Monday, January 08, 2007

Holiday reading

It's time to get back to work. The break was good, even though the PhD-guilt kept coming back every now and again. Just thinking about work during the holidays is an illness that needs to be medicated with industry-strength escapism. As I was also mildly ill for most of the time and couldn't go skiing as much as I liked, the prescription was books, books and more books.

Now that I'm back and need to get my writing going, here are some musings of what I read, just to kickstart the engine.

Ilkka Remes: 6/12
This is the newest book by the Finnish master of technothrillers. 6/12 refers to the Finnish independence day and the President's reception I mentioned a few postings ago. Serbian nationalists storm the President's castle and take the whole crême de la crême of the society as hostages - demanding the release of a Serbian war criminal who is serving his sentence in Finland. They also have financial demands that are linked to a rare substance needed for a vaccine against the avian flu...

Condensating the storyline to such a short abstract makes it sound typically pompous and at the same time boyishly ridiculous. There's the James Bond -problem: how to make the stakes high enough, now that its no longer possible to scare people with global annihilation via thermonuclear war? Linking the avian flu to a "straight-forward" case of hostage-taking as a means of forced prisoner-exchange is actually a great idea. And the book is possibly the best Remes-production I've read, as it is highly entertaining, an engaging page-turner and at the same time manages to be a bit deeper than many other representatives of this crowded genre. And, it is actually a proper novel and not a bastard of a screenplay and a picture novel.

Minette Walters: The Devil's Feather (read in Finnish, "Paholaisen Höyhen")

They say Minette Walters is one of Britain's foremost crime novelists. I must admit that her newest book was my first contact with her. Some people compare her to PD James and Ruth Rendell, but I must say I was slightly disappointed.

This book was labelled as a "psychological thriller". Unfortunately, my psychology wasn't too thrilled, even though the story is well-constructed and builds suspense by giving the reader only morcels of information at a time, and runs two parallel "mysteries". But, as it happens, most of the book is description of two mentally unstable women gossiping and it became very quickly tedious to follow the story or even care. The two women just endlessly chat about what had happened in the village and in the house where the protagonist had moved to, who had said what and to whom etc. Instead of being a "whodunnit" it's more like a "whosaidwhattowhomandwhyandwasittrueandifnotsowhat". The "real" story is about a sadistic rapist-killer that traveled from one crisis-ridden country to another, in sync with the protagonist, a war-correspondent. He then captures the main character in Iraq but for some unexplained reason releases her, and she loses her marbles and withdraws to Dorset. She tries to get the authorities to investigate him and he in turn is moving closer and closer to silence her, this being the "horror"-part of the book. To me, it seemed that the book was probably operating on a level that is attractive to some people but not me. If you like gossip, like to follow the kind of thinking that gets people to talk about others behind their backs and then trying to piece together what is true and what is not, this might be your book. If you like thrillers of the Cape Fear-kind where the victims are in a remote place without communication devices and there is a maniac murderer stalking them, read something else, as this part of the plot fails in this book.

Slawomir Mrozek: Elämää aloittelijoille ("Life for Beginners", a compilation of short stories)

Mrozek is a Polish playwright, most famous for the play "Tango" (1964) that is still performed around Europe. Life for Beginners is a compilation of short stories. Some say his stories have relationship with Daniil Kharms's vignettes, but while Kharms is firmly surreal, Mrozek fourishes within the absurd. No grannies flying out of windows, then, but we do get the occasional drowning to death under a collapsing mountain of files in the Department for Unfinished Business. Mrozek's humour has a warm and humane quality, and just like much of the literature from the Eastern bloc, Mrozek also always takes the side of the human against the system, whatever the system might be veiled as in the stories. There's a relation to Eduard Uspenski's stories, because of the always noticeable silver lining in the stories, and Mrozek's political satire has a similar ring as some of the better Radio Jerevan -jokes.

Kjell Westö: Vådan av att vara Skrake (read in Finnish: Isän nimeen)

This book was shortlisted for Finlandia prize in 2000, and is one "part" of the series of books about Swedish-speaking Helsinki in the late 1900's by Westö. (Westö finally got the prize this year, with a book that's next on my reading list.) He manages to capture the essence of the era in a mesmerising way, and his "heroes" are those who somehow fall through the support networks of the affluent minority. Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll have their role in the stories (the said minority in its bourguoiseness being the opposite of any of these, usually), but the basic feel that Westö's books have is the stillness and peace of the "best" moments of the characters' lifes. Whether it is the angling trips as in this book or flying kites as in the previous Westö I read (Kites over Helsinki), when life is good, as it often is in the childhood, it's so simple and uncomplicated, and you'd wish that the moments lasted forever.

Which they of course don't, and the characters are often unable to recapture the once lost harmony, and most of the time (being men) too proud to solve whatever problems they might have. These are psychological thrillers proper, about fitting in and adapting; about growing up in the cross-pressures of expectations. They are also epics of families, this book probably more than any other Westö-book, as the protagonist aspires to understand himself by trying to figure out what his father was about, which leads him to have to dig deeper into his family and especially the history of the unfortunate branch of the family tree that consists of himself and his father, the man who gets extremely unlucky when he gets a bit lucky.

"In the name of the father" (as the Finnish title directly translates to) is a great book. While reading it, you start thinking that most of these stories actually must be true, because nobody could make them up. Surely, it must be autobiographical, he must have taken pieces from real events and people, possibly his own family... You belive everything the book says, and you symphatise with the characters and learn something about yourself. And the fictional reality the book creates is very much a kin to the next book I read - too fantastic not to be true, and a work that gave it's author a high literary prize.

Orhan Pamuk: Kar ("Snow", read in Finnish, "Lumi")

This wonderful book reminded me of why reading novels is so important. It's not just the entertainment, not just the things you learn, not only the language. Reading novels asks you to take someone else's perspective - identify with them, share their thoughts, motifs, beliefs, world views. Sometimes it doesn't work, as was the case in the middle-aged and troubled female author who had all sorts of issues with her late mother. I couldn't identify with anything, the writing was mediocre and so I left the book unfinished. Some authors, like Dan Brown, don't even try. They just describe the action and you are reading a description of a bad movie. Westö is good in this - you understand the thinking of the characters, you feel like they do even if you wouldn't make the same decisions they do. Actually, you start symphatising with them just for this reason, you see where they go wrong and somehow start appreciating the fact that you wouldn't make the same mistakes even though you so easily could.

With Westö, the familiar setting and time (to me) make it easier and amplify the effects of his great writing. In Pamuk's case the time, place and surroundings are totally, completely unfamiliar (to me), but yet he manages to make sense. In "Snow", a Turkish poet, Ka, travels to a remote town, as snowfall locks the place in. The town is a miniature version of Turkey, with its radical political islamists, secularists, Kurds, and Turkish people, their political views and agendae. What is amazing in the book is the open-mindedness with which it describes and deals with these different people, their interests, opinions and actions. Nobody is demonised, nobody is left without criticism. The events unfold with the claustrophobic sense of uncontrol. Ka is like the pianist in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, in a strange place, being torn by others keen on exploiting his fame for their own political aims. In both books things seem to slip through the protagonists' fingers, and events seem to be guided by Fate Bearing a Major Grudge, in the end they have to bear the consequences of their actions, of which they were surprisingly responsible.

One of Pamuk's great devices in this book is the voice. He starts to tell the story as if from Ka's perspective in third person, but relatively soon the "I" appears, first very briefly, almost as a slip of the pen. The "I" then takes even more control as the events progress, and as the actions of Ka become more certain and motivated, the uncertainty of the reader is kept high by the gradual understanding that there is a biographer at work here, piecing together the story based on what others have told and what Ka wrote and said. And of course, when Ka starts taking an active role in the events, he has less time (or opportunity) to ponder them, and as he was taking drastic actions and choosing his side, he didn't want the others to know what he did. The biographer is therefore left guessing, and the reader is put in front of another challenge, to extrapolate the motifs of the final events, based on the earlier identification with Ka and his psychology.

This was the first book by last year's Nobelist that I have read, but I'm now keen to read more. A masterful book with a lot of depth - a universe in a hardback.

A.C. Grayling: Descartes

This was my "travel-book", a paperback I picked from Stansted to read in the plane. It's a biography (a genre I usually avoid) of René Descartes, written by a British philosopher and author. As a philosopher, he is equipped to evaluate and discuss Descartes' philosophy and its impact to modern thinking, and as a writer manages a highly entertaining read (In his appendix 2 he talks about this being his aim, as too many philosophers biographies are either philosophically unsound or too academically dry). He gets the attention of the reader (and the book-buyer) by suggesting that during his early years of which not much is known, Descartes was a Jesuit spy. He admits that this is just speculation, but that it COULD be true, and that it would fit the known facts as well or at places even better than other explanations of, for example, why he suddenly moved from Paris to the Netherlands.

Whether you believe Grayling's theory or not, the book itself is very entertaining and the description of the religious battles of the 30-year War and at those times do definitely have an effect to Descartes and his thinking. And his thinking had an effect to them, and Grayling underlines an important point: while most people know Descartes from the "I think, therefore I am" -proposition, his biggest impact is in natural science, as he argued how it can be studied without jeopardising the central teachings of the Church. Being a devout Catholic himself, he teased the natural, experimental science and its results apart from the Scripture and the orthodoxy of the Church, and thus was a key figure in enlightenment, allowing scientists to develop their theories without having to worry about the fate of Galilei. Grayling isn't a Descartes fanboy and the bits where he describes how badly Descartes took any criticism of his work, even when he was clearly proven wrong, are very illuminating and entertaining.

Again, one of those moments when something sounds vaguely familiar but doesn't quite ring a bell: Marin "le Père" Mersenne, Descartes' friend and a Parisien "hub of knowledge". Grayling describes him as taking care of what academic journals and conferences do today: he was in close correspondence with most great thinkers of those days, especially mathematicians and philosophers, made them aware of each others' work and got them into contact with each other so they could learn from each other and develop their theories even further. It sounded like he was doing the kind of job I'd very much would like to do, especially as his own scientific contribution was significant, as well. So, off to Wikipedia, who is this guy? Turns out that he is the Mersenne who wrote Harmonie Universelle (1637), one of the first treatises on the science of music...

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