Depths (Mankell)

I have yet to find a Mankell replacement. Nesbo’s work is too dark for me. So I’ve stepped outside of the Wallender series. This is an impressive book. Mankell takes one metaphor – measurement – and sustains it for 406 pages (=203 chapters). Lars Tobiasson-Svartman wants to measure everything, both tangible and otherwise, but he is unable (spoiler alert) to take measure of himself before it is too late. He realizes that “[a]ll his life he had been keeping things at a distance. But distance did not matter, it was closeness that was significant” (364).

At times, it is hard to stay with such an unlikable narrator, but Mankell manages this by keeping his chapters short and his language minimalist (much like the landscape of the novel).

Wallender or no Wallender, Mankell’s still one of my favorites.

Lolita (Nabakov)

The first time I read this it was because I was curious. Here was a book, considered by so many a classic (and by some pornographic), and I just thought I should read it. I did, and it didn’t make much of an impression on me. It was more like I was relieved that I could now check it off my list.

The re-read was strange. It felt much longer. Funnier in places, satirical in others (though Nabakov adamantly denies any anti-American agenda (in his short piece called, “On a Book Entitled Lolita” that follows this 50th anniversary edition). I also know more about Freud than I did the first time I read it; that helped and Nabakov admits he has no love for the man’s ideas.

Still, though he mocks it in his post-novel essay, I do want to know what he’s doing here – confounding our expectations? Playing with an unreliable narrator? Nabakov suggests he’s after something he calls “aesthetic bliss,” and if I understand him, I don’t think it’s here, at least not for me, not this time.

Why does this book sit near the top of so many lists of classics? Interestingly, the board of Modern Library put it at #4 whereas the readers put it at #34 (http://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels/). There are some memorable moments (the ending) and some great writing (“I was weeping again, drunk on the impossible past”). But why does this book get such critical acclaim? What impact has the controversy had on it?

At the very least, it allowed the literate Sting to offer this –

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)

I know, I know, I’m the last person to read this. My daughter, 8, devoured the first three. I asked a librarian about #4 and was told there was a death in it. My daughter and I decided that I should read it first. And so I did. All 734 pages of it. (Was Rowling so popular at this time that the whole editing process was just abandoned?) It’s an entertaining tale, filled with memorable characters and moments. Rowling’s writing is engaging, if a bit too much like Chinese food for me (as in, you read 50 pages, and you are still hungry for something more).

I finally did arrive at the death and it, taken together with the scene around it, will prompt me to ask my daughter to wait. It is pretty grim. Even though I’d gotten to the point I needed to as a parent, I still pressed on. I was disappointed by Rowling’s reliance on the cliched expository monologue as a way to provide backstory. There are several examples of this in the latter stages of the book.

So, I know it’s pretty useless to recommend or not recommend this book. I can only say it’s not for at least one 8-year-old. I will also say that I’m not going to rush out to buy #5 until she’s well into this one. And, for that, I’m glad.

How We Became Human (Harjo)

Harjo is one of those writers whose name has lingered on the edge of my consciousness for a while. I get many of those poem of the day emails and one Harjo poems (the name, regrettably, escapes me) and the possibility to see her in person (didn’t happen) prompted me to buy this collection.

Though there are some highlights from the earlier collections (“White Bear” and “She Had Some Horses”), I think she hit her stride with the 1990 collection, In Mad Love and War. These prose poems (not completely clear what makes a poem a prose poem, but that label seems right here) are tightly written and thought provoking – nowhere moreso than in “Emergence.”

“I remember when there was no urge / to cut the land or each other into pieces, / when we knew how to think / in beautiful.”

Don’t skip past the introduction; it’s electrifying. I think I’ll try her memoir next.

Fatal Remedies (Leon)

Short mysteries must be a hard task to accomplish. There is little room for red herrings, layered plots or even characterization. Some of the characterization issues can be addressed by creating a series as Leon has done here with her Brunetti series. Presumably, those who have read along with her know more about the  man and his family than me (since I just picked this one randomly as a place to start). Still, Leon has two plots here – one personal and one investigation. Are they related? Did one cause the other? Since the investigation is pretty straightforward, that seems to be where the suspense rests. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here.) I enjoyed travelling to Venice with Leon. There is some social commentary along the way. Personally, I hope connections to the Mafia don’t figure into all of her stories because I will certainly try another one.

The Lay of the Land (Ford)

I read the first part of this accidental trilogy when I was 13, having received The Sportswriter as a present. It was the first book that I thought of as different because it wasn’t written for children, but adults. Of course, the sports angle appealed to me, but this was also a glimpse of what life was going to be like in the future for me.

I read, but was not so struck by, Independence Day. Now the trilogy is complete. Frank Bascombe’s adventures have come to an end. I admire the ambition here; Ford chooses to focus mostly on just a few days leading up to and including Thanksgiving 2000. The attention to small things is wonderful even if, as Ford himself admits, he kind of loses track of Bascombe’s voice. (Does it become Ford’s?) And then Ford seems to lose his grip; simply put, too much happens for the story to retain its credibility.

Bascombe can be both profound and racist, often in the same sentence. At one point, he says, “Generalizations are my stock in trade.” That seems to speak much about Ford’s writing as well. The real estate metaphor is explored in almost excruciating detail. It works, but is not enough to sustain such a long novel.

Some characterizations, notably Detective Marinara (really) are overly broad and not at all helped by Joe Barrett’s stereotypical renderings.

Though it was often frustrating, I stuck with this audio book until the end. I’m glad I did. There’s much in it to admire and much in it to regret – similar to Frank’s life, I suppose. He remains a decade or so ahead of me. As with the first book, this may provide some insight into the next period of life. If so, I have every reason to be more than just a bit afraid.

Cosmopolitanism (Appiah)

It has been a long time since the part of my brain that reads philosophy has been exercised, so I am not sure I followed all of this provocative book – an argument on behalf of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism requires us to accept that “we have obligations to others” (xv) and that “we take seriously the value of not just human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (xv).

To the extent that I think I understand it, there is much to admire in Appiah’s work. For example, “[W]ithout a shared world, what is there to discuss? People often recommend relativism because they think it will lead to tolerance. But if we cannot learn from one another what it is right to think and feel and do, then conversation between us will be pointless. Relativism of that sort isn’t a way to encourage conversation; it’s just a reason to fall silent” (31). I agree; we need to have the hard conversations and not hide behind some notion of relativism. I’m not sure where they’ll end up. Appiah’s not either. He explains that “nothing guarantees that we will be able to persuade everyone else of our view: this is a constraint that cosmopolitans, like everyone else, must accept” (44).

I find myself agreeing with this as well –

“[W]e should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because they will bring us to agreement, but because it will help us get used to one another. If that is the aim, then the fact we have all these opportunities for disagreement about values need not put us off. Understanding one another may be hard; it can certainly be interesting. But it doesn’t require that we come to agreement” (78).

This book could put the idiotic arguments (on both sides) about political correctness into their much needed grave. The concept of global citizenship is not new and it was not brought about by the internet. Appiah gives us the history to put that notion to the rest. The book bogs down in places, but it’s some of the most creative thinking I’ve read in a while.