What I’m reading

The other weelk in a suburban bookstore I saw the issue of some contemporary classics at a good price. The book I selected and took home with me was Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.

In recent years Scandinavian thrillers and police procedurals have been all the rage, and none bigger than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Long before them though – well, about 10 years before – there was Peter Hoeg’s book. In it’s time Smilla was critically acclaimed and a popular bestseller, and was later made into an ok film. For mine it is a more entertaining and interesting book than thn TGWTDT, and much, much better written.

I dimly recall reading it the first time, curiosity, as in all the best books, urging to keep reading to find out what happens next. I have better memories of seeing the movie. This must have been about 1998. I had been at work and was sent home sick. I caught the train back to South Yarra, where I was living at the time, and stopped by the video store to find omething to watch. It was cool but fine winters day. I suppose I got home at about 2pm. I lay on the couch and slipped in the video of Smilla.

There’s a different feeling being home when you’re not normally, or shouldn’t be. It’s not necessarily illicit, but there is something alluring to it – unless, of course, you’re too ill to appreciate it. I know on such days I give myself a leave pass to pretty well do as I please – read, watch TV, nap. It’s only on those days – otherwise I’m studious in avoiding the simple pleasures in favour of being industrious.

In any case I was home sick, though not badly enough to feel incapacitated. I was free to lay on my couch without guilt and watch a movie in the middle of a school day. The movie was good, though it seemed a little outlandish. It was full of atmosphere and cemented my impressions of the book as being great entertainment.

It was with this memory I took to reading the book again. Once more I found myself absorbed in it. Hoeg is an interesting writer, more ambitious, more cerebral than Stig Larsson. It certainly doesn’t slow the action, but it adds a twist to it. Like Larsson with Lisbeth Salander, Hoeg created a truly memorable character in Miss Smilla – stubborn, independent, perverse, determined, a pain in the arse often but with a fierce sense of justice and loyalty.

Lisbeth Salander is the best thing in The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo – the other characters otherwise vaguely drawn or just bland, including the main proragonist, Blomkvist. Not so with Smilla, where she as a character she is backed up by a fascinating, sometimes compelling supporting cast. I raced through the book once more.

At the samme time as I bought this, I bought another book, The Women in Black, by Madeleine St John. It’s a small book centred around a young girl as she gets a summer job in a big department store in Sydney leading into the sixties. It’s a witty, clever book that records an Australia coming out of the war and on the cusp of transforming itself from a dull, Anglo-Saxon outpost at the bottom of the world into the progressive, modern and cosmopolitan society that exists in at least some parts of Australia today. It’s lovely written, with that light, occasionally caustic, very feminine touch very much in evidence. It was a pleasure to read, and fascinating for the snapshot of a familiar place taken before I was born.

Throughout this I have also been reading another Victor Serge book – The Case of Comrade Tulayev. This can be read as a very bitter satire, though clearly the storyline is representative of so many things that actually occurred in Stalinist Russia. In brief, a party official is shot dead on a Moscow street. The party machine whirrs into motion, less interested in finding the actual culprit than in finding scapegoats, evening scores, and ridding themselves of those with ideas no longer fashionable. The book itself is almost episodic as one party apparatchik after another is undermined, arrested, locked up, and ultimately forced to admit to crimes never committed. This, of course, happened many thousands, perhaps millions, of times in reality.

Victor Serge is a fascinating writer and man. His is the clear, uncorrupted view of a man who was once a believer turned weary realist. There’s wit in his stories here and there, though very much of the bitter variety, and you figure in person that Serge might have come across as being doomed, and completely resigned to it. He was on the run from Stalinist agents when he died of a heart attack just after WW2.

Incidentally, there’s no going past the evil crimes of Nazi Germany, and I still maintain that the holocaust is the single worst event in human history. That being said, I don’t think there has ever been a colder, more ruthless regime than that of Stalin. Hitler might have been made, but he believed in things, even if they were evil. Stalin believed in nothing but his own advancement, and he was prepared to sacrifice anyone to promote it. Hitler was a great advocate for the German people, where for Stalin his countrymen were nothing more than tools to be manipulated, and bodies to be climbed over. In Hitler’s Germany it was deadly to be Jewish and Gypsy and so on, and fraught with risk otherwise, but at least if you were Aryan you were deemed to be above the muck. Stalin was more democratic – there was no-one, ever, who was safe. He was cold, calculating, ruthlessly indifferent to the fate of others, and he built a party organisation in that image, in which every one of them acted in the same way – because they must if they were survive. I doubt there was a darker period of human existence than that in Stalinist Russia.

Moving on. Last week I picked up an entirely unexpected book for me – The Passing Bells, by Phillip Rock. It’s set just before and during WW1, and claims on the dust jacket that it was a pre-cursor to Downton Abbey. It seems a fair point now that I’m halfway reading it. It’s certainly not bad reading, and that period is always interesting. It’s not the sort of book I’ll normally read, but exceptions must be made. I’ll enjoy it, but won’t bother reading any more in the series.

I’m also reading, very quickly, a book I read when I was a kid – The Osterman Weekend, by Robert Ludlum. I picked it up for $2.95 or something, and it’s a guilty pleasure.

Otherwise I’m browsing the usual variety of non-fiction books: Archetypes, Smarter Selling, 1938: Hitler’s Gamble, How to Get Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (a gift). There are probably another 10 books beside my bed, from story collections I dip into occasionally, to books I intend to read next.

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