Monday, September 27, 2010

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

The title comes from a Mao poem: "Fragile images of departure/ the village back then. I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed."

Perhaps this book is a meditation, perhaps it is a reflection that enjoins the reader to slow down while reading and enter into the meditation. Time is certainly a character in this book.

Arvid Jansen, the melancholy narrator, reflects on his life when he is confronted with the weakening of three structures in his life that acted as his sources of stability: marriage, his mother, and his political beliefs; but now his marriage is ending in divorce, his mother’s cancer diagnosis means that he may never garner her approval, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall is the final nail in his belief in communism.

Arvid, the son of working class parents, had quit college after two years because he was enamored with communism. He feels he must join the proletariat and work in a factory. In time he realizes that the choice he made was foolish. He eventually abandons the factory and works in a bookstore.

When his mother decides to travel from her home in Oslo to her homeland in Denmark. Arvid insists on going with her and her friend. She's heading for a beach house where Arvid, his parents and three brothers vacationed in the summer. It's obvious that he wants something from his mother. He wants her approval, but sees that he has consistently disappointed her. When he had told her that he left college she slapped him. His mother and father had no choice but to be working people while he threw away the chance to discover other choices.

They do share a commonality—the love of books. At a time in her life when she needs to be supported Arvid only sees his needs.

In Petterson's story characters look backwards at what had been. At one point Arvid says, "Time had passed behind my back and I had not turned to look..."

This is a book to read slowly, to savor for what it says about loss, about time. His writing, spare and stunning, engages the reader. When Arvid's mother describes the landscape of her home town she says, " ...windswept open stretch of marram grass...and the sea lay taut this morning like a blue-grass porous skin and the sky above the sea was as white as milk."

The book is a meditation — a meditation that flows just like the river of time.

Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason

A young child discovers a small object while out playing and gives it to his toddler brother. A medical student who is a picking up his brother at the child's birthday party sees the toddler chewing on the object and recognizes it as part of a human skeleton. This sets off the story.

Inspector Erlendur of the Reykjavik police department is called on and he and his team dig around the area where the child found the bone. They discover a skeleton buried in a rather shallow grave. Archeologists are called upon to carefully unearth the skeleton, which had been buried for many years.

Elrendur must eliminate all possible scenarios. It could be the skeleton of someone who froze to death, something that happens in Iceland. Or perhaps it is one of the American or British servicemen stationed in Iceland during WWII.

Another story emerges of a family that occupied a summer chalet near the area. It's a tale of horrific domestic abuse. The threads of several stories entwine seamlessly and eventually the identity of the skeleton is revealed.

Along with the investigation the inspector's own personal story is revealed. The book is about relationships and how the events of the past impress themselves on what happens later on in life.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

When the Devil Holds the Candle By Karen Fossum

Things get out of hand and one event leads to another in an escalating psychological thriller. Fossum's story is more than a mystery; it is a look at society and how the issues of alienation, weakness, and boredom may play out in the real world. The main characters in the story lack a moral compass. But to Fossum it is more than a moral compass that is out of kilter. Evil is a real force. One of the characters recognizes this and understands.

"The hideous evil person you become when the Devil holds the candle".

Two friends, not quite adults, but living in the adult world, spend all their time together. One, Andreas is employed while the other, Zipp, seems to either spend his time with Andreas or at home. He doesn't have a job and appears not to be to concerned. The two of them stay outside of any other community even when they are someplace where others congregate. They wander about, trolling the streets, bored and looking for something to enliven their lives.

A encounter between the two of them in a darkened cemetery escalates their need to find something to eradicate that experience. They rob a woman who is wheeling a baby carriage. Yet it isn't simple because the mother runs after them and forgets to brake the carriage properly. The carriage rolls and the baby is thrown out. That fall will in time result in the baby's death.

Andreas and Zipp immediately head to a bar and spend the meager amount of money found in the wallet . Once having started down this path they crave more excitement. They frighten a young boy on his way home from school. They lose any sense of a moral compass when they are really tormenting this child. The child is the grandson of Inspector Sejer and this small incident will play a pivotal role in the book.

Evil has a way of becoming addictive. Andreas has a knife on him and he decides that they should rob an old woman. They follow her down darkened streets. Andreas goes into the house while Zipp waits outside. In an unexpected turn Andreas is hurt and the woman, Irma Finder, takes care of him. He is at the bottom of the basement stairs and is unable to move. Irma goes to the police, but her reportage is convoluted and it appears that she is talking about her husband who has been gone a bit over a decade.

Fossum gets inside her head and we watch and listen to her needs being addressed by sustaining Andrea’s life by feeding him water out of a baby's bottle. The Devil exerts its hold on Irma the same way it had a hold on Andreas and Zipp.

An additional, yet peripheral story, concerns Robert who shoots his girlfriend in the face because he wanted to keep his relationship with his girlfriend intact. He's someone who had felt alienated and this relationship is important and he feels that another boy is threatening it.

As a counterbalance to Inspector Sejer is his assistant, Jacob Skarre who says, "We encounter the Devil all the time. The question is how we handle him."

This a fascinating book with broader themes that have such relevance for our society. I'll certainly read more of Karen Fossum's books.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Seeking Enlightenment by Nevada Barr

I picked this book up this afternoon. Despite being published in 2003, I found it on the new book rack at the library.Perhaps it's new to the library.

Several years ago I read one of Barr's National Park mysteries. My partner has read them all and loves learning about the parks --especially the ones we've visited. I was curious about a book seemingly away from her usual territory. 

Besides when I flipped through it I found the page with a quote from Jerry Garcia --" What a long strange trip it has been." Who of a certain age doesn't remember his artistry on the guitar?

There's nothing new, but it was intriguing to read about her path and note how so much of her life shows up in her books 

Barr is honest and doesn't paint herself as someone who knows all the answers, just the ones that work for her. 

In Evil Hour by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


Not having a clear picture of the political situation in Columbia in 1955 I had to apprise myself of the politics before really understanding the book.

According to my reading, Columbia was enmeshed in civil wars and "bloody repressions" which claimed at least 250,000 lives between 1948 and 1962. " Marquez left Columbia for Paris in 1955. He wasn't popular with the Columbian dictators and realized that his freedom as a writer would be significantly impacted by the violence.

This book is based on a real event in a small town .Some people pasted lampoons on doors, places of business, and wherever they could affix the broadside. Since many of these lampoons were gossipy and  slanderous and  accused townspeople of hidden secrets, disarray broke out in the town. Fights, killings, reprisals of all sorts embroiled the citizens in a siege of revenge.

Marquez uses this incident and the political climate of that time to create his story. Not only are these gossip sheets accusing middle class citizens of unacceptable behavior, sexual escapades,adultery— but the political opponents of the present regime start printing subversive pamphlets.

The mayor declares a curfew, a boy is killed by the police, the local dentist and the major get involved in a verbal confrontation, people pack up and leave town.

There are dreams, fortune tellers, humor, and even the beginnings of magic realism in this book—a portend of what is to come in later books.

The characters are interesting—as is the discussion of  politics and how one disreputable governing group is simply the same as the next one in Columbia.

This is an early book and quite accessible—and a portend of the riches to follow.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On To Extremist level

The Global Reading Challenge has been a superb challenge. I've found a number of new writers.

Recently I decided to continue on to the Extremist Level and have two books left to finish that level.


After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Reading Murakami means leaving your own sense of reality and following him into a magical landscape—a landscape that doesn't obey the laws of physics. Often I'm uncertain about what it all means, but I'm never bored.

The entire story takes place in Tokyo and spans the time from 11:56pm to 6:52 am. Mari, a young student, is at a table in Denny’s Restaurant drinking coffee. A musician joins her. During their conversation he finds out that she speaks Chinese. Later on he involves her in an incident at a Love Hotel where a Chinese prostitute is beaten and everything she owns is stolen. Because no one else speaks Chinese they are at a loss until the musician shows up with Mari.

While we enter into Mari's evening her sister is home sleeping. This isn't an ordinary sleep. She lies in a room that is emptied of furniture save for a television set. By some act of magical realism she is sometimes in her room and sometimes on the other side of the television set and we act as viewers.

Through the musician Mari meets a number of people while her sister sleeps. Her sister Eri had retreated to her bedroom two months prior to this night and has not emerged.

Real and unreal are mixed up with a shadow space between the two. Perhaps each character is asking the same questions: What does this all mean? Where do I belong? What is real? Do I have a place in this universe?

There's a change for Mari by the end of the book and possibly a change for her sister.

When I finished the book I asked myself some of the same questions.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Blood Split by Asa Larsson

The best part of this book was the setting— very northern Sweden. 

Rebecka Martinsson, a lawyer, had killed three people in order to save innocent lives. She is exonerated, yet is haunted by the deaths and is immobilized—unable to engage in her job and unable to partake in social relations.

She becomes involved in another crime when she accompanies a member of her firm to a small village. Several months before their visit a local female priest had been found hanging from the church rafter.

Larsson introduces a number of characters. The priest, Mildred Nisson, is both a crusader and a thorn in the side of the local hunters and many of the married men in the village. They hold her responsible for encouraging the women to push the boundaries set by men and stand up for themselves.

Larsson profiles Mildred's  lesbian relationship with a local woman. She writes about a retarded boy who brings pleasure to those who get to know him. There's also an assortment of quirky characters. Ah—there's also a story of a wolf.Too many of these characterizations feel like stereotypes.

While Larsson does a good job describing the setting, the characters seem to flounder from one situation to another. The plot meanders and suddenly everything is tied together and the murderer is revealed.