May 2009

The Szechenyi Baths
Photo of the Szechenyi Baths by wfbakker2 used under a Creative Commons license.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man Who Went up in Smoke (Vintage, 2008).
Inspector Martin Beck of the Stockholm police has just arrived at Baltic island for an overdue vacation when he is summoned back to the capital and asked by the national government to find a missing man, a journalist named Alf Mattson who has not returned from a trip to Budapest.  Beck soon finds himself flying to Budapest to search for Mattson.  The Man Who Went up in Smoke was first published in 1966, when Hungary lay behind the Iron Curtain and Sweden was neutral.  Sjöwall and Wahlöö may not be the first guides you’d pick for a visit to Hungary, but they do write an nice little mystery.  Note that this is the second of a series.

Here is Wikipedia’s entry about the authors, a husband-and-wife team. Maxine Clarke wondered if it could live up to the praise for the series, but calls it marvelous. James Smith says the accumulation of detail is almost mesmeric.  William Corbett (The Boston Phoenix) says Sjöwall and Wahlöö deliver all that you want from a thriller. Kate S. charts its resonances in more recent fiction.  David Cranmer thinks the joy of the book is in the way Beck’s character is drawn. Moonraking posts a random passage. Adam Bowie likes it.

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Punts in Cambridge
Photo by Jan-Willem Swane used under a Creative Commons license.

Kate Atkinson, Case Histories (Little, Brown, 2004).
Jackson Brodie is a private investigator in Cambridge, a divorced father of one, a veteran and an ex-cop, and not a glamorous fellow.  The novel — a sort of a hybrid of the crime genre and a more literary endeavour — follows Brodie through the wending courses of several different engagements — a lost child, an allegedly unfaithful spouse, a missing sister.  The lure here is Atkinson’s storytelling, and particularly her ability to draw a variety of compelling characters.  
Some coincidences knit the plot together, but they are readily overlooked.

Google Book Search lets you preview it. Carrie O’Grady (The Guardian) says Atkinson is very good indeed. Katie Owen (The Telegraph) likes Atkinson’s wicked sense of humour and her delight in eccentricity.  Roberta Silman (The Boston Globe) calls it an interesting hybrid of a novel.  Timothy Peters (San Francisco Chronicle) says it transcends the limitations of the genre.  Jacqueline Carey (The New York Times) calls it exuberant and empathetic. Misha Berson (Seattle Times) says it has real gravitas. Sharon Dilworth (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) calls it a brilliant if circuitously plotted novel.  Michael Allen found it hard going.  The Complete Review says it’s very well-written and consistently entertaining.  Boris Kachka (New York) says in the end this is a clever detective novel, no less but no more. Jeff Turrentine (The Washington Post) calls it a rousing triumph if you ignore mystery conventions.  Sam calls it darkly comic and well characterised. Dest reeled from one of the most powerful stories he or she read in a while. Michelle loved the bits of humour and irony. Rosario thinks the best thing about it was the small, understated connections. MsTweet didn’t see the connections. Jessica became a hopeless fan with the fourth chapter. Luanne liked the deliciously intricate, detailed plot. Margaret calls Atkinson a master at creating separate stories, then slowly intertwining them. Natasha Tripney thinks some of the resolutions are a little too neat. Bookdwarf says you can’t put it down. Jenny hugely enjoyed it. Paul thinks it’s pretty good. Devourer of Books did eventually enjoy it. It didn’t work for showhost. Atkinson’s writing drove raych round the bend. Denise Pickles calls it a thumping good tale. Sam Smith calls it nearly perfect. Jo wants to know more about Jackson Brodie. The Litblog Co-op picked it for its 2005 Read This! — read this and subsequent posts. Helen Brown interviewed Atkinson for The Telegraph upon the release of Case Histories.  Georgie Lewis interviewed Atkinson for following the publication of a subsequent book.  You can listen to a discussion about it on The Diane Rehm Show on WAMU.

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Odysseus taunts Polyphemus
Image from litmuse used under a Creative Commons license.

Homer, The Odyssey (Penguin Classics, 1999).
The epic poem attributed to Homer should need no recommendation — it is a, uh, classic.  I read the edition translated by Robert Fagles, and I just loved it. The introduction by Bernard Knox is quite useful, and this edition helpfully includes maps showing the locations of various places mentioned in the text.  A trip to Greece seems like just the excuse to read this, and don’t feel you need to read The Iliad first.

Perhaps this is as close as we’ll ever get to a bio of Homer.  On the other hand, Ranjit Bolt reviews a recent biography of Homer, and here is the estimable Mary Beard on the same book.  Here is Wikipedia’s page about Fagles.  Zack Stentz interviewed Fagles upon the book’s release.  David Meadows has his obituary; here is Ruth Stevens at Princeton.  Wikipedia’s entry on The Odyssey has much to offer.  Chrees collected a bunch of interesting resources, including this lecture by Ian Johnston. Google Book Search previews the Fagles translation. Here is Samuel Butler’s translation. Google Book Search offers a taste of a 1905 translation by J.W. MacKail.  Or, if you prefer, here is Simon Armitage’s more recent dramatic version.  From Southern Utah University, here is an introduction to Homer and The Odyssey.  Richard Jenkyns (The New York Times) calls this translation a memorable achievement.  David R. Slavitt (Bryn Mawr Classical Review)applauds Fagles’ stately and natural voice.  Rebecca Reid liked the Fagles translation but didn’t love it.  Paul Gray (Time) writes that Fagles vividly conveys the sense of stories being read aloud.  Calon Lan calls it a story for all time. Stephen Goode (Insight on the News) says it’s hard to put down. James Higgs prefers it to other translations.Jon Aquino says people thinks it’s one of the best translations.  Matt Cahill says it will intimidate you from the shelf but it moves at a fast clip. Riz listened to Ian McKellan’s narration. Alexander Nazaryan blogs about wine in The Odyssey. Here is an astronomical perspective. Elizabeth Farnsworth interviewed Fagles for PBS’s NewsHour, and Fagles answered viewers’ questions.  You can listen to this conversation between Fagles and C.K. Williams, or read excerpts of it.  This is how the book would read had it been written on Twitter.  Listen to this BBC program on The Odyssey.

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Meteora XXIII
Photo of Meteora by Daniel Skoog used under a Creative Commons license.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, Roumeli (NYRB, 2006).
Now knighted and in his nineties, Leigh Fermor first made his way to Greece in the 1930s, after walking from Holland to Istanbul, or, as he calls it Constantinople.  During World War II he fought in the British Army in Greece and with the resistance on Crete.  He still lives in the Mani, and one could not hope for a more engaging and informed guide to the country and culture, Hellenic and Byzantine.  Unlike Mani, which explored a particular corner of the Peloponnese, different chapters of Roumeli relate travels all over the country: with the Sarakatsan shepherds, the monasteries of Meteora, during wartime in the mountain villages of Crete, in the villages of Krakora, and to Missilonghi, where he tried to recover a pair of Lord Byron’s slippers.    

Wikipedia has this bio of Leigh Fermor. Google BookSearch offers a preview. Ben Downing writes about Fermor in The New Criterion. William Dalrymple visited him recently. James Campbell profiles him in The Guardian.  Jeremy Bernstein profiles him in the Los Angeles Times.  Max Hastings profiles him in the Telegraph. Mary Beard reviews Roumeli and two of Fermor’s other books in the London Review of Books.  Heather likes Leigh Fermor’s wonderfully precise prose.  Marie found it too turgid.  Languagehat traces some archetypes of the Greek temperament back to Roumeli.  Maggie Rainey-Smith describes meeting Leigh Fermor.  Typoios posts a favorite passage; Ptolemy has one too.  Here is more about the Sarakatsani and the monasteries of Meteora.

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Photo by dieguchi used under a Creative Commons license.

Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow (Simon & Schuster, 1997).
As a graduate student and the protege of ethnobotanist Richard Schultes, Davis was sent to Haiti in 1982 to investigate reports of zombis, Haitians returned from the dead to a second life of slavery. Davis’s initial search focused on the plant and animal ingredients of the magic powders used in vodoun rituals, but he came to realize that the zombi phenomena could not be understood without a grasp of facets of Haitian culture not seen by outsiders. The pharmocology is fascinating, but so is Davis’s field work to uncover secret societies and his research to place zombis in the context of Haiti’s history.

Here is a biographical sketch of Davis. Here is a profile posted by National Geographic, where he is an explorer-in-residence. You can hire him as a motivational speaker. Google Books offers a preview. Songcatchers thought it was interesting if somewhat slow. Haitian author Dr. Reynold Ducasse is a hard-core skeptic of Davis’s work, to say the least; here is his book. Douglas Cruikshank (Whole Earth Review) appreciates the vivid portrait of Haitian spirituality. Mark Folse heard an echo of New Orleans. Here is the trailer from a 1987 movie adaptation, apparently based on the book only in the loosest manner and not a film with which Davis was at all happy. Neither are many who have watched it. And here are 5 scientific reasons the zombie apocalypse could happen.

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Walking under the lights Munich
Photo by moertl used under a Creative Commons license.

Philip Kerr, The One from the Other (Penguin, 2009).
Kerr’s hard-boiled detective, Bernie Gunther, known to readers of his Berlin Noir trilogy, is back again. It is 1949, and Gunther finds himself running an inn in Munich, but innkeeping is not really Gunther’s metier, particularly when the inn is across the street from the Dachau camp. He soon goes to work as a private investigator, looking for a missing husband. In post-war Munich, Americans are hard to miss and ex-Nazis are hard to avoid.

Wikipedia’s bio of Kerr is a little thin. Here is a brief Q&A with him. The Complete Review says it’s occasionally far-fetched, and trying too hard, but thoroughly entertaining. Ron Rosenbaum (The New York Observer) says Kerr is unique in that he bridges the private-eye and public-spy genres . Simon Clews (The Age) says Kerr’s almost gothic characters are drawn with a painterly eye . Patrick Anderson (The Washington Post) calls Kerr’s Germany a searing portrait of Hell on Earth. Peter Guttridge (The Guardian) calls it slow-moving but intelligent, if didactic. Marilyn Stasio (The New York Times Book Review) calls it a bleak tale of the dirty deals made by victors and vanquished alike. Tim Davis calls it tense, chilling and provocative. C. Michael Bailey (Blogcritics) thinks Kerr creates an intriguing picture of postwar-occupied German. Whisky Prajer says it doesn’t soar to the heights or plummet to the depths of Berlin Noir. Yvonne Klein sees a complex, tricky plot. Irma Heldman (Open Letters) says you can smell the depravity and feel the evil (n.b. – this review is long on plot). Chris Marshall thoroughly enjoyed it. Jedidiah Ayres says the research and period details are priceless. And if you speak Dutch, this Philip Kerr page is for you.

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