Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Some French Crime Fiction

1. I just finished reading The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas, the most recent of her Commissaire Adamsberg novels.  In fact, I read all seven of them more or less one after another.  I thought they were brilliant.  They are all police procedurals but are unusually concerned with modern manifestation of old French myths and legends.  Vargas is an medieval archeologist and historian who apparently started to write crime novels for fun or stave off boredom - but these books are so good I can't possibly believe that to be true.  My only complaint here: the English translations of her books were published out of order.  Since I came late to her work, this did not effect me.  But much of what happens in each book carries on from the previous one, it makes no sense to start in the middle and skip around.  Why would the publishers do this to us?  Its not right.

2. I am now reading the brand new translation of Irene by Pierre Lemaitre, another French police procedural.  Most cops or private eyes come from the same mold.  Typically they are middle-aged men, they drink too much, have excess emotional baggage, etc, etc - you know what I am talking about.  But in Irene, the police officer is different.  Commandant Camille Verhoeven is very short and loves to draw.  He sketches and doodles constantly.  So it seems strange that Commissaire Adamsberg in the Fred Vargas books is also rather short - though he has a few inches on Verhoeven, who is only 4'11" - and also loves to sketch and draw, though Verhoeven, too, is the better artist.  It doesn't seem strange to have one troubled, alcoholic cop after another - it does seem a little strange to run into two short, artistic French cops in a row.  (Is it also strange that Adamsberg's estranged girlfriend, who plays a major part in some of the books, is named Camille?) (Is Lemaitre a big fan of Vargas?)  (And how long will I have to wait for more books by Lemaitre to be published?)

Irene is the first book in a trilogoy.  The second book, Alex, was published first.  I should have waited until all three books were available in English to start reading Lemaitre but I exercised poor judgement and read Alex last fall.  Doing so has ruined the big surprises that are found in the first book, Irene.  Really big spoilers.  So why did they have to be published in translation out of order?  I just don't get it.

3.  I won't complain about the quality of the translation of these books.  They are excellent.  In fact, Alex and The Ghost Riders of Ordebec shared the 2013 CWA International Dagger.  One thing that I can't believe I haven't encountered before now is that these books were translated from French into British English and the slang is all British:  Lads, lanky streak of piss, come a cropper, boozer.  I had a list of a lot of others (which I have misplaced).  I have no complaints about the British slang - I rather liked it.

Irene just came out in the UK and won't be published in the US for some time.  I liked Alex so much that I had to get myself a UK copy.

4. For some reason, I've been hooked on French crime fiction lately.  I get hooked on countries from time to time.  But what is really exciting about being on a French kick right now is that Penguin is now publishing, in the correct order, new translations of all of Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels. Thank you Penguin.  

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Ambrose Bierce and Me

Ambrose Bierce is a mystery to me.  I have long known the name but I know almost nothing about him.  He wrote at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th.  Mainly short fiction, I think.  And journalism.  Died mysteriously, walking off into the desert.  I think most of what he wrote was very dark, maybe like a pre-HP Lovecraft.  A cult figure?  Notably obscure?  I know he is considered important and influential but I've never taken the time to properly learn about him and his work, even though he was recently on the cover of The Weekly Standard.

So it has been weird to see him pop up three times in some current TV shows.  I have yet to watch HBO's True Detective but from what I understand, his work is referenced in it (mainly through his influence on The King in Yellow  - the name of a city in a story by Bierce figures prominently in the show).  

Then Ambrose Bierce popped up on The Simpsons (in an episode originally aired in November but one I just caught up with).  Lisa Simpson is running for second grade representative and the debate she is in is interrupted when the school drama teacher rolls a prop (for a hanging) onto the stage, indicating it is for a production of An Occurrence at Owl Creek, which  is a famous Bierce story about a hanging.  It's a funny gag.

The third appearance is the one that has me really thinking about Ambrose Bierce.  Late in season four of ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars, the liars are analyzing the stories in Ali's diary when it is stolen from them and then altered and then planted so they will find it and be misled by the new text.  In one entry, concerning where Ali used to meet Board Shorts (her stalker and maybe the liars' English teacher), a name that sounds just like Ambrose Bierce is changed to make it read Ambrose Pearson, which they think is code for the Ambrose Pavilion at the Norristown zoo.  The liars then set a trap at the zoo hoping to catch their dead friend Ali (whom they have only recently discovered is alive and had somehow faked her own death to escape Board Shorts, by whom she may or may not have been pregnant).  Pretty Little Liars is full of literary references (including to Patricia Highsmith, recent Raymond Chandler references, and a bunch of recent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde material - indicating the Ezra, the their high school English teacher is also their tormentor, even though he his secretly dating one of the girls).  It is because of all this that I am convinced the Ambrose Bierce reference is somehow meaningful.  The problem is that I do not know enough about his work to figure out what the show is trying to tell us by it.  The Ambrose Pavilion houses snakes and Bierce has a famous story about a man scared to death by a snake.  Or maybe this is not significant, just the work of some former English majors getting carried away dropping literary references.  And so far there do not appear to be many people conversant in both Pretty Little Liars and Ambrose Bierce so the internet has yet to provide me with proper answers to my questions.

It seemed to me that three recent television references to Ambrose Bierce was a strange coincidence but in researching this post, I was stunned to learn that for the past 20 something years, Ambrose Bierce has been my neighbor.  He lived in DC from 1899 to 1913 but his last address was just down the street.  I've been past the building a million times but never knew.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

I am embarrassed to admit that sometimes the titles of books make me superstitious.  I am not normally superstitious and most of the time I behave like a mini-Richard Dawkins.  But for some reason, book titles get to me.

A few summers ago when I was reading one Lee Child book after another, I had to stop at the eleventh installment in the series, Bad Luck and Trouble, because I was worried about some things and it seemed reckless to read a book with a title like that at such a time.   Like it would be asking for bad luck to read it.  I did not read it for several months until the general situation improved and it was safe to read something with a provocative title.  And I read it and nothing happened.  (Because I waited? Or because the title of a book has no power whatsoever?)

I faced a similar dilemma with Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels.  I had to stop after reading eight of them as the ninth is titled What's the Worst That Could Happen?  I've been wanting to resume this series for a long time but did not own a copy of this book.  So I had two vexing decisions to make: do I buy it and then do I read it?  

My wife planned a trip to the Caribbean for us in February and as I was assembling my vacation reading, I realized I needed a small paperback to bring.  Yes, I have thousands of small paperbacks but I have been reading about Westlake again and started to think about confronting the ninth Dortmunder.  Thinking of how fun it would be to relax on the beach and enjoy a Dortmunder caper, I decided to confront my fears (that's what you're supposed to do, right?) and I ordered a copy of What's the Worst That Could Happen? 

My copy arrived on Monday and I packed it for our trip.  And on Tuesday, in anticipation of a major winter storm that is expected to paralyze the entire East Coast, the airline cancelled our flight.   Who's the dummy now?  I should be in a lounge chair on the beach at this very moment but instead I am in my pajamas at home, struggling to fit on a chaise lounge that my dog will not share me.  And I haven't touched my book. And it is still snowing.

PS:  The two books that follow in the series are Bad News and The Road To Ruin.  What am I supposed to do?

Thursday, February 06, 2014

An Innes and a Gilbert instead of Seven Starks?

When I fell in love with Donald Westlake's Richard Stark novels a few years ago, I would have given anything to be able to find used and or collectible copies of his books.  I never saw anything by Stark. (By which I mean for sale in bookstores, not online.)  Now that we are a few years into what looks like a fairly solid Westlake revival, I am starting to see more Westlakes for sale in used bookstores.

I stopped by two used bookstores tonight and in the second one I found seven Richard Stark first editions for sale (and some paperbacks reprints, too).  Three Allison & Busbys, two from Gregg Press, and two of the Grofields from Macmillan.  The Rare Coin Score was signed.  All were between $29 to $50.

I am embarrassed to admit that I passed on all of them, especially the Grofields.  (I have all of the Starks in one form or another now though most are not especially collectible, though they are cherished.  Except for my $80 Butcher's Moon paperback, that still makes me angry.) Instead I spent 50 cents on a green Penguin Michael Innes, The Daffodil Affair.  Did a bit of research on it when I got home and the consensus seems to be that it is the strangest novel Innes wrote.  Perhaps not the best place to start reading him but I do like the cover a lot.

I also bought a first American edition of Michael Gilbert's The 92nd Tiger for eight bucks.  I researched all of Gilbert's books to see which ones I wanted to read and this one was definitely not on the list.  But it has been slow-going finding copies of Gilbert's books so I grabbed it.  (Also picked up a reprint of After the Fine Weather over the weekend.) Read the first chapter and realized I kind of liked it.  Or maybe its just that I really like Michael Gilbert.  If this story of an actor being recruited by the Foreign Office to act as a security advisor to the ruler of a small, fictitious Middle Eastern country were written by anyone else, I would automatically skip it.  I hope it turns out okay.

Friday, January 17, 2014

My Year of Reading: 2013

My Year of Reading

Achievement of the Year:  I read 15 Inspector Montalbano novels by Andrea Camilleri, one after the other, in a glorious summer reading binge.  I had been stockpiling (without reading and without exactly knowing if I would like them) these books for years but this summer, faced with not having many books by Donald Westlake to read (having hit Peak Westlake a few years back), I took the plunge and read all of Camilleri's books.  These are all police procedurals and while I loved reading this series, most of the pleasure came from the setting (Sicily), the colorful characters, and Montalbano's culinary exploits. Not the plots, which is unusual for crime novels.  I'd be hard pressed to name my favorite book as I really did enjoy them all.

Archeological Find of the Year:  Last year it was Donald E. Westlake's Tucker Coe novels.  This year, Donald Westlake takes the award again with Brothers Keepers, published in 1975.  I haven't really thought out the criteria for this award, just that it is meant for a book that is not new and is hard to find or has been overlooked (by me).  I never thought I would want to read a novel about monks but being low on Westlakes and then reading this, I sought out a bargain copy and then fell in love with the book.  In Brothers Keepers, the monks learn they are to lose their monastery when their lease expires so then set out (which is inherently difficult as their order is cloistered and dedicated to thinking about travel and not traveling at all) to use the skills they had in their pre-monastic lives to save the monastery.  This is a very funny novel (not unusual for Westlake) but also much wittier and more erudite that his other books, revealing yet another layer of genius in Westlake.

Runner Up:  The two collections of Calder and Behrens stories by Michael Gilbert, Game without Rules and Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens.  These books didn't feel like a great discovery as they are well known and widely admired by those in the know about such things as English spy fiction.  But I knew nothing about them until last year and when I overcame my prejudice against short stories in the crime/mystery/spy genre, I fell hard for Michael Gilbert. (Note:  I do read short stories all the time in regular fiction.  Especially William Trevor, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, and John McGahern.  As a kid I subscribed to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and read all sorts of similar short fiction but somehow by the time I became an adult I was of the opinion that any short work of crime or spy fiction was a malformed or stunted novel and should be ignored.  I had no evidence to support my beliefs.  And of course, I turned out to be wrong.)

Old Guys of the Year:  This arbitrary category exists because of two men.  The Italian crime writer Andera Camilleri is about 87 years old now and only started his series featuring Inspector Montalbano when he was 70 years old - which to me, is amazing.  Prior to that he had a long career as a TV and theatre director and as a historical novelist.  The other Old Guy of the Year is Elmore Leonard.  I have to make a confession here: I never read an Elmore Leonard novel before he died this summer.  I had listened to a few of his books on tape (but they were abridged) and had picked up and started several over the past 20 years but never finished one.  To make matters even stranger, I have heard him interviewed on Fresh Air several times and have read dozens of reviews of his work and profiles of him over the years and always considered myself a fan - even though I never technically finished a book he wrote.  I started Unknown Man No. 89 the day he died and also read The Swtich, City Primeval, and Gold Coast.

Country of the Year:  Italy.  Because of Andrea Camilleri.  And because I also got interested in Mario Vicchi, Leonard Sciascia, and Elena Ferrante this year.  And because I switched to using Sicilian Lemon hand sanitizer.  (I ordered a bunch of hand sanitizer for my wife and when she suggested I get some, I was reading about Sicily and thus Sicilian Lemon spoke to me.)

Book of the Year:  Last years book of the year was Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette and there were two reasons I selected it.  One was because of how good it was and two because it became a running joke between my wife and I.  This year, the best book I read was Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch.  But Poppet by Mo Hayder ended up being the most fun (which is at odds with how disturbing and terrifying the book is).  My wife always felt that Poppet was staring at her and was creeped out by the cover.  When I would hide the book she would still swear Poppet was staring at her.  I made some Poppet xmas ornaments for our tree.  And I replaced the star on top of the tree with Poppet.  (This is how we amuse ourselves.)  In purely reading terms, The Goldfinch was my book of the year.   The Goldfinch was 11 years in the making and it is one of those books that people say is like something from Dickens.  By which they mean very long, having to do with an orphan who is mistreated/betrayed by adults, and surround by colorful characters.  But they mean it in a good way.  How to summarize a 700 page plus novel like this?  A 13 year old boy in New York steals/rescues a famous Dutch painting from a museum in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing and is left to fend for himself against others who may not have his best interests at heart.  And conflict ensues.  (Every review of The Goldfinch mentions Dickens.  While that is an accurate comparison, The Goldfinch is also a bit of a demented mashup of Tom Ripley and Gossip Girl.  Really, it contains multitudes.) This is a barebones description of a very long and very colorful book but I hate spoilers and had to keep it short.  For a 700 page novel, it flies by yet does not feel breezy or unsubstantial.  Sheer enjoyment.

My Top Ten List:

10. Alex by Pierre Lemaitre
 9.  Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas
 8.  Poppet by Mo Hayder
 7.  Still Midnight by Denise Mina (but it could have been The End of the Wasp Season or Gods and Beasts)
 6.  Capital by John Lanchester
 5.  The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
 4.  Game without Rules/Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens by Michael Gilbert
 3.  Brothers Keepers by Donald Westlake
 2.  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
 1.  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Closing Thoughts:

In many ways, 2013 was the year of the woman.  For a lot of reasons, male writers seem to get more attention than women.  And it has been this way for a long time, mostly for unjust reasons.  And just as obviously women have been churning out great books all along.  But at some point in 2013, for me, I realized that most of the books I was reading that I thought were really special turned out to be by women.  I think it is fair to say that in the US, The Goldfinch was the most anticipated novel of the year.  Life After Life was a big, bold book that got everyone's attention.  The Shining Girls came out of nowhere (not entirely true because Lauren Beukes first two novels received much critical attention but because they were more science fiction she was not yet a household name) and was one of the most interesting and chilling books of the year.  Denise Mina is now writing the best police procedurals in Scotland and therefore the world.  I was totally enthralled by the works of Fred Vargas - new to me this past year.  I read a bunch of other books that turned out to be by women that I really loved. Women won both the Nobel Prize and the Booker Prize this year.  I know I made a bold declaration that it was the year of the woman and I suppose I should have backed it up with lots of great evidence and a more compelling argument.  But for me the most compelling case to be made is that I was just reading the books that looked/sounded the most interesting and gradually noticed that they were mostly by women.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Only Way Is Wessex

I never paid much attention to Michael Gilbert until last year.  I had seen his name around and knew of a few of his books but for the most part, he was not on my radar.  Until I learned about the short stories Gilbert wrote about Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens.  Once I read the two collections of stories I fell hard for Michael Gilbert.

I just started reading his 1984 novel The Black Seraphim.  It concerns a young pathologist suffering from exhaustion who leaves London and heads to the cathedral town of Melchester to spend a month recovering.  Dr. James Scotland's vacation does not go according to plan when there is a murder in the town and he is drawn into it.  I have become a compulsive Googler of things while I read and I was puzzled as to why I could not find Melchester on a map of England.  I knew I had heard of the place before.  It sounds like a real place.  After a bit of research, I figured out that it was from Thomas Hardy that I knew of Melchester, from Jude the Obscure.  Over his writing career Hardy created a fictionalized region of England called Wessex for his books and Gilbert had used the Wessex town of Melchester for The Black Seraphim. (Also, Hardy's wife had a dog named Wessex, a terrier.)

I love the idea of using someone else's fictional universe as a setting.  Gilbert's appropriation of a place from Wessex has had me thinking of other great fictional places.  Some of my all-time favorites:

Gotham City
Castle Rock
Stars Hollow
Grand Rapids

Sunday, October 20, 2013

New Science May Help Oasis?

As someone who reads a lot, I always pay attention to what the news has to say about the latest developments in the study of reading.  Three recent stories caught my attention and I think it is pretty clear how one of these stories is all the evidence you would ever need to see to support the other two.

The magazine Science just published a study which claims that reading literary fiction improves one's theory of mind. From the editor's summary in Science:

Theory of Mind is the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires. The currently predominant view is that literary fiction—often described as narratives that focus on in-depth portrayals of subjects' inner feelings and thoughts—can be linked to theory of mind processes, especially those that are involved in the understanding or simulation of the affective characteristics of the subjects. Kidd and Castano (p. 377, published online 3 October) provide experimental evidence that reading passages of literary fiction, in comparison to nonfiction or popular fiction, does indeed enhance the reader's performance on theory of mind tasks.

I think that makes a lot of sense and I am glad that there is some evidence to support it.

And the journal PLOS ONE published something very similar:

How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation

From the PLOS ONE abstract:

The current study investigated whether fiction experiences change empathy of the reader. Based on transportation theory, it was predicted that when people read fiction, and they are emotionally transported into the story, they become more empathic. Two experiments showed that empathy was influenced over a period of one week for people who read a fictional story, but only when they were emotionally transported into the story. No transportation led to lower empathy in both studies, while study 1 showed that high transportation led to higher empathy among fiction readers. These effects were not found for people in the control condition where people read non-fiction. The study showed that fiction influences empathy of the reader, but only under the condition of low or high emotional transportation into the story.

So, two serious studies which contend that perhaps reading fiction makes you a better person - or perhaps better able to relate and understand other people - which, I would argue, helps you to be a better person.  Most readers probably love to read whether or not it is good for them so explaining the benefits of reading is for the most part preaching to the choir.


I was reading the Guardian the other day and I saw this headline:

(Ask yourself: who are the angriest pop musicians around?  I bet he's in the top three of every list.) He goes on at length about how he hates reading stuff that isn't true and it occurred to me, that if there ever is a person who could benefit from spending more time reading fiction, its him.  (Note:  He has created a lot of great music and some of the anger and rage he feels has been put to some good use musically.  But still, I think at this point in his career, he could do with some reading therapy.  Especially since what he claims about reading fiction is now proving to be scientifically unsound.)