52 weeks – 2 June, 2013

Inspector Beck booksI’m reading through the mystery novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, set in Sweden and written between 1965 and 1975. The earlier ones are a bit dated (the term “nymphomaniac” now seems dredged up from antiquity) and the authors’ Marxist beliefs are sometimes editorially inserted without sublety. But the books are fundamentally very well-written police procedurals. Ahead of their time in terms of gritty realism when first released, they are still well worth reading today.

The novels’ Detective Martin Beck (later promoted to Inspector) is an early version of a now classic character: a decent, driven, homicide investigator whose private life is sacrificed to his job. At the beginning, he is married with two young children. Later in the novels, he divorces and has a turbulent but essentially loving relationship with his grown daughter.  Yes—Beck was around before Ian Rankin’s John Rebus or Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender. Beck leads a team of colleagues who are all well-drawn and believable, complete with individual quirks and flaws.

One of the things the Beck novels excel at is the background details of the characters’ day-to-day lives and their social structures. These details add to the stories’ realism (you can’t make this stuff up) and also create wry social commentary about the complex institutions humans create. At the beginning of Roseanna, a canal has begun to clog up and boats are having a hard time getting through:

… It wasn’t hard to see that something had to be done. As early as May, the Canal Company requisitioned a dredging machine from the Engineering Board. The papers were passed from one perplexed civil servant to another and finally remitted to the Swedish National Shipping and Navigation Administration. The Shipping and Navigation Administration thought that the work should be done by one of the Civil Engineering Board’s bucket dredging machines.  But the Civil Engineering Board found that the Shipping and Navigation Administration had control over bucket dredging machines and in desperation made an appeal to the Harbor Commission in Norrköping, which immediately returned the papers to the Shipping and Navigation Administration, which remitted them to the Civil Engineering Board, at which point someone picked up the telephone and dialed an engineer who knew all about bucket dredging machines.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö were a smart, politically aware couple who decided to write ten books in ten years. They wrote alternating chapters. And their plan was that the books would hold up a mirror to the problem of increasing violence in Swedish society—a reflection and a warning. Their novels succeeded in gaining an audience in a small way at first and in increasing numbers over the decades since. Whether anyone heeded their warnings about the worsening social problems is hard to say.


OutHere is another period piece: this one from England, a decade later. The six-episode television series Out was made in 1978. Frank Ross (Tom Bell) is out of prison after an eight-year sentence and is looking for the person who grassed on him.

The clothing and hair styles can only be described as wonderfully seventies. The dialogue can be hard to follow, as it’s full of the jargon of the era used by people who make their living through crime, ranging from petty to significant, and who survive by their street smarts. You can follow the meaning of conversations by the context, though it makes you realize how fast language changes and how difficult it can be to understand subcultures.

Outside of the gang and associates, Detective Inspector Bryce (Norman Rodway) is waiting until Frank makes a mistake, so that he can put him back inside. But the viewer’s sympathies are with Frank, if with anyone—we’re not sure that Bryce’s motives are pure.

Women are relegated to secondary roles. It is a man’s world where male activities are the important ones, leaving the women to wait around and accept offhand treatment. Frank’s lover Anne (Lynn Farleigh) is an unsatisfactory character who appears to have no life independent of a man and there is no obvious chemistry between her and Frank, even in the sort-of-love-scenes.  Frank’s wife Eve (Victoria Fairbrother) is mentally ill and is in a home. It’s not clear what this adds to the story, other than some unresolved complexity.

Watch this for the late seventies feel and the awareness of moral grey areas, less common when this series was made.


Dessert at Cotto: Lemon Pannacotta. A work of art on the plate, with a variety of textures on the palate—the smooth tartness of the pannacotta, the yielding crunch of the pistachios, the shattering crunch of the thin butterscotch cookie shard, the melt-in-the-month meringue with a lemon cream filling. And more! This is many desserts in one.


52 weeks – 31 March, 2013


Lionel Asbo: State of England - coverLionel Asbo: State of England, by Martin Amis. A clever, though rather depressing, book about the criminal class in Britain. Lionel Asbo is every law-abiding Briton’s nightmare: a violent parasite who lives by his wits, drains resources from the state, and seems to have no redeeming value. He has changed his name to Asbo after being given an Anti-Social Behaviour Order as a young child.

The book balances critical social commentary (“State of England” seems rather pointed) with black humour and satire. Lionel embodies much of what is wrong with society at the lower end but he is so over-the-top dreadful that you can’t take him seriously. We are occasionally made to feel — well, not exactly sorry for him, but — that he is the product of a particular set of circumstances. He has a coherent philosophy of life that he does his best to pass on to his nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, by dispensing pieces of advice such as: use porn instead of girls; always take a knife with you; prison is a good place to get your head sorted out.

The dogs, Joe and Jeff, were Lionel’s psychopathic pitbulls. Their domain was the narrow balcony off the kitchen, where, all day, the two of them snarled, paced, and swivelled — and prosecuted their barking war with the pack of Rottweilers that lived on the roof of the next high-rise along.

“You told me you fed them. And you never give them they Tabasco!”

“Uncle Li, I didn’t have the cash! They’ve only got the big bottles and they’re five ninety-five!”

‘That’s no excuse. You should’ve nicked one. You spend thirty quid, thirty quid, on a fucking dictionary, and you can’t spare a couple of bob for the dogs.”

“I never spent thirty quid! … Gran give it me. She won it on the crossword. The prize crossword.”

“Joe and Jeff — they not pets, Desmond Pepperdine. They tools of me trade.”

Lionel’s trade was still something of a mystery to Des. He knew that part of it had to do with the very hairiest end of debt collection; and he knew that part of it involved ‘selling on’ (Lionel’s word for selling on was reset.) Des knew this by simple logic, because Extortion with Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property were what Lionel most often went to prison for …

Des, though, has his own ideas and manages to survive his upbringing. He provides the necessary contrast to Lionel by working at school, sneaking off to the library, going to university, getting a job, and starting a family.

A lot of Lionel Asbo is funny, though the relentless awfulness of him gets tiring. He is a figure of cartoon proportions until the end of the book when he seems to commit a truly evil act that doesn’t fit with the so-bad-he’s-funny character we’ve come to know. Ultimately, it’s an unsatisfying book that’s neither one thing nor the other.


God on Trial posterGod on Trial is a 2008 television play written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. The play is set in Auschwitz during World War II. The Jewish prisoners spend their last hours putting God on trial for abandoning the Jewish people.

The question being debated is whether God has broken his covenant with the Jewish people (“We are the chosen people”) by allowing the Nazis to commit genocide.

As the judge, Baumgarten (Stellan Skarsgård) weighs the evidence impartially and makes a revelation of his own towards the end. Schmidt (Stephen Dillane) is the Rabbi chosen as the Father of the Court, a quiet and thoughtful man who recites from the Torah. Mordecai (Rupert Graves) is the Inquisitor of the Court. Ezra (René Zagger) plays a Polish man whose look embodies the horror and loss he has suffered. Towards the end of the trial, Akiba (Antony Sher) breaks his silence with an impassioned speech in which he convincingly condemns God for betraying his people.

It is hard to single out any actor, as all the performances are stellar. I find the current trend for actors to retain their own accents even when they don’t suit the characters, odd and a bit disruptive, but that is the only discordant note in this impressive achievement. It is well worth watching. The dark nature of the material is alleviated somewhat by the prisoners’ decision to spend their remaining hours in traditional intellectual debate — which allows them to retain their humanity.


Antipasto PlatterThe antipasto platter at Cotto on Hastings Street, Burnaby. The bread is warm and very good; the olives, vegetable garnishes and fig spread are a nice counterpoint to the meat and cheese.

52 weeks – September 23, 2012


Alan Hollinghurst is a very fine writer (The Folding Star, The Line of Beauty) and The Stranger’s Child is no exception.

The novel is in four sections: the events concerning two families in 1913, 1926, 1967, and 1980. The central character is Cecil Valance, a bisexual poet who dashes off a poem called Two Acres for Daphne, the sister of his lover, George, while staying at their family home in 1913. The poem outlives Valance and takes on a life of its own.

Hollinghurst’s use of language is masterful. The simplest paragraph is a delight. A review by James Wood in the New Yorker takes issue with some of the writing — he describes Hollinghurst as having Jamesian tendencies and perhaps taking the easy way out sometimes. I see a little of that but Hollinghurst’s prose seems to me to work for the periods he is writing about. And mostly it is transparent, with every page containing a word or phrase that is breath-catching in its absolute rightness:

It was the letters to George, hidden at once, destroyed for all the rest of the family knew, mentioned only breezily — ‘Cess sends his love!’: they had turned out to be the unimagined and yet vaguely dreaded thing. There they had lain, in his room, all the time that George was away in the army — ‘intelligence’, planning, other matters she couldn’t be told about. Those endless summer evenings at ‘Two Acres’, just her and Daphne — she would drift through the boys’ rooms, take down their old school-books, fold and brush their unused clothes, tidy the drawers of the little bureau beside George’s bed, all the childish clutter, the batched-up postcards, the letters … without even touching them now, her mind saw certain phrases, saw them twisting dense and snakelike in the heart of the bundle.


Warm olives and white bean dip with truffle oil at Cotto.


Jack Goes Boating. Philip Seymour Hoffmann both directs and stars in this unconventional love story. He is a socially awkward limousine driver. Connie (Amy Ryan) is a shy woman who works in a funeral home and whose first date conversation is, let’s say, unusual. Their relationship proceeds slowly. If he is to take her boating, Jack must learn to swim so his friend Clyde gives him lessons. Clyde’s relationship with his girlfriend Lucy is deteriorating, as Jack’s relationship with Connie slowly gains some ground.

It’s offbeat and oddly charming.