Deborama's Book Reviews and Store

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Nordic Noir

I have been on a Nordic Noir kick ever since the British Wallander debuted on the BBC, which led me to the Swedish Wallander, which I liked better, which led me to the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and it just sort of went on from there. Håkan Nesser is Swedish but I think his main character, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, is of some indeterminate northern European country, which could be Sweden or Holland or Poland, according to Wikipedia. He seems to use British police titles and ranks, which makes sense because he has lived in London for the past couple of decades. Van Veeteren is a popular character, and some of the early novels have been made into TV series in Sweden. In the first five, VV is still on the police force, and in the next five, he is retired and running an antiquarian bookshop but still getting involved in cases. He is something like a halfway mark between Sherlock Holmes and Wallander, with some of the wry and negative self-awareness that Holmes lacks and also some of the mysterious methodology, a mix of genius, showmanship and intuition, that Wallander lacks. Borkmann's Point is about a serial axe-murderer with exactly three victims, at least until he kidnaps a female police detective and no one is sure why or if he has killed her. The Point in the title is a point in time defined by Borkmann, a well-remembered mentor from VV's early days as a detective. He taught that there is always a point in the investigation where you have all the information you need to solve it, and all the information that comes in after that point will slow you down rather than help you. So if one can learn to discern that point, one can ignore all the extraneous information and just sit at ones desk and think. Unfortunately, you an only recognize Borkmann's Point after you have solved the crime, so it's more of a thought experiment than a tactic.


The Polish Officer

Well, it's not often I review and blog a book I have only read one chapter of. In fact, it's not often I review and blog books at all anymore. And maybe I am more jetlagged and culture-shocked than I thought I was, or maybe it really was that good. I just read the first chapter of The Polish Officer by Alan Furst, entitled The Pilawa Local. I was in tears. It made me wish I was Polish. And to all my Polish friends, my God, you come from a noble people, and I am heartily sorry if ever in my careless youth I retold or even laughed at a Polack joke, no matter how good-natured.


A book list after my own heart

I found this list of the top 100 books for permaculture and sustainable living. I have only heard of about 10 of them and don't own a single one. Sounds like a project!


Why Marx was right, and why Lenin was not a monster

Two book reviews in one article of the Guardian are paired because each offers a fresh look at figures the authors claim are vilified unfairly : Marx and Lenin. Terry Eagleton's book, Why Marx Was Right, uses a structural device of basing each chapter around an "accepted" rationale for the rejection of Marx and then refuting that rationale in the light of history and economics. Lars T. Lih's biography of Lenin is perhaps the first to portray him neither as a communist saint nor a bloodthirsty despot, but instead as a complex man who was optimistic while pragmatic. Single-minded and disciplined as a leader, he nevertheless came to know to his great regret that he had made one catastrophic mistake in his reading of history when the expected international revolution failed to develop from the World War, and instead he was left with a divided and impoverished country and a revolution that could never ripen according to the very doctrine that had driven it.


Four books that may save your life

I am going to do another of these Deborama's Books specials where I review a set of books that seem to me to speak to each other. Normally, it just happens that I read two books simultaneously, or almost simultaneously, that happen to address the same or very similar issues. In this case, I read these books at widely distant times, and only when I read the latest one, A Visit From the Goon Squad, did I see the connection. I guess what happened was that I heard echoes of each of the three other books in it, although I had not consciously connected them before. The theme that they all share is modern life, or near future life, the alienation of individuals as they begin to use technology to communicate in new ways, the breakdown of the family, the persistence of family in the face of this breakdown, the persistence of our need to connect in the face of this alienation and the sadness in the juxtaposition of youth and age that underlies all the problems of connectedness and family.


Paignton, bookshops and various books

I am blogging to you from the little seaside town of Paignton on the south coast of Devon. Originally my purpose in coming here was to look at a bookshop coming up for sale, the award-winning Torbay Bookshop in "beautiful dowtown Paignton". After my trip was booked, but before it occurred, my husband and I came to the inevitable conclusion that as much as I would love to run a bookshop, as much as he would love to buy a business with living quarters attached in a market town on the south coast of England, and as much as we would both love to sell our house and change our lives for the better, this was just not going to work. We can't even communicate rationally about the household finances, so the thought of trying to co-exist and run a business is just impossible. But I needed a break anyway, having just been made redundant from my job of 12 years, so here I am. And the bookshop is lovely.
Being a "proper" bookshop rather than a used bookshop, and with a fairly small footprint, it doesn't have a coffeeshop or wifi, so I am hanging out at the moment in another (used) bookshop just a block down the road called epicentre. Which does have wifi, obviously, and also excellent coffee, vegan snacks and quite cheap used books. (In the original version of this post, I misrepresented the Torbay Bookshop by claiming it had no seating, but Matthew, one of the owners, has pointed out to me that they do in fact have a comfy leather sofa and a children's book area with seating. My bad, or at least, my bad memory.)
I brought a number of books with me to read on the train and in the poky little hotel room at night. Two of them are centred around the slave trade, one fiction (Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, 1992 (a Booker winner) which I just got started on) and one non-fiction (Simon Schama's Rough Crossings, 2005, which I have not started.) But then, at epicentre, I bought a paperback Iris Murdoch (The Book and the Brotherhood, 1987.) So I started reading that, putting off the Unsworth for now. I have never read any Iris Murdoch and have been meaning to for years; ditto Barry Unsworth.
I also have three magazines with me, and I also read maps and tourist "literature" in a totally compulsive way when on holiday in a new place, so I can't swear I'll finish either of these books, let alone all the ones I brought along.
I am being urged by everyone to try a steam train, ferry boat and coach trip around the coast and the River Dart. But it takes a whole day and costs £21, and I am trying to "do" Paignton on less than £20 a day, so I may not. I really love going out on boats, though, so I may do a shorter cheaper little boat trip and then just hang out in cafes and pubs reading and blogging.
See also my Paignton reviews on Qype.


Things I have read in the past couple of years, and things I want to read

To see some things I want to read, you can view my Amazon UK wish list. To see another wish list and some of my Bookcrossing activity, check out my bookshelf.

Here are some highlights of books I have read in the past two years, when the tension-levels chez Deborama have been very high and consequently little or no blogging was happening.

The thing that stands out most, which was so excellent and moving and unforgettable that it immediately made it to my top 25 list, was E. L. Doctorow's The March. (I bought this in America, so this is the American paperback cover. I actually like the cover on the British edition better, which you will see if you follow the link, but the book is nearly unknown here.) I reviewed this book on Bookcrossing some time ago. Here is what I said soon after reading it:

This gripping work of historical fiction is, in my opinion, Doctorow's masterpiece. I cannot praise it highly enough. I wanted it never to end, it was that kind of book. The historical event it concerns is one I grew up surrounded by : Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's famous "march to the sea", creating a deliberate swathe of anarchy, suffering and often false jubilation from the north Georgia mountains to the city of Savannah.

Two novels that I read that were both highly political in content were very satisfying reads. Apart from that factor, they were very different. One is a current and well-known author, both for the genre and for his often controversial political positions: John le Carre. The book was A Most Wanted Man and it was absolutely chilling. The other was written by a virtual unknown. Again, I bought this book in America and it's not something you're likely to see in any bookshop in the UK, sadly. I say sadly not because this book is stupendous or anything, but because the state of the bookshop market in the UK is sad beyond belief, and far beyond what it is in the States, which is sad enough. Anyway, the book is Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta.

A Most Wanted Man is definitely le Carre's most paranoid spy story to date, easily (in my opinion) outstripping in cynicism and moral pessimism any of his incredibly dark Cold War era stories. For in Smiley's world, the spies had to do amoral things for (arguably) moral reasons, but the elected government was mainly insulated from the choice and the burden of what they put in place. In A Most Wanted Man, the government itself connives to set up an innocent man as a patsy in the war on terror, and not even for any valid reason from a moral standpoint, but just to keep power and the status quo. The really awful thing about this story is that it's so very very believable. Eat the Document is a story of the early twenty-first century denouement of a 1970's political crime entangled with idealism, young love and possible betrayal. It is wonderfully paced and multilayered enough in its plotting to be intellectually engaging, and as one who was on the fringes of the 1970s left, with all its cults and conspiracies and outrageous fantasies, for me the whole milieu as presented in the book rings remarkably true.

The next blog will cover the non-fiction books I have read, and also How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, The Girls by Lori Lansens and a couple of novels by Mary Wesley.


What I am reading now

I have been patiently waiting for this to come out in paperback and there it was, at the local W. H. Smith's when I stopped in for a paper on my post-workout ramble. So now I'm reading it. I could have read it months ago if it weren't for the fact that a) I hate reading hardbacks (too heavy) and b) when I decide to own a set like this (the Millenium trilogy) I want them to be the same format. This is the third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, in the trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson. The other two are:

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Even if you haven't been aware of the several years' of buzz about the books, you probably saw that the film of the first book has opened in the UK recently. This whole Swedish crime thriller thing (second installment) started for me with the British Wallander, based on the Wallander novels by Swedish author Henning Mankell. This led DH and I to watch the Swedish Wallander, which I actually like more. As the stories got darker and darker, I got swept up in the characters of the two young police officers, and sometimes lovers, Linda Wallander (Kurt's daughter) and Stefan Lindman. I had read about the fact that there was a final Wallander novel that Mankell said he would never write, due to his grief over the suicide of Johanna Sällström, who played Linda. In the last televised Wallander episode, the character Stefan commits suicide. Stefan was played by Ola Rapace, whose wife Noomi Rapace plays Lisbeth Salander, the lead character in the Millenium trilogy.
Ola and Noomi Rapace at the Paris premiere of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.


Some books I have read and want to read

Here, in no particular order, are some good books I have read recently (in the past two and a half years, that is.)

The March, by E. L. Doctorow

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

Meanwhile, the books I have been planning to read can be found on wish list at Also my "tbr" list at Bookcrossing.


Life of the World to Come vs. Thirty Bob a Week; a litcrit Throwdown

I have been listening to the most recent Mountain Goats album, Life of the World to Come. My son Carey turned me on to this excellent group, with its poetic, often cryptic lyrics by the singer songwriter and leader John Darnielle. For some reason, I have noticed an influence, a precursor, very unlikely, and I doubt JD is even aware of this poet from over 100 years ago - John Davidson.
(I should explain what I mean by influence, then. See Harold Bloom's seminal short book, The Anxiety of Influence, for a better explanation than I can hope to give.)
Some people have said that this album is "religious". All the song's titles are Bible verses. There is a lot of religious imagery. But poets as diverse as John Milton, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, William Blake and Dylan Thomas have used religious imagery in their poetry. This does not make them all religious poets. At first, I thought Darnielle uses religious imagery mostly like Dylan Thomas, but no. Although Thomas was not a devout man by any stretch of the imagination, and although Thomas's themes were as soaked in alcohol as Darnielle's are imbued in drug abuse, I think DT would have just called himself a sinner, not a rebel. What would JD call himself? And here I have to invoke Bloom again, for he constantly compares writing, in fact all acts of creativity, to Jacob's wrestling with God (referred to in the Scripture as an Angel but it was really God.) And all these men and women, even Milton, even Hopkins, do wrestle with God.
But the first poet who did not walk away defeated from the match, in my opinion, was John Davidson. Back in the late Victorian era, this JD had an air of jaunty defiance to the Almighty that JD of the 21st century really harks back to. Mainly I am thinking of two poems.
In A Ballad of Hell, a woman is enticed to commit suicide by a man who no longer loves her, thinking she is in a suicide pact with him. Arriving in hell and being told of his betrayal, she declares she won't stay, and marches across the fiery river to heaven.

Seraphs and saints with one great voice
Welcomed that soul that knew not fear.
Amazed to find it could rejoice,
Hell raised a hoarse, half-human cheer.
This seems pretty tame now, but it was deeply shocking to the Victorians, and similarly Darnielle often lulls listeners into thinking they are about to hear a moral lesson, only to turn the tables and blaze a new thought trail, as in the song Psalms 40:2. The verse this derives from is all about salvation and how after raising one from the pit, God will "establish your goings". In this song, our protagonists are raised from a pit, and then apparently trash the beautiful temple, sleep off the drunk, feel better, hit the road.
Head down towards Kansas we will get there when we get there don't you worry
Feel bad about the things we do along the way
But not really that bad

In Thirty Bob a Week, Davidson has this to say in response to the Victorian idea that a downtrodden workingman should accept his lot and be grateful to God:
My weakness and my strength without a doubt
Are mine alone for ever from the first:
It's just the very same with a difference in the name
As 'Thy will be done.' You say it if you durst!

They say it daily up and down the land
As easy as you take a drink, it's true;
But the difficultest go to understand,
And the difficultest job a man can do,
Is to come it brave and meek with thirty bob a week,
And feel that that's the proper thing for you.
And here is John Darnielle, in the lyric he has named for the verse in Genesis where God kicks Adam out of the garden. Here the protagonist has broken into an inhabited comfortable home that he used to live in, and it's not such a paradise after all:
Pictures up on the mantle, nobody I know
I stand by the tiny furnace where the long shadows grow
Living room to bedroom to kitchen, familiar and warm
Hours we spent starving within these walls, sounds of a distant storm
And then he concludes:
Steal home before sunset, cover up my tracks
Drive home with old dreams at play in my mind and the wind at my back
Break the lock on my own garden gate when I get home after dark
Sit looking up at the stars outside like teeth in the mouth of a shark


Greatest Living Author? I don't think so . . .

The Guardian found out how touchy some people can be when one of its stories referred to Martin Amis as "perhaps Britain's greatest living author." Obviously, there are plenty of people out there who think Martin Amis is pretty crap, and some of them are literature lovers. After digging out from under all the indignant e-mail and letters, the paper ran an article discussing who is Britain's GLA or - should there even be one? I think they tapped into a vein of weariness with all this faux-competitive "greatest" crap generally, although some people objected to it just because it focuses on the "living" part. Harold Bloom's controversial The Western Canon was alluded to, and that's always good for an argument.
The Best, according to various writers, critics and booksellers
Harold Bloom's book on the Western Canon


Books that will change the way you look at Christianity

I found a brief article on the website, which I usually use to find recipes rather than enlightenment, about a list of books on a topic dear to my soul, the history of Christianity and how the gnostics, Jewish "Christians" and others were suppressed by those more politically powerful, a story that is basically about how the religion we now know as Christianity came about. Here are the books, with links to purchase them from Deborama through, if you should so wish.


The Lady Di of her day

I read Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire while I was in Portland last year. This is a very rich book, and it is better than the average popular historical biography on several levels. Many contemporary books on "scholarly" subjects, such as history or science, are immensely "dumbed down" to the point that an average layperson such as me, who is college educated but not by any means an academic, feels quite condescended to by the writing style, and a bit cheated by the material. That is definitely not the case with Amanda Foreman's writing. It is never repetitive nor does it over-explain, and yet it remains not only accessible, but also gripping in places, due to the fascinating nature of the subject. As an example of what I mean, here are excerpts from two reader reviews on the Amazon website:

Alexandra from Manningtree: I'm lucky enough to have a history degree, but this book is so accessible you don't need one; Foreman just guides through giving you all extra info without sounding patronising. This has to be the best researched biography I've read... if only my academic reading was as fun.

A Reader frim London:I often feel that books aimed at the general reader, ie, someone like me who did not go to university, assume that we are all thickwits who can't tell the difference between good and bad writing. The one thing I loved about Georgiana is that the book has all the quality of academic history while at the same time being very entertaining. Although at times I had to concentrate really hard on a lot of unfamiliar information, I also felt I was getting the real thing.

A brief synopsis of the life of Lady Georgiana Spencer (great x4 aunt of Princess Diana), who became at 19 the Duchess of Devonshire, will give a taste of the rich and engaging tale this book tells. Beautiful, talented and gracious, Georgiana was one of the wealthiest people in the world, yet she was plagued by enormous gambling debts most of her life. She was one of the first women in the modern world to get involved in politics, at a time when women had not even the faintest hope that they would ever vote, and was alternately cheered and jeered for it by the fickle public. She was married to one of the most powerful peers in England, yet she gave birth to a child who was fathered by a man of lesser rank, and had to sneak away to the continent to do so. She was part of a menage a trois, being in love with the manipulative yet charming and somewhat pitiable Lady Elizabeth Frazer, her husband's sometime mistress. Although she died somewhat prematurely in her late 40s, she was a witness to or participant in many of the major episodes of early modern European history.

A pair of novels with a common thread

I have this weird habit of reading two novels, either close together in time or sometimes even at the same time, that share a theme or otherwise speak to each other in some way. A little less than a year ago, I did it again. I read Vernon God Little, by D. B. C. Pierre, just a week or so after reading Hey, Nostradamus, by Douglas Coupland. Both of these are black comedies (of a sort), told (partly, in one case) from the point of a male teenager protagonist, concerning a community caught up in the throes of a mass shooting at the local high school.
Of the two, I thought Vernon God Little was funnier, but also far darker. Perhaps this is because it does not grapple with metaphysical issues so much. In the bleak, rather horrifyingly ugly community of Martirios Texas, a mass shooting can only bring the people far enough awake from their ugly dream-state to contemplate the possibility of human decency, and they don't get very far with that. All of the characters in VGL are flawed, some of them very, very deeply. Although the novel doesn't have a totally negative viewpoint, the best it can offer is the kind of redemption where a really terrible situation improves to approximate normality. The protagonist, Vernon Gregory Little, is wrongly suspected of the shooting, and is gleefully sent to death row by his community. His mother is sick with concern, but slightly more stressed by losing out on her new almond-coloured refrigerator and being dumped by the evil sleaze-bag Eulalio Ledesma, who is, unbeknownst to her, responsible for her boy's conviction by the media.
Hey Nostradamus is another take on a similar scenario. The neighbourhood and the school are slightly more upscale. This novel is about religion and views society through a more moral lens than VGL. Of the four narrators, the strongest character is the male teenager, Jason. Jason was secretly married to Cheryl, the first narrator, and Cheryl was one of the victims. Jason is revered as a hero because he killed one of the gunmen with a rock, but he is himself so troubled by this and by another little secret in his life that it dominates his adulthood completely. The third narrator is Heather, who marries Jason some time after the tragedy, never knowing that he was married to Cheryl. The fourth narrator seemed to be the villain of the piece at first: he is Reg, Jason's destructive, unlovable father, a fundamentalist with a self-righteous streak and an even bigger streak of character disorder. Reg, however, takes up the narration many years after the shootings, and by this time, life has rubbed off a lot of his sharp edges and he has even gained Christian humility. I am leaving out a lot here, because these quirky touches are so much better when discovered suddenly in the narrative. It's not your typical Douglas Coupland book.


Fingersmith on the BBC

The BBC is showing an excellent dramatisation of Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters, which I reviewed earlier. Especially if you did not read the book, you must see this if you like a brooding romance and several wicked plot twists. Or if you just like what passed for hot lesbian action in the mid-Victorian period. Having read the book, I know what's coming and it makes a huge difference in the appreciation of the story. Whatever you do, do not let anyone spoil the surprise. It's quite delicious.


Trudeau's tribute to the inspiration behind Uncle Duke

Doonesbury is running a little series featuring Duke (now an American warlord in Iraq) in an existential yet surrealist tribute to the good doctor, aka Mr. Fear and Loathing, aka Hunter S. Thompson.


Dashiell Hammett

While I am waiting for that blast of either energy or inspiration to do my backlog of book reviews, I thought I would post a link to this excellent article about Dashiell Hammett from the San Francisco Gate. As you can probably tell from my choice of reading, I love detective stories, mysteries and crime writing. I am unusual in a way in that I almost equally like the sub-genres of the genre, called rather disparagingly "tea cosy" and "hard-boiled". Noir is another sub-genre that sits to the left of hard-boiled, and yet paradoxically can have a bit of tea cosy about it as well. I think Dashiell Hammett is the godfather of noir. And one of the things I really like, both in crime/mystery/detective fiction and in SF, my second great favourite genre, is a political subtext. Hammett's first of only five novels, Red Harvest, is also a classic, in this sub-sub-genre.


The man behind "The Polar Express"

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune book section had this interview with Chris Van Allsburg, the man behind "The Polar Express". I remember seeing this beautiful book in Dayton's around Christmas time either 1985 or 1986. I don't know why I didn't buy it for my son; maybe he had decreed "don't buy me any more books" (always quite possible when you are dealing with me, seeing as how I have about a 95% books given as gifts lifetime record.) If that's the case, I wonder why I didn't buy it for myself? Then Dayton's Department Store (now called Marshall's; it's a long story) had an animatronic Polar Express exhibit one Christmas. I also am not sure if I took my son to see that or not; my daughter would have already been a little old for it, or maybe it was the year she went to live with my sister (another long story.) And now apparently it's a movie with Tom Hanks, but since the only kid I now have is my husband, we did not go to see it. But this is a beautiful book for children of all ages. The movie looks pretty good too.


Soul of a Butterfly

This morning I read a book review for a biography/autobiography of Muhammad Ali from the Times Online Books mailing list. Sometimes, a really good review is almost as good as the book itself. This review was excellent, and is the sort of thing I aspire to in my book reviews. Reviews of books that the reviewer didn't enjoy are rarely good, only when the reviewer is good with corrosive sarcasm and the book is bad enough in a big enough way to deserve it. But a good review of a good book gives you a taste of why that book is so good, gives you a taste of the book itself and gives you a little more besides.

Take love, for example: and the book is all about love. For Ali, it seems essential that he loves vast numbers of people, and is loved back by them. I was there in Atlanta when he lit the Olympic flame, and I felt the oceans of love washing towards him from America and the world. I have been at prize-fights where the very name Ali gets a bigger cheer than either contestant. Ali: the world’s most beloved sportsman; perhaps the world’s most beloved human.
Which is odd when you remember that he spent years as a hate-magnet. Quite deliberately: he modelled his free-wheeling braggart monologues on a wrestler named Gorgeous George, reasoning that the more people who wanted to see his ass whupped, the more tickets he would sell. He was always an actor, an illusionist, a man who adores conjuring tricks. He still does them; though now, as a devout Muslim who will never deceive, he afterwards insists on showing you how it was done.