Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Lavie Tidhar

PS Publishing, 2011

Joe, a private detective, lives somewhere in the back of Asia, smokes a lot and drinks whiskey. When once he returns from the bar to his office, he is suddenly visited by a woman with a soft voice. She doesn’t reveal her name and asks Joe to find Mike Longshott, a man whose name is written on covers of a popular series of pulp novels with the main character with the name Osama Bin-Laden. A woman leaves a credit card to pay for expenses, says she will contact the investigator, and evaporates.

The publisher of Longshott’s books, Medusa Press, is located in Paris, but «the address was merely a post office box, not a street address». After talking with a bookseller friend, Joe finds that Mike Longshots is a pseudonym. From the same seller the detective discovers that Medusa Press publishes all sorts of pulp, from thrillers to softporno. «Filth. Utter junk, of course. Wonderful stuff» - says about these books the seller.

Joe immediately books tickets for a flight to Paris, but before leaving, someone attempts to kill him. To solve the client’s case, Joe will have to go to London and New York, meet with shady characters who work for the state, a mysterious private investigator, booksellers and opium dealers. His entire journey, Joe will be reading Longshott’s books, trying to get closer to unraveling the truth.

World of Joe is a world in which we haven’t lived, a world without terrorism. Explosions of buildings and airports, 9\11 - this never happened in the world of «Osama». And you begin to undersand it only some time since the beginning of the book, when Joe reads Longshott’s novels, and we know that he reads books about the bombings and deaths of thousands of innocent people as fiction. He reads and wonders: in his world, it was nothing like this. Joe travels around the world, but perhaps not as a private detective, but as a universal consciousness. Terrorism covers all countries and nations, even those there terrorist attacks have never been. And Joe is just the invisible element that unites the nations, though Joe himself has no idea about it.

Yes, the protagonist here drinks hard, sometimes is trying to crack jokes, falls in love with a client, whom had seen only once, but it is all the formal signs of what «Osama» is not, namely, a PI novel. If Tidhar’d make Joe not a detective with a license, but simply "a master of all trades", this would only make the book better. One can hardly believe in Joe’s detective skills, but he does not pretend to be able to find someone. Joe's more comfortable to sit at the bar and sip alcohol, walk through the streets of capital cities, than in solving the case. Joe, and this is obviously, is one of those who are looking for himself, not for others. Tidhar is lucky that with the search of himself, Joe finds what he was looking for, otherwise the novel would fallapart.

Lyrical style of the author alone is at odds with a pace of a thriller, who then serves as a screen. But behind the screen is just lovely Tidhar’s prose, with its accurate descriptions of urban landscapes and the ability to capture the sadness of man in a bar with a glass in his hand (Tidhar sometimes overdoes lists, it should be noted):

«The air felt humid, feverish, but not of the tropics: a city's smell hung on it like limp laundry, a smell of pavement slabs and concrete blocks and cars and fumes and smoke and food and urine and spilled alcohol and spilled tears, it was a smell of many lives».

It is difficult to say, has Bin-Laden turned over in his grave after this novel or not (even harder to say is Bin-Laden alive or dead), but who cares about Bin-Laden? Just read «Osama».

Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded

Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded
Ed. by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Tachyon Publications, 2010

In the introduction to this collection the VanderMeers do not give a clear definition of what is steampunk. In the last paragraph of the introduction the editors, however, notice that «steampunk is alive and well and manifesting in a myriad of different ways». This is where the editors are right. After reading «Steampunk II» you are unlikely to become clear what steampunk is, but the diversity of the stories will give an idea how wide the scope of this subgenre.

Steampunk’s grandparents had sci-fi roots, but it does not mean that the whole steampunk is definitely SF. There are stories here that in spirit and entourage tend toward fantasy, there are those that can be called science fiction, and there are simply examples of "weird fiction."

The strongest stories here «Dr. Lash Remembers» by Jeffrey Ford, where an unknown virus that causes disease blur the line between reality and fantasy, «O One» by Chris Roberson, a fantasy in which the action takes place on Chinese soil. Among the representatives of the weird fiction stands out David Erik Nelson’s «The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond», where the first-person narrator tells of the clash of two worlds. «Tanglefoot» by Cherie Priest is a bit lightweight, but Priest puts the best from Victorian prose in her story of a mad scientist.

Three more stories related to the theme of the South. In «The Steam Dancer (1896)" Caitleen R. Kiernan tells unusually touching story that could happen in our world in the Wild West, but the presence of elements of science fiction helps to better describe the character of the heroine of the story, a dancer from the title. Wild West is the entourage of another story, pure western, but with robots, «The Cast-Iron Kid» by Andrew Knighton. Steampunk-western is even better than Spaghetti Western! «Machine Maid» by Margo Lanagan takes place not the Wild West, but it could happen there. Noirish elements are heard in this tense tale of the maid and her master.

This is not an ideal anthology, there are some mediocre stories. But «Steampunk II» by its very existence proves that if a genre has borders, they are very fragile.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Defending Jacob

William Landay
Defending Jacob

Delacorte Press, 2012

The book opens with an interview before the grand jury a year after the main events of the books. Andy Barber, whose is the narrator of the story, answer the questions to the prosecutor Logiudice, but the narrotor hides from us what this grand jury is about, returning us to the history of events in April 2007.

In the town called Newton 14-year-old boy Ben Rifkin is found murdered. He was killed in a park near the school with three stabs of the knife in the chest. The lessons in the school are cancelled, and on the place detectives attached to the case arrive with the prosecutor – assistant district attorney Andy Barber. He is 50-year-old man, experienced, who often takes the resonant cases. Barber immediately assumes that this case will get much publicity. Barber is not confused that Rifkin studied in the same class with Barber’s son, Jacob, because there is no indication that the killer is one of the children. No evidence has been found on the ground, no weapon, too, and five days after the murder, the police still have no suspects and versions. There is one clue, however: on the ground a fingerprint has been found.

When Barber receives an anonymous e-mail with a link to the facebook group "Friends of Ben Rifkin," created after his death, on the wall Barber reads an entry written by a friend of Jacob, Derek, in which Derek says that Jacob has a knife. Later, Jacob is arrested on suspicion of murder, Andy is suspended from work, and the family starts to prepare for trial.

This novel, unlike Jacob, do es not need to be defended, so good it is. It needs to be praised. «Defending Jacob» is very realistic novel. The multi-faceted, exciting, intense, knocked down. The premise seems to be simple: the prosecutor's son is accused of murder, and father has to defend ot not defend his son. And the child needs defendung because he is your son, you are responsible for him, you raised him, and then gave him a "murder gene", even if it's just speculation. Andy Barber within all the book length tries to convince himself and all others that Jacob is not guilty, but deep down he just does not doubt that his son is a murderer; Barber's actions give him away. He finds a knife and throws it away without giving the examination. He deletes the information from Jacob’s computer. He argues with his wife, accusing her of that she sets herself against her son, comes up with things.

But the thing is that the author really does not point who is the killer. The choice of the narrator here is perfect: who killed the boy, may know only Jacob, but from him we learn nothing, so we can just as his father, wonder, had he killed, or hadn’t? Landay has built a book around a slippery case. It seems that there are facts, and they show on Jacob, but if you look closely, it's not even the facts, not even evidence, they are just speculation and doubts. And the jury is not sitting there in the courtroom, on the pages of the book, we are the jury, we are here to judge.

It’s interesting to see Logiudice in the book, who is acting as the dark half of Andy. Again, the author leads the reader on a slippery slope. What Logiudice is so actively trying to put Jacob behind the bars, can be regarded as a personal grudge against Barber. This is an attempt to drown the son, and at the same time his father, to remove a competitor. But Barber sees the situation in that way, he is generally can not be trusted. Loguidice asks all the questions which Barber asks himself. Logiudice is a worm of doubt, the devil on Barber’s shoulder.

The book really knocks down, but not by some individual moments, but by the whole complex. How does it feel to see your son before the trial, and you do not know he is guilty or not? What is above, the blood or the law? Is a father responsible for a son and grandson for his grandfather? «Defending Jacob» raises these questions and more in full growth. Here are collisions between speculation and science, law and justice, the father and son, society and the individual.

Reading the book, one can’t not to get into Barber’s skin, it is impossible not to feel fear when the day of trial approaches, it is impossible not to simpatize - not to the boy but for father. Landay describes with the great delicacy the entire proceedings, interrogations, legal tricks. This is a pleasure to watch how Barber follows the battle of the prosecutor and attorney, noticing mistakes, lucks, the reaction of the jury.

The hero of the book Andy Barber is a good man; this is not going to argue. After all, what makes a person good person? A good man and good father would believe his son to the last, will defend him to the last. But are you a good man if you defend the criminal, your son criminal?

«Defending Jacob» is a portrait of justice, a portrait ugly but honest.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Locked Ward

Dennis O`Donnell
The Locked Ward

Jonathan Cape, 2012

The author of this book, Dennis O`Donnell, is a former hippie, an English graduate, a short, balding man. Not a fighter, as he says about himself. Not a fighter he is, in the sense that he has never fought and doesn’t and can’t fight. In fact, because he is not a fighter, O`Donnell never thought that he would work as a nursing assistent at the intensive psychiatric care unit. But when position is opened, the work is offered to him. "I don’t need fighters. I need people who can listen listen", says the Charge Nurse to Dennis.

And Dennis agrees. The author of this book had enough experience. When he was a student, O`Donnell worked in a mental hospital in the summer, helping the staff. The work was physically very hard. 13 hours on feet, constantly in motion, because the patients are always in need of something. And because patients often can’t do anything themselves, the staff must help them get dressed, feed them, wash, clean up after them, lay sleeping.

After that summer O`Donnell for 30 years worked on some work, adding only that in the end he hated that job, so why he decided to go into psychiatry. He’s taken position of a nursing assistant in a Psychogeriatrics ward. He’s worked with elderly men whose memory is gradually fading, at first short-term - up to a certain point in the past. Every day for such patients is no different from the previous one. As the author notes, “They were living Groundhog Day”. The work has been exhausting: 13 hours per shift, continuous client care, as they are known nowadays. Dennis, vicious by nature, yet always found common ground with patients, he knows how to listen. The author continues his gallery of characters. Anyone whom the author remembered, he describes the way that even the most incidental character on a certain amount of time becomes the protagonist of the book.

Nevertheless, Dennis takes the position of a nursing assistent at the intensive psychiatric care unit. After a course of Control and Restraint, O`Donnell starts work there. He gradually becomes acquainted with his colleagues, both men and women. The job at the new location has its pluses and minuses. In Ward 25 mainly young people are treated, men and women, there are no frail elderly people here. Among the disadvantagesof new work: the aggressiveness of the patients. An elderly man who can’t walk without help is not a threat, in contrast to the 30-year-old thug who suffers from schizophrenia and passionately does not want to take his medicine. In a Locked Ward you can’t relax at all. Any omission may result in a series of unpleasant events. These unpleasant events filled the second half of the book.
Actually, O`Donnell’s book is not only a gallery of characters, always colorful and memorable, but also the history of diseases. A story about one of the patients is accompanied by a description of his or her illness. Whatever the disease is, the author never allows himself to coarse remark against some of the patients or the mockery of a patient. The author not only doesn’t allow this to himself, but he doesn’t write about any cases when someone from the staff abused a patient, no matter how many problems this patient delivered. "Do not forget, he is sick", often nurses say to each other.

The absence of ridicule on patients does not mean that «The Locked Ward» is a book written with a grim seriousness. Quite the contrary. There is no such chapter which would not have caused a loud laugh. Sometimes, even while reading you’re risking tore your stomach, so ridiculous situation O`Donnell writes about. The reason to this is the author’s ability to notice small but important details that make a character alive. For example, the author describes a patient named Gilbert, a 50-something-year-old man, a schizophrenic, who considers himself a lord, and asks to call him only as Lord Gilbert. To show the true nature of this "Lord", O`Donnell shows Gilbert in conversation.

”"Gilbert! Teatime!
”Lord Gilbert, if you please. And if you insist on addressing me simply as Gilbert, you odious little cunt, you shall kick your fucking shitpit in.
”Okay, your lordship. Tea or coffee?”
”Tea, please. Do you have any Darjeeling?”
”Sorry, no. Sweeping of the factory floor in teabags only.”
”Well, my boy, you know what you can do with that effluent. You can stick it right up your fucking hole. Toodle pip.”"

The book is full of such gems, like the dialogue, you can quote pages. The sense of humor does not leave O`Donnell even in those situations where it is supposed to be no laughing matter. When two police officers have brought in a schizophrenic named Robbie, he refuses to take medication. Dennis at the mere sight Robbie is sick: "When he looked at me, my sphincter puckered so far into itself that, if I’d stuck a straw up it, I would have emptied a pail of dandelion and burdock via the back door." The O`Donnell’s colleague has gone somewhere, and only Dennis and two police officers have left, three to one, Robbie, handcuffed, and they do not feel safe. After all, now becomes a moment when you have to remove the handcuffs and put a drugs shot into Robbie, and Robbie refuses to accept "this poison." Dennis has already imagined tomorrow's newspaper headlines: "Meek hippie grandad killed at work," "Devout coward slain by madman," "Garotted with his own underpants."

Humor here is situational (and truly there’s no end to funny stories here) and verbal. O`Donnell is able to insert the desired comparison, to answer with a joke on an awkward question, that’s why it is often patients do not like him and his jokes.

The author is an English graduate and it’s visible to the naked eye. Each chapter offers an epigraph from the classics, whether it's Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Coleridge, and so on. In describing himself or the patient the author can insret a literary comparison: «Like Shakespeare's Don John, I am not of many words», «So far as looks went, he might have been Dylan Thomas ...» O`Donnell sometimes read the work of patients and finds their literary endeavors very talented.

O`Donnell without didacticism debunks myths about mental illnesses and the mentally ill people. He seems to be saying: there are ill people, there are well people, everything in life happens. We learn about the true nature of disease and the true nature of the patients.

O`Donnell did not hide the fact that after seven years he had made friends with many patients and that this work, no matter how hard it was, brought him satisfaction and joy. «The Locked Ward» is an incredibly funny book about human nature, about the thin line that separates healthy and sick people.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Geoff Dyer

Canongate Books, 2012

240 pages about Tarkovsky's film "Stalker". Simultaneously, it’s memoirs, essays about everything, film history analysis, travelogue, but at the same time, not a collection of all the above, but something still not hasn’t been seen before. A novel about the film. Or this: a novel around the film. A new kind of film criticism. That you can write about a movie like that, everyone seems to understand since the birth of cinema, but nobody, however, hasn’t thought that it is still possible. Shot by shot analysis of the film, which was originally conceived as a film shot by one shot, but it’s a literature analysis. The transmission of each shot through the prism of your own "self."

The book begins as, in fact, the film does: with a description of the bar, where a visitor enters to. After that, Dyer suddenly jumps to a description of the phenomenon of the Zone, a place where the meteorite fell. And then Dyer jumps next, comparing Tarkovsky and Antonioni. These three very different fragments give an idea of the three main vectors of the book: Meditation and a retelling of what is happening in "Stalker", an essay on the abstract theme, inspired by the film; cinematic analysis of the film and its connection with European cinema in general. It is difficult to believe that 250-page book about a film can be read at one, but it is.

The excitement of "Zona" lays in a good composition of the three main components. The author does not go too far in favor of one of these components. Analysis of film history is replaced by inserting memoir, memoir by retelling of the film, it in turn by an essay, for example, on the topic of labor camps, and essays - by the story of the filming of "Stalker". Dyer juggles these components, entertaining the reader, but "entertaining" is not quite the right word. Dyer is still not a street circus and not a clown who uses tricks, and hard to find entertainment, once again, in a 250-page book about a film. However, Dyer manages to entertain with no very easy material. Dyer tries on different masks - what the reader will be closer to. To film lovers Dyer offers a deep analysis of the effect of "Stalker" on other films of that time (and the movies of our contemporaries), the intersection between all the films of Tarkovsky, the history of film. For fans of Tarkovsky Dyer offers reflections on the incarnation of Tarkovsky in the form of Stalker, on Tarkovsky-man and Tarkovsky-director. To a simple reader Dyer appears in the image of the swell guy: he jokes about group sex, drinking at the bar, the writers' craft and a backpack as a gift. All jokes, it should be noted, are funny, intelligent cast, and some flow in or derived from clever and subtle reflections on life.

His knowledge of the topic Dyer shows in copiously sprinkled throughout the book footnotes. Recently, I have not seen a non-academic book, which would have at least one footnote. Footnote here can take four pages, and some are a couple of paragraphs long.

Do you need to see "Stalker" before reading this book? For example, I have not seen it, but it does not interfere with the perception of the book, because "Zona" is also a novel. Dyer describes the film shot by shot: the picture appears before the eye of the reader.
The final of the book is in a particularly striking. Dyer seamlessly replaces a book about the film to a book about human desires. The room where wishes come true, remains for the stalker - and for the author - unattained.

The only flaw of this book, perhaps, is that the Strugatsky brothers, on whose novel "Roadside Picnic" was written the screenplay, had been just left on the roadside. The film, of course, is very different from the book. All the sci-fi components had been removed from the screebplay. And yes, this book is about Tarkovsky and "Stalker" and not about Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, but I still feel the injustice, because the immediate source was left beyond the scope of the book.

In general, it is clever and profound book - and in many ways unique.