Sunday, May 21, 2017

Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason

Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik Nights (published in the US in 2015) is billed as a prequel to the author’s popular Inspector Erlendur series.  As such, it offers fans of the series a fascinating look at a very young Erlendur just as he begins his career as a member of the Reykjavik police department. 

Although young Erlendur’s responsibilities are mostly those of a traffic cop as he works the night shift with his two partners, his curiosity about what happens on his city’s streets is already transforming him into the dogged investigator he will one day be.  Erlendur is not the kind of man who can turn his back on those whose bad habits have condemned them to a precarious life on Reykjavik’s cold streets.  Despite the resistance of many of those he tries to help, the young traffic division cop always tries to leave them in better shape the he finds them.  Erlendur sees the homeless as individuals, not simply as a long series of drunkards or mentally ill people to be dealt with on his shift and then quickly forgotten.  He remembers their faces and their names and tries to connect with them in as positive a way as the situation allows him. 

A man named Hannibal is one of the hopelessly addicted alcoholics whom Erlendur has dealt with more than once, even to letting the man shelter in a jail cell one particularly cold night when there was room to spare in the jail (something he has been known to do for others in similar circumstances and conditions).  Something about Hannibal intrigues Erlendur, something about his personality that hints how seriously the man has been damaged by something in his past.  Erlendur wonders if it is too late to save the man from himself.

Arnaldur Indridason
But that will never be, because three boys paddling their makeshift boat down one of the city’s tiny waterways soon discover Hannibal’s drowned body floating there.  For Erlendur, the worst thing about Hannibal’s sad end is that no one seems to care.  The police are quick to write his dearth off as an accidental drowning; the man’s street friends are not concerned with the details of his death; and the world will soon forget that Hannibal ever existed.  Erlendur, however is not so ready to forget Hannibal and starts asking questions, lots of them, during his off-duty hours – questions that lead to an entirely off-the-books investigation that will find Erlendur risking his own future by keeping what he learns from his superiors in the department, including the very investigators who would most profit from learning what Erlendur discovers.

Reykjavik Nights will be particularly enjoyable for readers already familiar with the Inspector Erlendur character because the author has clearly built the young traffic cop from elements of the man readers know the mature Inspector now to be.  It is all there:
·      Erlendur is not a man who enjoys drinking
·      Staying in alone to read, listen to the radio, or play his jazz records is much to Erlendur’s taste.
·      He prefers to eat plain, traditional food and saves even roast lamb for special occasions.
·      He is intrigued by books about people who have gone missing but have beaten incredible odds to find safety once again – and her reads them over and over again.
·      Not nocturnal by nature, he has nevertheless come to enjoy the relative silence and isolation of Reykjavik at night.
·      And, most importantly of all, Erlendur himself is a man severely damaged by the disappearance of his childhood brother during a blizzard whiteout.

Reykjavik Nights is far from a perfect crime novel.  It is, in fact, a rather plodding one that despite is relatively short 295 pages seems to take forever to reach its conclusion.  Still, this is definitely one that Inspector Erlendur fans need to read if they are to completely know and understand the character.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard published novels for parts of seven decades (1953-2012) and more than twenty of his books were made into theatrical or television movies.  Leonard began his career writing westerns but turned to crime fiction, the genre for which he is best known today, in the 1960s.  By the time Pagan Babies was published in 2000, Leonard (who died in 2013 at age 87) had begun to slow his pace considerably but did later have great success with work that was turned into the television series Justified.

Pagan Babies exhibits many of the traits that Elmore Leonard fans have come to love over the author’s long career. It is filled with long, quirky conversations that do as much to develop the novel’s characters – and even the plot – as anything else Leonard has to say about them.  As is usually the case with Leonard, the plot moves along quickly but is subject to veering to the left or right at short notice because of the sheer ineptness of some of the novel’s characters.  Elmore Leonard never seemed to have a very high opinion of the average intelligence of the criminal population, and it shows again in Pagan Babies.

For reasons best kept to himself, Father Terry Dunn decides to leave his Rwanda church and return to his hometown of Detroit.  That he witnessed the massacre by machete of forty-seven church members during his last Mass, and that the bodies are still inside the church weeks later, does have more than a little to do with his decision, but it does not tell the whole story.  Now, despite having left Detroit five years earlier under a tax-fraud indictment, Father Dunn is willing to take his chances there.  So armed with scores of pictures of Rwandan orphans and mutilated bodies, he comes home hoping to dodge the tax-fraud indictment and raise a little money for the orphans.

Elmore Leonard
But is Terry Dunn really a priest?  He certainly doesn’t convince the two main women in his life at the moment, his sister-in-law and Debbie Dewey, a woman who sometimes works for his brother.  In Terry Dunn, Debbie Dewey (who has just completed a three-year sentence for aggravated assault) sees a kindred spirit.  And she may just be right because Terry seems to feel the same way about her.  So when Debbie explains her plan to recover the $67,000 her ex-boyfriend stole from her, the pair joins forces in a complicated scheme they hope will net each of them considerably more than that amount. 

 Remember, though, that this is an Elmore Leonard novel and soon enough a whole cast of dimwits is going to appear just in time to gum up the works, including Mutt, perhaps the dumbest hit-man in the history of crime fiction (and my favorite character in the book). 

Pagan Babies may not quite be Elmore Leonard in his prime, but it is still a damn fine crime novel.  Take a look.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel, Exit West, considers the plight of the thousands of modern refugees being forced to flee their homes by internal violence that has become the new normal in so many countries around the world in recent years.  As their countries succumb to political and religious civil wars, hundreds of thousands of people flee their homelands with nothing but the clothes on their backs and whatever little they can carry with them.  Hamid focuses on two young people, Saeed and Nadia, who are forced to run for their lives before it is too late – but he gives his story one surreal little twist.

Much like Colin Whitehead did in The Underground Railroad, Hamid interprets the escape mechanism of his refugees literally.  Whitehead’s Underground Railroad was literally underground, complete with train stations and tunnels that connected certain cites in the South with those further north.  Hamid’s characters cross borders by using literal doors that magically appear in buildings all over the world.  Those crossing the thresholds of the doors have no idea what country they will magically step out into until they arrive, but the transportation is instantaneous.  And, as long as the doors remain “open,” anything is possible.  Some refugees, at least for a while, even go back and forth through the doors in order to bring supplies back to family members who prefer to remain in their home country.

Mohsin Hamid
Saeed and Nadia live in an unnamed country that is falling apart before their eyes.  The young Muslims are not married and have to be very careful about how they conduct themselves in public - and even in the privacy of their own homes – if they are to continue to fly under the radar of militant Muslims who would gladly punish them for their “sins.”  Marriage is not practical under the circumstances, and when Saeed and Nadia step through their first door out of the country, they do so single. 

That first door opens into Greece, but for many reasons, Greece will not be the last stop for Saeed and Nadia.  Native populations resent being overrun by refugees whose cultures are so different from theirs, and violent clashes with police and private citizens become more and more common as refugee populations grow in number.  The two decide to move on, finding things to be much the same whichever country they step into, and the constant search for food and medical care adds to the fear of violence that Saeed and Nadia already feel.  Before long, their relationship begins to suffer under the stress, and neither seems to have the will to fix the problem.

Although Exit West is told from the refugee point-of-view, Hamid does not paint a black or white picture of his characters based upon which side of the border from which they originate.  Not all refugees are good people; not all citizens of the receiving countries are bad.  The author chose to focus on the mindsets of his characters, and the use of magic portals to get them instantly from one country to the next allows him to do just that.  Exit West, while not exactly an eye-opener, is a moving novel that deserves to be read.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Fugitive in Walden Woods

Norman Lock is no stranger to historical fiction and A Fugitive in Walden Woods is, in fact, his fourth in what the author calls his “The American Novels” series.  The first three books in the series are: The Boy in His Winter (based upon Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); American Meteor (an “homage” to Walt Whitman and William Henry Jackson); and The Port-Wine Stain (the author’s tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Dent Mütter).  Lock uses each of the books in the series to remind the reader that the greats of the past he writes about were human beings just like the rest of us, people who struggled with their own weaknesses and circumstances just as mightily as we all do in this more modern world.  Doing so reminds readers just how special were the accomplishments of Lock’s central characters, and will likely lead to a renewed and even greater appreciation of their work and lives.

A Fugitive in Walden Woods features a handful of American transcendentalists in the mid-1840s, men like Henry David Thoreau, Nathanial Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Lloyd Garrison.  Among these greats of their time, the author inserts a runaway slave from the South, one Samuel Long, a man so desperate for freedom that he is willing to chop off his own hand rather than to remain shackled to the fence post to which he is bound.  Lucky enough to stumble into the hands of the Underground Railroad, Long eventually lands in Massachusetts where he is placed into the care and protection of Emerson.

With Emerson’s help, Samuel Long is installed in a shack in Walden Woods, a relatively remote location that Emerson and his friends hope will keep Long safe from the “man-hunters” who have made a brutal art of returning runaways to their owners in the slave states.  As luck would have it, Long’s nearest neighbor is none other than Henry David Thoreau who is living alone in Walden Woods as he prepares the journal that will soon enough become Walden, Thoreau’s much-studied classic account of that experience. 

A Fugitive in Walden Woods primarily focuses on the relationship between Long and Thoreau.  Understandably, Long is slow to trust the motives and hidden thoughts of white men, but almost despite himself, the slave develops an admiration for the almost innocent honesty with which Thoreau expresses himself and presents himself to those he encounters along the way.  Thoreau, on his part, admires the strength and courage he sees in Samuel Long and treats the man as his equal, nothing more and nothing less.  As the relationship between the two men develops over the months, Thoreau’s time in Walden Woods comes to life for the reader just as Samuel Long himself comes-of-age in his own new world.

The real beauty of books like A Fugitive in Walden Woods can be best expressed in a quote Samuel Long recalls in conversation with Emerson or Hawthorne – he is not entirely sure which it actually was: “Reading is our recompense for having only one life to live.”   Norman Lock has given his readers the chance to live a different life than the one they know best.

(Review Copy provided  by Publisher)

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant

The state of Mississippi has long fascinated me because of its rich Civil War history and its remarkable literary tradition – two key interests I have enjoyed my entire life.  I first started exploring Mississippi by car in the late 1980s and I have continued to do so to this day, often spending many of my vacation days driving the state on self-directed Civil War tours, or ones designed to hit as many of the state’s wonderful bookstores and literary landmarks as I can manage in a week or ten days. 

As everyone knows, though, Mississippi has its dark side, a legacy from the darkest days of slavery that continues to haunt the state to this day.  Look at all the standards by which American states are generally measured, and you are likely to find Mississippi near, or actually at, the bottom of every single one of them.  But then consider some other measurement, such as which states produce the highest number of prominent writers (per capita or otherwise) and Mississippi probably stands near the top of the list.  Let’s just say that as much as I love the state, I don’t always feel safe driving its back roads on my own.

Richard Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta portrays Mississippi and her people through the eyes of a British adventure/travel writer, a man who first became acquainted with the state while “interviewing elderly blues singers in the mid-1990s.”  Grant was charmed by Mississippi, particularly by the city of Oxford, while on that initial project and would return periodically to visit his Mississippi friends.  On one of those visits an old friend brought Grant to the Mississippi Delta region to show him her “home ground,” and Grant so fell in love with an old plantation house (near Pluto, Mississippi) belonging to his friend’s father that he impetuously offered to buy it – without first mentioning anything to his New York City girlfriend.  Luckily for Grant, his girlfriend was as ready to get away from New York City as he was, and after looking at the house she agreed to give the Delta a shot.

Thus begins the Mississippi Delta adventure of two people who could hardly have been any more different from their new neighbors if they had tried.  Richard and Mariah were liberal left-wing progressives for whom being politically correct in speech and thought was simply a way of life.  For their neighbors, shall we say, it was not.  But in the next few months, Richard and Mariah would make some of the closest friends they had ever had, and would explore the Delta in a way that outsiders are seldom permitted to do. 

Richard Grant
Grant would learn just how tricky race relations still are in Mississippi, a state with so large a black population that blacks can be said to hold as much (or even more) political clout as whites.  He would learn that many Mississippi blacks would not look him in the eye when speaking with him; that even if he considered them a friend, many blacks preferred to speak with him outside or to enter his home from its rear entrance; and that there were many places his black friends did not think safe for a white man to visit – even in their company.  Grant, though, because he wanted to tell Mississippi’s story, was persistent and he managed to get both his black friends and his white friends to be honest with him. 

Along the way he meets some of Mississippi’s most colorful people and some of her most famous, including actor Morgan Freeman who still lives in Mississippi when not working on a film, and owns (with partners) what is perhaps the state’s most famous blues club.  He explores the often bizarre world of small town Mississippi politics (in which gunfire and threats sometimes play a key role), the blues legacy being left behind by a generation of blues pioneers now steadily dying off, and the improving but still delicately balanced relationship between the state’s black and white populations.

Dispatches from Pluto exposes a side of a state that has been underappreciated for too long.  Mississippi is rich in history, music, and American culture in a way that many other states cannot claim to be.  Maybe a few more books like Dispatches from Pluto will finally expose what is still a well kept secret: Mississippi is a great place to visit – for a lot of good reasons.