Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A bit behind!

10. Valeria's Last Stand, by Marc Fitten

Set in a small Hungarian village, one so lacking in value that tanks rumbled on by with nary a look-in, Fitten's comic/romantic/fabulous (in the literal sense) novel examines the effect of post-Soviet economics and culture on those whose lives were shaped under the hammer-and-sickle.

Valeria is a grumpy old woman. She disapproves. Of people, of vegetables, of the world around her. Until one day, as she is turning up her nose at the market offerings, she sees the village potter, as though for the first time. And something moves in her. And in the potter. It's difficult. They don't quite know how to behave with each other. Not to mention that he has been keeping company with the woman who runs the local bar. When a chimney sweep with an eye for the main chance arrives in the town, and casts that eye on Valeria, the consequences are startling.

The story has the feel of a folk tale, and, indeed, many of the characters are nameless, described simply as "the potter", "the apprentice", "the mayor". Yet Fitten has created very human characters. None of them are perfect, but none are completely bad, either. Just when you decide you know what's ticking, there's a turn and you're surprised by the change in your viewpoint. It's wonderful, too, that his sensuous, sexy, hard-working, heroine, over whom the potter and sweep come literally to blows, is a woman of sixty-eight.

This is Fitten's first novel. According to an interview in the back of the book, it is the first of "A Paprika Trilogy". I look forward to the rest.

11. The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler

One of the noir-est of the noir. Philip Marlowe, private detective. Lone wolf, paladin, man of honor. The usual philosophical drunks and women with "mink[s] that almost made the Rolls-Royce look like just another automobile". Crooked cops and crooks with a conscience.

Terry Lennox's very rich, very nymphomaniac wife is found dead, her head bashed in. Lennox takes it on the lam to Mexico, and then is found dead with a bullet in his brain and a confession in front of him. But did he really do it? A lot of people want Marlowe to think so, and not to look into the case. But then he gets dragged into trying to save an alcoholic, best-selling novelist, and, as with any good noir novel, there's a connection.

Also as in any good noir novel, nobody is what they seem or means what they say. Mysteries are "solved", but there are no tidy endings, no real heroes or villains. The atmosphere is all. And there is plenty of that here.

12. Other People's Dirt: A Housekeeper's Curious Adventures, by Louise Rafkin

Well, they're not all that curious, and they're not all Rafkin's adventures. Either she simply didn't have enough to fill a book, or she felt the need to be "serious". So interspersed with anecdotes of her cleaning jobs, we are treated to interviews with "dirty" house cleaners, her family's former maid, and members of "Messies Anonymous". Not to mention an extraordinarily self-involved letter to the surviving lover of an old friend, a letter that read as though it were written with an eye to publication.

Rafkin likes to clean, but she doesn't have to, and so one gets the impression, even though it may be unfair, of a dilettante. Too, although she mentions long-term clients, there's a sense that she flits from place to place. There are amusing anecdotes here, but in the end it's not a very satisfying read.

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