Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Competition by Marcia Clark

The Competition (Rachel Knight, #4) Author Marcia Clark, TV correspondent and former prosecutor, manages to distinguish her crime series by the strength of her writing and by her intelligent presentation of the material: she gives her readers an undeniably authentic inside look at the search for criminals, sharing along the way terminology and methods, points of law and methods of prosecution. She leavens the work by including the taunt-slinging humor that a hard-working, hard-living law enforcement team shares while investigating major crimes.

Clark’s Rachel Knight series features a prosecutor from the office of L.A. Special Trials. In her earlier (and shorter) novels, Knight was investigating interesting crimes that plague cities. This book takes on the important subject of the psychopathy behind mass shootings, whether at schools, stores, or the cinema. Clark relies heavily on the David Cullen’s nonfiction treatment of the Columbine shooting, Columbine, so that we can see clearly the resemblances in the copycat incident she relates, but she also looks closely at the other examples we’ve endured in the recent past and shares psychologists’ view of the phenomenon.

Clark’s story has many false leads and misdirection, but what I liked best was the palpable sense of not knowing enough: though the investigators worked hard at finding clues, there was so much they simply did not know. Clark manages to make us understand the real difficulties in pursuing an investigation in cases like these, and why it takes so long to make headway (hint: it is not simply because of the fabled traffic jams in L.A.). The smog fog of confusion felt very real to me. When, towards the end of the book, Knight and her partner on this case, Detective Bailey Keller, finally get a lead that connects tiny shreds of information learned from disparate sources early in the investigations, Bailey sits back in her chair and says "Well, what do you know. An actual bona fide lead. So that’s what it feels like." And we feel that sense of discovery, awe, and relief, too.

Clark exhibits her control in a story of this size and scope. She covers a lot of ground by looking at so many major examples of mass shootings and still keeping the story alive with interactions between her characters. If I had any criticism, it would be that there were too many words, but I am not going to quibble. This is an excellent example of its genre which also serves to highlight important questions about our society and justice system.

In my review of an earlier book in the series, Guilt by Degrees, I commented that Rachel Knight seemed to have expensive tastes when it comes to eating and drinking. She still does, but I can see more clearly in this novel that Knight has time to eat only rarely and when she finally does, often late at night, she deserves every bite of those exotic meals. Hers is the kind of job that doesn’t slow or stop for normal people’s needs.

The first book in the Rachel Knight series, Guilt by Association, was a wonderful debut. Take a look if you are beginning the series for the first time.


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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Interview with Alen Mattich, author of Marko della Torre series set in Croatia


British author Alen Mattich began publishing the Marko della Torre series in 2012 with Canadian publishers, House of Anansi. In July 2015 his work will be available in the United States for the first time. The series is set in the early 1990s in the region of the former Yugoslavia. Observers of international affairs will recall that NATO’s first involvement in Bosnian and Yugoslavian wars came shortly after the events related in this series. Review: ZAGREB COWBOY

Mattich has a light touch, however, and we get our history while laughing at the antics of a group of spies from the breakup of states who are less aligned by nationalism or political persuasion than by personal aggrandizement and fear of retribution. Real life mysteries like "Who Killed Olaf Palme?" and the "Massacre at Vukovar" are related with just enough material to make one wonder what did actually happen, conceivably leading readers to investigate more thorough histories and source materials, which Mattich thoughtfully provides in his Acknowledgements. Review: KILLING PILGRIM

Below Mattich answers a few questions about the origin of his series and about his literary forbears and influences. This is the kind of fiction I like best--international fiction that brings real events into focus. After all, written history often has fiction woven into its fabric, albeit not as funny as this, and the close up view of Croatia is worth all the time spent with this unusual group of characters. Review: THE HEART OF HELL

1. You have a profession as a financial journalist for Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. Do you find writing novels relaxing?

I'm not sure relaxing is the word. Maybe I write instead of relaxing, say watching TV, which I haven't done for years, or reading novels, which only makes me feel guilty for not doing my own writing. But in a way writing novels helps to distract me from my own life and its problems and demands. And though sometimes it's exhausting writing my novels in the evenings and writing for a day job--when I'm in the thick of both I can sometimes write 15,000 words a week for weeks on end--there's enough variation between the two to keep me going.

2. The della Torre series takes a unique angle on genre fiction and none of the traditional classifications (mystery/thriller/spy) seem to fit. How do you classify it?

I would probably classify the books as thrillers. That's how I envisaged them anyway. But really they're stories about relationships between people in difficult circumstances and about some not very nice choices otherwise ordinary people were forced into by totalitarian governments.

3. Does your work have literary antecedents or influences?

I'm sure it does. I can list some of the conscious ones, but there are plenty of unconscious ones too. I'm a big fan of Elmore Leonard's books. His writing is spare, has a tremendous momentum and is full of humour. I feel that a lot of otherwise well written books miss out on humour. Finding things funny, even in the most desperate of circumstances is an innately human characteristic. Humour has an important social function. Ignore it and you miss a big slice of how people interact (even if most people aren't actually very funny). But because Leonard wrote genre fiction his work isn't generally regarded as seriously as books by literary writers. A mistake, I think. I also enjoy George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman books. That's a rare anti-hero, a thoroughly rotten, self serving rogue who it's impossible not to like and cheer for. Flashman was a model for Strumbić, who is my favourite character and one I'd like to live on. I enjoy Simenon's atmospheric descriptions, which I'd hoped to mirror, though I'm not sure I succeeded. And there are a number of east European writers from the Cold War era who wrote about the struggle of living during the Second World War and under Communist regimes, people like Danilo Kis, Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, Tadeusz Borowski, Ivan Klima, Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Vasily Grossman and numerous others whose words have seeped in over the years.

4. You write so intimately of Croatia. Why there?

Zagreb Cowboy started as a KGB book set in Moscow. I wasn't far into it when I went to visit my parents who'd returned to Zagreb from the U.S. after retiring. It was January. The city was coldly beautiful, atmospheric. In the evening, gas lamps were lit in the old town, the streets were empty, trams ground through the Hapsburg part of the city, and I thought, why am I writing about Moscow, a city that's been done endlessly by people who know it so much better than I when here's a city full of history and exotic charm that I know well and which is almost entirely absent from popular literature. I have family in a hidden village in a deep valley not far from Zagreb, and so that featured as Strumbić's hideaway villa. And I have other relatives in Istria, an almost unknown corner of Europe that is soaked in history and spectacular scenery.

5. I note you studied at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. Is that why you decided to have your novels published there? Are you also published in Europe?

My closest friend at McGill--and since--is a writer and editor who's now based in Ottawa. He'd been at me to write a novel for years, decades even. So when I started writing my airport novel, I also sent it to him, chapter by chapter. He didn't edit, but he offered encouragement. And he also passed along my book to his agent in Toronto. The agent liked it and signed me up. The agent also knew that the publisher House of Anansi were looking to expand their newly founded crime imprint Spiderline but weren't having much luck finding interesting new books. So almost the minute I finished Zagreb Cowboy I had both an agent and a publisher. Anansi bought the world rights which means they can choose to sell the book on to other publishers elsewhere including Europe. But they haven't so far.

6. When you have time to read novels, what kind of novels do you read? What books make you laugh?

I don't read as much as I should. I just don't have the time. My day job is fairly demanding and my four children and my wife need to be reminded every once in a while that I exist. Most of my reading I did in by my early 30s. Having said that, in the past couple of months I've read Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, John Williams' Stoner and Augustus, the latest Bernard Cornwell Viking book, which I've forgotten the title of but they're pretty interchangeable, the first of Mary Renault's Alexander trilogy and I've reread Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy and Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, which is perhaps the funniest book ever written. Elmore Leonard can be pretty funny too, while Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim is the second greatest comic novel ever written.

7. Did you read Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and if so, what did you think?

I read parts of Picketty when I had a review copy, but didn't review it because I couldn't summarise his thinking in a fair and clear way. It's not a book that's easily digestible and a better way into it is through reviews written by various economists (don't ever read just one though, to get a sense of what he's saying you need to read four or five long reviews from different economic perspectives). So my thinking of the book is entirely derivative. Having said that, in my day job I often write about the economically harmful effects of excessive inequality. It's not an easy subject to write only a few paragraphs about, so I'll leave it at that.

8. Will we see more of Marko della Torre and Julius Strumbić or do you have something else in mind?

I've written a children's book set at the start of the Second World War and based around the Dunkirk rescue that my agent is currently trying to sell. And I have three or four chapters of at least half a dozen books on the go, one a historical fiction, another a romance, another a children's story and one about a corrupt corporate troubleshooter. I'll see which one holds my attention to the end. As for della Torre and Strumbić, I don't have any intention of writing more in the series. But circumstances can change.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

The City of Blood by Frédérique Molay

The City of Blood (Paris Homicide, #3) In the United States we do not see enough popular French fiction, French movies, French anything except perhaps scarves and sparkling water. The publisher Le French Book has taken it upon themselves to try and remedy that lack by publishing translations of the latest popular policier/mystery series. Wine or blood feature in many of the titles, which is perhaps as it should be. When you find yourself unable to enjoy life without something really French in your life, you might be willing to go out of your way to see what is on offer in the way of translations.

Frédérique Molay spent much of her career in politics but always harbored a desire to write. When the first book in the Nico Sirsky Paris Homicide series, The 7th Woman, was widely hailed in France in 2007, Molay started writing full time.

I note that there are readers who genuinely adore this series and "can’t get enough of Nico Sirsky." I am so glad Molay has found her audience. The good news (and the bad news) is that she should never get bored with writing this series because she has so much further to go in tightening the expression of tension and of sharing the internal and external conundrums of life as Chief of Police at 36 Quai des Orfèvres (the title of an unrelated French film, by the way, starring Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu). We learn that Sirsky is blond and blue-eyed, dresses well, and that he loves his wife and his mother. These things we can tell from the outside. Rarely do we get a look inside the mind of the "first-rate cop." Sirsky does not appear to suffer (yet) the debilitating addictions and depression that plague his brothers-in-arms: the many American and Scandinavian criminal investigators found in the pages of popular fiction.

The stunning and innovative ‘cultural park’ situated on Paris’s old meat-packing and abattoir district, Parc de la Villette, features in this novel. In direct opposition to Frederick Law Olmsted's view that a park should shield one from the city, this park brings the city into the park with an enormous discontinuous building envisioned as a single structure.



For those that have visited Paris, this location alone may evoke a strong sense of place. The murder Sirsky investigates would be familiar anywhere, but the element of homosexuality hinted at brings with it a whiff of revulsion that seems particularly French. It is fine to cheat, but emphatically not with a same-sex partner.

To earn my devotion to this series, Molay would have to slow down from the pressures of churning out a book every year or two and take the time to figure out how to add depth, color, and suspense to her stories. Sentences like this about a witness being questioned fill me with wonder: "She bit her lip and was blinking quickly, a telltale sign of anxiety." Editors should be able to fix a boring sentence, but no one but the author can breathe life into a character.


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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory Caitlin Doughty helped me. At first, I don’t mind saying, she repulsed me with her (what I thought initially) childish and macabre sense of humor. What happened over the course of reading this book is that I became informed--reminded and informed--about the "responsible exposure to decomposition" which we as a culture are so good at hiding, denying, refusing. If I never completely relaxed, I think that is quite normal. But she really earned her $24.95 for the price of the book. That’s a lot of teaching going on.

I don’t want to be responsible for the shock readers might feel who stumbled onto this review by accident. This book is about the crematory industry and death. It is useful, but if that is not what you came for, don’t read this book nor this review.

(view spoiler)[-----------------------------------
Caitlin Doughty reminds me of the little minx Lauren Ambrose that played in the TV serial Six Feet Under. They look nothing alike. It is a personality thing…and the subject matter, of course. I thought I would just skim this because I was having difficulty entering into the humor of this book, but I found myself learning things…slowing down…nodding my head…reading aloud to family…and laughing, against my will, at some of the scenes Doughty conjured in my head.

Doughty makes an awful lot of sense. She is a licensed mortician, youngish. She worked in a crematory at the beginning of her career, after obtaining a degree in Medieval Studies. She’d done her thesis on medieval witches accused of roasting dead infants and grinding their bones. "A year later I found myself literally roasting dead infants and grinding their bones….[those witches] were burned alive at the stake. I, on the other hand, …was thanked by the poor parents for my care and concern. Things change." See what I mean about her sense of humor?

Anyway, what I learned was extremely useful. She relates the story of a woman who said that her mother died "unexpectedly" after hospice care for six months. Doughty didn’t buy it:
"When a young person dies unexpectedly, the family will likely face what [Jessica] Mitford called the "necessity of buying a product of which they are totally ignorant." The sudden death of a young person is a horrible tragedy. In their sorrow the family should not have to worry that a funeral home would take advantage and upsell them to a more expensive casket or funeral-service package. But anyone who works in the death industry can readily tell you that a slim minority of cases involves the sudden death of a young person. Most deaths come after long, significant diseases or very lengthy lives…why [someone would] not look up the best funeral homes in the area, compare prices, ask friends and family, figure out what’s legal, or most important, talk to her mother about what she herself wanted when she died? …Refusing to talk about it and then calling it "unexpected" is not an acceptable excuse."

Doughty does the work of sharing the history of the business of funeral homes with us: How it developed into a huge industry in the United States as opposed to cremation, and how Jessica Mitford—yes, that Jessica Mitford—almost single-handedly turned public opinion around with her book, The American Way of Death, published in 1963, the same year Pope Pius VI overturned the ban on cremation for Catholics.

Cremation is still the lesser-used option, but there is a movement afoot now to take back the business of dying with home wakes and 'natural burials' in bucolic settings. Doughty addresses the latter option, saying that she’s decided on a natural burial for herself. "Not only is a natural burial by far the most ecologically sound way to perish, it doubles down on the fear of fragmentation and loss of control. Making the choice to be naturally buried says, 'Not only am I aware that I’m a helpless, fragmented mass of organic matter, I celebrate it. Vive la decay!'"

A website she doesn’t mention gives a range of options for those who want that modicum of control, including home wakes and natural burials: WBUR Radio piece with links. After hearing Doughty’s stories and watching some of her YouTube video series, and knowing that she hints at times to prefer being torn apart by buzzards on a hilltop in Tibet rather than be cremated, one just has to think…about death: what it is and how it affects us.



Doughty may be irreverent, but she’s earned it. She earns our forgiveness with her admission:
"Everything I was learning at Westwind I wanted to shout from the rooftops. The daily reminders of death cast each day in more vivid tones…my work at Westwind had given me access to emotions I didn’t know I was capable of. I would start laughing or crying at the drop of a damn hat…[my] emotional range was blasted apart, allowing for ecstasy and despair like I had never experienced…I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see any dead bodies anymore to believe their absence was the root cause of major problems in the modern world. Corpses keep the living tethered to reality."

Doughty quotes the social critic Camille Paglia: "Human beings are not nature’s favorites. We are merely one of a multitude of species upon which nature indiscriminately exerts its force."

Irresistibly, Doughty shares the original Hans Christian Anderson story of "The Little Mermaid," to go with her vignette about growing up in Hawai’i. Kids’ story "The Little Mermaid" is not, despite Disney’s re-creation of the fable in film, and adults reading it in 1836 when it was published would learn not to complain about their lot in life because things could be a whole lot worse.

She tells us about the wide menacing smile of a skull. "It was unnerving to think this same deranged grin lurks just beneath the flesh of everyone’s face, the frowning, the crying, even the dying." And she tells us that "Buddhist monks hoping to detach themselves from lust and curb their desire for permanence would meditate on the form of a rotting corpse."

Yes, she can be gruesome, but what she managed to do is keep my skittering mind focused on the issue of death for a couple hours, for a day. Who wants to think about this? Nobody. But it is a truth, and frankly, like Doughty, I would always have preferred to have been initiated into the secrets of reality than told as a child that there really is “a happy ending.” It keeps things real, and it keeps us focused, and it keeps us striving. Because, darn it, the scythe is at the door. (hide spoiler)]


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Interview with Paul Fischer, author of A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power

Paul Fischer’s book took me by surprise. I had read some memoirs of escapees from North Korea, some novels, and some 'experience memoirs' from people who had either visited North Korea or worked there. I read the papers. I still knew next to nothing about the Kims and their regimes, in power since the 1940s.

In this debut piece of long-form nonfiction, reviewed by me earlier in this blog, Fischer gives us details about the film-crazy but otherwise undistinguished "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il, son of "Great Leader" Kim Il-Song. Jong-Il had a specialty—an interest in foreign film--and he and his father used that interest with the fervor of preachers: to shape thought. As film producer himself, Fischer may have been perfectly suited to diagram the heart of the Kim enigma.

Fischer generously agreed to answer my questions about his writing process, and his thinking on other matters below:

1. The writing in A KIM JONG-IL PRODUCTION was so involving at the same time it was informative. Did the structure sort itself out while you were writing or did you begin with a narrative structure and fill in the pieces with research?

I did a lot of research to start with, and then when I felt I had enough to get started I started writing, even though I was still researching at the same time. I researched all the way through, really: I was always on the lookout for more details, for something extra that was sharp and revealing and could save me three paragraphs with one great detail or sentence. I had a rough structure to start with, and that didn’t really change, except for the first reel of the book, which leads up to the kidnappings themselves. In the first several drafts of the book it was very, very long and very, very detailed, and absolutely didn’t have that balance you’re talking about, between being gripping and being informative. We even played around with using flashbacks and all that but it just felt forced. It took a lot of work to sculpt that down to what felt like the right balance. After the kidnappings themselves the narrative has this very clear, very organic forward momentum, and I knew as long as I went with that, stuck with the story, and didn’t digress, I would be ok.

--photo courtesy of WGBH Forum Institute--The entire video of Fischer's reading at Harvard Bookstore is available here.


2. You landed a behemoth publisher for your first book. How was your proposal pitched? That is, did you have just a concept, only one chapter, or was most of the work done?

I had a very, very detailed proposal. My agent was very clear and very rational about this: I’d never written anything before, this was a larger-than-life story that would only work if written with some kind of rigour, and the only way we’d get the best publisher for it would be if we proved I could be trusted to write a book like this and see it through to the end. I didn’t want to “waste” time on such a long proposal, when I could be writing the book itself, but I understood the logic and my agent was very good at nudging me into agreeing. We spent months on this proposal that ended up being forty thousand words — the book itself is about a hundred and eight thousand or something — and included an outline, a breakdown of methodology, a marketing pitch, everything.

I don’t really know of any other agents who would have done that. Everyone else I met talked to me about working on a twelve-page proposal, something like that, and I'm dead certain I never would have been with the publishers I have now if that’s all we’d done. And, to be honest, because having written something that was forty thousand words long, writing something that was a hundred didn’t feel that daunting anymore.

3. What did your writing day look like? You did a lot of traveling for this book. Did you need to keep a writing schedule to keep the work going and was that difficult?

I wrote first thing in the morning, I didn’t stop until I had two thousand words, and I always stopped at a point where I knew what I was looking to write next, so that I would start up again easily the next morning, instead of picking up again first thing in the morning somewhere I was stuck and frustrated. Those were the only three rules. Early on two thousand words was daunting and took me the whole day; but later on I got two thousand words cracked out by lunchtime and carried on and could get three, four times that in a day. I tried not to worry about whether it was two thousand great words until I had a whole first draft written — I worried about that once it was out of my head and on the page. For a first draft it just mattered that it was at least two thousand words, every day, six days a week.

4. Did you learn anything from visiting North Korea that you didn’t already know from your interviews?

I did, tons. I found photos and books and maps that are very hard, or expensive, to find outside of North Korea. Mostly it was the mindset that was really informative. For ten days I personally, 24/7, underwent the way the state micro-manages your experience of itself, and tries to control your perception of reality. I kind of understood that from the research, but I didn’t feel it in my gut until I was there, with guides who were lying to me, and they knew they were lying to me, and they knew that I knew that they were lying to me, but you still all continue this charade. It’s a very surreal, unsettling, upsetting feeling, when you know how much people there are truly suffering — a suffering no one mentions. A writer friend of mine who read the book told me this lovely thing that the North Korean sequences felt to him like “something happening three or four rooms away in a parallel universe,” which is something sort of intangible that I wouldn’t have understood how to express just from books and interviews.

5. What led you to film production in the beginning of your career and do you think that is something you plan to continue?

I do, I’d love to write a book and then make a film and then write a book and then make a film…the best of both worlds. I still think of myself as a film producer first. As for the first part of the question, I’d always wanted to be a film director, and then I went to film school and quickly learned I wouldn’t be particularly great at it. But I produced a couple of classmates’ short films, and I found I really enjoyed that process: of making things happen, of enabling someone more unique and creative than myself to make something special, and protecting and supporting them as they did so. The logistical and business parts of film producing I enjoy. The creative aspects, where a writer or director has something different and fragile they’re trying to do and they need someone to help them make it real, is literally the best feeling I’ve ever had doing anything, ever.

6. Since you are familiar with the language of film, have you ever considered screenplays?

I’ve co-written a short, and I’ve also spent the last six or seven years trying to write a TV mini-series about Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, which I'm only just finishing now. That’s been a great school in researching real lives, in really trying to write things that are truthful and accurate but also dramatic and revealing, without sacrificing one to the other.

I love working with screenwriters so much — it’s such a great collaborative process, trying to figure it out together — that I hope I can do both: write some films myself when they’re really close to my heart, and defer to another writer when I know they can do a better job than I would.

7. What is the best novel you have read recently and the best recent nonfiction title?

Oh that’s hard. The Zone of Interest [by Martin Amis] is incredible writing. Karl Ove Knausgård — I usually find books like those self-indulgent, but every page he writes is so alive it engages all my senses and some of his sentences and paragraphs take my breath away and I need to stop and sit with them before I continue reading. I just read Independence Day, which is the first Richard Ford book I’ve read, and it did the same to me.

Non-fiction — Ghettoside [by Jill Leovy] moved me and made me really angry at the injustice described, in equal measure. I just finished The Disaster Artist [by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell] today and it made me cry with laughter.

8. What advice would you give to someone hoping to emulate your success?

I had confidence, curiosity, and an itch to scratch: I needed to write it. If no one read or published it, I’d have written it anyway, because I wanted to spend time in that world and make sense of it and tell that story. I guess I knew that one of my strengths as a producer is to cut through to what works in a piece of material, to have a decent bullshit detector as the saying goes, and that that would serve me well with something like this.

I can’t remember who said this, but you either do it for the process or you do it for the reward, and life’s a lot happier if you do it for the process, because you have no control over the reward. So that would be it: if you’re doing it for the reward, don’t do it.


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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen: An American Lyric
Race is something we Americans still have not gotten right. Rankine’s small book of essays tells us the myriad ways we consistently misinterpret others’ motives, actions, skin color. She writes in second person: "you." It is agonizing to display our flayed skin to the salt of another day. You take to wearing sunglasses inside.

I call these essays while Holly Bass in the NYTimes calls them poems. They are fragments, scripts or screenplays for video or film, shards of thought, sharp and able to pierce one with remembered pain. Bass's review (12.24.14) explains the floating and disembodied hoodie on the cover, black against a field of white: an art installation made in 1993 by David Hammons, long before Trayvon Martin died; before he was even born. Rankine shares a line attributed to Zora Neale Hurston: "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background."

Rankine talks of tennis, of Serena and Venus, of foot faults and bad calls. I didn’t know these things: I don’t watch tennis. But foot faults and bad calls are happening on our streets, not within the civilized constraints of a rule-bound tennis game. These I do watch. The agony of the small daily slights crescendo, collapse, avalanche when the police become involved. No wonder people run away from police, our ‘guardians’. We have all learned something these many years and it is not that police are guardians.

Overhead in the conference room: “being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation.” Yes, it is a cultural difference. They got that right. But that’s all: Nothing more sinister or insoluble. And since we know that America is all about cultural differences, this should be something to celebrate. Or profit from.

My mind slides to Obama, and how I don’t think of him as black anymore. Have whites co-opted him? Or is it because black and white are not as different as we were expecting? That our differences really are only skin deep. I worry that we expected Obama to “fix the race problem.” How can he fix the thousand interactions we have every day between us? By denying any differences? Have we learned nothing, nor made any progress at all? Our divisions may have been exacerbated. Tell me it ain’t so.

Rankine’s essays reference the language of video, of film. My mind skims her short paragraphs and the indignities, the small and the large slights blossom. Together we imagine film, great films, films everyone watches and re-watches, praising the actorly restraint and real-life quality of the slurs...something European in slowness and length…that shows us, white and black and yellow and red…what we say, what we think, what we do…to each other. Catching those moments of misinterpretation, or interpretation, waking up to ourselves—this is what great film does.

There is so much work to be done, art to make, change to happen! The urgency weighs on me. "The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers": James Baldwin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky agree on definition. The ingredients of art are all around us, fat and ripe and ready to be harvested. There is so much art to be made, so many lessons to learn. Hurry!

Citizen was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry. Claudia Rankine is a poet.


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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Heart of Hell by Alen Mattich

The Heart of Hell Autumn, 1991. The sounds, the scents, the light and look of Croatia come through clearly in this best-by-far third installment of the Marko della Torre mystery series. “Wild thyme and lavender, pine resin and a faint fragrance of the sea” waft around della Torre as he plans a middle-of-the-night sailboat crossing from the island of Korčula to Dubrovnik in the middle of the Yugoslav blockade of that walled city on the Dalmatian coast.

Della Torre is a senior member of the newly-formed Croatian military intelligence, but with a government in disarray and the former Yugoslavia breaking into component countries at the hands of vengeful and land-grabbing combatants, no knowledge, no ‘friend’ was firm, steady, or sure. Della Torre is out of his depth much of the time in this novel, tossed about physically and emotionally by his alliances with the untrustworthy.

We follow della Torre in his rented Citroën from almost-winter in Zagreb (“a green city, pocket-sized, and close to wilderness”) to late summer in Rijeka, close to Croatia’s northwestern coast and the “beautiful Venetian city” of Poreč. He drives south along the coast road hoping to find a way into Dubrovnik despite the Yugoslav blockade. He travels to Herveg Novi in Montenegro before he leaves the south for Belgrade and Vukovar in his search for reasons why the CIA is so interested in his movements and involved in his affairs.

Mattich has the heart of a novelist (or travel writer), though his other life as Dow Jones and Wall Street Journal financial reporter may leave him little time or energy for creating characters that stand up for what is right in the war-torn Balkans. This third novel in the Marko della Torre series is a heady mix of spy thriller and war reporting along the crystalline Adriatic. The morally complex characters keep our wits sharpened: we don’t quite trust anyone but time and again these characters surprise us with their generosity, humor, grit and drive. Especially notable in this novel is Strumbić, a man who lives large in his role as policeman, prisoner, fixer, smuggler, thief, and friend to Marko della Torre.

We hear the canny Wall Street insider behind Strumbić’s words to della Torre about money and risk:
“Gringo, when you grow up using chestnut leaves to wipe your ass, the man with an indoor toilet is rich. You’re right, though, I’ve got enough. The money is neither here nor there. But I’m not a gambler. For one thing, real gambling is putting something on the line you can’t afford to lose, and the odds aren’t particularly good. Think about things that way and you realize you’re the gambler, Gringo. For me, mostly it’s an intellectual challenge. Like Dubrovnik. How many cigarettes do you stock up on? How many should you sell? Or do you wait for the price to go higher? Do you dump your holdings when people find out the armada’s coming to save them? Or do you pay some docker in Split to unload all the cigarettes and then sell into the panic when the boats arrive with only half the expected supplies? These are all hypotheticals, mind…A lot of money that comes in goes out…ultimately money matters because it gives you control.”

In his Acknowledgements, Mattich notes that his work of fiction hangs on a scaffolding of history. That history, he notes, is both well documented and well told in Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia and Laura Silber’s The Death of Yugoslavia. The sleepy river town of Vukovar was the site of an 87-day siege by the Yugoslav People’s Army that destroyed the town in the autumn of 1991. “It is estimated that the city suffered the most massive and sustained barrage fire in Europe since Stanlingrad.” That siege and its aftermath has since been labelled a massacre for the thousands of defending Croatian National Guard and civilians that were killed. Mattich loosely quotes the opening lines of Dante's Inferno and rarely has it seemed so apt.

The horrors of history are therefore addressed in Mattich’s fiction, lest we forget. Mattich is able to draw our attention to the beauty and terror of the place and time with a lightly-told, thought-provoking, and informative tale of spies-on-spies. I can’t recommend it more highly. Each book in this series is a real treat, but this last was his best. I didn’t want it to end.

This series is published by House of Anansi Press in Canada. This book and the others in the series will be available in the United States in paper this summer and I urge those interested in international fiction to order them early and often.
#1: Zagreb Cowboy
#2: Killing Pilgrim


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