The Keeper of Lost Causes, The First Department Q Novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen, Is One of the Very Best Scandinavian Murder Mysteries

Jussi Adler-Olsen started a wonderful Danish detective series with The Keeper of Lost Causes, The First Department Q Novel. It’s not unusual for a mystery series to start with a discredited and morbidly confused detective, but Carl Morck is truly distinctive. His personal and professional baggage is overwhelming, yet he carves out his space and moves forward. Morck’s contempt for most of the people in the police department, is both hilarious and near-suicidal, but he makes it work. I’ve always been a fan of watching discredited people make the system work for themselves. The way Morck tortures the people who are trying to torture him is inspired and very funny. Less funny is the guilt Morck suffers in connection with a prior case that left his partner completely incapacitated. Along the way, there is a mysterious yet oddly engaging assistant with an apparently gruesome past, a new love interest for Carl who has no idea what to do with it and the kind of dark underlying mysteries that happily characterize so many great Scandinavian crime novels.

This is no standard example of the Scandinavian crime genre. Adler-Olsen has created something wonderfully new. I think I’ve read a total of three Department Q mysteries, but this is the first and it sets the stage brilliantly for the novels to come. Carl is the kind of protagonist who lacks all social skills, and I couldn’t help loving him. Carl’s back story and the other characters created by Adler-Olsen are truly inspired and provide ample fuel for additional books in this series, and I now absolutely have to read all of them.

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Nikita Khrushchev, One of the Most Interesting Characters of the Cold War Era

William Taubman’s 2003 biography, Khrushchev — The Man and His Era won a Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. Taubman is a political science professor at Amherst and has written extensively on the Soviet Union. His biography of Khrushchev is very long at 651 pages, but it provides crucial insight into one of the most unusual personalities of the Soviet era. If you want to understand Nikita Khrushchev and his place in history, this is an excellent place to start.

Khrushchev was born in 1894 and died in 1971, so he was there for the rise of Communism in Russia. Largely uneducated and often crude, Khrushchev managed to rise through the ranks and then survive the Stalinist era. No political survivor of that period could emerge with clean hands, but Khrushchev managed to avoid the worst of the blame for that period.

Taubman, in great detail, shows how Khrushchev became a Bolshevik and was chosen by Stalin to be one of his principal lieutenants. How Khrushchev managed to out-maneuver his rivals and become top dog remains something of a mystery, but Taubman offers a lot of information to consider. As a leader, Khrushchev presented a bizarre combination of bumbling peasant, lucky political tactician and good-hearted realist. At the end, he became increasingly impulsive and oblivious to the opposition to his rule. He didn’t see. it coming.

Although Khrushchev wasn’t exactly surrounded by rocket scientists, he was always insecure about his lack of education. At times he trumpeted it and claimed that he had particular insight into how collective farms and factories need to be run. To Khrushchev’s discredit, he was stained by Stalin’s purges, but to his credit, he disavowed Stalinism as he came to power. Crucially, Khrushchev was often impulsive and frequently put world peace at risk as he lurched through the Cold War period with ill-considered pronouncements and initiatives.

He risked nuclear war with some of his “antics. Fortunately, Eisenhower and Kennedy, although highly frustrated by Khrushchev’s pronouncements and behavior, generally did their homework and responded with appropriate restraints and quieter displays of force.

This book is rich because Khrushchev talked a lot about what he had done and what he was thinking. He even wrote a memoir. He may have started as a Zelig, but he became the leader of the Communist world during a particularly dangerous part of history. Because he survived, he was able to write about Stalinism and its excesses, even as he went back and forth about how much personal responsibility he was prepared to assume.

All in all this is a very good book. It is a necessary, scholarly book. It did cause me to wish at times that a more abridged version were available, a shorter book that did not describe so many meetings and so much of Khrushchev’s daily activities in such great detail. Maybe that is biography-light, but the sheer length of this book renders it somewhat inaccessible for non-scholars who could really benefit form its core content.

My recommendation is to read this book if you want to better understanding of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi

Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi is one of the stranger books I have read recently, and I do recommend it. Fiona Yu is a youngish, hilariously twisted Chinese American woman with a take-no-prisoners attitude toward life. A Big Law lawyer, Fiona lives with her parents and has no love life. The disconnect between her parents’ traditional expectations and her own rogue intentions is massive, and yet they all live together. The first person narration of Fiona’s frustrations and utterly amoral nature gleefully pulls the reader into a bizarre, macabre tale. It is always impressive when an author can make the reader care about what happens to a truly appalling protagonist, and Choi does it with great zest. This very fun book reminded me of Arsenic and Old Lace, without the buffer of sweet characters with good intentions. Hello Kitty Must Die happily shares the manic zaniness of Arsenic and Old Lace and craziness of the best screwball comedies from the 1930’s. Underlying all the fun and mayhem, is the story of Fiona’s frustrations with the expectations and tedium of her life. Being a single, overworked lawyer with clueless, demanding parents presents real issues, and while the average person wouldn’t resort to Fiona’s fierce tactics, it’s hard not to bond with her, one way or another.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I finally got around to reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. I should have read it a long time ago. Her linking of sexual exploitation and abuse with the abuses of world politics is particularly thought-provoking. Her writing is clear and has a pleasing movement. I won’t play spoiler here except to say that so many of the examples she presents remind me over and over again of experiences most of us have experience and continue to face on a regular basis. I am left with the sinking feeling that so many things just don’t seem likely to change. Solnit’s pep talk in the last essay about progress being undeniable is inspiring, yet not convincing at this moment. How can I feel that way in the age of Trump?

I imagine that many powerful men (most recently the chair of CBS) manufacture the helpful myth that their sexual aggression is really all about their innate irresistibility and that the undeniable fact of their power is the beside the point. Except that power is never beside the point, especially for powerful people. It’s more like a narcotic drug, and it is time for them to go to rehab.

Solnit’s opening essay is about mansplaining, and it is brilliant. In a particular niche market, am I the only one who has noticed that when doctors and dentists have you in a position where (1) you can’t talk and (2) they can readily inflict a lot of pain on you or otherwise do harm, their sexist comments grow exponentially? Whether it’s being told “Atta girl” by the dentist doing your root canal or the self-promoting surgeon working on a facial skin cancer and telling you (at great length, of course) that because women talk so much he always has to instruct women patients to curb their talking because of potential scarring, that particular power play is getting really old.

Solnit’s discussion of rape culture is brilliant. Every day we need to fight against the relentless propaganda that it is simply up to women to be careful and not tempt the wrong sort of person, etc. To that end, Solnit provides magnificent insight and innumerable practical observations and suggestions for every day life. Discouraged or not, she’s right that we need to be hopeful and we certainly can’t let down our guard. Our daughters and everyone else needs to know of our unwavering support for equality.

Queen Victoria, the Matchmaking Grandmother

For royalty buffs and people who like to view history through personalities and relationships, Deborah Cadbury’s Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking — The Royal Marriages that Shaped Europe is highly entertaining and informative. There is a soap opera quality to Victoria’s avid, prying interest into the marital prospects of her numerous royal grandchildren. Much as Victoria tries to identify potential highly suitable mates and head off dangerous ones, sometimes her grandchildren just didn’t listen. These are great stories, wrapped up in 19th century Euro politics. There is the drama of the highly unsuitable Kaiser Wilhelm’s nasty development and then there is the awful foreboding of the Nicholas and Alexandra courtship. Victoria desperately tried to head off what she saw as a horrifically dangerous match in a Russia headed for catastrophe, but love prevailed over Victoria’s clear-headed analysis. That is just one of the these highly personal stories — again, a bit of a soap opera on a global scale, and well worth reading. You will be informed and entertained — the perfect combination.

Beauty by Raphael Selbourne

Raphael Selbourne’s Beauty is captivating. I loved this novel and resented all interruptions, particularly during the last 100 pages or so.

Set in Wolverhampton, a city in central England, Beauty tells the story of Beauty, a young, abused Bengali Muslim woman, trapped in a miserable and threatening family. Beauty’s gradual understanding of the non-Muslim world and her personal transformation beginwhen she is forced to participate in job training in order to preserve her state benefits. Suddenly thrust into a new, confusing environment while still being pummeled at home is confusing and frightening, but Beauty takes note of the outside world and ultimately opts to take some risk. Two confused and immature English men show up to help her at this time of great crisis in her life. Other strangers are not so kind, and then there deeply flawed people who nonetheless step up to the plate.

That’s the premise of those wonderful novel. There are characters with unsuspected depth and courage, and there are some dreadful people on the other end of the spectrum. Their interactions set a fine and highly interesting pace for this book. At the center is Beauty, a damaged young woman raised to fear and condemn everything outside her family’s milieu. But, under immense pressure, she observes everything through increasingly interested eyes. The process is fascinating. Selbourne has created a unique character and a very rich story.

I highly recommend this book.

Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn

I had forgotten how wonderful Barbara Pym is! Quartet in Autumn, oddly enough, seems to have been a comeback novel after Pym had gone unpublished for 15 years. Whatever the back story, Quartet in Autumn reveals and then weaves together the lives of four oldish co-workers as they face the uncertainties of retirement, financial difficulties and uncertain health. Marcia, Letty, Edwin and Norman at first seem as uneventful and unremarkable as their names, but Pym carefully introduces bits and pieces of their past and present lives. This is not an elderly rom-com, but it is the story of four idiosyncratic older adults who live on their own and who don’t appear to have much excitement in their lives. They know each other and their foibles through working together, and a loyalty develops among them. As it happens they are not entirely on their own. The way they help each other and try to understand each other makes for a warm, thoughtful book.

I am so glad I read it, and I highly recommend it!

An Iranian Woman’s Memoir and the Battle against the Compulsory Hijab

In her passionate memoir, The Wind in My Hair – My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, Masih Alinejad lays out her feelings about the war against women in Iran and recounts her efforts to fight it. Alinejad is a journalist, blogger and broadcaster, as well as the founder of the My Stealthy Freedom movement.

This book has many things going for it. Alinejad’s recounting of her childhood and teenage years is like nothing a Westerner could imagine. Her family is conservative; her father supports the repressive regime. She rebels. Alinejad spends some time in jail as a result of a youthful protest journal. In short order she finds she is pregnant, marries the baby’s father, has a son and then gets divorced, which results in her loss of the custody of her son. In many ways all this drama is liberating — society already regards her as a hopeless pariah, so why not speak and do what she wants to do?

Alinejad is sort of a hustler, in the best sense of the word. Lacking even a high school diploma, she quickly learns how to make a living and become a successful writer, who is basically just this side of going to prison for her provocative columns. Along the way, she meets many of the politicians who are running Iran. Ultimately, she flees Iran, one step ahead of being arrested. Landing in Britain, she is scarcely a helpless refugee. She is more of a frenetic whirlwind: she earns a university degree, she raises her son once he joins her, she writes for various outlets, blogs, does radio programs and serves as a provocative cheerleader for protest within Iran. Indeed, her story illustrates the power of Facebook and social media, in general. When no one is buying her material, she blogs and posts. Basically she drives the regime in Iran crazy.

For Alinejad, Iran’s compulsory hijab policy becomes the catalyst for protest. She lays out very clearly the ways in which Iran keeps women down and encourages women in Iran to protest. She also devotes a lot of time to tracking and reporting on the tortures and deaths of protestors, so that these people are not forgotten. She also consistently supports the choice of women like her mother who want to wear the hijab. In fact her respect for her mother and her mother’s savvy approach to life grounds Alinejad.

I loved this book, because it sets out, with all its warts and a certain amount of confusion, how this impassioned, articulate woman feels about Iran and what it is doing to its people. Alinejad clearly falls into the category of people who aren’t constrained by social norms or the perils of non-compliance. She is comfortable setting her own path. At times that may seem selfish or even annoying and there is the exile’s perennial dilemma of urging those still in her country to engage in political action and thereby endanger themselves. She is aware of these things, but moves on and sees herself as a source of inspiration for people in Iran. She misses Iran and her family and has no expectation of returning any time soon.

I recommend this book because it tells a great story and it provides a passionate primary source for what has gone on in Iran.

The World Continues to Exist Only by the Virtue of a Few Righteous People

Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life recounts his experiences as a child survivor of the Holocaust and then examines his adult reflections upon the experience and upon the family he lost. This is a beautiful book that slowly examines how the author recalls his experiences and what memory has come to mean to him.

Appelfeld’s Holocaust began at the age of 7 when he and his parents entered the ghetto in Czernowitz, Romania. His mother was murdered, and then he and his father embarked upon a long, forced march to a camp. Ultimately, Appelfeld lost his father and escaped front he camp. He somehow survived the war, made his way to Italy and then arrived in Israel, on his own at the age of 14. He stayed in Israel where he had a very successful writing career until he died earlier this year (January 14, 2018).

The Story of a Life is not Appelfeld’s first book about the Holocaust and his experiences. Post war, he was criticized for not simply laying down the facts. His somewhat mystical approach apparently drew considerable criticism. I found Appelfeld’s personal approach very moving and understandable on an emotional level. Truly there is a place for an unlimited number of approaches to the Holocaust. The Story of a Life enhances our understanding and provides a framework for how a survivor might live with the loss and how he might choose to remember it and think about it. At some level, what has happened has to encompass more than unspeakable, horrible facts and cruelties.

Several things stand out in this memoir. Appelfeld profound losses included the loss o of education. He was on his own and had no education from the time he was 7 until he landed in Israel at 14. His experiences in the early days of Israel were a mixed bag. His time in the youth village and tending to fruit trees seemed to have helped with his healing process. He also benefited form the kindness and attention of at least one established Israeli writer and a nurturing tutelage of a professor of Yiddish. On the other hand, he was alone and found the new Israelis often abrupt and uncaring.

There is little bitterness in this book. Appelfeld has moved on to where he recognizes and treasures the kindnesses, big and small, he has received in his life. According to his own survey and reckoning, “every person I knew who was saved during the war was saved solely by the grace of someone who, at a time of great danger, extended a hand to him.” Ultimately, Appelfeld feels immense gratitude for how he has been able to recover “the world I had left behind.”

Remarkably, Appelfeld and his father were reunited in Israel after the war, long after Appelfeld had thought his father was dead. Appelfeld never felt able to write about that wonderful experience, and it seems fitting for him to treasure it and hold it dear.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It is short, but deserves a slow, careful read.

In this book, Appelfeld writes about his bewilderment at the absence of his parents and the difficulties and cruelties he suffered while avoiding capture. One of his losses was that of education. His stopped at First Grade, and he got no other education until he reached Israel after the war. His struggles to learn Hebrew and write in that language

Bound Feet & Western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

Pang-Mei Natasha Chang has written a very moving book about the astonishing life of her great aunt Chang Yu-i. Yu-i was born to a prosperous family in China in 1900, the year of the Boxer Rebellion. Fortunately, before she died in New York City in 1989, at the age of 88, Yu-i told her story to her great-niece, the author of this book.

I’ll refrain from spoiling the story for readers who hope to read this book. Hopefully it is enough to say that Yu-i’s story and her challenges were unique. The author does an excellent job of interviewing Yu-i and received thoughtful and generally unsentimental answers about her personal saga, but I have been left with hundreds of questions. I feel the need to know more about Yu-i. Why did she do something? What was she thinking? I really need to know what made Yu-i tick.

The twentieth century was a tough time for China and for all the Chinese who emigrated. Given her sheltered upbringing, Yu-i would seem to have been far less prepared than most to meet the challenges she faced, but in fact she prospered. Although political events were obviously swirling all around Yu-i during this turbulent period, but her story focuses more on her personal challenges and the social system into which she was born.

This lovely book is further enriched by relatively brief references to the author’s own life story. As Chang tells her great aunt’s story, she also reveals aspects of her own life, including the family pressure she felt growing up, as well as the racial slurs she endured. Her life lacks the drama of her great aunt’s life, but this book is a testament to her own upbringing and her struggles to find the right career path.

It is worth noting that I have written this review just a few hours before my book club meets to discuss it. It will be fun to discuss it this evening without worrying about spoiler alerts!