Thursday, December 30, 2010

(No.129) Nasty times in America (with Donald Westlake, Lee Child et al)

The United States has produced (and continues to do so) some of the very best English language novelists in what is variously referred to as the genre of mystery/private detective/crime/police procedurals. As I have written in previous columns American authors share the top spots on my favourites list with today's gritty British writers in this genre. My next column on (No.130) will look at some of the latest from the Brits.

Donald Westlake was a prolific novelist, 100+ books written under his own name as well as several pseudonyms ( see "American Crime Fiction", column No.121 on He died on Dec.31, 2008 at age 75 after a long and very successful career.

One of his series involved a group of minor league crooks in New York City led by a sombre chap named John Dortmunder. The books in this series are funny and what turned out to be his last one Get Real (2009) is now out in paperback. It involves the gang being approached to be the subject of a television reality show about criminals planning and executing a crime.

This is the story of a caper told as well as any have been by Westlake. I will miss reading new Westlake novels.

James Swain started writing novels, seven so far, featuring a leading character (Tony Valentine) an ex-New Jersey cop who is expert at detecting and catching casino cheats (see, for example, Grift Sense ). His other series, one begun more recently, involves a Florida private detective named Jack Carpenter, another ex-cop but one who left under a cloud his job as the head of the Broward County Police Missing Persons Unit.

The latest of Swain's three Carpenter novels, The Night Monster (2009), has the central character discovering a connection between an early and unsolved case of his own and the current disappearance of his daughter's friend that involves serial killers.

I have not enjoyed the Carpenter series as much as I have the Swain novels featuring Tony Valentine set in the gambling world. Nor as a writer of crime/mystery novels is Swain yet in the premier league but his stories are an entertaining and satisfying read.

Another fairly new American entrant in the 'detective' genre (at least new compared to Donald Westlake or Elmore Leonard) is Chris Knopf. Several crime/mystery novels set on Long Island New York (in particular that part of the island called 'the Hamptons') have a former engineer/big business executive Sam Acquillo as the central character [see The Last Refuge].

In his latest volume, Short Squeeze (2009) a heretofore peripheral character in the Acquillo novels -- lawyer Jackie Swaitkowski -- takes centre stage. Neither the new central character nor this plot ring as many bells for me as did the Acquillo mysteries. But the book is worth a read.

Lee Child is an Englishman now living and writing novels in the U.S. His books feature a nomadic and extremely tough ex-soldier named Jack Reacher. Thus far Reacher has wandered through 15 novels in a bestselling series, the latest two -- both published in 2010 -- being 61 Hours and Worth Dying For .

On occasion, if the reader pauses to think about it, the Reacher character seems too improbable: a former U.S. Army brat who becomes a tough as nails military policeman and detective. He left the army as a major and under a cloud. He eschews all permanence and travels the U.S., usually hitchhiking, with (literally) no more than a toothbrush and the clothes on his back (lately an ATM card and passport has perforce been added to this short list of possessions).

Reacher is not a superhero but he is a large man highly skilled in weapons and physical combat. These skills and related characteristics combined with his wandering lifestyle facilitate use of different locales and plot points for Child's novels and are among the keys to their considerable appeal.

All the Reacher novels are worth reading with interesting plots, although some are more absorbing than others. These latest two volumes in the series are particularly good.

As a character Jack Reacher most reminds me of the professional criminal named Parker in the series created by Donald Westlake writing under the name Richard Stark. It is also a series I have enjoyed very much.

Yishai Sarid, an Israeli lawyer and journalist, has written his second novel Limassol (2010, translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav). It is a rather dark look at the life and activity of an Israeli secret service interrogator. His marriage is going pear-shaped while he tries to get Arab detainees to divulge information that will allow identification of suicide bombers before the bombs go off.

The core of this novel involves the sending of this lead character on an undercover assignment, one he tries to refuse, to set up a terrorist leader for assassination in the town of Limassol in Cyprus.

This is a novel with a very different tone, setting and perspective than many of this genre that customarily make American bestseller lists.


Alastair Rickard


Monday, December 20, 2010

(No.128) Does God look like Mayor Binwanger?

Browsing in a cruise ship library I came across a 1985 novel, North Gladiola, by an American author of literary fiction James Wilcox. He is the author of nine novels, the first and his best known (Modern Baptists) was published in 1983 and the most recent, Hunk City, in 2007.

Wilcox, who is now a professor at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, was born in Louisiana and his novels are set in or feature characters from the fictional setting of Tula Springs, Louisiana located near the border with the state of Mississippi.

James Wilcox is a talented writer of comedy of manners and a very funny creator of the whimsical and the complicated. As I remember it one of my earliest experiences of laughing out loud because of what I was reading in a novel involved Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Sadly, in the subsequent decades of my reading novels I have not had that experience nearly as often as I would have liked. Happily one of those times came while reading North Gladiola.

The book's plot revolves around Ethyl Mae Coco, a Mississippi native and a Baptist who converted on her marriage to Roman Catholicism but now at age 57 has become a secret doubter of her faith,. She is the mother of a brood of dysfunctional adult children as well as being a player in and the energetic leader of a local chamber music group called the Pro Arts Quartet. She wants to turn the Quartet into a cultural jewel of Tula Springs but their engagements tend to be playing at the openings of local restaurants. Her relations with the members of this group as well as with her husband and children are a major source of humour and animate the plot.

As the years have passed Mrs. Coco has developed deep-seated religious doubts. As chairperson of the Rosary Altar Society Bake Sale, Wilcox writes, "it depressed her that she would have to stand outside Our Lady [Church] all day selling cakes for a God she wasn't sure she believed in. The trouble was, the more she thought about this God she had been praying to for so long, the more distinct His features became; to her dismay she discovered that He bore a striking resemblance to [Tula Springs] Mayor Binwanger .... Of course, she realized this was absurd, but when she tried to banish this image there was nothing but a vague, beardlike cloud to take its place."

Even after they have novels published writers of literary fiction very often struggle financially to make a living from working as full time novelists. James Wilcox certainly did when he lived and worked in New York City. There is a fascinating article in The New Yorker magazine (July 4,1994) "Moby Dick in Manhattan" by James B. Stewart. It provides a close look at Wilcox's life as a novelist and his financial relationship with publishers.

One learns that the potential American market for a book of literary fiction published in hardcover is not only very far from being in the hundreds of thousands of copies typical of popular fiction bestsellers but distant from even (for most) sales of tens of thousands of copies. Indeed a recognized and critically successful novelist like Wilcox struggled in New York to live off publishers' advances and royalties from his novels. In 2004 he began teaching creative fiction at LSU back in his home state (he is 61).

James Wilcox's novels are still in print, a signal achievement these days for a writer of literary fiction. He is a fine novelist. His clever, witty and accomplished writing deserves to be widely read and enjoyed.

As for North Gladiola, for me it was truly refreshing -- like a cool drink on a hot day. I intend to read his other novels.


the novels by James Wilcox:

1. Modern Baptists (1983) 8 editions

2. Polite Sex (1991) 3 editions

3. Sort of Rich (1989) 4 edtions

4. Plain and Normal (1998) 3 editions

5. Guest of a Sinner (1993) 4 editions

6. Miss Undine's Living Room (1987) 4 editions

7. North Gladiola (1985) 4 editions

8. Heavenly Days (2003) 4 editions

9. Hunk City (2007) 5 editions


Alastair Rickard


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

(No.127) Strange meets unusual: Barcelona's Sagrada Familia

It is not one of the seven wonders of the world but if there existed a formal list of widely recognized architectural wonders and/or oddities, ones with a fascinating back story, then The Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family Church -- "Temple Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia" in Barcelona Spain would earn a place.

It was the idea of a Barcelona bookseller, Josep Maria Bocabella, who in 1866 founded the Spiritual Association of Devotees of St.Joseph.

The structure and the story both involve a Catalan native son, a giant in the architectural history of Barcelona and Catalonia: Antoni Gaudi (1852 - 1926). Several of his creations can be found in Spain outside Catalonia but the leading examples are in Barcelona (see "Antoni Gaudi of Barcelona: the Catalan Elvis Presley?", column No. 125 of December 2, 2010 on

Gaudi's architectural style has been described, perhaps unkindly but not without some basis, as Art Nouveau run wild. His life became intertwined in the 1880s with the Church of the Holy family, the Sagrada Familia, when he was only 31 and remained so until 1926 when he was knocked down by a Barcelona tram and died a few days later. In death his name lives on, inextricably bound up with one of the most bizarre and long-lived architectural projects imaginable, one that is still ongoing today after 130 years and unlikely to be completed before 2030 (the 'official' goal) -- if then.

As he grew older Gaudi's religious piety and intensity increased. He had been commissioned by the Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph, to build a cathedral (take your pick) for the poor of the city of Barcelona OR to provide a place of atonement for the city's increasing decadence. On the other hand, the Association's founding objective had been to achieve, through the protection of St.Joseph, the triumph of the Catholic Church in a time in which it believed dechristianization was being driven by the industrial revolution and the accompanying social changes. Few of the original members including Bocabella could have imagined that by 2010 the cathedral would not have been completed.

Gaudi had imagined a church in the form of a Latin cross over the initial crypt; above the crypt the major altar surrounded by seven chapels in the apse. Above each of its three facades there would be four towers, 12 in total, dedicated to the apostles, In the centre the tallest tower (170 m) dedicated to Jesus Christ. Over time he became obsessed with the building of the structure, eventually taking up residence in its crypt so as to be on the construction site. However by the time he died only the church's crypt, part of the apse , one of the facades and one tower had been completed.

The towers of Gaudi's Nativity Facade begin in the shape of a square and at a certain height become circular. The first tower was completed in 1918 and the set of four was finished in 1926, the year he died. The Passion Facade is on the opposite side from the Nativity Facade and has more marked and harder lines. The studies for this facade were completed between 1892 and 1917 but its construction did not begin until 1952 and not completed until 1978. The main facade is still under construction. Inside the church is intended to hold more than 5000 worshippers.

During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s the church was desecrated by what are now referred to as "anarchists". This seems to be a politically correct reference to people on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War who were fighting General Franco's Nationalists who were supported by Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Nearly all of Gaudi's plans and models were destroyed. His designs were subsequently reconstituted from what photographs and documents could be found.

These days construction of the rest of the Sagrada Familia continues at a pace dictated by the annual inflow of donations and admission revenues from tourists, reportedly at a rate of 1 million Euros per month.

Today the Sagrada Familia exterior looks to a significant extent like a giant construction site albeit one visited by 5 million people each year. On Nov.7, 2010 Pope Benedict came to consecrate the cathedral and the preparations for his visit made the site, as Pat and I saw for ourselves a couple of days beforehand, particularly crowded and chaotic.

In terms of its size and grandeur it is an impressive structure already but a controversial one. Today, under the direction and interpretation of architect Jordi Bonet, the Passion Facade is far more modernistic than Gaudi's Nativity Facade. The former includes giant sculptures on the exterior by Joseph Maria Subirachs; they look, and not just to my eye, out of place in comparison with Gaudi's own facade and original design.

The critic Robert Hughes who, in his book Barcelona, called this facade and the Subirachs sculptures "the most blatant mass of half-digested moderniste cliches to be plunked on a notable building within living memory". Hughes' negative view is more elegantly expressed than mine.

The Sagrada Familia seems to me breathtaking in scope, size and ambition but a dog's breakfast of design. Imagine the following: architects working for owners of one of the giant Las Vegas 'theme' hotels like Caesar's Palace or Treasure Island or The Luxor are commissioned to build a hotel the appearance of which is to suggest to tourists yet unborn an art nouveau European cathedral. I suggest that the exterior of the Sagrada Familia cathedral, or at least one of its facades, could serve as a model.

However it is only fair to point out that there are today just as many if not more fans of the way the Sagrada Familia is evolving as there are critics who deprecate its departures from Gaudi's ideas and style.

At least one thing seems clear to us following our visit to the cathedral: time spent in the magnificent city of Barcelona should not be considered complete without going to the Sagrada Familia.


For information and pictures visit:


Alastair Rickard

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

(No.126) Fox News, Obama & U.S. fantasists

Recently I revisited the U.S. cable news network Fox News including the program The O'Reilly Factor, one of that network's "fair and balanced" programs -- to cite the Fox slogan, one that turns the meaning of that phrase upside down in the view of this Canadian.

Fox News is a major media home for right wing political fantasists and indeed its status can be described as the unofficial broadcast arm of the Republican Party. That reality is underlined by the fact that it currently employs all but one of the current leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination for 2012: Palin, Huckabee and Gingrich.

I was a bit surprised to hear Bill O'Reilly actually deprecate the intense partisan political divisions in the U.S. and the promotion of hatred of the other side. If one grants that his comments were sincere and not merely disingenuous then one can only assume that he exists in some parallel universe. O'Reilly's program on Fox and even more so those of his colleagues like Sean Hannity and Glen Beck do exactly what he says should not be done: promote intense political division.

For example: Beck's conspiracy fantasies involving prominent individuals like financier George Soros and what Beck refers to as the financier's "surrogates" (apparently including President Obama). This silliness would be funny if it did not appeal to the credulity of too many right wingers and feed paranoia. For me Beck's style recalls the late Senator Joe McCarthy and his witchhunting comments of the 1950s about communists in the U.S. State Department.

I also heard O'Reilly attribute a major part of the massive US government deficit problem to the funds paid by the US federal government to help operate PBS, the American non-commercial Public Broadcasting System. I heard no reference to the hundreds of $billions on the American credit card paid by President Bush and the Republicans to fight two wars while lowering taxes paid by those with the highest incomes. But then PBS has long been a favourite target for the American right because of its 'liberal/leftist' programming, all the more so if it can be coupled (as part of opposition to tax reform) with rhetoric about the top 1% or so of taxpayers paying 40% of American taxes.

There was an interesting article in the Nov. 2010 issue of The Atlantic magazine: "Truth Lies Here -- How can Americans talk to one another let alone engage in political debate when the web allows every side to invent its own facts?" It referred to the comment by the American Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan that each of us is entitled to our opinions but we are not entitled to our own set of facts. Nowhere does that admonition seem more relevant than in the U.S. today as political arguments from the left and right play out in the blogosphere and the mainstream media, with Fox News as a leading example.

The sort of 'facts' asserted by Fox's commentators to their American viewers will not include, for example, that the top 1% of Americans own 34% of America's private net worth while the bottom 90% own 29%. Or that 57% of U.S. wealth created since 1976 has gone to 1% of the population. Or that the U.S. has the biggest income disparity of any industrialized country. Such facts do not fit into the cloud-cuckoo-land into which far too much of American political discourse has descended in recent years.

Instead, assert as 'facts' threats to American "freedom and values" from the actions of President Barak Obama; call him a fascist or a communist or a socialist. However be sure to ignore the fact that he has been trying to deal with the colossal mess left to him by President Bush based on Republican spending and the favoured tax treatment of the wealthy and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to prevent the U.S. financial system from melting down. Why? Because of Wall Street pirates and incompetents being able to take advantage of ample opportunities for illegitimate financial gain provided by elected Republicans' sustained and disastrous worship of deregulation icons, genuflection that began with the first President Bush.

The analysis of American political and economic reality offered nightly by Fox News' talking heads may perhaps be most aptly likened to something written for them by Lewis Carroll if Alice in Wonderland had a contemporary American setting.

Barak Obama assumed the presidency in Jan 2009 inheriting gargantuan accumulated deficits and financial bailout commitments already in place from the Bush years (President Clinton left Bush with a substantial surplus). Now Obama is a carrying a political can filled with financial excrement deposited there in large measure by his Republican predecessor and Republican congressional majorities in both houses of the American congress for 6 of Bush's 8 years in office.

The U.S. political system is dysfunctional. Whether it will regain equilibrium in the near future is very much in doubt -- all the more so as one looks at the volume of absolute nonsense that marked the 2010 U.S. mid-term congressional election campaigns.

The Republican electoral gains in November -- control of the House of Representatives and de facto veto power in the Senate -- means that any attempts by Obama to address pressing issues in a substantive way will go nowhere during the next two years. For example: allowing Bush tax cuts to lapse at the end of 2010 for those earning $250,000+.

As this is written it is being reported that a deal has been reached between the White House and the congressional Republicans which will continue all the Bush tax cuts for another two years in return for, inter alia, an extension of long term jobless benefits for another 13 months (financed by borrowing rather than spending cuts), the whole deal at a cost in the hundreds of $billions.

Thus the U.S. continues to move ever closer to the financial precipice with continued deficit spending and levels of foreign borrowing at unsustainable levels -- all in the cause of allowing Americans to maintain a national economic regime they are unwilling to pay for with necessary levels of taxation. The fact is that few American politicians of any standing now in office (including President Obama) will tell the American public clearly and forthrightly that they and their governments must face up to reality: the only way back from the precipice is sharply reduced spending by government AND significant tax increases for taxpayers, not just at top levels but also in the broad middle class.

How likely is it that any realistic political action will occur? One of the many discouraging indications: President Obama appointed a bipartisan Deficit Commission to recommend how this challenge might be dealt with, i.e., to look hard at the fact that government debt is now at 60% of GDP and rising. The Commission had 18 members, including Republican and Democratic co-chairmen, and if its recommendations were endorsed by 14 of the 18 members then they would have to be considered by Congress. It has just reported and only 11 of its members would support their own report's substantive recommendations for action on government spending reductions combined with tax reform and higher taxes.

A majority of American voters as well as their political leadership plus their media profess alarm about the fiscal mess (as cable news talking heads and the Tea Party demonstrators repeated ad nauseam in the run-up to the Nov. 2010 mid-term elections). Yet many actually seem to prefer living in a financial, economic and governmental dream world. While there is great upset because of the huge growth in government deficits (federal and state) with widespread calls for reduced government spending -- not, it seems, if it really addresses the biggest political elephants in the room: the rising costs of social security (govt. pensions) and medicare/medicaid (govt. health care).

There is as yet neither sufficient political will nor enough strong elected leadership required to address substantively the U.S. fiscal crisis -- as Canada did under Finance Minister Paul Martin and Prime Minister Jean Chretien and as Prime Minister John Cameron's U.K. coalition government is trying to do now with its draconian spending cuts and tax increases.

If President Obama is re-elected in 2012 for his second term -- and the Republicans' nominee for president may be the best guarantee of that -- and if his re-election were to be combined with Democratic congressional majorities we may see him provide the sort of leadership the United States will need even more desperately two years hence.


Alastair Rickard


Thursday, December 2, 2010

(No.125) Antoni Gaudi of Barcelona: the Catalan Elvis Presley?

One cannot visit Memphis Tennessee without being submerged in references to Elvis Presley. On a different cultural plane the same can be said of Barcelona Spain and the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. [The Spanish translation from the Catalan language of his name is Antonio, a rendering one also sees in English.]

Antoni Gaudi i Cornet was born in 1832 in a rural part of Catalonia, a region of Spain then as now a home for the very nationalistic Catalan people -- and Gaudi was a nationalist. Today Catalonia is one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions.

A lifelong bachelor Gaudi grew increasingly eccentric as his religious piety intensified. He was knocked down by a tram in 1926 after leaving his work at the site of the Segrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona (where by then he had taken up residence in the crypt). He died several days later in a pauper's hospital from which, because of his political convictions, he refused to be transferred. He is buried in the crypt of the cathedral.

While Gaudi is not as widely known outside Spain as he deserves to be, in his hometown he is omnipresent as both a Catalan hero and cultural icon as well as the creator of what have become major tourist attractions in Barcelona. He was the key figure in the design and construction of the cathedral Sagrada Familia begun in the 1880s. Today it is still not completed although it was consecrated on Nov.7, 2010 by Pope Benedict. By coincidence Pat and I were in Barcelona that day.

In the older part of Barcelona one can travel up the marvelous avenue Passeig de Gracia and view a five story house, Casa Batllo, the renovation and decoration of which Gaudi designed (it was completed during the 1906-08 period) for the industrialist Joseph Batllo. It forms part of the island of buildings known as the "manzana de las discordia" (block of dissension) because its buildings belong to so many different architectural styles.

Gaudi's work on Casa Batllo included enlarging the building's patio, changing the ground and main floor facade, crowning the roof and redistributing the building's interior spaces. The interior patio was enlarged and covered with ceramic pieces designed by Gaudi. They are dark blue at the top and their hues get progressively lighter toward the ground floor, eventually reaching white.

It is difficult to convey how striking the combination of room design and colour is in Casa Batllo (see the pictures on the websites listed at the end of this column). Gaudi's approach to the design of the interior space makes it remarkably striking. So representative of the architect's style is the space that even in the second floor lounge one can gaze out of the Gaudi-styled bay windows while sitting on a reproduction of one of the chairs he designed.

On the sidewalk fronting the building on de Gracia people often crowd around taking pictures of the exterior of Casa Batllo. The interior is open to the public and attracts visitors in droves. It is in the heart of the old city on a highly fashionable avenue and is considered to be a fine example of the modernista building, a style also referred to as Catalan Art Nouveau.

When it comes to unusual creations in which Gaudi had a major role I would award the leading position to the Sagrada Familia (about which I will write more in another column) but Casa Batllo is unique -- in the proper sense of that word.

Across de Gracia and up a few blocks is Casa Mila, a large Gaudi-designed apartment building. It was the last great civil (i.e., non-religious) work with which Gaudi was involved as an architect before dedicating all his time to the construction of the Sagrada Familia. The owner, Pere Mila Camps, had liked Gaudi's transformation of the Batllo house and asked Gaudi to construct a large building of apartments on land he owned at the corner of de Gracia and Provenca street. Gaudi designed a structure based on wrought metallic girders and Catalan-style vaults and it was built between 1906 and 1910.

Owned since 1986 by a Spanish bank (Caixa Catalunya), the building is popularly referred to as La Pedrera which means the 'quarry". It is another of Gaudi's impressive creations which survive in Barcelona today.

La Pedrera occupies an entire block and has a huge interior space, from bottom to top of the building, for air and light and around which the apartments are situated. The building's rippling facade of roughly finished stone is moulded and rounded to resemble cave dwellings, a supposed reference to caves although I don't see as all that apt. The building's rock-like exterior appearance accounts for its nickname. Its strangely shaped wrought-iron balconies do enhance its exterior appearance.

The building was restored in 1996 and since 1999 the public has had limited access to La Pedrera, limited because most of the floors are still occupied (as they have been since 1911) by private apartments. The roof has strangely shaped chimneys and ventilators with undulating walkways and magnificent views of old Barcelona. On the top floor are located a Gaudi museum and a furnished apartment recreating a bourgeois family's home in Barcelona as it would have been in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Casa Batllo and La Pedrera are both so unusual and impressive that any visit to Barcelona could be considered incomplete if they were not seen. There are other places around the city with which Gaudi and his highly distinctive designs (including furniture and gardens) are also associated but Casa Batllo, La Pedrera and Segrada Familia should provide any visitor to the city more than enough to be getting on with -- unless that visitor is a devotee of both architecture and Antoni Gaudi and wishes to dedicate a Barcelona visit entirely to Antoni Gaudi.


Information about these three Gaudi-related locations can be obtained at the following websites, all of which are excellent and each of which provide impressive pictures of the structure's interior and exterior:





Alastair Rickard