A rant and some new crime fiction reviewed

TPTree Considering that blogs are widely held to be suitable forums for ranting, I thought I'd continue the "rant" elements of my yesterday's post about Hans Fallada (mainly to do with high pricing of books by a dead author but also the Independent's awful "50 summer reads" online feature received a justifiable blast for being both feeble editorially and hopeless functionally). 

This time, the rant is directed at The Times Saturday "Review" section (I don't recommend going to the link as the paper is preparing to charge for online content so you have to register, etc, to read any of it and it isn't that good on this occasion.)  On the paper's relaunch a few months ago, the dedicated Books supplement was subsumed into a broadsheet "Saturday Review" section, with the Books coverage taking up the last two or three pages of it. Ever since then, readers have been subjected to vast, tedious articles on a small range of "loved by the Times" "arty, cultural, celebrity types" endlessly recycled — nothing wrong with any of these people now and again, but it is boring to read about them too often, as they are a bit shallow. (An example of what we poor readers have to put up with is last Saturday's edition, with a huge photo of Tracy Emin, one of their regulars, on the cover with the giant-font caption "I've got my sex drive back". Please! I do not care and I am sure that most readers do not either.)

At the same time, the book reviews are reduced in number. I am mainly interested in crime fiction but I do like to read half a dozen reviews a week of newly published fiction books across the board, to keep current and to dip into the odd one. Not much chance of that any more, given the acres of space given to "celebrities" who have some vague intersection with "culture" – pop music and celebrity photography seeming to be most popular with the Times Review editors. Last Saturday, for example, had a double-page spread about celebrities writing about nature, with an enormous picture of a man I've never heard of (but a pop musician, according to the caption) in a river holding a fish and most of the rest being a photo gallery of minor TV celebs and pictures of wildlife species. Words – a poor second best. Also there is a one page feature on Philip Larkin – nothing wrong with him but The Times is always running features on Philip Larkin. The next one-page feature is a review of a cricket book.

None of this leaves much space for fiction. On Saturday, there were "main" reviews of just three books: a new edition of an old favourite of mine, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (the "review" being a pathetic rehash of gossip about Hemingway's wives rather than much of a review); a book by Megan Stack who is apparently an American journalist; and a scathing (long) review of Bret Easton Ellis's latest book by Lionel Shriver (another Times regular) – which I don't need to read as I shall never read anything by this author.

The other dozen or so books mentioned are covered by brief paragraphs. At least this week there are some crime books reviewed – three of them in a composite review of about 500 words, by Peter Millar. One book is Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer (no mention that it's a translation, by K Seegers, or that it is on the shortlist for this year's International Dagger prize) – five brief paragraphs of praise. (My Euro Crime review of the same novel is here.)  The second is The Whisperers by John Connelly, which I have not read and shan't read as it is, writes Millar in his positive but short take, a fusion of horror, the effects of modern warfare, the supernatural, museum looting and an ancient Sumerian legend. No thanks. The third review (five paragraphs again but a bit longer this time) is a very positive one of The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly, which Millar describes as "a beautifully crafted, evocative psychological thriller that oozes Englishness and is all the better for it". (I think the author is Irish though, but never mind.) He also calls it "an elegy for the blighted summer of hope that was 1997". I liked the book but not quite as much as Millar. My Euro Crime review of it is here.

Observer interview with Maj Sjowall

The couple of recent magazine articles about Stieg Larsson and his Millennium trilogy, one in Prospect magazine and the other in Vanity Fair, were rather disappointing: a mix of rehash of the already well known and not very well-informed opinion on the part of the writers. These articles, I felt, were more to do with their writers showing off their intellectual credentials (not, as it happens!) to their readers, than with conveying anything constructive about the appeal of these books and their author's story.

Completely different from these two pieces in almost every way is a superb piece in today's Observer (22 Nov), by Louise France, about Maj Sjowall. Although I know the 10-book Martin Beck series, written by Sjowall and her partner Per Wahloo during the 1960s and 70s, and have read several articles about the authors and their novels, I learnt a lot while reading it, and found it very moving.

Sjowall did not become rich by writing these masterful books; she lives in a small flat and cannot afford a car, but she's happy and "free" as she defines it. The article tells the story of Sjowall's early life, how she met Per Wahloo, and how they came to write the Martin Beck books. Louise France, a fan of the novels, is right to point out how they still hold up today as exciting, involving detective stories even without the internet, email, faxes, DNA profiling and mobile phones, because they rely on tight plots, characterisation and have a strong authorial voice. Or, as she puts it: "what makes the books so compelling? There's something inherently honourable about them, something to do with the meticulous research that went into each one before it was written, and the frail humanity of the characters. They display, say critics, a relevance and timelessness that is the mark of all good fiction. The deceptively simple style is both sparse and dramatic – an accomplishment all the more remarkable when you think that the books were written by two people. "We worked a lot with the style," explains Sjöwall. "We wanted to find a style which was not personally his, or not personally mine, but a style that was good for the books. We wanted the books to be read by everyone, whether you were educated or not." People tell her that the Martin Beck series marked the beginning of a lifetime of reading. "They picked them up off their parents' shelves when they were teenagers and discovered a love of books." "

When they first met, Sjowall and Wahloo enjoyed reading the same type of detective fiction, those that had taken the genre out of the drawing room and onto the streets – Hammett and Simenon, for example. For their own novels, "Their aim was something more subversive than what had gone before. "We wanted to describe society from our left point of view [says Sjowall]. Per had written political books, but they'd only sold 300 copies. We realised that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality. We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society, where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer." They planned 10 books and 10 books only. The subtitle would be "The story of a crime" – the crime being society's abandonment of the working classes. The first plot came to them on a canal trip from Stockholm to Gothenburg. "There was an American woman on the boat, beautiful, with dark hair, always standing alone. I caught Per looking at her. 'Why don't we start the book by killing this woman?' I said." " That idea, of course, became Roseanna, the first book in the Martin Beck series.

Did the society that Sjowall and Wahloo feared come to pass? "Yes, all of it," she replies. "Everything we feared happened, faster. People think of themselves not as human beings but consumers. The market rules and it was not that obvious in the 1960s, but you could see it coming."

There's lots more in this excellent article, so I do recommend reading it. Perhaps, if you haven't read any of these novels, it might encourage you to try one. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

See also: Maj Sjowall interviewed at the WSJ.

Reviews of the Martin Beck novels at Euro Crime, including several by me.

Storm in a symbol over Brown/Kernick Deadline

I know that the blogosphere exists so that people who are het up about something can vent vigorously and in public; receive unprocessed comments of agreement from their buddies; with the result that all concerned feel vindicated in their little bubbles of mutual ignorance. You just have to learn to avoid this stuff if possible, or if not, to let it wash over you. Even so, I think that some of the posts I've seen about this Dan Brown/Simon Kernick deal, even by experienced bloggers, are just silly. (Here is an example.) In at least one post expressing outrage about possible customer misunderstanding, the wrong Simon Kernick title has been cited – a mistake that can be interpreted in various ways.

When I first heard about this marketing campaign, I thought from the headline of the article that it was a bit rich. However, having actually read beyond the title, it is clear that what is going on is this: W. H. Smith is running a promotion in which if you pre-order Dan Brown's next novel, you get a free copy of one of Simon Kernick's books, called Deadline. For this purpose only, the free copy has a cover with both Brown's and Kernick's names on it, in big letters. You can't buy this book, you are only given it if you pre-order Brown. You are told via one of W. H. Smiths usual flyers for this purpose that if you pre-order Brown, this is what you are going to get as your reward.

If you happen to be browsing the shelves at W. H. Smith in blissful ignorance of all this, you might stumble across Deadline by Simon Kernick, but it would have the usual cover – no mention of Dan Brown anywhere.

So what's the big deal? Simon Kernick is happy because his back-list sales have gone up. Readers are happy because they have been given a 'free' copy of a book that is probably more enjoyable than the one they have paid for and ordered, when they get it (the Dan Brown). The publishers and W. H. Smith are certainly happy, not least by all the extra publicity which will probably lead more people to take up the deal (even if only to invest in a limited collectors' edition of Deadline!).

Oh well, if bloggers didn't get upset about this, they would find something else to upset themselves over, I suppose. Quite possibly this post.

A welcome perspective

Thank you, Dave Knadler, for providing some much-needed perspective on MJ. Here's an excerpt from his post, but do read it all – it is one of those posts which sums up all the craziness in a nutshell.

"When a major celebrity dies, it's bigger than World War II, at least for a day or two. The stars get realigned — literally, because there's one less of them, and figuratively, because big stories have this way of becoming small when something bigger comes down the line. Who cares about Sanford any more? Who cares about Iran? We are talking Michael Jackson here, who has Touched Us All in ways we will still be discovering years from now. Personally, the coverage I've found most poignant is this piece about the time Michael Jackson inadvertantly dropped his sequined glove in the toilet."

See also Dave's RIP for a TV Angel.

The Onion: King of Pop Dead at 12; Michael Jackson dead: what do you think?; and [warning] another story that is a bit tasteless.

And for something completely different and much funnier than the previous Onion stories: Copy Editor's Revenge Takes Form of Unhyphenated Word.

End of the line for science journalism?

Although I say it myself, there are some really stimulating, readable and fascinating articles in Nature this week (25 June issue) about science, journalism and communication with the lay public. Most of this post is taken from a Nature Network forum post: you're welcome to join in the discussion there.

Many researchers see science journalists as a public-relations service or as an ally in spreading the news about their work, asserts a Nature Editorial this week (459, 1033; 2009 – free to read online). The Editorial points out that there is a deeper value of journalism: to cast a fair but sceptical eye over everything in the public sphere — science included. This kind of scrutiny is easy for researchers to applaud when a news report questions dodgy statistics or dubious claims about uncertainties in evolution. It is not so easy when the story takes a critical look at animal-research practices, overblown claims about climate change or scientists’ conflicts of interest. But such examinations are to the benefit of society, which needs to see science scrutinized as well as regurgitated, and journalists are an essential part of that process.
This week’s Nature special issue, of which the Editorial is a part, shines a spotlight on the profession in changing, troubled times, and is published to mark the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists from 30 June to 2 July 2009 in London.
Scientists can do little to stem the current bloodletting, in which readers and advertisers are deserting publications that are downsizing or folding at fast pace. But, argues the Editorial, they can make worthwhile attempts to ensure that questioning and informed science journalism persists in whatever new forms might emerge from the carnage. If the future of the media truly is a dire landscape of top-100 lists, shouting heads and minimal attention span, then such efforts might at least defer the grim end. A good start would be to have a look at the advice for academics speaking to journalists provided by Brad Delong and Susan Rasky. And from the other side of the coin, the Washington Post‘s national environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin and its executive editor Marcus Brauchli discuss the future of science coverage in their newspaper in a Nature Books&Arts Q&A.
But do newspapers even matter? Blogs and microblogging services like Twitter are opening up conferences to those not actually there – how is this direct to web exposure affecting science journalism, and indeed scientists themselves and their options for peer-review and publication of their research? A range of angles on these questions are covered in a Nature News feature, including the story of a recent ’blogostorm’ about a Cold Spring Harbor meeting in which scientists seemed free to report what journalists could not.
In other articles in this week’s Nature, Toby Murcott in Toppling the priesthood argues that the process of science needs to be opened up to journalists; Boyce Rensberger (Too close for comfort) tracks the progression of scientific correspondent from cheerleader to watchdog; and Nadia El-Awady in The Arab boom suggests much room for improvement in local journalism in Arab countries. The bottom line? To what extent should scientists help — or care?
(All the Nature articles mentioned and linked here are part of the science journalism special in the issue of 25 June 2009. The three Essays and the Books&Arts article are free to read online for 2 weeks from the publication date.)

Narnia Code revisited

Via Brian Sibley:

If you missed last night's broadcast of The Narnia Code, the documentary based on Dr Michael Ward's controversial book, Planet Narnia and its interpretation of C S Lewis's septet of fantasy novels beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you can catch it for the next seven days on the BBC iPlayer.

(Check out the caption competition at his post, if you do nothing else!)

Major distraction from crossword puzzle

I received a shock this morning, sitting quietly on a jam-packed train as usual, reading through the newspaper about G20 summits, financial crises, etc – worked my way through all of the main paper to the obits and weather (ignored the sports as usual), then opened the second paper, which is usually full of rather vacuous fashion and "human [lack of] interest" stories along lines of "man became house husband while wife went back to work after having baby and describes in minute detail what it is like to peel potatoes" or "Jade Goody deconstructed where's the cash for the accompanying ads". I usually skip briskly through these to get to the puzzles on the back page, so I can get the crossword and codeword done by Vauxhall, leaving the fiendish and killer sudokus to the tube journey to Kings Cross – with the Polygon in reserve if it is the beginning of the week (when the sudokus are easier).

Well, after all that preamble, there I was quietly sitting there when I opened a page and – this is what I saw.Viggomortensen_385x_513879a (Article is here.) It is a more interesting than average interview (not that I am biased), and completely threw me off my stride as far as the codeword was concerned. I think they really need to give the commuters some warning if they are going to include material like this in the paper.

I thought that those interested in Scandinavian crime fiction might like this quote: …. "his characters seem burdened by profound inner sadness. Is this melancholia part of him? “Maybe,” he says, seriously. “Although I like laughing at myself. But I do recognise that part of me.” Is it connected to his Danish roots and gloomy Scandinavian heritage? “Maybe,” he says again, still serious. “Although that’s an easy out, I suppose.” And this urge compulsively to create, how does that relate, exactly, to who you are? He sighs, sits back and, as if beginning anew the fairytale story of Viggo Mortensen, announces softly: “For as long as I can remember, even as a little boy, I used to think it was unfair that someday I was going to die.”  The story of Mortensen begins in New York, where he was born, but quickly moves to South America, where he was raised, the eldest of three boys, by his Danish father, also called Viggo, and American mother, Grace. The family remained in Argentina, where Viggo Sr managed a chicken farm, until 1969, when the parents divorced and Viggo Jr moved with his mother and brothers to New York State.  It was around this time that Mortensen began questioning the nature of mortality. “Whose idea was it?” he would ask. “I didn’t decide to come to this Earth and I certainly don’t want to leave it now that I’m here.” "

There are more musings about mortality, and the lack of need for amassing a fortune making rubbish movies, in the interview. Maybe Mr M should attempt writing a crime fiction book – he has done most other creative things.

Italy invades France, times two

According to The Times, Carla Bruni, France’s First Lady, has drawn the wrath of Pyrenean farmers by taking up the cause of local brown bears, whose reintroduction has fuelled a violent feud between naturalists and sheep breeders.

I wonder if Ms Bruni is a fan of an author from her adoptive country, Fred Vargas? The plot of one of Vargas's books, Seeking Whom He May Devour, does not concern bears, but rather: the "invasion of wolves across the Alps from Italy [nationality of Ms Bruni] is a source of fascination to the wildlife service and biologists, who observe their behaviour and track their movements with almost obsessive interest. One such biologist is a Canadian, Johnstone, who identifies totally with the wolves, giving them names and ascribing a personality to each, feeding rabbits to the one that is too old and toothless to kill his own prey. Everything changes, however, when sheep are brutally killed, in what seems from the toothmarks to be an attack from a giant beast."

According to The Times's account, "President Sarkozy, who married Ms Bruni in February, has so far stayed out of the “bear wars”, which pit environmentalists against farmers and local politicians who say the bears kill sheep and threaten their livelihoods." Ms Bruni, said to be "the epitome of the Parisian left-wing upper class", apparently agreed in 2006 to be “godmother” to Hvala, one of five bears brought in from Slovenia to replenish a population that had dwindled to about 15. The anti-bear protesters, among other initiatives, carry placards stating "Go home to Italy Slovenia."

Waiter, there’s poison in my soup

"Chef sorry for poison plant error" is the title of a recent piece on the BBC News website. Celebrity (their word, he means nothing to me) chef Antony Worrall Thompson is quoted in a magazine interview about watercress and other wild foods saying that the weed henbane is "great in salads".  According to the BBC: "Healthy & Organic Living magazine's website has now issued an urgent warning that "henbane is a very toxic plant and should never be eaten". The chef had meant to recommend fat hen, which is a wild herb."
Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) has sticky serrated leaves; yellow, funnel-shaped flowers; and a stale scent. It can cause hallucinations, drowsiness and disorientation in humans.
Larger quantities can cause a loss of consciousness, seizures, trembling of the limbs and, in extreme cases, death. Hawley Harvey Crippen, also known as Dr Crippen, is thought to have used seeds from the henbane plant to kill his wife in 1910. 
Fat hen, on the other hand, is safely edible. Species include Aristolochia rotunda (Smearwort); Atriplex prostrata (Spear-leaved Orache); and Chenopodium album (White Goosefoot). I also learn (from Wikipedia) that the "plump version" of the eagle on the Bundestag is sometimes called "fat hen". Strange world.
Healthy & Organic Living magazine's editor Kate Collyns has written to subscribers to apologise. Her publication's website gives this advice: "As always, check with an expert when foraging or collecting wild plants." Not celebrity chef A. W. Thompson, one assumes. Or Prince Charles, but we knew that already. (See Tomorrow's Table for a good account of why P. C. need not worry, and therefore spout, so much.)

A slice of life in translation

What is the worst thing since sliced bread? Or, to look at it another way, what is the best thing since sliced bread?

These questions are being asked in two polls being run by the Times Online and news.co.au. If you want to vote, you have to do so by tonight (UK time, 10 July); the winner(s?) will be announced tomorrow, Friday 11 July.

The catch? You can’t decide for yourself what is the worst or the best thing. You have to select from a list. The “worst” list is: Neighbours, reality TV, double-yellow lines, Sudoku “in the paper” (?), soy sausages, Crocs, loud ads on TV, sliced bread, the Health and Safety Executive and “fluoro” clothing. The “best” shortlist is: Victa lawnmower, World Wide Web, Penicillin (medical use), Penicillin (discovery), Sudoku (yes, “in the paper” again), the dishwasher, the Ute, Hills Hoist clothesline and Tim Tams (a chocolate biscuit).

According to the very limited information supplied by the Times, this shortlist was drawn up by news.co.au asking readers to nominate the best and worst Australian inventions. The Times implies that there has been a similar poll for “British” invention, but does not provide a link to that, so I wonder if this accounts for the eccentric nature of the two shortlists? I don’t think I’ll be voting, anyway, as it isn’t exactly hard to think of better or worse things than those provided in this rather superficial exercise. I have learned what annoys some people in Australia, though.