05 October 2015

Death of a great writer

Henning Mankell, Writer Whose Wallander Patrolled a Gritty Sweden, Dies at 67

Henning Mankell, the Swedish novelist and playwright best known for police procedurals that were translated into a score of languages and sold by the millions throughout the world, died on Monday in Goteborg, Sweden. He was 67.

The cause was cancer, said his literary agent Anneli Hoier. Last year, Mr. Mankell disclosed that doctors had found tumors in his neck and left lung.

Mr. Mankell was considered the dean of the so-called Scandinavian noir writers who gained global prominence for novels that blended edge-of-your-seat suspense with flawed, compelling protagonists and strong social themes. The genre includes Arnaldur Indridason of Iceland, Jo Nesbo of Norway and Stieg Larsson of Sweden, among others.

But it was Mr. Mankell who led the way with 10 mystery novels featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander, a gruff but humane detective troubled by self-doubt, overeating, alcoholism and eventually dementia... 


04 October 2015

Reading and not reading

A friend's mother asked me once why I only read mysteries. My defensive response was that I read other things too. But I quickly realized that nearly every bit of fiction I read was a mystery of one kind or another. I did develop some answers to the question that revolved around the limited environment of most mysteries, not too many characters to keep track of, and endings that were pretty final.
But there's another thing.
Another friend's 14-year old daughter has been a reluctant reader. This fall she was assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird. The book looked pretty daunting and my friend volunteered to be the audience to whom her daughter could read the book. The ploy worked to get the reading started. One evening, after reading the second chapter to her mother, the young student asked, "Mom, can we read another chapter? I want to find out what happens next." What could make a mother's heart fly more at that moment? So, yes, they read another chapter.
That's another thing about mystery novels. Things happen. There are stories. Some stories unfold slowly, some quickly. Stories often take unexpected turns, but there are stories and things happen.
When my inferiority complex kicks in I think to myself, "I should read something besides mysteries. I should read some real literature." Last spring as I hung out at a Barnes and Nobel coffee shop a couple times a week, I looked at reviews and bought a couple books with good reviews that had been labeled (by reviewers) as real literature. One of them is even a finalist for a Man Booker Prize (winner to be announced on October 13).
In neither of these books did much happen. Well important things happened that seemed to be in parentheses. Lots of internal analysis was laid out in long passages. (I'm not big on long internal analysis.)
Viet Thanh Nguyen's book, The Sympathizer, had lots going for it. If I'd seen the plot summary, I probably would have approved it for publication. The main character was a Vietnamese man who had been an exchange student in the USA and then returned to his homeland. He was a Communist spy all along. He held a high level job in the retinue of a South Vietnamese general. In 1975, he escaped with the general, his family, and some of the retinue to southern California. (Think Nguyen Cao Ky.) The main character's spy job was to keep track of the general and his efforts to raise money and an army in Cambodia to fight the Communists in Vietnam.
When the spy accompanies the general back to Vietnam, he is captured by his Communist "colleagues," imprisoned, and tortured for questionable acts of disloyalty. The spy, a faithful and dedicated Communist, accepts his persecution because the Party imposed it.
That's about where I stopped reading the book. I don't understand the total abandonment of self. I wasn't enjoying what story there was. It wasn't a book for me.
Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen as another bit of literature I didn't like much. Obioma's book is on the list of finalists for the Man Booker Prize. Okay, one of the reasons I picked it up was because one of the reviewers said the Obioma wrote like Chinua Achebe, one of my all-time favorite authors. (Obioma and Achebe both come from the same ethnic group and the same part of Nigeria.)
The fishermen in Obioma's novel are brothers in a Nigerian village. Their father is a successful businessman who works in a nearby city during the week. The boys get into trouble and one of them gets a fortune from a local "village idiot" predicting his death. He dies shortly after.
The two older surviving brothers set out to get revenge. When they do, one of them is prosecuted and spends years in jail. The other runs off and hides. When the convicted brother comes home from prison, his brother comes out of hiding and comes home as well. Three hundred pages of very little happening. I'm not sure why I finished this one.
Thankfully, the last book on the pile was not literature. I bought it for $3.00 at the used book fair that raises money for the local hospital. It was a "cozy mystery" by Louise Penny. Well, almost a cozy. As in her other books, Penny's main character in Bury Your Dead is Chief Inspector Gamache and part of the setting is the little rural village of Three Pines, Quebec, while much of it is in Old Quebec City.
Penny tells four stories in this novel. One of the stories is sort of 400 years old, another is 60 years old, another is just over a year old, and one is only months old. The most recent story is told in PTSD flashbacks that Gamache is trying to recover from. The year-old story is told in conversations with friends and rethinking evidence that put a man in jail. That story has its tangled roots in World War II. The ancient story is somehow connected to a murder and to surreptitious excavations around the foundations of Old Quebec City buildings.
For a guy who is supposed to be recovering from PTSD and grievous wounds, Gamache is pretty driven. And he drives his dear friend and assistant Jean Guy Beauvoir, who is also recovering from psychological and physical wounds, to dangerous action.
For all the stories and all the characters in Penny's novel, I never lost track of the people or story lines. I can't say that much for other mysteries I've read. The stories kept unfolding. And I learned things about myself near the end of the book. Can't be much better literature than that for me.
Have you read any of these? What's your take on it (them)? What's your take on literature? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you think.

22 August 2015

Another man's list

Is this a season for lists?

Kristin Wedding Crowell shared this list on Facebook.

I'd never heard of any of these books and only a couple of the authors.

Top Ten Best Novels You've Never Heard Of

  • Light Years
  • Demons
  • The Driftless Area
  • 2666
  • Mao II
  • In the Hand of Dante
  • Answered Prayers: the unfinished novel
  • Outer Dark
  • Trip to the Stars
  • Toilers of the Sea

Have you read any of these? Would they make your list of notable books? Why or why not? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your experience.

17 August 2015

One man's list

Robert McCrum has opinions. Here are 100 of them. [The Guardian identifies him as an associate editor of the Observer. He was born and educated in Cambridge. For nearly 20 years he was editor-in-chief of the publishers Faber & Faber. He is the co-author of The Story of English (1986), and has written six novels. He was the literary editor of the Observer from 1996 to 2008.]

Besides being a very English list, the books on McCrum's list tend to be "insider's" books. In order to make sense out of them, you have to learn about very specific cultural and intellectual environments, i.e. you have study literature. I've read 18 of his 100 best. You?

The 100 best novels written in English: the full list
Here are McCrum's top ten:
  1. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)
  2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)
  3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
  4. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)
  5. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)
  6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759)
  7. Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
  8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
  9. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818)
  10. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838)...
Do you have your own "Top 10" (or Top 100) list? Want to share it with this little bit of the world? Send it to me. I'll work on getting it posted, while I procrastinate about posting my own reading and non-reading.

31 May 2015

Big books from a small country

Jussi Adler-Olsen is touted on a cover of one his books as "Denmark's number one crime writer." I think that means he's the number one writer of crime fiction. He's part of the highly touted Nordic mystery writers group. Thank Stieg Larsson for getting publishers and many readers to pay attention. Well, there are others to thank as well. Many of them I've written about here since I'm part of the fan club. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Greenland, and Iceland and all the little islands near them (even though some are parts of Scotland now). Of course, American audiences only get to see the really good ones, I presume.

Adler-Olsen is very good. At least the two books of his I read in the past few months have been very good. They are both copyright 2014, though it's difficult to imagine them being produced simultaneously.

The primary characters in the books I've seen are Detective Carl Mørck, his assistant Assad and secretary Rose. Mørck is a "retired" cop who has been put in charge of Department Q, the section of the cop shop that deals with old, open cases. There are three people in Department Q. Like many detectives in the literary world, Mørck has been pushed into his position because he didn't play well with bureaucracy and protocol and hierarchy. It also gives the author more leeway in inventing story lines.

Adler-Olsen wrote both of these books by telling two stories: one from the past (that activates Department Q) and one from the present (which brings Mørck into conflict with the bosses who exiled him to the basement offices of Q).

The story from the past is told in a pretty straight forward way (although interrupted by chapters set in the present). But the story set in the present, because it involves learning about the story from the past relates the discovery of events from the past in chronologically reverse order (Mørck learns about the most recent things first).

While reading, I imagine Adler-Olsen with two time lines on his desk, one for each story. And he draws lines connecting things in the past with things in the present. That way he keeps clear what the people in the present know about the past, and he keeps things revealed about the past relevant to events in the present.

Hey, and not one word about present or past tenses, until now.

Both books are good and I enjoyed reading them. In Conspiracy of Faith, Department Q is assigned to investigate a message found in a bottle in the ocean near Greenland. The paper in the bottle leads everyone to think its origin is Denmark. The message is only partly readable, but it might imply a murder.

In the course of investigating the message from the bottle, Mørck uncovers more recent crimes that might be connected to the old one. And one of the clues is that they all involve tiny Christian cults that have tried to separate themselves from the evil world.

In The Purity of Vengeance, Department Q begins investigating new evidence in a 30-year disappearance. When Assad and Rose discover that a number of other people disappeared on same weekend three decades ago, and that a couple of the people on the fringes of several cases are still acting strangely, the hunt is on.

I think I liked The Purity of Vengeance better, but that might be because I read that one second and had figured out the method in Adler-Olsen's writing. In any case, I liked reading both books -- well, as much as I can enjoy reading about awful crimes committed by awful people. I haven't yet resolved that one. Have you?
Have you read any of Adler-Olsen's books? How did you like them? Write (Reading@SideTrack.org). Tell this little bit of the world about your reactions.

30 May 2015

J. A. Jance,J. A. Jance

I'm sitting in front of the lake in the little cabin called Sidetrack. Pardon me if I get distracted because the lake's eagles are flying around and doing a little fishing at dusk. Bald eagles nearly ceased to exist in my lifetime. I grew up thinking I'd never see one. But they're back. Right outside my window here and even along the Cannon River in Northfield and around the urban lakes in Minneapolis. Human behavior can make a difference.

I don't pick up a book by J. A. Jance for great literature. Of course, I rarely pick up a book because it's supposed to be great, or even good literature. That stuff is hard to read. I think I do enough hard work.

If I don't want good literature, what do I want? I want an engaging story that doesn't confuse me -- so it's got to be clearly told. I want to read about primary characters who are interesting and straight forward. The characters can have internal conflicts and self doubts. He, she, or they can suffer from the slings and arrows of forturne, but I don't want to read a story about duplicitous or smarmy people.

J. A. Jance tells stories well. Her characters are well defined, if not deeply etched in her pages. Her stories are appropriately complex without being unbelievable. (However, several of her characters, like other authors' characters and several TV mystery "stars" are conveniently very wealthy. That wealth makes it possible to "buy" ways out of inconvenient roadblocks, like cross-country or international travel, the need to make a living, or distribution of Franklins for information.

Well, I picked up two books by J. A. Jance in the past several months. Once was a paperback that cost $10.00. The other was a hardback that cost half that. (The second one was in a big bin in the grocery store.)

In the first, Second Watch, I got to check up on the knee replacements that detective J. P. Beaumont got. He's hobbling around pretty well, but his pain-killer-induced dreams seem to be leading him toward finding a killer in a 30-year-old case that was Beaumont's first homicide case. Because of his medications and his handicaps, Mel Soames is a vital part of the case. (I've forgotten whether Mel is J. P.'s latest wife or just his partner. Jance books are forgettable.)

Together, they probe into old open murder cases and new ones that seem to have connections to the things in J. P.'s dreams and his memories of events in Vietnam in the early '70s. It's all sort of believable -- except perhaps for J. P.'s undefined wealth. I remember little fo the details of the story. I remember feeling, "That was pretty good" when I finished.

The other book was Moving Target. The characters in this one are Ali Reynolds and her long-time "butler/caretaker/private secretary" Leland Brooks (guess which of them is unreasonably rich), and Ali's fiancé, B. Simpson. Oh, and a bunch of Leland's friends and relatives from his days as a subject of the queen 50 years ago.

B. gets involved in finding whomever tried to kill a young hacker who had taken down his school district's network. He got help in protecting the young miscreant from Sister Anselm, a taser-carrying nun who was a friend of Ali. Off in the UK, Ali got involved in sorting out the suspicious deaths in a rich family known to Leland. The trails of these deaths went back a couple generations. Both stories were engaging, and inspite of their complexity were not confusing. I recall liking this one better than the previous one.

According to list in Moving Target, J. A. Jance has written 50 books. You've probably read one or more along the way. What did you think of it (them)? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you think.

24 May 2015

Hillerman reprise

Eight months ago, I picked up a paperback by Anne Hillerman at Half Price Books. Anne Hillerman is the daughter of Tony Hillerman of Navajo mystery fame. She took possession of several of her father's characters for her own attempt at mystery writing.

Okay, I wanted to read more about Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, but did I want to read what the daughter of their creator wrote? In hard cover or at full price, probably not. This was a chance I was willing to take. Glad I did.

But it took awhile for me to read the book. I put it in the glove box of the Miata. I put the Miata in storage last October. I tried to get it out a couple weeks ago, but there was this flat tire. When I got the repaired tire back on the car Saturday, I discovered the battery was dead. Even after I borrowed a car and jumper cables, the battery would not hold a charge. But I did find the book.

Anne Hillerman
It is Spider Woman's Daughter, and it's told mostly by Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito, the daughter and granddaughter of Navajo weavers, Navajo police officer, and wife of Jim Chee.  There is a much more feminine perspective in this story telling compared to the stories Tony Hillerman told. There are a lot of references to the spider women (weavers) in Bernie's family. There are a lot more female characters.

Anne Hillerman follows her father's model by extolling the beauty of the desert while describing some of the long drives through the reservation and to nearby cities. She stays true to his characters, although Joe Leaphorn is unconcious in a hospital bed during most of the story. (Spoiler Alert: It's really not nice to nearly kill off your father's original hero in the first chapter of your book.) She weaves a good story and a complex mystery that takes place partly on and partly off the reservation. So local cops, the FBI, and the Navajo police are involved.

I had the feeling several times that sections of the book were originally longer than the published version and that the editor guided the author in slimming down the size of the novel. Those "abbreviations" didn't always help, but it was a 360-page paperback.

On the other hand, some of the pivotal action scenes seemed to go on and on and on. It happens on TV mysteries and in some books, but do evil doers ever take time to explain what they're doing and why to their victims? If it were me, I'd pull the trigger, start the fire, crash the car and get out. Explanations? Who needs them? Oh, readers or viewers who didn't get the message from the story! Seems like a deficit of story telling rather than overly loquacious villians.

Okay, I liked Spider Woman's Daughter. Maybe not as much as most of Tony Hillerman's books. But, it's been a long time since I read one of those and not all of his books were equally good.