>Mystery Fiction of Summer 2010

>As I mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of the mystery genre. This summer, several of my favorite mystery authors released their new books. In this post, I will share my impressions of these new mysteries.

1. Tess Gerritsen writes very hardcore detective mysteries. For some reason that I haven’t yet been able to identfy, American female mystery authors write books filled with scenes of unimaginable cruelty, torture and all kinds of horrors in a way that no male writer has been able to equal. You often encounter the following type of sentence in Gerritsen’s work:

Entrails glistened in her gaping abdomen, and her freshly thawed flesh dripped pink icemelt into the table drain.

Or the following:

THE MAN’S LEGS were splayed apart, exposing ruptured testicles and the seared skin of buttocks and perineum. The morgue photo had flashed onto the screen without any advance warning from the lecturer, yet no one sitting in the darkened hotel conference room gave so much as a murmur of dismay. This audience was inured to the sight of ruined and broken bodies.

If you are not bothered by these quotes and like really suspenseful mysteries about serial killers, check out Gerritsen’s The Apprentice (Jane Rizzoli, Book 2)or The Keepsake: A Novel. This summer, Gerritsen released her new Ice Cold: A Rizzoli & Isles Novel. In my opinion, this is maybe her most suspenseful novel so far. The ending, however, is a bit disappointing. There is also a lot less gore in this novel, probably because of the new TV series based on Gerritsen’s books.

2. Lisa Gardner is another mystery author who writes really hardcore stuff about serial killers,
child abusers, and scary stuff like that.

Her new Live to Tell: A Detective D. D. Warren Novel is probably her best novel so far. Many people say that they find the setting of this new novel (a pediatric psych ward for psychotic and sociopathic children) too disturbing. So beware: this book, as well as any book by Tess Gerritsen are not for the squeamish.

If you don’t feel disturbed too easily, though, this is a great mystery that is suspenseful, engrossing, and makes you want to gulp it down in one sitting.

3. This is a new author I only just discovered. The Dark Vineyard: A mystery of the French countryside is only the 2nd novel in Martin Walker’s mystery series featuring Bruno, a police officer from a small French village of St. Denis.

The Dark Vineyard: A mystery of the French countryside is as unlike the hardcore mysteries of Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Gardner as anything you can imagine. Even though it is a novel about a crome being investigated, it’s a lot more centered on the very French joie de vivre (enjoyment of life). Characters in this novel share endless bottles of wine, engage in the wine-making and wine-selling process with glee, prepare delicious meals, and start numerous love affairs.

This is a really calm, relaxed and fun mystery novel that will make you desperate to travel to France as soon as possible.

4. I already wrote about the incomparable Tana French here and here. I’m still hoping that one day she will dare to abandon the pretense of writing mysteries and start writing novels.

In her most recent book Faithful Place: A Novel, she more or less does just that. Only the most innocent of readers will not be able to guess who the murderer is very early in the book. But the identity of the killer is completely secondary here. What mattters is the author’s beautiful command of the English language and her talent for creating unique and engrossing characters. Tana French is masterful at creating a character who is a total jerk and making the readers cares what happens to him anyways.

5. Richard North Patterson became famous for writing really great courtroom dramas, such as Degree of Guilt, Eyes of a Child, Caroline Masters, The Outside Man, and others. Then, something happened  and he started writing incredibly boring and convoluted political thrillers. As a result, he lost a huge chunk of his fan base (including me).

Now, Richard North Patterson is trying to return to the courtroom drama genre that made him famous. In the Name of Honor would be good if only it weren’t so similar to a host of other books dealing with the same topic. Of course, if you never read another courtroom drama that has to do with soldiers who fought in Iraq, are suffering from PTSD, and are killing each other as a result, you might enjoy In the Name of Honor. However, after I read John Lescroart’s much better Betrayal (Dismas Hardy), I was pretty bored with Patterson’s book on the same topic.

Still, I’m glad this author is finally making his way back from the horrible political thrillers he kept writing for a while.

Advertisements

>The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid: A Review, Part II

>In the aftermath of 9/11, the worst side of the US that Changez tried so hard not to see for so long starts coming out:

It seemed to me that America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back. Living in New York was suddenly like living in a film about the Second World War; I, a foreigner, found myself staring out at a set that ought to be viewed not in Technicolor but in grainy black and white. What your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me—a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty? I did not know—but that they were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent.

As Changez learns to see the truth about America, he starts questioning his own role in the imperialist domination that this country strives to exercise over the entire planet. He realizes that he is complicit in every crime that he blames on the United States:

I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war. Of course I was struggling! Of course I felt torn! I had thrown in my lot with the men of Underwood Samson, with the officers of the empire, when all along I was predisposed to feel compassion for those, like Juan-Bautista, whose lives the empire thought nothing of overturning for its own gain.

As this realization dawns on him, Changez begins to see the entire structure of the American society in an completely new way. His job at a prestigious Wall Street firm that has been such a source of pride (and an impressive income) for him takes on an entirely new dimension in Changez’s eyes:

I was struck by how traditional your empire appeared. Armed sentries manned the check post at which I sought entry; being of a suspect race I was quarantined and subjected to additional inspection; once admitted I hired a charioteer who belonged to a serf class lacking the requisite permissions to abide legally and forced therefore to accept work at lower pay; I myself was a form of indentured servant whose right to remain was dependent upon the continued benevolence of my employer. . . As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums.

Once he has arrived at this painful insight, Changez is compelled to reexamine and eventually change everything about his life.

Hamid is just beginning as a writer and this is only his second novel. There is a certain heavy-handedness that sometimes comes through in his writing. From time to time, he fails to recognize the moment when the writer should stop explaining himself and let the readers draw their own conclusions. He is also still searching for his own voice, and that’s why there is quite a lot of V.S. Naipaul in the way he constructs his sentences and builds his plot. Still, these little flaws can be forgiven to an author who can create a book as beautiful as The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

In the recent decades, the writers from India and Pakistan have produced the best literature in the English language of anybody on the planet. Moshin Hamid is a wonderful addition to the pantheon of great writers from the region who keep literature in English alive.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid: A Review, Part I

Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a really good book. I can’t imagine how I have gone so long without discovering this great writer. When the book came out in 2007, it apparently awakened a lot of strong emotions in the readers. In many cases, this strong emotional response obscured the beauty and the importance of this book.

The plot of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is quite simple. Changez, a young Pakistani who was educated at Princeton and worked on Wall Street, is telling his story to a nameless American he meets in a restaurant in Lahore. Changez is both fascinated and repelled by the America that offered him an education and a lucrative job but at the same time, made his life intolerable in a multitude of ways. Changez’s uneasy relationship with America is mirrored by his equally painful involvement with a woman called Erica. (As you can see, Hamid is quite heavy-handed with the way he names his characters. He makes his Erica-America parallel so obvious that it becomes annoying.)

When Changez first arrives in the US, he discovers that the opulence that surrounds him in his Ivy League school and his Wall Street job makes it difficult to maintain the same vision of national identity that he brought with him from home:

For we were not always burdened by debt, dependent on foreign aid and handouts; in the stories we tell of ourselves we were not the crazed and destitute radicals you see on your television channels but rather saints and poets and—yes—conquering kings. We built the Royal Mosque and the Shalimar Gardens in this city, and we built the Lahore Fort with its mighty walls and wide ramp for our battle-elephants. And we did these things when your country was still a collection of thirteen small colonies, gnawing away at the edge of a continent.

As much as Changez prides himself on his people’s glorious past and enjoys contrasting it with the recent historical origins of America, he has to rely on his American success to gain access to a social class his family was expelled from in Pakistan. For a while, Changez manages to swallow all the instances of discrimination he experiences. He also studiously avoids noticing the suffering of people who lose their jobs as a result of his professional activities. The reward for being an obedient little cog in the Wall Street machine is too high.

But then 9/11 comes and Changez cannot maintain his state of obliviousness any longer. His initial reaction to the events of 9/11 is complex, ranging from contentment to shame, and he explores it honestly. In the US, everything that has to do with 9/11 has been transformed into a holy cow of sorts. Any attempt to analyze what happened and how one reacted is branded as anti-American. Hamid’s book received a lot of criticism for daring to discuss 9/11 in a way that is a little more profound than the official narrative. Unfortunately, those who insist that the only valid narrative of 9/11 is the simplistic one sold to us by George W. Bush don’t realize that they are not doing us all any service by denying this hugely traumatic event the right to be explored in all its facets.

>Noam Chomsky’s Hopes and Prospects: A Review, Part II

The fact that the two main candidates in the 2008 Democratic primary were a woman and an African American were a welcome sign, Chomsky acknowledges, that the country has managed to get at least somewhat civilized. Still, we cannot expect the joy from this reality to keep us perennially blind to the numerous ways in which Obama has not been living up to his promise. Chomsky reminds us that “Obama’s message of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ offered a virtual blank slate on which supporters could write their wishes.” And write we did, only to be disappointed in most of our expectations.

Chomsky points out that we do not elect politicians based on what policies they will promote. Rather, we vote for whomever presents us with the best PR campaign. Of course, we conveniently forget that after our candidate gets elected s/he will have to pay for the expensive campaign by servicing corporate interests and screwing us, the hardworking folks who put them in power. This is precisely why politicians have been working so hard to destroy the education system in the US. If you keep people in a state of permanent ignorance, you can feed them soap operish melodrama instead of real political discussion. Gossiping about Bristol Palin’s engagement and gushing ver the puppy Obama bought for his daughters is much easier than educating oneself on what it is that the Congress does and what the Supreme Court is responsible for. (As I discovered to my complete horror last semester, none of my 80 students had the slightest suspicion of what the role of SCOTUS might be).

The biggest disappointment of the Obama’s presidency has been, of course, his Economic Advisory Board. As Chomsky points out, it was packed by the poeple who engineered the economic crisis and then bled the government dry to compensate themselves for that. Chomsky is right, of course. I remember this sinking feeling I experienced as soon as Obama surrounded himself by criminals like Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers (a vile prick, if there ever was one), Timothy Geithner, Alan Greenspan, etc. It was the best indication we could have received that the only change we could expect would be for the worst. Of course, even Obama’s feeble attempts to rein in the robber bankers immediately resulted in threats to withdraw funds from his future campaigns. Ultimately, the responsibility rests with us, the voters, to educate ourselves about what the candidates actually stand for and insist that they carry out the will of the people. As good as this plan sounds, something tells me we have neither a hope or a prospect of it working out any time soon.

Chomsky offers a very bleak but an undoubtedly correct vision of Obama’s position on warfare and torture. As we all remember, a lot of Obama’s supporters preferred him to Hillary Clinton because of his opposition to the Iraq war. Understandably, we also believed that his position on torture would be in opposition to the barbaric practices adopted by the US starting in the 80ies. Chomsky departs from this hopeful attitude that has blinded many of the American progressives to the sad realities of Obama’s real position on these issues. What Chomsky says in this part of this book is something that no one wants to hear. However, his analysis in this part of the book is unassailable. After all his anti-war and anti-torture rhetoric, Obama has failed to deliver any actual change in these areas.

>Noam Chomsky’s Hopes and Prospects: A Review, Part I

>I’m not usually a huge fan of Chomsky but his new collection of essays Hopes and Prospects is really good. The first part of the book deals with Latin America. Chomsky outlines the colonial past and present of Latin American countries and their valiant efforts to rid themselves of neo-imperialist domination by the United States. He states correctly that today’s struggles of Latin American countries (Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela) to oppose the depredations of the US-inspired version of globalization offer hope for the rest of the world.  He is also absolutely right in pointing out that “Latin America is not merely the victim of foreign forces. The region is notorious for the rapacity of its wealthy classes and their freedom from social responsibility.” Here, Chomsky echoes Eduardo Galeano’s classic work Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent that decades ago offered a brilliant analysis of how Latin American power elites sold out their own countries to the predatory forces of the US neo-liberalism.

Chomsky states that the drive to imitate their Northern neighbors in ostensible consumption of Westernized goods and services has been the main cause of Latin American failure to achieve real as opposed to formal independence from colonial domination. Today, Chomsky points out “Latin America has real choices, for the first time in its history.” And this is great news for the entire planet.

In the second part of the book, Chomsky analyzes the influence that the imperialist mentality in the US exercises over the discussions of the US military presence in Iraq. I was particularly pleased to see that Chomsky decided not to follow in the footsteps of most liberal commentators in their refusal to see that Russian imperialism is in no way “better” or more justified than the US imperialism. Chomsky qualifies Putin’s actions in Chechnya as “murderous”, which they most definitely are. I only wish that more progressive analysts dared to depart from the tendency to praise everybody who opposes the US regardless of the atrocities they perpetrate. It is definitely right that the US imperialism and Russian imperialism should be discussed together since there are glaring similarities between them.

Chomsky then segues into what I consider the weakest part of the book: the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As usual, Chomsky’s analysis of the issue is one-sided and biased. Israelis are all villainous nationalists and religious fanatics, while the Palestinians are without an exception languishing and tolerant victims. While Chomsky is right in suggesting that the Israelis do everything they can to make sure the conflict continues, he forgets to say that so do the Palestinians. When he describes the Israeli “information campaigns to instruct the world on its errors and misunderstanding, arrogant self-righteousness, circling the wagons, defiance . . .  and paranoia,” he avoids mentioning that this exactly the pattern adopted by every single nation-state with a very weak and diluted national identity (Russia is a great example of precisely this kind of paranoid nation building. Closer to home, so is the US.)

Chomsky’s discussion of nuclear proliferation is powerful and convincing, and I believe everybody should read it because it touches on some of the most important issues we confront today. The only objection I have to this part of his discussion is Chomsky’s insistence that there is no need to fear a nuclear attack from Iran because that would be suicidal and self-destructive. Chomsky forgets that these same statements were made about Germany 70 years ago: “Germany would not start a war, that would be suicidal and self-destructive.” And then a few years later: “Germany will not open up a second front, that would be suicidal and self-destructive.” We all know how those predictions went. Countries often act in completely self-destructive ways, which should be well-known  to Chomsky.

Starting from Chapter 9 of Part II, Chomsky offers a brilliant analysis of the 2008 presidential elections and the job Obama’s presidency has done since then. He points out correctly that both Democrats and Republicans are considerably to the right of the American population on many major issues, both international and domestic. Hence, it is not surprising that Obama’s tepid efforts to defend his intentions to introduce some kind of change don’t convince Americans any longer. Chomsky talks about how the American people have been brilliantly manipulated into being suspicious of public welfare programs that would be of invaluable use to themselves while supporting the “nanny state for the rich.”

>Tana French’s Faithful Place: A Review

If you haven’t read Tana French’s  In the Woods and The Likeness: A Novel, then now is definitely the time to start acquainting yourself with this great author. With every new novel (and this is her third one) Tana French is showing signs of a creative growth that are nothing short of remarkable. I have been eagerly awaiting the release of her Faithful Place: A Novel and I’m happy to report that this novel will not disappoint either French’s fans or her new readers who are only now discovering her work.

Tana French is one of those really gifted female writers who seems self-conscious of her literary talent. As a result, she hides her capacity to write good novels behindsthe mask of a detective novel writer. Sure enough, there is always a murder in her novels, and the main chracter is some sort of a plice officer. However, people who come to her novels in search of a straightforward murder mystery often leave disappointed. French’s gift lies in writing about life, about the daily trials of being human. So if you want a murder mystery that will keep you guessing ntil the last page who the killer is, French is not your writer.

Tana French’s writing is beautiful. She has a way of describing modern-day Ireland that will leave you completely enamored of this fascinating country. In my opinion, nobody creates more powerful descriptions of today’s Dublin than this writer. French’s sentences are always beautifully constructed, the characters are incredibly well-crafted, and the plot lines are engrossing.

The best thing about Tana French for me is her capacity to create a very unique first-person perspective in every one of her novels. Each book is narrated in a voice that is very unique and absolutely unforgettable. Faithful Place: A Novel is very different in terms of its first-person narrator from French’s previous two novels. Her fans are used to this author creating very endearing, complex characters whom you cannot fail to admire. In this new novel, however, we encounter a very different kind of character. Francis Mackey is not an extremely attractive character, to say the least. He is self-involved, selfish, and often very mean. He tortures his ex-wife to punish her for moving on after their divorce, he is mean to his aging mother, and he thinks nothing of hurting his little daughter’s feelings just to run off and investigate an old girlfriend’s disappearance, he is a pretty lousy father, and a horrible brother to his siblings. He thinks nothing of intimidating and ssaulting witnesses, even when the witness in question is an overworked mother of three. He has been obsessed with his former girlfriend Rosie for twenty years and has never been able to get over her apparent desertion. In short, Frank is a character one is hard pressed to like.

It’s is a mark of a very good writer, however, to be able to make one’s readers care about the main character who is as difficult to admire as Frank Mackey. Tana French achieves that and more. The book is an absolute pleasure to read. As much as you might want to get to the solution of the mystery of Rosie’s disappearance and Frank’s painful relationship with his family, you will still want to linger over each beautifully written sentence.

>Immaturity and the Housing Bubble: Review of Edmund Andrews’s "Busted"

Andrews is a long-standing reporter for the economics section of the New York Times. This is what makes the story he tells in Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown so scary. Andrews’s book presents two closely connected stories: the history of the creation of the US housing bubble that started the current economic crisis and his personal story of getting into an incredible amount of debt in the years that led to the collapse of the housing market.

This is a book that needs to be read, even though it will make you lose your faith in humanity for a long time to come. Andrews analyzes in great detail how the lending institutions gradually became more and more driven by the desire for instant profit without stopping to think for a second what will happen long term. The author also brings to light the incredible, mind-boggling stupidity of Greenspan, Bernanke, and Co. He demonstrates how corrupt and dishonest the Bush Jr. administration was.

None of this, however, is very new. At least not to me. From the moment I moved from Quebec to the US, it became obvious to me that the housing prices in this country were ridiculously over-inflated. I saw my friends and colleagues pay really insane, seven-figure prices for poky little apartments in Manhattan or run-down bungalows in Connecticut and immediately realized that this was the game I would never agree to pay. Mortgaging away your life for the next 30 years in hopes that the bubble will get even bigger and the price of your house would magically grow seemed like a genuinely stupid proposition even for someone like me, who at 27 was woefully ignorant about economy. Today, when I understand the workings of this country’s economy and politics a lot better, I am even more reluctant to participate in this insanity.

What really bothered me in Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown was not the story of the housing bubble. It was the story of a nearly fantastic immaturity. Immaturity on both sides, the lenders’ and the borrowers’. Those who handed out completely unsecured loans to people incapable of ever paying them off and those who accepted loans they could never even imagine paying off. Andrews was one of those who accepted. And accepted. And accepted some more.

The immaturity and total intellectual impotence of this man – who, once again, writes for the economics section of The New York Times – is mind-boggling. He decides to take out a loan to buy a half-million dollar house. As a result, he knows that his entire paycheck will go towards his alimony payments and the mortgage with not a dime left over for the bills. Of course, he hopes that his new wife will make enough money to cover all of their living expenses. Nothing would be all that wrong about this picture, if it weren’t for one tiny detail. His new wife has been a house-wife who hasn’t worked a day in the past 20 years. Besides, she is accustomed by her former husband to living the life of luxury. She didn’t even do any work around the house because her first husband paid for a housekeeper. On top of that, Andrews gets this woman to move to a completely different part of the country. Then, he expects her to find a well-paying job – with no skills, no connections, no experience of being an employee – and start paying all the bills: “We had both assumed she could earn enough for us to get by. We didn’t have any idea how she would do it; we were both simply sure that she could do it.” It is incredible to encounter such profound intellectual impotence from any one over the age of 12.

This is not the weirdest thing about Andrews’s relationship with Patty, the woman who eventually became his second wife. He left his first wife and proposed to Patty before Patty and he had ANY kind of a relationship. They hadn’t even as much as kissed, let alone had sex or lived together. And these are not some horny teenagers. These are people who are almost 50 at the time. During marriage counselling, Andrews and Patty discover that they do not see eye to eye on 90% of issues discussed. This, however, does not suggest to them that it might make sense to postpone the wedding until they actually get to know something about each other.

Andrews’s path to penury begins when he takes out a sub-prime mortgage on his new house. Over the next few years he gets so far into debt that you couldn’t dig him out of it with an excavator, just to keep the stupid super expensive house. And you know why? In his own words, “Even though it was all about buying a house in the suburbs, it felt vaguely exciting, edgy, and a little gangsta.” When a balding, paunchy, white gentleman in his late forties is motivated to take out an impossible loan because he wants to feel “gangsta”, of all the stupid things, you know that something is seriously wrong here. And this is supposed to be a well-educated upper-middle-class individual, who works as a journalist, for Pete’s sake!

In order to climb out of the financial hole he has dug for himself, Andrews tries every crazy borrowing practice out there. He runs up a staggering credit card debt, empties his pension account, and even hits up for money his elderly mother. There is just one thing he doesn’t do: try to cut down the costs. Andrews goes through his wedding to his second wife in throes of a panic attack over mounting bills and huge debt. After that, he proceeds to pay the caterers that were hired for the wedding. Of course, the idea that people who can’t pay the electricity bill might be able to do without a catered wedding never crosses his mind.

For a while, Andrews’s family income rises to $200,000 per year. I don’t know about you, people, but for me this is a staggering amount of money. One could live like a king on half that amount. Still, Andrews cannot make ends meet. Even though the debt is growing and his interest rates become sky-high, he keeps spending on things that cannot possily be considered necessary expenses: cable telivision, HBO, beach house, Ipods, expensive clothes, the list is endless.

Andrews criticizes the irresponsible lenders virulently. He never stops to think, though, that those who criminally handed out unsecured loans were motivated by the same basic immaturity that got him into so much trouble: have fun now and assume that things will somehow work out in the end. These people, who are so immature that it makes my hair stand on end in horror, are the ones that got us into this mess. They mortgaged away our future, and their children’s and grand-children’s future because they wanted that Ipod, that house, that vacation right now and didn’t want to pay for them. Now, we will all have to pay for their lack of responsibility and their inhuman immaturity for decades to come.

[To be continued…]