A Happy Mishmash of Vacation Reading

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I love vacation reading.  I just returned from a glorious 11 day vacation in Iceland with my family.  Reading is always an important part of any vacation, and the long plane flights provide extra opportunity.  I spent my reading time finishing up a few books in progress and starting some new ones.

I love Scandinavian murder mysteries, but had never read Arnaldur Indridason until I prepared for this trip.  Since this was my first (but hopefully not my last trip to Iceland), I started with Reykjavik Nights, Indridason’s most recent book, the prequel to his mystery series featuring Inspector Erlendur.  In the prequel, which I wrote about last month, Erlendur is just finding his way into a career in detection, and his personal life is up for grabs with an overlay of dubious omens.

On vacation, I read Jar City, which was Indridason’s first Inspector Erlendur novel and is set perhaps 20 years after the Reykjavik NIghts.  Jar City is a great mystery and does a wonderful job of setting up an atmosphere that is gloomy, tawdry and threatening.  At this point, I should note that the Iceland we saw was beautiful and sunny, and it was kind of hard to imagine murders happening there.  Clearly, I need to return during the darker winter months.  But getting back to Inspector Erlendur, by this this novel, he is an established and respected detective.  He has an morbidly intriguing romantic side that appears when he pursues clues and connections that leave his colleagues shaking their heads.  It is all pretty sordid.  There is a lot of skipping from scene to scene as the investigation unfolds, and that really helped the pace of the story.  As a person, Erlendur has bigger problems.  He doesn’t get along with his colleagues, and his personal life is a mess.  The disturbing signs that appeared in Reykjavik NIghts, have pretty much come home to roost.  The best this book can do is suggest a slim possibility that he may establish a decent relationship with his addicted adult daughter.  Romance seems quite unlikely.  Who would ever go out with this man?  I am anxious to read the other Inspector Erlendur novels to see how it all sorts out.  I recommend Jar City, and do try to go to Iceland.  It was one of the most amazing places i have ever visited.

We had been warned that the food in Iceland was not much to write home about.  Happily, we enjoyed great food, even as there were internal family debates about whether the family’s resident weird foodie could ethically try minke whale.  We never debated the puffin appetizers, and horse didn’t elicit the same level of debate.  Anyway, we had great food, particularly the fish and the lamb.  There was, however, one restaurant where the food was pretentious and served at a glacial pace.  The foodies in the family appreciated the food when we finally got it.  I was underwhelmed, but felt happily vindicated when I got back to the hotel and picked up David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day.  Among all the wonderfully humorous essays in the book, he took aim at pretentious New York restaurants in the essay entitiled “Today’s Special.”  His comments about all the dishes having at least 15 ingredients, one of which he was sure to dislike, and about the trend to stack food vertically in weird towers, while leaving acres of space on the remainder of the plate, really struck home.  I am trying to figure out why I never read Sedaris before.  He is really funny and on point.

Marina Lewycka’s “Various Pets Alive and Dead” was a good vacation novel.  Lewycka paced the story of a hippy couple and their more conventional adult children by having different characters tell the story in the first person.  The book was set in England and had nice bits about such seemingly unrelated topics as out-of-control investment banking, free love and the pressures of helping an adult child with special needs become independent.  I have liked Lewycka ever since I read her amazing A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.  If you haven’t read that book, you should really track it down.  It is unusual and wonderful.

While on vacation, I also took the opportunity to reread the late PD James’ fourth detective novel, Shroud for a Nightingale.  I love PD James, and this is a fine book.  It features an excellent plot, a creepy setting and a younger, and less patient Inspector Adam Dalgliesh in the earlier stages of his career.  In addition to her detective fiction, James also wrote Talking about Detective Fiction, which is a really interesting discussion of detective fiction.  It was illuminating for the reader and helpful for would-be authors.  It also steered me to some other great detective novels.

While we were meandering among Iceland’s gorgeous fjords, glaciers and waterfalls, I also got the chance tp reread John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  What a great book!  The Cold War is such an interesting period, and LeCarre tells a great story, while he examines the bizarre and fruitless world of Cold War spying.  No one ends up looking very good.  There is a lot of gray in that book, but I still cared a lot about the spy in question.

Also gray and murky was Raymond Chandler’s The High Window, a Philip Marlowe detective novel.  Here again there is a lot to dislike about the main character, but you root for him.  I could almost hear Bogart speaking the lines of this very noir book.  I don’t know why Southern California is such a great setting for noir detective novels, but it surely is.  I liked this book, but probably not as much as the other books I read this vacation.

Finally, while we are sort of on the subject of Iceland, Michael Lewis’ Boomerang —  Travels in the New Third World was my first introduction to the culture and people of Iceland.  In Boomerang, Michael Lewis, an amazing non-fiction writer with financial expertise, visits some of the countries involved in the global financing disasters of the 2000’s.  His comments about Iceland, where all sorts of people just started trading with a complete lack of knowledge and experience, but insane financing from their banks, were both hilarious and terrifying.  I didn’t see any signs of that kind of activity this summer.  On the other hand, Lewis’ depiction of Greece and Germany and their symbiotic relationship was fascinating and it doesn’t seem as though all that much has changed since the book was published in 2011.

So, the vacation was great, and reading made it that much better.   I am already planning the books I’ll take on my next trip.

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