Sunday, August 18, 2019

This Poison Will Remain by Fred Vargas, translated by Siân Reynolds

Paperback, 416 pgs, Pub: August 20th 2019 by Penguin Books (first published May 10th 2017) Orig Title: Quand sort la recluse, ISBN13: 9780143133667, Series: Commissaire Adamsberg #11

Vargas doesn’t spare us the grisly details of outrageous crimes committed against defenseless girls and women, but never have I ever wanted to be in a mystery novel before. The characterizations of police officers and villagers are so full of personality, intelligence, and humor that one cannot help but wish these folks were by one’s side—or at least televised.

According to Wikipedia, four of the Vargas mystery series have been serialized for television. I saw one, once, years ago. It was painful, considering the renown of French cinema and the intrigue of the novels. it is definitely time for a new rendition.

Any new film series of the novels must be filmed in France and in French because the charm of the series is the utter French-ness of the interactions, the local dishes like the cabbage soup with onions and ham the officers eat nearly every night of the investigation, and endless bottles of Madiran.

Vargas has given us a convoluted mystery so dense with criminality that we scarcely know which way to turn. Just today I was listening to Vox's Today Explained podcast discussing the many thousands of rape kits in American cities which were never run for DNA: when the kits were finally examined, the entire body of knowledge around rape and serial rape has been turned on its head. It turns out that there were many, many more rapists than one ever thought possible, and one out of every five rapes is caused by a serial rapist.

There has been, as can be seen in the history revealed in this novel and in the untested rape kits languishing on shelves in police stations all over America, a dismissive attitude towards crimes against women. In this mystery, some truly horrifying crimes are described (thankfully in a matter-of-fact, non-inflammatory way) and some male attitudes are examined for bias. At one point Chief Inspector Adamsberg realizes describing his favorite female lieutenant as worth “ten men” would be better changed to “one woman.” Those of us who have worked with colleagues of both sexes are pleased Vargas made a point of chastising Adamsberg for old attitudes.

Vargas is known for the depth of her knowledge about medieval subjects and archeology and gradually she incorporates some of her encyclopedic knowledge in this more modern mystery. There is an archeological dig, and we learn how to find the site and what it takes to manage it. There is a medieval tie-in, but the shocking part is that it sounds medieval when in fact some of the events happened within recent history.

Chief Inspector Jean Baptiste Adamsberg always puts me in mind of Simenon’s Jules Maigret, though the two police chiefs are quite different in many ways. One difference is that Maigret, unless my memory is faulty, wasn't necessarily a masterful team leader. Adamsberg is far from alone. We are intimately familiar with his entire team and grow to rely on them to keep their chief operating in maximum intuition. Adamsberg's “tiny bubbles of gas in [his] brain” jiggle when he walks, stimulating thought. Not so far, then, from Poirot’s “little grey cells.”

This novel, originally published in May of 2017 by Flammarion of France, has been translated by Siân Reynolds, winner of many awards, including a coveted Dagger from Crime Writers’ Association. Reynolds is a professor emerita of French at the University of Stirling, Scotland. In her words,
”… Fred’s books are quirky and often fantastical, sometimes with historical elements, and much appreciated in France. They are about French characters usually in a recognizably French environment, and will necessarily seem a bit foreign to anglophone readers, so the aim is to make them enjoyable on their own terms – but in English.”
This Reynolds does in spades. The novels are a remarkable glimpse of French culture and altogether are a marvelous series. Highly recommended.

More reviews of Vargas works:
The Chalk Circle Man
This Night's Foul Work

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Helicopter Heist by Jonas Bonnier, translated by Alice Menzies

Paperback, 404 pgs, Pub May 28, 2019, Other Press Paperback Original. (first published April 2017), Original Title: Helikopterrånet translated by Alice Menzies, ISBN: 978-159051-950-9.

Have I got a summer read for you! This fictional Scandinavian thriller is based on true events, which makes it even more ravishing. I can’t wait for you to read it.

All you who love the TV series, movies, mysteries and thrillers to come out of Scandinavia, to say nothing of Karl Ove Knausgård’s bestselling fictional autobiography, are going to be reminded why you love those stories so much. This book has the daily life detail of Sweden that makes the journey so different from ordinary American novels.

To make it even more interesting, we are privy to the intimate thoughts and intentions of recent and not-so-recent migrants to Sweden, three of the main characters originally hailed from Lebanon, Iran, and Yugoslavia, though all are Swedish citizens now. Already we are interested. Add to that these folks struggled in their first years and turned to what appeared to be easier: theft and sometimes intricately designed robberies. Several of the characters met in jail.

Throw in some gorgeous Swedish blondes, female, at least one on the side of the law, the other working for the largest cash depot in Västberga, not too far from Stockholm, except there is water in between.

The beautiful blonde probably should have been harder to get, but one of the unattached, recently released, always-looking-for-an-angle young men is pointed towards her by a legendary thief, a thief who is in ‘retirement’ in a remote cottage filled with eight big labradors, and a stash of cash moldering in a root cellar.

The young man discovers the blonde is a talker, and she likes to talk about work, and that is the cash depot.

The absurdity of the plan to rob the depot is so far out that we can’t imagine these guys, who have already been to jail once and are so obviously outsiders in every way, can manage to pull it off without serious damage to their lives, if not their reputations. But still they persist. So many things go wrong: they lose key personnel regularly and must replace them with someone less knowledgeable or less skilled. The plan is wildly oversized in every way.

Then the police find out. They know what will happen, where and when. They prepare for weeks in advance. They contact the National Guard and SWAT. They have the judiciary involved and have bugged a key member of the team ten different ways.

The robbers are screwed.

That’s all I’m telling you, but believe me, this is about as stressful a situation as I can imagine. Each member of the team doesn’t know the other members well. It’s a total crapshoot. Wait until you see what happens. What struck me as most bizarre and yet so ridiculously true, is the media reaction. When the absurd robbery was underway, the entire world became riveted at this audacious plan.

This is a translated novel. There are some moments when one is completely aware one is not reading an ordinary American thriller of the more usual kind. This, my friends, is something completely different. If you did not get that Scandinavian vacation this year, never fear. You will be in Sweden for the two or three days it takes you to read this one.

And you will spend a lot less money.

This terrific novel has been optioned to be made into a Netflix film original starring and produced by Jake Gyllenhaal. Do not wait! Read the book first, if you have time in your book-reading schedule. I will make an admission: for almost a year now it has been very difficult for me to read fiction when our daily nonfictional lives are so eventful. Somehow this fiction of nonfiction is the perfect fit.


Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Internet is My Religion by Jim Gilliam

Paperback, 194 pgs, Pub by NationBuilder (first published January 1st 2015), ISBN13: 9780996110402

You’re probably going to think a free memoir isn’t much—not interesting, not well-written, not worth bothering with. I picked it up at a conference not knowing it was a memoir. It sat around my house cluttering things until I decided to throw it out—but not until I glanced through it first.

Much later the same day it is all revolving in my head, leaving me feeling wonder, awe, thunderstruck surprise, joy, awe again. This is one helluva story, a creation story. a bildungsroman, an odyssey. And our hero—yes, emphatically, hero—emerges an adult, a moral adult caring about his fellow humans. His fellow humans care about him as well.

He is not bitter, or cynical, or any one of the things that lesser people may experience along the dark and scary road that can be our lives. His life surely trumps that of most of us, simply in terms of size: he is 6’9” and was down to 145 pounds at the height of his death-defying illness.

Since he tell us of his illness in the first pages, I am not giving away the story. No. That honor is still reserved for him because the bad things that happen are not really, ever, the story. It is what we did after that. And what Jim Gilliam did was to grab every bit of life he had left and use it.

By then he had discovered that God was not to be found in some cold pile of cathedral rocks somewhere or in the thundering denunciations of false prophets on TV. For him, God showed when we gathered together, in person or connected online, caring about and for one another, working towards a better, more perfect future. He calls that finding of connection a holy experience, and he is not wrong.

Gilliam is a technologist, and as such, one would expect his skills would not lie in writing. But this book, even if he had help, is beautifully done, full of moment, real insight, propulsion, and discovery. In a way, it is the tale of every man, though not every man has gotten there yet.

He will describe the moment he discovers falseness in the lessons taught him by his religious teachers, the moment the world begins to unravel around his family, the moment he discovers he must, no matter what, follow his own path to understanding.

What is so appealing about this journey is that Gilliam is guileless. He is not trying to teach us anything. He is explaining his journey, what he saw, and tells us what he thinks about what he saw. It is utterly fascinating because he has so much understanding of the events in his life.

Gilliam’s father and mother both were math majors and computer scientists of sorts in the computer field's early days. For business reasons his father lost an opportunity to develop one of the first software programs for personal computers at IBM and consequently turned to fundamentalist religion.

Gilliam grew up steeped in the language and an understanding of what computers could do, but was restricted from taking full advantage by the religiosity of his parents. He himself was very good at thinking like a scientist and took advanced classes while in high school so that he could enter college as a sophomore.

The hill separating him from his intellectual development became steeper just as he was finishing high school. I am not going to spoil the story arc. At no point did this 180-page small format paperback ever become weighted down with intent or causation. We just have the clean progression of one boy into man into—that word again—hero.

His understanding that there is something godly in human connection, in striving together for good, is exactly what people discover in moments of human happiness and fulfillment. While he rejected the morality in which he was raised, as I did, I wonder if somehow it wasn’t good preparation for recognizing morality when he saw it, finally.

Personally, I can’t think of a more absorbing, unputdownable story. Get it if you can. It is a wonderful, thought-provoking personal history.