Monthly Archives: March 2012

Review: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Ok, really, what is the deal with Wallander? The last two years have been nothing but BBC4 parties and Dragon Tattoo antidotes. Balding alcoholic policemen are the new black. With my finger on the pulse of popular culture as ever, I had only managed to catch the last 5 minutes of episodes of the Swedish version – revelations that of course meant absolutely nothing to me, although I was sad because he got stood up at the end –  and it’s taken me until now to actually pick up a book. But with all the hype, I thought there might be something to it. Must have done something to attract these lookers.

Krister Henriksson 

Seriously, Ken, why are you even in that field?

Anyhoo, I dutifully bought my copy of what I thought was the first Wallander mystery (it’s hard to tell since they churned out all the sexy new editions) and tucked in.

What the hell?

This guy is alcoholic (who isn’t?!), slightly misogynistic (fine, he’s police), a bit racist (umm…) but above all he’s BORING. This man is so dull. I thought having demons to exorcise would make him a dark and brooding figure. Look at those craggy faces up there. Each one etched with a deep, shadowy secret, surely? No. This man is just obsessed with motorways and driving around and ok, solving crime, but even then that’s interspersed with bitching about bureaucracy and making a clumsy pass at the DA. That description actually suggests a charm that the book doesn’t have. It isn’t charming in its realism or its dullness. A man has been gruesomely tortured. But it’s still DULL.

In order to alleviate the boredom, I started to underline passages I found particularly irritating.

Wallander raised his eyebrows in surprise.

As opposed to raising your eyebrows in, say, fear. Or disgust. Or joy.

I’ve got to talk to Mona, he thought. I’ve got to talk to her after all that’s happened. And I’ve got to talk to my daughter. I have to visit my father and see what I can do for him. On top of all that I really ought to catch the murderers…

REALLY? OUGHT you? I don’t care how many glasses of whisky you’ve had, nobody narrates their to-do list in the style of a poorly written children’s book.

[Maybe a SPOILER ALERT but probably not if you’ve seen any synopses, episodes or the back cover of any of the books] So Wallander’s father is obviously getting on a bit, and he’s obviously losing his marbles. He’s a bit brusque with Wallander, which obviously as a trained police officer with over 30 years of fighting crime, Kurt is inordinately poorly equipped to deal with. So instead, we hear complaints about how poor his dad’s standard of living is, and how he can’t seem to look after himself. But it is only after 200 pages of him not being able to look after himself, an episode of full blown dementia AND a visit from his sister that he realises:

…it would be best, all the same, if their father could keep on living in his own house, with regular home visits.

He doesn’t even have to go in a home! There is nothing drastic about this action! Why are you so unaware of everything that goes on around you AND YET ALSO SPECTACULARLY UNABLE TO SOLVE THE CRIME YOU’RE SUPPOSEDLY OBSESSED WITH.

Maybe it’s the pared down narration that is either characteristic of Swedish crime novels, or characteristic of the way English-speaking publishers think Swedish crime readers want their novels to sound. But it just sounded flat. The whole thing was just another bureaucratic exercise like the daily plans Wallander makes with his team.

There was just one bit, ONE BIT, where this all got turned on its head. Wallander, who holds a bit of a torch for the new DA, takes her for dinner and a stroll. They have a chat about parking tickets and her family.

‘How often do you go home?’ he asked.
‘Every other week.’
‘And your husband? The children?’
‘He comes down when he can. And the children when they feel like it.’
I love you, thought Wallander. I’m going to see Mona tonight and I’m going to tell her that I love another woman.
They said goodbye in reception.

This is the only moment in the whole novel where I thought ‘This is brilliant!’ It is. Brilliant. That is exactly how it happens. They say something totally inane but because you’ve been dreaming about kissing them for the last 2 months all you can think of is ‘TAKE ME I’M YOURS.’ It speaks to every one of us that’s had a terrible, inappropriate and totally debilitating crush on a work colleague. But sadly, that was the only ray of sunshine in an otherwise drab, rather than moody, novel.

Rating: 
In a tweet: All the high octane bureaucracy, grumbling and middle-aged married-man concerns you can handle. Oh, and a murder.

Review: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

I have a confession. I did not know much about Ayn Rand when I started this book, beyond the name itself. I hadn’t read Atlas Shrugged. I didn’t know anything about objectivism. And so I didn’t react to picking up The Fountainhead like my flatmate did: ‘Ayn Rand. Isn’t she that massive fascist?’

Well, as I have subsequently discovered, me and Ayn don’t really see eye to eye on politics, but I’m glad I didn’t know that when I started reading. I’m also glad I didn’t know that she’s like Sylvia Plath for being a teenage rite of passage read. Because like any awestruck teenager with her first peek at The Bell Jar, I loved this novel. I loved it so much I stayed in to read it. I worried about what was going to happen to Howard when I was at work. I bored my friends about it. I became what I have since discovered to be a ginormous Ayn-Rand-virgin-cliche. But I stand by it. Say what you like about objectivism and free-market liberalism and lots of other -isms – hey, maybe I agree with you, maybe I don’t – this actual, between the pages, story about some people trying to make it in New York is a phenomenal piece of writing.

It would be wrong to call Howard Roark an aspiring architect. He isn’t the kind of man who ‘aspires’. We first meet him at college where he flunks out, despite his enormous talent and a passionate defence by some of his tutors, because of his refusal to use elements of pastiche in his work. Meanwhile his fellow student Peter Keating, a social climber with a strong grasp of architectural history, but no driving artistic force of his own, graduates with high honours. A year later, Keating has schmoozed his way into a prestigious architectural firm and made himself indispensable to its leading partner. His talents are not so much architecture as knowing what his clients want and how to give it to them. Roark is also working in New York, but with a burned-out architect who was once the darling of the modernist scene, only to fall foul of changing fashions and his own caustic temperament. Roark idealises this broken man, who understands the need for a building to be designed according to its site and function, not neo-classic principles and who, like him, would not kowtow to the majority verdict or design by committee.

What much of the novel boils down to is this struggle between the individual and the collective, and the dark nature that collectivism can have. The inability of people to make up their own minds is seen as a dangerous force open to manipulation, while Ellsworth Toohey, the influential social commentator, is a Machiavellian figure who acquires power by manipulating this vacuousness. While I by no means agree with the vision of socialism that this ‘straw man’ presents, the way in which Rand shows him slowly, slowly moving the pieces of his empire together, and the way in which the ‘second handers’ – those too unoriginal, weak-minded or self-serving to have their own vision of greatness – acquiesce to his plans, made for unputdownable reading for me. Toohey is driven by this malign indifference to humanity dressed up as concern for its welfare, and however much you agree or disagree with this as a model of socialism, it makes a great villain. Similarly the glacial Dominique Francon, who desires Roark and a world where he would thrive, but marries Keating because that world does not exist and she will not admit any possibility of it, is a mesmerising (if somewhat frustrating) character. And the moments where Keating is marred by self doubt, sneaking into Roark’s office for help with his plans, and is presented with a pastiche of Keating’s work better than he could do himself, is a powerful one.

Of course, nobody speaks like the characters do in real life. Even in the 30s, when they spoke really fast. Take, for example, Dominique and Gail Wyman kicking back after a hard day at the office, just chatting some sweet nothings about love.

“Or that love is pity.”
“Oh, keep still. It’s bad enough to hear things like that. To hear them from you is revolting–even as a joke.”
“What’s your answer?”
“That love is reverence, and worship, and glory, and the upward glance. Not a bandage for dirty sores. But they don’t know it. Those who speak of love most promiscuously are the ones who’ve never felt it. They make some sort of feeble stew out of sympathy, compassion, contempt and general indifference, and they call it love. Once you’ve felt what it means to love as you and I know it–the total passion for the total height–you’re incapable of anything less.”

Yeah, great, I love you too, darling. This is not a realistic novel, and the characters are all playing their parts as metaphors for some larger aspect of humanity which would make anybody a little hard to swallow. But if they are not realistic characters, they are realistic flaws and aspirations. Even without the politics, this novel speaks of our own desire to achieve and fears about our own motives. You might not agree with it. You might get a bit sick of it towards the end (I did). But you should still read it. Read it. Read it. Read it.

Rating: 
In a tweet: A prime mover.

Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

A synopsis seems hardly necessary given the hype that this novel’s enjoyed over the last year. Kathryn Stockett’s look at life in 60s Mississippi hasn’t just hopped on a nostalgia bandwagon, it’s taken up all the seats and is now trying out its ringtones and sticking gum to the seats. Mad Men, Pan Am, Marilyn, chintz, tea parties and small-town gossip are all very in, and The Help has a lot to thank them for.

Skeeter is a 22-year-old girl back from college in her home town of Jackson, Mississippi, aspiring to greatness as a writer, but struggling to find something in her life to write about. And however great her writing, in the eyes of the town (and her mother) she won’t have achieved anything until she’s found a husband. Her beloved childhood maid, Constantine, has disappeared without a word, and any enquiries are met with a stony silence. Curiosity about the black community in this town is an improper pastime for a young white lady, but when an editor suggests this is just the kind of thing that Skeeter ought to be writing about, she takes the plunge and starts delving a little deeper.

Aibileen, the maid  working for Skeeter’s best friend, would be the perfect subject if only Skeeter could get her to talk. Raising her 17th child but never quite getting over the loss of her own, she is responsible for white women’s children but not trusted not to steal the silver. Her relationship with the too-cute Mae Mobley is so highly-charged and important to her that it’s bound to end in disaster. Meanwhile, her hot-tempered friend Minnie has just made an enemy of the local DAR behemoth Hilly Holbrook, and is only able to find a job with a newcomer from out of town who doesn’t seem to understand the rules about what the help can and can’t know about their employers.

I’ve read a lot of scathing reviews on Goodreads, and a lot of gushing ones. Personally, I couldn’t work myself up to either of those extremes, although I definitely enjoyed it. Criticism, where is is levelled, seems to be largely thanks to the point made deftly by this poster:

White People Solve Racism

via TheShiznit.co.uk

If you have a white writer with a white female protagonist providing the vehicle for black women’s voices, this is always going to be problematic – particularly when the plot’s ‘happy ending’ can be said really only to happen to Skeeter as a result. Sharing the narration between Skeeter, Aibileen and Minnie attempts to alleviate this, but then it runs risk of being accused of ventriloquising black women’s voices – something that Kathryn Stockett herself defends against in her epilogue.

I didn’t have a problem with the voices, necessarily – I think however fraught such an enterprise is, empathy and engagement with stories and experiences outside of your own is to be encouraged – although I did think it sounded in some parts like a bit of a Toni Morrison pastiche. Now, Toni Morrison’s great, so I guess even that’s not such a terrible thing in and of itself. But I guess it sums up the trouble with this book (if trouble it is), which is that it isn’t meant to be a ground-breaking, earth-shattering, world-turning kind of a novel. It is a feel-good movie of a novel. That’s why you have the Cruella deVille style Hillie as a real baddie, so that you can get your kicks as she has various comedy comeuppances inflicted upon her, while not worrying too much about the more insidious forms of racism. Like the woman who makes her maid cover her hair and always counts the silver when she’s done for the day, but who the maid recounts with a fond smile because she wrote a note saying ‘Thank you’.

Callie takes off her black-rimmed glasses, wipes her eyes. “If any white lady reads my story, that’s what I want them to know. Saying thank you, when you really mean it, when you remember what someone done for you … it’s so good.”

Great, let’s call that entrenched racism bygones then, eh? Once you start down this road of picking ideological holes in the book, it becomes a bit like the white housewives featured in Skeeter’s book who congratulate her on it – they don’t seem to recognise their own hypocrisy.

There is something uncomfortable in the way in which we all get a bit rosy-eyed for the good old 60s in it. But equally, I think you can cheer along with the triumphs of these people, and Stockett has created some loveable characters, as well as some great baddies, and it does great at this boo-hissing at racism. It just doesn’t quite complicate the issue beyond that – at least not on purpose. But what it does do is provide a ripping yarn and a vivid, if romanticised, picture of Mississippi in the 60s that is immersing, entertaining, but then relatively shelveable.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Big issues boiled down to bite-sized, popcorn fodder. (Some of my best friends have enjoyed The Help!)