activism ahead

February 7, 2014

fightback

It’s time to fight back – mass surveillance does not keep us safe.

Read more about it at ProPublica, The Guardian, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Security Archive or in the news.


January Pick: Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

February 4, 2014

I didn’t have high expectations for this book, which I picked up more or less on a whim, and if I had read a description of the plot first, I probably would have put it down unread. That would have been a shame, because it was a terrific reading experience.

Here’s the part that will make it sound awful: it’s narrated by a woman in a coma and is addressed to “you,” her husband. She has landed in a coma after rushing into a school that has caught fire. Her small son and the other students were safely evacuated, but when she realizes her nearly-adult daughter who is working at the school is inside, she Afterwardsdoesn’t think; she acts. Now, she’s in the same hospital as her daughter (who is suffering from extensive burns and is sedated), and they find they can wander the halls of the hospital and talk to each other, if not to anyone else. Leaving the hospital is trickier – it’s painful, and the further they go, the more difficult it becomes – but they can manage it, just. In this way, they do what they can to learn who was responsible for the fire, which becomes particularly urgent when the police focus on an innocent person.

Lupton does an excellent job making this unlikely scenario work because she’s really good at writing about emotional responses and the relationships among the characters and manages to whip up an excellent plot, as well. It includes touches of commentary on the wider world (why are privately-run schools attractive to British parents? How might money influence decisions made at the school?) but is mostly a character-driven story told with imagination and perfect-pitch language.

One of the reasons I picked this book up is that I’m trying to do a better job of balancing my reading choices this year so that I don’t favor male authors though inattention. There are a lot of reasons that so much of the crime fiction I read is by men. I prefer books at the dark end of the spectrum. A lot of the books I read are sent to me by publishers to review, so they tend to be books with a publicity budget. My guess is that those budgets correlate loosely with hardcover publication, and men are more likely than women to be published in hardcover in this genre, at least going on the hundreds of books submitted annually for Edgar award consideration. I also pick up on ideas about what to read from reviews, which tend to favor male authors. All of these factors are interconnected and subtle and I’m not blaming anyone, because these biases are subtle and systemic. But what I can do is be conscious of my own choices. I have no doubt that plenty of women are writing books that will suit my tastes. I just need to make sure I’m not overlooking them.

As I finished this book, I did ponder whether male readers would enjoy it as much as I did. The protagonist is a woman. Her strongest passions revolve around the need to protect her children. The drama is doing that while being disembodied and voiceless. The resolution of the crime was not entirely satisfactory for me for reasons I can’t explain without a massive spoiler. But the way the author wraps up a central dilemma in the book – one involving a mother and her children – was both satisfying and emotional. In many ways it fits the definition of a category of book I’ve always bristled at: women’s fiction. It’s by a woman, stars a woman, and is primarily about her relationships (though in this case there’s a meaty mystery to go with it).  To me, books by women about women and focused on relationships are novels and I’m not sure why they shouldn’t appeal as much to male readers as to female. Thinking about the appeal of this book, though, I found myself thinking “would a man feel differently about this book than a woman reader? Would he find the relationships overdone and the emotional part of the story manipulative or mawkish?” That’s hard to say – but for me, it was great fun to read and full of narrative invention.


A Good Year for Mysteries

December 30, 2013

books1

I read some really terrific mysteries this year. Two are by new-to-me authors and several are by authors who have been on my top ten list in the past. The nationality of authors is fairly varied: two Swedes, two Danes, two South Africans, three Brits, one Irish, one book by a Norwegian set in the US and one Norwegian-set novel by an American. It’s not well balanced in terms of gender – eight male authors, four female (with two men and two women writing together). A new year’s resolution is to get around to reading more of the fine women writers in the genre in the coming year.

Here they are, in no particular order, with links to reviews . . .

Sundstol, Vidar – THE LAND OF DREAMS
A moody story about a Norwegian murdered in Minnesota and a forest ranger who finds connections between the murder and his family’s immigrant past. A touch a woo-woo, an occasional info-dump, but a book I really enjoyed. First in a trilogy.

Faye, Lyndsay – SEVEN FOR A SECRET
Second in a historical series starring Timothy Wilde, who (with his dangerous brother Valentine) try to help a mixed-race woman recover her family when they are abducted by slave traders. Evocative language and gripping history that we shouldn’t forget.

le Carre, John – A DELICATE TRUTH
A rather silly diplomat is called to Gibraltar to oversee a dodgy terrorism task force operation which goes wrong. Later he joins forces with an energetic young officer and a Welsh soldier to find the truth. At times parodic and bitter, but also impassioned and thrilling.

Kaaberbol, Lene, and Agnete Friis – DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE
A young mother who has sought asylum in Denmark is caught up in violence that has its roots in the famine Stalin caused in Ukraine in the 1930s. Difficult reading at times, but unforgettable.

Stanley, Michael – DEADLY HARVEST
The amiable and principled detective Kubu investigates crimes that may be “muti murders” – in which young people are killed so that wealthy believers can gain power. The Botswana setting is, as always, a main attraction.

Miller, Derek – NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT
An elderly New York Jew whose granddaughter has brought him to Norway finds himself in charge of a small Balkan immigrant, pursued by violent men and his own regrets about war. Reminded me of Kate Atkinson.

Mark, David – ORIGINAL SKIN
An imposing, kind, and socially awkward detective in Hull investigates some brutal drug murders and a suicide of a young man with a peacock tattoo that perhaps isn’t. Brilliant writing.

Dahl, Arne – BAD BLOOD
Don’t let the gruesome opening put you off. This is an interesting take on the tired serial killer story, originally published in 1999 but strangely topical.

Herron, Mick – DEAD LIONS
Charming, oddball, busy, entertaining espionage story featuring an office full of losers. Herron is a terrific writer.

French, Tana – BROKEN HARBOR
A creepy, slow-burning fuse of a novel about a family attacked in their falling-down house in one of Ireland’s “ghost estates” but really about the trauma caused by the sudden death of the Celtic Tiger economy and the values it embodied.

books2

 


the paranoid style in American literature

December 15, 2013

One of the reasons I enjoy crime fiction as a genre is that it serves as a mirror of our times through exploring the things that frighten us. These are not, of course, always the things we should be worried about, but it’s still interesting to know what gets our attention. I like to ponder what’s going on in society from a safe distance, and the crime fiction I enjoy most helps me figure difficult things out while also telling entertaining stories about people who I come to care about. George Pelecanos, Denise Mina, David Corbett, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis – they write these kinds of stories. There’s also the satisfaction of resolution. Not all crime stories have happy endings, but they do have endings, unlike most social problems. Some readers prefer to avoid stories “ripped from the headlines” – if they want news, they’ll pick up a newspaper, thanks all the same – but instead seek The Circleout stories about good and evil in more enduring (or even mythic) forms, without a lot of moral ambiguity. Bad guys do bad things, but good guys can show us how we wish we could be.

Whether you see the genre as a place where social issues get a workout or as a (for the most part) reassuring morality play, or even, in the case of noir, a stylish slalom toward a nasty end, fear is one of its pleasures. We get a kick out of being anxious: what will happen next? Wow, I didn’t see that coming! How will the hero get out of this scrape? No, really, you shouldn’t go down to the basement in your nightie to investigate that noise, bad idea, really bad idea. Fear is the crankshaft of the narrative.

But that’s not just a quality of mysteries. For whatever reason, I chose something other than crime fiction last month to crank my fear. I read The Circle, Dave Egger’s new dystopia about what our socially networked, data-mined world could look like if we aren’t careful, and two young adult books by Cory Doctorow, Little Brother and Homeland, which tackle technology and surveillance from another angle. They got me thinking about a lot of things, including the difference between calling out a warning and doing something about it, or perhaps a difference in genres – one of these dystopian worlds is not like the other.

Thinking about these books, I was moved to read Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, published in Harper’s back in November of 1964, reflecting on political rhetoric leading up to the 1964 election which at the time was associated with a far-right minority but which, he pointed out, could also be also found in late-19th-century populist rhetoric and by anti-Catholics of the mid-19th century. This paranoid style is a kind of story-telling that pulls together disparate things into evidence of a vast conspiracy of which only the minority is aware. It thrives on ethnic, religious, and class conflict and is particularly likely to flourish when a group of people feel shut out of the political process. “Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions,” he writes, “they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.” Being shut out of the system is a feeling familiar to members of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. And, let’s be real: in an era when those elected to office spend most of their time raising money for the next election, which will cost millions, hardly any of us feel truly enfranchised. In these situations, it’s weirdly comforting to find a narrative that explores what’s going on and which suggests good guys are those who see what others don’t, who are fighting to preserve something enduring that is threatened. They can also tell us what we have to lose.

That partly explains the pleasure I took in reading these three books. In The Circle, Dave Eggers gives us a story about a very recognizable near-future in which a Silicon Valley powerhouse (a cross between Google and Facebook) offers a worker’s paradise to a young, desperate woman who needs a job and who wants to help her parents, who are frazzled over medical bills they can’t pay. A friend gets her a position in everyone’s dream company, where all the cool kids work, where the perks are amazing. She’s grateful for the job and willing to work gruelling hours in what amounts to a tech sweatshop, one that expects here to keep up with an unendingly increasing workload, her performance constantly measured, her private life never private, never off the clock. She also is seduced by the company’s benevolent desire to make everything transparent, every thought shared, every impulse metered and tallied for the good of society. It’s a disturbing, funny, all-too-recognizable near future that extrapolates the way we live now into a society that is controlled by those who want to have ALL the data.

I wonder how Eggers felt about Edward Snowden’s bombshell – that everything we give to Google (and pretty much everything we share with other technology corporations, including where we go and who we communicate with) is rendered unto Caesar just in case the state decides it needs to investigate us. It’s like Google and Facebook and every other data-sucking tech company bureaucratized and made monolithic, incredibly arrogant in its ambition to have every piece of data captured and programs that can mine it in a variety of ways. In Egger’s dystopian vision the corporation essentially takes over the role of the state, but as things have unfolded since he turned his manuscript in, the state has embraced everything tech companies collect and, if thwarted, simply taps directly into the arteries of the Internet to suck out everything it wants – which seems to be everything. The NSA embraces the logic that infected the Internet – providing platforms for sharing that seem free but are actually fed by constant micropayments of personal information which can be aggregated, mined, used and sold – in order to know everything about anyone. It also can use these algorithms to predict, like targeted advertising’s evil twin, who might be a threat and should be stopped in advance of a crime. (This is a variation of an FBI practice of coaxing naive and gullible people into terrorist plots that they can foil.) I found Egger’s vision of a society that reduces itself to the insecure infantilism of middle school as a way of life incredibly disturbing, but what we’re learning about how all that personal information is being used by the state is far more worrying.

A lot of readers and critics have  faulted the book for being propaganda, treating social media with a lack of nuance, having shallow characters who are hard to sympathize with, and particularly for using as its primary narrator a young woman who not only doesn’t grow, but gets less and less reflective as time goes on. The other characters don’t get to provide much ballast, either, but it’s a cautionary tale rather than a realistic or novel or character study. And this is a deliberate choice. In terms of narrative arc, it’s backward – instead of self-discovery, we start with a naive narrator who like kayaking in the dark and is eager to join the culture of her workplace, but as she does that Eggers begins erasing the lines, making her less and less distinct, less a person with her own identity. The Circle will do that to you, he seems to be saying. His vision of the future is not optimistic.

Little Brother

Cory Doctorow’s two novels deal with surveillance in the context of post-9/11 America, but in a way that is equally disturbing but oddly much more enheartening. In Little Brother, he imagines how the state would react to terrorist attack on San Francisco and sees it through the eyes of a teenager who understands better than the adults around him what we have to lose when we give up privacy. He also has the tech skills to set up an alternative to the Internet using linked Xbox consoles, create a way to jam the GPS signals being used to track people’s movements, and launch a youthful resistance movement.

The power of the state is vast and blind. The narrator is picked up for no discernible reason, tortured, and scared out of his wits. He’s been issued a gag order, so can’t tell his parents what has happened to him. He’s impassioned, playful, absolutely sure of the importance of privacy and the Bill of Rights – but also frightened and traumatized. Overcoming his own terror (something all of his friends have to negotiate for themselves) is nicely depicted (and probably necessary, as without these moments of sheer terror and self-doubt, he might be a talented, overconfident and obnoxiously self-congratulatory geek). Homeland takes the story further. The fight isn’t over. The economy has collapsed. College is out of reach and debt is crippling young people before they start their lives. Our young hero gets a tech job for the campaign of an independent candidate he believes in, but he faces an ethical dilemma when he is given a trove of extraordinary documents about one of the contractors who detained and extracted confessions from teens during the events of the first book. The young woman who gave it to him asked him to release it if she is captured. When she is, he needs to weigh his own safety, the future of his promising candidate, and the need to get the truth out. It’s compelling stuff, and full of though-provoking dilemmas as well as high-tech adventure and a dash of YA romance, the kind that is as much about discovering one’s identity as it is about love.

These are not subtle books, and they don’t go out of their way to accommodate opinions that the authors don’t share. Eggers paints a frighteningly possible extension of the way we live now, and it’s a bleak place. Doctorow offers a dystopian take on our present political and legal situation and a spirited call to activism. Unlike Egger’s critique of our tech-saturated lives, in Doctorow’s world technology can be used for oppression, but also can be the hand-tools for building liberation. It’s an empowering, geeky, fun vision about how ordinary people can stand up to totalitarian impulses.

Homeland

I do worry a bit when I read this kind of story about Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” It’s so satisfying to see patterns in what otherwise seems disordered, to attach a narrative complete with good guys and bad guys to a series of troubling events. Eggers addresses this problem by making us think. Isn’t transparency in government a good thing? Isn’t sharing valuable? I found the book most interesting when it engaged my critical faculties, not just my already pretty well-established anxiety about the collection of personal information as a business model and my reservations about making ourselves into brands, always anxious for more attention. Doctorow’s books don’t hold back on the fear factor – the bad guys are really bad, and really powerful – but he adds enough food for thought to make it interesting. His hero is on a journey to becoming an activist, but he has to keep overcoming obstacles. What’s the moral thing to do when there’s no obvious right path? What if something you do hurts someone you care about? How can you avoid the trap of making your activism an ego-trip? Where do you get your courage?

These three books do appeal to my paranoid style of reading – but in a manner that I found both thought-provoking and entertaining.


September Pick: The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

October 5, 2013

I had a great reading month, but this book was most definitely the best of the lot. I’m cross-posting this review fom Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

Later this month, the Univesity of Minnesota press will release the first volume in the Minnesota Trilogy by Vidar Sundstøl, a Norwegian author who spent two years living on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The Land of Dreams will be followed by Only the Dead (2014) and The Raven (2015). After reading the first, I’m impatient to read the rest.

As the novel opens, Lance Hansen, a forest ranger who patrols the national forest that occupies so much of Cook County, a vast wedge of land stretching between the lake and the Canadian border, is on his way to speak with campers who have illegally pitched a tent near the lake not far from Baraga’s Cross. This is the kind of work he does – enforcing rules, preventing people from dumping garbage on public land, organizing search parties when vacationers got lost, occasionally encountering illegal logging or hidden meth labs. Nothing too dramatic. But this morning will be different.

He parked his service vehicle at the end of the road and got out. It was 7:28. In front of him stretched Lake Superior. There was nothing to see but light and water and sky – no opposite shore on which to fix his eyes, just the illusory meeting of sky and the surface of the water far off in the distance.

Baraga's Cross

photo of Baraga’s Cross courtesy of Jeffachen.

As he heads down the path toward the granite marker that marks the spot where a European missonary once erected a wooden cross after surviving a stormy crossing in 1846, he finds a shoe and a handprint marking where someone fell. Then, as he gets closer to the cross, he sees a bare leg sticking out. A naked man is sitting against the cross, covered in blood and muttering something inaudible. The intonation seems familiar and Hansen realizes he’s speaking Norwegian. Only one word is audible: kjærlighet. Love.

Hansen finds another man not far away, bludgeoned to death. Soon the county’s sheriff arrives. Homicide isn’t a crime they’ve handled much. In fact, there hadn’t been a murder in Cook County in the 25 years he’s been its sheriff. Because the crime occured on federal land, an FBI agent is summoned fom the St. Paul field office, and he is soon joined by a Norwegian detective. Hansen’s involvement in the investigation is over – though there is one thing he’s holding back. He’d seen a familiar truck near the cross, one belonging to his brother Andy, who he understand less than his immigrant ancestors, whose history is stored in binders on floor-to-ceiling shelves in Hansen’s home office.

As the unofficial county historian, Hansen feels more comfortable in the past, and as the FBI agent and his Norwegian colleague try to discover whether a tourist killed his companion or whether someone else was responsible, Hansen becomes fascinated by old news accounts of a body found near the same place in 1892, It could have been the body of an Ojibwe medicine man named Swamper Caribou who’d gone missing earlier, a disappearance that may be connected to an old family story about a fifteen-year-old boy crossing the lake on a winter night – and possibly to Hansen’s dream of walking under the frozen surface of Lake Superior.

The Land of Dreaams, beautifully translated by Tiinna Nunnally, is an evocative novel that draws together past and present, the lives of immigrants and the indigenous inhabitants of the North Shore, American dreams and suppressed violence hidden behind calm exteriors and polite silences. In some ways this sounds like Karin Fossum’s explorations of the squirmy things living under the rocks of peaceful small towns in Norway, but in tone and style it’s far closer to Johan Theorin’s Öland quartet, which combines an atmospheric natural setting with pscychologically probing portraits and a very light touch of the supernatural.

I’m not surprised that it was awarded the Riverton Prize. It’s a very good book.  I admit that I particularly enjoyed a setting that is familiar to me – just a few weeks ago we traveled to the places where the story is set. Even if you haven’t been to the North Shore, this book will provide you with an interesting journey. The only problem is that you’ll want to return as soon as possible, as there is obviously more to the story.

Vidar Sundstol

If you are in the Twin Cities, be sure to stop by Once Upon a Crime, where the author will be speaking on October 17th at 7pm. If you can’t make it, Pat and Gary will save you a signed copy. If you can go, be prepared to leave with a lighter wallet and a heavier bookshelf. It’s a great store full of temptation. But you know you need more books.

ouac


so long, Dutch

August 20, 2013

 

Elmore Leonard
photo courtesy of mtkr

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later – the man was 87 years old – but I was still sad to hear the news this morning that Elmore Leonard had died. He was a tremendously talented author whose books have brought me a lot of pleasure over the years.

He says in his famous Ten Rules for Writers that you should leave out the parts people tend to skip and avoid adjectives and other hooptedoodle.  A lot of people have taken his advice, but it doesn’t mean they can write like Dutch. He had such a great ear for dialogue and an eye for the telling detail and a way with getting it all down in words that fit together so well they were a kind of everyday, unassuming poetry.

He was funny. He knew how to pace a story. He could sketch a character in a few perfectly-chosen words. But the thing that I always felt set him apart was that he loved his characters, even the losers, the ignorant, and the lame. He had a big heart for this messed-up world we live in.

I read a lot of his books before I started to write down what I thought of them, but I loved Killshot and Rum Punch and Maximum Bob and Out of Sight and many others. (The scene about the photograph of Jesus in City Primeval still cracks me up.) I have a particular soft spot for what I believe was the first of his that ever read, Glitz. Here’s what I said about it over at LibraryThing when I reread it a few years back:

Vincent Mora is bringing in groceries when a slimeball demands his wallet. Instead of handing it over or playing the tough guy, Vincent wearily explains the obvious. You think I’d drive a car like that? It’s a cop car, asshole. Now go lean on it. Not smart; he ends up shot, with red wine and pasta sauce all over him. That’s just for starters. Add a beautiful Puerto Rican hooker, some goombas at an Atlantic City casino, a bad-tempered parrot, an ex-con nutcase who wants to look Vincent in the eye when he shoots him, a touch of garlic and simmer gently. It’s got what Leonard does best: a weird but quite believable bad guy, vivid settings, a cast of criminals who are treated with generosity even though they’re, well, pretty bad, a great female love interest, a sexy, cool, intelligent, funny, totally likable hero who doesn’t indulge in angst, but from time to time thinks about the slimeball who tried to mug him. Vincent ponders ways he could have handled it that wouldn’t end up with shooting and killing the would-be mugger. A tough guy who’s really bothered when he takes a life. I like that. Lots of humor, dialogue that’s absolutely right, a great sense of timing, a plot that keeps twisting … you can’t do better than this.


July Pick: A Delicate Truth

August 7, 2013

I had a pretty good reading month, but the book that provided the most knock-your-socks-off pleasure was A Delicate Truth by that skilled master of international intrigue and the subtle increase of paranoia, John le Carre.

I wasn’t sure at first I would enjoy this latest novel from the man who invented the modern morality-play espionage novel. It has a slow fuse. The story opens as an undistinguished career foreign office paper-pusher is dispatched to the field to oversee a joint terrorist operation in Gibraltar. There, a reluctant Welsh military officer looks to him when ordered to take action that seems precipitous and unwise. He tut-tutts ineffectually and something happens, but we’re not sure what. It’s all behind a curtain of confidentiality – but the official is assured everything went well.

Another official, young and brash and with highly-honed instincts, gets wind of the botched operation a few years later and begins to sniff around, soon realizing his career trajectory will take a sharp turn into obscurity if he carries on. But he does (at which point the story takes off like a rocket) because lurking under those political instincts is a stubborn belief in doing what’s right. Eventually he, the now-retired tut-tutting diplomat, and the Welsh soldier, drummed out of the army, his marriage, and mainstream society, join forces to expose what actually happened when mercenaries, supplied by a right-wing American firm that has made a killing on the amorphous, unending “war on terror,” blundered on a small remnant of Britain’s empire.

In the post-cold-war novels of le Carre, his weary spooks playing an endless geo-political game of chess have given way to a game where the rules are worked out in secret and the players are not so much governments as individuals in government positions who will benefit if they align their fortunes with those of giant corporations. He often uses a kind of parody that tastes like bitter laughter but which also refuses to bow to the “life is stranger than fiction, which has to be more plausible” rule. I think he’s given up on trying to portray his enemy with the sympathy he had for his cold-war Communist characters, and I don’t blame him. You can make this stuff up, he seems to be saying, and you must if you want to depict with any accuracy a threat that feels more powerful and destructive than Communism. Now the moles occupy sites of power and those who object, those who hold old-fashioned notions about the national interest and the value of public service – old fashioned patriots, in other words – are entirely on their own. The banding together of these three individuals in a hopeless situation is moving and couldn’t be more topical. It’s depressing that these decent characters who le Carre has crafted with his usual depth and detail are so isolated and in such an impossible position, but it’s thrilling to be in their company.


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