Archives for category: crime

friday-the-infautations-mainSomething has happened that hasn’t happened to me in a long time. I didn’t finish a book. I’m normally persistent to a fault. I just lost momentum with The Infatuations. And then there was nothing compelling me to pick it up again. Perhaps I’ll try again later, when I’m in a more existential mood.

Here’s what happened:

When I read a novel I like things to happen. When I first heard about The Infatuations I wasn’t sure it would be right for me. Yes, it’s about a murder and the mystery surrounding that murder, which seemed promising. But it’s philosophical, a cerebral meditation on death and love. All which means, to my mind, The Infatuations would be absolutely brilliant or very dull.

At almost a hundred pages in not much has happened – Miguel has been murdered, Maria has met his widow, Luisa, and that’s about it. However, that summary doesn’t really do justice to Marías’ wonderful command of language, tone and mood. I feel the electric crackle of potential in the air but I’m getting a little bored.

His characters have unusual, extremely erudite conversations. They give too much of themselves without actually knowing someone.

(Goes off, reads some more.)

A character has just quoted from and recounted the plot of a Balzac novel (a novelist who also has the ability to be wonderfully boring). I’m officially done.

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the-tilted-worldTom Franklin’s latest book came out well timed to help me in my bid to read books by authors that I’ve read before and enjoyed. A while ago I read his 2011 Dagger Award winning novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. His new novel, The Tilted World, is co-written with Beth Ann Fennelly, a poet and Tom Franklin’s wife. Co-written novels are an interesting proposition, I always view writing novels as such a solitary, private process. That extreme level of collaboration must require an intimate relationship so I guess a husband and wife team makes sense. Or they could just end up killing each other in the process.

It’s April 1927 and the inhabitants of the fictional town of Hobnob, Mississippi are fighting to stop the levee of their bend in the Mississippi River from breaking. After months of almost nonstop rain the Mississippi is dangerously high and threatens to flood. Fennelly and Franklin based their novel on the real events of the Mississippi flood on Good Friday, 1927. The flood was one of the worst natural disasters America has experienced, flattening almost a million homes and drowning twenty-seven thousand square miles.

Against this backdrop, Dixie Clay brews moonshine for her bootlegger husband, the handsome Jesse Holliver. Once captivated by his charm, Dixie Clay now sees him for the dangerous, conniving man he really is. As Prohibition nears its death, revenue agents and World War I veterans Ham and Ingersoll travel to Hobnob to find out what happened to their missing predecessors. Meanwhile, saboteurs from New Orleans are trying to collapse Hobnob’s levee in order to ease pressure on their own segment of the river. And an orphaned baby forces Ingersoll and Dixie Clay’s lives to intertwine.

The Tilted World is beautifully written. It has Franklin’s eye for small domestic details seen in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, but with added beauty and tenderness – ‘its Victrolas cupping their ears to the glass to listen for a pause in the monotonous song of the rain’, a fox paddling through flood waters, its ‘tail rising from the water like a question mark.’

I don’t think it’s really giving anything away to talk about the central romance. Dixie Clay and Ingersoll know each other for two weeks, a tumultuous, life-altering two weeks, but a short time nonetheless. The cynic in me finds the sudden romance a tad clichéd and convenient but really they’re both in love with the baby. They were each in desperate need of family, so I suppose it all makes sense in the end.

On the topic of both the love story and the writing, you can tell the sex scene was co-written by a poet. Normally that kind of grandiose rendering of a basic human act would make me want to vomit a little but I didn’t hate it.

They were rocking together, a rescue boat, and then words and ideas of words fell away and they were thrust into the golden light that bodies can climb to. They were there and there and there. Stillness at the height.

It’s kind of beautiful. But maybe a bit too much for me.

The characters are all well-drawn and filled in – you feel for them when they bleed, when they cry, but sometimes they felt like the obvious choices. Dixie Clay is a wonderful character. Her first meeting with Jesse is excellent – selling the furs she caught, skinned and stretched herself, a girl trying to best a grown man at bargaining. But she’s still a feisty tomboy who falls for a charming man with big ambitions, when she really belongs with the caring, solid, somewhat less attractive guy. Although, I think the character choice says more about the plot direction – a universality of story made whole with precise, intimate details.

Franklin and Fennelly paint a slight yet perfect little picture of life on the Mississippi, while echoes of the wider world reverberate – the early twentieth century jazz scene, Prohibition, the 1927 flood, Hoover’s bid to become the next president, and a hint of World War I. The Tilted World is a wonderful miniature etching of a far grander landscape.

Norwegian by NightSheldon Horowitz is 82 years old and has just moved to Norway with his granddaughter, Rhea, and her husband, Lars. His wife died recently, his family think he has dementia, and he’s haunted by the death of his son, Saul, years earlier in the Vietnam War. Sheldon blames himself for Saul’s death having spent Saul’s childhood touting the honour of fighting for your country. One morning Sheldon witnesses his neighbour’s murder and manages to save her young son from her killer. The boy and Sheldon go on the run together through the Norwegian countryside in an attempt to protect the boy from the murderer and his Balkan gang. Meanwhile, the Oslo police, and Rhea and Lars are trying to find Sheldon before he gets himself killed.

Against this crime backdrop Derek B. Miller has woven in scenes from Sheldon’s past, often scenes of war – Korea and Vietnam. Sheldon missed out on fighting in World War I, he was too young, but he thinks of it often. He feels guilty, as a Jew, that he couldn’t go and fight the Nazis. As atonement he later fought in Korea, telling his wife he was a supply clerk and didn’t see action. But years later Sheldon changed his story – he was a Marine sniper, but he kept quiet about it to spare his family worrying. But by then nobody believed him. His wife was convinced he had dementia or it was a fantasy brought on by the loss of Saul. Then there are imagined scenes of Saul in Vietnam – Sheldon’s attempt to relive the moment of Saul’s death despite never having been there.

Norwegian by Night is another story of Jewish experience, read right after May We Be Forgiven. But where May We Be Forgiven was confronting and brash, Norwegian by Night is wonderfully poignant. Sheldon is a great central character – resourceful, smart and fiercely loyal yet kind of racist (he is convinced Koreans are hunting him down because of what happened in the war) and antagonistic (he insists on using his Penthouse coffee mug from the 1970s despite Rhea’s protests). And his sanity and memory are constantly called into question. But Sheldon’s not really an unlikely hero, he’s just old. And he’s struggling to find the dignity in old age. In his youth he was a vital man. He was adventurous – he spent time after the war travelling the world taking photos of unwilling subjects, which he became quite famous for – and he was patriotic enough to go to war without being blind to America’s problems. After an incident where Sheldon was refused access to a country club in the 1960s for being Jewish, he told Saul,

This country is what you make it…It isn’t good and it isn’t bad…That means you don’t make excuses for America’s bullshit. That’s what the Nazis and Commies do. The fatherland. The motherland. America isn’t your parent. It’s your kid. And today, I made America a place where you get your nose broken for telling a Jew he can’t play a round of golf. The only one allowed to tell me I can’t play golf is the ball.

The scenes of Sheldon bonding with the little boy, Paul, are funny and beautiful. Paul doesn’t speak English so Sheldon has a great time talking to him about things too complex for a boy to understand. Sheldon’s musings on God, Noah and morality, in particular, demonstrate depth and grace. He asks is it impossible for God to make amends,

how does he know when he’s done wrong? After all, does being all-knowing include self-knowledge? As He is the source of everything, can he possibly deny His own actions and condemn them? Against what? What’s the yardstick other than himself?

Sheldon comes to the conclusion that there is a morality separate from God, an inherent human morality that governs us.

It must be difficult writing a novel about a place that you live but are not native to, as is the case with Derek B. Miller. Norwegian by Night was written in English but was first published in Norwegian. It affects the way you describe the place, you know what will seem odd to an outsider because you were one yourself. Norwegian by Night is littered with the differences that must have struck Miller on arrival but that a Norwegian probably wouldn’t give a second thought to, like that Oslo isn’t equipped to fuel stoves with natural gas. It’s a bit like being taken on a tour of the city instead of being completely immersed in a new culture. That approach doesn’t always work but here it’s exactly what’s needed. It allows Miller to really get into the minds of his many immigrant characters.

At its most basic level Norwegian by Night reminded me of another crime novel with a foreigner in a strange land scenario, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops. Norwegian by Night is far superior. Derek B. Miller packs a hell of a lot into a relatively simple story – Jewish experience, dementia and ageing, Norwegian history and identity, conflict between Albanians and Serbians in Kosovo, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and cultural integration. And he balances it all brilliantly by finding, in Sheldon, the perfect character to bring everything together.