It’s not easy being a blogger. It means one is supposed to post a photo, a comment or two, a story, a pithy observation, more photos…be present. Sometimes work or family or friends or the gym or cleaning or shopping or sleep keeps one otherwise occupied. And sometimes…it is a completely irresistible book.
Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer in this case. What’s so special you may ask? For me it is the history of a time, starting in early days Vietnam and ending with the protagonist’s death a few short years ago. It is Packer’s writing, smart and easy, a story well told about just who we (Americans) are and are not. It is Richard Holbrooke, the brilliant guy, the good guy, the outsize character with outsize flaws; not sure why but I’ve always been interested in him, only as the dashing diplomat, without a whole lot of additional knowledge. It’s all of that.
The first quarter or so of the story concerns Vietnam so it’s not that I’m learning so much new about the big picture (thanks to Ken Burns, Andrew X. Pham, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Tim O’Brien; oh yeah, and living through that time with Dylan as soundtrack) but it is filled with details, vaguely or not at all familiar, that enrage me all over again. Somebody said another of Packer’s books was almost novelistic in the telling and it’s true of Our Man as well; rich in detail and insight and little asides straight from the writer to me, the reader. Packer has written a number of books; I even own another…sadly unread…but now next on the agenda. He’s somebody new to collect from the past and anticipate for the future.
I’m excited to move on in a few minutes into the other adventures and misadventures of American diplomacy in Holbrooke’s lifetime of which I know so much less, especially the Balkans and Afghanistan (I am ashamed to say).
An evening and a whole day lie ahead with only writing and reading projects on the want-to-do list. Living room scrubbed and dusted today, all else put off until next week. There really is nothing as fine as a good book. Yay books, yay weekends, yay life.
My definition of Bliss: The moments, hours, occasionally more than a day, when I have this sense that there’s plenty in my life; that I’m doing exactly what I want to do for this time in time, and that I have the means to make it last a little longer. Sensations of sufficiency elation harmony anticipation; separately good—all at once…blissful.
Easiest path to bliss in my life. Books. Always. Here, to tell you that story is a picture ‘book.’
When I was four, I had a Geography Book. Couldn’t really read much of it but I dreamed through those pictures of the world outside.
As soon as I could read there was a wall of books at school to which I had unlimited access and a library in town. I dreamed books. Literally. In my dreams the books I wanted would be lying next to me on my pillow and I would, literally, reach for them when I awoke, only sad to find they were’t there until the next trip to library.
There’s a tiny part of me that is always blissful as long as I have books.
Through my life as a perpetual student I’ve studied history and literature and writing (even when I was supposed to be focusing on education and social work). It seems I immerse in a genre and then move on, but only sort of, because I never leave my previous literary infatuations—I just make them share with the next love.
History, literary fiction, travel adventure, travel literature, political and social commentary are always just a shelf away but the competition for my attention is pretty intense. First, because there are always newbies, virginal in their Barnes and Noble bags— without dog ears or creased covers—stirring stories to be lived vicariously.
Then there’s the main competition, the kind of book that never leaves my bedside table or bed. Crime Fiction, generally of the international kind. More specifically of the Nordic Noir branch of the big bad crime family. It’s my go-to remedy for melancholy and tedium; it is both escape and companion for wanna-be outsiders like me.
My obsession with Nordic Noir and present desire for semi-immersion in Norwegian literary fiction come together right here. It is indeed blissful to contemplate the past, present and future in this photo. My somber Scandinavian soul has had many chilly adventures with that dour Swede, Kurt Wallander, and Kurt’s entire life is always only an arm’s length away for me to revisit at will. Past and future bliss assured.
Present. This weekend. Late winter/early spring 2015. I am experiencing many hours of bliss with Karl Ove Knausgaard, Norwegian writer of recent fame. To admit that moments of annoyance interrupt this bliss is okay isn’t it? After all bliss would not be a special state if we weren’t constantly reminded that most of life is otherwise.
Come to think of it. Knausgaard can account for the past present future components of bliss all by himself. The books are ever so appealing; it took a long time to read the first; now a long time to read the second; and there are three more to go. The pleasure of now coupled with eagerness to finish one day. Bliss and anticipation. All rolled into one. Wow.
My grandson and I will be on the road for five weeks in the early fall with other family members joining us along the way from time to time. I spent part of my California vacation on trip planning with various family members who will be part of the trip, although only Steven and I are in for the long haul. Part of that time was at REI with Scott trying to figure out if I could do the whole five weeks with only one slightly larger than average backpack. To experiment we tried one out after packing it as though for the journey. Didn’t work, wrenched my shoulder trying it out, but that is NOT the real story of this post.
As part of the backpack experiment, Scott challenged me to at least consider downloading B&N’s Nook app to my Surface and reading a whole book on it because, he said, if you can do it, that will eliminate half of what you usually drag around on trips (i.e., books). True enough. Did that once before on a lengthy trip and survived.
To meet the challenge, I did the download and ordered a Swedish mystery for my experiment. For better or worse it was actually okay. Here’s where the sense of being ‘unfaithful’ arises. How many words do I write and say about how critically important, beautiful to see and touch, basic to life and good for us real books are? And I just read a book on a device. Please forgive me book gods and remember I’m only a little on the young side of old old and it’s hard to carry heavy things.
But my bad behavior escalated last night. I was sick. In some pain for awhile. Took some Advil and needed to distract myself until I felt good enough to sleep. There are a stack of very good books next to my bed—all requiring some thought while reading and thinking was not what I wanted to do right then. So, bad Marj, bad bad Marj, I downloaded the new Alex Delaware “Killer.” The thing is I would never download a book worth keeping, but Kellerman’s Alex Delaware crime novels are an enjoyable read, require no thinking and I don’t feel it necessary to hang on to them. He is practically the only American crime/detective writer I enjoy so being unfaithful with him wasn’t absolutely the worst betrayal. I say that but then I look at the stack of really fine fiction and non-fiction within my sleepy reach and must admit to seriously deviant reading behavior.
On the other hand, now that I’ve downloaded the book, guess I’ll have to finish it tonight. The worst thing is falling asleep and having that hard little screen hit your nose.
Book clubs seem to be everywhere—I belong to one and think about joining some others—for example the Huff Post book club or my newly retired friend’s circle of smarties who gather to pursue the classics with far greater depth and seriousness than we ever did in high school or college. If Fareed Zakaria creates a book club I am definitely in, and another friend (a historian) and I have talked about creating our own two-person history-based book club (but with only two old friends there’s too little at stake if you don’t read what you said you’d read. My personal choice would probably be a club focusing on international thrillers/murder mysteries.
Yes, I do currently belong to a book club. It doesn’t have a name and I joined only because two of my very favorite old buddies were founders and it is a chance to see them. There is a problem however. We each pick one book a year and, unfortunately I always dislike several of the selections! At first I rationalized belonging as being about friendships but now I am thinking life consists of so many books, so little time so why would I spend time reading books I find dreary, boring, offensive, or badly written?
Last night the book club discussed “Petroleum Man” by Stanley Crawford. Since I’ve been traveling I didn’t have much time to read and, having a premonition about my response to the selection, I decided to borrow and not buy as I usually do. I sat down Saturday to start reading, figuring I would plow through, whether I loved it or not, in the next two or three days. I could not.
I really really dislike this book. Now in all fairness, I only read a little and then skimmed so maybe I missed the good parts. It’s not because I don’t get it…I do! I am a dyed-in-wool left wing liberal with little admiration for much of anything in the corporate world. That still doesn’t make me a fan of heavy-handed, dated, not-very-clever satire about a very rich, fascist-leaning business dude telling his grandchildren a tale of loathsome liberals. It would have been a brilliant short piece about 10 years ago. It’s not short and it’s not 10 years ago and even if I missed something I am happy to have curled up with my Swedish killers instead.
After the meeting last night where the reviews were mixed, half loving half hating, I thought I should consider why I was in the hating half. Especially since I’ve periodically been criticized for throwing around some heavy-handed satirical passages myself, generally in relation to religion or politics. Satire is said to have the noble intent of societal improvement, using irony and sarcasm to achieve that goal. It is also intended to be humorous. “Petroleum Man” was potentially all of that—in fact the two clubbers who liked the book found it hilarious. I think the sarcasm was tedious, the humor juvenile and the voice relentless. I guess I am not a fan of satire in general, although “Innocents Abroad” mixes it with real reporting and Garrison Keillor’s is gentler (I do love “Lake Wobegon” on the radio but think his books too silly).
It’s not just Stanley Crawford then is it? It’s my inability to appreciate satire—which I am pretty sure is a negative trait.
Scandinavian thrillers are most frequently written by men and feature semi-loser but scruffily endearing crime solvers of one north country or the other. The gender balance appears to be shifting. Of my stack of new murder mysteries from the Village Bookstore in Grand Rapids the majority are the work of female writers. And what an interesting bunch they are.
Women crime solvers aren’t societal models for mental health or organized living either but their flaws are definitely more interesting than the average male investigator—at least up north. The two books I’ve just finished “Some Kind of Peace” by Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff and “Last Will” by Liza Marklund feature high-powered women who screw up at work a lot (while overall performing brilliantly of course!), have real relationship difficulties and between them exhibit characteristics of mental illness, intense jealousy, inordinate bouts of indecision/self-doubt and alcoholism (this latter being a stable of their male counterparts across much of global club of crime solvers).
“Some Kind of Peace” was written by sisters, one with a business/econ background and one a psychologist—both areas of expertise which figure prominently in the story. Essentially a personally troubled youngish prettyish therapist who drinks way too much finds herself in the same position as a client—believing she is going mad. Her disbelief that she might be the target of a killer leads to excessive consumption of wine and messy work relationships before she finally believes that—yes, someone is trying to kill her.
The setting is Stockholm and as with many of the best in this genre the location figures prominently in the story. It’s one of those books you wish you had read while you were there in that very city so you could walk down that same street and go wine-drinking in the very neighborhood where something suspicious happened, etc. The terribly flawed but equally terribly appealing heroine, Siri Bergman, grows on you even as you want to pour out all of the wine in her house and sober her up so she can better keep an eye out for the very bad guy.
“Some Kind of Peace” can be safely labeled a psychological thriller with lots of interesting references to various mental illness diagnoses. My favorite class when pursuing an MSW was on the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) where we analyzed and diagnosed all of the characters in “Prince of Tides” (Pat Conroy). Reading this book was a little like that.
“Last Will” by Liza Marklund also takes place in Stockholm with that same strong sense of place. Down that street, over to that neighborhood, bar, restaurant—the smells and sounds of a climate and place. In this case our crime solver is a journalist for a tabloid paper—a possibly failing enterprise where she is not very popular anyway. Annika Bengtzon is smart, conflicted about her job and home life, and manages to get herself in the middle of a situation involving Nobel prizes, the Karolinska Institute, multinational pharmaceuticals and a whip-smart and beautiful female assassin just a little too reminiscent of Lisbeth Salander (but in this case she’s not anything close to being the main character).
Bengtzon takes a little longer to warm up to than Siri Bergman because, while being a disposed to a certain amount of chaos, she is less vulnerable. Still, it takes her too long to realize she might be in personal danger even as she connects with a number of people with extensive credentials and in impressive positions. Unfortunately none are without possible ulterior motives for the various bloody deaths that make up the murder part of this murder mystery.
Both “Some Kind of Peace” and “Last Will” are perfect examples of why I prefer crime fiction that does NOT originate in the U.S. The main characters are both fleshed out and smart and flawed enough for the reader to care about them and identify with them. And, best of all, this is good good writing. Brilliant, maybe not, but damn good—which is generally NOT true of most American crime writing.
Footnote: In Iceland, my granddaughter, friend and I participated in a city tour featuring the sites and sounds of that country’s plethora of chilly crime. It wasn’t a very good tour but the idea is brilliant and could be further developed. For example, if I win Powerball my contribution to the world could be to live comfortably as I develop these crime-reading sojourns in the world’s really fine murder sites like Stockholm, Reykjavik, Oslo, Cape Town, etc.
There are days to waste. Not to plan or make lists or wash dishes or return phone calls or even study maps or read Lewis and Clark’s journals or scan photos or watch Book TV. Such days usually show up just when you least need them, just at times when there is a lot of the aforementioned to do.
When days like this do appear however you must make the best of it. You sit on the couch (for a change you can lie on the bed) reading and eating food cold out of the can anytime the mood strikes. It’s ideal to have pints of a favorite ice cream on hand but if not some cheese or sugarless butterscotch will suffice.
Thank god for the Village Bookstore in Grand Rapids, Minnesota with its bountiful supply of Scandinavian murder mysteries. It makes a day like today seem like it was meant to be.
I do love books, the tangible things almost as much as their captured stories. Not rare books or coffee table books or the great books or high literature or low drama…just all kinds of these paper-made, tree-consuming objects. The highest calling I can imagine is being a scholar or an intellectual—since it is too late to achieve either on my part I’ll settle for being surrounded by the things that could have put me in one of those exalted professions.
I have achieved something important in life however. As a youngster I had a reoccurring dream that a book I was desperate to read was lying on the pillow beside me. So disappointing to wake up and discover I had to wait for the next library visit. Now I earn enough money to buy all of the books I want. Congratulations to me.
The problem is that the point of having a book is still the story—fact or fiction, serious or light-hearted, old or new. And I love stories. So I always intend to read the books I buy. Herein lies the conundrum. To have the income to buy the books I must work. Work interferes seriously with my reading time. Therefore too many books from recent visits to other countries’ bookstores, airport bookstores, Bookworks, Barnes and Nobel and to B&N and Amazon on-line surround me as I sit on the couch and watch entire past seasons of Downton Abbey/NCIS. What to do?