The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

Just when I thought I was through with monsters for a while– after finishing The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark–I encountered this terrific story by W. Somerset Maugham.
There is, he is saying, something of the monster in the character of the genius, the artist. After all, there is nothing so important for the artist as the passion for his/her art. Belongings, relationships, mores, health, money–all drop into the ranks of mediocre concerns, and those of us who come close to the furnace of raw creative energy that is the genius can come away burned, consumed.
We are offended by the character of Strickland, the artist, the boor, the selfish, brutal lover. At the same time, we are share the narrator’s fascination with his uncompromising path, his indifference to propriety, his scorn of respectability and slowly go to the heart of his art.
Maugham wrote with elegance. There is a grace and lilt to the dance of his wirds, but the steps are not hard to follow, and there is a glorious story told here.

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The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark

If Charles Dickens had somehow taken a bad acid trip, he may have brought forth a work of this luminous, nightmarish misery and populated it with villainous characters of this kind of relentless brutality. Dickens could paint a terrifying picture in shades of Victorian grime; Clare Clark brings a more explicit, florid and raw set of colors to The Nature of Monsters.
Brutality is joined with religion and feeds on the terror of shame, guilt and punishment; stubborn superstition is joined with wrong-headed pseudo-science.
This is Gothic horror, and there is an unwavering darkness about this story, but the skill of the author brings a glimmer of promise that keeps me reading. It may be simply that it is inconceivable to me that this tale not resolve into some kind of good for someone of the wretched folks found here. There are intriguing contradictions in the characters that hint at some possibility of redemption or hope, and there are the hints that some good may just appear through a crack in the hard shells of their brutalized personalities. This keeps me reading, too.
Clare Clark has a fine sense of the darkness of this time and place. Her first novel (that takes place in large part in and about the sewer system beneath this same city of London) demonstrates her conjurer’s skill at bringing this realm to life. I remember being startled at its title, The Big Stink. I also remember how I was compelled to keep turning the pages.
Finally, there is a startling plot twist that comes just at the end of The Nature of Monsters that perfectly elucidates the title of the book. Watch out for the monsters when you start this one.

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Ian Rankin’s “Tooth and Nail”

     Inspector John Rebus is a bad boy. Rough-edged and scruffy, he breaks the rules and rides roughshod over the London proprieties as he takes on a helping role in solving their particularly ugly murder case. Out of his Scottish element, he scrapes his way through the strange terrain of London cops and barristers, stepping on toes, and earning himself more than a few bruises and kicks to the head.

     He rates himself as someone with “more ambition than ability”, but his grit and courage leads the story to a very surprising and satisfying conclusion, and Rebus’ ability is clearly a match for his ambition.

     This is part of a sturdy series of detective stories that invite me back. I may try the first one Rankin gave us, Knots and Crosses, and take a trip to his “skull-grey coasts”.

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The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell

     I am drawn to Kurt Wallender and feel a sympathy for the cop and his “need to understand” the underpinnings of whatever unnatural death comes under his investigation.
     Wallender is exhausted by the heavy weight of fear and dread that comes along with the piece- by- piece assembly of clues and theories, the dead ends. the battering against what seems impenetrable.
     We have heard the story of the lonely, gritty detective–divorced, alienated, grimly determined–for many years, but Wallender seems to me to be one of the loneliest, most dedicated of the lot.
     Years ago, we somehow thought of Sweden as happy, sunny and blonde. Nowadays the Scandinavian criminals and detectives we are meeting in novels are grim, gray and gritty. There is the rich storytelling of Steig Larsson and his genius with the dragon tattoo. But we have also discovered some other magicians of the dark lands of murder from Norway and Sweden. Mankell and Wallender are two of my favorites.

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Rounding the Mark by Andrea Camilleri

Resuming my investigation of great detectives of the world, I’m back in Italy.  

Inspector Montalbano is ponderous–sluggish, even–and, as is demonstrated in the work of other stars of the Italian murder mystery, he must labor not only through the duplicity and villainy of the assorted characters involved in perpetrating the mayhem, but through the treacherous law-enforcement apparatus of the Italian police.  Once he works his way through the murk, and sees the glimmer of light, however, he pushes the case along with alacrity to its conclusion.  This is a neat story, with two apparently unconnected murders coming to a solution simultaneously.

One of the delights of this story is the repartee.  Since I come from a background of Italian folks, I especially enjoyed this here.  There is an operatic nature in lots of Italian conversation, (whether spoken in English or Italian), with lots of performance, cajoling, kidding and a generous dose of hyperbole.  While this translation seems a little clumsy in patches in this regard, there is still visible the generous, expressive shrug, the dead-pan punch line and the put-on.

It is a wonderful, straightforward read, with more than a little genuinely rendered pathos and humor, so I’m looking forward to another visit to Sicily.

 

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Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

In the last book I wrote about here, Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens, Mr. Hitchens claimed that science fiction was not of great interest to him.  It must have seemed to him that the realm of real life presented such an array of brutality, misery and buffoonery that a tour of the merely speculative was not worth the effort.

But, Consider Phebas, by Iain M. Banks, is a space opera in the best sense of the term–passionate adventures, life and death struggles, romance, alien creatures, technological wonders–all set in a vast and fascinating universe, with a story that rushes mightily along with the power of an enormous train.

While this is a great adventure story, a really fun thrill-ride, it is framed by the larger story of two ruthless inimical civilizations, blasting one another apart with astonishing, grotesque weapons over the course of generation after generation of destruction.  It is tempting to damn the excesses of these two civilizations as the follies of the faith-based.  The cataclysmic war between them arose from a conflict between their two proselytizing philosophies, carried forcefully and stubbornly across the galaxies.

This frame for all the action is great, nourishing stuff for the more thoughtful reader, but Consider Phlebas is also a great thrill for those who enjoy the roller-coaster read, with the hairpin turns and hair-raising drops.  It is great fun.

 

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Arguably by Christopher Hitchens

I’ll propose a little exercise: Each time you pick up a book by some notable author, Google <that author>+Christopher Hitchens. I bet you will find more than a little delight in the essay, book review, book introduction or other glittering nugget that pops up. He wrote beautifully, brilliantly and extensively about writing and writers, and the bite-sized length of the pieces gathered in this collection is perfect for those whose tolerance for exegesis is low. He had a encyclopedic fund of knowledge about writers, their place in history, their ideas, and a great grace and fluidity in getting it all across to the devoted non-professional, like me. Reading just one of these essays will lead to reading another, and another. Arguably also serves to give the lie to the notion that atheists are a glum lot, with no principles and no joy. There is as much vigor and delight in the writing here as there was (and will be) for me in the reading, and his passion is clear and not a bit shy.  This is not just a book about books and writers; there is also a generous sampling of Hitch’s well-known fire in the tinder of current affairs, but my joy was in discovering this treasure of anecdote and context about writers and writing.

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