Spring has been playing us all for mugs here in New York, showing up just long enough to get you to break out your sandals, then disappearing once your landlord had turned the heat off. Not one to be shut inside at the first drop of rain, I've been doing my forced march through the various boroughs, sticking my head in strange corners of the city, and writing (do check out the cover release for A City Dreaming, out next Fall!). I got nominated for a Hugo, which it turns out these days is a dubious distinction. I hung out with a bunch of old high school friends. I'm going to take an impromptu visit to Columbia on Wednesday, because flights were cheap and I've never been there and I don't like to be in the US on my birthday. Anyway, the last couple of weeks I read...
The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel – An epic narrative recounting the attempt of a community of Armenians resiting their forced evacuation and ultimate destruction by the Ottoman authorities in the opening days of the first World War, by all accounts 40 Days of Musa Dagh was one of the earliest works to introduce to the Western world what would come to be known as the Armenian Genocide. It is epic in the classic sense, that is to say, vast in scope and scale, and also fairly action packed – much of it could double as an adventure book, were the circumstances not to horrible. It's odd that often you end up having more to say about a book that you disliked than about a book that you did. Musa Darh is a very good book, the writing is strong if a bit simple for my tastes, and the narrative complexity is impressive—Werfel often zigs when you think he's going to zag, and I found myself being surprised at numerous points in the book by some or other outcome. If you have it in you to read 1000 pages about the Armenian genocide, by all means, have at this one.
Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The first of the Martin Beck books, others of which I have read out of order though I confess I think I liked this one more than the others that I picked up. In many ways this is the classic procedural novel, and there are many elements which it seems to have introduced broadly to the genre. Beck as a protagonist is spare almost to the point of nullity—we see him only by silhouette, and obliquely. Indeed the novel generally is terse enough to thrill a Spartan, with no wasted words or irrelevant details. Unfortunate that so much later Scandinavian noir – I'm looking at the rancid pile of trash which is The Girl Who... books—so manifestly fail to do everything which Swjowall and Wahloo do here so well. Strange to think that, in the decrepit state of modern crime, this would almost certainly fail to find an audience. There are no long scenes of sexual perversion, the villain is, as villains tend to be, small and stupid and mean, there is virtually no action. I suppose you can count that as a backhanded recommendation.
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb – What fun! Gorgeously written, strangely compelling. Erotic, nostalgic, kind of impossible to describe in a useful way. About a Hungarian who takes a honeymoon trip to Italy with his wife, only to discover that having done so rips off his thin shred of bourgeoisie normality and plunges himself into the self-destructive passion of his youth. Also, the Nazis are coming. This was a bad summary, it's a hard book to summarize. Just read it.
The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The second of the Martin Beck books. Everything that applies to the previous review applies to this one as well. If you liked the first one, you'll like this. If you didn't, go put your hand on a hot stove, or read a James Patterson book, whichever seems likely to be more painful.
The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge – Would anyone seriously dispute that the Russians have a genius for the novel which exceeds every other race on the planet, particularly when one considers the general weakness of the the Russian educational system and economy, historically and up to the present? Of course, Serge wasn't exactly Russian, indeed he wasn't exactly anything, a perpetual iconoclast, as all decent writers ought to strive to be. The story of how the murder of a high-ranking Soviet official ends in one of Stalin's many purges, and the individuals who get caught in the net, Serge combines an extraordinary sense of empathy with an unerring moral instinct, providing truly three-dimensional representations of very bad people, making them believable without ever forgiving their evils. I actually didn't find this one quite as compelling as Unforgiving Years, the oblique, difficult, and nightmarish quality of which is only hinted out here. Still, very strong, definitely worth reading.
Fake I.D. by Jason Starr– A very well done Jim Thompson pastiche. Credit where due, Starr has the classic noir line pat—stupid person makes bad decisions leading to an inevitable collapse. It's nasty and dark and well-written and compellingly readable, but it also hews so closely to the traditional run of these things that it's sort of hard to get super excited about it. It almost seems more like a writing exercise rather than an independent work. Not at all bad, though. I'd keep my eye out for more from the man.
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers– Right. I think I have to come to accept that I just like Declare a lot more than Tim Powers other books. That's not really his fault, but here we are. Anubis Gates is not bad, Powers is enormously creative, and he has a good instinct for creating disturbing and horrific imagery. Still though, like some of his other stuff, I can't help but feel that the set up is a lot stronger than the ending. Pretty much the entire last half of this is a series of fairly elaborate set-piece battles, and honestly I get bored pretty quickly with that kind of thing—the hero dodges the bullet and leaps over the railing into the bar below and then kicks a guy and then dives through an opening and the fireball goes over his shoulder and so on and so on and so on. I like my action scenes tighter and nastier. Perhaps that's just a person peculiarity, but here we are. I found myself skimming a lot towards the end.
The Life of Lazarillo De Tormes by Anonymous – As I gather this is one of the first truly satirical novels in the history of fiction, about a poor peasant's quest to find a decent master. A series of vignettes poking fun at his social superiors and, in a deeper way, calling into question the morality of the entire system of Imperial Spain. Is it funny? Not really, most things aren't funny half a millennium after they've been written. More interesting as a historical curiosity than on its own merits (to most current readers, or so I suspect) but still it's only about a hundred pages so you could do worse than while away a beer with it.