Three Junes, by Julia Glass

Reviewed by Melanie Cutting

Let me say right at the outset, I wish I’d written this book. Or, at least, I wish had the literary skills to have written this book.  It has really been a while since I found myself turning the pages of such a satisfying and enjoyable novel. So, exactly who is Julia Glass, and why have I never heard of her? Ms. Glass, now 62, is an American novelist. Coming a little late to the game, Three Junes, published in 2002, was her debut novel.  That year it won the National Book Award for Fiction, and became a bestseller.  Since then, the author has produced five more works of fiction, including I See You Everywhere, winner of the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award, and most recently, A House Among the Trees (2017). Why she is not better known is a mystery to me, because her very assured prose, especially her delineation of character, place and especially, food, is superb.

Synopsis

Three Junes is the story of the McLeod family, spanning the decade from 1989-99, with many stopovers in earlier years. Starting off in Scotland, the first of the novel’s three chapters (Collies, Upright, Boys – each set in the month of June) introduces us to paterfamilias Paul, recently widowed publisher of the Dumfies-Galloway newspaper founded by Paul’s father, and  now on a restorative touring holiday in Greece. Through the generous use of flashbacks, we learn that Paul’s wife of many years, Maureen, the usually hale and hearty breeder and trainer of border collies, has succumbed to lung cancer, and the family has assembled at their home in the country outside of Prestwick for the funeral.  We are introduced to Paul and Maureen’s three sons, Fenno and twins Dennis and David, now in their thirties, and their respective families. This first chapter, the shortest, is largely devoted to Paul’s experience in Greece, and the people he meets. One of these individuals, Fern, will play a small but vital role, and an even larger role in the third chapter of the book.

The second—and longest—chapter is devoted to eldest son Fenno’s life as an expat living and working in New York City.  Again deftly utilizing the technique of flashing back to earlier points in his life, we initially meet Fenno in 1995 when he has returned home to Scotland for his father’s funeral.  As he recalls earlier trips, the reader learns many things about Fenno, most notably that he is gay, a fact that had somehow eluded his father’s knowledge for most of his life. Fenno owns a successful Manhattan bookstore, Plume, dedicated to both literature and ornithology, with his friend and mentor, Ralph. This bleak period in America history, the height of the AIDS epidemic that was particularly devastating in major urban centres, has informed Fenno’s behavior: “Upright, I would tell myself as I savored the visual innuendos of a trimly mustached business student, as I pictured us falling together into my bed. Stay upright and you will stay alive.” A central player in this chapter (and in Fenno’s life), is his music critic friend Mal, short for Malachy. Mal is HIV positive, and periodically so ill that Fenno is often certain that he has come to the end; surprisingly, though, Mal is tougher than he looks, and still possessed of the sharpest tongue in N.Y.C.

Arranging Paul’s funeral, never the smoothest of activities, proves especially onerous for the McLeod brothers.  David, an equine veterinarian, and his wife Lilian have remained psychologically and geographically the closest to Paul.  David’s resentment of Fenno is palpable, and it all comes to a head as family secrets are let out of the closet, and jealousies on the part of both brothers threatens to ruin what is left of their relationship.  Meanwhile, brother Dennis, his overbearing French wife Véronique and their three little girls, are caught up in the heady atmosphere at the family estate, as Dennis plays chef for the extravagant meal which forms the centrepiece of the funeral.

Chapter 3, although entitled “Boys”, reintroduces Fern, the free-spirited fellow tourist and artist who so captivated Paul 10 years earlier when both were participants on that excursion to Greece.  Fern has been invited by her former lover, Tony,(also Fenno’s former lover!) to the Long Island beach house which, coincidentally, belongs to Fenno’s business partner Ralph. In due time, Fenno turns up with his dog, Rodgie, who has died and will now be buried on the grounds of the beach house.  Yet another funeral forms an important element in Fenno’s life. However, the chapter belongs to Fern. The years since her time in Greece have not been kind, although she is now pregnant and tenuously encoupled with Stavros. The bond she strikes up with Fenno brings the story full circle, and the reader is left to imagine how their pasts, linked through Paul, will impact their future.

“Word alchemist Julia Glass weaves gold into straw into gold again in this novel that proves to us that neither ancient privileges nor modern passions absolve us from the regrets losses, comforts and ineffable joys of family love…Our only longing on finishing Three Junes is that we do not have four, because Julia Glass’s steady hand at our back is an uncommon pleasure.” National Book Award Fiction Judges, 2002.

I sincerely hope that Ms. Glass was able to get past the curse of an award-winning first novel and produce equally worthy books in the ensuing years. Her beautiful prose, highlighted by her accessible and astute use of literary techniques, humour and genuine sympathy and understanding of the human condition, recommend her as an author with whom I definitely hope to spend some more time.

Julia Glass is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College. She lives with her family in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

This book is available at the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library.

 

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The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

The Zone of Interest (2014) is not English novelist, Martin Amis’ first foray into the Holocaust as subject. In 1991 he published Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offence, a technical tour de force in which all events happen in reverse chronological order: a simple meal begins with the regurgitation of food, which is then sculpted onto plate with knife and fork, wrapped in packaging, and eventually placed on grocery shelves, after one has been paid at ‘check-in’. It’s all very, very strange. And, with the reversal of time, comes the reversal of morality: doctors cause injuries, then acts of violence heal them. When this world of opposite cause and effect reaches the Nazi death camps, the implication becomes breath-taking: the Nazi doctors bring millions of Jews to life. The purpose of this inverted Holocaust? “To dream a race. To make a people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas, with electricity, with fire.” It was a controversial book. Only slightly less controversial is The Zone of Interest, which is both a black comedy and a love story, set in Auschwitz.

It must be said that Amis has his detractors. Though no longer regarded as the enfant terrible of contemporary fiction (he’ll be 70 later this year; grand-père terrible?), he has been criticized for being gratuitously cynical, trivialising the Holocaust, and using ‘content’ as a mere vehicle for technique; simply an excuse to ostentatiously display his extraordinary literary verve. But others have called The Zone of Interest a ‘profound, powerful and morally urgent’ novel, and ‘a masterpiece’. Amis himself considers it his best work.

One way of understanding Amis’ method in both novels may be found in a love letter that the novel’s hero and main narrator (of three), Angelus Thomsen (he’s an SS Officer at Auschwitz, but his given name may hold an unironic clue to how his character changes) writes to his beloved, Hannah (who also happens to be the Commandant’s wife – yes, it’s complicated). His love for her gives him hope, he tells her: “And now I feel I am starting again – and starting from nothing. But that is the state of mind of the artist, I’m sure: the diametrical opposite of what we call taking things for granted.” Early 20th century Russian literary critics developed the notion that the purpose of art was to ‘make things strange’ so that through art we would ‘see, as though for the first time’, rather than simply ‘recognise’. There have been thousands of books on the Holocaust, but few are as ‘strange’ as Amis’ novels. Ostensibly using the most horrific event in human history as a mere backdrop to a love story between two people on the wrong side of the moral divide certainly has the effect of startling the reader out of any sense of complacency, and arguably allows them to ‘see’ the enormity of the depravity afresh.

A second main character/narrator, the buffoonish, self-important and unutterably inhuman Commandant, Paul Doll (throughout represented comedically via Amis’ incisive satirical articulation – basically he’s a Nazi Miles Gloriosus) also ‘defamiliarises’: so dutiful is he to the great cause that while attending a local Christmas concert he becomes “immersed in the logistical challenge of gassing the audience.” Ever the word-player, Amis has the benighted Doll boast that he “likes numbers” but is “a little uncertain” by “’one’ – about whether it denotes a quantity, or is being used as a pronoun”. Henceforth in his narration, it’s “Greetings, 1 and all”, etc. The double satirical point here is that their ‘love of numbers’ helped the Nazis to be so good at mass murder, and that Doll’s discomfort with ‘one’ as a pronoun expresses his total lack of— one might say, fear of —self-reflection; for Amis, Doll may stand for the majority of the German people here, who, ultimately, are the focus of the book, e.g.the German attitudes (one can’t say ‘thinking’) that made it all possible, allowable: the ‘zone’ of interest.

The third character/narrator, who does not really fit Amis’ sardonic technique, is the Jewish ‘Sondercommando’ Szmul, one of the prisoners, whose forced tasks (do this, or be shot) include selecting which ‘evacuees’ will be put to work, and which killed immediately, and ‘processing’ the corpses (in Doll’s terminology, the “pieces”) before cremation, make him and his colleagues “the saddest men in the history of the world”. When Szmul is narrating, Amis’ satirical tone falls away to be replaced by essentially the voice of unimaginable pain and suffering. Szmul has stopped having nightmares because nightmares are “incapable of coming up with anything even remotely as terrible as what [he does] all day.”

Szmul’s chapters are much shorter than Thomsen’s or Doll’s, most of them just a page or two, partly because the sheer horror of his existence does not bear elaboration, but also because Szmul voices an inherent contradiction within any representation of the Holocaust: its nature transcends description, transcends language: “This pencil and these scraps of paper aren’t enough. I need something more than words.” Famously, film director Stanley Kubrick abandoned a long-projected film about the Holocaust because he determined that an accurate rendition was beyond the capacity of cinema.

Amis clearly disagrees, though, in an Afterword, he does admit to being defeated by the question, ‘Why?’, resorting finally to Primo Levi’s “Here there is no why.” At the same time, he takes solace from an exhortation from Levi not to understand – because understanding implies a degree of identification, and no one should ever identify with Hitler et al, whose deeds were not only beyond words, but beyond human.

The Zone of Interest is a remarkably and deliberately strange novel, an eloquent, sometimes anguished, always fiercely articulate expression of the inexpressible horror of the Holocaust, offering a poignant reassurance that, while it must never become so familiar as to go ‘unseen’, it is best not understood.

James Wilson

 

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Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less”

Book review by Melanie Cutting

less greerIn Record columnist Ross Murray’s recent annual roundup of books he has read over the preceding year, Less was given special mention as one he would definitely recommend. I agree, although my book club read this slim novel a few weeks ago, and no one actually loved it.  On the other hand, no one hated it, either. One or two clubbies thought that being a gay American writer and writing about being a gay American writer might be considered navel-gazing, and just a bit too easy…

This satirical comedy novel won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and made it to the New York Times best seller list, as well as winning the Northern California Book Award, among many other accolades.

Less is a satirical comedy novel by American author Andrew Sean Greer, first published in 2017. It follows gay writer Arthur Less as he travels the world on a literary tour, hoping to be away for his fiftieth birthday, since his much-younger, long-term lover Freddy has recently decided to marry someone closer to his own age, and very wealthy to boot.  Recurring themes, such as the difficulties and rewards of same-sex relationships, romantic love, aging, and travel are all deftly handled, and the book includes quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Several passages reminded me of World According to Garp author John Irving’s second novel, The Water Method Man, in the author’s ability to sketch self-deprecating situations with both great humour, and even greater empathy.

The story: Arthur Less is a man of many frailties, and low self-worth. He is a minimally successful novelist who is surprised to discover that his work is far better received in places like Japan than at home in the U.S. To soothe his broken heart, he responds to several longstanding invitations to visit far-flung destinations and participate in the literary life abroad, and beyond. First up is a trip to New York City to interview a well-known author, and check in with his agent, “…who surely has word from his publisher.  Less’s latest novel has been living with his publisher for over a month, as any modern couple lives together before a marriage, but surely his publisher will pop the question any day now. There will be champagne; there will be money.”

The second stop on his trip will be Mexico City, for a symposium on the work of his mentor and former lover, Robert. Since Robert is now too old and ill to travel, Less has been asked to speak at many conferences regarding his relationship with The Great Man, but never about Less’s own work: “Not as a novelist in his own right; rather as a kind of witness. A Civil War widow, as Less thinks of it. These festivals want one last glimpse of the famous Russian River School of writers and artists, a 1970s bohemian world long receded over the horizon, and they will accept a reflected one.”

Third on the itinerary is Turin, Italy to accept an award for one of his books recently translated into Italian, all expenses paid. “He wonders who funds such European excesses, considers they are perhaps laundering ill-gotten gains, and finds, printed at the bottom of the invitation, the name of an Italian soap conglomerate.  Laundering indeed. But it gets him to Europe.”

His fourth stop will take him to Berlin to teach a five-week course “on a subject of Mr. Less’s choosing.”  The letter is in German because Less’s publisher is under the impression that he is fluent in German, which Less also believes, but is proved stunningly wrong when he actually arrives in Germany and must acquit himself in the native tongue.

Fifth, a sojourn across Morocco, on an expedition from Marrakech into the Sahara Desert and then to Fez.  Since his friend encouraged him to take part in the organized excursion, how could he say no? “The wine would be copious, the conversation scintillating, and the amenities deluxe.  How could he say no? The answer, as always: money, money, money.” But too late, Less is now in love with his image of trekking across the desert.

The sixth leg of his round-the-world itinerary would put him in India at a retreat centre on a hill overlooking the Arabian Sea. In Less’s mind, “…he could polish the final draft of his novel, the one whose acceptance his agent will surely be celebrating in New York with that champagne.”

Finally, to Japan, in place of another writer whose wife has forbidden him further travel and who needs someone to go to Kyoto in his stead and write a piece about kaiseki cuisine for an in-flight magazine. In this way, Less will be able to avoid both his approaching mid-life birthday, and the marriage of his ex, and virtually none of it at his own expense.

Needless to say, most of his carefully laid plans go seriously —and often hilariously— astray, from the loss of his newly purchased signature blue suit, to stepping on his own sewing needle and requiring surgery in India.

According to Wikipedia, Andrew Sean Greer began writing Less as a “very serious novel” but found that “the only way to write about [being gay and aging] is to make it a funny story. And I found that by making fun of myself, I could actually get closer to real emotion – closer to what I wanted in my more serious books.”

Greer is also the author of The Path of Minor Planets, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, The Story of a Marriage, How It Was for Me, and The Confessions of Max Tivoli. He presently lives in San Francisco.

My recommendation: Read Less, you’ll like it more than you might expect. Trust me. Have I ever lied to you?

Less is available in paperback from the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library.

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

by James Wilson

Julian Barnes has always struck me as being a ‘thinking man’s novelist’, by which I mean no disrespect to the intellects of some of his contemporaries, like, for example, Martin Amis or Ian McEwan. But many novelists have a ‘hook’, or particular quality that resonates repeatedly in their work – Amis’ style and technical wizardry, McEwan’s fascination with disturbed and disorienting experiences. Barnes’ novels are typically rather quiet and thoughtful, and if his  recent book, The Noise of Time (2016), is not a thinking man’s novel, it certainly is a novel about a thinking man – specifically, the 20th century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Biographical fiction, treating artists in particular, is a genre that Barnes has experience in: in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and Arthur and George (2005), he extensively reimagines the lives, and thoughts, of the 19th century French novelist, and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle; and arguably his most famous novel, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), devotes one to the French painter Gericault.

The plot of The Noise of Time, if we can accurately say it has a plot, in actuality consists of three ‘moments’, as it were, in the life of Shostakovich: one while he is waiting for an elevator, a second while he is on an airplane, and the third, much later in his life, when he is in the back seat of his Communist Party-provided car, while staring at his chauffeur’s ear. Barnes’ technique is to stretch these moments out by filling in not what his subject was actually ‘doing’, but what he was thinking. In the edition I was reading, the wait for the apartment building elevator to get to his floor begins on page 15; the elevator actually arrives on page 53. The novel is quite literally composed of thoughts and very little else.

But the thoughts of Dmitri Shostakovich, in Barnes’ imaginative recreation, are as fascinating as any action-packed plot. Barnes’ interest in this artist’s thoughts extend not only to the musical and artistic insights of what the Soviet state called ‘the greatest composer of the 20th century’ (though for any music lovers among its readership it will certainly provide both musical insights, particularly to the symphonies, and some delicious gossip, especially about contemporaries, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, who, unlike Shostakovich, ‘sold out’ to the West), but, even more importantly, one suspects, for readers concerned with ‘theme’, to ‘the soul of man under socialism’, to borrow a phrase. Barnes’ primary interest in the novel is with Shostakovich as artist under the tyranny of Stalin and Soviet ‘Power’. In point of fact, the book opens with Shostakovich waiting for an elevator in the middle of the night, as he does every night, because he fully expects them to come and take him away, for the interrogation, ending with the bullet to the back of the head. He prefers to wait in the hallway outside his apartment because he does not want his wife and children to be awakened, and to watch him being taken away. This is fact, not fiction.

What lends a freshness to yet another novel of mid-twentieth century Stalinist terror is that Shostakovich, unlike Stravinsky or Prokofiev, both of whom left Russia for the west, or Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov, both of whom Shostakovich publicly denounced, is generally perceived as a willing spokesman for Stalin and the Soviet Union. By the time of his death in 1975 he had become a member of the Party, and served on the ‘Supreme Soviet’, the most authoritative legislative body of the USSR. We are reminded on a number of occasions by the ‘remembering’ Shostakovich, that his “Second Symphony had contained four blasts from a factory siren in F sharp.” Another of his symphonies was composed to the memory of Lenin. Barnes seems to want to try to understand the – apparently contradictory – forces which drove him to be both a great composer and artist, and at the same time a willing participant in state terror, torture and the systemic suppression of freedom and truth. It’s an interesting sort of pickle.

It also, in my view, is a novel which is as much ‘about’ today’s world, as the Soviet era. In Arthur and George, Barnes had written a novel set in the Edwardian era and ostensibly about a legal case against George Edaiji, a Parsi Englishman, who was wrongfully charged and convicted of a crime. Barnes raises questions about racial profiling which were arguably more relevant to 2005 England than to 1890s England. Similarly, The Noise of Time, which might reasonably be understood as meaning ‘the cacophony of history’ – and what that does to the purity and truth of music, may, I think, be read as musings by Barnes about the role of the artist in a western world that has become beset by new – and some old – perceptions of nationalism and isolationism, and contrasting views of internationalism and diversification. Barnes completed the novel in 2015, the year before the Brexit vote and the election of the current US president. As a long-standing Francophile, who divides his time roughly equally between England and the continent, one can imagine that Barnes voted Remain. Repeatedly in this novel, Barnes recreates a time of great conflict between the all-powerful state, together with mass hysteria, and individual freedom and truth. For Shostakovich, there is “Nothing but madness in the world.” He is forced to compose within the revolver-wielding and ever-threatening communist state’s requirement of the need for art to please the people, and not to become corrupted by esoteric western formalism. It is very much a struggle between art and propaganda, or between truth and ‘fake news’; very much a choice between standing for principle and going with populism. The Noise of Time is of our time as well as of Shostakovich’s.

James Wilson

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So Long Stan: Dunn’s Conundrum by Stan Lee

By Vincent Cuddihy

Stan Lee, Marvel Comics’ legendary creative genius, died last month, so I thought it would it would be appropriate to review one of his books. Although Lee is best known for co-creating many of Marvel’s best loved characters such as Spider Man and Iron man, as well as establishing Marvel as a powerhouse in the production of blockbuster films, he did write a few books along the way. Most of them are graphic novels and how-to books about cartooning. But he did author at least one very clever and amusing novel.

Dunn’s Conundrum (1985) is a mix of detective story, spy thriller and political satire. Harry Dunn is the boss of an intelligence group known as the Library. There are only twelve agents, referred to as Librarians, each of whom is a specialist in a particular field, but all of whom have access to all the information the other eleven have. Unlike the CIA’s policy of making information available to agents on a need-to-know basis, the Library functions on a need-to-know-everything basis. And that “everything” includes whatever the CIA, the NSA and all the other US intelligence agencies know. Lee presents a world where all the Librarians operate like Tim McGee in NCIS or Penelope Garcia in Criminal Minds. They spend their time mining all the data bases in the country, including police records, prison records, phone records, as well as the tapes from all operative surveillance cameras.

There has been a break-in at the Library Reference Room while it was undergoing repairs. All systems had been shut down, but one of the burglars seemed to know how to reconnect them. This leads Harry to think that the putative thieves had inside help from one of the Librarians. He needs to ferret out the culprit before more damage is done. But how can you uncover the source of the leak when all the suspects know everything you know? That is Dunn’s conundrum.    

Harry assigns Walter Coolidge to find the mole, known to his outside contacts by the code name of the Doctor. Coolidge is an archaeologist by training. His academic papers on the study of garbage as a means of learning about daily life in ancient civilizations had attracted the Library’s attention. If he can learn that much about people’s behaviour from 2000 year-old garbage, think what he can learn from this week’s trash! Coolidge’s official title is Trashman, but all the other Librarians refer to him as the Garbageman. In addition to spending his time sifting through waste bins, Coolidge is also carrying on a torrid affair with Vera Bishop, the photo analyst. It is her work on satellite pictures that leads Lee to forecast the development of Google Maps and Google Earth.

Walter’s inquiries lead him to believe that the break-in was staged by a group that call themselves the Emersons and they are looking for information about O.F.F. Walter struggles to learn what O.F.F. stands for. Judging by the comportment in their personal lives of those who are at the top of the pecking order, which Walter is privy to because of all the microcams the Library has distributed around DC, and by how excited they all get when the percent for O.F.F. goes up, Walter starts to believe it refers to Opportunities For F—ing. Later on he will learn that it represents something much more sinister.

There are some very funny passages, such as this rant by Senator Garvey’s assistant Davey Reed. “You see, ladies and gentlemen, the politics of this great republic of ours can be described with only one word. My fellow citizens, that word is vodka. American politics is straight, pure vodka…Tasteless, of course. Odorless, perhaps. Colourless, certainly. And yet, in spite of all, having the power to intoxicate.”

But there also some very alarming parts. The Doctor’s clinical description of how WWIII is going to unfold over a 30 minute period with only 25 to 28 million American deaths, mostly from cancers triggered by the increase in radiation, is truly frightening. One wonders whether Ronald Reagan had read this book when he decided to restart negotiations with the USSR that led to the treaty that eliminated short and medium range nuclear missiles along with their warheads.

In some ways, Dunn’s Conundrum, seems badly dated with no cellphones, no internet and no 9/11 with its consequences. But the following analysis still seems relevant in the dystrumpian world of current American politics. “You know what it’s like out there. John Doe has anticommunism in his gut; it’s in the water he drinks, the food he eats. He’s touched with fear and righteousness and fanaticism and hate. You’re going to tell this man that the arms race is our fault?….But you still refuse to deal with the problem that John Doe doesn’t want to know. He enjoys his hate. It makes him feel superior. All any president has to do is go out to the country and rattle John Doe’s cage every few years and he gets all the money he needs for the latest weapons systems.”

Dunn’s Conundrum is still in print. Or perhaps you can find a copy in someone else’s trash.

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The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbø

by James Wilson

According to an article published last month in a leading business magazine, the three best countries to live in today – if you are a woman – are Denmark, Sweden and Norway. You might not think so, however, if your notion of what it’s like to live in Scandinavia were based on Jo Nesbø novels. The Devil’s Star (first published in Norwegian in 2003; available in English in 2005) is the fifth novel, in a series of eleven thus far, featuring the brilliant, if seriously humanly flawed, homicide detective, Harry Hole of the Oslo Police Department. Nesbø, who is also a musician and former journalist, is one of the most popular writers of crime fiction in both his native Norway and throughout the world. His particular subgenre, Scandinavian noir, is especially dark and violent, and the victims are almost exclusively women.

The Devil’s Star finds Inspector Hole chasing down the extremely rare phenomenon – in Norway at least – of the serial killer. So rare is such a murderer among Hole and his colleagues, in fact, that they are afraid, even unofficially amongst themselves, to use the term – “Do we dare to say it now?” they ask, after the third similar killing is discovered. Complicating the investigation for Hole, and an already complexly layered plot for the reader, is the fact that he suspects the other lead detective in the case, Tom Waaler, of corruption, criminality, and even of having murdered, some months previously, Hole’s work partner, who Hole believes had been on the brink of exposing Waaler. As one might expect, these two threads eventually intertwine, with a few others thrown in, and things get seriously convoluted. But in a good way, provided you’re fond of scratching your head.

Muddying already murky waters is the fact that Hole is disliked and distrusted by just about every other cop in Oslo, the main reason being that he embodies all the negative qualities that have become almost de rigueur among noir detectives since their evolution from the ‘hardboiled’ antiheroes of the 1930’s, like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. That is to say, while they are very, very good at their jobs, they are complete failures as human beings. With what is beginning to become annoying consistency these days, contemporary police detectives are almost inevitably alcoholics, chain-smokers, divorced, estranged from their kids, friendless and incapable of sustaining any kind of meaningful human relationship. If they are not on the case, they wouldn’t help an old woman cross the street. Indeed, one is tempted to wonder whether Nesbø is not engaging in a bit of irreverent convention deconstruction in giving his detective what could be seen as a slightly farcical name (in its English version at least, in Norwegian his surname is pronounced with two syllables, and rhymes with ‘truly’).

However, as mentioned, Hole is a remarkably astute solver of seemingly opaque and impenetrable riddles, which makes him ideally suited for the case presented in The Devil’s Star. For, like many fictional serial killers, if not real life ones, the bad guy in this novel is not content with the murders themselves. Arguably even more important to him is the ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ game he plays with the policemen and women who are hunting him down. Barely perceptible and intricate clues – lost on all except the ultra alert and focussed Hole – are deliberately left to tease and frustrate the team of detectives. Though as a reader of The Devil’s Star one must buy into the fairly elaborate and artificial conventions of the crime fiction genre, if you’re willing to do so, the book definitely offers up an abundance of rewards. At just over 450 pages, it’s a slow-burn, but once you become engaged with both the intricacies of the double plot, and the layered depths of the main characters and their interrelationships, the read becomes more and more fascinating with each chapter.

Added to plot and character is an engaging handling of both temporal and spatial setting. Oslo itself might be regarded as a character, or at least, an essential contributing element. The districts, streets, and even bars drawn in the fictive world are also actual; Nesbø even provides a detailed street map. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the map of the city eventually becomes a key element in the solution of the crime, and, to crime fiction fans, this discovery is a moment of high pleasure. Additionally, the novel, which I suspect is refreshingly self-aware re its reliance on game-playing, stands a preconceived notion of Norwegian weather patterns on its head, and gives us the utterly unexpected, meteorologically. It even, for the lovers of the tongue-in-cheek, offers growls of thunder and cracks of lightning to accompany its grisly, operatic climax.

Literary self-consciousness may also be evident in more than the lead detective’s name. Another genre convention honoured by the text is the killer eventually being afforded an opportunity to expound upon the clever intricacies of his devilish plans. What becomes abundantly clear is that this killer has read his share of crime fiction. And Nesbø’s use of a GB Shaw play and its subsequent Broadway musical version becomes a moment of brilliant meta-theatricality for any readers that way inclined. This may be off-putting for some, but I found it an amusing antidote to the otherwise dark, dark world of Scandinavian noir.

Perhaps not quite in the ‘cuddle fiction’ category, then, unless you’re also fond of blood pudding, The Devil’s Star will nevertheless grip you, challenge you, probably scare you, and even disgust you a little, but it might also, seemingly counter-intuitively, amuse you from time to time, though not in ways you might expect from crime fiction. Not a bad book to have on your table, given that long winter nights look to have settled in in these parts.

The Devil’s Star is on a shelf in the Lennoxville Library

 

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Rock ‘n’ Radio: When DJs and Rock Music Ruled the Airwaves

 Rise and Fall of Montreal Rock Radio  

Ian Howarth’s Rock ‘n’ Radio: When DJs and Rock Music Ruled the Airwaves  (2017) has the material of a pretty good book in it, but he does not make very good use of it. He is trying to tell the story of how Rock and Roll came to dominate the English language radio business in Montreal in the late 60s and early 70s. He starts out with his family’s arrival on the West Island in 1962. He documents his efforts to pull in American radio stations that featured all rock formats. (I can relate to that because I was doing the same thing; except that I was trying to find baseball games).

But his story is difficult to follow because it jumps around so much chronologically. Howarth is a former teacher who abandoned the classroom to become a freelance journalist. The book reflects this because it reads like a collection of newspaper and magazine articles. While the reporter has tried to organize these articles into a logical pattern, he has done very little to integrate these stories into a coherent whole. As a result, there is a large amount of repetition that I found quite tedious.

The book is organized into chapters about the radio stations, the owners and managers of these stations, and the disc jockeys who were the pioneers in putting the Top 40 format on the air. There are also some chapters about some of the more successful local rock bands from this period, as well as the impresarios who brought outside talent to perform in Montreal.

While each of these chapters sheds new light on some aspects of the evolution of the Montreal music business, it also repeats stories that Howarth had already told in a previous chapter. The story of the Beatles concerts at the Forum in September of 64 gets told three times, with only the third time providing an explanation of why the quartet never came back to Montreal. The story of the time when a group from the FLQ seized the studios of CKGM-FM on Greene Avenue during the October Crisis and used the facilities to broadcast their manifesto is told in detail twice. So is his account of the ill-fated (the buses never made it to the concert venue) CFOX expedition to Woodstock in 1969.

Donald Tarlton, who worked his way up from playing records at high school dances to being one of the Montreal’s most important concert entrepreneurs and organizers, appears several times in this saga; and he is identified nearly as many times as “Donald K. Donald”. Only at his final appearance does Howarth explain how Tarlton chose this moniker.

Howarth does provide an index, but it is incomplete. So if you are trying to get the details concerning Janis Joplin’s introduction to impresario Samuel Gesser, one of the funnier episodes in the book, you won’t find them by looking up “Joplin”. Likewise, you need to know who was riding the buses to Woodstock if you want to learn what happened there.

One strength of this collection of tales and biographical sketches is that Howarth manages to capture a sense of how fluid the radio business is. DJs come: DJs go. And they came from all over: some were locals, but others came from other parts of Canada, or the US or even from Europe. When they departed, they scattered to many destinations too.

Howarth has done a lot of work tracking these players down to find out how they got to Montreal and what they did and where they did it once they left. It is clear that being a Top 40 DJ is a stressful occupation that often had negative impacts on the personal and family lives of those who made their living this way. It may have been glamorous and exciting, providing opportunities to hang with the icons of rock and roll, but the pressure to stay ahead of the competition was also fierce. Men like Robert “Tootall” Wagenaar, who stuck it out for four decades at CHOM, are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Another important thing that Howarth does is to convey the impact of the imposition of Canadian content rules on the Canadian music industry, starting in 1971. Not only did these regulations increase the exposure for Canadian bands, but they provided enhanced opportunities for everyone involved in music production from composers and arrangers to studio musicians, sound engineers and record producers.

As an Anglophone teenager in Montreal in the early 60s, I can relate to a big chunk of what is in this history, and it was interesting to read what happened after I moved away in ’67. But readers from other cities may find it a little on the parochial side. Some serious re-editing would make the result more universal and more appealing to audiences who grew up at a different time and in other places, including Francophone Boomers from Montreal.

Vincent Cuddihy

 

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