Noir Around the World

I’ve never been very fond of puzzles. Slowly deducing how to put something together, or take it apart, has always seemed deathly dull to me. Of course this could be due to the fact that I suck at it and am easily frustrated. My eventual answer to the Rubik’s cube was a large hammer and I’m a big fan of Alexander the Great’s Gordian knot solution.

Because of this fact, you wouldn’t think I’d be a very good candidate for becoming a mystery reader.  But I’ve actually come to enjoy mysteries… of a certain type.  After lots of trial and error, I’ve learned that the two things I really like about certain titles in the mystery genre are their strong sense of place and, for lack of a better term, a general dark tone.

Imagine my delight when I came across a new series of books published by Europa editions titled World Noir. This unique ongoing series highlights international crime fiction and features many titles that have been published for the first time in English, a great help to the language challenged such as myself. I’ve come to think of these books as cultural travel guides, albeit with a body count. Here are three of my favorite locales so far.

summertimeDestination:  Perpignan
Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored by Philippe Georget

This city on the French Mediterranean shore is gearing up for the summer influx of tourists, when a murder in a nearby town and then a kidnapping in Perpignan break the vacation atmosphere. Both victims are Dutch. Is there a connection? Perhaps. Either way police detective Gilles Sebag is tasked with getting to the bottom of the situation.

The setting for this novel is unique, with Perpignan being a few miles from the border with Spain and having a mixed Catalan culture. In addition Sebag is an intriguing character, a world-weary family man who stumbles through the investigation in a pleasingly existential, but not necessarily despairing, way. If you read this novel you will start feeling the overbearing heat of the Mediterranean sun and begin looking up unfamiliar terms like Pastis.

midnightpromiseDestination:  Melbourne
The Midnight Promise by Zane Lovitt

It doesn’t get any more hardboiled than this series of ten cases involving “private inquiry agent” John Dorn set in the southern Australian city of Melbourne. Each case is unique but they have a cumulative effect, slowly revealing why Dorn is such a troubled soul. The author likes to play around with the temporal to great effect and the main character has an intriguing weakness for a gumshoe: he actually cares at times.

Lovett’s Melbourne is a great setting, being at once familiar and unique. Moneyed interests battle for supremacy as the underclass struggles to survive and an often corrupt police force tries to keep the lid on things. As a side benefit, the lead character’s massive alcohol consumption will make those of us who imbibe feel better about our lesser drinking rates.

thecrocodileDestination:  Naples
The Crocodile by Maurizio De Giovanni

Inspector Giuseppe Lojacono, disgraced due to false accusations of bribery in his native Palermo, has been transferred to a dead-end position in the Naples police force where he splits his time between playing computer poker and visiting the local trattoria. When a series of seemingly random shootings goes unsolved, he is drawn into the investigation by the prosecutor Laura Piras who recognizes his superior deductive skills.

This mystery is more of a “why did they do it” with the narrative being equally split between the perpetrator and the pursuers. The real star of the show though, is Naples: A city seemingly in a permanent state of decay and peopled by indifferent citizens, yet stunningly beautiful and magnetic none the less. Truly a perfect noir city.

If you like to discover new and vivid locales, and don’t mind a little darkness, these three books will take you there. Just don’t hold your breath for a happy ending.

Live, but Not in Person

There is always something slightly dangerous and exciting about watching a live performance. First of all there is the rather perverse thrill you get contemplating the possibility that something could go terribly wrong: a flubbed line or a note off-key perhaps. On the more positive side, performances seem to have more impact when they take place just a few yards away. It is an experience that just can’t be captured when viewed on a television set in the comfort of your own home.

Admittedly, though, there are some big drawbacks. Live performances can be a pain in the butt to get to. Scheduling times, dates, and places are not only annoying but can sometimes be downright impossible to coordinate. Live performances also can’t be stored and played again for your convenience. Finally, price can also be a significant obstacle: a concert ticket is way more expensive than a DVD rental after all.

Luckily I’ve recently stumbled upon a happy compromise: Broadcasts of live performances. The performances are live, for the most part, and broadcast to a theater near you. Here are few upcoming examples.

RiffTrax Live: Starship Troopers
starshiptrooperssideThe concept is simple. Some films deserve to be heckled. Average hecklers aren’t very creative though (“This movie sucks!” gets old pretty fast) so it is best to leave it to the experts. The RiffTrax team, with their Mystery Science Theater 3000 credentials, is more than up to the task and on August 15th you can watch them take down Starship Troopers in real-time. If you haven’t heard of Starship Troopers, the library (wisely perhaps) does not have the film but does own the book, you are in for an experience.  The plot is easily summed up as, literally, a bug hunt. Somewhere Bill Paxton is smiling.

If you would like to see something considered a little more cultured you are in luck. This fall the National Theatre will be presenting several live broadcasts of plays via their National Theatre Live project. We are lucky to have several locations in the area that will be participating, including SIFF. Here are three plays that look especially interesting:

macbeth

Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston
I don’t really need to sell you on this one do I? Even if you aren’t a big Shakespeare fan, this play has enough murder, madness and existential despair to keep you on the edge of your seat.  And that Lady Macbeth, oh my. This production has been receiving outstanding reviews and is performed in a deconsecrated Manchester church to add to the ominous ambiance. Branagh is known for many roles but his recent turn in the BBC version of Wallander is excellent. Kingston is a seasoned actress who is more recently known for her work on Dr. Who.

othello

Othello with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear
More Shakespeare I know, but Othello has always been a favorite. I mean really, what the heck is Iago’s problem? I still don’t know for sure, but trying to figure out why he is so hell-bent on destroying his former comrade-in-arms is half the fun. Instead of 16th century Venice, this production is set in modern-day London and has been receiving rave reviews. Both Lester and Kinnear have done work you may be familiar with, and are veteran stage actors that should not disappoint.

Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller
FrankensteinsideThis play adaptation, by Nick Dear, of Mary Shelley’s classic book is not currently on stage (it was originally performed in 2011) but will be shown again this fall as an ‘encore’ performance. In addition to positive reviews, this production has an interesting hook: the two lead actors alternate between the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation every other performance. Add to this the fact that Danny Boyle is the director and it becomes a production that is hard to resist. Interestingly, both actors are currently involved in television reboots of the Sherlock Holmes character: Sherlock in the UK  for Cumberbatch and Elementary in the US for Miller.

So don’t let the inconveniences of mere time and space prevent you from enjoying a live performance. Now if someone would just invent a transporter or a TARDIS.

Richard

Way Down South

antarctica1

There is no denying that we are heading into the height of the summer season. It is true that we generally get off easily compared with many localities when it comes to high temperatures. Sadly that comparison is not enough to keep me from complaining about the heat. I know upper 80s here is nothing compared to a sultry summer evening in the Everglades. But really, does appreciating that I’m not in the Everglades make it any less hot? I think not.

In order to compensate, or perhaps due to the daily gusts of frigid air from the cooling duct in the Reference office, my mind has recently been contemplating the frozen continent of Antarctica. Since most of us have not had a chance to visit, Antarctica is one of the last blank spots on the map. This allows us to project all sorts of ideas onto the southern pole.

For some there is an Antarctica inhabited by the noble Emperor Penguin, whose exploits we follow in both moralizing animated and documentary form. For others, Antarctica is a continent on the verge of collapse due to global warming and human exploitation. For me though, I’ve always held on to the image of Antarctica as the cold, brutal, and isolating environment that has tested those who have tried to endure there.

thecoldestmarchThe perfect example of this view of Antarctica is the early 20th century race to discover the South Pole carried out by the dueling expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen. In the short-term, Amundsen definitely won the prize. Not only did he get to the pole five weeks ahead of Scott, he actually survived the trip back. In an interesting reversal of the maxim that the winners are the ones who write history, however, Scott and his doomed expedition definitely won the award for most written about and discussed, albeit posthumously..

scottoftheantarcticIf you want to sample some of what’s out there why not start with The Coldest March: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition by Susan Solomon. All the heroic (or depending on your view, foolhardy) details are included. My favorite being Lawrence Oates’s final words as he departs the tent to his certain doom:  “I am just going outside and I may be some time”. Talk about a stiff upper lip. If you want to get a little more perspective, why not try a biography of Scott such as the excellent Scott of the Antarctic: A Life of Courage and Tragedy by David Crane.

enduranceNot all is doom and gloom in the effort to explore Antarctica however. The members of Scott’s party that did not attempt the pole, led by Victor Campbell and dedicated to scientific research, actually survived the ordeal. Their harrowing tale is expertly told in The Longest Winter: The Incredible Survival of Captain Scott’s Lost Party by Katherine Lambert. The teams led by Ernest Shackleton, who headed expeditions before and after Scott, also survived after many hardships. Their exploits are detailed in The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis and Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.

lostphotographsEven if you aren’t into the history of Antarctic exploration, you may want to check out two related books of photography. Both Scott and Shackleton took photographs on their expeditions and two recent books put these pictures together: The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott by D.M. Wilson and The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography by David Hempleman-Adams. The black and white images are impressive on their own but they also have a haunting quality, especially when you consider the effort put into actually taking them in such extreme conditions and the history of the expeditions.

Finally, if you don’t mind hitting the road, well taking a ferry actually, you might want to check out an exhibition currently at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria titled Race to the End of the Earth. This traveling exhibition is chock full of original artifacts, photographs and even has a life-size replica of Scott’s hut at Cape Evans.

So while reading about Antarctica didn’t lower the physical temperature, it did help me appreciate the temperatures we do have. At least until the next heat wave…

Richard

Lights, Camera, Read

You see them everywhere: smiling for the camera, promoting their latest film, putting their hands in cement. Yes, I’m talking about the famous (and infamous) stars of stage, screen and television. You can stoically resist their charms, but even the most cynical of us have a tendency to succumb to their gravitational pull eventually.

I was surprised to find that, for me, this even holds true when I’m selecting an audiobook. I’ve found that, if the narrator of an audiobook has a famous name, I will sometimes give it a try no matter what the book itself is. Call me shallow, but this has actually led me to listen to some interesting audiobooks that you might enjoy as well. Here are two examples:

world war zWorld War Z (Movie Tie-In Edition) by Max Brooks
I know, I know. More zombies. But there are two good reasons to give this audiobook a try. First there are more stars than you can shake a stick at narrating this edition. Clearly the author, with the help of the studio promoting the upcoming film I would wager, pulled some strings to get the likes of Mark Hamill, John Turturro, Nathan Fillion, Simon Pegg, Henry Rollins, Martin Scorsese and many, many, others to narrate. Secondly, this book is actually more of a social history of a zombie apocalypse than a survivalist do or die zombie apocalypse. I know it sounds odd. Lisa captured the feel perfectly in her post from last summer. Once you get into it, it truly does feel like an oral history, albeit of a fictional future event.

I, ClaudiusI Claudius: A BBC Radio-4 Full Cast Dramatization by Robert Graves
There is no need for an ancient history degree to appreciate this fun visit to a very, very dysfunctional family who just happens to rule the Roman Empire. While definitely based on the Robert Graves novel, this recording is a fresh take on the material and is more akin to a recorded play than a reading of the book. There is little gravitas which lets the dark humor of the Machiavellian scheming come through. Best of all, the cast is chock full of British stage, film and television actors that are top-notch. Standouts include Tim McInnerny, Harriet Walter, Jessica Raine, Tom Goodman-Hill and, of course, Derek Jacobi playing Augustus this time around.

Sadly my listening time is even more limited than my reading time. There are only so many listening hours (primarily when I’m driving, exercising or weeding) that I can squeeze out of the week. But if my formula of star power leading to intriguing listening experiences holds true, these new titles might also be worth considering.

gatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Timed to coincide with the theatrical summer release, this version is narrated by the actor Jake Gyllenhaal. To my shame, I’ll admit that Gatsby has never been one of my favorite novels. On the other hand I really did like Donnie Darko. Perhaps the two might negate each other and lead to a pleasurable listening experience. Stranger things have happened.

88 by Dustin Black
This is a recording of Black’s play about the legal attempt to repeal proposition 8, a constitutional amendment that repealed the right of same-sex couples to marry in California. While an important topic, politics and the legal system can be a bit dull. The all-star cast (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon, John C. Riley, Jamie Lee Curtis and many more) might just bring it to life, however.

During my search, I was surprised to find that actors and actresses narrating audiobooks is not a new phenomenon. There are many who regularly narrate and are well represented in our collection. A few names that you might recognize are: Joe Mantegna, Campbell Scott, Elizabeth McGovern, Gary Sinise, Bronson Pinchot, Wil Wheaton and Dan Stevens.

So there you have it. A new method of selecting audiobooks based on star power. Don’t be embarrassed. Resistance is futile.

Richard

Questionable Things

Due to my exposure to the Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius at a formative age, I’ve always had a weakness for biographies of historical figures with a healthy amount of scandal. There is an admittedly voyeuristic pleasure at poking around the lives of others. Along with that goes a rather questionable, though undeniable, desire to judge the historical figure by your own standards: Are they guilty or innocent? Good or bad? Sympathetic or villainous?

Two biographies I recently read are great at taking this desire on the part of the reader and turning it on its head. Both introduce you to individuals who may have done “questionable things”. Instead of becoming an indictment or whitewash of their character, however, each author sketches a figure that is complex and hard to define. This ultimately frustrates the reader’s desire to judge, but leads to even more meaningful insights.

Vera GranVera Gran: the Accused by Agata Tuszynska.
We are first introduced to the subject of this biography, Vera Gran, as an elderly and paranoid woman who rarely leaves her small Paris apartment. The author must first interview her in the hallway since, according to Vera, spies are everywhere and the apartment is bugged. Eventually she is allowed inside the cramped and document filled space and Vera begins to tell her story.

And what a story it is. Vera Gran, the stage name she went by the most often, was a torch singer from Poland who established a career before the German occupation of her country during World War II.  It is her activities during the war that, for better or worse, defined her life in her own and many others eyes.  Vera and her family, being Jewish, were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto and in order to survive Vera, as well as many other Jewish entertainers, continued to perform.

Almost the entirety of the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were murdered but Vera was one of the few to survive. The very act of survival, however, brought up questions after the war concerning complicity, culpability and possible collaboration. It is this struggle to defend her actions that becomes the focus of Vera’s life. Her relationship with Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist who also survived the Ghetto and whose life became an Oscar-winning film, eventually becomes the focus of this all-consuming need to clear her name.

Vera Gran: The Accused is a character study that delves into the ideas of guilt, survival and what it actually means to be an “honorable” person during horrific times. As a reader you start to question your own actions and begin to see society’s intense need to judge the past as inherently flawed.

Faithful ExecutionerThe Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel Harrington
Based on a personal journal from Renaissance Germany, this book is the story of Meister Franz Schmidt who was the executioner of Nuremberg from 1573 to 1618. As you can imagine, there are some pretty gruesome details involved in the telling of this story, execution by “the wheel” is not a pretty sight, but the author endeavors to fill out a full sketch of the man and his times and reserve judgment.

Franz Schmidt was actually born into a family of executioners, the odious profession was forced upon his father by an unscrupulous aristocrat, and he had few options to pursue other careers since the profession was considered unclean and inherited. In fact, his whole life’s goal was to ensure that his own family could somehow get out from under the social stigma and transition into a more respectable profession.

In addition to the personal drama of Schmidt’s life, the author paints a vivid portrait of his times describing how the executioner and the citizens of Nuremberg lived day-to-day. While death was all around, in the form of a high infant mortality rate and periodic deadly disease outbreaks, crime and punishment were considered issues of the utmost importance. In the end, the author finds more similarities than are comfortable to admit between our ideas and the attitudes of those who walked the streets of Meister Schmidt’s Nuremberg.

His final conclusion rings true as an assessment of the figures in both books:

Perhaps, in a cruel and capricious world, there is hope to be found in one man defying his fate, overcoming universal hostility, and simply persevering amid a series of personal tragedies.

Richard

Poetry Friday the third

Welcome to our third Poetry Friday. Every Friday of this month, in honor of National Poetry Month, a staff member will choose a poem that is a particular favorite. This week we present a selection from Richard. Also, don’t forget that we are having a friendly competition this month where you can submit your own poems. Click here to learn all the details.

NPM_LOGOrobertfrostChock it up to a short attention span, but I’ve always preferred brevity when it comes to poetry. Some of my favorite short poems are by Robert Frost. My parents introduced me to Frost’s poetry at a young age and consequently his poems have a strange sense of comfort and nostalgia despite their often despairing tone. Photographs of Frost on book jackets always reminded me of a kindly grandfather. A kindly grandfather who takes you aside during a birthday celebration to say “I know you are happy right now, but I’m afraid the universe is indifferent to your plight. Now enjoy your cake.”

Here are two of my favorites:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I rued.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

New (to Me) Short Stories

I don’t set out intentionally to read short stories. Really. As I look through reviews and hear of books, I simply write down the titles that seem interesting. When I revisit that list later, though, it becomes painfully obvious that I’ve got a short story addiction. I’m sure it reveals some kind of character flaw, a lack of focus perhaps or maybe an inability to commit. Luckily for me denial is a favorite response to problems. So I’m afraid society will have to pry that copy of Winesburg, Ohio out of my cold dead hands.

If you share my affliction, or simply feel like trying something new, here a few superb recent collections.

weliveinwater

We Live in Water by Jess Walter
This is the first collection of short stories from Walter, who has recently become well known for the novel Beautiful Ruins, but let’s hope it is not his last. Each story has a strong sense of place, Spokane for the most part, and the empathy Walter displays for his down-and-out characters is matched only by his ability to bring out the humor in everyday situations. Particular standouts include “Virgo” (the tale of a newspaper editor who makes the horoscope section way too personal), “Wheelbarrow Kings” (detailing a misguied attempt to cash in a big screen TV for drug money), and “Don’t Eat Cat” (a dystopian view of a future Seattle that wants to mainstream drug addicted zombies).

athousandmoronsA Thousand Morons by Quim Monzo
Absurdity abounds in this surreal collection of brief stories. Be prepared for a man in a nursing home who decides to take up cross dressing (“Mr. Beneset”), and a woman who methodically tries to rid herself of every memory she has every had (“Saturday”). Interspersed are more meditative stream of consciousness pieces such as “I’m Looking Out of the Window” in which the title accurately describes all of the action. If you can, briefly, abandon your sense of reality this collection is well worth the effort and might lead you to see the world in a different light.

The People of Forever are Not Afraid: A Novel by Shani Boianjiu
Ipeopleofforever know, I know… this title states it is “A Novel”. But it is really a series of connected short stories, in my view, so I’m going to stretch a point. Each story, or chapter if you must, is a different episode from the lives of three young women who grew up together and were conscripted into the Israeli army. While the stories are connected, there is no linear sense of progression. Instead each serves as a vivid description of a time and place, be it a dusty checkpoint in the middle of nowhere with a group of protestors literally demanding to be tear-gassed, or a Tel Aviv sandwich shop which promises to make a sandwich any way the customer demands. Tying everything together is a direct and effective use of language which brings every scene to life.

revengeRevenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa
Ogawa is one of my favorite authors and is a prolific writer. Sadly many of her works are not translated into English. Imagine my delight then, when I found out, thanks Spot-Lit, that a collection had just been translated. Revenge is a series of stories that are connected but often in ways that seem oblique at first. I hesitate to describe the plots of the various stories. Let’s just say her language is sparse but very affecting and the overall impact is a quiet foreboding that is ultimately toxic. This may not sound like a compliment but trust me, it is. Here is an example, from the story “Afternoon at the Bakery”, for you to get a feel for her writing:

The kitchen was as neatly arranged as the shop. Bowls, knives, mixers, pastry bags, sifters—everything needed for the work of the day was right where it should be. The dish-towels were clean and dry, the floor spotless. And in the middle of it stood the girl, her sadness perfectly at home in the tidy kitchen. I could hear nothing, not a word, not a sound. Her hair swayed slightly with her sobs. She was looking down at the counter, her body leaning against the oven. Her right hand clutched a napkin. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, but her misery was clear from the clench of her jaw, the pallor of her neck, and the tense grip of her fingers on the telephone.

The reason she was crying didn’t matter to me. Perhaps there was no reason at all. Her tears had that sort of purity.

So there you go: Several short story collections from which you have nothing to fear. Well, be advised, they may be habit forming.

Richard

Voices in Your Head

Not to cast aspersions on your sanity, dear reader, but in all likelihood you often hear a voice in your head. I’m not talking about a sinister whisper suggesting unspeakable acts, like eating that jelly-filled donut or calling in sick to watch every cut of Blade Runner back-to-back. No, I’m thinking of the voice you hear when you read a book. The words are on the page, but you have to provide the inflection, tone and, occasionally, sound effects.

When you listen to an audiobook, however, all of that narration is provided for you. And therein lies the rub. No matter how good a book is, if you can’t stand the narrator’s voice or presentation, the experience is not going to be a pleasant one. In order to avoid bad narrators, one of the rules I’ve learned is to always be wary of audiobooks that are read by the author. Good writing doesn’t always translate into good narration alas.

There is one case, though, when you absolutely want the writer to be the narrator: comedic books. To prove my point here are a few titles where it is essential that the author reads his or her work. In fact, even if you have read the book already, you might want to check out the audio version for an enhanced “reading” experience.

americaagainAmerica Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert
This irony drenched reaffirmation, or is that affirmation, of all things America is best heard rather than read. The material is tailor-made for the author and he deftly delivers. If you were to read the book you would just insert the star of the Colbert Report’s voice anyway so why not give it a listen? Enjoy all the truthiness.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
bossypantsWhile this book is technically a memoir, it reads, or listens as the case may be, like a series of comic vignettes from Fey’s life. Her delivery while telling these stories is spot on and her many impersonations are all here including, of course, Sarah Palin. Also included are plenty of anecdotes from her Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock days for TV fans and those just wanting to know what working with Alec Baldwin is like.

I Drink for a Reason by David Cross
idrinkforareasonFirst of all, great title. Secondly this is a great series of riffs on a myriad of topics that enter David Cross’ wonderfully deviant brain starting with his observations on seeing the bumper sticker “Don’t Abandon Your Baby.” Cross proves the point of this blog piece by having another narrator attempt to start reading the book and failing miserably. Clearly you need Cross’ narration to get the full impact of the material, though I must admit it was hard not to imagine Tobias Fünke while listening.

whenyouareengulfedinflames

When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
I just chose one representative title, maybe because of the gruesome cover art, but any of Sedaris’ audiobooks are excellent. Don’t get me wrong, he is a great writer, but once you have heard him read his material you will demand to listen to his books from then on. Luckily we have a great selection of his work on audio from which to choose, so you can get your fix.

God, No! by Penn Jillette
godnoWhat fun would it be to simply read a rant by Penn Jillette? You need to hear the slow buildup in his voice and then the eventual thundering denunciation of one hypocrisy after another. The topic here is religion, or lack thereof, so be prepared to be offended. But really, what else would you expect from one half of Penn & Teller, a duo dedicated to demystifying and debunking everyone’s sacred cows in a raucous way?

So there you have it. Just a few examples to whet your appetite. Now go out there and listen!

Richard

Back in Black

CorvusI think it is safe to say that every great story needs a great villain. If there isn’t someone in opposition, obstacles become way too easy for the protagonist to overcome and the story can get deadly dull. In The Art of Racing in the Rain, this year’s Big Read book, Enzo’s arch nemesis is clearly the common crow. As he states:

They sit in the trees and on the electric wires and on the roofs and they watch everything, the sinister little bastards. They cackle with a dark edge, like they’re mocking you, cawing constantly, they know where you are and when you’re in the house, they know where you are when you’re outside; they’re always waiting.

Now I’ve always had a certain sympathy for villains. In fact, I tend to make excuses for their somewhat questionable behavior: Grendel had issues with his mother; Macbeth was caught in an existential crisis; Darth Vader just wanted to rule the galaxy with his son. When it comes to crows, however, there are a gaggle of admirers who have a respect, bordering on admiration, for these often maligned creatures. Lest you think this is always motivated by some unrealistic new age feel-goodery, I present to you several excellent books that sing the praises of the crow based on the ice cold logic of science.

inthecompanyofcrowsWhen it comes to crow science, it won’t take you long to come across the name John M. Marzluff, who is on the faculty here at the University of Washington. He has teamed up with artist and writer Tony Angell to create two excellent books examining the complex lives of corvids and their often tempestuous interactions with humans. In the Company of Crows and Ravens is their first work together and Gifts of the Crow : How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans was just published last year.

giftsofthecrowMarzluff and Angell have spent years observing and studying crows and both books are chock full of impressive examples of the birds’ intelligence and cunning. One of my favorites includes the Carrion Crows in Sendai, Japan who purposefully place walnuts in the intersection while cars wait at a red light. Once the light turns green they get their nut cracked open without much effort. Interestingly enough, drivers began to purposefully aim for the walnuts in order to help the crows out in a case of cultural coevolution.

amurderofcrowsMarzluff has also conducted extensive studies demonstrating the way crows pass information, such as recognition of an individual, not only to each other but down through generations. This research, and much more, is detailed in the excellent DVD A Murder of Crows. If you can’t wait that long take a look at this snippet and watch which mask you wear the next time you are on the UW campus.

Fascination with crows is not limited to the intrepid duo from Washington, however. There are several other books in the library’s collection by dedicated naturalists that sing the praises of crows. Each is based on observations, studies and historical research and they are well worth reading:

Crow Planet : Essential Wisdom From the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Crows : Encounters With the Wise Guys of the Avian World by Candace Sherk Savage
Corvus : a Life With Birds by Esther Woolfson
Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays by Candace Savage

Now I’ll admit that crows have a few attributes that some might see as villainous:  they are black, travel in numbers, won’t pass up a meal of carrion, and can have a disturbing tendency to stare you down. Just remember that there are always extenuating circumstances

Richard

Winter of Our Discontent

With the holidays behind us we now face, let’s be honest, a month or two that can sometimes seem a little bleak. Sure you might get a glimpse of the sun now and again but the cold temperatures will remind you that spring is a ways off. When it comes to selecting what to read this time of year the healthy thing to do, most would say, is to distract yourself with light, humorous or optimistic fiction and be sure in the knowledge that the season will change.

Sadly, I just can’t take that advice. Perhaps it is a case of misery loving company but I always end up selecting titles that are more reflective of the short days and cold nights. If you are of my disposition, or just feel the tug of something dark at your sleeve now and again, you may want to sample a few of these titles. They are a bit strange, disturbing and at times a tad depressing but for your convenience I will list them from least to most despair inducing. If you have to bail early I totally understand.

downtherabbitholeTochtli, the young boy at the center of Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, has his heart set on one thing: A Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. It might seem an impossible choice but Tochtil’s father is a powerful, and paranoid, drug kingpin who denies his son nothing while keeping him, and a few retainers, isolated in a mansion in the desert. More absurdities abound (including a hat collection, samurais and a fascination with the French Revolution) but what humor there is, is definitely dark. This slim novel is told entirely from the boy’s unique perspective and skillfully reflects the isolated nature of his existence while blending the real with the seemingly fantastic.

The characters in the short story collection Stay Awake by Dan Chaon also inhabit a space somewhere between the real and, for lack of a better word, something else.stayawake What that “something else” actually is, is left tantalizingly unclear. But you definitely get the feeling it isn’t good. ‘The Bees’ tells the story of a boy’s inexplicable nightmares that trigger his father’s sense of guilt about the family he abandoned. ‘Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted’ is the tale of a directionless 20 something who is living in his dead parents’ house with a growing sense of dread. ‘I Wake Up’ follows a foster child who suddenly starts getting calls in the middle of the night from his long lost sister who wants to talk about a past he can’t remember. Chaon’s characters are sympathetically drawn and artfully reflect the confusion and pain of a personal loss that can lead toward an altered view of reality.

yourhouseisonfireThis last book is not for the faint of heart. But with the title of Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone that isn’t too surprising. The author, Stefan Kiesbye, has created a seemingly innocuous rural town in Germany, Hemmersmoor , that outsiders see as a bit backward but typical of its type. As the novel opens, several of the children who grew up there have come back later in life for a funeral. Their recollections, some repressed others freely remembered, of what occurred in their childhood are then shown in a series of interconnected stories. The town their tales reveal is a darkly fantastical place full of cruelty, vice, vindictiveness and horror. The best way to think of this chilling book is as a cross between Shirley Jackson and the Brothers Grimm.

You made it. Well done. Apologies if I bummed you out, but hey, it is January after all.

Richard