak of it again.

One reoccurring testimonial tells how social workers made the girls write on a piece of paper what they could offer the baby and on the back what the adoptive parents could provide. The social workers always spoke of prospective adoptive parents who were college educated, frequently a doctor and a housewife with lots of disposable income who were desperate for a child. When some of the women came to meet their surrendered children decades later, it was not always what they found. Mostly, they seem to have found normal, loving families, but there are more than a few sad stories were the adoptive parents did not properly care for the children.
I was very interested to learn that the very rich and very poor seldom had their teenage girls put the babies up for adoption: in the first case they arranged for abortions and in the second they helped the girls raise their babies or they were adopted by close family members.

I already knew that African societies, for the most part, do not approve of adoption and Fessler states that for African-Americans the adoption rate was consistently very low in the fifties and sixties. I think the only testimonial of a black girl in the book is one were the father was white, so I guess for the most part black teenagers were helped and protected by their families in these cases.

For the girls and women who surrendered their babies it was the first step in a life of psychological anguish, psychosomatic illness, low self-esteem, many bad relationships. Most speak of incapacity to connect - even when they were married or had other children or attained high-profile careers – they seem to live in a sort of suspended animation. The trauma is so deep that often, reunion with the surrendered child is not enough to make these women forgive themselves.

That is the bottom line – no matter how privileged a life their child has led – these mothers never let go of the fact that they didn’t keep their child. Forget the fact that there was no way for them to do it – still, in their minds they are mothers who abandoned their babies.

This a very moving book, that I honestly recommend to everyone - we all have mothers and can all empathize with the sad and brave stories of these women.

One good way to honor their suffering would be to take a good, hard look at adoption. Everything comes at a price and we have to start figuring out how much we are, collectively, willing to pay.

Patrick McDonnell - Mutts Shelter Stories

I love the Mutts series!
This book takes Mutts strips (some previously published)and adds photographs of adopted pets and short testimonials by their forever families. Lovely, snuggly and christmasy.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Karin Fossum - Don't Look Back

I thought this was Inspector Sejer's first appearance, but I just checked Wikipedia and I was mistaken - it's actually the second.
Anyway, it just reiterated the feeling that Fossum is one murder mystery writer I want to follow - I plan to read the whole of Sejer's series and at least a couple of her other mysteries.
This one starts with a brilliant diversion maneuver…or is it? And then, the naked body of a 15 year old girl is found. An introverted athlete, passionate about children, and indifferent to most of what captures the attention of teenage girls, Ann seems an unlikely victim of assault – fast, strong and clever. So who could have gotten her to that isolated spot by a mountain lake?
What I really appreciate in Fossum's writing is that she doesn't shy away from the most taboo crimes in our society (against children) and doesn't spare us the horror and confusion of parents, friends and community either. She also goes after what lies at the root of abusive behavior, often more abusive behavior.
Don't Look Back is very addictive - I read it in two days, but it's definitely not one of those murder mysteries you can read for comfort.
I think anyone who reads it will feel very uncomfortable in the end - because corpse or no corpse - abuse of the most fragile among us goes on all the time and just being part of society is enough to make us feel like accomplices.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Another Josipovici quote

I had not remembered that the place was so popular. The entrance was teeming with parties of schoolchildren and coachloads of tourists, German, Dutch, French, even Polish and Russian. But then there are tourists everywhere these days, they even penetrate as far as Twickenham and Pinner. It is as if the whole world is on the move, eager to gaze upon anything that is not its habitual home: the Japanese come with their cameras to Pinner and the inhabitants of Pinner go with their cameras to Bali; the Balinese flock to Paris and the Parisians - well, the Parisians are the exception that proves the rule, for they only go as far as their holiday homes in the Cevennes.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bach Bachanalia (yes, I know it's been done to death)

Gabriel Josipovici - "Golberg: Variations"
Rereading the “Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff, I found the Tao Te Ching quote “The wise are not erudite, The erudite are not wise” which this morning immediately came to mind when I started thinking of Gabriel Josipovici. Josipovici is a very erudite writer who may or may not also be wise – though it would hardly be fair that he were both.

“Goldberg: Variations” takes the famous episode of Bach’s composition – supposedly commissioned by the insomniac Count Kaiserling, to be played by the interpreter Goldberg - and replaces the episode in England on the 1800s. Here we have Goldberg who has been summoned to the presence of Mr Tobias Westfield in his large country estate. Westfield is a chronic insomniac for whom a musician has proven no comfort – he therefore engages a writer thinking that, as a voracious reader and indifferent music lover he will find words more soothing than notes.

However, the catch as far as Goldberg is concerned, is that he is to produce original work to be read at Westfield’s bedside – and prolific and famous though he is (one chapter sees him invited to the court of King George) – the task triggers a gigantic writer’s block.

This is the start of the variations – the chapters take the reader backwards and forwards in time; seem sometimes to repeat certain themes and suddenly to introduce completely new ones, while the end brings us back to the beginning. All of which, aims to mimic the very structure of the variations.

Not having formal musical training myself I really can’t take that analysis much further. The rest are themes: conversations that range from the issue of lies in the literature of Homer,

“But is it not perhaps we who are at a fault? Asks Golberg. Do we not have too anxious a relation to truth? Earlier ages, which trusted more in providence than we do, were not afraid of lies, saw them, in fact as being necessary as speech itself to man in his dealings with others. (…) It is perhaps only those who are less than confident of the truth who fear, as we do, the indubitable power of lies.”

the Wild Boy of Aveyron, Victor,

“I am well aware of the fragility of what we call civilization, Goldberg says. I am well aware of how little it would take to turn you or me into Victors and how little even the most well-meaning would be able to do for us then. It takes years for us to feel our way up into society, years in which, with luck, our parents will help and protect us, but it takes very little to throw us back into the darkness.”

and the archeological discovery of the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae in Orkney and the family history of both Westfield and Goldberg told by different characters, wifes, sons, mistresses. Suddenly, the reader is catapulted to the present time where an unnamed author (presumably, at first, the author of the book we are reading) is on a sort of pilgrimage to see Klee’s painting “Wander-Artist” (on the cover).

Well, according to the back-cover there are loads of references to “Holderlin, Kierkegaard and others” – but, not being much of an erudite myself I must confess I didn’t exactly identify them. All in all, “Goldberg Variations” gave me the same feeling I had when, about 16 years old, I read Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” – that a lot of it, veiled references, hints etc were going right over my head (not that I figured them out in the mean time, by the way)- and frankly, it’s not entirely bad. Sometimes it’s nice to feel like there is a whole trove of knowledge to aspire to.

Just remember, it won’t make you wise.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Unhappy in Uppsala

"Princess of Burundi" - Kjell Eriksson

“Do you know how it is to be poor? It’s living on the margins, but still wanting to enjoy things. We spent everything o Justus. We wanted him to have nice clothes. John bought a computer this fall. Sometimes we bought good food for a special occasion. You can’t feel poor all the time.”

For better or worse, a lot of people read crime novels in order to escape. For the most part I belong of that group, but “Princess of Burundi” mostly made me want to escape “Princess of Burundi”.

There are many great things about the Swedes – smoked salmon, cinnamon buns, midsummer bonfires and IKEA – but boy, when they want to bring you down, they tie a regular anvil to your feet.

It’s coming on Christmas as the body of John Jonsson is found in the snow. He has cigarette burn marks, has been beaten and three fingers are missing. With his wife Berit and teenage son, Justus, John has been living the other side of the Swedish social dream – scraping by on badly paid work, then fired, brother to a well-known small-time crook and big-time drunk– with only a passion for tropical fish keeping afloat.

On the cop side things aren’t looking much better – chronically depressed is the general feel. Ann Lindell which slowly develops into the protagonist of the book is on maternity leave from the department, and obviously with a slight case of baby blues, in her case, probably brought on by the fact that she is a single mom raising the child of a one-night-stand that finished off her long-term relationship (pheww!!).

There’s also a mentally ill loner, which felt a bit repetitive since “Black Seconds” which I recently read, also featured a similar character (okay we get it – society scapegoats the mentally ill / high-school bullying turns people into murderers).

So…yeah I really didn’t feel drawn in and I don’t think I’ll be reading any more Eriksson…even though he seems to be the cat’s whiskers, what with the whole two pages of blurbs and all…

And…I really don’t appreciate it when the guilty party only makes his appearance in the last pages (sorry, if it spoils the book for someone out there, but I had to say it).

But I won’t give up on Swedish crime that easily - I still want to read something by Mari Jungstedt.

Maybe Norwegian crime’s more my thing…we mustn’t lump them together.

For instance, I’ve always heard that Scandinavians were by far the biggest suicides after the Japanese, and it turns out it isn’t true…per se. If you check out this nifty Wikipedia chart, you’ll see the Swedes are about average, while the Norwegians commit suicide almost as much as the Portuguese – it’s those damn Finns hiking up the numbers!
Which reminds me I also want to read Tove Jansson’s True Deceiver.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Animal Books

Animal books are my guilty pleasure.

Not in the sense of the online definition of “something one considers pleasurable despite it being mainly received negatively or looked down on by a majority of society” but more in the sense that I enjoy reading (most) of them so much that it triggers a sense of guilty (yes, catholic education).

“All My Patients are Under the Bed – memoirs of a cat doctor” is a special book. It’s more than a glimpse into the practice of a veterinarian, for which a contemporary look is best achieved by reading “Tell Me Where it Hurts” by Dr Nick Trout, and more of an historical glimpse at how much veterinarian medicine changed in the last century.

Dr Louis Camuti started practicing in 1921 and as he explains, at that time horses were by far the main fare of the veterinarian. Cars would of course, radically alter the picture in the following years. At first some vets wouldn’t even stoop so low as to treat a domestic cat or dog! After the II World War the urban dweller’s relationship with animals (and vets) changed even further, especially in New York City – women took to the workplace and pets were the only ones home in many households. Since cats are notorious bad patients anyway, Dr Camuti slowly became an itinerant doctor – starting his workday at about 4 pm and ending it no sooner than 2 or 3 am, what with NY parking and traffic being what it is.

The book makes for compulsive reading, filled with humorous encounters with cats and their owners of which Camuti states “some are more normal than others”.

I should state right now that I am a closet cat lover – closeted because, I have two dogs, one of which positively hates kitties. This online test tells me I’m a cat person – but really the only thing these tests do, is tell you whether you are an introvert or extrovert and then, operate on the (false, to my mind) assumption that cat = calm, quiet and dog=loud, boisterous. As if cats and dogs didn’t show a range of personalities. At least two introverted girls you might have heard of enjoyed the company of large, not very polite dogs: Emily Bronte and her mastiff, Keeper and Emily Dickinson and her Newfoundland, Carlo. Their relationship with dogs and those of Woolf, Barrett Browning and Wharton are analyzed in Maureen Adams “Shaggy Muses”.

For more on personality and dog breeds, check out Stanley Coren’s “Why We Love the Dogs We Do – how to find the dog that matches your personality”. It features the stories of Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill, Emily Bronte, Nixon, James Stewart, Byron and others along with their canine companions. It includes a personality test and is just so fun I keep going back to it – it is my best-thumbed dog book and it even features a chapter on “Cat People”, although a not very kind one – it portrays cat lovers as aloof, unemotional and cold.

Of “Woman’s Best Friend – Women writers on the dogs in their lives” and “Cat Women – Female writers and their feline friends” I think I enjoyed Cat Women better – but part of it is just the curiosity of knowing how the other half lives, because they are both filled with great stories.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Alexander McCall Smith - "Corduroy Mansions"

Single best reason to finally get wireless?
Reading the daily installments of McCall Smith's "Corduroy Mansions" in the comfort of your sofa or bed. In the vein of "44 Scotland Street" which started life as a serial for the Scotsman newspaper (I read it in book format) "Corduroy Mansions" has brought the Dickensian (check it out fellow Wire fans, I finally used the word in a post) serial to the XXI century making it available online in both text and audio format.
No need to feel guilty when you've missed a few chapters - in fact, waiting until saturday to read the week's developments over a croissant and coffee in your comfortable bed, might be the best possible start for the weekend.

Click below.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bizarre Books - Russell Ash and Brian Lake

Not a spoof - all the books listed do actually exist, which of course, makes it all the more hilarious.

My favorites:

Around the world

Sodomy and the Pirate tradition: English sea rovers in the seventeenth century Caribbean, 1985

Selected themes and icons from Spanish literature: of beards, shoes, cucumbers and leprosy, 1982

The foul and the fragrant: odor and the French social imagination, 1986

How To / Teach Yourself

How to save a big ship from sinking, even though torpedoed, 1915

What to say when you talk to yourself, 1982

How to write while you sleep, 1985

Grow your own hair, 1947

How to draw a straight line, 1877
How to test your urine at home, 1935

Fresh air and how to use it, 1912

Teach yourself alcoholism, 1975

Come again?

Who’s who in cocker spaniels, 1944

Umbrellas and parts of umbrellas (except handles), 1964

Nasology – or hints towards a classification of noses, 1848

The toothbrush: its use and abuse, 1939

Manhole covers of Los Angeles, 1974

The Madam as entrepreneur: career management in house prostitution, 1979

Illinois roadkill cookbook, 1991

Ice-cream for small plants, 1937

1587. A year of no importance


Fish who answer the telephone, 1937

Phone calls from the dead, 1979

Anthropometric measurements of Brazilian feet, 1993

Pre-historic sandals from northeastern Arizona, 1998

…and my nº1 favorite:

Nuclear War: What’s in it for you? 1982

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Detectives I have met – I

Is there a profession that literature has done more to romanticize than that of the detective? Why, if we were to take the writers word for it, the police departments of the world from Rio de Janeiro to Stockholm should be positively crawling with book-loving, witty, ethical, charming and quite unbelievably intelligent men and women – well…


One of the best things about learning Italian is reading these babies in their original version. Sicily-italian is just…Sicilian, I guess, and so much of Andrea Camilleri’s series is inextricably tied to that fascinating hell-hole in the middle of the Mediterranean, that the experience is considerably heightened by reading them in the original (I haven’t read any of the translations but they are supposed to be very good).

So, what is Salvo Montalbano like? I’ve reached installment nº 8 and he’s changed a little… he’s getting on in years and ethics are becoming a big consideration, and seeing as he practices in Sicily we can’t blame him if he’s getting a bit morose.

Women and other animals

True to detective form he has complicated personal relationships – an estranged father, a long distance girlfriend (she lives in the north of Italy, so there’s also a not irrelevant culture clash between their worldviews) with whom he is chronically on the verge of getting married or breaking up.

Table manners

He doesn’t just love to eat – his whole mood and faith in himself and the world at large can be dramatically altered through the almost mystical power of a good (or bad) meal.

Mood ring

Towards the melancholic - and he’s a brooder – even has a couple of favorite places to go all out pensive. His house overlooks the beach and in the middle of difficult cases he’s been known to go out for a midnight swim in the icy water as well as the customary morning one.

Cardiac condition

Not good. I think he smoked more in the first books but he still kicks back a lot of whisky (with Ingrid the Swedish F1 driver – not the most believable character in the series but a long standing one that has come in handy (no smirks, now) many a time – and what do I know? She’s probably based on a real life acquaintance of Camilleri’s. On “The pacience of the spider” he nearly collapsed and was still recovering from a gunshot wound from “Rounding the mark”.


Montalbano cannot be around the dying elderly or chronically ill – it’s his kriptonite. I don’t know if any of the following books in the series has him solving crimes from a hospital bed, but I don’t think he would flourish in that environment – the food for one…

For real

Between political (and police) corruption, illegal immigration, smuggling of young women and children, illegal immigration and subsequent destruction of the countryside and coastline, there are a lot of ills of Sicilian society for Camilleri to explore without having to dip too often in the mafia pot – in fact the honoured society makes few appearances.

The verdict

Highly addictive – I’m glad I have at least six more to read, not counting the short-stories.

La forma dell’acqua – The shape of water
Il cane di terracotta – The terracotta dog
Il ladro di merendine – The snack thief
La voce del violino – The voice of the violin
La gita a Tindari – Excursion to Tindari
L’odore della notte – The scent of the night
Il giro di boa – Rounding the mark
La pazienza del ragno – The pacience of the spider

Friday, November 07, 2008

Krazy in Kiev

Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin
Penguin Lost
The Case of the General's Thumb
A Matter of Life and Death

The Soviet Union might have collapsed in ’91, but apparently, a lot of people never got the notice. Most were hit men, secret service officers, politicians and other small time crooks.
To most of Kurkov’s protagonists it doesn’t matter either way: Viktor, the other Viktor, Nik and Tolya might, on paper, be citizens of a democratic state, but the reality is somewhat different. A journalist, a police officer and a former border patrol officer they get drafted into mysterious jobs or cases never really understanding whose interests they are serving.

A couple of strange events, coincidences or plain bad luck strap them onto a crazy carnival ride at the beginning of each book, and they just try to hang on as best they can. Fortunately, they are all endowed with a Greek tragedy sense of just how pointless it is to fight destiny, or to try the emergency button: just as with most lifts in the apartment blocks of Kiev they are not working.

Viktor of the Penguin books and Viktor and Nik of General’s Thumb are all manipulated by shady characters that mysteriously appear and disappear with strange requests. Some might be trying to help but don’t bet on it – in Kurkov’s books everyone has motivations tied to countless other characters that never step out of the shadows – not so much puppet strings as a whole ball of yarn.

Between Germany, where former KGB agents are still being reactivated, Chechnya where hidden crematoriums silently perform the war’s clean-up and the Balkans where war criminals are living it up in their yachts, Kurkov takes us on a wild ride where we meet a bunch of good guys who get screwed over as predictably as Russian mobsters’ kids graduate from Oxford: there is a hit man who is fluent in sign language and has a soft spot for all creatures great and small, a quad arm wrestling team, a stream of beautiful young prostitutes with the obligatory hearts of gold, and the undoubted star – Misha the penguin – looking on an increasingly warm ex-empire, where ideologues turned into mobsters in the time it takes to down a shot of vodka.

All the protagonists’ share Tolya’s feeling in “A Matter of Life and Death”: “the strange sensation that what happened had nothing to do with me”. But, hey, maybe it was the alcohol – after all, Kurkov’s characters are not afraid to engage in a little (or a lot) of Eastern European cliché binge drinking.

It’s cold (not enough for Misha though) and somewhat depressing; good people get manipulated, their lives are expendable and in the end the bad guys get the billions stashed in the Cyprus account; or they get re-elected. So what? Play your cards right and you might get a state appointed apartment, a Bosnian girlfriend or at least a couple liters of melon flavored vodka.
And sometimes that depressing Ukrainian crap is just plain sweet - as when Tolya’s prostitute girlfriend asks:

“Would you marry me? Lena asked out of the blue with a note of irony.”
“I think I’d rather adopt you.”

Of course in the end they can’t spend New Year’s together – she’s “booked for a bankers’ “mini Decameron”.
“A what?
Orgy with group sex. I’m looking to the future, saving for a one-roomer.”

Slavs – sweet yet psycho.
You sort of want to love ‘em and still keep a safety distance of a few thousand kilometers.
Reading Kurkov is just the thing.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Josephine Tey

She read her first book on psychology out of curiosity, because it seemed to her an interesting sort of thing; and she read all the rest to see if they were just as silly. By the time she had read thirty-seven books on the subject, she had evolved ideas of her own on psychology; at variance, of course, with all thirty-seven volumes read to date. In fact, the thirty-seven volumes seemed to her so idiotic and made her so angry that she sat down there and then and wrote reams of refutal.

Josephine Tey "Miss Pym Disposes"

"The Man in the Queue"
"A Shilling for Candles"
"The Franchise Affair"
"Brat Farrar"
"To Love and be Wise"
"The Daughter of Time"
"The Singing Sands"

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fossum "Black Seconds" Topolski "Monster Love"

Missing children

Mysteries and thrillers that involve children can be gripping – “Judas Child” by Carol O’Connell and “Even Steven” by John Gilstrap are two I particularly enjoyed.
It is so easy to empathize because the children are so lovable, so fragile and in the case of O’Connell’s heroine sometimes incredibly feisty and more intelligent than their elders. Their disappearances, and crimes against them, tear up communities in a way that no other event can.

I thought I would quite enjoy Karin Fossum’s “Black Seconds” and I did – this was also my introduction to the fashionable jet-set of Scandinavian crime and mystery writers. As much as this can be said about a book where a child goes missing and then is found dead (without giving too much of the plot away), “Black Seconds” almost reminded me of “cosy” mystery series – there was a definite snug feeling about this semi-rural/suburban Norwegian small-town. Fear grows as the days go by and little Ida is nowhere to be found. Could she be held prisoner in some basement, or halfway across the world kidnapped by a pedophile? But as Fossum keeps bringing our attention back to family and neighbors another, perhaps less cruel but nonetheless tragic scenario begins to emerge. Inspector Sejer is a very likeable character even if his perspective doesn’t dominate the narrative (Ida’s mother, Helga takes center stage). A middle-aged loner (it wasn’t absolutely clear to me, not having read the previous books on the series whether he is still married but estranged from his wife, separated or divorced) he owns a very old leonberger dog, for whom he is contemplating euthanasia and engages in the obligatory consumption of alcohol, required of male detectives everywhere.

The first pages where Helga slowly becomes aware that Ida is late and, as the hours pass, missing, are wonderfully written. Even though “Black Seconds” ending doesn’t include a plot twist – which in a way is oddly refreshing – and the reader will very likely see his/her suspicions confirmed in the final pages, Fossum’s description of the characters’ psyche is masterful – it reads as something utterly simple and obvious – something only writers with a unusual mixture of understanding and eloquence can pull off (Josephine Tey being the best example I can think of).
“Monster Love” is something altogether different - Carol Topolski’s first book doesn’t follow a typical mystery form, but then, going back to Tey, neither does “Miss Pym Disposes” or “Brat Farrar”, mysteries that concentrate on psychology rather than the mechanics of crime.

Topolski seems to attempt something in the manner of Sayers “The Documents In The Case” a book in which the narrative is conducted solely through letters, depositions, notes etc, arranged in chronological order.
Here we have a series of testemonials, from neighbours, parents, employers and, as the narrative proceeds, police officers, a judge, jury etc. The case: a young, upwardly mobile, very fashionable and very ambitious couple abuse their little daughter in an horrible manner. The first chapters are very tight, very well written and they really drew me into the story. Charlotte, the neighbor; Anthony the boss; Kaye the social worker and Alun the police office, have very singular and powerful voices. The next chapter is narrated by the couple, Sherilyn and Brendan, made me wonder – I thought my questions would be answered latter on, but they never were. Then begin chapters narrated by mothers, stepmothers and stepbrothers – that’s where the book lost its promise as far as I was concerned – briefly regained in the judge and jurors chapters.

The biggest problem is, to my mind, a poor psychological construction of the abusive parents. Brendan and Sherilyn decide they never want children – they become pregnant through a very forced failed vasectomy plus a history of irregular periods which never gave Sherilyn any cause to suspect that something was up for about four months (no morning sickness for her then). Since they were rich, I can’t understand why they didn’t just hire a full-time nanny. If, as Topolski argues, the only problem in their otherwise perfect relationship was the presence of the baby and they were criminally inclined, why didn’t they smother her in her first few days and attribute it to cot-death or some such thing? Why would they bear her for three whole years, go through the trouble of building her a complex cell complete with lavatory and wooden cage just so they could abandon her for days on end? Since no-one ever saw the child it would hardly matter if she was alive. And having gone through the whole thing why would they suddenly leave the country leaving the baby where she could easily be found, along with the proof of the abuse, which was so easily hidden?

There is so much that doesn’t square with the author’s own portrayal of her characters, that it becomes annoying. It reads as if Topolski never really got to the bottom of Sherilyn and Brendan, and therefore cannot present them clearly to the reader. She tries this and that reasoning on for size –even clearing Brendan of any pedophile traits the reader might foist on him, through the (again forced) appearance of child molester.

“Monster Love” straddles an impossible divide: if on the one hand the family chapters serve the idea that abused children become abusive parents, it also seems to imply that people do cruel things for no reason. In the end I ended up not buying either explanation.

Friday, May 09, 2008

in the mean time...

Famous Last Words - Timothy Findley
The Devil's Highway - Luis Alberto Urrea
I Misteri D´Italia - Dino Buzzati
Beauty Tips from Moosejaw - Will Ferguson
Il Panettone non Bastò - Dino Buzzati
The Bird Man and The Lap DAncer - Eric Hansen
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie
The Telling of Lies - Timothy Findley
The Fifth Business - Robertson Davies
Manticore - Robertson Davies
World of Wonders - Robertson Davies
Spadework - Timothy Findley
Gomorrah - Roberto Saviano
Duma Key - Stephen King
Snake Hips - Anne Thomas Soffee
Monkeys are made from Chocolate - Jack Ewing
Julius Winsome - Gerard Donovan
Ask the Parrot - Richard Stark
Ghosts of Spain - Giles Tremlett
Tell Me Where it Hurts - Dr Nick Trout
The Perfect Sister - Marcia Millman
Intern - Sandeep Jauhar
Friends and Relations - Elizabeth Bowen
The Edwardians - Vita Sackville-West
Dietro la Porta - Giorgio Bassani
Una Notte del '43 - Giorgio Bassani
The Yiddish Policemen´s Union - Michael Chabon

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Findley "Famous Last Words" and Eng's "The Gift of Rain"

Although very different in narrative style both Findley’s “Famous Last Words” and Eng’s “The Gift of Rain” share a remarkable similarity. They both deal with characters that, through no clear ideological affinity, end up involved with “the wrong side” in the Second World War.

Both protagonists’ voices reach us from the past: Findley’s Mauberley through his last words written on the walls of four rooms in an Austrian hotel on the Alps, Philip Hutton’s through several flash-backs that lead the reader back to the british colonial outpost of Penang, Malaya, in the 1930’s.

If both books stress anything about their characters “wrong” choices it is how easily they slip into them. Mauberley and Hutton never make conscious ideological choices, in fact, the philosophy of war seems a remote concern in either man’s life. It is rather through personal affections, a sense of loyalty of above all else to friends and family that they find themselves unwillingly striking points for the forces of the Axis.

In a sense both men are traitors. Mauberley is an american whose first rumblings of war find in exile in Italy, living what can only be called a love-hate relationship with his mentor Ezra Pound (Selwyn Mauberley is a fictional character named after Pound’s poem), while Philip Hutton is a child of a marriage between a wealthy british businessman and a chinese woman. Yet Mauberley ends up collaborating closely with nazi officials and Hutton with the japanese occupying forces.

How could they? Both “Famous Last Words” and “The Gift of Rain” succeed in extracting from the reader the benefit of hindsight; both place us square in the middle of confusion, conflicting reports, misinformation, and the absolute necessity of maintaining sanity and dignity by keeping daily life as normal as possible. The big decisions are being made elsewhere, by others. Mauberley and Hutton seem to be carried most of the time, by a stream of destiny more hypnotic and powerful than rational thought. But can there be rational thought in the midst of war? The luxury of certainty, moral and ideological, is a privilege of heads of state and commanding officers, both works seem to suggest. The rest of us has to muddle through, unaware of secret plans (or in the case of Mauberley, further confused by repeated hints of international conspiracies) oblivious to the fact that the war will be over in a few years, and that future will be a harsh judge – maybe more cruel in the long run, to those who stray from their rightful birth alliances, than to those who merely followed their leaders.

The theme of destiny is stronger in Tan Twan Eng’s “The Gift of Rain”, the underlying leitmotif even. For the teenager Philip Hutton finding balance has always been hard (harmony being the other narrative force of the book): he is after all, of mixed parentage in a colonial setting – colonies being so often more british than Britain – with two older brothers and a sister born of his father’s first marriage with a british woman. His other half, his chinese mother, ostracized by her family, dies when he is only for years old.

When he meets a japanese man to whom his father has let a small island facing their house, whispers of shared destiny start to sound in his ears. In fact, Philip will soon understand that Hayato Endo, who quickly becomes his sensei in the art of aikido and japanese language, is not only an important companion in this life – they have been friends before, namely in the Japan of the samurai, and it has always ended badly. This time will prove no different even though Philip Hutton will, for the longest time deny the hold of destiny, a knowledge imparted by fortune tellers, and finally his own chinese grandfather.

His decision seems clear headed, in first days of the japanese occupation: to offer his services to the enemy forces in return for protection for his family who, unlike most of the british expatriates have decided to stay on in Penang. However, Hutton soon finds himself embroiled in the more cruel aspects of occupation by a political force eager to provide a well-known surname as an ally: he takes part in the round-up of, often innocent, anti-japanese “criminals”, watches, unable to help, executions, tortures and beheadings and soon his sister and aunt will join the numbers of political assassinations.

Yet his relationship with Endo never falters. Even when Philip comes to hate him, even when he realizes many of their friendly outings have actually been military fact-finding missions, and that he has unwillingly provided information that will make the japanese attack a resounding success, they never cease to be close. For Endo is after all, against the war. He has merely struck a bargain with the Emperor: work for the government in return for protection and medical care for his father, a vocal anti-militarist. Endo and Hutton are therefore as similar as enemies can be: two men trained to kill who avoid violence, who work for warmongers to keep their families safe.

Even though Philip Hutton eventually turns into double-agent feeding information to the anti-japanese resistance, both men’s actions seem to beg the question: how many lives would each of us be willing to sacrifice in order to save our loved ones? How easy to calculate a tally in times of peace.

Findley’s character, on the other hand, will participate in zero hands on brutality (safe his own cruel execution). He travels in what we might call the jet-set of war, between celebrity writers, italian aristocracy, british heirs, american gold-diggers and well-groomed nazis. Yet his actions will prove no less important: after all, how many elegant soirées were the planning grounds of war atrocities?

Mauberley, being an american, and an orphan at that (the first scene of the book consists of the young Mauberley witnessing his father’s suicide) has no close of kin to protect. However he does have a most juvenile characteristic: he becomes so powerfully inebriated by strong personalities that he forgets himself, and seems to long only to bask in their solar presence. First the young russian aristocrat he meets in Shangai in the 1930’s, followed by a young and already fiercely ambitious Wallis Simpson, Ezra Pound, the italian aristocrat Isabella Loverso and even a nazi hit-man.

Most definitely an aesthete, Mauberley is the sort of flighty platonic lover (though his homosexuality is hinted at he never consummates any relationship, and seems as likely to become fascinated by women as men) who doesn’t even realize his friend Isabella is actually a very active double-agent. As long as he can play his part in closest entourage of Edward VIII and his girlfriend Wallis all seems right.
In many ways then, Mauberley is a perfect agent for whichever side can most easily sweep him off his feet. Once suitably mesmerized he will, as a little boy, try to please the object of his affection to very best of his abilities. After Edward VIII’s abdication Mauberley feels Simpson’s hurt as deeply as if it were his own: she did, after all, marry the title as much as the man…

And it just so happens that a group of concerned industrialists along with nazi and fascist officials would much rather have a monarchy as symbol of their uber-totalitarian regime than the charmless Hitler. It would be business as usual of course, but with a certain flair only bestowed on Kings and Queens (even the ones born in Pennsylvania).

Mauberley is accosted by the so-called Cabal, never fully understanding who or what lies behind his contacts. However they do mean to offer his friend Wallis a throne (throne of what, however, is the important questions he never thinks to ask), how can he deny his assistance?

Caught in a writer’s interpretation of a conspiracy, Mauberley is never quite up to speed on the events: “What confused me most was that having been set up by Isabella Loverso to expect some mighty, earth-shaking scheme, nothing of the sort emerged.”
In the end, Findley’s character only seems to grow up when he is being hunted down for his diaries in the end of the war, which is actually when the reader first meets him. In attempting desperately to tell his story he seems a man that finally understands the bigger picture (or is he, certain of his impending death, merely grasping at posthumous celebrity?)

The irony, is that this man completely removed from ideological concerns or even with morality, ends up being scrutinized by two american officers (poster boys for righteousness if there ever were). Captain Freyberg is half-deranged after witnessing the horrors of Dachau, and probably thinks anyone who ever served a glass of water to a german is assessory to genocide, while the bleary eyed Lieutenant Quinn is of the school of thought that forgives everyone if only they make a final confession.

Mixing real and fictional characters and events “Famous Last Words” is a tightly wound, punch in the face of historical fiction, while “The Gift of Rain” is a sprawling, cinematographical, russian epic of war narrative.

When our time comes, will we excuse ourselves through the eastern concept of destiny or through the western one of art? Better start thinking about it, if not for this lifetime…

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

"The Two Sams - Ghost Stories" - Glen Hirshberg

Let me just start by saying that "Mr. Dark's Carnival", the third on this collection of short stories, is just about perfect. It's a fantastic little jewel on fear and folklore, dream-like, hypnotic and terrifying.

Without it, I probably would rate "The Two Sams" medium-well done - technically correct but lacking a certain "je ne sais quoi". There is no doubt Hirshberg has a first rate imagination. I was particularly impressed with the flashback in "Dancing Men": one minute we're in Prague accompanying a lonely middle-aged jewish high-school teacher whose yearly highlight consists of taking his class on european tours of Holocaust hotspots - when bang! courtesy of a local puppet merchant we're catapulted into his childhood in New Mexico, a vision-quest aided by a local native american, an Holocaust-surviving grandfather and then bang! again, further back into polish forests and gypsy magic. Very nimble.

"Struwwelpeter" is the name of an iconic, XIX century, children's story book, in which baddly behaved children get their comeuppance in a very graphic manner - in Hirshberg's tale we're left not knowing if evil Peter will get his, but with little doubt that he deserves it. "Shipwreck Beach" takes place in a very unusual set, as far as terror is concerned - Hawaii, and for that alone it deserves some points even though it felt a little laboured. By this second story a strange leitmotif in "The Two Sams" become apparent, one that I found quite original: humidity.

There is always slow steady rain, moistness, something dripping or oozing. Sure, when you think about it, getting into knee-deep water in the dark, or even hearing the strange, unidentifyable sounds of water is pretty scary and Hirshberg uses it in a very poetic and intriguing fashion.

The character's psyches is very compelling and feels truthfull: the boy in "Struwwelpeter" who is as attracted as repelled by the hidden cruelty he can sense in his best friend's eyes. The high-school senior in "Shipwreck Beach" feels the same about her cousin: her whole life she's known he's bad news and yet, though she doesn't even particularly like him anymore, she affirms her independence by travelling alone to meet him, heeding some "can't look away" call, young people so often feel towards familial disasters. The small boy in "Dancing Men" has less confused feelings towards the granfather he is forced to spend three days with. Trapped in a wheelchair, with an oxygen mask strapped on and unable to speak, his piercing eyes and his adobe house in the desert are every middle-class boy's very idea of horror.

The title story "The Two Sams" is more sad than scary. Hirshberg portrays the despair of a young couple whose wife is seemingly incapable of keeping a baby in her womb. After two miscarriages, the husband is convinced the foetuses are coming back to lure their new unborn child to their netherworld. The only way to stop them is to destroy the mournful fetishes his wife has lovingly wrapped and stored - the earthly remains of the first two children. This one would make a good film though, you can just imagine the ghost babies sneaking through the house at night and singing their chilling lullabies into the woman's stomach as she sleeps.

All very nice, but "Mr. Dark's Carnival" blows them all out of the water. I just love when a story grabs you in the first lines:

"So the first question, really," I said, leaning on my lectern and looking over the heads of my students at the twilight creeping off the plains into campus, "is, does anyone know anyone who has actually been there?"

The Eastern Montana History seminar, Halloween special, on a curious piece of local lore known as Mr Dark's Carnival, the ultimate scary house, is where the tale begins. Professor Roemer takes apart, piece by piece, the communal myth of Mr Dark, in front of the freshest batch of college students every year. Inside though, he is a true believer - or rather, if he unravels every phony account of the Carnival, it is only because he yearns to find the original, the only, the unimitable, the ultimate frightening experience. He is forced to cut his lecture short, after being told a brilliant yet volatile graduate student has commited suicide. Not long afterwards a hobo will press two invitations into his hand. And that's all I'm saying.

This is Hirshberg's own account of how the story was born.

Quite frankly I didn't understand the ending: was Prof. Roemer killed or brought back to the living? Yet I hardly cared.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

"The Night Country" - Stewart O'Nan

Well, "The Night Country" has a Stephen King blurb on its cover, and I've often thought it would be a fun project to read every book that has one ("Three Dog Life" is another). I got it second hand without ever having heard of the author.

Between the master's (and Peter Straub's) recomendation, the title and the cover, I was expecting something quite different.

New England, Halloween. It's always tricky to encroach on another man's territory, and this is most definitly King's hunting ground.

But "The Night Country" starts off with a bang, the chapter "Something Wicked" which is something poetic, all right. An invitation for a ride on Halloween night with some unknown creatures who turn out to be three teenagers killed in a car crash exactly a year before. O'Nan gives them a voice more seductive than mermaids, as they convince, indeed seduce us, into witnessing their last moments:

"Come, do you hear it? The wind - murmuring in the eaves, scouring the bare trees. How it howls, almost musical, a harmony of old moans. The house seems to breathe, an invalid. Leave your scary movie marathon; this is better than TV. Leave the lights out."
"Do you ever wonder?
"Do you want to know?
Come then, come with us, out into the night."

It reminded me of the end of the first chapter of Kingg's "Danse Macabre", October 4, 1957, and an invitation to a dance, which goes:

"But it's not a hunt, it's a dance. And sometimes they turn off the lights in this ballroom.
But we'll dance anyway you and I. Even in the dark. Especially in the dark.
May I have the pleasure?"

There is nothing more enticing than being lured into that which scares us, through a soft spoken voice - it's also so much scarier to be enchanted so that we walk willingly (if a little bit wary) into the night, instead of being dragged out.

But then the next chapters (aptly named I know what you did and Dawn of the Dead) gave me a funny feeling I couldn't quite name. Then the next couple of chapters came and went and I finally understood that it was anguish. By then I wanted to finish "The Night Country" quickly because it started giving me nightmares. Only after I finished it, and as I thought about it and described did it slowly dawn on me how good it was.

It has to be one of the most unsettling books I've ever read. And O'Nan pulls a dirty a little trick on the reader looking for cheap thrills - you see, "The Night Country" isn't a horror book, at all.

Sure it has teenagers, is set on the days preceding Halloween and there are ghosts - but those are just treats to lure you into the big dark house. Once inside there are no carved pumpkins, no escapism, no scary movies that make kids scream and give boys and girls a chance to snuggle up to each other. Inside are lives so completely destroyed that not even death can save them. O'Nan forces us to look despair in the eye, and for my money it was the scariest thing ever.

Toe, Danielle and Marco met their untimely fate in the shape of a tree, on Halloween last year. They wander among the living, seemingly, a bit unsure what their new duties as ghosts are - except for being present whenever someone remembers them.

As it is, they spend a lot of time with Brooks, the police officer who, it slowly becomes clear, might have contributed to the violence of the accident by giving chase to the speeding vehicle. Unable to stop himself he goes over the photos of the scene almost everyday; his girlfriend left sometime ago and he is completely alone - his only living relative is an Alzheimer riddled grandmother who he visits as little as possible - another something-something to escalate is self-loathing.

Whenever we meet him he is alone in his patrol car, working nights, watching reruns of the crash in his mind, the girl projected into a tree, the moans coming from inside. He also follows Tim.

Tim is the one who got away. He came out of the accident with barely a scratch. He's fine - he just lost his girlfriend and two friends. Make that three; because although Kyle, a heavy-metal loving, marijuana dealing, every parents' teenage nightmare didn't die, he is now more Gump than Hetfield. He sports a crew cut instead of mutton chops, carries a lunch bag, and his mother helps him with his buttons, while Tim drives him to the convenience store where they both re-stock the shelves and clean the floor.

Kyle's mother might be the saddest of all these sorry characters - estranged from her husband who takes refuge in his work, taking care of a severely impaired son, she is denied even the refuge of grief, for she is too busy taking care of a five-year-old in the body of a seventeen-year-old - of all the inhabitants of the night country she is the only one whom O'Nan will deny a final respite.

This much we understand: that Tim wants to kill himself in an exact copy of the accident he survived; that Brooks somehow senses it and is determined to stop him; that the three ghosts cannot stop what is already in motion or even comfort the living with a word, an apparition or a dream, themselves trapped in broken deaths just as their relatives are trapped in broken lives. Kyle too has a ghost, a badass ghost, capable of some telekinesis it seems, but unable to see the other three even though they see him - and are scared of him.

O'Nan offers no redemption. This tale is not told in order to give the reader, in the end, a sense of lives being picked up, however crooked, a whiff of a new beginning. We leave the characters at midnight, just as the final blow descends - after, there will be nothing left to pick up.

My only qualm was the inclusion, in Tim's last moments, of the lyrics of The Smashing Pumpkins song "Today" - frankly it was too corny for words...

But it's just a little thing, it hardly matters. What does matter, what I was left suffering about was - who drive Kyle to work from now on and take him to MacDonald's once in a while? Who will visit Brooks' grandmother? How many ghosts will now follow Kyle's mother as she volunteers at the local library?

In O'Nan's "The Night Country" what gets wrecked, stays wrecked maybe even gets worse. As if tragedy can only draw out more of its kind, as if once broken, people cross out into another country where only silent ghosts, bad memories and the dark keep them company, until they too heed to the seductive voices of the dearly departed to take one last ride into the night.