25 August 2016

Does drama end when the ending is well-known?

We went to a movie theater last year. We saw The Martian. It was likely the only movie we saw in a theater in 2015. We liked the movie. Even though it was as detailed as it was unlikely. Good fiction.

A while later, I picked up the book because it had been written about after the success of the movie. The book got mostly good "reviews" from readers. And the realists (scientists) gave it good marks too. Andy Weir, the author, had done lots of homework. He did the math about orbits, oxygen capacity of a Mars lander, the reproduction rate of potatoes, and mpg of a Mars rover. Much of that detail didn't get into the movie (thankfully), but a lot of it is in the book. I'd have been okay with a forward from the author telling me he'd done the math and hadn't stretched the truth too much. The details in the book did get in the way of telling the story.

But it's a good book. I really enjoyed reading it even though I knew the ending. The suspense and drama of the adventure survived the publicity and the fact that I'd seen the movie. That's a marvel to me. Remember Apollo 13, the movie about the near disaster aboard the third spacecraft sent to land people on the moon? Those of us who paid attention to the near disaster knew what happened and how it all ended. But my recollection of the movie was of great suspense. Of course, that required an extreme version of the "suspension of disbelief." But the movie worked.

Reading The Martian required a similar suspension of disbelief after seeing the movie and "knowing" the extreme improbability of the plot. Nonetheless, the movie worked. I was hanging on to the book and rapidly turning pages in the sections where there was action.

It worked right up to the end. The ending might have been well researched, but it seemed a bit too improbable. It was right up there with the ending of Gravity that rescued Sandra Bullock's character. Of course she had extraordinary help from a ghost.

The Martian was a good book. I found myself getting bogged down in the technical explanations, but it's possible to skim through those sections. I'm glad I read it.

Have you read The Martian? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.


23 August 2016

Swedish red herrings

I have six books piled on the corner of my desk that I intend to write about. But this one had to go back to the library a couple days ago.

I made a quick stop at Northfield's library to grab a couple books for a weekend at Sidetrack. Without my "to read" list, I rather blindly walked through the mystery section. I grabbed Kjell Eriksson's The Hand That Trembles. (It was a quick stop, that's why I only got as far as Eriksson on the shelves.)

I'm pretty sure Eriksson isn't on my "to read" list, but he's Swedish, so he lives across only one national border from Norway. I took that as a recommendation. Both Swedes and Norwegians will take exception to my generalization. Eriksson even makes distinctions between people from Uppsala and people from the Swedish hinterlands north of there. (For Minnesotans, this is the place to insert an Iowa joke. For Iowans, it's the place to insert a Missouri joke, et cetera.)

As seems usual in Scandinavian novels, Eriksson tells several stories about murders and suicides. The roots of the stories go back to the Spanish Civil War, Cold War politics, and sex trafficking in Thailand.

I felt like I was reading forever to finish this book. In reality it only took eight days, and I had other things to do during that time. Some of the stories and characters were more engaging than others. I think Eriksson wanted to tell some stories and felt he had to tell others.

Eriksson
For instance, Eriksson doesn't use the title phrase "the hand that trembles" until he is two-thirds done telling his stories. The person whose hand trembles is a very interesting one, but only a minor character. I was unable to determine why that phrase made the title. But, if Eriksson wrote a book about her, I'd read it.

The detective who interviews the "trembler"  (more often than seems necessary) is also an interesting character. Those chapters read more fluidly than many of the others.

There are also more red herrings in the plots than I think are necessary. If Eriksson ditched the stories about the long-term feuds about the Spanish Civil War -- which have little or nothing to do with resolving a murder mystery -- the book wouldn't suffer (says me). But then the book might not be long enough for a Swedish winter.

You must also be tolerant of an off-kilter translation and "incomplete" editing. If you're more patient than I am, you might well enjoy all of this slow-motion tramp through rural Sweden, 1930's Spain, tourist trap Thailand, and even Bangalore, India.

Have you read The Hand That Trembles?

Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought about it.




26 July 2016

Lazy, bored, tired, old?

It's been nearly a year since I wrote here about anything I read.

Partly that's because reading got interrupted. I bought a book for my "Nook" to take on a family vacation to Wyoming. I figured I wouldn't have much time to read while in Jackson Hole and Yellowstone with children and grandchildren along. That was correct, but then about two-thirds of the way through a now-forgotten book, the reader stopped working. It turned out that the "book" I had was corrupted, but I never got to finish it. The Nook has been sitting on a shelf since.

A year before the vacation, I bought a used copy of a recommended Jo Nesbø book. Following the Scandinavian democratic socialist rules for mystery/thrillers, Nesbø was telling several stories at once. Set in different times and places with few overlapping characters (at least at the beginning), I found it very hard to keep track of things. I started the book several times. The last time I started it I tried taking notes inside the front cover so I could keep track of people and stories. It wasn't much help.

After vacation, I didn't go near it. [However, last fall we got hooked on a Norwegian television mini-series titled Okkupert (Occupied in English). While written by Karianne Lund and Erik Skjoldbjaerg, the story was outlined by Jo Nesbø. Good for him. The series was intriguing and well done. It was available on Netflix and popular enough (in spite of the need for sub-titles) to get Norwegian television to order a second season (without subtitles for Norwegians). It's a cautionary tale about how a Western democracy could lose its democracy, that Americans should pay close attention to. (And the defenders of the democracy in the script are not the 2nd Amendment purist, anti-government backwoodsmen envisioned by the Tea Party or by Kevin Reynolds in Red Dawn.)]

When I did pick up a book to read, I did so in response to seeing an interview of Aasif Mandvion TV. He's best known as the Senior Muslim Correspondent for Jon Stewart's Daily Show. Some things he said in the interview (now forgotten by me) made this serious actor sound intriguing, so I bought his book: No Land's Man.

The title is apt. The book is about Mandvi's search for identity. He is culturally a Muslim, born in northern India. His family moved to Bradford, England when he was a child. Bradford is a West Yorkshire city that offered lots of jobs in its 19th century mills. Not so much any more. It's one of those areas that voted heavily for Brexit. Mandvi went to grammar school and then to a residential boy's school. Mandvi didn't fit in. He didn't know where he might fit in.

The search didn't get any easier in Tampa, Florida where his family moved when he was 16. It was his mother, sensing his unease, who suggested he take an acting class. That was how he found a "place" in a large suburban American high school dominated by jocks and white kids. He wrote, "I had been blown this way and that my entire life, wearing whatever identity I could in order to be accepted. Perhaps this was why I had chosen to become an actor. Seeking invisibility and notoriety at the same time is something actors understand. I was always jealous of those people that knew who they were."

From stories about his well-received one-man show on Broadway to his hiring by Jon Stewart to Brooke Shield's New Year's Eve party, Mandvi tells stories well. There's a sense of humor in them, but this is serious reflection. Some of us white natives wonder where we fit it, too. Not to the degree a dark skinned immigrant wonders, but the questions exist for me too.  I enjoyed this little book.

Have you read No Land's Man? How did you react to it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

_________________________
Aasif Mandvi On Life As A 'No Land's Man' from Fresh Air

Thrity Umrigar's review in the Boston Globe




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.