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“A person dies but things remain. A chair. Cigarette butts. The memory of a foot. And maybe the song he used to whistle, which she couldn’t remember now. It was unbelievable that she couldn’t remember it. But maybe his whistling was like the plastic bags still roaming over the desert. A person dies, but his whistling still runs on the wind, crossing roads and ravines getting tangled in the sand and junk.”—thoughts of Sirkit, widow.

cover waking lionsAn award-winning Israeli screenwriter and WINNER of Israel’s Sapir Prize for best debut fiction, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen may find a much larger audience with this new novel, her first one to be translated into English. Critics have been busy trying to describe her work, with many calling it literary fiction because of the excellence of the prose style and the complex development of her themes. Others, however, carried away by the action and its consequences, have described it as a thriller. And, since Gundar-Goshen is a clinical psychologist using this novel to explore the ways in which some people can sometimes suppress feelings of guilt, if given enough motivation to do so, the novel may also be described as an intense psychological novel. If one considers the author’s screenwriting experience, the novel sets itself up as a possible precursor to a dramatic film – its colorful characters and the variety of populations in the exotic Israeli desert ideal for a unique film, yet another possibility for this book.

author photo gundar-goshen 2

Author photo by Katharina Lutcher, Bild.

The opening lines instantly establish the mood and tone. Eitan Green, a young doctor in Beersheba, Israel, having completed his night duty, is relaxing as he drives his SUV at high speed in the Negev desert, enjoying the sense of freedom and the beauty of the moon: “He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man. For the first moment after he hits him, he’s still thinking about the moon, and he suddenly stops, like a candle that has been blown out.” Stunned and fearful of what he will find when he sees the body of the man he has hit, the young doctor feels paralyzed: “If the man lying there is no longer a man he cannot imagine what will become of the man standing there, shaking, unable to complete one simple step. What will become of him?” The man Eitan Green has hit is Eritrean, a refugee thirty or forty years old, on the ground with his head crushed, and Eitan knows with certainty that the victim will die quickly. He briefly considers what will happen to him when he reports the death to the police, considers that he will probably get a few months in jail, and realizes that that sentence will end any chance of his doing surgery in the future. Another possibility is all too clear, however. “He couldn’t save this man. At least he’d try to save himself.” He convinces himself that the Eritrean actually has a smile on his face as he dies, “his closed eyes signaling his approval.”

Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, Israel, where Eitan Green is working during the action of this novel.

Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, Israel, where Eitan Green is working during the action of this novel.

Through flashbacks, the author establishes Eitan’s history, with his new job as a doctor in Beersheba, not Tel Aviv, where he began his career. He was effectively banished from Tel Aviv after he challenged and threatened to report his superior for taking payoffs. Eitan’s wife, a police officer, has supported the move to Beersheba, where they have more time to spend with their two young boys, and where they can restart their lives. Now, with the accident, however, Eitan is in a quandary. Though he slept well that night, he is now haunted by the image of the dead man, and though he knows that his SUV, “a Mercedes tank,” has not a scratch on it after the accident, he still ponders his actions, trying to convince himself that he was “right” to save himself since the Eritrean was dying anyway. A knock on his door sets the novel’s action in motion: “The woman at the door…was Eritrean, and she was holding his wallet in her hand.” She is Sirkit, wife of the man he killed, and she has a deal for him: He is free to do whatever he wants during the day, but his nights will belong to her.

Map of Beersheba and the Negev desert, which constitutes the entire yellow section of this map.

Map of Beersheba and the Negev desert, which constitutes the entire yellow section of this map.

No further description of the action is possible without ruining the novel’s many surprises, and Gundar-Goshen keeps the reader on tenterhooks throughout. Gradually, the reader comes to know – or think s/he knows – each of the main characters, their backgrounds, and their ways of life and usual behavior. Eitan’s wife Liat, horrified by the fact that the death of an Eritrean in the desert is not being investigated by her police department, decides to do some investigating herself, and soon uncovers some involvement by Bedouins, who are also smugglers. Sirkit, the widow of the man Eitan killed, proves to be a formidable figure, controlling many aspects of the lives of undocumented refugees, just as Liat, Etan’s wife, is similarly involved in dealing with Israeli teens and those in trouble. Violence between refugee husbands and wives living on the outskirts of society may be bloody, but the ultimate cost is not unlike what is happening with Eitan and Liat as their relationship begins to crumble with his constant absences. Two young refugees, whole-heartedly in love, remind Eitan of the early days in his courtship of Liat, though their fates are dramatically different – again, through no fault of their own. Gradually, Eitan becomes a more proficient liar, at one point even using blackmail to get something he wants and causing the reader to wonder how far Gundar-Goshen will be able to take Eitan without sacrificing the last vestiges of sympathy the reader may have for him.

Eritrean asylum seekers often face the choice between between jail and death

Eritrean asylum seekers must often choose   between jail in Israel and death at home.

Parts of the novel are too long – the backgrounds and family histories which lead the main characters to think the way they do are more detailed than necessary, and they sometimes interrupt the flow of the drama. The use of coincidence is obvious, also. The action moves quickly, however, earning the novel a place on the “thriller” list while also remaining on the “literary” list. It is carefully designed, with many comparisons and contrasts between the lives of the Israelis and those of the refugees, adding poignancy and depth to the characters and their stories. Gundar-Goshen has left some surprises for the conclusion, too, and readers will be more than satisfied by the clever way the novel reaches its conclusion. Though some may have a problem identifying with Eitan because of his basic dishonesty, others will chalk that all up to irony as the novel draws to a close. As Liat says, late in the novel, “ On safari in Kenya, after their wedding, the guide had told them that once a lion tastes human flesh, it won’t ever want to hunt anything else. Perhaps it wasn’t true, just a story for tourists, but her lioness’s instincts knew there was no greater temptation, no hunt more tantalizing than the ambush of your loved ones. That was why you should not do it.”

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on https://www.theguardian.com  Photo by Katharina Lutscher, Bild.

The photo of Soroka Hospital in Beersheba is from https://www.israel21c.org/

The map of Israel showing Beersheba and the Negev may be found on https://www.pinterest.com  The Negev is the entire yellow section below Beersheba.

Undocumented Eritrean asylum seekers, traveling through the Negev, must often choose between jail in Israel and death at home.  https://972mag.com/

WAKING LIONS
REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Israel, Literary, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study
Written by: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Published by: Little, Brown
Date Published: 02/28/2017
ISBN: 978-0316395434
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note: This book was WINNER of the Carnegie Medal for Non-Fiction for 2013.

“We have wronged the Indian from the beginning. The white man’s sins against him did not cease with the explosion of the final cartridge in the wars which subjugated him in his own country. Our sins of peace…have been far greater than our sins of war…In peace, we changed the nature of our weapons, that was all; we stopped killing Indians in more or less a fair fight, debauching them, instead, thus slaughtering them by methods which gave them not the slightest chance of retaliation.” –Edward Curtis, 1912.

The scale, scope, and significance of this magnificent biography by National Book Award-winner Timothy Egan are only slightly eclipsed by the immense scale, scope, and significance of the work of his subject, photographer Edward Curtis (1868 – 1952). Curtis, at age twenty-eight, took his first photograph of a Native American when he did a portrait of “Princess Angeline,” an aged woman who was the last surviving child of Chief Seattle, for whom the American city was named. By 1896, when Curtis took this photo, it was illegal for Princess Angeline and other Native Americans to live within the city named for her father, and Curtis was all too aware of that sad reality. This woman was not only homeless in the traditional sense, she was bereft of the culture and belief system in which she had spent her entire life. By 1900, Native American tribes, nation-wide, had been devastated by disease and the superior weapons of the whites who wanted their land, and they now “owned” and occupied a mere two percent of the lands they had originally possessed. The small amount of land they had was in no way suited to their long cultural traditions, with the bison on which they depended for their food and skins all but wiped out and the land given to them completely unsuitable for their sustenance. Many starved to death on “their own” lands.

Self-portrait by Edward Curtis, 1889.

Though he was a family man with several young children, Edward Curtis spent the next thirty-three years investigating the remaining communities of Native Americans throughout the West, determined to record every aspect of their cultures before they vanished completely from history. Christian missionaries and the U.S. government had been determined to convert them and to eliminate their religions (which the missionaries did not consider to be religions at all), removing their children from their tribal settlements and sending them to schools away from their families and culture so they would become part of the American “civilization” totally alien to them.

“Princess Angeline” of the Duwamish, 1896.

Curtis was obsessed with the possibilities of using photography for saving these cultures for posterity – as a photographic record, at least. Ultimately, his self-imposed mission  took him to virtually every remaining tribal area and state west of the Mississippi River, from New Mexico and Oklahoma to the Dakotas and Montana, back to Washington State, and eventually, north to Alaska. Spending weeks and often months with some tribal groups and visiting several others for a number of years in succession in order to be sure that he was recording their lives accurately, Curtis was totally devoted to his  task, giving up virtually everything of personal value, working for no money at all (hoping that his commercial photo studio back in Seattle would support his family), and living most of his life hopelessly in debt in order to fulfill his personal mission.

Hopi Mother, 1922.

Eventually, he would succeed in gaining the patronage of J. P. Morgan for a twenty-volume set of photographs with textual explanations, a monumental effort entitled The North American Indian. Again, Curtis worked without pay, and though he had foreseen a limited edition of one hundred copies of the twenty-volume set, each set selling for $5000 (the equivalent of about $125,000 then), that, too, was a financial disaster. Few people were interested, and even the Smithsonian would not purchase a copy. Despite the fact that Curtis took over 40,000 photographs using many new techniques, spent a great deal of time recording seventy-five Native American languages and vocabulary on wax cylinders, recorded songs from ceremonies and everyday life, described and photographed the costumes and appearances of dozens of tribes, and wrote entertainingly in all of his volumes, he always found himself alone and bankrupt. Importantly, however, his financial disasters never led him to compromise in any way. He refused to stint on his research into the waning cultures he was studying, remaining true to himself and true to them for his whole working life.

Young Hopi Woman, 1922.

Though he would eventually rewrite the Battle of Little Bighorn, based on the interviews he conducted with the Native Americans whose first person observations of that battle differed markedly from the official version, he was prevented for many years from publicizing this research. With twelve more volumes left (of the twenty he would write) when he learned this information, he needed to cater to those who could help him – at least at first. Eventually, as additional financial support failed to appear, Curtis decided to simply tell the truth in his twenty volumes, and let the chips fall wherever they might.

341px-Zuni-girl-with-jar-171x300

Zuni Girl with jar, 1903.

Author Timothy Egan is much like his subject in pursuing every possible detail, photograph, and incident related to Curtis, his life, and his commitment to tribal histories, even as it becomes all too obvious that Curtis’s mission is in a losing cause, both historically and personally. Capturing Curtis’s initial excitement as he begins his travels throughout the west in search of tribes still living according to their traditional histories, despite their straitened circumstances, Egan instills a similar excitement in his narrative beginning by including many reproductions of Curtis’s Native American photographs. Curtis’s disappointments in his inability to secure more financial support for this last chance to record the civilizations that are disappearing before his eyes are matched by the author’s almost palpable frustration with those in power who could have made a difference by helping to preserve even more information and even more cultural traditions.

Nunivak mother and child, 1929.

As Egan presents his insights into Curtis’s personality, quirks, and even blind spots, this biography becomes a rarity – a biography closer to a classical Greek tragedy than to the more familiar saga of a man’s life.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://en.wikipedia.org

Princess Angeline’s photo is from:  http://en.wikipedia.org

Hopi mother and child:  http://en.wikipedia.org

Young Hopi woman:  http://en.wikipedia.org

Zuni woman with pot:  http://en.wikipedia.org

Nunivak mother and child: https://commons.wikimedia.org

SHORT NIGHTS OF THE SHADOW CATCHER: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.
REVIEW. Biography, Book Club Suggestions, Exploration, Historical, Native American, Non-fiction, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Timothy Egan
Published by: Mariner Books
Date Published: 08/06/2013
Edition: Reprint edition
ISBN: 978-0544102767
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“For people like me, the Internet is the shipwreck as well as the life raft: you drown in the tracking game, in the expectation, you can’t grieve for a relationship, however dead it may be, and at the same time you’re hovering above it in a virtual world clinging to fake information that pops up all over the Web, and instead of falling apart you go online. If only for that little green light that tells you the other person’s online.”—Claire Millecam, fifty-year-old college professor.

cover who you think i amIn one of the wildest, most creative, and surprising literary novels of the year, French author Camille Laurens plays with reality and virtual reality on all levels and involves the engaged reader in the action as it occurs. The novel opens with a mysterious two-page Prologue, written in stream-of-consciousness style, purportedly an audio recording of a deposition from the Police Headquarters archives of a city in France. The woman being deposed claims to be an academic who has published articles and has a background in women’s issues and history, but she is also overwrought, frustrated when the interviewer stops to talk with a student who has entered the room. Her stream of consciousness raving has no context for the reader just beginning the novel (though it makes sense when re-read after the conclusion). She is now angry because, among other issues, “A real newspaper, a serious daily,” has reported that “it’s pathetic that aged 50 Madonna still wants to be someone.” The speaker then goes off on her own tangent about how there is “no point being young if you’re not pretty and no point being pretty if you’re not young. Men mature, woman age. A man in the twilight of his life is a handsome thing,” she says. “A woman’s just sad…” People just want her to go die someplace, she believes.

author photo

The opening chapters of the book itself begin with interviews between Claire Millecam and Dr. Marc B., as Claire reveals her academic background and her experience in the theatre, where her former husband was/is a director. Though Dr. Marc B. is new to her, she has been “here” for two and a half years, for reasons unknown, and she, now almost fifty, tells him that “it’s his job to resuscitate me, to rewire my circuits, get the machine working again and basically reinstate me.” She suspects that the doctor wants her to talk about “Christophe, the corpus delicti or rather the corpus so delectable he broke my heart.” Chris, she tells him, began as the roommate and Facebook friend of Joe, her former lover, who won’t “Friend” people he does not know – or has formerly loved. She has therefore decided to be Chris’s Facebook friend in order to find out from him what is now happening with Joe. Setting up a new Facebook account under the fictional name of Claire Antunes (because she admires author Antonio Lobo Antunes), she uses a photo of a 24-year-old family member and befriends Chris, who is thirty-six. Her experience in a writing workshop at her residence, run by a teacher named Camille, helps her create a character for Claire Antunes and allows her to live within that persona while she is on Facebook.

patti smith because the night

As a Facebook relationship between alterego Claire Antunes and Chris evolves, Claire Millecam soon finds herself spending most of her time on-line, and inevitably she falls in love with her Facebook friend Chris, who reciprocates her feelings. She is understandably fearful, however, that if Chris ever sees her, a fifty-year-old woman who has misled him, not an innocent twenty-four-year-old, that he will be repulsed. Gradually, the past unfolds for all the characters – Chris and his history; Katia, the woman whose picture Claire Millecam has used for Claire Antunes’s Facebook page; and Claire Millecam herself. At one point Chris posts a video of Patti Smith singing “Because the Night Belongs to Lovers,” describing love as “an angel disguised as lust,” a description that saddens Claire because “if love’s an angel, then it’s sexless.” Claire’s response is to post a song on Youtube by Catherine Ribeiro, in which Ribeiro sings “So this is my distress/ This is the truth that’s hurting me/I never had an address/Nothing but a fake ID.”

Chris loves the Citroen DS Special he drives.

Chris loves the Citroen DS Special he drives.

With these characters and their complicated relationships, psychological issues, and motivations established, author Camille Laurens then lets them “live their lives,” expanding her themes and the complexity of her plot, involving the reader and raising questions about what is real and what is contrived about their lives as the characters themselves see them, and what is real and what is created on a different level by the author for purposes of plot. Real life, as understood by the reader; the fictional reality of the characters in the story; and virtual reality all come together as the novel continues its themes. The author’s presentation of new first-person points of view throughout the novel encourage the reader to form still more new conclusions about the present and past of the characters as their interior action unfolds.

Cap Blanc Nez, where the conclusion plays out. Photo by Hans Hillewaert

Cap Blanc Nez, where the conclusion plays out. Photo by Hans Hillewaert

The title of the novel gives clues to the author’s intention and goes a long way toward the overall understanding of the novel’s focus. The novel might have been called “Who I Am,” rather than “Who You Think I am, but the first title suggests a main character who is confident and plans to illustrate for the reader how s/he thinks, what s/he believes, and what s/he plans to do in the future, a traditional point of view for a psychological novel like this one. In this case, however, the main character is floundering, and this title would not be appropriate. “Who You Think I Am,” chosen for this novel’s title, recognizes the changing landscape of the novel for the reader, based on what the author reveals at different points in the narrative. Here the reader, the “you” of the title, participates in the story, developing his/her own knowledge of the characters and action and drawing his/her own conclusions through the author’s carefully ordered revelations.  As new connections change the reader’s perceptions, the author is freed to present surprises, taking the novel in even more new directions and leading to a rousing conclusion. “Who You Think I Am,” with its careful pacing, created for me a kind of exhilaration rare in fiction, a feeling of participating more fully in the lives of the characters by willingly succumbing to the unknown and trusting the author to do what she does so well here – tell the story. High on my list of Favorites for the year.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.parismatch.com/

Chris shows a video of the Patti Smith recording, “Because the Night,” on his Facebook page to show his love for Claire.  She takes exceptions to it.  http://hitparade.ch/

Chris loves the Citroen DS Special (1970s) he drives.  https://www.baccarathotels.com

Cap Blanc Nez in northern France features strongly in the conclusion:  https://commons.wikimedia.org  Photo by Hans Hillewaert.

WHO YOU THINK I AM
REVIEW. Experimental, France, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Camille Laurens
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 03/28/2017
ISBN: 978-1590518328
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“A strong positive response to [Edward] Hopper’s paintings is by no means uncommon, in America and throughout the world. But I’ve come to believe that it’s singularly strong among readers and writers…those of us who care deeply for stories…It’s not because of the stories his paintings tell….[They] don’t tell stories…They suggest – powerfully, irresistibly – that there are stories within them, waiting to be told…It’s our task to find [them] for ourselves.” – Lawrence Block, editor/writer for this collection.

cover block sunlight shadowIn a book that will delight lovers of stories and art, Lawrence Block, editor and writer, presents stories written by himself and sixteen other authors in response to seventeen paintings by American artist Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967). Most of Hopper’s paintings are quiet, with little, if any, action and few, if any, characters. The overall mood for most of Hopper’s paintings is bleak, and his characters appear to be lonely, immersed in their own thoughts, and alienated from society. Though Hopper specializes in the play of sunlight and shadow (hence, the title of the book), he does so with dramatic effect, and most of his major paintings show isolated characters dealing with the darkness, the light being just beyond them. All of the seventeen writers who have contributed a short story to illustrate a Hopper painting clearly catch the mood of depression and withdrawal which seems to characterize so many of these paintings, and anyone familiar with the work of these writers, most of whom are mystery writers, should also know what to expect: Only two writers create stories that can be said to have even slightly “happy” endings, and one of those occurs on a deathbed.

Lawrence Block, editor/writer for this collection

Lawrence Block, editor/writer for this collection

Most of the stories involve murders, the contemplation of murder, or other crimes. Robert Olen Butler, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Jeffery Deaver, Stephen King, and Lawrence Block, among others, are well known for the dark views of life they show in their fiction and have long careers in detailing the crimes that isolation can spawn. Even Joyce Carol Oates, not a mystery writer, creates a dark story of a woman waiting for a lover who is late and the unhealthy thoughts that go through her mind as she waits with scissors hidden under the cushion of her chair. And though the plots paired with these paintings differ widely in their details, the darkness prevails throughout all, creating a perfect melding of paintings with the authors who use them as inspiration for their stories.

"Hotel Lobby," 1943, by Edward Hopper

“Hotel Lobby,” 1943, by Edward Hopper

“Soir Bleu,” an early painting (1914) with seven characters sitting around an outdoor table in France, by far the greatest number of characters seen in any Hopper painting, inspires Robert Olen Butler to tell a story in which an artist, Vachon, is hoping to sell one or more paintings to a person he sits with at the table. The prostitute standing beside the table, whom he knows, wants to help him. Also sitting at the table is Pierrot, the clown, whom Vachon believes he has seen many years before, a twist which brings about a dramatic conclusion. In “The Truth About What Happened,” a clever story by Lee Child, featuring the 1943 painting “Hotel Lobby,” the main character is an FBI special agent working undercover on security for the Manhattan Project. His boss, a “Mr. Hopper,” is directing him as he investigates an elderly man who works for the project to see if he could be blackmailed by the enemy. In a humorous touch, Hopper and the agent decide to set up a meeting with the old man, a kind of intervention, using a hotel lobby at night, one identical to that of the painting.

"Room in New York," 1932, by Edward Hopper

“Room in New York,” 1932, by Edward Hopper

Stephen King’s “The Music Room,” inspired by Hopper’s “Room in New York,” 1932, features a painting in which Mr. Enderby, a formally dressed man, minus a jacket, is reading the newspaper at a table, while his bored wife is playing the piano, one-fingered, a seemingly harmless couple and setting. Gradually, the reader realizes that something is amiss, and as Enderby concentrates on the newspaper and discusses what is happening in the various comic strips in the paper, Mrs. Enderby begins to play popular music on the piano. Soon Stephen King’s trademark dark wit appears, with details I will forever remember whenever I see this painting. In Michael Connelly’s “Nighthawks,” based on Hopper’s most famous painting of the same name, his famed private detective Bosch meets a young woman at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she is studying and taking notes on the Hopper painting. Bosch has been hired by a movie producer, his client, to find a young woman who ran away eight years ago. As always, Bosch stays true to himself and to what it right but at the cost of feeling like a man sitting alone at the café counter with the other nighthawks.

"City Roofs," 1932, by Edward Hopper

“City Roofs,” 1932, by Edward Hopper

One of the most interesting stories comes from Gail Levin, whose credentials as the foremost expert on Edward Hopper are unparalleled. From 1976 – 1984, she was curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she created landmark exhibitions of the world of Edward Hopper. She has also written several books and many articles on his work. In “The Preacher Collects,” her first published piece of fiction, she is inspired by the painting “City Roofs,” 1932, a painting of light and shadow – and no people. Writing from the point of view of Arthayer R. Sanborn, said to be a graduate of Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, and Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Newton, Levin creates a character who is said to have served in Baptist churches in Massachusetts and Rhode Island before going to Nyack, New York, the town where Edward Hopper grew up, and where his family remained when he claimed New York City as his home. There Sanborn meets Marion Louise Hopper, only sibling of Edward Hopper. When the elderly Marion becomes ill, Edward comes back reluctantly to help her out, and his wife Jo stays for a while, but ultimately Marion becomes increasingly dependent on the church and its preacher.  Levin’s depiction of the relationships between Hopper and his wife and between Hopper and his sister are fascinating in this story, but what becomes overwhelmingly clear is that during Marion’s illness and after Hopper’s death, Hopper’s estate is plundered. Here the details are so specific it is difficult to imagine that they are not true, but this is fiction, and how much is really true and how much is invented remains to be discovered. For anyone who loves stories and art, especially that of Edward Hopper, this book will provide more hours of fun than anything you may have read in ages.

night hawks

“Night Hawks,” 1942.

Photos, in order:   The author’s photo appears on http://threeroomspress.com/authors/darkcitylights/

Lee Child’s story, “The Truth about What Happened,” was inspired by Hopper’s “Hotel Lobby,” 1943. https://en.wikipedia.org/

Stephen King’s “The Music Room,” evolved from Hopper’s “Room in New York,” 1932.  http://www.sheldonartmuseum.org

Gail Levin’s “The Preacher Collects,” took its inspiration from Hopper’s  “City Roofs,” 1932.  https://brunch.co.kr

Michael Connelly’s “Night Hawks,” was inspired by Hopper’s most famous painting of the same name from 1942. https://en.wikipedia.org/

IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper
REVIEW. Reviews, Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Short Stories, United States, Art, Edward Hopper
Written by: Lawrence Block, editor
Published by: Picador
Date Published: 12/06/2016
ISBN: 978-1681772455
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note: Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridasson was WINNER of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award for Silence of the Grave and is twice the WINNER of the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel two years in a row, for Jar City and Silence of the Grave.

“What interests me most are stories about survivors…people who escape with their lives from dangerous situations in the Icelandic wilderness. How do they cope? Why do some live while others don’t, though the circumstances are similar? Why do some get into trouble and others not? ….[And I wonder about] the people left behind, left to struggle with the questions raised by the events…those left behind to cope with the grief and loss.”—Erlendur, detective with the State Criminal Investigation Department, Iceland.

cover into oblivionIf it sounds strange for the publisher to refer to this novel by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason as the “sequel to the prequel,” that is because the novels in this series featuring Detective Erlendur have not been published in chronological order. The first novel to be published in English, Jar City (2000) was actually the third novel in the series, and eight more novels have been published since then. Several of these books refer to a traumatic event in Erlendur’s childhood involving him, his father, and his much-loved brother, and the author and publisher are now providing more background information about Erlendur’s early years to fill in and develop more about his youthful experiences in an effort to explain his current psychological makeup and his dark vision of the world.

author photo

The recently released “prequel” to the series, Reykjavik Nights (2012), features Erlendur in his twenties, and the reader learns about his eventual marriage and the birth of his two children. Into Oblivion, the just released “sequel to this prequel,” takes place shortly after that in time – in 1979 – and the reader learns that Erlendur is now divorced, his children not a factor in the novel. The third novel, Jar City, released in 2000, is set twenty years later, with Erlendur in his late forties, leaving a twenty-year gap between Into Oblivion and its chronological successor, Jar City.

huge hangar,Set in Keflavik and its environs, Into Oblivion begins with an atmospheric description of a fierce wind blowing across the moors, “hurling itself against the mighty walls” of an aircraft hangar standing on the highest ground. One of the largest structures in Iceland, it is as tall as an eight-story building, can accommodate the wingspan of the world’s largest aircraft, and serves as the operational hub of the US Air Force and its fleet of spy planes. A man suddenly falls the eight stories from the scaffolding tower inside the hangar. In a shift of scene, a young woman with severe skin problems is soaking in a warm spring on the moors, hoping that the mineral-rich mud will help her conquer her painful ski condition. Suddenly, she sees a shoe, and then finds it connected to a body. The police enter the case and discover that the body has more broken bones than anyone can recall ever seeing, consistent with a fall from great height which no one has reported. Eventually, the site of the death is determined to be the hangar on the US military base.

Hot spring and mud area to the south of Reykjavik. Photo by Keller Istvan

Hot springs and mud, to the south of Reykjavik. Photo by Keller Istvan

The investigation of this death is complex. Several different agencies – the US military, the Icelandic police, and the political system of Iceland – all become involved. Cold war tensions in Iceland between those who support the US and its military presence and those who want the US gone from the country add to the difficulties. No one knows exactly what the US is doing on its secret missions between Iceland and Greenland, and no one is talking. Nor are people talking about the nature of the supplies going in and out of the country in large cargo planes. While Erlendur is helping on this slowly developing investigation, he is also researching an event from twenty-five years ago, in which a young schoolgirl disappeared, with no resolution of her case. Her aunt is hoping that the disappearance will eventually be solved, and Erlendur, who becomes obsessed with this story, begins to investigate the girl’s disappearance on his own time.

C-130 Hercules cargo plane, similar to the one on which Kristvin had been working.

C-130 Hercules cargo plane, similar to the one on which Kristvin had been working.

The novel’s slow evolution establishes the identities of the characters and their interrelationships in the first hundred or so pages and sets up some of the complications. Over fifteen more characters are introduced after that, however, and without keeping a character list to remember some of the minor characters, it would be difficult to keep track of who is who, as they lack the individualization which makes characters “live.” The novel also lacks the sudden violence for which Indridason is usually noted, thereby shifting the burden of the action to the characters and their interactions, and these are not especially memorable. The girl with the skin problems, for example, stirs great empathy at the beginning, then virtually disappears. The more limited scope and conversational tone makes the novel feel, at times, like a domestic drama, rather than the dark, hard-edged noir for which Indridason is so famous, and the two parallel plots – involving the man who has fallen from the scaffolding and the young girl who disappeared twenty-five years before – are not equally compelling.

A 1948 Chevy Deluxe, which plays a feature role in the conclusion.

A 1948 Chevy Deluxe, which plays a feature role in the conclusion.

Fans of Indridason will probably read and enjoy the novel because it provides a picture of Erlendur’s life in his twenties, but it felt to me more like a marking of time than a significant expansion of our understanding of Erlendur. Little new information is revealed about him, and with a twenty year gap existing between this novel and its successor, Jar City, a huge gap still exists between what we know of Erlendur in his twenties and what we may still need to know to understand him in his forties. Fortunately, the conclusion, though not unexpected in terms of its plot detail, does come through with some of Indridason’s trademark noir spirit, leaving the reader with a sense of resolution despite what I felt was the novel’s disappointing lack of energy.

ALSO by Indridason:  JAR CITY (2000),       VOICES (2003),     THE DRAINING LAKE (2004),     HYPOTHERMIA (2007),     OUTRAGE (2008),    REYKJAVIK NIGHTS (2012)

Not part of the Erlendur series:  OPERATION NAPOLEON (1999)

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on  https://pl.wikipedia.org

The aircraft hangar in which Kristvin was found may have looked like this one:  https://www.nasa.gov/

The Midnesheidi Moor to the south of Reykjavik is filled with hot springs and “mud pots.” http://vilagutazo.blog.hu/   Photo by Keller Istvan.

The huge C-130 Hercules cargo plane is used to transport enormous cargoes.  http://mazuryairshow.pl

The 1948 Chevy Deluxe Fleetline plays a role in the dramatic conclusion of this novel:  https://hiveminer.com/Tags/1949,fleetline

INTO OBLIVION
REVIEW. Iceland, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Nordic Noir, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Arnaldur Indridason
Published by: Picador
Date Published: 02/07/2017
ISBN: 978-1250111432
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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