Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell (review)

I think I first discovered Swedish mystery novelist Henning Mankell in 2004 - Warwick's was carrying one or two of his Kurt Wallander books, but no one on staff had ever read any and customers weren't really buying. Being a young, fresh-faced 29-year-old, I was suckered in by the sweet-looking Vintage Crime packaging of The White Lioness (the cover art is an X-ray of a handgun) and discovered that a pretty fantastic series of crime novels lived inside. Now, I don't want to take all the credit, but there have been six Wallander films made for PBS and Warwick's has sold (to date) a combined 1,318 copies of the books in the series (not counting Mankell's array of stand-alone novels.) Not to mention the blossoming of Scandinavian crime fiction in the US market - Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser, Karin Fossum, I'm talkin' to you. Now, seven years down the road, I think I've outgrown Wallander a little bit - and after reading the final Wallander novel, The Troubled Man, I think Mankell has too.

For the uninitiated, Kurt Wallander is a morose genius of a detective from Ystad in southern Sweden. He is brilliant in his policework, but constantly overwhelmed by his own personal shortcomings - whether in his relationship with his daughter, his ex-wife, his father, or his girlfriend, nothing ever seems right to him and he is prone to angry, self-righteous outbursts that ostracize those around him. In all the previous eight books (and one short story collection) Wallander's crimesolving abilities have outweighed his faults, allowing the reader to accept that his morose personality is a package deal with the brilliant detective. Most of the time, his ennui is almost humorous to witness and has become one of the character's most endearing qualities. Not so here. His self-loathing and general, everyday misery - now coupled with encroaching memory loss and looming hereditary dementia - creates an atmosphere of such painful, pitiful wallowing that I wanted to toss the book across the room when I finished.
He checked his watch. A quarter to two. He had been asleep for nearly four hours. His sweaty shirt was making his shiver. He went back inside and lay down in bed. But he couldn't get to sleep. "Kurt Wallander is lying in his bed, thinking of death," he said aloud to himself. It was true. He really was thinking of death.
Jesus. Really?

Unfortunately, the case that Wallander works in The Troubled Man, isn't compelling enough to carry the book and I ended up mired down in the self-pitying inner thoughts of Kurt, rather than remaining interested in the criminal elements. (That narrative, by the way, consists of the parents-in-law of Wallander's daughter going missing on two separate occasions. Kurt figures it out, eventually, but I didn't find any of it all that interesting.) Sadly, to me it read as if Mankell was trying to re-capitalize on the Swedish mystery-thing by forcing one final Wallander book out of his book hole. (Of course, this may not be true, but Henning can feel free to write about it on his own blog.) I think we would all have been better served had he just decided to collect the royalties he's already getting and let the series lie.

*One other thing that bothered me (and this commentary would be for readers of the rest of the series) - at the end of the previous book - Firewall, published by Vintage in '03 - some of Wallander's personal relationships were left in a sort of limbo status, especially his volatile partnership with fellow detective, Martinsson. At the very end of the book - which, remember, was the final Wallander novel up until now - Martinsson calls out Kurt for being out of touch and not listening to others on the police force, kind of leaving their friendship hanging. There is no trace of this conflict in The Troubled Man - which pisses me off.

But hey, that's just me.

Janet Maslin's take in the New York Times. (Non-committal take, that is.)
Anna Paterson, from The Independent
Andrew Brown, The Guardian (a fascinating, insane rant)
A starred editor's review at Kirkus ("...Wallander will grip the reader hard." Hee-hee!)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

Not Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso, or John Vaillant's The Tiger - the tiger book that you really need to read is The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht, easily one of the best books of 2011 and destined for your bookshelf, whether you know it or not.

Obreht, at just 25 years old and one of the New Yorker's 20 Under 40, writes with a grace and style WAY beyond her years that just blew me away. She mixes magical realism, fables, and tall tales with the stark realities of war, loss, and love as if she has been walking the earth for a hundred years.
Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger's wife and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life - of my grandfather's days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.
In a nutshell: Natalia is on a diplomatic mission across the border of her war torn Balkan homeland to deliver vaccines to an orphanage, when she learns of the death of her beloved grandfather in a remote village far from his home. Knowing that he was gravely ill & never would never have travelled without a reason, she becomes convinced that he was in search of "the deathless man" - a longstanding, mysterious figure from the stories he told her as a child. As Natalia sets out to uncover the mystery of her grandfather's final days, she learns more about herself, her family's past, and her country than she ever though possible and finds that all the answers she seeks lie within the stories of her grandfather. 

Obreht mixes together Natalia's contemporary story of life in her ravaged homeland (she was born in the former Yugoslavia, herself) with her grandfather's incredible stories of "the deathless man" and "the tiger's wife," to create a fantastical world grounded in the harsh reality of a region recovering from decades of war. And man, those stories of her grandfather...  absolutely incredible. Perfectly wrought, beautifully paced out, and completely enthralling - at times you feel, "I know this tale, somehow..." only to have the rug yanked out from under you, just when you think you've figured things out. And every time the deathless man shows up, it sends chills down your spine.

Foreign, yet familiar, impossible, yet true, unsentimental, yet emotional - the elements that she has managed to cull together here are melded absolutely perfectly. A stunning, stunning debut, and one that will stick in your head for long after you've turned that final page, I guarantee it.

Listen to Obreht's interview on NPR's Weekend Edition.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen

I have been, admittedly, very lax in my postings on the Catapult as of late and the best excuse I can offer is that I was so wrapped up in the book I was reading that I had no leftover time to write about anything else. Sound good?

We, the Drowned is a gorgeous 675-page novel about several generations of seafaring Danes from the tiny town of Marstal on the archipelago island of Ærø. Since its original Danish publication in 2006, it has won the Danske Banks Litteraturpris - the highest literary award in Denmark - and was voted the best Danish novel of the last 25 years by the readers of the country's largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten.

And check out that cover art - if this isn't the kind of aesthetics that will keep paperbound books in our lives, I don't know what is. (Illustrated by Joe McLaren, jacket design by Susanne Dean, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)

Spanning the years & generations from 1848 to 1945, We follows the sailors of Marstal - the center of Danish seafaring pride - as they travel the oceans of the world - from Samoa to Newfoundland, Australia to London, Casablanca to Dakar, Murmansk to Greenland, and back home to Marstal. Always back to Marstal, where the women wait, worry, and grieve. 

In the 19th-century, Marstallers expertly manned the sailing ships of the world, moving commerce across the seas on the winds, only distracted by periodic warring with the Germans. Larger and louder than life, Laurids Madsen was once "best known for having single-handedly started (one of those) war(s)," that is, until he was literally blown sky high when his ship was destroyed in a sea battle. According to him, thanks to his rather large, heavy sea boots, he landed back on his feet, but not before seeing Saint Peter "flash his bare ass" at him in Heaven first. But Laurids came back down a changed man and he mysteriously abandoned his wife and family to sail the seas far from Marstal, never to return home. No news ever came that he had died or been lost, he just disappeared - a fate worse than actual news for those left behind.

The "we" of the title is, in fact, the residents of Marstal and Jensen often turns his narration to the collective voice when viewing events from the safety of land. "We" are proud, curious, & judgmental, yet sympathetic and completely invested in the lifeblood of Marstal. In the early chapters, the collective "we" is our primary narrator, telling stories of the sea from the warm bars and dry docks of town, until "we" implore Laurids' son Albert to tell his tale of life on the seas, searching for his missing papa tru

In 1862, wearing his father's famed boots, Albert follows a rumor of Laurids from Singapore to Hobart Town in Van Diemen's Land, Australia - "everyone's dead end" - where he follows a debt of his father's towards Hawaii. Albert's narrative - his harrowing adventures across the Pacific with the insane, malignant Jack Lewis, his crew of tattooed Kanak islanders, and the shrunken head of Captain James Cook - is really where the novel hits its stride. So driven is Albert to find his missing father, he ignores Jack's encroaching insanity and dismisses his own, preferring to discuss his plans with the shrunken head, rather than step back and reevaluate his voyage. Of course, what he does eventually find living on Samoa in the body of his once majestic father leaves him empty, ravaged, and baffled. But the voyage itself is the journey he needed to become his own man in the end, despite what sort of creature Laurids may have become in his self-imposed exile. But Albert kept the boots.

When Albert eventually came ashore by the 1890's, Marstal experienced its most productive, profitable time period and Albert became quite wealthy as a ship owner & broker, while filling the pockets of the townspeople and spreading his message of the strength of fellowship. However, starting in 1913, on the cusp of the first World War, he nightly began to dream vivid dreams of the deaths of the men of Marstal at sea. He knew, beyond doubt, that he was "foreseeing a war" and the "end of an entire world." The innocent world inhabited by Marstallers was soon coming to a close with a mighty crash.

In response to his dreams (which he kept secret, except for in his diary), Albert became a comforting voice to the grieving families of the lost sailors - visiting them to break the terrible news from the front. This new position eventually lead him to Klara Friis and her young, newly fatherless son, Knud Erik. Albert and the boy began spending their days together, Albert acting as the father Knud Erik had lost, and the boy as the son Albert never had. Klara forbid Knud Erik from ever becoming a sailor, fearing above all else, losing another man in her life to the treacherous sea. But all Knud Erik ever wanted to do was become a sailor like his father, and now, like Albert. 

I think I've given away enough of the plot now, and I don't want to ruin anymore for anyone. The third act of the book is about Knud Erik, who picks up the narration upon Albert's death and carries us across the northern seas and into yet another war with the Germans. If Albert's story was where this novel hit its stride, it is Knud Erik's where it becomes something else entirely. 

The flow of the narrative from the collective to Laurids to Albert to Knud Erik, is seamless, lyrical, and beautifully wrought. The characters are unusual and original, yet wholly familiar - I reached a comfort level in their presence like I would with an old friend. Forget all the "book review" stylings: We, the Drowned was one of the best books I have ever read in my life. 

We always carry our own lives & experiences around with us when we read, of course, so maybe the fathers-and-sons theme just struck a more resonant chord with me than it will for everyone. That's the brilliant thing about this - so much of the story is also about those left behind in the wake of the departing ships that you could read the same book and come away with a different feel for what it truly was about. As much as it is about the adventures of Laurids, Albert, and Knud Erik, it is about Klara, Herman, and the all the rest of the people of Marstal. It is funny and poignant, heartwarming and powerful, yet dark and foreboding in a way that only the events of our own world can be.

Even after nearly 700 pages of reading and as crazy as it sounds, I really didn't want it to end. It was all so well told and so vividly rendered, I felt as if these people of Marstal had become a part of my own life, my own history. (Not literally, of course - I'm not insane.) After all that I had read, the final, powerful page brought tears to my eyes as the living and the dead all returned to the shores of Ærø. "Tonight we danced with the drowned. And they were us."

Friday, March 04, 2011

Doerr Prize

Just so you never doubt me again, here's a bit of awesome news: Anthony Doerr has won the 2011 Story Prize for his latest short story collection, Memory Wall. (If you remember, Memory Wall was Number Five on the 2010 Catapult Notable list.) Here's the rather eloquent statement about Tony's book from the Prize judges:
“It is the shimmering space between the two planes of reality and memory that Doerr captures with immense sensitivity. He is adept at evoking a variety of places and different times in history, conjuring sharp settings in which the fragility of his characters is played out. The diversity of backgrounds underscores his poetic skill at illustrating his themes of emotional distancing and the resilience of hope. While he displays a rare imagination in the handling of his subjects, he maintains a beautiful and quiet grace in his precise, spare style, providing a harmonious resonance to all of the stories.”
Congratulations Tony - so well deserved!