Monday, February 28, 2011

Too much pressure

I don't know if anyone reads this blog, but if you do, I'm sorry I'm falling down on the job here. I tend to read in spurts. I wish I were more consistent, but what can ya do? 

I've been reading a little history, but did finish one mystery, a historical mystery: C.J. Sansom's Dissolution, the first in his series featuring Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer-investigator who sometimes works for Thomas Cromwell. In Dissolution, Shardlake travels to a monastery on behalf of Cromwell to solve the murder of another investigator who had been sent there to audit the monastery's books during a time when England, under Henry VIII, is beginning to dissolve the monasteries and take possession of their valuable lands. The monks, understandably, are ill at ease. Sansom adeptly walks a tightrope, telling a story set 500 years ago that both feels set in the time and believable today. Shardlake is the narrator and he is forward-thinking (for the time) without feeling like some New Age guru dropped into the 16th century to keep a modern reader entertained. I enjoyed it enough to get from the library the second in the series, Dark Fire, but Sansom's books are long and I got distracted and will likely have to return the book before I can finish it. 

Meanwhile, I've been reading James Thompson's Snow Angels. Thompson is an American living in Finland and the book is set there. It features a Finnish detective, Inspector Kari Vaara, and the grisly murder of a black actress reminiscent of Hollywood's still unsolved Black Dahlia murder. It is definitely classified as noir, and written in first person present tense, which adds to the noir aura, and took some getting used to. I'm about three quarters of the way through so can't say yet if it is totally satisfying, but it is well-written and a compelling read. Vaara is married to an American, which gives Thompson an opportunity to comment on Finnish culture as Vaara explains it to both his wife and the reader -- too much for my taste. The picture drawn of Finland is pretty depressing, and it may be accurate for all I know, but as a reader I often feel taken out of the story to be given a lesson on Finnish culture. I think a Finnish writer would just let the plot and characters speak for themselves, like Arnaldur Indriđason does in his great mystery series set in Iceland.  

I've also started watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the 1979 TV mini-series based on the John le Carré novel and starring Alec Guinness. The clothes and hairstyles are outdated and the pace slower than what viewers are accustomed to today, but once you adjust, it's a wonderful spy thriller. (Cerebrally thrilling, not action packed.) 

Finally, I changed to Chrome when my Firefox browser kept crashing. Chrome has a bunch of so-called applications (really Web sites), including one called YourNextRead, which gives you suggestions for books based on other books. So, maybe I want to read something like Sansom's Dissolution. I plug that book in and YourNextRead tells me I might also enjoy Wolf Hall, a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell's life. I've already heard of Wolf Hall and some of the choices are obvious, like more in the same Sansom series, but others, like Ariana Franklin's Grave Goods, are new to me. It's a fun tool. 

P.S. Sorry the font is small. Don't know what's up. It's the font and font size I always use, but is coming out small. And the next size is too big for my taste. In both Firefox and Chrome (and maybe other browsers as well) hitting control + will increase the font size. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Real-life mystery

There's no point in ignoring it. The biggest mystery story right now is: who wrote O, a Presidential Novel? (Great cover art.) If you haven't heard, O is a fictionalized account of the upcoming 2012 presidential election. According to those who have read it, the author has intimate knowledge of the campaign process and the relationship between politicians and the press, leading some to guess the author is a reporter or a campaign operative. Elsewhere I've read that the author's knowledge of Obama seems less intimate, leading some to point to an insider outside the Obama campaign, including Mark Salter, a close aide to and speechwriter for John McCain during the 2008 campaign.  

If the bad reviews are accurate, we may never know who penned the book and we may never care. O is available Tuesday.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

'Noir' series

I received the latest Stop, You're Killing Me! newsletter and in its list of new hardcovers was one that caught my eye: Haiti Noir, edited by Edwidge Danticat. Turns out the book is the latest in a series of books of noir short stories, each set in a different city or specific geographic area. Haiti is the 43rd book in the series and the publisher, Akashic Books, is pumping out new books as fast as it can. Another book with stories set in Copenhagen is being published this month too. After that is Barcelona, to be published in May, and three more -- Cape Cod, Pittsburgh and San Diego -- expected in June. More are in the works, including one set in New Jersey and edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and others in Bogota, Jerusalem and Lagos among other locales. Other books have been edited by George Pelecanos (two in Washington, D.C.), Lawrence Block (two featuring Manhattan) and Dennis Lehane (Boston).

Haiti Noir includes stories by Danticat and Madison Smartt Bell, two writers I'm already familiar with, as well as many others I'll be happy to be introduced to, especially if Danticat had a say in choosing them.

The series sounds wonderful and will be a big help in my Crime Travel pursuit.

Also, saw a great documentary on PBS the other night, Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood, about the European directors, actors, writers and film craftsmen who fled Europe in the 1930s and came to the United States to work. I think I already knew that film noir was created by German refugees who used atmospheric lighting and had a dark view of the world, understandably, but it was interesting to be reminded of it. It was also fascinating to be taken  through the cast of Casablanca, from the leads such as Paul Henreid, an Austrian actor, and Peter Lorre, a Hungarian raised in Austria, to more than a dozen actors in smaller parts, all European refugees. I've never admired Casablanca as a film as much as some, but now that I know the history of the cast I admire it for other reasons.

Monday, January 3, 2011

An interesting look at the Larsson phenomena

I enjoyed this examination of the popularity of Stieg Larsson's novels by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker. I enjoyed it not only because Acocella shares my assessment of the books, but more because I love this kind of behind the scenes journalism. Most stories cover the books as publishing phenomena and personal tragedy -- Larsson died at 50 of a heart attack, before the books were published. But that's about all you really learn. Acocella gives us much more background about Larsson and the books, including the name of his real-life magazine, the publisher he first sent the manuscript to who never read it, his brother and father who inherited what became his massive estate and who may or may not have been estranged from the author, his longtime companion who did not inherit anything and who may or may not have been the books' co-author and an interesting anecdote about Larsson's preoccupation with violence against women. I'm not sure she ever really answers what the article's deck head asks: Why do people love Stieg Larsson's novels? She concludes he could spin a good yarn, his books fall into the popular "revenge tale" genre and the book's sexual violence appeals to both people who condemn such acts and those who fantasize about them. I would add that sometimes books and movies take on a life of their own and people buy and/or read or see them because everyone else is buying/reading/seeing them. I'm curious about the moment the books took off. Was Larsson already well-known as a journalist in Sweden and people flocked to read the books, especially in light of his untimely death? Or did the first book get a stellar review somewhere? Or was it a word-of-mouth success? 

I'm reading Private Patient by P.D. James. It's been on my bookshelf for awhile now, and I wanted something familiar during the holidays, like comfort food. So far so good, although I am sort of analyzing it as I read to see what makes her a good writer. For one, she gives every character a real story of their own. She also recounts the same scene from different points of view, which makes it seem more real. Nothing is ever as a single character (or person) sees it.

Happy New Year!