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Faceless Killers – Henning Mankell

One frozen January morning at 5am, Inspector Wallander responds to what he believes is a routine call out. When he reaches the isolated farmhouse he discovers a bloodbath.

An old man has been tortured and beaten to death, his wife lies barely alive beside his shattered body, both victims of a violence beyond reason. The woman supplies Wallander with his only clue: the perpetrators may have been foreign. When this is leaked to the press, it unleashes a tide of racism.

Wallander’s life is a shambles. His wife has left him, his daughter refuses to speak to him, and even his ageing father barely tolerates him. He works tirelessly, eats badly, and drinks his nights away. But now Wallander must forget his troubles and throw himself into a battle against time and against mounting racial hatred.

It’s been a long while since I’ve read a crime novel and as there have been a significant number coming out of Scandinavia in recent years, in both books and on TV. Being, always behind the times, my first foray into the subgenre arrives fashionably late like a clue that traditionally cracks the case.

Faceless Killers is the first novel in the Wallander series and as you would expect the landscape, plot and the titular character’s personal life are all a bit bleak.  There are plenty of descriptions of the weather which will please the Brits, a grim murder scene to be analysed and a familiar feel to protagonist Kurt Wallander.  Family struggles, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and being a lover of classical music are by now all common themes in the detective world.

There are lots of meetings in this book, which I liked, as it felt properly police procedural, rather than being a case of swanning off every five minutes to badger a suspect because nobody likes paperwork.  Most compelling is the patient layering of lots of different pressures coming from many angles,it helps keep distract from the main focus of the investigation but brings up some interesting questions about life in Sweden and the complexities of its politics..

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Posted by on 31/07/2018 in Crime

 

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The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver

Mexico, 1935.  Harrison Shepherd is working in the household of famed muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo.  Sometimes cook, sometimes secretary, Shepherd is always an observer, recording his experiences in diaries and notebooks.  When exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky arrives, Shepherd inadvertently casts in his lot with art and revolution and his aim for an invisible life is thwarted forever.

This has been on my to read pile ever since I read Cuban writer, Leonardo Padura’s excellent novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs. The title, The Lacuna alludes to much in the text, the gaps in the reader’s knowledge of Shepherd’s life, his feelings of not fitting in, and of the other characters stories and in part their motivations.

Like a game of football, this is a book of two halves. The latter part I found to be a lot more engaging, partly because it allows the narrator more room to speak, and also as it helps fill in another gap in history that I hadn’t really much knowledge about.  Perhaps that is excusable as most of European literature and history is focusing on the rebuilding of the continent after WWII and our own part in the Cold War.

The past is all we know of the future

To begin with I wasn’t overly blown away by the writing, more annoying was that certain themes were alluded to and then outright brought to my attention through the narrator. It would have been much more subtle, if left hanging in the background, for the reader to discover, even if on a second or third read through.

I didn’t get much of a sense of Diego Rivera as a character either, he is fairly peripheral, his wife Frida is more interesting and remains pleasingly enigmatic, although she is seen as faultless, precisely because of her faults. Trotsky is mainly seen as a hero/saint type of figure, lacking some of the complexity that could have made him more interesting, as in Padura’s book.  Shepherd himself is detached in this first part, as he struggles to discover his place, and true self. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 26/07/2018 in Fiction

 

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The Lunar Men – Jenny Uglow

Led by the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, the Lunar Society of Birmingham were a group of eighteenth-century amateur experimenters who met monthly on the Monday night nearest to the full moon.  Echoing to the thud of pistons and the wheeze of snorting engines,Jenny Uglow’s vivid and swarming group portrait brings to life the inventors, artisans and tycoons who shaped and fired the modern world.

If ever there was a book to celebrate the exhilaration of investigation, that infectious enthusiasm for knowledge, then this is surely a strong contender. In an age where amateurs could be at the forefront of breakthroughs in the sciences, the Lunar Society were keen to share knowledge which brought on new trains of thought and enquiry, as they dared to dream the fantastical.

These pioneers were to explore many different facets of our world;  through botany, geology, physics, medicine, art, literature and so on, as well as profit (for themselves and country), politics, and market forces.  The group also felt the full force of the beginnings of the burgeoning, awkward relationship between science and religion.

The scope of the book is impressive, each of these men could have had a book devoted to themselves so combining them into one overlapping narrative is a monumental feat.  To keep things fresh, we move between the main players frequently, it helps with both pace and the narrative structure, and allows the huge amount of innovations to be explored in their (more or less) chronological order.

It feels genuinely exciting to follow these lives and the societal changes that stem from their drive.  The book doesn’t just focus on the professional but humanises them with plenty of details about their personal lives, which are as eccentric as their work lives.  It reveals heart and a resonance that is lacking in some other – drier – books on this era. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 19/07/2018 in History, Science

 

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Stop Politicising My Dumplings!

It’s Monday and catching up on the YouTube I follow after a few day’s absence was predictably depressing.  There was a ‘woke’ BBC sketch (this is the BBC that has admitted it would never commission something like Monty Python these days) that has been doing the rounds recently which was mildly amusing – at best – but (and although I don’t always agree with him) this Jonathan Pie tirade really gets the message across in a much more forceful way.

It’s a much-needed rant and I believe he speaks for many sane people on the subject, just with more expletives.  We only get one life, we should concentrate on saving the culture as well as the physical planet.  It would be great to hold all these virtue signallers to account and mock them mercilessly – as nobody has the right not to be offended – but if you notice, more and more websites are disabling or deleting comments that echo Mr Pie’s…funny that.

 
 

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Music to Write By #3 – Assume the Position/(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go

Writing in the last week has had a different sort of soundtrack, there hasn’t been much in the way of music coming through my speakers, as I have been following all manner of different paths from; film analysis, to the situation with the Italian government, and the bad news of the EU trying to pass Article 13, scientific testing of free will, and the wacky world of Flat Earthers.  Forcing myself back onto the music front, the gold started flowing pretty much instantly with this gem:

I first came across this funky tune thanks to its brief appearance on The Wire.  Then it was featured more prominently on the closing credits of The Deuce, another David Simon (together with George Pelecanos) created show which documents the legalisation and rise of the porn industry in New York, as well as the accompanying drugs, real estate booms, police corruption and the connected violence.  The first season admittedly feels like a – quality – prequel but I expect big things from season two.  Watching this as it came out was great, the whole of last year was exceptional for quality television and nothing beat grabbing a few beers and having a TV night with Tom, catching up on whatever had previously come out over the weekend, in the US.

The tune took me back to a totally different time and place – only eight months ago – but so much has changed.  Thinking back to that period now, it was such a good time and discussing the show as the end credits theme rolled, it was always interesting to get an alternate take on what we just saw.  Discussion was made more insightful by a few beers, of course, but I don’t think I have been challenged in such a sustained way by myself, my peers, or film and TV before or since. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 05/06/2018 in Music, TV

 

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Religion, Politics, and Rationality in a Philippine Community – Raul Pertierra

Religion, Politics, and Rationality in a Philippine Community is a study of the relationship between material interest and ideological practises.  Based on extensive fieldwork in a municipality of northern Luzon, the book explores the structural and cultural bases of religious belief and practise.  Tracing the historical pattern of the local response initially to catholic conversion, later to American Protestantism and more recently to indigenous forms of Christianity.  Dr. Pertierra argues that the complex response to conversion can be understood in terms of material-political interests in association with the attempts to retain meaningful cultural forms.  Drawing from the classical tradition established by Marx, Durkheim , and Weber, but extending their sociological insights by incorporating more recent theory as well as modern anthropological techniques, this study questions the prevailing views of religious practise in Philippine society and challenges the theories of rationalisation found in Development and Modernisation theory.

Hiding (and wilting) from the 41 degree heat outside, I chose to read this. Had I not had an understandable interest in Philippine history and culture, I would still have selected this, for the pure joy of learning about a new country and culture.  Although it’s important to remember that this book deals with data and research from the 1975-6; the value of understanding the present, far outweighs the changes in both community, and perhaps in the theory as well.

Using a fictitious name to protect the identity of the province and the privacy of individuals, the book starts off with a look at previous studies of Filipino communities, the results, and the flaws.  In and of itself, I found this short tour of the subject to be both highly interesting and extremely intricate.

The focus of this study is to track religion (and its evolution, if I may use the word in such a context) to the wider social structure within which it exists. The reader is soon introduced to the balance of both spiritual (institutionalised and indigenous) and secular behaviours on the social climate of the community. Combined with an exploration of the economy, and family roles and ties, it soon starts to resemble an extremely complex puzzle to the outsider.

The book does a great job of explaining the various subjects, keeping everything simple.  It’s well chronicled and well written, insights from other studies are put forward in support or opposition to the points Dr. Pertierra asserts.  The book focuses on (in order):

  • history and geography
  • the economy, division of labour, and the system of stratification
  • political and religious mobilisation and factionalism
  • kinship and social order
  • rituals and social structure
  • indigenous beliefs, morals values, and behavioural models
  • material interests and religious ideology

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Posted by on 04/05/2018 in Essays, History, Life, Sociology, The Philippines

 

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Bookshops – Jorge Carrión

Why do bookshops matter? How do they filter our ideas and literature? In this inventive and highly entertaining extended essay, Jorge Carrion takes his reader on a journey around the world, via its bookshops. His travels take him to Shakespeare & Co in Paris, Wells in Winchester, Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Librairie des Colonnes in Tangier, the Strand Book Store in New York and provoke encounters with thinkers, poets, dreamers, revolutionaries and readers.

Bookshops is the travelogue of a lucid and curious observer, filled with anecdotes and stories from the universe of writing, publishing and selling books. A bookshop in Carrion’s eyes never just a place for material transaction; it is a meeting place for people and their ideas, a setting for world changing encounters, a space that can transform lives.

Written in the midst of a worldwide recession, Bookshops examines the role of these spaces in today’s evershifting climate of globalisation, vanishing high streets, e-readers and Amazon. But far from taking a pessimistic view of the future of the physical bookshop, Carrion makes a compelling case for hope, underlining the importance of these places and the magic that can happen there. A vital manifesto for the future of the traditional bookshop, and a delight for all who love them.

This was picked up on a whim when it first came out. Suckered into it, I’ll admit, by rave reviews from the media. which were hurriedly found on the trusty phone whilst protectively holding the last copy close.  This sounds like it should be a good book to fuel the passion of a reader for (more) books and the shops they find themselves in. Sadly I found myself underwhelmed after a couple of chapters.

It is an interesting read in parts, celebrating bookshops is a great idea of course but the disconnect for this reader came partly from the lack of small bookshops, they are forgotten with all the razzmatazz of their bigger cousins.  Showcasing well known or popular bookshops is good but the lesser known and equally (arguably more interesting) smaller shops would create, not only a nice contrast but are also something that more people can relate to, especially as they have their own charm and mysticism.

As this is a translation, it’s understandable that some of the phrases seem a bit out of place, however quite a lot of it feels like notes taken and left in the final draft.  There are many occasions when authors, shops and subjects are touched upon in the same paragraph with bewildering speed and change of subject.  It’s fairly sprawling in its name dropping both of obscure and common authors, publishers and so on but it feels like a very mixed bag overall.

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Posted by on 19/03/2018 in Essays, Travel

 

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