The Blinds: Adam Sternbergh

“Everything that happened to you before you got here has either been forgotten or is better off forgotten.”

Adam Sternbergh’s book The Blinds is set in a remote bleached-out, dusty town called Caesura– a fenced area in Kettle County, Texas, “the third least populous county” in America. Caesura, a secret facility created by the Justice Department and maintained by the murky Fell Corporation, does not exist on any map or census, but its existence is the subject of internet speculation–“chatter of secret government camps and black helicopters, mind experiments and covert crackdowns.” The town is set inside a perimeter fence. There’s no hospital, no school, but then only one child lives there. There’s a rundown-trailer for the sheriff, a structure that serves as a bar, and a small library for those who can muster the energy to read. The town is run on a cash-less basis, but there’s a commissary, which has groceries delivered once a week, and a laundromat. There’s no internet, no phones, and only two cars–the sheriff’s pickup and another in case of emergencies.  The residents can leave if they want, but they do so at their own peril. It’s well known that a woman left with her son some years ago, and it didn’t end well.

The Blinds

So who lives in this sunbleached hellhole? Who are the residents of Caesura or the Blinds as it is otherwise known?

She looks over the surrounding blocks of homes with their identical cinderblock bungalows, each with the same slightly elevated wooden porch, the same scrubby patch of modest yard. Some people here maintain the pretense of giving a shit, planting flowers, mowing grass, keeping their porches swept clean, while others let it all grow wild and just wait for whatever’s coming next. 

The residents are a blend of career criminals, the worst sort of scum–hired killers, serial killers, epic child molesters and even a few ‘innocents’ as they are called who were offered a way out for certain testimony. Instead of going into the Witness Protection programme, they disappeared, with new names, into Caesura, but only after having their memories wiped by The Fell Corporation. Over the years, and Caesura’s been in existence for eight years now, the memory wipe has been perfected.

He remembers something vaguely, as a kid, with his dad, in a dusty basement, with small windows, and the sound of tools clattering, but that’s where his memory gets ragged. Orson’s case, the doctors told him before he entered the town, was a deep dive; the relevant memories required something like a root canal for his brain. Plus he was one of the early ones, the original eight, back before they’d perfected the precision of the technique. Some of the newer people, they remember almost everything–childhoods, first crushes, wives, kids–except for the part of their lives they chose to forget.  With Orson, they scoured most of his memories, just to be sure.

So here you have a town full of vicious killers whose memories of their past mis-deeds have been wiped away. What can possibly go wrong?

That’s what happens when you wipe out a big chunk of a person’s memories: Fear breeds in the empty space that’s left behind.

Caesura, with its community of memory wiped villains has run smoothly for the past eight years, but cracks begin to appear. One resident commits suicide, and while the act itself isn’t a shocker, it’s the fact that a gun was used that is unsettling since “theoretically at least,” Sheriff Cooper is the only one who is supposed to have a gun. Then Cooper’s long-term deputy left in a hurry after the suicide, and he’s been replaced by Dawes, a woman who begins digging into loose ends. ….

Sheriff Cooper, the story’s anti-hero, is laid back and laconic, a style which causes him to project a lazy mind, but in reality he has the perfect temperament to run this hellhole. His temperament also matches the plot which unfolds layer upon layer.

Now he stands at a remove from the body in question, studying the scene with the weary air of a man who’s returned from  particularly tedious errand to find that his car’s been keyed.

To say more about the plot would ruin this book for others. I’ll add that Sternbergh’s style meshes perfectly with this dark tale that is creative and yet also oddly possible at the same time. The Blinds has to be one of the most unusual, interesting and creative books I’ve read this year. There are a couple of loose ends at the end of the story, but that’s relatively minor. It’s not often I come across a book and find myself thinking ‘this is really different,’ but Sternbergh created something new and plausible here.

Someone…. please… option this book for a television series

Review copy

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The Corsican Brothers: Alexander Dumas

“In a quarrel, the origin is not of any consequence.”

I’ve seen a couple of versions of The Corsican Brothers: The Douglas Fairbanks Jr. swashbuckler version

Corsican brothers

and the crude, hilarious Cheech and Chong version:

Also the Corsican Brothers

And that brings me to the source material: the novella from Alexander Dumas.

It’s 1841. The story begins with our narrator, a Frenchman who is journeying through Corsica, explaining the custom of claiming a night’s free board and lodging just by picking the “most commodious house,” and explaining you’re a traveller. The narrator (Alexander) explains this is seen by the owner of the house, as a honour, since you’ve picked his house out of the entire village.

Sounds like a bit of scam to me. Imagine trying to pull that these days.

Anyway, Alexander travels to Sullacaro, and notices that all of the houses seem fortified. In some of the houses, the windows are bricked up, or “guarded by thick planks , provided with openings large enough to pass a gun through.” The narrator selects the house that looks the finest but oddly enough is the only house that is not fortified. This is the home of the widow Savilia de Franchi, a woman about 40 years old, the mother of 21-year-old twin boys: Lucien and Louis.

Fortunately for the reader, the narrator is the sort of person who is interested in his surroundings. He’s given the room which belongs to the absent son, Louis, who resides in Paris, training to be a lawyer. It’s obvious from the room’s contents that Louis is a great admirer of all things French, and then the narrator meets Lucien, his brother’s opposite. In childhood, it was impossible to tell them apart, but now Louis wears French clothing, reads French books, while Lucien is deeply Corsican.

While Louis’ room is full of French books, Lucien, now an arbiter between warring factions, is more into weaponry. He  has an impressive arsenal which includes a dagger owned by the legendary Sampiero.

The narrator spends a day with Lucien who negotiates a truce to end a vendetta between two families–a vendetta which started over a chicken.

A hen escaped from the yard of the Orlandi, and flew over into that of the Colonna. The Orlandi went over to claim their hen, but the Colonna refused to give it up, claiming it as their own; the Orlandi then threatened to take them to a justice of the peace. The old mother Colonna, who kept the hen in her hands, then twisted its neck, and threw it in her neighbor’s face saying, ‘Well then, if she belongs to you, eat her.’ One of the Orlandi then picked up the hen, and was going to strike the offender with it; but at that moment, one of the Colonna, who, unfortunately, had a loaded gun in his had, took aim at him, and shot him dead on the spot.

And how many lives have now been paid for this scuffle?

There have been nine persons killed altogether.

And that for a wretched hen worth only twelve sous.

No doubt the hen was the cause; but as I have told you already, it is not the cause, but the result you must look at 

Over the course of his stay, the narrator learns that the two young men, Louis and Lucien are deeply bonded, and when one falls ill or is distressed, the other twin feels it, hundreds of miles away. Then the narrator returns to Paris and meets Louis. We see scores settled, and the way two cultures settle those scores:

not after the Corsican fashion, from behind a hedge, or over a wall. No, no, but after the French manner, with white gloves, a shirt frill and ruffles.

Once the stage is set, a fairly predictable course of events take place, and since this is an action-based vendetta story, there wasn’t any room for character development. Still I enjoyed the story for its strong Corsican bent, and the idea that twins possess an unearthly bond.

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Late Fame: Arthur Schnitzler

“You don’t know the effect that the applause of hundreds of enthusiastic listeners, that the praise of the press–that fame will have on you.”

Arthur Schnitzler’s novella, Late Fame examines the tricky labyrinths of self-delusion through the dreams and desire for literary glory. This novella, originally intended for publication in a magazine, was resurrected from Schnitzler’s archives, and its title, published now decades after its creation, has an irony which is underscored by the material itself.

Late Fame

Eduard Saxberger is a 69-year-old civil servant, a bachelor, who has had a successful career, and who lives alone, contentedly, in a pleasantly appointed house. His life is disrupted by the arrival of Wolfgang Meier, a young poet, a member of the “Enthusiasm society,”  who gushingly asks if Saxberger is the author of The Wanderings.

Saxberger has almost forgotten his long-dead and buried dreams of literary fame. At first when he rereads the poetry he wrote so many decades before, painful memories awake:

The whole sorry life that he had led now passed though his mind. Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man, that not only the hopes, but also the disappointments lay far behind him.

Meier understands why Saxberger stopped writing poetry:

It’s the same old story. At the start, we’re satisfied to have just our own pleasure in our work and the interest of the few who understand us. But when you see those coming up around you, winning a name and even fame for themselves-then you would rather be heard and honored as well. And then come the disappointments!  The envy of the talentless, the frivolity and malice of reviewers, and then the horrid indifference of the public. 

Charmed and flattered by the reverence shown by Meier, Saxberger mingles with the young writers, the self-styled “hope of young Vienna,” and so begins a period of renewal in Saxberger’s life. He discovers that while he loves listening to these young people praise his work, he’s bored when asked to critique another’s poems. He joins these “writers who stay apart from those following the beaten track,” and once again Saxberger dreams of literary fame. …

Late Fame is a delightful tale which follows Saxberger’s ‘renewal’ which comes to a crisis point when he’s asked to write a new poem for a public reading–a reading which will, the poets claim “show that rabble,” who will “get the shock of their lives.” A great deal of the story’s humour is found in the relationships within the group of writers. These include various poets, an unemployed actor, and a rather shopworn actress who “doesn’t fit into regular theatre life.” From a distance, she looks impressive, but as she comes closer to Saxberger, he sees “the strangely ravaged lines of the face itself.” The penetrating stares she insists on sending Saxberger make him uncomfortable.

According to the group, anyone not in their circle are “the talentless ones,” “careerists,”followers of literary fashion.” Schnitzler captures not only the seductiveness of fame, but also how easy it is to cloak ourselves in self-delusion. This circle jerk of poets and writers support each other with claims of being ‘true’ and chafe against the lack of fame while skirting the possibility of lack of talent. In their circle, they survive on mutual admiration as they bolster each other’s lack of progress. We’ve all met people like this, and we all know how impossible it is to break through the tough membrane that protects the talentless. Does Saxberger profit or suffer from this experience? That’s for the reader to decide.

This bittersweet tale of fame lost and found will make my best-of-year list.

Jonathan’s review

Max’s review

Translated by Alexander Starritt

Review copy

 

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The Lady in Mink: Vera Caspary (1946)

“My type can’t afford to have anything to do with your type except in dreams.”

The Lady in Mink is a lesser-known novella (also known as The Murder in the Stork Club) from Vera Caspary, the author of  Laura. I read The Secrets of Grown-Ups Caspary’s autobiography a few years ago, and found a lot to admire and like in this remarkably strong, interesting woman. So I’m slowly reading Caspary’s work that remains in print, or is at least available:

Laura

Bedelia

Stranger than Truth

The Man Who Loved His Wife

The Lady in Mink is a fairly standard detective story which centres on the poisoning death of playboy Henry Pendleton. Henry, “the double-L type, ladies and liquor,” spent his last night at The Stork Club, mingling with celebrities and various women from his past. He became violently ill, and on the way home in a taxi cab, he died. Police Captain Mulvoy suspects that Henry met his murderer in the club, and that he was slipped the poison in plain sight. Henry, who was about to publish a book which included old love letters, had dinner that night with a mystery woman in mink. She’s now disappeared. Who was she, and is she the killer?

IMG_0715 (1)Private detective Joe Collins takes on the case and proceeds to worm his way into the club and into the lives of the main suspects. There’s Henry’s ex-wife Dorothy, Maggie, a former girlfriend now engaged to a millionaire, and the mystery woman in mink.

First-class, gilt-edged gold-digger” Maggie is a disarming combination of “artlessness” and artifice. Her “earnestness and shy pauses had the effect of calculation.” She appears to be reading War and Peace, but Joe isn’t sure if she’s reading it or if it’s an “adornment.” Pendleton’s ex wife, Dorothy mentions her psycho-analysis moments after meeting Joe: “She seemed to regard psycho-analysis as some sort of adornment like a permanent wave.”

The Lady in Mink is a snapshot of its time. Name dropping of celebrities who visit the club is interspersed with the fascination with mink coats. Every woman either has one or wants one. The murder investigation puts Joe’s marriage to the test. Joe Collins begins to question his wife, Sara’s fidelity and also, after catching her in a number of lies, whether or not he can trust her. Sara writes for radio and makes $500 a week. Joe doesn’t make nearly as much money, so Sara is the main breadwinner, and that causes tensions which float to the surface during the murder case. The investigation takes Joe into the world his wife left behind: a world of champagne, gold cigarette cases, and mink coats.

This isn’t Caspary’s best work, it’s not nearly so well crafted as either Laura or Bedelia, but it’s entertaining enough with some snappy lines thrown in.

Good Housekeeping hired Caspary to write the story, The Murder in the Stork Club. My copy was published in 1946 in the UK, so The Lady in Mink may have been the British title.

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Mrs Fletcher: Tom Perrotta

When I saw the title of Tom Perrotta’s novel, Mrs Fletcher, I thought immediately of The Graduate’s Mrs Robinson, and as it turns out, the connection wasn’t that far off. The titular Mrs Fletcher, or Eve, turns out to be a middle-aged woman who’s lusted after by a man young enough to be her son. This is a novel about growing up, growing older, and moving on in a brand new world where sexual confusion meets PC expectations. Perrotta’s light humour makes this story of human flaws and human failings a delight to read.

Mrs Fletcher

The novel opens with 46-year-old Eve packing up the U-haul and getting ready to send her only son, high school jock, Brandon, off to college. Brandon, who should be helping his mother is busy getting a farewell blow-job from his h.s. girlfriend, lithe cheerleader, Becca. Brandon actually broke up with Becca, via text, a few weeks earlier but nonetheless she arrives and breezily pushes her way into Brandon’s bedroom.

Eve, annoyed that Becca has spoiled her last day with Brandon, goes to his bedroom door and is shocked when she overhears a detail of her son’s sex life.

Mrs Fletcher follows two trajectories: Eve, divorced, suffering from empty-nest syndrome, and whose entire social life revolves around Facebook, vows to get out and ‘mingle.’ By day she’s the executive director of a senior center, but she enrolls in a night class: Gender and Society taught by a transgendered professor at the local community college. The small class is made up of a wide range of students, but a classmate, bar owner Barry, a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy” latches onto Eve.

“I’ve never met a transgendered person before,” she said. “At least I don’t think so.”

“Not that I’m attracted to her,” Barry added in case she’d misunderstood his earlier comment. “I mean, to each his own, right? But that’s a bridge too far for me. I wonder is she tells the guys she dates beforehand.”

“How do you know she dates guys?”

“Just the general vibe I’m getting. You think she got the surgery? I’m not really sure how that works.”

That conversation which is vividly real, is indicative of the book’s tone and main focus. The world has changed. Yes we have male and female but we also have “LGBTQIA voices,” and terms such as “cisgender” and “heteronormative” (I had to look up the definitions). Perrotta’s characters must negotiate this new world with its new terms, new rules. Eve for example, defends the professor’s right to be transgendered, and yet in her secret moments, questions the choice:

In a minivan outside a sports bar, however, the professor’s gender identity seemed a little more precarious, as much wish as reality. It was partly the timbre of her voice in the darkness, and partly just the size of her body in the passenger seat, the way she filled the available space. 

I can see who you were, Eve thought, One self on top of the other. 

As soon as this uncharitable image occurred to her, she did her best to erase it from her mind. She wasn’t the gender police. 

Eve’s life begins to expand into new territory, yet still there’s an emptiness. One night she receives an anonymous text: “U r my MILF,” bored and lonely, she surfs the internet and discovers milfateria.com, a site devoted to “Amateur MILF Porn.” Before long she’s addicted and “infected.”

The second story line follows Brandon who is out-of-his-depths at college, a place he chose specifically for its reputation of being “a party school and he liked to party.” A popular jack in high school, here, he’s an anachronism. He can hang out with other jocks, or he can pursue a girl he’s very attracted to: Amber whose politically active college life includes Autism Awareness.

Perrotta paints a lively picture of college life, and how the sensitivity of gender and gender issues create a minefield in modern society. On the two college campuses seen here, patriarchy is under attack, rape culture is vilified, and yet beyond the campus grounds we see the other side of sex–the stuff minus the philosophical discourse: casual hookups through tinder.com and the sex on porn sites–sex that seems to have escaped the rules of society.

In the porn world, no one seemed to have heard of sexual harassment. Doctors went down on their patients. Personal trainers fondled their clients. Underperforming employees found creative ways to save their jobs.

Given the subject matter, it would have been easy to dip into smutty territory, but this is not Perrotta’s aim. There’s a feeling of melancholy throughout the novel as we follow our troubled, confused characters. He shows us two people, mother and son, at important crossroads in their lives. Both Eve and Brandon face ‘the next stage’ and they both blunder through it. In this ever-shifting world, with the temptations of Craigslist, Tinder, and the internet, it’s hardly surprising that people may make mistakes about sex.

Mrs Fletcher has been optioned by HBO

Review copy

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Editor in Chief: Don’t Blame Me, I only Work Here.

tofu

A rare behind-the-scenes look at the hub of this blog.

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The Newspaper of Claremont Street: Elizabeth Jolley

“When people open their doors for their houses to be cleaned, they open themselves.”

The Newspaper or “weekly” is the nickname for a cleaning lady who works in so many houses in Claremont Street that she knows all of the gossip.  Apart from the lower-income flats, Weekly has worked in all the houses at some time or another. She’s a fixture, and like most fixtures, her habits and private life are all taken for granted by those who employ her.

When she went into the houses she saw what people were trying to do with their lives and she saw too what they did not try to do. Some things simply happened to them. The mess made by living did not bother her. People’s efforts to clear up their mess were touching, their dead flowers drooping in stained, treasured vases and crumbs left in the bread tin made her shake her head and feel sad, not because she had to throw away the flowers and clean out the tin. It was the picking of the flowers in the first place and the buying of the bread and bringing it home to eat, they were the symbols of their efforts to live. Weekly made great efforts herself and was not unaware of the efforts of others. She noticed everything there was to notice about people and their houses; she could not help it.

Weekly is a creature of habit, and she’s spent a lifetime of joyless toil cleaning houses while secretly gathering a nestegg. She dreams of owning a place in the country, a place of her own, with fruit trees, and that dream is so strong, it actually pains her to spend any money. She takes cast off clothes from her employers, lives rent-free in a sparsely furnished room exchange for cleaning services, and eats the most frugal diet possible. But it’s in cleaning, that “her mind found a freedom that might be quite unknown in any other kind of work.” 

The Newspaper of Claremont street

Weekly cleans one house after another, and while she knows “which wives didn’t want their husbands to come home for lunch; she heard sons snarling at their mothers and ungrateful daughters banging bedroom doors,” she only carries the benign gossip and “never spoke of the things that really mattered.” She knows everything there is to know about the people on Claremont Street. She sees people age, become ill, marriages go wrong, children misbehave and disappoint their parents. She’s seen all sorts of domestic tragedies over the last thirty years. Nothing surprises her, and nothing will stop her cleaning. She’s a steamroller of domestic industry:

She was used to people being in bath towels or in bed at all hours of the day. The intimate things which she could not help perceiving did not interest her much. If at the time of cleaning, various sexual or alcoholic activities of the householders were in the way, she simply cleaned round them. She was acquainted with, and quite unmoved by, their experiments with drugs and had tidied up on one occasion, quite calmly after a murder. 

On one level, Weekly would seem to be the low person on the Claremont Street totem pole. The shop girls make fun of her, and to the people who employ her, Weekly isn’t so much a person as a machine. “Everyone tried to get as much work from her as possible,” and yet her middle-class employers don’t want to be seen ‘less generous’ than the others on the street, so they care about the opinions of their neighbours, and treat Weekly accordingly.

Elizabeth Jolley’s novella, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, at 116 pages, is tightly written and peppered with flashes from Weekly’s past. Off-kilter memories laced with dark comedy pop up unbidden, and Weekly pushes them back down. She’d rather not think the death of her mother (“she simply refused to understand that motor traffic could not always stop for the pedestrian“) or about Victor, the brother she loved so much that she would have slaved for him. Gradually we learn, well sort of, what happened to Victor and why Weekly is ashamed of her role in his betrayal.

Weekly’s relationship with Victor goes a long way to explaining her reluctant relationship with Nastasya, a Russian emigré who dreams of the glories of her pampered past and demands that Weekly step up to fill the empty roles of servant, caretaker, banker, nurse, and general dogsbody. It’s through the tortured relationship between Weekly and Nastasya we see how people fall into familiar relationship grooves, and also how those who want to be pampered need someone to slave.  With Nastasya hanging around Weekly’s neck, will she still move to the country?

There were a few passages which described the raw countryside, and show the magnificence of Australia:

Black cockatoos left the tree tops in twos and threes and then in their numbers and came swirling in ever widening circles, screaming and calling in their flight. The shallow ravine of trees and the endless stretches of trees and scrub on either side of the piece of land seemed full of these birds. Their heads were round and determined and black fringes edged their wings and, as they flew round and through the trees, they brought to the place a quality of strangeness, of something unknown, as if they had some other knowledge, something to do with another kind of life.

There’s a macabre twist to this tale that is signature Elizabeth Jolley. I tried reading The Newspaper of Claremont  a few years ago, but gave up after a few pages, so thanks to Gummie for encouraging me to try this novel again.

My favourite novel from this author is Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, a truly hilarious tale.

Note: unwanted kittens are drowned in one passage .

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The Late Show: Michael Connelly

The Late Show brings us a new series from author Michael Connelly and this time, instead of Harry Bosch,  it’s Renée Ballard, a detective in the Hollywood Division. Renée and her partner, Jenkins, work at night, “the midnight shift, the late show, moving from case to case, called to any scene where a detective was needed to take initial reports or sign off on suicides. But they kept no cases.” She’s been shelved and transferred to this shift following a sexual harassment complaint, which was thrown out, against Lt. Olivas. Ballard is still bruised from the experience, but she’s dealing with it, working hard, and trying to do her job.

The Late Show

The book opens with a call to the home of a woman whose credit card appears to have been stolen, and then it’s onto Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center for the vicious beating and torture of a young woman (later discovered to be trans gendered), but before Ballard can press for forensic tests, another victim arrives from a quadruple murder that occurred in a Hollywood Club called the Dancers. When that victim, a waitress at the club dies, Ballard goes to the club to talk to witnesses.

So we have three crimes: a credit card theft, the beating and torture of a transgender person, and a multiple homicide at the club. The shooting at the club is odd. How are the victims related? –they’re an assorted trio of felons, a bookie, an enforcer, and a drug dealer, all in the same place at the same time, shot to death. And the drug-dealing waitress was “collateral damage.”

“Did anybody in here tell you they saw the waitress get hit?”

Jenkins scanned the tables, where about twenty people were sitting and waiting. It was a variety of Hollywood hipsters and clubbers. A lot of tattoos and piercings. 

“No, but from what I hear, she was waiting on the table when the shooting started,” Jenkins said. “Four men in a booth. One pulls out a hand cannon and shoots the others right where they’re sitting. people start scattering, including the shooter. He shot your waitress when he was going for the door. Took out a bouncer too.” 

Ballard is supposed to pass off the cases she works on the Late Show to the day team, but this is a driven detective who, still smarting at an unjust transfer, wants more.

She manages to wrangle holding onto the transgender torture case, but since the victim is in a medically induced coma, many questions are unanswered. Ballard’s partner Jenkins is distracted by his wife’s illness, but Ballard, who likes to go solo in her personal and professional life, starts investigating both the club shooting and the torture cases on her own. …

I thought I knew the direction the plot was heading, but I’m delighted to say that I was wrong. When it comes to crime enforcement, author Michael Connelly obviously has respect for the profession, but not every cop is idealized, and many flaws fester under the badges of some of the characters in these pages. The book’s visceral tone draws the reader into Ballard’s cases, and there’s a sense of immediacy–we are there with Ballard, an intriguing protagonist, who is strong enough to lead a series. It’s fun to think that we know how all the procedures of police work, but occasionally, only occasionally, there were too many details. But apart from that niggling issue, The Late Show is a pageturner.

Review copy.

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The Paper House: Carlos María Domínguez

“He was looking for a book.”

The Paper House from Argentinean author Carlos María Domínguez is a delightful cautionary tale, a fable of sorts that explores the excesses of a bibliophile at “the mercy of his passion,”and asks the question: when does the luxury of a prized collection of books “cross an invisible line” and become a burden?

Professor Bluma Lennon has just purchased a book of Emily Dickinson poems. She’s distracted by reading when she crosses a street and is hit and killed by a car. This event opens the story’s beginnings with a wry twist on that old saying: “Books change people’s destinies.”

The paper house

The narrator, a work colleague of Professor Bluma Lennon, attends her funeral, and at the service, yet another professor makes a speech in which he creates “great controversy.” He states: “Bluma devoted her life to literature, never dreaming it would take her from this world,” and subsequently a debate rages across the university whether or not poetry is responsible for her death.  The narrator is perhaps particularly interested in the idea that books can be harmful as, in childhood, his grandmother always stopped him from reading claiming it was “dangerous.” As the narrator grows older, he thinks perhaps his grandmother was right.

An elderly professor of classical languages, Leonard Wood, was left paralysed after being struck on the head by five volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica that fell from a shelf in his library; my friend Richard broke a leg when he tried to reach William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which was so awkwardly placed he fell off his stepladder. Another of my friends in Buenos Aires caught TB in the basement of a public archive, and I even know a dog from Chile that died of indigestion from swallowing the pages of The Brothers Karamazov one afternoon when rage got the better of him. 

Shortly after Bluma’s death, the narrator, who has taken over her office and courses, receives a package from Uruguay with no return address. Upon opening the package, the narrator finds a tatty copy of Conrad’s The Shadow-Line, but the book is covered in cement particles. Who sent the book? The only clue is an inscription from Bluma to someone named Carlos, and so the mystery begins that takes the reader to Buenos Aires and eventually to a remote beach in Uruguay. This is the story of Carlos, a man who loved books so much that the sheer number involved drove him out of his house. With a library of over 20,000 books, how do you store them? How do you keep track of your collection?

they were piled in the kitchen, the bathroom, and in his bedroom as well. Not his original bedroom, because he had been forced out of there, but in the attic where he had taken refuge, next to another little bathroom. The stairs leading up to the attic were also full of books, and it was nineteenth century French literature which watched over his scant hours of sleep.

The sheer number of books in Carlos’s collection presents a horrible logistical problem. After all, one must be able to locate the books one owns, otherwise what’s the point? Carlos develops a new way of indexing his books, and it’s a fatal choice.

It is often much harder to get rid of books than it is to acquire them. They stick to us in that pact of need and oblivion we make with them, witnesses to a moment in our lives we will never see again. While they are still there, it is a part of us. I have noticed that many people make a note of the day, month, and year that they read a book; they build up a secret calendar. Others, before lending one, write their names on the flyleaf, note whom they lent it to in an address book, and add the date. I have known some book owners who stamp them or slip a card between their pages the way they do in public libraries. Nobody wants to mislay a book. We prefer to lose a ring, a watch, our umbrella, rather than a book whose pages we will never read again, but which retains, just in the sound of its title, a remote and perhaps long-lost emotion. 

Peppered throughout this novella (which includes illustrations from Peter Sis) are the most marvellous observations about books and book lovers. This witty, wise cautionary tale of letting our libraries grow out of control makes my best-of-year list.

Also titled The House of Paper (my copy has the exact same cover but is titled The Paper House). Don’t be put off by the cover.

Translated by Nick Caistor

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Filed under Domínguez Carlos María, Fiction

The Lake: Lotte and Søren Hammer

The Lake is the fourth novel in the Konrad Simonsen series from brother and sister writing team Lotte and Søren Hammer. Other titles in the series are: The Hanging, The Girl in the Ice and The Vanished. The Lake is the first title I read, and while some of the characters have established relationships, with minor references made to past cases, the book was easy to read without having finished the prior books in the series.

Crime readers are aware that the genre has many sub-categories. In the case of The Lake, which I had expected to be a straightforward police procedural, the narrative, taking a hard, cold look at the layers involved in human trafficking, is more complex. This is definitely a crime novel written to highlight a social ill–one that occurs under the noses of polite society. In Denmark, prostitution is legal, but after that things get a bit blurry. It’s illegal to pimp, run a brothel, or rent out a room that is used for prostitution.  Wikipedia states that approx. 65% of sex workers in Denmark are migrants/victims of human trafficking (other sources are higher), and it seems seriously doubtful that any of them, signed up for the kind of life they ended up with.

The Lake

The Lake begins with a young Nigerian sex worker being driven off to a remote location to be ‘punished’. Henrik Krag, Jan Podowski and Benedikte Lerche-Larsen are all unhappy with “Jessica,” a teenage girl who “lies there like a dead thing,” and as a result unhappy customers have demanded refunds. Jessica isn’t her real name, of course, “all the girls in her shipment had been given names that began with the letter ‘J’ –it was easier that way.” Henrik and Jan aren’t exactly ‘nice’ people, but somehow, Benedikte, born with all of her privileges, being groomed to take over the family business, finds torture of this sad, confused, frightened, disenfranchised girl amusing. Benedikte is the worst of the lot.

“Yes, I’m talking about you, sister. We’ve gone to the trouble of having you shipped all the way to civilisation, and now suddenly you can’t be bothered to keep your half of the bargain. But I’m not going to let you screw over my family, and I can guarantee that very soon you’ll find that out for yourself.”

The punishment goes wrong, the girl dies and she’s dumped into a remote lake. Months later her body surfaces, and a policeman interviewed on television made a racist remark. Suddenly the girl’s death garners attention. The murder becomes a cause célèbre, and DS Konrad Simonsen and his team are soon on the case…

The murder takes the police to Kollelse Manor and the noble Blixen-Agerskjold family. The estate bailiff, Frode Otto, with his criminal past, comes to the detectives’ attention. Could he be involved? Personal relationships between the police team are highlighted while the criminals here run the gamut: from the lowly, manipulated thug, to the cold masterminds running the show.

This isn’t a novel that you race through, but it is solid, engaging and thoughtful in its portrayals of the different aspects of prostitution with the criminals creaming off the money in this ugly trade in human flesh. Benedikte’s mother, Katrina, is in the market for some new women, and she has three women to trade back for the newer models. The ones she returns like cashing in a coupon are  “barely used as good as new.”  Here she is looking at “applicants” along with a doctor on hand to give them the once over.

All the women were trying to appear sexy and eager to work to the older, blonde woman sitting at the opposite end of the room, scrutinising them. Rumours had long since spread among them: if Katrina Larsen owned you, you would only have to service one client a day. It sounded incredible but it was the truth. And what luxury it would be–just one customer a day! In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

The Lake addresses Denmark’s seemingly open-minded approach to prostitution–a trade in which legal residents, in theory, pay taxes, and are much more likely to approach the police if they are threatened or beaten. Foreign sex workers, however, are much more vulnerable. Denmark is rated as a Tier I country when it comes to Human Trafficking. That means “Countries whose governments fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards.” It’s both a country of destination and of transit. “The Triangle of Shame” is mentioned here: Niger, Chad and Nigeria–three countries from which “many, many thousands of sex slaves exported to Europe each year.”

review copy

translated by Charlotte Barslund

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Filed under Fiction, Hammer Lotte and Søren