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.