Saturday, September 15, 2007

Robert Littell and the CIA

The recent TV miniseries and (before that) bestselling book The Company have catapulted the author into the spotlight. Or have they? I have been a fan for years, but it seems that the public has been fickle with this author. The Company (The Co.) is historical fiction about the CIA, from its start to recent times.The Co. reads like a thriller, albeit a very well-written thriller, yet the story seems to be mostly history rather than fiction. Believe me, that does not detract from the drama- many of the most nerve wracking and tragic geopolitical events from about 1948-1990 are described (including the Bay of Pigs, failed Castro assassinations, Hungarian Revolt, the Fall of the Iron Curtain). At the same time, it was amusing (and perhaps a welcome relief) to see a fleeting homage to Littell's own earlier book, The Visiting Professor (TVP), embedded in The Company, but TVP is a terrific book in its own right and should have sold well, though it might be a bit esoteric for some.

The Company is a large and ambitious book if you think about it, or look at it, but if you read the book it never seems ambitious. It is too absorbing to "seem" anything at all, too balanced to feel wrong, and simply impossible to put down.

The Visiting Professor (TVP) is about chaos theory, the USSR, academia, spies, codes, sex, and grocery stores, and it is so funny that I was constantly reading it out loud to my wife. A Russian chaos theory expert applies every year for a visa to the USA, where he has a standing offer of a visiting professorship at a college in upstate New York, in an Institute for Chaos-Related Studies (maybe slightly different name, was long time ago I read this). He is denied the Visa every year because he is Jewish. However, one year, because of the utter chaos of the Soviet system, he is accidentally granted the visa, so he immediately flies/flees to NY before the mistake can be corrected. He is fascinated by America and American things, like grocery stores and all the items they contain. He studies one store just by wandering around looking for food, he meets its manager, offers remarkably helpful suggestions about reorganizing the store, and meets a girl. By the end of the wild ride, he has tamed the NSA and KGB and re-written the book(s) on free love and grocery management, single handed and with a funny accent.

The Defection of A.J. Lewinter is a book with a harder edge than TVP, lying in between TVP and The Company in tone: it reeks of late cold-war cynicism, is very funny at times, and then not funny at all, as the consequences of American intelligence agency jurisdictional battles and their internal power politics are severe for any pawns caught in the game. The swing in tone made me uncomfortable, which was undoubtedly the intent. So what is the issue? I found myself falling for the spy's treatment of a female companion as entirely genuine. Naive of course, but spies have families, and she wasn't implicated in any wrong-doing, so maybe this was the human side to him. Not on your life. The entire affair was premeditated and coldly calculated to use and discard the life of a "civilian" for a "greater good", the greater good being simply the corporate political survival of one vicious SOB in the U.S. intelligence community. I paraphrase the sentiment here, "Those roses I sent, the days we wandered in the park, the night we lingered in the hall, all go to show that I love you, not, but instead consider you a sub-human weapon in my arsenal, dear. But don't take the fall-out personally. Yes, you did kill someone, and the wrong person at that, but consciences do not fit realpolitik, and anyway I'm sure you'll recover and leave the mental hospital within 30 or 40 years. Have a pleasant convalescence."

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Connections to Swedish Crime Author Henning Mankell

Reine, in the Lofoten Islands, Norway, reproduced by kind permission of the photographer, Joep van Wyk

Typing Henning Mankell into the literature map showed the following “connected” authors whose work I have enjoyed, but whom I haven’t yet written about. The authors are apparently connected by their readership (us), though I don’t know where the data come from. I’ve listed books I can recommend, where practical.

I became so intent on bringing up the next author, Karen Fossum, that I inadvertently switched nationalities for Mr. Mankell on the original title to this post. He is not Norwegian.

Karin Fossum (Don’t Look Back is a must read. Set in Norway, the story is in keeping with the Scandinavian theme in recent discussions with Peter and friends on Detectives Beyond Borders). I know Norway to some extent, having been there in summer and in winter, and I wanted to give people at least a brief glimpse of it. Norway is a beautiful country, so much so that there is little reason to leave a town or region once you have arrived, so don’t rush through too quickly if you visit. The Lofoten Islands are a remarkable place in a country where mountains, fjords and the sea conjure magic at every turn. You can hike up a mountain and see vistas where high mountain lakes merge with the sea, as if lake and sea formed one continuous sheet of flat water, even though the drop to the sea is 400 ft or greater.

Minette Walters (The Sculptress, which really scared me, The Echo, The Scold’s Bride, The Ice House)

James Ellroy (earlier work- the latest phase has been too rough for me to digest)

Eric Kästner (I loved Emil and the Detectives and the sequel, Emil and the Three Twins, as a boy)

T. Coraghessan Boyle (truly brilliant with words, a virtuoso; Sorry Fugu from T.C. Boyle Stories is a favorite short story, also found in The Collected Stories of T.Coraghessan Boyle)

Patricia Cornwell (the early to mid-series Kay Scarpetta books are great; Southern Cross is often hilarious)

Dick Francis, Jeffrey Deaver, Agatha Christie (I don’t imagine I could read her books today), Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell, Ken Follet.

Another author from my past who showed up on the literature map, and whom I recommend completely, is Eric Ambler.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cool site maps literature preferences by author name

This map is too cool to ignore: the literature map. Type in author A's name and you get a map showing connections between author A's readers and the other authors those same readers like. Confusing? Well, it isn't when you see it. Frequency, or some other preference measure, governs the distance between your author of interest and where on the map the other authors actually show up. Enjoy! Find connections to new authors or ones you've forgotten about.

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Find real authors at Crimespace- they will even talk to you!

Crimespace is a community of crime fiction writers, readers, agents, publishers, etc. It is a Ning community, if you know what that means (click the link if you want to know more), and is good way to find lots of new authors and commentary. Here are two authors I've bumped into so far, but whose books I've yet to read: Eric Stone and L.A. Starks. L.A. mentioned being a writer of thrillers, which reminded me that I read a lot of "thrillers", but had not dredged the term up from my memory. Funny how the mind works. I mustn't forget to mention Todd Stone and D K Gaston from crimespace, also- they have been nice enough to "stop by."

Visit crimespace

As usual, Peter has revelations (and multiple languages!) at his site. The latest, because it mentioned Sweden, caused me to remember all the Henning Mankell books I've read with pleasure, but have neglected to mention so far. I'll discuss them shortly. Peter also led me to visit Bookwitch, another site about books, and a pleasant place for a chat.

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Succinct review of "The Blind Man of Seville"

This review (click to see it) is brief but effective, and adds detail that complements my own "impressionistic" remarks on work by Robert Wilson including The Bind Man of Seville. Convinced yet? Let me know how you feel.

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David Lodge and Malcom Bradbury

Via Mark Vernon’s philosophy and life blog, I found the great article describing some of David Lodge’s interactions with his contemporary, colleague and friend, Malcolm Bradbury. This sheds some nice light on the two authors and I’m citing it to accompany my previous posts on Bradbury and Lodge.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What I'm reading now

I'm now reading Jonathan Lethem - You Don't Love Me Yet, having previously read his books Motherless Brooklyn (a truly great book with a highly original point of view- the main character has Tourette Syndrome, and it is a murder mystery, but far more) and Gun, With Occasional Music:

More to report when I finish.

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Too Tough on Philip Kerr?

I wrote a while back about a "commercial" phase where I didn't like the books, which was a big shift since I think of Philip Kerr as a favorite author. In looking more closely, this assessment really comes from just two books: The Grid, which I did not like very much, and Esau, which I enjoyed most of the way through, but which I wouldn't call a great book. So, I'll leave it at that: The Grid seems like a typical US mass market summer reading thriller, only it didn't engage me the way the best thrillers do. Read everything else by Kerr (I only mention books I've actually read). Dark Matter is very good- my copy is dog-eared because it took it with me everywhere while reading it. Sir Isaac Newton as detective- the game's afoot in London!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Philip Kerr: that's Philip with one "l", thank you very much

The only thing worse would probably be to say, "sorry, Phil." Yes, his last name has one "el", not two. I'd fire my fact-checker if ... Yes, well, we see one disadvantage of reviewing or commenting on books without physical access to them any more (can't find anything around here). However, "Dark Matter" is around the corner, and Google is at my finger tips, so "my bad" as they say.

The first thing I read by Mr. Kerr was A Philosophical Investigation. This was at a time, 1994 (I checked!), when one of the many waves of the genetics revolution was washing over us, or over me, and the premise of the book was fascinating. At some point in the near future, a murder gene (or, say, single nucleotide polymorphism- an inheritable mutation by any other name) had been identified, and the whole population of England had its DNA sequenced to identify those who might have a tendency to commit violent crime or murder. The names of unfortunate individuals were inscribed on a secret list (on a computer, back when we thought they might keep secrets), the list to be consulted only when a murder took place that correlated with the location of an "obvious suspect", or something like that. But, the secret list was compromised, taken, by a serial killer who began preemptively knocking off the people and presumably enjoying it. Of course, these now doubly-unfortunate souls only had a heightened tendency toward violence and murder, there was no certainty that they would ever commit a crime. They were, at the time of their murders, usually entirely innocent. The writing immediately pulled me in, and I read with gusto, as someone with unusual computer skills and a high capacity for planning and deception was clearly involved in sparing with the female lead investigator. It seemed to me that there was one minor error in the edition I had (hardcover- those were the days): a medical acronym was not given the correct full name. I can't remember what it was, and maybe I wasn't even correct. Something like a PET scan (for Positron Emission Tomography). The thing is I felt guilty for years because I never wrote to the author correct this. How many books make you feel anything for years? Well, in my case, more than one, as you'll know from reading below, but I'm writing about many of my favorite books first. I wonder if that kind of revelation will still be appearing in a few weeks. OK, this is not about me (or not supposed to be). The point is that A Philosophical Investigation is a very good book, and I think some of it was over my head, in the mental game playing and philosophy arenas, but not in a condescending or demeaning way... and I was a lot younger then.

So if you like your serial killers to be brilliant, and you want to read about them engaging in a deadly game of 4-D chess with nearly fanatical female detectives who can match each calculated move in time and space, you've come to the right book. It immediately sent me looking for more by Mr. Kerr and I read the three Berlin detective stories that I could find. One was pre-WWII, one was right at the start of the war and one was a bit post-war. They are available as three books (March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem) or collected in one volume (the Berlin Noir I've already referred to). These are not happy books, though they are not without some victories for truth, but it is obviously odd to imagine a police detective investigating the crime of murder when genocide was being planned and executed, and when the World itself was at war. But, as these detectives will tell you, they are "just doing their job, ma'am." This is, of course, true, though the compromises necessary for survival complicated any sense of justice as the rapid approach of the war and its long aftermath gripped Europe (and the Pacific). Nevertheless, our man was on the job. The way he pursued the investigations without regard for his own safety turned out to be dangerous for friends, but also for enemies. It is easy to find villains in that world, but Kerr gives us a man we can live with through the troubles, and who demands some respect, even as he is at least somewhat complicit in the larger, terrible picture of that time. They were human beings "on the other side", following Hitler, which is why it can be so incomprehensible. As Martin Amis said, they got it so wrong that, if the Germans had done exactly the opposite of what they did, it would have been the right thing. The human qualities were repressed enough in most, by a certain point, that they might never have existed at all.

So the verdict? These are gritty and suspenseful historical fiction, where justice tries to prevail and the backdrop is ultimate evil. Read them now, read them and weep.

Thanks for your patience while I rode the untamed scripts tonight. The JAVA was too hot to handle at times.

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Dr. Criminale, Malcolm Bradbury, Gary Disher; see the Autralian post below

An excerpt from Crime Down Under is found just down under this post. I have yet to write on Gary Disher and it weighs heavy on my soul, especially with an Australian mother and so many relatives there. Hence the link to a good source. I have read these two and highly recommend them: The Dragon Man and Kittyhawk Down

So now I have this HTML/javascript problem: white rectangles show at the end of each post in IE but don't show in Firefox (but other things don't show in Firefox either, like the stat counter # and some pictures). I suppose is partly an Amazon script thing (actually Google, I now believe). I wanted to start with Booksense to support local bookstores but I'm not in the mood to add more javascript at the moment.

In lieu of a proper review of Dr. Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury, I offer my response to a comment found on the blog by Elizabeth Baines and her reading group (they have quite a lot of discussions about literature; you may enjoy them as I did).

"Sorry but I think your group missed the boat. First, Eastern Europe Constantly juxtaposed inappropriate bedfellows, like the poets in prison, and the poets not in prison but who maybe once were or will be again, so this switching of tone that bothered you (and I know that inappropriate tone can bother me, too) was actually an accurate and important part of the setting. Life in Eastern Europe in those days should bother us! Second, if you read Djinn by Alain Robbe-Grillet and other books of this genre (or maybe you have, sorry), you will recognize that the lack of resolution regarding the good Doctor is exactly postmodern, not a post-modern joke. So, what Bradbury did was (attempt to) inform us all about postmodernism with the help of humor and satire, and simultaneously write a perfect postmodern novel. I don't see this as one trick at all! I see it as a brilliant fusion of the text on literary theory with (the) question of whether text exists at all and if any text can be true without having an infinite number of truths (one for each reader, because we are all authors of our own texts which happen to inhabit the covers of a single book). Or some-thing like that. Or am I confusing deconstruction / post-structuralism and postmodernism here? I sort forget (but I just looked it up- I'm cool!), but at the time I read Dr. C, maybe 10 years ago, or whenever it first came out, it was all very clear. Thanks for posting on a favorite author of mine! Tried Rates of Exchange yet? Brilliant! Jim"

Added after the fact, on 9/12/07: via direct communication, it seems that Elizabeth and I are in agreement about nearly everything.

Comments are always appreciated, favorable or otherwise.

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Crime Down Under: Angela Savage Reflects

Crime Down Under: Angela Savage Reflects

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Green Chemistry interlude for all to read (yes, you)

Well, I'm trying to cut back on the chemistry writing, but it is in my blood (yours too!). So, check out this blog and the comments (including mine!). Enough with the exclamation points, already!

The following editorial is designed to be readable by anyone, not just technically-trained experts:

Green chemistry is a very valuable, in fact critically important, field of research, and it has already contributed enormously to reducing pollution. Although there are a number of guiding principles that are a standard reference in the field, one key and accessible part of this research is the idea that "it is better to avoid creating pollution in the first place than to have to clean it up afterwards". The thing is, this is completely possible, NOW, and has already been done in many cases. So, this isn't an example of science claiming breakthroughs but then saying that "they might be useful in about 10 years", it is helping today.

In the USA, Green Chemistry has been greatly helped by the EPA and by pioneers such as the late Joe Breen and the indefatigable Paul Anastas, both of whom worked at the EPA in their careers. However, it is a fully-international field of endeavor, with the U.K., Italy, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and China being just a few examples of the many countries involved. Much can be learned from the pages of Green Chemistry, the Royal Society of Chemistry journal. In the interests of full disclosure, I used to be an Associate Editor and member of the Editorial Board for this journal (no monetary compensation is associated with my mentioning it, however).

The European Union (EU) has been another leader in Green Chemistry, both via research, funding, and by tightening environmental regulations. See comments from the University of York scientist, James Clark. The American Chemical Society and its Green Chemistry Institute also help lead and promote the field. These links will take you to more of the story.

COMMENTS WELCOME (non-technical questions are especially welcome).

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Monday, September 10, 2007

All posts have been updated- more links and text

Please note that I have copy edited all posts, improved content and added promised links (along with new-found links). Thanks for all the continued feedback. I guess blogs don't really work this way, so I'll have to start getting it right the first time, but given the state of things, there will be a few more global updates. The Skull Mantra (Eliot Pattison) and The Murder Room (P. D. James) and Nick Hornby's reviews remain the only work that has received long(ish) treatment, with text added on Robert Wilson, Philip Kerr, David Lodge and Lawrence Durrell, among others.

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

A quick listing of authors to check out (or devour completely)

John le Carré is still a major force- Absolute Friends, for example, is required reading, and A Perfect Spy is terrific. His "post-classical period" books do not disappoint, and his "classical period" of Cold War writing is unparalleled. The thing is, when the world changed, he noticed. How many world leader's can you say that about?

Do you ever wonder what would you be like if you happened to be born in a different country, say one dominated by a different religion or political philosophy? This is a question for readers.

Alan Furst. Alan Furst. Some books are connected more than others (some aren't "connected" at all)- reading in sequence is advised. He is a man who refuses to bend to the demands of the central office in Hollywood when it comes to clean and neat endings. Hat's off to him.

Dust off some Graham Greene every now and then. I found the New Yorker review of his authorized autobiography to be hilarious, though one does feel sorry for its author. Be sure to watch The Third Man, also, which perhaps the #1 film of all time- its screenplay was written by Greene.

Lawrence Durrell is someone whose writing I spent a lot of time with in the 70's and 80's. I met him at Blackwell's in Oxford. Read it all, the poems, the novels, non-fiction. Tunc has a scene of stunning betrayal in it that really took my breath away, and I can still remember every bit of it, 30 years later. Oddly enough, I still haven't finished the sequel, Nunquam. With "Larry", the whole is sometimes less than the sum of the parts, but the parts, all of those wonderful sentences and paragraphs, are to die for.

Michael Connelly. Just read them all if you like crime fiction.

Faye Kellerman. Read them all, too. Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus nail the bad guys wherever they go. Lot's of great information about mixed marriages, conversion, marital compromise, and Judaism. Preferably, read them in the order published.

Richard Russo: Empire Falls, The Risk Pool and Nobody's Fool are examples of the best fiction around. Straight Man is a departure in style, and it is so funny that I laughed out loud constantly while enjoying it.

Malcolm Bradbury. Rates of Exchange is another book for belly laughs, though it helps to have a sense of England, Europe and European languages (you don't have to speak them, just make sure you've read an article or two on them). Is that really true, from "though" on? Let me know! There may be some Bradbury fiction I haven't read, but I can't think of it, so I'll be working up a number of mini-reviews.

David Lodge. I read Changing Places in 1977 just after moving from California to England (for 5 years). Perfect timing (I also read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis at the time). Though I was a little young to be Professor Morris Zapp in the flesh, there were parallels between 1969 and 1977 (I arrived to protests about the Shah of Iran by masked Iranian students). Some of the bits about figuring out life in England were contemporaneous for me any the book character I was reading about. I guess some of Lodge's fiction (Nice Work?) went on television in the U.K., which means I don't know what (what to tell me?), except it parallels the opera singing vs. dancing pectorals on X's got Talent, X being America or England (I don't really know the formal names of these shows, so bear with me or bring me up to date, please). I hope he made a good living off it. I think I've read all of his fiction, too, except I couldn't take Ginger, You're Barmy, so that's a lot of reviewing to do.

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Sympathy for Authors and Independent Bookstores

It's a hard world out there, Charlie Brown, and then you get recycled. Here is something every critic should read, kindly provided to me by cousin Leo in NY, and published in the NY Times Review of Books:

No Thanks, Mr. Nabokov

Published: September 9, 2007

A trove of rejection files from Alfred A. Knopf Inc. includes dismissive
verdicts on the likes of Jorge Luis Borges (“utterly untranslatable”) and Sylvia
Plath (“There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice”).

Lest we forget (or lest I forget, anyway), it is easy to criticize and hard to create. I've only had one* small piece published that wasn't a purely technical article on science, and that was a science editorial (called DNA enzymes: New-found chemical reactivity). Note that a Google link points only to a mediocre HTML version pulled from Current Biology; normal searches will find the article if your institution (typically a Research University, Medical School, etc.) has a subscription to the journal. The article was a short review coupled with opinion, and was largely in my comfort zone, though it wasn't easy to write. The editor helped a lot, as did the poet Doreen Salli, Director of the Writing Center at Washington University in St. Louis (a University where I once worked).

This blog is giving me an outlet to write for myself and self-publish, but today, about a week after Labor Day in the USA, I offer thanks to all those who keep the printed work alive as a profession. Those people include writers, editors, typesetters, publishers, and of course independent bookstore owners and employees.

I have to admit to using local independent bookstores less and less in recent years, but things were different for me not too long ago, when I spent way too much (time and money) in them. I seem to live on the computer, and you know what that means! Also, the day seems to have shrunk, shutting out many pleasures like browsing in a bookstore, but I spent a bit of time in the used bookstore today (Booksmarts) and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I also didn't buy anything, an important triumph of will for an acquisitive person whose house is overflowing with books. My resolution is to read up my stock, send the best books to family members, donate the other books where they might be of use, and hope nobody sends any of them back! While keeping a core library intact, of course!

I am in my smallish house, for the long haul, which doesn't suit all of my personality traits. However, I'm starting to get to the books I bought because I felt I should read them, which is going well so far, but will I be able to stay the course? Or at least stick to the that plus the public library? Can Nick Hornby be my guide (given that The Moon and St. Christopher are taken)?

Can any readers answer these questions from above?

From time to time, I'll post links to a few independent stores that I know personally. In St. Louis, Missouri, USA, the now-departed Library Ltd. and Paul's Books (we miss you) and the active Left Bank Books (LBB) were/are the places to go for choices that weren't made by computers and accountants, but by people who love books. Luckily, we still have LBB!!! You can support them at the Friends of Left Bank Books Literary Society, or of course by visiting!

*Well, how could I forget! I also published an article on my community track & field team, the UCity (University City) Xplosion, and our invitational track meet in Missouri Runner & Triathlete in perhaps 2005. The editor was kind enough to venture out in 100 degree F weather to take photos of the event.

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