Friday, January 29, 2010
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Monday, January 25, 2010
Friday, January 22, 2010
The mild weather this January (relatively) has allowed my roving bookshelf eye to rest more kindly on these frigid-sounding titles from last fall. Last weekend I was in the perfect mood for reading some good mysteries and these two certainly didn't disappoint.
I'm hooked on the Erlendur novels from Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason and his latest, Hypothermia (such a great title), translated by Victoria Cribb, is a masterfully crafted read. Inspector Erlendur, out of all the gloomy, unhappy detectives in the Nordic crime world, seems the most obsessed with the ghosts of his past. When he was a child he lost his younger brother in a blizzard and the body was never found. As a result, Erlendur is tenacious in never giving up on missing persons' cases. A depressed woman named Maria has hanged herself in a small cabin by Lake Thingvellir, the site of her father's accidental death many years ago. It seems like a simple case of suicide but Maria's friend Karen isn't convinced and as Erlendur starts unofficially poking around, he not only has his suspicions, but manages to stumble on a few clues that might also reveal what happened to two young people who disappeared thirty years ago. The intricate plotting cleverly parallels the continuing story of Erlendur's personal life - his attempts to reconnect with his estranged children and even thaw out the chilly relations between himself and his ex-wife. Guilt, despair and forgiveness are at the core of both narrative strands. It's a riveting and touching read.
Snow Job by William Deverell is something completely different. I have no idea why it has taken me this long to finally read one of Deverell's books especially since he was the creator of Street Legal which, in its time, was one of my favourite television shows. It was a smart, witty series and Snow Job shares all of those characteristics. Retired lawyer Arthur Beauchamp just wants to retreat in peace to his goat farm on a West Coast island, but he's stuck in an ugly, noisy, Ottawa apartment during a cold winter because his wife Margaret has won a seat as the Green Party's first MP. Arthur gets further drawn into politics when a delegation of visiting ministers from the oil-rich country of Bhashyistan are killed when a bomb detonates in their car, and he is entrusted with defending the prime suspect - if he can find him first. Meanwhile the Conservative government is facing a crisis because Bhashyistan has just declared war on Canada and is holding five employees of an Albertan oil company hostage. Three Canadian tourists have gone missing in the country as well. An election is looming, ministers are squabbling and defecting, the interests of several oil conglomerations are suspect, and there's a scheme to deflect blame for the killings onto eco-terrorists - two of whom are employed by Arthur and Margaret as caretakers on their farm. When one of them sleepwalks into Arthur's bed and is spied by the island's notorious gossip, he's also burdened with the stress of having to explain "The Episode" to his wife.
Whew! There is a lot going on in this book which mixes contemporary political satire with a mad espionnage caper, but it's a terrific and entertaining ride. The paranoid machinations of spin and ego going on behind closed doors on Parliament Hill are hilarious. As is Arthur's ongoing relationship with a CSIS spy who may or may not be a double agent. Beauchamp may not be much help on his wife's political campaign trail, but he certainly gets my vote of approval.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Of particular interest is a 2007 film called Silent Light, directed by Carlos Reygadas about a romantic triangle in a small Mennonite community in Northern Mexico. You can read more about this and watch the trailer here. And yes, if the actress playing the wife looks vaguely familiar, it is indeed Canada's own Miriam Toews, author of A Complicated Kindness and The Flying Troutmans. I remember reading interviews with her about this film - I'm thrilled to finally get the chance to see it (author photo by Carol Loewen).
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Monday, January 18, 2010
The winners are:
- 2010 Newbery Medal: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Random House)
- 2010 Caldecott Medal: The Lion and Mouse by Jerry Pinkney (Little Brown)
- 2010 Michael L. Printz Award: Going Bovine (Delacorte)
- The Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime contribution in writing for young adults was given to Jim Murphy.
- The Robert F. Sibert Award for the most distinguished informational book went to Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick)
- The new YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award went to Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (Henry Holt).
- The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for books for emerging readers was awarded to Benny and Penny in the Big No-No! by Geoffrey Hayes.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
I'm still in awe at how much Grossman packed into a narrative that is barely longer than two hundred pages but then I think of what Solzhenitsyn accomplished with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The two books are perfect companion reads.
Everything Flows opens in a railway compartment where huddled silently in a corner, Ivan Grigoryevich is travelling to Moscow to see his cousin Nikolay. It's been three decades since the two men met; Ivan has only just been released after serving a thirty year sentence in the Soviet gulag. Stalin is now dead and Russia is not only changing but trying to grasp the massive implications of Stalin's murderous policies. While the novel focuses on Ivan's slow and difficult reintegration into society, there are also portraits of other luckier, Russians such as Nikolay, a scientist who chose his career over his conscience, and of Pinegin, the informer who ended up sending Ivan to the camps. Two particularly powerful segments deal with women's stories. Masha, a wife and mother, is separated from her family; her experience in the camp is a visceral example of Ivan's acknowledgement that, "in the labor camps of Kolyma, men were not equal to women. Men, really, had had it easier." Then there is the story of Anna Sergeyevna, a woman that Ivan lodges with when he finds work in a small town. She tells of her part in Stalin's horrific starvation economic policies in the early 1930s that resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukranian peasants. Yes, it's graphic. And an unutterably sad and powerful piece of writing.
Another extraordinary section of the novel is chapter seven in which Grossman explores the idea of informers and collective guilt:
At one end of the chain were two people at a table, drinking cups of tea and chatting. Next, in cozy lamplight, someone cultured and educated composed a report; or perhaps an activist gave a frank and straightforward speech at a meeting of the collective farm. And at the other end of the chain were crazed eyes; damaged kidneys; a skull pierced by a bullet; gangrenous, pus-oozing toes that had been bitten by the frost of the taiga; scurvy-ridden corpses in a log hut that served as the camp morgue.
There are brief descriptions of four different informers and their varying circumstances, and then a trial where the complicated issues of guilt are raised and debated. In a society of state-sponsored murder - who can claim to be entirely innocent? Why isn't the government itself being put on trial? And who has the right to ultimately judge? These are not the only questions raised in a novel that also attempts to place Stalin's era in the context of all Russian history. Grossman also challenges the notion of whether life and history are the progression of humanity's fight for freedom, or whether there really is no evolution because violence and its chaos is a constant that will always be with us, no matter what form it takes. I will leave it to the readers to come to their own conclusions and to discover which theory Ivan (and Grossman) end up espousing.
Kudos to NYRB for providing extras at the back of this edition: excellent end notes, a very helpful historical chronology, notes on the background to Stalin's agricultural collectivization policies, and an extensive glossary of historical, political and artistic people and organizations mentioned in the book.
This is an incredible novel that definitely deserves a wide readership. I'll also be checking out Grossman's journalism covering the Second World War, collected in A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, edited by Antony Beevor.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
And if you are a fan, I highly recommend getting a copy of the audio CD Pretending to Be Me. This is a recording of a one-man play written and performed by the British actor Tom Courtenay and it is just hilarious! Courtenay plays an older Larkin reflecting on his life and work and in the course of the play, he reads a number of Larkin's best-known poems from "This Be The Verse" to "The Whitsun Weddings". A real treat for Larkin admirers but if you love Alan Bennett and his unique type of British humour, you will also definitely get a kick out of this. It's on my iPOD - ever ready to rescue me from the blues.
Monday, January 11, 2010
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Sunday, January 3, 2010
The story is set in 1927 in the early years of Mussolini and opens with two crimes that take place on the same floor of a wealthy apartment building. First an elderly woman is robbed of money and her jewels. Then shortly after, her beautiful neighbour across the hall is found in a pool of blood with her throat cut. The murder victim is Liliana Balducci, a friend of Detective Francesco Ingravallo of the Homicide Division, who now is entrusted with finding her killer. But this is not your typical murder mystery, although a number of suspects are identified and questioned. Gadda instead uses the crimes as a premise for a detailed exploration of Italian society with its petty corruption, informers, and competitive jealousies between the police and the military. The death, while initially described in brutal detail, soon recedes into the background as each new clue becomes a convenient segue towards another exposition on character, society or history. The police are always rushing around on motorcycles, bicycles, carts or on foot. The prose is equally energetic and bawdy, with an extensive vocabulary, and Gadda shares with Joyce a peculiar interest in all things scatological. This is the type of novel where several pages are employed in describing the reaction of chickens to a train passing close by. His style can best be illustrated with an example, such as the following passage describing the once esteemed automobile belonging to the Chief of Police, now fallen on hard times:
So that everyone, now, in that car, political or non-political, stuck his head in unwillingly and a cautious shoe after the head, the other shoe still on the ground, and a suspicious, examining eye, nostrils the same: as if, from such muck, vapors could steam forth, conjunctive to the odor, pallors of lemures of more than one three-months' old dead infant, with the tail all coiled, and the little head of a donkey. Careful, frowning, uneasy. The idea that there had settled in the cloth (of the seats) some organic ejection of the more popularly known variety now obsessed every user; it made fearful the more cautious, and cautious even the bold and heedless, were there any. All of them hesitated a little (very little), scared, each, of his own basic decorum, that is to say the decorum of the seat, of the pants: those so dignified trousers, paid for in installments, month by month, in sums withheld from salaries, with the respective tightening of the belts of the same. Once stuck to the bottom, well, it's obvious enough, every least-deserved stain, in maculating the splendor like the most reputable spots of Father Secchi, stained the luminous rotundities of the photosphere.
It goes without saying that nevertheless, all the police still consider it a mark of prestige to be able to borrow and drive the car.
This novel had sections that sang with exuberance and wit, and others that I sometimes found a bit of a slog but that was no doubt due to my unfamiliarity with Rome, religious iconography and Italian history. Weaver does provide helpful footnotes along the way, especially for political references but he also acknowledges that a lot of Gadda's brilliance lies in language puns (similar to Joyce) that can't be translated, and his use of multiple dialects that don't resonate with non-Italians. However, I can still appreciate what an accomplished novel this is and both grin and grimace at the selfish and suspicious world it portrays where almost everyone is definitely guilty of something.