In the High Peaks

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Reading A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

The transition from winter to spring has always been my most painful seasonal change. I find mud season abhorrent, and with all the snow on the ground, we'll have plenty of mud for at least the next month--unless, of course, we are hit with another snowstorm, which will further delay our drying out.

So it hasn't been an accident that I've been ordering new library books like crazy. At the moment I'm enjoying A Thousand Pardons by the American writer Jonathan Dee, published in the last few weeks. I'm loving it but have had trouble pinpointing exactly why I like it so much. Dee's writing is exceptional, no doubt about it. The sentences flow beautifully, and I feel enwrapped by the language, page after page. Then there's the character of Helen, the wife of a philandering lawyer, who has managed to disgrace his entire family. In any other book, I would have a difficult time sympathizing with Helen, a woman who has strictly avoided doing anything of consequence with her life, but she surprises herself with her gutsiness just as she surprises me. She is the most unlikely of heroines, yet...she is that and more. This is a brief novel, at around 213 pages, yet it is not at all diminished by the limited number of pages. I must read other novels by Dee! His novel The Privileges was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2010. His other writing has been highly acclaimed and is award-winning as well, though for some reason, I've never heard of him. I shake my head when I discover an exquisite writer I've overlooked.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Andalucian Friend: Final Words

Once again, publisher hype has run rampant, and its latest target has been The Andalucian Friend by Alexander Soderberg. "A Cross between Stieg Larsson's Trilogy and The Sopranos?" I see where the publicist who gave birth to this piece of hoopla was coming from. But, as the old saw goes, "Comparisons are odious." And these days comparisons to great novels or television masterpieces are obnoxiously lazy.

So! First, I suggest that you read Sarah's review of The Andalucian Friend at CrimePieces because I agree with many of her observations about the novel.

Here's my take: The strongest literary element was plot, which was well-developed, original, and held my interest throughout. Different, clever, smart! What else could a crime reader ask for? Yet characterization was the weakest element, in my estimation, and a series will not continue to sell like hotcakes without superb characterization of the leading players. I sympathize with the nurse Sophie Brinkman's dilemma, I do, but at the end of the novel I still know nothing about her. In fact, no character was convincingly developed. And it's on this fact that the comparison to Larsson's Trilogy falls flat (on its face). The comparison to The Sopranos? Yes! I think I see a glimmer of that, but only in one limited aspect--the amount of gun violence and death by even grosser means.

At this point you're probably thinking that I'm panning The Andalucian Friend. Well, I'm not. After all, I was continuously entertained by the plot. I would suggest to Scandinavian crime aficiandos that they sample it, give it a whirl, why not? Yet it will be a while before I'm tempted to read the second in the series. Perhaps that comment is the most telling of all.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Error Correction, Reading Jag, & Almedingen

How idiotic of me to say in my last post that I thought The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is on the Women's Fiction Prize Longlist for 2013. It is not! But it was on the "Best Books of 2012" list for nearly every major U.S. newspaper. Please forgive my careless moment in print.

I'm suffering from "Please just let me read-itis." This is a peculiar affliction. Have you ever experienced these symptoms?

Over 60 percent of the books I hear or read about sound fascinating. I place on order a dozen books from the library at a time. (Lots of the books are 2013 titles and are in high demand.) I sneak reading in wherever and whenever I can get away with it, even if I  have only three or four minutes to spare. I neglect my other pastimes completely. I go to bed early, feigning excessive fatigue, just so I can read. I try to convince Ken to read with me rather than watch my customary daily hour of a TV drama. I wake early just so I can read.

I'm now on page 200 of The Andalucian Friend by Alexander Soderberg and hope to finish it by late Saturday. Lots of twists and turns--the plot is so intricate and there are almost too many characters for my brain to handle competently. But I charge forth regardless of my limitations. It's engrossing.

I am so lucky to have found that our library system has a copy of an adult title by E. M. Almedingen, whom I wrote about in a post last month. Tomorrow Will Come is a memoir of Edith Martha's youth in Russia, in the years before, during, and after the Russian Revolution. The memoir starts in the first decade of the 20th century and ends in 1922, when Almedingen was able to leave Russia for England. This book was published in 1941 by Little Brown in Boston and the book is a first edition. I can't wait to read it. To think that a library in the upstate New York library has held onto this book for 72 years and it is still in circulation!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Andalucian Friend and Library Loot

Monday on my way to my classes I picked up The Andalucian Friend, the crime thriller debut by the Swedish writer Alexander Söderberg, which was on hold for me at the library. I have two weeks to read it, and it's 462 pages. I've read 100 pages since late yesterday afternoon, so I'm hoping I'll be able to finish it in time. The novel was just released in the U.S., so I'm wondering if it was previously published in the UK. It was published in Sweden in 2012.

The first fifty pages were iffy for me: I was overwhelmed by the large cast of international mafia types and was considering casting it aside. But I'm keen on seeing what the author does with the Lars Vinge police character. Vinge is smart, has an analytical mind and knows it, yet he has extremely poor self-esteem, is very young and doesn't know himself, and is somewhat perverse (or do I mean perverted?). Consequently, Lars is one big fat wild card as to what his character will prove to be and do. So he's keeping me interested (hats off to Söderberg for that), as is the only primary female character Sophie Brinkman, the hospital nurse, who seems to be falling into the hands (arms?) of the Spanish group of mafiosi. It's so hard to tell where this is going. The book has received an absurd amount of hype, but it was the hype I fell for, so here I am. I will update. Stay tuned!

Over the weekend, I was interested to read the acclaim for last year's The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin. I think this title is on the long list for the Women's Fiction Prize. I was able to pick up a copy at the library, and it is 450+ pages as well. I'm very interested to read it but am not sure I'll have time before it's recalled to the library. If that happens, I'll definitely borrow it again.

I loathe and dread being sick, but this ridiculously long bout of bronchitis has had one (and only one!) positive aspect. It's made me crazy for reading again.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Scraping the Plate: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Just finished this novel late this afternoon. Overall I can say I wasn't expecting it to be as profound or as layered as I believe it to be. With U.S. hype for the book teasing, "What would you do if you were the parents?", my expectations were lured way, way off course before I turned to page one.

First off, I chose to read The Dinner because 1) I haven't read a contemporary Dutch novel in many years, and 2) because it earned the author a prestigious literary prize in his home country. In other words, I read it only because it was highly regarded in the Netherlands.

I fully expected the novel to resonate with themes relating to the modern culture of parenting and the family in the early 21st century, as I stated above. (That's what you get for falling for publisher hype.) And, although I suppose it may be construed that the novel did that, somehow or other, I don't think that was among the author's primary intentions. So--I was pleasantly surprised to discover what I saw as the author's other intentions!

I haven't read any critical reviews of the novel yet, but as I was reading, I viewed The Dinner as one enormous allegory of  20th-century European history, from the rise of Fascism through the millenium, especially the ways in which the xenophobic forces unleashed and unfettered during the fascist era may still be influencing European nations today, as seen in the struggle with the assimilation of immigrant cultures in the 21st-century. (I'm not saying Europe is alone in this, the US is just as xenophobic, even though Koch wasn't aiming his darts at the US). 

The faceless, shapeless form of a woman under a cover of trashbags, a homeless person "seeking winter refuge",or, conversely, "obscenely loitering" in an ATM cubicle, is viewed as trash by Koch's characters, trash to be burned and ultimately, trash that must never cast in doubt the future dreams of Michel, the son of the elite narrator and his wife or his cousin Rick. Beau, Rick's adopted brother from Africa must also be cast out and trashed lest he spoil the dreams.

I would enjoy hearing how other readers have viewed this novel. I was amused by U.S. customer reviews stating that The Dinner is flawed because there are no likeable characters. What a horror novel if Koch had made the characters at all likeable!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Readin': That's All I'm Doin'

I'm determined to log a post this afternoon, but words have eluded me all week. I think I had my first complex thought of the week this morning.

The only excitement this week has been in books.

Book arrived this afternoon: The bestselling Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders. I heard Saunders interviewed on the local NPR affiliate in Albany and felt inspired to try him. (He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University--an excellent program, by the way.)

My final thoughts about Indiscretion by Charles Dubow: I was entertained throughout most of the book, the huge tragedy was unnecessary, and thank goodness for the long-suffering saint of a narrator steering the course. On the downside: The characters weren't real people. I couldn't believe in any of them, which is unfortunate because a plot with two love triangles demands authentic characters. I was not bored, however.

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño baffled me. Udo Berger, a young German man is vacationing with his girlfriend on the coast of Spain. Udo is, first and foremost, a phenomenal gamer--not video games, by the way--but a player of games that reenact historic wars and battles on large tabletops. Instead of vacationing, he finds himself luring an impoverished South American pedal-boat outfitter into reenacting World War II. Udo tempts fate time and time again, and loses his expert mastery of the game, and with it his already weakened sense of identity and stability. Very unusual. Yes, I was left scratching my head at the end.

As you may know, since his death, Bolaño has been increasingly recognized as one of the most important modern Latin American writers of fiction. Born in Santiago, Chile, his parents moved the family to Mexico in 1968 when he was 15. Bolaño returned to Chile for a short time as a young adult, protested the Fascist dictator, and was briefly jailed. He left Chile and went into exile, living in Mexico, France, and in other parts of Europe.

Prior to his death, none of his novels had been published in English. Then, too, there were novels that had never been published at all. The Third Reich is one of the latter. Since Bolaño's death, every few years, one of these previously unpublished novels appears. What were Bolaño's intentions regarding these works?  What was happening during the last few years of his life? Who decided that these unpublished and possibly unfinished works should be published? Who decided how they should be "finished?" Perhaps Bolaño never intended to publish The Third Reich. Perhaps he sensed that there were aspects of the novel that were without form and needed time. One thing is certain: he was deprived of time due to his death from liver failure at age 50.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Bookshop Mountain: Crime & Indiscretion & Bolaño

The coming week gives me a bit of extra time to read, so I've lined up what I feel I can both tackle and finish.

I definitely want to finish the 2013 debut novel Indiscretion by Charles Dubow, which received starred reviews from Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews. I'm more than a third of the way in, and though both reviewers claim the book is "beautifully written," I must warn potential readers that it is written in the present tense, which I find jarring. Clipped sentences appear without relief as well. I felt the first 30 pages was so confusing--too many characters roaming about, but if you survive that, the novel continues to improve. I mentioned in an earlier post that I needed some pleasure reading, and, it is enjoyable. The sex scenes, I must say, are very well done--quite hot, in fact. Yet by the time a third of the book is past, I expect whatever depth the book has to offer to be evident. If this matters to you, I don't see it coming, although it would be a welcome addition.

I downloaded the Swedish crime writer Camilla Läckberg's debut The Ice Princess this afternoon. Actually, from what I've gathered so far, this title was her U.S. debut novel. In any case, I've never heard of her, though I discovered that her first six crime thrillers are reported to have been #1 bestsellers in Sweden. Have any of you read Läckberg?

And yes, I still hope to finish Bolaño's The Third Reich! This week!

Why do I have such lofty ambitions? I can dream because I know now I am too sick for my snowshoe adventures. Nothing serious, but breathing is painful--the whole college is suffering from bronchitis. Perhaps the so-called "Spring Break" interruption of classes will help the germs die down.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Briefly...The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

As usual, I'm having trouble treading water. Gosh. I wasn't able to finish The Flowers of War in time. (See previous posts.) Rats. Double rats.

I must report that I was enthralled for weeks listening to The Secret Keeper by the Australian writer Kate Morton during my weekly commutes to work. The reader was superb; each voice was spoken with nuance and such intricate skill, which made this incredible novel all the more enthralling. At first I must confess I was put off by the voice and dialect of one character, but that was only one voice. As the novel progressed, voices and characters were added, as were the complexities and twists of plot, which turned and turned and turned! I am in awe of Morton's talents. Character! Plot! Setting! All of it magnificently done. If you like being swept away (as in overboard!), do read this novel. I'm now convinced that I must read all of Kate Morton's novels, though I suspect that this latest is her best. How could any book trump it?