Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Torso ~ Helene Tursten

Thank goodness!  I really enjoyed Helene Tursten's first crime novel, Detective Inspector Huss, but you know what it's like, you get a first novel that is absolutely wonderful and then the second disappoints and the author just never seems to manage to push those same successful buttons again.  Not Helene Tursten, who is without a doubt the best of the Scandinavian crime writers I've discovered over the past couple of years.  Her second book, The Torso, is every bit as good as her debut and my frustration at discovering that the library only has one copy of her third novel and that there is a long queue is immense, although not entirely unexpected.

Irene Huss and the other members of her investigative team are called in when the torso of a body is discovered on the Swedish coast line wrapped in a black plastic bag.  Not only has the body been dismembered, but it is clear from the obscenities inflicted on the remains that the victim has been horrendously tortured and mutilated.  Searching across Europe to try and identify the corpse, Huss discovers a similar crime in Denmark and so is sent by her Superintendent to Copenhagen to see if there is any evidence there as to who the body parts may have belonged to.  The information that Irene is able to pull together suggests that a necrosadist is operating in both countries, killing in order to get sexual satisfaction from the desecration of the bodies.

Very quickly, it becomes apparent that the killer is aware of the police's interest in him and that he appears to have some level of access to the investigation.  A succession of people identified as having likely connections with the murderer turn up dead or are viciously attacked and the fear grows that he will target members of the team themselves.  There is also the possibility to be faced that it may be one of their own who is the perpetrator.

One of the things that I find admirable in Tursten's work is that she doesn't glory in the horrors that she has to describe.  She doesn't hold back, but there is no sense of her using the terrible scenes that are involved to draw the reader in.  And believe me, in this book she could well have fallen prey to that temptation.  The point is made on several occasions that necrosadism is extremely unusual and for that we should all be extremely thankful.  Nevertheless, while she leaves us in no doubt that the actual murderer is a monster, Tursten is also careful to explore the manner in which more 'normal' humans can find themselves drawn into the environs of such appalling practices and, for the most part, these people she depicts with a welcome level of sympathy and understanding.  It would be all too easy to judge.

As before, there are certain things about Tursten's work that don't necessarily translate well in either the literal or figurative sense of the word.  I'm fairly sure that only one translation has been commissioned and it is definitely an American one.  Even so, I think something audacious takes 'the biscuit' rather than 'the cake' in both versions of the English language and there are several other incidents of such infelicitous renditions.  And then there is the detective set up.  Do the Scandinavian police really not ring each other up after five o'clock because everyone would have gone home?  I find that rather scary.  And do they really turn a blind eye to some of the excessive drinking on duty that goes on and the behaviour towards colleagues that results.  There are a couple of Tursten's detectives who, if Quintin Jardine's Bob Skinner was to ever to have them under him, would find themselves back pounding the beat before they could blink.  That is if he didn't throw them out of the force altogether.

However, these are relatively minor points and I wouldn't want anyone to be put off this series, which I think is one of the best to come out of Scandinavia in recent years and certainly one I hope continues through many more volumes.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Summer Time

There are certain sure signs that Summer is here.  For each of us they are probably very different.  It used to be the sound of the first ice cream van jingle, but round here they were still trying to ply their trade when I couldn't get the car out of the garage because of mounds and mounds of snow, so I've had to ditch that as one my sure fire indications.  Sadly, these days I complete the statement

I know that has Summer has come when.....

with the words

I can drive onto campus at 11.00am and find a parking space.  

Usually you have to be there well before nine.  The pleasure of not having to fight for a place is immense.

One universal signal, however, is the appearance in the Sunday papers of the lists of Summer Reading and this morning, the first really warm day we've had this year, The Sunday Times has provided fifty fiction and fifty non-fiction choices along with a handful of audio and children's suggestions.

I always pour over these lists with real interest.  The New Year equivalent, when people are asked for their 'books of the year', are terribly 'worthy' and I don't believe for a moment that half of them have ever really been read.  They have just been chosen to make the people recommending them sound good.  These Summer recommendations are different.  Oh, very few people actually come out with the real 'beach reads', but what you do get are suggestions of good, solid readable fiction; the sort that will see you through the next six months or so whatever the weather.

Amongst this morning's list there are several books that I have earmarked for any free days that I might discover hidden in my diary, including Ann Patchett's new novel, State of Wonder and Jane Harris's story of an English spinster who attaches herself to the family of a painter in the Glasgow of 1888, Gillespie and I.  There are also a couple that I seem to have missed when they came out, but which look very interesting.  I've enjoyed Justin Cartwright's earlier books, so I shall definitely see if I can find a copy of Other People's Money and Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies set in post-war Paris sounds fascinating as well.

Reading through the list made me think, however, about all the plans I have made for Summer Reading over the years and about how rarely I have been able to stick to them.  When I was studying or teaching there was always a reading list for the following term that needed attention and each year I promised myself that I would get started early and make sure that I didn't end up having to rush.  After all, how many people had the privilege of a working life where reading fiction was a central activity?  How many would have killed for such a life?  But it never worked out like that.  There was always something on the library shelf, or something I'd been storing up all year that found its way into my hands instead.  And I don't suppose this year will be any different.  I might state my intention of reading certain books, but I strongly suspect that the same thing will happen as in the past.  I have eight books that have to be read for one reason or another before the second weekend in September, all excellent novels in their own right, but I don't mind betting that I shall be desperately trying to finish them at the last moment just as in previous years.

Am I alone in this?  Or are you all far better at meeting your objectives than me.  If so, what is your secret?  Please, do share it.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Back Again!

Look, if I ever commit myself up to that level again, will you all please take me out and shoot me!  How stupid can you get?  All I feel like doing now is precisely what is going on in the picture on the left.  In fact, I'm not even certain I've got the strength to read.  It might have to be a decent audiobook and someone else reading to me.

However, I do have one thing to be grateful for in as much as I had a request earlier in the week from a local university to see if I would do a year's cover work for them from September and I said no.  At any other time I might have been tempted to help them out only to have regretted it later when all the preparation and marking started to mount up.  But, coming as it did, just as I was really experiencing the consequences of saying yes too often, I turned them down without a second thought.  Come cold winter mornings, when I would have been dragging myself out to catch an early train, I shall be so glad about that.

Anyway, now I'm taking a breather before turning my mind towards the two Summer Schools I'm organising this year.  The first is the second week in August and is based round three piano concertos, one each by Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich.  We're going to place each one in the context of other music being written at the same time, by both those composers and others and I'm really looking forward to it because, although I've done all the organisation, I'm not leading any of the sessions so I can just sit back and enjoy the music.

The other, two weeks later, is our annual literature Summer School and this year the people coming have chosen to read three books each of which is set in two different time periods: Daphne du Maurier's The House on the Strand, Emma Darwin's A Secret Alchemy and Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott.  I have to do rather more where that week is concerned, because as well as leading the final discussion I also have to pull the whole week together and I want to get people thinking about why historical fiction seems to be making a comeback at the moment.  I happened to catch a radio discussion some weeks back suggesting that more recent historical research, which has concentrated on the everyday life of ordinary people, as opposed to the political events, was responsible and I shall be interested to see what the others think about that idea.  If any of you have any thoughts that would add to the discussion then please do let me know.

Now I'm off to put my feet up and listen to Wimbledon.  I might even pick up a book and read.  But then again, I might not.  Have a good weekend.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Call Me Stupid!

I don't know what's wrong with me.  I do it every single time.  I resolve solemnly that never again will I say that fatal little word, "Yes" without checking every diary I possess and then promptly start saying "Yes" as if my life depended on it.  Consequently, sitting quietly reading in the garden is precisely not what I am doing at the moment.  A picture of a dog chasing its own tail would be infinitely more appropriate.

I am thoroughly over committed for the next ten days or so and as a result my presence round the blogging sphere is going to be very limited.  Apologies to all those whose blogs I don't get to read and comment on, I will be back when I have a spare moment.

Be good while I'm not there to keep an eye on you!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Room ~ Emma Donoghue

I have to say that if I'm honest I've been avoiding Emma Donoghue's book Room ever since it first came out and there was so much publicity about its links with real life cases of abduction and imprisonment.  I thought it was one of those books that I would simply be unable to read because its subject matter would hurt so much.  That may be cowardly of me.  Perhaps it would be better for me to read books that cause me empathetic pain and force me into accepting the very real evil that does exist and which I have been so lucky as to avoid.  However, the truth is that I don't find such books easy reading and am therefore likely to put them to one side and they remain unfinished.

So, when Room turned up on one of my book group lists I wasn't quite certain how I was going to approach it.  I decided in the end that I would set myself a goal of fifty pages a day in the hope that I would never have to spend so much time in the world of abuse that I would be unable to continue with the reading.

The first day didn't go too badly at all.  There is no way that an adult can ignore the fact that what is being described is a situation so horrific as to be most women's worst nightmare but, because the narrator is five year old Jack, we are cushioned from that.  The one room in which he and his mother are confined is the only world that he knows and for him it is security.  His days are filled with creativity and love and he is content.  Oh, he'd like a bit more in the way of Sunday treats, but for the most part he is a happy child.  It's almost the extreme possible argument for a child being better off if they have clear cut boundaries.  Jack certainly has boundaries and they define his life in a way which at five make him feel safe.  How's that for irony?

So, the first day didn't go too badly.  I did have an argument with Donoghue on the very first page because I wasn't convinced and I'm still not convinced that a child of five would be able to handle the concept of minus numbers.  I've come across a good number of undergraduates who still have a problem with the idea.  But, I was willing to let that go if only because so far the book hadn't been the painful read I'd been anticipating.  I was beginning to think that this was going to be one of those books that I would be glad that I'd read even though I would never be able to read again.

Then came day two - remember, fifty pages!  It was a Sunday, so I thought I'd knock them off first thing in the morning and have the remainder of the day for more pleasant reading.  Four hours later I climbed out of the mental wringer that the rest of the book had put me through not having been able to put it down until I'd finished it and I knew that this was a book to which I would return time and time again.

I am not going to go into the story because I'm sure most people will already know what this novel is about and neither am I going to wax lyrical about the way in which Donoghue controls the narrative voice because I know that my obsession with the way in which the narrative voice is used is not universally shared.  (I once heard Philip Pullman say that the most important decision a writer had to make about a book was the nature of the narrative voice and I had to be forcibly stopped from standing up and cheering!)  But I do just want to mention the, to me at least, very interesting comments the author seems to be making about what are and what are not universal truths and philosophical dilemmas that are actually native to our human way of thinking.

I almost passed the first of these by without noting it.  Jack has just learnt that the world he sees on the television is a representation of something that is real and he is forced to reflect on what this means for his own reality.

Outside has everything.  When ever I think of a thing now like skis or fireworks or islands or elevators or yo-yos, I have to remember they're real, they're actually happening in Outside all together.  It makes my head tired.  And people too, firefighters teachers burglars babies saints soccer players and all sorts, they're all really in Outside.  I'm not there, though, me and Ma, we're the only ones not there.  Are we still real?

But, I had to go back to it when I hit the Schrodinger's Cat problem.  During the moments of his escape from Room, wrapped in a rug that threatens to smother him, Jack realises that for the first time ever he has left the security of the only home he has ever known and in a panic asks himself.

I'm not in Room.  Am I still me?

Only later, when he and his mother are safe to turn that around to

Is Room still there when we're not in it?

How do we know who we are?  How do we understand our own reality in relation to that of those around us?

There are echoes of towering truths from literature as well;  understandings that our greatest writers have come to and passed down, but which Jack discovers for himself.  As he considers the implication of growing older he comments

Before I didn't even know to be mad that we can't open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it.  When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I'm five I know everything.

And later, as he begins to comprehend the enormity of Outside and the people it contains he echoes Shylock's great speech on the universality of humanity.

I think about all the kids in the world, how they're not TV they're real, they eat and sleep and pee and poo like me.  If I had something sharp and pricked them they'd bleed, if I tickled them they'd laugh.

There are several other examples of Jack trying to come to terms with the nature of of the world he eventually finds himself in and especially of the vexing question as to what is real and what is not, what is a valid response to any situation and what is either not acceptable or simply false.  I will simply finish with what I think is most telling.  Jack is indulging in a new game at the home of his grandparents, namely channel surfing, and he hears his own name not in real but in TV.

"...need to listen to Jack."

"We're all Jack, in a sense," says another man sitting at the big table.

"Obviously," says another one.

Are they called Jack too, are they some of the million?

"The inner child, trapped in our personal Room one oh one," says another of the men, nodding.

I don't think I was ever in that room.

"But then perversely, on release, finding ourselves alone in a crowd..."

"Reeling from the sensory overload of modernity,"says the first one.


There's a woman too.  "But surely, at a symbolic level, Jack's the child sacrifice," she says, "cemented into the foundations to placate the spirits."


Huh, indeed.  This is just so much psychobabble -and that is being polite.  Jack knows what is real in this world, what matters, far better than any of these so-called experts.  When he asks why he can't see Ma, now sick in hospital she tells him

"They're still fiddling with my dosage, trying to figure out what I need."

To which Jack's response is

Ma, she needs me.  Can't she figure that out.

All you need is love.

Please read this book.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

I am not a Passive Reader.

As Erica Wagner said in yesterday's Times, I don't like disagreeing with Kate Atkinson, who is one of my favourite authors and a writer whose intelligence I respect, but when she says as she did in that selfsame publication that reading is a passive activity I simply have to take issue.  The actual quote, taken from a piece marking the move of Jackson Brodie to the television screen this evening was this,

People like to think that there’s some synergy between reading and writing but there isn’t. Writing is a very active act and reading is passive and that’s seen as a negative thing: people don’t want to be seen to be passive. They want to feel engaged and involved in the process but they’re not. They’re reading something that would exist even if the reader didn’t.

Don't worry, I'm not going to get into the whole reader-response question here.  I know that the book sitting by my side at the moment would still exist even if I didn't.  But, even without wandering into the realms of literary theory, I'm afraid I think she is just plain wrong.  Whatever else reading is it isn't passive.  Or if it is then it has stopped being a worthwhile occupation because all you are doing is letting the words pass through your mind without engaging with them in any way and you might just as well fill the space up with so much cotton wool.

Any child in the process of learning how to read will tell you that reading is damned hard work.  The fact that so many of us manage to master the art to the point where we no longer notice that fact is a tribute to a lot more hard work put in by teachers of one sort or another all over the world.  But once you've reached that point and you don't notice the work you're putting in any more what you're doing is still not passive; what is more it is perfectly possible for it to be active in a different way every single time you pick a book up.

This past week I've read four books each of which has asked me to engage actively with it in an entirely different way.  One has an extremely complex plot located in a slightly off kilter world which demands that I follow every twist and turn in an unfamiliar setting without letting a single ball drop if I want to have a hope of understanding how the final denouement fits logically with what has gone before.

A second has engaged me in an emotional manner that has demanded that I empathise with characters I might not normally respond to and come to some understanding of why they have behaved as they have and why I might possibly be able to follow their reasoning if not ever applaud their choices.

The third and fourth are both books where I have been struck immediately by the fact that the writers are women of tremendous intelligence and I have struggled, as I read their novels, to keep up with the ideas that their minds have woven into extremely readable books.  But even here what I have been working at has been different.  In one of these it has been the ideas themselves that have kept me on my toes, the writers that this author has assumed I would know and the way in which their concepts have fed into the story she is telling.  In the other is has been the style that has had me thinking, deceptively simply and yet expressed in language so distilled that unpacking all the layers of meaning has been a tremendous challenge.  Working out how she has managed it would be another task in itself.

So, I'm afraid I have to disagree with Kate Atkinson.  For me the very essence of the pleasure that is reading is the fact that it isn't passive, that I have to work at it if I want to get anything out of it.  And the day it becomes a passive, time filling activity is the day I will burn my library cards and go out and shot myself.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Don't Rain on my Parade!

A couple of weeks ago I went down to London for the day.  Now, unless you know me very well, you won't realise the enormity of that sentence.  Due to a chronic condition that forced me into early retirement I haven't been able to travel any great distance for the last five or six years without disastrous consequences that laid me low for days.  For the first three years I had a fifteen mile limit and could only be glad that there was so much that I could do locally within such a small area.  Gradually, I've been able to push my boundaries further afield, getting to Stratford two years ago and Oxford last summer.  Now I've managed the two hundred mile round trip to London and although I'm not going to be able to do it very often, I feel as if I've been given the world.  As I walked down Baker Street on my way from Marylebone Station to Trafalgar Square I looked up at the first storm clouds the capital had seen in weeks and bellowed out the Streisand song defying the weather to rain on my parade.  It's a good job people are used to eccentrics in London.  No one paid a blind bit of notice!

I had, in fact, gone specifically to see the Jan Gossaert exhibition at the National Gallery.  I love the Flemish artists of this period (early sixteenth century), especially the wonderful portraits that they painted of both their aristocratic patrons and some of the more mercantile burghers who employed them.  This chap, keeping very careful note of all the financial comings and goings in his business, is a banker.  I would love to know what his filing system was like.  Could he just reach up and find the appropriate note that told you by how much you were overdrawn without even looking.  I bet he could.  Look at that face.  You weren't going to put anything over that gentleman, were you?

But the whole expedition had clearly gone to my head because I kept seeing all sorts of things that I suspect a serious minded art critic would not have agreed with nor approved of.  For example, there is a wonderful cartoon of Adam and Eve in which it is absolutely obvious from the way in which Eve is supporting him that Adam has taken all the apples from the Tree of Knowledge and turned them into high octane cider.  What's more, he's drunk it all!

Then there is a canvas of St Luke painting his vision of the Virgin and Child and I am seriously worried about what one little cherub sitting at Mary's feet is up to.  What need has he to have his hands up Mary's skirt, I ask myself.  Actually, I probably don't want to know the answer.

Anyway, giggling is clearly not the done thing in the National Gallery, so eventually I took myself off down Piccadilly to Fortnum and Mason and indulged in that most decadent of English customs, afternoon tea.

If you ever have the chance to go to Fortnum and Mason for afternoon tea then do take out a mortgage and partake.  (And you definitely do 'partake', any other verb simply wouldn't meet the circumstances.)  Nothing else rivals one of their own individual blends served in a silver plated tea-pot and accompanied by homemade scones, jam and clotted cream.  I was very good and stuck at that.  But if you want to you can go the whole way and add sandwiches and a slice of one of their wonderful cakes.  You won't want to face either your bank manager or the bathroom scales in the immediate future but believe me it will be worth it.

I hope this isn't going to be a one off visit to London.  I just woke up that morning and knew that I could try and I suspect that for the moment that is going to have to be the way I do it.  Planning in advance is likely to hype up my adrenaline levels and undermine me before I start.  But it's a beginning and I intend to build on it.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Detective Inspector Huss ~ Helene Tursten

Hard on the heels of the Martin Beck novels I've come across another Scandinavian Crime writer whose first book, at least, I've really enjoyed.  Detective Inspector Huss is the initial novel by Swedish writer, Helene Tursten, in a growing series about her eponymous heroine, Irene Huss.  The copy I have  says on the jacket that she is Sweden's Prime Suspect.  I can only say that whoever wrote that has either not read the book or not seen the British TV programme because Irene Huss, happy in her home life with husband and twin daughters, is about as far from Jane Tennison as it is possible to be.  Neither does the book glory in violence in the way that the television series can seem to.  Yes there is violence in this story, but for the most part it is kept at a distance.  We see its after effects, but there are no long drawn out descriptions of the attacks to which various members of the force are subjected.  In fact, if the book made me think of any English writer it was P D James.  Tursten's insistence on the day to day routine that is behind most police work and the need to follow through with all the necessary legwork is reminiscent of Dalgliesh at his best.

Irene Huss is called in to help investigate when an apparent suicide turns out to have been something more sinister.  The victim, Richard von Knecht, rather than jumping from his balcony appears to have been helped on his way and the case only becomes more complex when there is a bomb blast at von Knecht's office and an explosion in the car of one of the chief suspects.  When it becomes apparent that there is also a link through drugs to roaming gangs of Hells Angels the police team have to ask whether there is some wider criminal conspiracy going on, especially as all the family members who might have had reason to want von Knecht out of the way have what appear to be cast iron alibis.

I suspect that the reason I enjoyed this book so much more than many of the other Scandinavian novels I've tried is because it concentrates on the police rather than the victims or suspects.  I felt I really got to know the officers concerned in a way that has not been the case with several other writers.  In that respect, this is much more like a British crime novel.  However, one thing that it does have in common with many other swedish novelists is an exploration of some of the social and political problems that beset the country.  In particular this book considers the rise of the Nazi Party among Swedish youth and their denial of the Holocaust.  It doesn't impinge on the case - it is one of Irene's daughters who becomes involved - but nevertheless, Tursten makes it clear that any impression we may have in the UK of Sweden as a haven of political neutrality and liberal minded thinking is little more than a fantasy.

As far as I can see there are two more Irene Huss books available with a fourth due later this year.  If you want to try Swedish crime fiction without straying too far in style from what you're used to then I very strongly recommend you start here.