30 December 2005

The Terrorists, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

(Translated by Joan Tate. Swedish title: Terroristerna)

According to the dust jacket, this is the last in the Martin Beck series, finished only a few weeks before Per Wahlöö's death in 1975.

This novel begins with detective Gunvald Larsson travelling to South America to observe security at a state visit from a foreign diplomat. There is an assassination by bombing during the visit, with grisly circumstances, that is later accredited to a terrorist group known as "ULAG."

Back in Stockholm, Martin Beck, with Larsson and his other hand-picked men, prepare for a similar state visit, fearing that there will be an attempt similar to the South American tragedy.

Beck and his team are opposed by a cool sociopath named Heydt, and three others, including a French electronics expert and two Japanese bomb experts. The terrorists enter the country undetected and prepare to carry out their mission, while the police and national security try to stop them.

Interspersed with this is another plot, the story of Rebecka Lind, a young and single mother living in Stockholm. Although the dust jacket describes this character as a "hippie," I feel that Rebecka is quite a bit more complicated than that stereotype allows for. Her first adventure involves being arrested for robbing a bank. This is -- believe it or not -- a misunderstanding due to her remarkable level of naivete.

Rebecka's desperate struggle to survive and provide a good life for her baby is threaded through and contrasted with the other plot, where all the cleverness that Beck and his team can summon is used to prevent the assassination of an unnamed unpopular Senator from the United States. The father of Rebecka's child is a U.S. citizen who was avoiding the draft by living in Sweden during the Vietnam war. He returns to America on some bad advice, and winds up in prison.

This is a suspenseful yet strangely calm story, with the usual backdrop of bumbling political idiots trying their best to control Beck and his people. Beck is, as usual, doubly challenged to both defeat the terrorists and outwit the foolish maneuverings of his superiors to implement actions that would ensure the failure of his efforts. In the midst of this, he tries more than once to help Rebecka, with whom he has a brief contact when she is tried for bank robbery early in the novel.

The dust jacket says that Sjowall and Wahlöö wanted to write "a series that ...would trace 'a man's personality changing over the years..." That is, they wanted to show how Beck would change as a result of the forces of society and politics around him.

I found it interesting to re-read this novel as well as Cop Killer, having forgotten the exact flavor and content of these works. There are characters and connections from Cop Killer in this book,; it was a pleasant surprise to have selected these two to read out of the series.

It is interesting, 30 years after the writing of these books, to reflect on the weary cynicism expressed herein. Many Americans seem to think that the Scandinavian countries have achieved a sort of Utopia, an ideal mixture of benevolent socialism and democracy. While they surely have solved some problems, one wonders at what cost, and how well. It's an odd place to find inspiration for thinking about social change, socialism, and the welfare state, but I did find it there.

Police are one of the services that most people will agree the government should provide. It may be the vantage point that this allows that prompts the atmosphere for thinking about just what we do expect from our government, and what we're prepared to trade for it.

18 December 2005

Beautiful Ghosts, by Eliot Pattison

This is the fourth novel Eliot Pattison has written about Shan Tao Yun, and the fourth that I have read. The others were (from first to third) The Skull Mantra, Water Touching Stone, and Bone Mountain.

Shan was once a highly-placed Inspector in Beijing. But uncovering the truth about the wrong people caused him to be discredited, removed from office, and thrown into prison in Tibet. In prison he comes to know and love the Tibetan monks sentenced to hard labor lao gai beside him. They impart an understanding of their spirituality, of Buddhism, and encourage him to strengthen his own Taoist practices. Religion is, of course, counter-revolutionary, and punishable by law in the People's Republic.

In each of these novels Shan is presented with a mystery that forces him to use the skills he once employed for his government. Overlaying each plot are the themes of the incredible beauty and spiritual mystery and power of Tibet and the Tibetan people, and their unspeakable oppression at the hands of the Red Chinese government.

In Beautiful Ghosts, Shan comes again into contact with Colonel Tan, the administrator of the county. Tan is once again trying to avoid political trouble with officials from Beijing. This time he is the reluctant host to Director Ming and Inspector Yao, who are searching for lost antiquities. A monk, Surya, is convinced that he has killed a man. As a result Surya casts off his robes and declares himself dead, and eventually takes up a new life among the people who carry night-soil in Lhadrung. Shan's old friends Gendun and Lokesh, illegal monks from the secret monastery of Yerpa, play important roles in this story, as do many other interesting Tibetan, Chinese, and British characters. Indeed, descendants of members of the Younghusband expedition of 1904 figure in this story.

An FBI agent from the USA, Corbett, is also involved, as is a trip to Beijing and the United States.

Again, Pattison has succeeded in writing a terrific police procedural tale, set in beautiful Tibet. He manages to evoke much of the Tibetan Buddhists' plight while celebrating their incredible spiritual strength. The ruggedness of the country and the people who live there left me with a strong impression of my own weakness and addiction to the comforts of life in 21st century America.

If you have not read any of these very entertaining and uplifting books I strongly recommend that you start with The Skull Mantra. Enjoy this rich experience of some of the best mystery writing coupled with fabulous descriptions of this country and its people, insight into the Buddhist religion and philosophy, and terrific character conceptualization and development.

Cop Killer, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

I read some of the "Martin Beck" series several years ago, but I don't remember them well. This book is, as well as I do recall, a good example of the series. I found it throughly enjoyable. The reading list from Donald Knuth cited earlier in this journal reminded me of them, so I took this novel and another, The Terrorists, out of the library.

Cop Killer is a delightful read, and a short one. Sjöwall and Wahlöö were apparently believers in "leave them asking for more".

In it Martin Beck, Chief Inspector for the Swedish National Homicide Squad, is summoned to the little town of Ånderslov, near Malmo because a woman has disappeared. Foul play is suspected, but hasn't yet been confirmed.

As Beck works on this mystery, the incident that gives the book its title occurs in Ljunghausen. A fugitive from the scene of that crime is coincidentally involved in Beck's mystery in Ånderslov, and leads Beck's associate, Lennart Kollberg, to a solution of the original crime.

The book carries a strong flavor of tired cynicism, and despair with the state of society in 1970s Sweden. Many comments are made about the social damage caused by the welfare state, and a general attitude of disgust with the National Police force and its bureaucracy pervades the book.

I expect that the best known novel in this series is The Laughing Policeman, as it was made into a movie. I'll have to read, or re-read, that one as well

22 November 2005

Picks by Donald Knuth

How often do you get a reading list from a certified genius?
This is from Donald Knuth's website, the page called "Retirement"

Of course I like to read nontechnical books, although I read very slowly. Here are some that I recently read and heartily recommend:

Life A Users Manual,

by Georges Perec (perhaps the greatest 20th century novel)
Gaudy Night

by Dorothy L Sayers (captures Oxford high-table small-talk wonderfully)
An Instance of the Fingerpost

by Iain Pears (also Oxford but in the 1660s)
Death of a Salesperson

by Robert Barnard (who is at his best in short stories like these)
The Haj

by Leon Uris (great to read on a trip to Israel)
Marjorie Morningstar

by Herman Wouk (in-depth characters plus a whole philosophy)
On Food and Cooking

by Harold McGee (applied biochemistry in the kitchen)

by Waverley Root (his magnum opus, a wonderful history of everything delicious)
The Golden Gate

by Vikram Seth (the Great California Novel, entirely in 14-line sonnets)
The Age of Faith

by Will Durant (volume 4 of his series, covers the years 325--1300)

by Stina Katchadourian (diaries and letters of a remarkable Armenian woman)
The Man Who Knew Infinity

by Robert Kanigel (biographies of Ramanujan and Hardy)

by Steven Levy (incredibly well written tale of our times)
The Abominable Man

by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (one of their brilliantly Swedish detective novels)
[end quote]

I had quite forgotten Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I just requested two of their books from the library. More on that soon, I expect.

19 November 2005

The Laws of Our Fathers, by Scott Turow

The book moves back and forth between 1970 and 1996.


Sonny, a felony court judge in "Kindle County".
Seth, her lover in 1970, now a syndicated columnist living in Seattle. Seth writes under the name of Michael Frain, which is the name of a college friend whose whereabouts are unknown. He is last seen running from prosecution for the bombing of a research lab at "Miller Damon University."
Nikki, Sonny's 5-year-old daughter by her former husband Charlie, a poet.
Seth's father
Hobie Tuttle, Seth's lifelong friend, attorney for the defendant Nile Eddgar, son of Loyell Eddgar. Hobie in 1970 is implicated in a Black Panther bombing of a lab at "Miller Damon University" but never charged.
Loyell Eddgar, State Senator, but in 1970 a militant revolutionary working with the Black Panthers.
Nile Eddgar, in 1996 a Probation Officer responsible for Ordell (Hardcore) but involved with smuggling drugs into jail under Hardcore's direction, and in love with a 15-year-old female gang minion of Hardcore's. Nile is on trial charged with hiring Hardcore to murder his father, which murder resulted in the killing of his mother.
June Eddgar, Nile's mother, who is killed by "Gorgo" when Hardcore tries to kill Nile's father. In 1970 June is married to Eddgar, and the revolution, but it is a loveless marriage. She seeks consolation elsewhere with various men, but especially Michael Frain.
Hobie's parents, Seth's mother. Seth's deceased 5-year-old son Isaac. Seth's brother Isaac, killed in a concentration camp during WWII.
Seth's daughter Sarah
Lucy, Seth's ex-wife, Hobie's lover in 1970.
Cleveland, a black panther involved in the lab bombing who talked in jail and implicated Michael Frain.
The character list should recall enough of the plot to remind anyone who's read this long novel (534 pages). And I hope it will intrigue anyone who has not read it sufficiently to entice him or her to read it.

I love Scott Turow's books, and have read all of his novels. He is a journeyman writer, a practicing lawyer, what more can I say?

An interesting aspect of Turow's books: he writes of a fictional city and state in the Midwest. The city is located in "Kindle County."

Turow lives near Chicago.

In "Laws" there is a fictional university in California, in the bay area, known as Miller Damon University. There's a Miller Damon, MD, in the Palo Alto phone book. That 's about the most pertinent hit I got from Google just now.

My thanks to Mr. Turow for another terrific novel.

There's a new on on the way, Ordinary Heroes, just published this month. I'll read it, I hope.

26 October 2005

The Wasp Eater, by William Lychack

The Wasp Eater, by William Lychack. Houghton Mifflin 2004.

Principal Characters:

Daniel – son

Robert “Bob” Cussler -- Dad

Anna – Mom

Joelyn – cousin

Divorce ravages the “traditional family” in our culture today. Statistics are available to bear this out.

Once the stuff of scandal and whispers-behind-hands divorce is now commonplace. We are so used to being surrounded by broken families and broken promises that we forget that these phenomena have their consequences.

“She became a widow well before his father died.” Thus begins The Wasp Eater, by William Lychack. This little novel (164 pages in a 5” x 8” format) tells the story of a broken marriage in the later 20th Century, how the couple's one child understands his parents and their problems, and how he deals with all of it.

This book was a prize won browsing the “new books” display at the library. When I noticed that the author was a contributor to This American Life (Ira Glass, Public Radio International) I had to give it a try. I'm glad I did.

Daniel's father, “Bob,” is a strong yet unstable character; he's a window washer in a New England mill town. We hear Anna's complaint on page 7: “It wasn't the waitress in bed with him; it was the shit-eating grin that made her insane, the way he couldn't seem to wipe that smirk from his face.” As the story begins, Anna has thrown Bob out of the house, scattered his belongings on the front lawn, hung his clothes from tree branches. She is through with him, but he won't go away.

Daniel, ten years old, is visited at night by his father. Bob stands outside the boy's bedroom window, smoking, talking. He leaves money, and tries to convince Daniel to let him in.

Over time an uneasy truce between the separated partners develops. Daniel spends time during the day with Bob, helping him wash windows. He is taken along to bars with his father, given quarters to play pool, and returned home late.

Some of Anna's history is revealed. She is from New York, her family once well-to-do middle-class fallen on hard times (like the New England town in which she now lives), caught up in romantic love with Bob. Now her marriage is broken by his disloyalty and she seems profoundly depressed. She can hardly maintain her daily existence and care for her young son.

In the course of the story it is revealed that there was once a fight between Anna and her niece Joelyn regarding a ring, her mother's wedding ring, which has fallen into Joelyn's possession. This ring becomes the symbol of what once was Anna and Bob's marriage, and Daniel sees in its recovery the answer to fixing the breach in his family.

The story is so extremely well-written that it makes me despair trying to describe it with my own clumsy words. Lychack has a knack for a spare and precise turn of phrase. The portrayal of young Daniel and his parents is believable and heart-breaking, but Lychack ends his book with perspective and hope.

10 October 2005

The Broker, by John Grisham

I've finished the book. Now I find myself thinking about this project: What, exactly, am I trying to accomplish here?

One objective here is to begin a job I regret not beginning 40 years ago. I have read many books and many short stories. I've enjoyed most of them. Many have provided me with some of the greatest pleasures I've experienced in life. But I have no record of all of that reading. Here I can keep track of what I've read and enough information about it to remind me of it when I look back at this later.

Another thing I find myself thinking about is criticism. Should I include my judgement of the overall quality of the book, its strengths, shortcomings, etc.? Should I be comparing it to other works and placing it in its literary context?

I'm hardly qualified as a literary critic. I have no degree and no experience. My reading has been mostly guided by my own likes and dislikes. Sometimes I just wander the stacks of a library and pick up books that look interesting, other times I read or hear reviews of things that sound like they'd be good, so I go find them. So what' s the value of my opinion about any given work?

I'm not sure; I think I'll just hack at this for a while and see what it becomes.

So, what about The Broker?

A good entertaining read. The Last Juror was more thoughtful, had more to say about the nature of humanity. This one is mostly a thriller, sort of a Robert Ludlum book. Better than Ludlum, but that's not praise.

The main character is Joel Backman, the "Broker" of the title. He's a hotshot lobbyist in DC that's suddenly convicted of a serious crime and packed off to Federal prison. After serving 6 years, the President (President Morgan, an ineffectual moron) pardons him. He's spirited away to Italy by the CIA. The director of the CIA -- an old, unhealthy man -- orchestrates all this, including the pardon. Backman's crime is related to the attempt to sell control of a mysterious spy satellite system discovered by some Pakistani computer science students who hacked its control system. Now that Morgan's term of office is over, the CIA wants Backman pardoned among the customary pardons issued by an outgoing president. They hope to place him in a poorly hidden foreign location and watch to see who kills him. In this way, they hope to discover who is responsible for placing the satellite system in the first place, and other salient information about foreign intelligence operations around the world.

I'll try some criticism: The plot's good, I doubt I could have thought it up. The pace is uncertain, a bit slow at times. Details are a little sloppy. Character development is poor, and I had a hard time believing in most of the characters. The descriptions of Italy and its food were delightful, and made me want to go there. I read and enjoyed the whole thing, it was very entertaining. Did it change my life? I don't think so. Did I learn any basic truths about humanity or life from it? I don't think so.

The ending is disappointing; I expected more of a coup.

But I'll read the next thing John Grisham writes -- he's a dependable good writer.

Until next time. (0) Comments | Post Comment

06 October 2005

Coming Soon: Amy Tan and John Irving

I fell for an e-mail from Amazon: Amy Tan has a new book out, it's going to be published 18 October. The title is Saving Fish From Drowning.

While I was buying that, they hooked me (sorry) with a new John Irving: Until I Find You: A Novel.

So, we'll be reading those books as soon as they arrive. These are two of my favorite authors, and have never failed to please me in the past.

05 October 2005

The Broker, by John Grisham

In case you thought this was going to be a highbrow gig, I'll just set the tone. I just began reading The Broker, by John Grisham. This is a fairly new book, I think published this year or last. As a matter of fact, The Official John Grisham Websiteshows it as January 2005. I'm only in the first 40 or so pages but it's a good one.

Backman has been in Federal Prison on the Oklahoma prairie for 6 years, in solitary confinement, for what is at first a vaguely described crime. Once a powerful DC lawyer, Backman is now very nearly a broken man, lonely and wasting away. But the end of a weak President's term and the desires of a CIA official cause a sudden and unexpected pardon -- Backman is free, spirited away from the USA, to begin a new life in secret.

I love John Grisham. He's given me days of pleasure with his many great novels. My wife and I recently finished The Last Juror, his 2004 publication, and we both thoroughly enjoyed that novel of the South in the late 60s and 70s. I was particularly pleased with it as it reminded me of A Time to Kill, his first novel, which I often think might be his best, or one of his best.

I'll write more about The Broker,but I wanted to get this project under way.