Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Ice Princess

by Camilla Lӓckberg; translated by Steven T. Murray
New York, Free Press, 2011
391 pages,     Fiction

“He followed Erica out to the kitchen. ‘Would you like some coffee?’”

Precious Romotswe solves crimes in Botswana while drinking cup after cup of bush tea. In Sweden, crimes are solved with cup after cup of coffee. I chuckled as I began reading The Ice Princess by Camilla Lӓckberg and the first cup of coffee was served. I should have kept count. After reading the first Stieg Larsson “girl who” mystery, one of my friends commented, “Why all the coffee?” Her comment amused me because my sister and I, having grown up in northern Minnesota among generations of Swedes had read right over the coffee anecdotes. It was nothing unusual for us!

The Ice Princess is a small-town murder mystery set in the coastal village of Fjӓllbacka, Sweden. It is the first in the series of mysteries starring Patrik Hedstrӧm, a local police detective. This first book, however, focuses on Erica Falck, an author who has returned to the village of her birth to clean out her parent’s house and write her fourth book. During the first week of her visit, she finds her beautiful childhood friend, Alex, dead—frozen in the bathtub of her unheated house—an ice princess. Erica decides to write a book about her friend, and begins to do some detective work on her own.

The mystery evolves in a rather leisurely manner, but there are enough twists and turns, interesting characters, and human suffering to keep the reader turning the pages, engrossed in it all. One delightful characteristic of this book is that there is quite a bit of humor. Police Superintendent Mellberg is a choice character, probably one of the most finely drawn characters in the book. He has a comb-over that causes all sorts of problems.

“’I’ve got him! I’ve got Alex Wijkner’s murderer.’ Mellberg was so beside himself with excitement that he didn’t notice that his comb-over had slipped down over one ear.”

The romance between Erica and Patrik blooms in the course of the investigation. There are a couple of delightful scenes in which Patrik renews his childhood passion for Erica, and Erica realizes that there may be more romance in Fjӓllbacka than in Stockholm. One reviewer suggested that the humor is retained because of the skillful translation of Steven Murray. As a pompous former pastor of mine used to say in the midst of a high-and-mighty sermon, “A little humor is good.”

More than humor, there is more than enough human misery to spread around. Like all small town mysteries, there are secrets everywhere, many kept under the surface for more than 25 years. No one lives in isolation, and the children are never privy to the adult gossip. Alcoholism, rape, spousal abuse, mysterious adoptions, and illicit affairs fill the pages and keep the reader guessing throughout the book. In speaking of Fjӓllbacka, Lӓckberg says, “It’s a place I know very well. I think a small town is more interesting and dynamic than a big city. It’s the setting that gives the flavor.” Läckberg says the town’s history has shaped its inhabitants – and her characters. “The people there don’t take things for granted and always want to be one step ahead of fate. I try to bring that out in my books as well.”

Camilla Lӓckberg is a successful Swedish novelist. This is the first of her books to be translated for the American market. The second book, The Preacher, also features Patrik and Erica. It is slated for release in 2012. USA Today calls her genre “Nordic noir” and says that her writing is “precisely layered.” One reviewer suggested that she improves with each additional book. I enjoyed The Ice Princess and will be looking forward to the next.

I received this book as part of a blog tour sponsored by the publisher. I most likely would have picked it up on my own, but it has been fun to be part of the tour.

Here is a review by a blogger of Scandinavian books: http://bookblog.scandinavianbooks.com/the-ice-princess-by-swedish-crime-queen-camilla-lackberg/

Here is a brief review in USA Today: http://www.blogger.com/goog_26577820

Here is Camilla Lӓckberg’s website: http://www.camillalackberg.com/. It includes a section about Fjӓllbacka.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Longing for Enough in a Culture of More

By Paul Escamilla

Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2007

134 p. Spiritual

Longing for Enough in a Culture of More is a small book, but it is an insidious book. As you read page after page, it grabs your soul, shakes it up, and smoothes it over. When I first looked at the book, I thought it was going to be about simple living, which I guess it is. But it is really not about using less and buying less; it is about appreciating more and accepting the grace that has already been given.

The book is divided into five sections: The Good Book, The Good Life, The Good Work, The Good Society, and The Good Earth—a lot of sections for such a small book. Each section is divided into several short chapters. This is not a book to be read quickly; it is a book to be savored. While I was reading the section on The Good Book, I couldn’t quite figure out where Escamilla was going to lead our thinking. This probably came from having had an erroneous presupposition about the book.

Each section had a chapter that I especially appreciated. I enjoyed the chapter about Adam and Eve because I had just edited a school paper my daughter had written comparing Adam and Eve as painted by Michelangelo and Adam and Eve as etched by Albrecht Dürer. We had spent a great deal of time looking carefully at the pictures, discerning the differences and discovering what was in the minds of each of the artists. Escamilla says, “What Eve and Adam soon learn is one of the plainest and yet most elusive of all life’s truths: pure pleasure never is.”

Then I enjoyed the chapter “Regarding Words” because I have most definitely been living in a world of words. He asks, “What happens when there are so many words doing so many deeds that no longer can any single word be heard?” The chapter is a call to use words wisely and well and to welcome silence as well as a few well chosen words that will be understood by the people around you. The essays and books to be edited are piling up on my computer; the books to be read are piling up on my nightstand. My husband and I are reading and discussing a political book that causes us to speak many words; the pundits on CNN are throwing words at us. Frankly, I just need to walk around the neighborhood or out at the park in perfect silence. It will allow me to hear the words of peace that are being whispered in my ear.

And then I read with pleasure the chapter about following the seasons. It’s cold but sunny today; winter has let go and spring is coming. But oh, how I hated this winter. It was a horrible, cold and snowy winter. I had trouble appreciating it. And I have been so tied to my computer that I have not been able to fully appreciate the wakening earth. My husband was the one who cleaned out all the flower beds and saw the shoots of the daffodils; he was the one who has been glorying in the changing season. “By developing our awareness of the sustaining forces of earth and sky that surround and enfold us, we are likely to walk more softly and understand more clearly our beholdenness to an environment that is in many ways shrouded in mystery, resplendent in change.”

Paul Escamilla is a pastor and seminary professor. He has several books available through Cokesbury, the Methodist Publishing House. I would suggest that you pick this beautiful little book up and read it, savor it, and grow from it. It will illuminate your soul.

A review from the Circuit Rider: http://www.fumsdrl.org/bookReview/longingForEnough.htm

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study

by Howard S. Friedman, PhD
and Leslie R. Martin, PhD
New York, Hudson Street Press, 2011
248 pages       Non-Fiction

I am approaching the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation. OMG, how did I get to be this old? Although I probably won’t go to my reunion, I look forward to getting the booklet that will come with all the information about my remaining classmates. I went to a middle class high school in a middle class city. My classmates were mostly just like me; educated parents in professional careers. Over the years, we have received notices about classmates who have died, first in the Viet Nam War, a couple by suicide, one in a mountain climbing accident, and one who died in childbirth. Now the death notices we are receiving are about heart attacks and cancer. How many of those 320 that I graduated with are still alive? What are they doing? How is the quality of their lives?

So it was with anticipation that I began reading the book The Longevity Project by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin. I had been reading about this project and this book, and although I would probably not have picked it up without the prompting of the publisher, I had already had some exposure to the concept.

Longitudinal studies very seldom have the chance to extend much beyond their funding. This was not the case with the study begun in 1921 by the Stanford University Psychologist Lewis Terman. Terman began studying a group of 1500 bright school children in San Francisco when they were in elementary school. He asked teachers to recommend their brightest students, and over the years, he met with them many times documenting their arrival at adulthood, their careers, their marriages, their successes and failures. He was “interested in the sources of intellectual leadership and wondered if he could identify early glimmers of high potential.”

He continued visiting this same group of children until they were approaching middle age and until his death in the 1950s. Because of the meticulous nature of his study, his results have been tapped again and again by researchers. Friedman, Martin and their graduate students began their study of longevity in 1990, and utilized the people studied by Terman, including those they were able to interview (in their early 90s) and those they were only able to study in their death certificates and the comments made about them by Terman and his colleagues as they were growing up.

The Wall Street Journal reviewer summarizes the results thus: “The respondents to the study who fared best in the longevity sweepstakes tended to have a fairly high level of physical activity, a habit of giving back to the community, a thriving and long-running career, and a healthy marriage and family life. They summoned resilience against reverses and challenges—including divorce, loss of a spouse, career upsets and war trauma. By contrast, those with the darkest dispositions—catastrophizers, who viewed every stumble as a calamity—were most likely to die sooner.”

The book is designed in such a way that the reader can superimpose her own reality on the narrative. It is not a book of statistics, thank God. Nor is it a book that lets you calculate your exact length of life, because it doesn’t attempt to take into account diseases, natural disaster, accidents, or fate. It is more about personality traits that affect lifespan. There are some quizzes that help guide you into decisions about how you fit in the vast scheme of things—how purposeful or sociable you are—as examples.

Here are the things that I was particularly interested in learning from The Longevity Project:

• Children who lose a parent do not necessarily live a shorter life, but girls are particularly affected if they lose a father before they are 20.
• Children of divorce don’t live as long as children whose parents stay together.
• If men are happy with their marriage they will live longer, but a happy marriage does not affect the lifespan of a woman.
• Working hard at your career (some would say overworking) doesn’t affect your lifespan.
• Activity is important, but it can be activity like gardening, or sailing, or walking, and doesn’t have to be training for marathons.
• Conscientiousness is the best predictor of a long life (which probably means that my sister will live forever).

Well, I could go on and on. This is a fascinating study and readers will get clues about their own lives, and the lives of their spouses and children. I learned that when I take a walk every day, do yoga every week, cook healthy meals, love my husband, connect with my friends, keep working, make quilts, and keep my mind active by reading and blogging, I am doing the best I can to live as long as I am able—“God willing and the creek don’t rise!”

Here is the Wall Street Journal review: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703529004576160601149946420.html

The Longevity Project’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Longevity-Project/151456004873773

An interview with Friedman in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/03/the-longevity-project-decades-of-data-reveal-paths-to-long-life/72290/

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures

by Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman

New York, Crown Publishers, 2010

325 p. Memoir

I love heist movies—The Thomas Crown Affair and The Italian Job are two of my favorites. Any of the stories told in the book Priceless by Robert K. Wittman could be made into the next heist movie. Most certainly there will be a movie made about Wittman’s career as the FBI investigator who recovered some of the world’s priceless stolen treasures.

Robert K. Wittman is a charming, educated man. When he joined the FBI in his 30s, he had been running a small chain of farm newspapers in several states. He was used to being a salesman, being ingratiating, and smooth. He also was a musician and a student of art and antiques. He brought those skills into his FBI career and later into his career as an undercover agent, recapturing over $225 million dollars in lost artworks and historical artifacts. One reviewer says that “if Robert Wittman didn’t already exist, Dan Brown would have made him up.”

This is just a plain fun read. Each chapter tells about a heist and the subsequent recovery of the stolen items. Along the way, the reader learns about the history of the art or antiquity, so there’s a bit of learning that goes on as well. In each of these cases, Wittman had to learn as much as he could about the stolen items and design a plan to recover them. He had to create a cover for himself, ingratiate himself with the crooks and enact the recovery.

Wittman says, “Art thieves steal more than beautiful objects; they steal memories and identities. They steal history.” The FBI was never as passionate about recovering these beautiful objects as Wittman or the police in Europe are. For much of the time Wittman was in the FBI, he was the only person investigating the cases. And the other agents could never figure out why the recovery gained so much media attention. Just the week before Priceless was released, there was a robbery at the Paris Museum of Modern Art. Wittman, now retired, was one of the experts interviewed by all the news media. (Be sure to look at the news section of Wittman’s website to see him in action as the expert.) He retired from the FBI to run a security consulting business, and that’s why his story is being told now.

One of the ways he became successful in recapturing stolen pieces of art was by going undercover. He says, “Going undercover is a lot like sales. It’s all about understanding human nature—winning a person’s trust and then taking advantage of it. You befriend, then betray.” For several years, he went undercover to try to recover the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which remains the largest property theft in history. Just before he retired, he believes that he came very close to recapturing the Vermeer painting, The Concert, but just couldn’t quite complete the deal. The reader feels as disappointed as Wittman, even thoughwe knew as we were reading about his efforts that those paintings remain out in the world somewhere.

I hadn’t expected to learn as much as I did. One reviewer said, “Priceless can read at times, not unpleasantly, as if an art history textbook got mixed up at the printer with a screenplay for The Wire.” And, oh my I did love The Wire! I do have to say that I was really disappointed to learn that Antiques Roadshow may not always be all it’s cracked up to be. “$2 million dollars. I can’t believe it—for this soup ladle? You’ve got to be kidding!”

Check out Wittman’s website, particularly the News section: http://www.robertwittmaninc.com/

A review in the New York Times: http://www.blogger.com/goog_1350714798

Terry Gross interview on Fresh Air: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128452166

Friday, March 4, 2011


by Jonathan Franzen
New York, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010
562 p.    Fiction

What can I say about the book, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, that hasn’t already been said? I have been worrying about this all week as I was engrossed in this fascinating book. There are more reviews of Freedom than you can possibly imagine. BookMarks magazine counted more reviews for the book than any book in the year 2010—twice as many as the next most reviewed book. It has been called “The book of the Century” and Time magazine put Jonathan Franzen on its cover. What can I say?

First of all, I might say, that it is a very large book, and if there was ever a time to buy a Kindle, this would be it! Some reviewers felt the book was too long; that was not one of my complaints. I enjoyed the read, although I do have to say that I didn’t particularly like the characters. The main characters are the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, and their children Jessica and Joey. They are “the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive every-body so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege.” You may have heard the phrase, “Minnesota nice.” Well, the Berglund’s are Minnesota nice, and ostensibly the book is about what happens when fate befalls them, as fate is wont to do.

It is also about the history of the years following 9/11 through the eyes of one family. It is family as microcosm or microhistory, as one reviewer points out. Of course, the range of characters is larger than these four people, and we are pulled through the years that we have all just experienced through the eyes of the Berglunds and the people around them. As we read about their lives, we come to a sense of how we fared during those years, and about how our lives changed.

When thinking about my future and the future of my family in my years as a happy young wife, I somehow knew that the passionate life I was leading would at some point end—the other shoe would drop, as it were. Well of course, at that point, I had no way of knowing that I would lose my husband to cancer, that I would raise my children on my own, and that I would find a measure of happiness again. The story of the Berglunds evolves in much the same way—initial happiness followed by uncontrolled events, despair, tragedy, and the return to happiness.

Jonathan Franzen says that he has to tell stories through the context of family. In an interview on PBS’ news hour, he says: “Family is how I make sense of the world. I had a very powerful experience of it, these -- these really giant figures in my life. And I was this little kid. And I had two much older brothers and these powerful and often clashing parents. And every novel I have written -- it's been four novels -- I have tried to draw on the energy of those intense family relations to power a book.”

The relationships in Freedom are intense and all-permeating, just as the family relationships are for most of us. When Franzen juxtaposes historical context, evil, fear, greed, passion, and thwarted ambition into the mix of family relationships, the context of his book becomes clear. The book is about freedom and power, hypocrisy and its attendant rhetoric. The comprehensive reviewer in The New York Review of Books suggests: “Freedom operates as a kind of morality play in which all the major players are drawn toward actions they should not perform and objects they either cannot or should not possess.”

There are several subplots swirling around the family drama, including species extinction, mountaintop removal used in West Virginia coal mining, overpopulation, and private-sector subcontracts for the Iraq war. These are upper-middle class educated people, so their concerns, their prejudices, and their politics are liberal. The blogger on the Huffington Post feels that these are not the people through whom the story of the decade should be told--that their need for freedom is rarified and scarcely touched by the events of the decade. However, as Walter noted, ‘The world doesn’t reward ideas or emotions, it rewards integrity and coolness.” As the characters in Freedom struggle with ideas, emotions, integrity and coolness, we are privileged to see Franzen’s take on a world adrift and the people who are adrift in it.

My favorite review is the review in The New York Review of Books:

The review in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/books/review/Tanenhaus-t.html

An interview on PBS: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec10/franzen_10-12.html