Night Watch (Happy Halloween!)

Happy Halloween, everyone! Appropriately enough, my latest review is of Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch, the first installment in a tetralogy of novels about a parallel reality in which the agents of Light and Dark (read: vampires, magicians, shape-shifters, witches, etc.) must maintain a delicate balance or risk the destruction of the world. It’s a rather lot of fun.

My review was published on Reviewing the Evidence, here, and the full text is below.

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First published in Russia in 1998 and later adapted in a popular film in 2004, Sergei Lukyanenko’s vastly entertaining novel Night Watch introduces readers to a parallel reality (centered in Moscow) in which good and evil constantly struggle to maintain a fragile truce, the disruption of which would literally mean the end of the world. This parallel realm, the Twilight, is visible only to Others–vampires, witches, magicians, shape shifters, and even particularly adept computer programmers–who have all pledged their allegiance to either the Light or the Dark. Light and Darkness monitor each other’s activities by way of their espionage-style agencies or “watches” (The Night Watch monitors the Dark Ones, and vice versa). While average people go about their days, the Others in both watches have their own responsibilities, namely complex operations and missions which might incrementally shift the balance, once and for all, to one triumphant morality.

Without any preamble or exposition, Lukyanenko drops the reader into a remarkably complex world with remarkably complex rules, histories, and problems. The three interconnected novella-length stories which comprise the novel–all narrated by the disillusioned but still idealistic systems analyst and low-level magician Anton Gorodetsky–are chronological, but there are significant time lapses between each tale. Rather than disrupting the narrative, these gaps actually reinforce the reality of this world: the characters all have lives and pasts that exist outside of the bounds of the novel.

The first story, “Destiny,” is by far the best, following Anton as he faces off with rogue vampires, identifies a young Other who isn’t yet aware of his own remarkable powers, and attempts to dispel a curse which, if left unchecked, has the potential to ignite another world war. The tale’s twisty storyline and fast pace have the feel of a particularly entertaining episode of an action-drama on TV: there’s romance, there’s danger, there’s an epic roof-top battle between dark magicians and hostage-taking vampires–when suddenly everything resolves itself quickly and cleanly, if a bit ironically.

“Destiny” is followed by “Among His Own Kind,” in which Anton is wrongly accused of murdering several dark magicians and, in order to clear his name, has one night to track down a ‘Maverick’ Light One on a homicidal rampage in Moscow. Among His Own Kind picks up threads of the the previous story, while upping the ante for action and creatively employed magical sleights of hand.

Unfortunately, Lukyanenko loses steam in the last story, “All For My Own Kind,” in which Anton spends far too much time lamenting the concessions that the Light must make in order to maintain the cosmic balance (apparently Communism failed due to a “little compromise with the Darkness”), and moaning about the futility of trying to save humanity from itself. (There’s also an excess of insipid Goth song lyrics throughout this installment.)

Nevertheless, with its labyrinthine storylines and abundance of fantastical creatures, this layered morality tale certainly delivers for the Halloween season. And avid fans will be able to further immerse themselves in the Twilight if they so wish: Night Watch is the first in a tetralogy of novels which follow Anton and other characters through their continued misadventures.

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Icelandic Week at Three Percent

So, I’m catching this a bit late, but Three Percent has officially declared it Icelandic Week, in honor of Iceland’s status as the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair (happening this week). Chad Post and co. have a variety of fun/interesting/edifying posts about Icelandic culture, food, music, and oh yeah–books, too. Check out the lot–including discussions of Brennevin, the goal celebrations of Icelandic soccer team Stjarnan, YouTube music videos, and an excerpt of Children of the Reindeer Woods by Kristin Ómarsdóttir (Trans. Lytton Smith) which Open Letter will be releasing in April–here.

Also, one last bit of good news: Amazon Crossing (Amazon’s new press) will be releasing ten Icelandic titles “in the near future.” Amazon Crossing had previously promised  to release four Icelandic novels, which was also great, but ten! Very exciting news for Icelandophilic (not a word, but you get the gist) readers of English.

Headhunters

I recently wrote about Jo Nesbø’s stand-alone thriller Headhunters, which beside being a notable publication for enthusiastic fans of the author’s previous thrillers starring Detective Harry Hole, also caught my attention because all of the proceeds from its publication, subsequent translations, and film adaptations will go to support Nesbø’s literacy charity, The Harry Hole Foundation. I was, nicely enough, able to snag a copy of the book to review on late notice. My review of the book is on Reviewing the Evidence (here) or the full text is below.

It bears noting that Nesbø is an author that I just keep coming back to, even though I only like his work about half of the time (maybe less, actually). I find this interesting. I was relatively unimpressed with The Redbreast (which was wildly popular) and honestly, Headhunters wasn’t up my alley, either. But I just loved The Devil’s Star. I keep coming back to Nesbø because I really love his detective: Harry Hole is a complicated and interesting creation–some one that you root for, even when you don’t like him (or, in my case, don’t particularly like the plot line of the book he’s in). Perhaps the fact that Headhunters is a stand-alone without Hole set me up to be a little less taken with this novel, but I think I’m just not the Ideal Reader for this type of thriller. At any rate, I look forward to my next visit with Hole–last time I left him, it looked like things were on an upswing for him.

Without further ado:

Headhunters
By Jo Nesbø, Translated by Don Bartlett

Norwegian author Jo Nesbø has made a name for himself worldwide with the success of his crime thrillers starring the down-and-out detective Harry Hole. Arguably, most of the appeal of these novels is not in the creatively gruesome crimes and criminals that Nesbø creates, but in Harry Hole, whose raging alcoholism and determined self-destruction cannot completely obstruct the fact that beneath it all, he’s really, as Nesbø himself has said, “a Decent Guy.”

Roger Brown, star of Nesbø’s standalone novel Headhunters, diverges from Hole in all essentials. An arrogant, chauvinistic, and incredibly successful corporate headhunter, Brown moonlights as an art thief in order to supplement the decadent lifestyle he and his wife maintain, often stealing valuable paintings from the corporate candidates that he interviews for prestigious directorial positions. Brown is, as he tells us frequently, “king of the heap,” the best of the best: he’s never nominated a candidate for a position who has not ultimately been hired for the job. The secret of his success? The nine-step interrogation model developed by Inbau, Reid, and Buckley for the FBI.

Brown is not a “Decent Guy.” Not even his relationship with his wife Diana, who he very nearly worships, reveals a sense of compassion or real devotion. (Women in general are given rather two-dimensional motivations and weaknesses throughout the novel—as one man gruffly remarks late in the novel: “Oestrogen makes you blind.”) There’s almost nothing likable about Brown, and in some respects, that’s okay. Meeting his match in Clas Greve, a Dutch-Norwegian CEO superstar who also happens to own a priceless painting by Peter Paul Rubens, Brown finally has to really work not only to come out on top, but to survive at all. Unable to resist such a score, Brown steals the Rubens painting, only to discover that Greve has been an actual headhunter—trained by the Dutch army to track down drug dealers relentlessly through unfamiliar jungles. Here at last, is someone who is as ruthless as Brown. The reader is left to simply sit back and watch them destroy one another.

The ensuing chase and multiple double crosses are not for the faint of stomach—Brown’s attempts to elude Greve lead to some desperate, and in many cases, disgusting measures. For some readers, these episodes will be just farcical and gross enough to be amusing, but mostly, the latter half of the novel becomes sadly tiresome. Nesbø also can’t seem to commit to writing a strictly unlikable character, and develops a flimsy backstory for Brown which is meant to provide justification for his callousness and lead him to eventually reform his ways. What transformation does occur is rather flat, though, and Brown remains a pathologically self-serving and self-justifying man.

All the same, it bears noting that Jo Nesbø himself is a Decent Guy, and with the very successful initial publication of Headhunters in Norway, he created the Harry Hole Foundation, which gives out an annual Decent Guy (or Decent Lady) prize to deserving individuals to donate to the literacy-based charities of their choice. All domestic and international proceeds from Headhunters—including those from the film version that was made in Norway— will go directly to the Harry Hole Foundation, to continue to support literacy projects in developing countries.


Fun Reads for Friday

One Book on the Shelf

After moving to London and discovering that the Travel Bookshop (of Notting Hill fame) had closed, a “new-Londoner and ex-bookseller” decided that she’d visit every bookstore in London (with a few caveats). As she explains:

“It’s a way for me to see more of London, spend more of my time around books and, perhaps, help the bookshops in some way.

I’m still working on my grand plan and questions seem to arise quicker than I can answer them, a nowhere-near-exhaustive list being:

What counts as a bookshop? (Not sure)   What counts as London? (Zones 1-3)   Will booksellers want to talk to me? (Hopefully!)   Will I have to visit the naughty bookshops of Soho? (Yes…)   Will I embarrass myself in some uber-cool comic bookshop? (Probably)   Does Waterstone’s count? (As an ex-W’stones, I think they may have to!)   Will I have to visit those super intimidating posh ones near St James’ Park? (Yes)”

She’s also got a Tumblr blog (that’s a photo-based blog for you uninitiated) on the same project, if you’re more visually inclined: http://onebookontheshelf.tumblr.com/

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For those of you who routinely Win the Internet, you’ve probably already seen this fun feature from BuzzFeed:

Awesome Stacks of Books Found in Offices

This is exactly what it sounds like. Here are some of my personal favorites:

Our friends at The L:


And from NPR‘s “Fresh Air” Office:


A nicely thematic shot of the bookshelves at Archie Comics:

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Library Thing Catalog for The People’s Library (created by librarians taking part in the Occupy Wall Street protest)

This continues to fascinate me. Not only did they create an outdoor, all-donation, volunteer-run, topically-relevant library on the fly, they created a catalog for it. When I bookmarked this link, they were just short of 1,000 books. Now, they have 1,185. Even if they don’t have a lot of details for each title, that’s a ton of books to catalog that fast. And honestly, Library Thing is a bit clunky: I was going to create a catalog for my home library and gave up because I found the interface unwieldy. So kudos to the librarians and catalogers of TPL. Even if the protesters had been evicted today as planned, I think that (aside/apart from the protest itself) these library volunteers would have accomplished a pretty impressive feat.

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Free Samples of the National Book Award Finalists (via Galley Cat)

Free samples of nominated titles in all genres: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature.

Tomas Tranströmer Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

Three posts in one day! It’s unprecedented, but what can I say–there’s just a lot going on. Not the least of which is this morning’s announcement of 2011’s Nobel Prize winner, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time a Swede has been awarded the prize since 1974, when the prize was co-awarded to Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to have been a poet awarded since 1996, when Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska was the recipient. So, all due credit to Tranströmer: this is a relatively big shift for the Nobel.

To the credit of a poetry-loving friend of mine, I have actually read some of Tranströmer, which is a nice change from recent years when I hadn’t previously read any of the recipient’s work. (Although in the case of Le Clézio, well, that was less my ‘fault’: almost none of his work had been translated into English before he won.) I’m not familiar enough with Tranströmer’s work to write a good introduction to it, nor am I really a good enough reader of poetry to attempt that. But I will say that of the poems of his I have read, I enjoyed the crispness of the writing, as well as the imagery. I remember taking note of his interesting line breaks, as well, for whatever that’s worth.

No need to fear, though, there are plenty of better-qualified people writing on Tranströmer today! Below are some articles I’ve gathered on the author–whose work, I might add, is readily available in English. Additionally, I’ve included the text of one of his poems which I have enjoyed, entitled “The Couple.”

Happy Reading!

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THE COUPLE (via The Owls blog)

They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.

Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.

It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.

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The Nobel Prize for Literature’s official page on Tranströmer

Mark Asch at The L Magazine woke up early to post his announcement of Tranströmer’s win, and also includes a representative poem of the author’s, “The Indoors is Endless,” which I think is a fantastic title.

Tom Sleigh at poetry.org posted an introduction to Tranströmer’s work, “Too Much of the Air.”

Two poems of Tranströmer’s available on poets.org: “After a Death” and “Outskirts.”

The Poetry Foundation has three poems here.

Fun Facts About Iceland from The Little Book of Icelanders

Alda Sigmundsdottir is the author behind the popular blog (now primarily a Facebook page) “The Icelandic Weather Report.” After living abroad for many years, she returned to Iceland and found herself at once “one of us” but also very much unfamiliar with the “social mores and standards that prevailed in Icelandic society.” So The Little Book of Icelanders is a short, anecdotal collection of observations (“sweeping generalizations and subjective opinions,” she admits) made by a woman who is at once inside of Icelandic culture and yet is able to view it as (almost) a foreigner as well.

There’s not a lot of analysis or deeper connections drawn in the course of Alda’s Little Book, but then again, she really hasn’t promised any such thing. It’s not an anthropology text, after all. Rather, the book is chock full of Fun Facts About Iceland, some of which, I think, circulate rather widely, and some of which were delightfully new to me. Some of the more entertaining and interesting Fun Facts Alda shares throughout are as follows:

  • Family names (as in the sort of last names used in the US) have been “unequivocally illegal” in Iceland since 1991. Traditionally, Icelandic names are patronymic and end in “-son” for men and “-dottir” for women. So Bjarn Gudmundsson is Bjarn, son of Gudmund. His son would be, hypothetically, Karl Bjarnsson. But at some point, taking non-patronymic family names became very popular in Iceland, and people were just making things up “willy-nilly.” So, to preserve tradition, no new family names can be taken.
  • Continuing with the name-related rules: Iceland has a “Name Committee” that parents must submit the name of their child to for approval. And less traditional names, such as “Pixiebell or Apple or TigerLily” can absolutely be rejected. Alda explains: “Fascist? Perhaps. But consider: Icelandic is one complicated language…and one of its more difficult features is that the nouns, as opposed to just the verbs, decline according to case. They change. Either their endings change, or the whole name changes.” So one of the Name Committee’s jobs is to make sure that it’s possible to decline a name in Icelandic without any trouble.
  • As of 2010, 92% of Icelandic households had an internet connection–one of the highest rates of connectivity in the world. Icelandic dependence on Facebook is also unusually high: the post-meltdown revolution was, according to Alda, “largely organized through Facebook.”
  • Even though the current Icelandic Prime Minister is a woman, she is–in official correspondence–referred to with a male pronoun. Says Alda, “…an official committee appointed by the Icelandic authorities declared that all people in Iceland shall be referred to as ‘men’ and use the pronoun ‘he.'”
  • Icelanders’ professions are listed in the phone book, but there isn’t really any official vetting process for what profession one lists. According to Alda, at the time of her writing, “there are six winners, nine sorcerers, three alien tamers, 18 cowboys, 52 princesses, 14 ghost busters, one former tough guy, 59 Jedi Masters, and…two hen whisperers” listed in the Icelandic phone book.
  • For Icelanders, the hot tub serves the same social purpose as the British pub or the Turkish teahouse. “It’s where people go for rest and relaxation and also where they discuss current events and social affairs of prime importance.”
  • Icelandic children are, as a rule, made to nap outdoors in their prams, regardless of the weather. “This is believed to strengthen the child’s constitution…All warmly ensconced in their lambskin-lined pouches, tucked behind a nylon net or blanket to keep out leaves, snowflakes, or other stray matter.”

There’s a lot more, all generously and humorously explained by Alda. The book is going to come out in hardback soon, but in the meantime, can be purchased as an e-book, here.

(For another observational exploration of Icelandic Culture with more structure to it–meaning, the book is actually organized around the calendar year–check out Ring of Seasons by America-to-Iceland transplant Terry G. Lacy.)

Library Thieves and People’s Libraries

Okay, I usually save these for Friday, but why wait?

East Village Bookstore Owner Nabs NYPL Book Thief (via Galley Cat)

A nefarious library book snatcher is detained by the owner of East Village books when trying to sell some pricey graphic novels that he had peeled the library stickers off of. Says Donald Davis, the bookstore owner, “‘There’s no other situation where I would do this. I was so angry that he was stealing from the library…”

Donate to the Occupy Wall Street Library (Galley Cat, again)

This one is interesting to me if only because it’s a ‘pop-up’ library for protesters. I’m not sure how the books are being distributed/returned, but organizers are saying that donated books can be sent to a UPS store on Fulton street.

Further research on this has yielded a whole blog dedicated to “The People’s Library” which is part of the now three-weeks-and-running Occupy Wall Street protest. Recently, they issued a “Call for Librarians” in which they explain their mission and donation needs:

“We are working together to build a library for both the people of the city and for those who have joined the occupation. We are a mixed bunch of librarians and library-loving individuals who strongly support the #occupy movement and who also know that information is liberation. We liberate through knowledge. If you want to know more about #occupywallstreet and the #occupy movement please read the Principles of Solidarity and the Declaration of Occupation.

Right now need many different kinds of donations. We need books of resistance and people’s history. We need economics and finance books. We need contemporary philosophy and ecology. We need DIY books.  We especially need non-English books and materials for low literacy readers. Print outs of free stuff from the web are valuable to us– I personally handed out at least two copies of Citizens United on Saturday before the march. Also, we’re a free lending library operating on the honors system, so our materials come and go rather rapidly; multiple copies are always welcome. On that note, we need as many copies of A People’s History of the United States by Zinn as possible. We simply can’t keep a copy in stock as there are so many people who want to read it.”

Donations for this outdoor library can be sent here:

Occupy Wall Street/Library Committee
118A Fulton St. #205
New York, NY 10038