Blood on Snow and The Demon of Dakar. —  Two Excellent Scandinavian Mysteries

I love Scandinavian mysteries, and Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow and Ekjell Eriksson’s The Demon of Dakar are both excellent.  They share an almost laconic delivery that is just very satisfying to read.  The characters are interesting, and there aren’t a lot of stereotypes.

Blood on Snow, a Norwegian mystery has a very macabre set of humor. It features Olaf, a somewhat hapless hitman who has become a target himself.  There’s really not a lot more to say about this.  It is a short book and clearly written.  The author’s unconventional take on how one falls into a career as a hitman is highly entertaining.  

The Demon of Dakar  is a more complex and serious murder mystery.  Dakar combines a rich set of characters enmeshed in the drug trade.  A trio of desperately poor and relatively naive Mexican brothers gets caught up in a trafficking mess.  Manuel, the eldest brother is determined to get some justice from a  malevolent crew of sleazy Swedish dealers, and this sets the book’s central crime in motion.  I really liked a number of things about this book.  The investigation process was interesting, because the police were dealing with such an unexpected scenario.  I also found the capable, strong and utterly believable female characters to be a great strength of the book.   Their gender undeniably causes them problems, particularly on the job, but they remain focused persevere .  These women don’t have it all together, but they are responsible people — they are grown ups — so they get the job done.  I also really appreciated the author’s handling of the bewildered, yet determined Manuel’s stumbling yet effective progress through an alien environment.  

Both books are well worth reading.

Advertisements

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops – A Must for All Book Store Addicts

img_0018

If you hang out in bookshops, you will love, Jen Campbell’s Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops.  Campbell works in a British bookshop and has a blog capturing some of the ridiculous things people have said or asked for in her shop.  Campbell’s blog has attracted posts from other bookshop workers around the world, and she has included some of these other contributions in her book.  It is all kind of reminiscent of the wonderful scene in Notting Hill, where an earnest customer walks into Hugh Grant’s travel bookshop and keeps asking for one non-travel book after another without ever stopping to comprehend that he has been told the shop only sells travel books.  Really anyone who has ever had the good or not-so-good fortune to work in a store will appreciate some of the idiotic questions customers ask.  It does make you wonder, however, if you have every asked similarly inane questions.

At any rate, this is a funny, light read that invokes to charm and character of bookshops around the world.

A Child’s First Book of Trump is NOT  for Children, but It is Hilarious


A Child’s First Book of Trump is for the child in all of us, but it isn’t literally for children.  It’s a little crude and is really written for adults.  Michael Ian Black and Marc Rosenthal have written a very funny book with fantastic illustrations that capture the angry toddler side of Donald Trump.  This book would be even funnier, except for the fact that this horrid little caricature is actually running for President.

Hilarious Twisted Tale of Medieval Religious Relics

Ever since the hot summer day many years ago that I spent my lunch hour traveling to Shamokin, Pennsylvania, to see the miracle of Shamokin — supposedly the image of Christ’s face lurking in the drapery of an altar cloth  — I’ve been weirdly interested in the whole concept of religious relics and assorted miracles.    As I recall, one we got to the church we were admonished to stare at the cloth without blinking until we witnessed the miracle.  All we saw was some wishful fakery and a cloth that needed ironing.  Our cynicism remained intact.  On the ride back from Shamokin, an old coal town that had seen better days, we all expressed a certain relief that we hadn’t witnessed any sort of miracle, because that would have not only bewildered us but would also have thrown a highly complicating curve into our lives.

Christopher Buckley’s new novel The Relic Master provides a very funny riff on the whole subject of religious relics and miracles.  More importantly, Buckley gleefully exposes all the fakery and big business that supported the trade.  The story is set in the very competitive trade in religious relics that was a hallmark of Medieval Europe.  The relic master himself is highly doubtful and even feels a bit guilty about the tawdry fakes, but he is surrounded by greedy customers desperate to score the next big coup.  To quote Donald Trump, these customers are determined to lay their hands on  something “yuge.”  Thus, they are untroubled by the entirely fictional provenance of their religious trinkets.  They don’t really care whether something is actually the finger of a saint or a shroud that covered Jesus.  Why should they bother about such niceties?   All they really seem to want is to acquire more religious stuff than their competitors and — no small point — make a ton of money off them?  It is all glitz and dollars!

One of the hallmarks of a Buckley novel seems to be the presence of a corrupt yet highly likable hero.  Dismas, a former mercenary and monk turned relic salesman, happily fits this bill in The Relic Master.  There’s something oddly heroic about how Dismas, an entirely fictional character, goes about his trade.  He is surrounded by a wonderful assortment of characters, many of them based on real historical figures, in this comic salute to the historical novel.  There’s a lot of greed, violence and cynicism throughout the book, but what I remember most is Dismas and his motley crew as they set out on a ridiculous quest.

This book is a lot of fun, particularly since it features a wonderful array of historic dukes and clerics behaving badly.  If you like funny religious satires, I also highly recommend Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, a true classic.

A Strange and Raucous Medical Novel: The House of God

image

Samuel Shem’s The House of God  is one of the strangest and most unsettling books I have read in a long time.  The title is completely misleading  —  whatever this is, it is not  religious book.  The House of God is kind of a Mash/Catch 22  look at a medical internship at a big city hospital.  The humor is very dark, and generally at the expense of patients.  Since I am on the patient side of things, as opposed to the doctor side of things, the picture painted by The House of God is disturbing enough to make me consider converting to Christian Science!  There is a lot more to this book, but the overwhelming message is how much doctors can despise their patients.  Sorry, but the somewhat thoughtful evolution at the end of the book doesn’t really overcome this bewildering theme.  Perhaps this book is meant to be one big joke, but there is a morbid ring of truth to a lot of the interactions.

The book covers the internship year of Roy Basch, MD, a bewildered young doctor at a major urban hospital.  Basch and his fellow interns are completely unprepared for their internships, and they get precious little on-the-job training.  Their response is triggered by terror, immaturity and utter lack of sleep, and it isn’t good for patients.  It is distinctly unpleasant to read about how they learn to loathe elderly patients who don’t die and other unfortunate patients who have the misfortune to cross their paths.  There are some comforting words of wisdom from the Fat Man, a wonderfully drawn character, but let’s just say that dying at home seems like an excellent option.  I did appreciate the another theme, which was to stop torturing elderly patients with painful, futile procedures.

This book was written in the 70’s, and medical schools’ training programs have allegedly improved, but that may be wishful thinking when most medical students seem to follow their classes on-line, instead of in the classroom.  (DO training generally requires classroom attendance, I believe.)  The other part of the book that is arguably dated is the pervasive sexism, except for Basch’s partner, who across as the only sane person in the book.  The rest of the female characters are competent, yet randy, nurses and one senior resident who is treated with scorn by all.  There are more women physicians today, but they have a tough time getting into the senior ranks of medicine.

So, I hope the author was largely being ironic, and I hope things have changed, but this is one sour, depressing and humiliating book from a patient’s point of view.

Excellent News! The Crayons Have Come Home

image

Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers have done it again!  The Day the Crayons Came Home is the perfect sequel to The Day the Crayons Quit.  It is completely hilarious and succeeds purely as a very funny children’s book.  If one is forced to consider the book at a more philosophical level, it does a great job of acquainting children with a number of useful concepts.   It shows what might happen when someone leaves home in a way that is very funny, yet offers useful cautions and considerations.  On an even deeper level, it raises issues about the crayons’ sense of self.  Some of them question their own colors.  I could go on, but really you should just read this book and enjoy the humor and appreciate the empathy it instills in its readers.

A Happy Mishmash of Vacation Reading

imageimageimage

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.