One last #1965Club read…

And it’s a strange, little-known one outside the borders of its own country. It’s a novel described as sci-fi or fantasy or surrealist, as the very title indicates. Yet it’s none of those things and all of those things. It’s nearly impossible to describe and must have been a real pain to translate. The book is Monday Starts on Saturday by the Strugatsky brothers (Arkady and Boris), translated by Andrew Bromfield.

I only just managed to sneak it in this week, since it arrived only on Thursday. A Russian friend of mine mentioned it last weekend, saying she was laughing out loud when she was reading it on the Moscow metro, so I conducted a bit of an online search to locate it, discovered it was published in the correct year and… the rest is history and rather rapid postal services.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Incidentally, if you have heard at all of the Strugatsky brothers previously (I confess I hadn’t), it might have been as the authors of the sci-fi tale Roadside Picnic, which Tarkovsky turned into his trademark surrealist and heavily allegorical film Stalker. However, their style is considerably more upbeat and satirical, simply pulsating with fun and energy, but not shying away from serious messages. They were hugely popular and prolific in Soviet Russia, managing to skirt official censorship most of the time (by being deliberately absurd and having their novels set in alternative universes or other worlds). As the surviving brother Boris put it in 1991, they told themselves: ‘Let’s make it similar to Kafka, so that reality will imperceptibly cross over into delirium.’ Perhaps it’s not accidental that they were Jewish, and so always a bit marginalised in Soviet society. You can read more about them in the Paris Review.

Reality certainly crosses over into crazy delirium in this delightfully zany novel, which reminded me of The Master and Margarita with its apparent non sequitur anecdotes or remarks. But then, the Russians have quite a tradition of using grotesque humour as weapon to criticise society (think Gogol).

Monday Starts on Saturday tells the story of Alexander (Sasha) Privalov, a computer scientist from Leningrad (back in the days when this was a much rarer and more prestigious job than now) is travelling north to meet some friends for a tour of Karelia (the region bordering Finland and Sweden). He picks up two hitchhikers, who manage to recruit him to work at the scientific institute in the town of Solovets, the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy (aka NITWIT). Needless to say, he encounters many strange creatures (as well as instantly recognisable academic and bureaucratic types, as well as party officials).

The very thought of magic and superstition ever being accepted as ‘real’ in a Communist society is of course laughable, but that is the premise of the novel. But this is far removed from J.K. Rowling. Listen to this description of the Department of Defensive Magic, which is like a mini-Ministry of War.

Throughout many centuries of history various magicians have suggested the use in battle of vampires (for night reconaissance raids), basilisks (to terrify the enemy into a state of total petrification), flying carptes (for dropping sewage on enemy towns), magic swords of various denominations (to compensate for lack of numbers) and many other things. However, after the First World War, after Big Bertha, tanks, mustard gas and chlorine gas, defensive magic had gone into decline. Staff began abandoning the department in droves.

Meanwhile, the Department of Absolute Knowledge will sound familiar to office workers everywhere, filled as it is with people who have decided it is best not to work, so as not to add to the amount of entropy in the Universe.

Therefore some members of the department were always occupied with dividing zero by zero on their desktop calculators, and others kept requesting study assigments to eternity. They returned from their trips cheerful and overfed and immediately took time off on health grounds. In the gaps between assignments they wandered round from department to department, sat on other people’s desks smoking cigarettes and told jokes about the solution of indeterminacies by the Lopital method. They were easy to recognise from the empty look in their eyes and the cuts on their ears from constant shaving.

Russian folk tales jostle with time travel, Merlin from Arthurian legend and allusions to Frankenstein. The absurdity of Soviet rules and regulations are mocked. There are inventory numbers for magical objects… and sticklers for checking the inventory. There are lists of living creatures who have permission to enter the laboratory at night, but they are not allowed in on New Year’s Eve – although other souls and spirits are free to come and go as they please. The Tunguska meteorite of 1918 becomes the source of a conspiracy theory.

So it all looks like fun and playfulness, but there is of course a more serious layer to it all. In the end, they realise that their missing (and dual-natured) director of the institute is travelling backwards in time. This is where the authors’ sarcasm becomes evident:

… he had no bright future to look forward to. We were moving toward a world of reason and brotherhood, but with every day that passed he moved back towards the bloody Nicholas II, serfdom, the shooting on Senate Square and – who could tell? – perhaps even Arakcheev, Biron and the oprichnina.

The Oprichnina was Ivan the Terrible’s secret police who carried out systematic persecution and execution of the nobility/boyars and merchants. Arakcheev was the advisor of Tsar Alexander I, one of the most feared and hated men in Russia. Biron was the favourite and special advisor to the Regent Anna in the 1730s, also notorious for his corruption and cruelty. The brothers elegantly demonstrate that the history of Russia is littered with examples of autocratic rulers and terror-filled regimes, just as they had only recently emerged from one of the most extreme examples of one under Stalin. Yet they are equally unrelenting about the ‘bright future’ and the Department of Linear Happiness, where they do everything possible to enhance the spiritual vigour of every individual and entire collectives of individuals. So they poke holes in the pretentiousness of the slogans and posters that hung everywhere in public institutions in Communist countries, promising a glorious future filled with New Humans.

A Wizard of Earthsea #1968Club

I was a huge fan of the Earthsea Trilogy and Ursula Le Guin more generally when I was a child, but I have never reread them since. I bought a copy for my children, but they haven’t taken to them as much as I expected. So when the opportunity came to reread the first book in the trilogy, which was published in 1968, I jumped at it. And discovered perhaps why my children are less enamoured than I was.

In fact, I’m quite surprised that I enjoyed it so much back then (I must have been 10-11), as the language is old-fashioned. There is often far more third person omniscient narration than dialogue, the pace is slower than what the younger generation might enjoy. It is now obvious to me that it is a half-way house between the long passages of lore/ going off-tangent/ harking back to Nordic heroic sagas of Tolkien and the convoluted storyline but relatively simple, direct language of Harry Potter. At the time, I hadn’t read The Lord of the Rings so the similarity was less obvious. I had read the Narnia books, and this felt like something different, far more grown – up.

Yet there is something familiar and soothing about the cadences of this prose – so reminiscent of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe – something which built up my ulterior love for poetry and theatre.

Stout and wizardly was the staff Ogion had shaped. It did not break, and buoyant as a dry log it rode the water. Still grasping it, Ged was pulled back as the breakers streamed back from the shoal… Salt-blinded and choked, he tried to keep his head up and to fight the enormous pull of the sea…He had lost sight of rocks and beach alike, and did not know what way he faced. There was only a tumult of water around him, under him, over him, blinding him, strangling him, drowning him.

While the sharper, clearer prose of Harry Potter, more succinct descriptions (which does not necessarily result in shorter books, however) and the strong first person narratives of much of current YA literature is more suited perhaps to the present-day world of blogging, essay writing, opinion pieces and social media.

First edition cover.

I was surprised to find it far more frightening this time round, believe it or not. Although an imaginative child, I was not an easily scared one – except of dogs. As an adult, I realise of course that this is more than a simple battle between good and evil. Ged’s struggle against the unnamed shadow seems much more earnest, bitter and deadly than when I was imagining it as an actual physical devil. It now sounds familiar as a struggle with depression, with the demons inside yourself – you never quite know where it is, but it stalks you and waits, ready to pounce and extinguish you and your true nature. The final battle, when it does come, is perhaps not quite as much of a climax as the creeping menace which leads up to it made you think. Or perhaps we have come to expect too many CGI explosions.

I was also far less accepting of Ged as a hero this time round. As a child, I unquestioningly saw him as the hero of the story, even though he is arrogant and tempted by power to begin with. He learns things the hard way and not all in one go (in fact, it takes the whole trilogy, much as Frodo and Sam develop slowly over the course of hundreds of pages). He becomes heroic – it’s a continuous process and none of the wizards are all-knowing or flawless. Very realistic and complex and not typical of children’s literature of the time. My favourite characters, back then and now again, is Ged’s friend Vetch and the little sister Yarrow.

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, John Grant?

John Grant author photo (Meteor Crater, Arizona) (1)Nothing like shaking things up a bit, so it’s Wednesday rather than Monday this time for my customary questions about reading passions.

It’s my pleasure to introduce you today to a very prolific author and dynamic blogger, Paul Barnett. Under the name John Grant, Paul is an award-winning writer and editor, born in Aberdeen, Scotland but now living in New Jersey, USA. He has written more than twenty-five fiction books (mainly in the fantasy genre but also a couple of fantasy/crime crossovers) and non-fiction books on an eye-watering variety of subjects, such as Walt Disney’s animated characters, crank and corrupted science, fantasy and science fiction and, most recently, film noir. His second story collection, Tell No Lies, was published just before Christmas. He has won the Hugo (twice), the World Fantasy Award, and a number of other awards. You can find out more about John Grant and his books on his website, but I personally got to know him via his insightful reviews of films noirs. I was also delighted by his wry humour when commenting on this blog. You can also find Paul/John on Twitter @noircyclopedia.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

The first time I got hooked on crime fiction was probably through reading Sherlock Holmes stories during childhood. My mum tried to get me to read Father Brown stories too, but for some reason I didn’t enjoy them as much.

Another milestone came when, still during childhood, I went with the family for a short B&B holiday in the north of Scotland. It was one of those places where there wasn’t much to do except go look at the cemetery. Even this bit of excitement was out, though, because it rained the whole time. I swiftly worked my way through all the reading material I’d brought with me, and then discovered there was precisely one other book in the B&B, presumably left behind by a previous guest. That book was Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice, and I can remember being most reluctant to read it. Aside from anything else, it wasn’t science fiction, which had become my genre of choice by then. But it was either read the novel or watch the rain on the windows, so in I plunged . . . and loved it. It didn’t entirely break me of my science fiction habit, but it meant that from then on there was the occasional crime novel tossed into the mix.

What really did it was something silly. By my late teens I was an editor at a book publisher on London’s Fleet Street. More or less just across the road was the St. Bride’s Public Library, which naturally became a haunt. The UK publisher Gollancz used to publish all of its science fiction and crime fiction in uniform yellow covers, which made it easy for me to find the stuff. It wasn’t long before I worked my way through all the Gollancz sf in the place, so I thought I might as well give those other Gollancz yellowjackets a go . . . One protracted binge later, plus another binge on Wilkie Collins, and crime fiction had become an important staple of my leisure reading. These past few years, in fact, it’s become predominant.

JG's shelves 2Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I’m really not picky, to be honest. I try to make sure there’s a good admixture of translated work in there, just so’s I’m not always reading the same old, same old. I’m not hugely fond of modern cozies, although I do enjoy reading (or rereading) Golden Age mysteries, many of which are of course cozies. I like pulp hardboiled, although I haven’t yet read nearly enough of it to feel I’ve got a proper grasp of the subgenre. Scandi noir has become a favorite too, although I’m off it a bit at the moment having read a few over the past year or so that really didn’t impress me. I used to enjoy noirish urban fantasy until it became all werewolf detectives and nymphomaniac vampires. I’ve written a few stories in that fantasy/noir borderland myself (sans the werewolves and vampires, of course!).

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Oh, lordy, that’s a difficult one. I guess it would have to be Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which I read last autumn. I don’t know if it’s the best crime novel I’ve read recently, but it really spoke to me. It’s a very long book, but I devoured it in just three or four days and loved every minute of it. A good English translation (by Sam Taylor), too. Last year I was also impressed by Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death — another long book! — and blown away by my discovery of Karin Alvtegen.

But I’m not very good at ranking things. If you asked me this same question in just a few hours’ time, I’d be adding a few books, consternated because I hadn’t thought of them first time round.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author (crime fiction) to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I’m not a great reader of series, although there are exceptions (Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks books). Usually, though, I prefer standalones . . . and even with series books I generally leave a long enough gap between them so that they become in effect standalones. The one big exception to all this is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. I gravitate towards these not just because of their near-uniform excellence but also, at least in part, precisely because of the series context. Mixing with Steve Carella and the rest of the gallant boys of the old Eight-Seven feels like coming home to me. In later years McBain was able to play all sorts of games using the basic format as a substrate — Fat Ollie’s Book, for example, is a marvelous piece of metafiction as well as hugely entertaining and funny — but I like the earlier ones too, where you knew exactly what you were letting yourself in for. So, yes, that’s the series I’d take with me to my desert island. An additional advantage of this series is that it gives me lots of books to read! In fact, I’ve even written a crime/fantasy novella, The City in These Pages, as a (surreal) homage to Ed McBain.

All of that said, I’m not sure McBain is the single author I’d choose to take with me. He might just get pipped at the post by Wilkie Collins, another prolific writer. Collins’s novels, for all their ups and downs in terms of quality, have a capacity to engross me — in a very schoolboy way, really: mouth open, eyes wide, turning the pages eagerly . . . Besides, it’s far too long since last I read most of them, so they’d make a good choice.

JG's shelves 1What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

That’s another problematic one. My day job, as it were, is writing nonfiction books — such as (plug, plug) my recent YA book Debunk It! — and my research reading for these has to be pretty structured, as you can imagine. So I make it a matter of deliberate policy not to plan my leisure reading too far ahead. I have several bookcases full of stuff I haven’t read yet, and I enjoy browsing through these to select my next book on whim.

The big exception comes, of course, when I’ve borrowed books from the library. I know that I’ll soon be reading Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites, recommended to me recently, because it has to go back to the library soonish. I’m trying to cut back on my library habit a bit, though, precisely because I enjoy not knowing what’s the next book I’ll read until I actually pick it out.

We recently bought a tablet to use as an e-reader, so that’s likewise stuffed with goodies waiting for me. A lot of them are public-domain items from places like Gutenberg. A small part of the motivation for getting the tablet was that I’d become interested in expanding my horizons to encompass some of the mostly US crime/mystery writers of the early 20th century about whom until recently I’ve known virtually nothing: Isabel Ostrander, Anna Katharine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart . . .

I also want to get round to having a second — and long overdue! — bite at G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

Some fantasy/sf writers: Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones — both much missed — Tom Holt, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Charles De Lint. In nonfiction: Martin Gardner, Paul Davies. Others: George Eliot, George Gissing. I recommend my own books interminably, of course, but only to strangers who don’t know my home address and whom I think there’s little chance I’ll ever run into again.

Thank you very much, John (or should that be Paul?) for a very entertaining look at your reading passions and for adding a huge amount of new authors to my TBR list (and not just for crime fiction, either). I am glad to see some old favourites there too, such as Wilkie Collins, Ed McBain and Terry Pratchett. 

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. This series depends so much on your participation, so please, please let me know via Twitter or comments if you would like to share your criminal passions with us.

 

What Got You Hooked on Crime, Vanessa Delamare?

VanessaThis time we travel to Canada to meet the delightful Vanessa Delamare and hear how she developed an appetite for a life of crime (fiction). Vanessa is not only bilingual in both her reading and blogging habits (look here for her enthusiastic reviews in both languages), she is also the organiser of QuébeCrime, an unrushed and intimate crime fiction festival set in beautiful Québec City. You can also find Vanessa on Twitter, where she is also busy setting up a new website and Twitter account for QuébeCrime.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

I don’t remember exactly which book got me hooked, but I have clear memories about ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. I couldn’t tell you the story in detail now but I still feel that sense of malaise when I think about that book. It felt good to me as a child, knowing a book can give you such feelings of fear and stress, but at the same time, you’re safe at home. I also remember reading a lot of Agatha Christie’s  books and preferring Miss Marple ! But after a while, I wanted something more modern. It was then that I discovered Patricia Cornwell. At the time, I was working with computers and I could tell that what Lucy was doing was credible. I’ve asked a nurse about the medical stuff and she told me that was accurate too. I loved that accuracy in fiction, unlike in a TV show where the geek presses a button on his keyboard to show pictures when everybody else would use their mouse! So I discovered that I could learn new things whilst also having fun reading. I then moved on to Ellis Peters’ Cadfael. What a pleasure to learn historical things too! I just love the diversity in crime fiction.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
Yes and no. I do seem to read a lot of noir fiction – I really appreciate tartan noir, nordic noir… all that is noir. But after a few of those novels, I need to read a historical crime fiction book or something more technical, just to change. I’ve even learnt to appreciate spy fiction, which is not really my cup of tea. It might be the only sub-genre that wouldn’t be my first choice, but I really loved Terry Hayes’ ‘I Am Pilgrim’. And now I’m reading David Khara’s ‘The Bleiberg Project’ and it’s really good (about spies and WWII and crazy science…) In fact, as long as a book keeps me on edge or interested, I’ll love it!
What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

In truth, there’s quite a few books I really enjoyed this year (those I gave 5/5 on my blog) but as I must name a single book, I’ll go with Donato Carrisi’s ‘The Whisperer’. It’s Carrisi’s first book and it’s excellent. Quite often, debut novels have a certain clumsiness or lack of confidence, but not in his case. I might be a gullible reader but at one point I just shouted “no way!” and I love that: to be completely led by the nose. 

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

Ah, I’m always asking that of writer, so now it’s my turn to not really know how to answer (serves me right I guess!). I could say Maxime Chattam, a French writer I really admire, but I’ve already read all of his books, so it might be a bit annoying to already know the end of each story. It’ll be the same with Chris F. Holm’s ‘The Collector’ series, so I’ll have to go with an author whose books (some of them, at least) I have yet to discover. It could be Ian Rankin or Pierre Lemaitre (and I can’t thank you enough for recommending the latter to me!), but perhaps in the end I’ll take Val McDermid’s numerous books. I really liked the suspense she puts in ‘The Torment of Others’ and what better way to counter the stillness of a desert island than with something thrilling?

VanessaShelvesWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

Well, I’ve bought a lot of Pierre Lemaitre’s books, so I guess that’ll be my next focus! I’ve also just discovered David Khara, a French author that I really enjoyed, so I’ll read his second book in the trilogy featuring Eytan Morgenstern with pleasure. I’m also currently reading Lisa Unger’s ‘The Whispers’, about a newly widowed wife and mother who after a car crash can see/hear people in danger or dead, a kind of psychic who helps the police. It’s a fast and enjoyable read, so I think I’ll love the next book too. In fact, my TBR is so big I don’t know if I’ll be able to read all in the next few months!

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

Fantasy! I’ve tried more ‘noble’ literature but I found it boring (who am I, why am I, etc.). I’ve occasionally tried Goncourt prize winners, but I find them disturbing (in a bad way): too many sickos, too much gloominess. With fantasy, I can travel to other worlds, discover other cultures. I’m really fascinated by the imagination writers must have to be able to make a non-existent world come alive.  My first encounter with the genre was Harry Potter (like a lot of people, I guess). Then I read Game of Thrones (so good!) and even Diana Gabaldon’s series Outlander. Well, it might not be pure fantasy but it’s neither crime nor boring fiction! From time to time, however, I do find a literary book that will spark my interest: I enjoyed ‘Rû’ by Kim Thuy or ‘La main d’Iman’ by Ryad Assani-Razaki. [Sadly, neither of them are available in English yet.]

Thank you, Vanessa, for your refreshing candour and ever-present enthusiasm about books! And a great shout-out for French crime fiction too.  I’m starting to save up money already for a possible future trip to QuébeCrime. What have you read/ loved from Vanessa’s list of authors? 

For previous participants in this series, please look here. And please let me know if you are passionate about crime fiction and if you would like to take part.