Professor Martens’ Departure – Jaan Kross

Book #237

Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published 2 March, 2012)


I have to admit that all through the past week [March 2012], I had two urges: to zoom in very close on Google earth to have a close look at the Estonian countryside, and to take a really good course in a couple centuries European diplomatic history. The book that inspired these urges was Professor Martens’ Departure by Jaan Kross.

A few chapters into this book, I was scrambling for Google. What I discovered is that this novel’s protagonist, Professor Martens, was a real historical figure, an international law expert in the Russian court of the early 20th Century. He was an important figure in numerous important international treaty negotiations. This novel, set late in his life, takes us with him on a train trip from his small village toward a rendezvous with his wife and official meetings with other diplomats in St. Petersburg.  As he travels, we listen to his internal dialogue, anticipating a planned conversation with his wife in which he plans to begin an era of total candor. He reviews his personal and professional past, examining successes and failures and imagines that this new honesty will be insurance against his own death. During the journey, he also temporarily shares his compartment with a young professional journalist with socialist sympathies who knows a bit about him through her professional connections. At times Martens also tells the reader about another Martens, who lived a century earlier, another international law expert, but for Germany.

It is a rare novel that gives insight into what it must feel like to be in contention for, but not win, a Nobel Peace prize, or to be left unsure whether your absence from an official list of participants in a major treaty negotiation was a typist’s error or a sly political maneuver by a competitive colleague.

Through Martens’ self-exploration, Jaan Kross explores the moral challenges faced by highly placed civil servants in autocracies, as well as the complexities of Estonian identity. Martens regrets, as well as some professional compromises, ethical failures in his personal life: infidelity, a lack of generosity to those who sought his support, despite his own success after early humble origins. Martens is a wonderful character, drawn with subtlety and skill. Those with an interest in political history and moral self-reflection will find this book a fascinating trip.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars; I definitely agree with the choice that placed this book on the list.


The Shining – Stephen King

Book #312

Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published March 2013)

The ShiningI haven’t been scared of a lot of movies, but The Shining freaked me out pretty well. That meant that when I went to pick up the novel, it took me awhile to get going, since I kept saying to myself “oh, man, this is going to start getting really scary!” But of course I kept going and was rewarded by a very well-crafted and scary novel that is actually quite unlike the movie in some interesting ways (e.g. no maze, but some very scary topiary hedges). I’ll have to watch the movie again now, just to refresh myself on the differences.

Marvelously suspenseful! Also NOT entirely similar to the excellent movie you have probably already seen. Written from the perspective of 3 family members and one other character, this novel explores the frightening things that unfold in the off-season when the family sign on as caretakers for the posh but infamous Overlook Hotel in an isolated mountainside location in Colorado.

The father, an English teacher and promising writer has just lost a job at a private school due to his alcoholism and violence, and the same factors have threatened his family. His five year old son has some eerie psychic abilities that give him visions of evil events likely to transpire should they actually take up residence at the hotel. Knowing all this up front keeps a reader on the edge of his/her seat from the very start.

Stephen King builds the suspense steadily while giving little breaks to lull the reader in between. He shows us the battle the father wages with his weaknesses, the struggle the mother has with whether to trust his recent sobriety and seeming return to the personality of the man she fell in love with, and tremendous difficulties the son has trying to be a willing participant in something he fears will go terribly wrong very soon because of how necessary the job is to maintaining the family’s status as an intact unit.

Meanwhile, far away in Florida the cook for the resort, who has made a deep connection with the little boy, wonders if he can reach the family in time to save any of them. Add snow, terrifying things happening in and around the hotel, and you have the novel.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Absalom, Absalom – William Faulkner

Book #622

Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published January 2013)

AASo I braved more Faulkner for my Mississippi read and was not sure at first that it was a good idea, but I have been converted. The Sound and the Fury will never truly be my friend, but one of its characters, the male Quentin who kills himself in his freshman year at Harvard, is still alive and well and telling a story of Southern life to his roommate from Alberta in Absalom, Absalom!, and I like him much better now. He and his roommate stay up all night discussing this complex tale of the Sutpen family, and by the time you realize you are in the Harvard dorm room, you are willing to stay up to hear the rest too. That doesn’t mean this is an easy read, but there is a beauty and tragedy to this tale that makes it compelling. Here is what I said about the book on Goodreads:

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that–a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them. There was a wistaria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.

That is the first paragraph of Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner – please note that the whole thing is just two sentences – and it was nearly enough to make me run screaming for something else from my bookshelf. My introductory psychology classes taught me that human working memory can hold on to 7 plus or minus 2 “chunks” of information before becoming overloaded. There is no way that Faulkner’s prose respects this limitation. And yet, by the end of this book (unlike with my last Faulkner experience), I had somehow become a huge fan anyway. Sick with the flu last night, I was desperately trying to keep my eyes open and make it to the end, not only of sentences, but of the whole book, because I really had been captured by this Shakespearean tragedy of a family saga set in Civil War era Mississippi. I have discovered that the strategy is to simply let the prose wash over you and not struggle too hard for meaning. Eventually the successive waves of narration begin to build a coherent narrative that is compelling. Faulkner also adds chronology and genealogy sections in the back that help provide scaffolding when you are lost, but also contain spoilers, so while I used them, I was a little ambivalent about doing so. I will say that despite understanding some basic facts that were not known to the characters for much of the book, I nonetheless found myself riveted as the plot unfolded, but I should also say that it took about a third to halfway into the book to feel this commitment to it. So stick with it, I think you will find it is worth it. At the start of this book, I was seriously considering giving up on further Faulkner, but now I look forward to future Faulkner novels with a pleasant anticipation.

An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

Book #230
Beth’s List Love (first published February 2013)

An Artist of the Floating WorldI have read Ishiguro before, and liked his work very much. I found this novel somewhat less engaging than The Remains of the Day, but still it was a quick and easy read.

“I believe I have already mentioned the fact that I played a small part in the Migi-Hidari’s coming into existence. Of course, not being a man of wealth, there was little I could do financially. But by that time my reputation in this city had grown to a certain extent; as I recall, I was not yet serving on the arts committee of the State Department, but I had many personal links there and was already being consulted frequently on matters of policy. So then, my petition to the authorities on Yamagata’s behalf was not without weight.

‘It is the owner’s intention’, I explained,’that the proposed establishment be a celebration of the new patriotic spirit emerging in Japan today. The decor would reflect the new spirit, and any patron incompatible with that spirit would be firmly encouraged to leave. Furthermore, it is the owner’s intention that the establishment be a place where this city’s artists and writers whose works most reflect the new spirit can gather and drink together. With respect to this last point, I have myself secured the support of various of my colleagues, among them the painter, Masayuki Harada; the playwright, Misumi; the journalists, Shigeo Otsuji and Eiji Nastuki–all of them, as you know, producers of work unflinchingly loyal to his Imperial Majesty the Emperor.’”

So remembers Masuji Ono, looking back on his pre-war life as a prominent artist in Imperial Japan. He is writing at a time after the war when a younger generation, and Japanese society at large, devastated by the effects of Japan’s role in the Second World War, look with criticism on those involved in engineering and promoting that war to the nation. His past actions have affected his professional relationships and have also created tension in the relationships with his own daughters. Ono must come to terms with the meaning of his own professional and artistic choices and their moral import in light of Japan’s recent history.

This is a fairly dry read, but an interesting study in the changing attitudes in Japanese society, the nature of artistic training in Japan, and the dynamics of relationships between the sexes and generations in Japanese families of the period. I found it interesting, but not particularly moving. Ironically, as one who lived briefly in Japan in the 1980s, I shared with Ono a certain concern about the degree to which American influences have come to predominate over traditional Japanese attitudes since American post-war occupation there. While I absolutely value the shift from aggressive nationalism to a more democratic and international perspective, I remember being somewhat horrified at the degree to which American materialism and less appealing cultural norms were sweeping Japan when I was there.

Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler

Book #586

Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published January 2013)


It was a warm day, almost the end of March, and I stood outside the barbershop looking up at the jutting neon sign of a second floor dine and dice emporium called Florian’s. A man was looking up at the sign too. He was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. He was about ten feet away from me. His arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers.

…The doors swung back outwards and almost settled to a stop. Before they had entirely stopped moving they opened again, violently, outwards. Something sailed across the sidewalk and landed in the gutter between two parked cars. It landed on its hands and knees and made a high keening noise like a cornered rat. It got up slowly, retrieved a hat and stepped back onto the sidewalk. It was a thin, narrow-shouldered brown youth in a lilac colored suit and a carnation. It had slick black hair. It kept its mouth open and whined for a moment. People stared at it vaguely. Then it settled its hat jauntily, sidled over to the wall and walked silently splay-footed off along the block.

Silence. Traffic resumed. I walked along to the double doors and stood in front of them. They were motionless now. It wasn’t any of my business. So I pushed them open and looked in.

With writing like this, how can you not enjoy a nice noir mystery? Farewell, My Lovely is a brilliant effort from Raymond Chandler, and definitely deserves its place on the 1001 Books list. Marlowe is smart but not smart enough not to get hurt, or end up with a bout of the DTs, but you want him to succeed in his quest to figure out what is going on in the situation he links himself to inextricably by pushing these doors open to look in. He makes wry and witty observations about life, pisses off most of the people he meets, and knows a decent person when I encounters one.

I have always enjoyed Robert B. Parker‘s Spenser, and he is clearly modeled on Marlowe. It is no surprise that Parker at one point finished an unfinished Chandler novel. He was the right man to do it, but nothing equals the original. Chandler’s voice and eye for detail are flawless. He has a marvelous sense of pacing and creates delicious characters to play out his drama. He even quotes a little Shakespeare when you least expect it. I feel crazy giving this 5 stars when I’ve given so many other excellent books just 4, but this is the best of a genre, so it gets all 5.