“Kitchie-Gami was colored golden, pink, silvery-white, sulfur-yellow, as well as a number of hues for which no words existed.” – Vidar Sundstøl’s The Land of Dreams

May 31, 2014 at 1:14 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

sundstol  Kitchie-Gami is the Ojibwe name for Lake Superior. The lake is a gigantic, mysterious presence in The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl. The story takes place on Minnesota’s North Shore, where the land meets the water. It is here, amid a landscape densely covered in greenery and studded with dramatic waterfalls, Forest Service officer Lance Hansen makes a discovery of unparalleled horror: a body brutally savaged by an unknown killer. The victim is one of a pair of Norwegian tourists. He discovers both young men in peculiar circumstances.

Throughout the novel, Lance is haunted by his remembrance of the victim. Even worse, he is bedeviled by a nagging suspicion; namely, is the murderer really unknown? Or is he known only too well?

Lance Hansen is a melancholy, inward turning person, but he is not a cliche of the genre. Rather he is all too human, divorced and the father of Jimmy, a seven-year-old  currently living with his mother on the Ojibwe Reservation. Lance has lived on the North Shore his entire life, yet as the drama of The Land of Dreams unfolds, he seems very solitary. His nagging fear concerning the identity of the killer serves to isolate him further from family and friends.

This is a beautiful book. The characters are memorable and intriguing, but what has really stayed with me is Sundstøl’s remarkable evocation of a place I previously knew nothing about. In writing that is intensely lyrical, he has made Minnesota’s North Shore come alive. Here, Lance is recalling his impressions while driving south along Lake Superior, during the time of his courtship of Mary Dupree:

It was in the spring and summer that the beginning phase of their relationship unfolded. The evenings were long and bright,the lake and sky merging in a hallucinatory way so that it was impossible to see where on ended and the other began. The humidity from that enormous expanse of water filled the air with a delicate mist, and in the mist floated shades of yellow, pink, and blue, like watercolors, all of them illuminated by the evening sun hovering low in the sky. After the sun sank below the horizon, the colors darkened to violet and black.


Grand Portage, Grand Marais, Tofte, Split Rock Lighthouse, Two Harbors – all receive mention in The Land of Dreams.

Since both the murder victim and a potential suspect are Norwegian nationals, the decision is taken to have a Norwegian law enforcement officer flown in to assist in the investigation. Upon landing in Duluth, this is Eirik Nyland’s first impression:

In spite of the typical and anonymous scene that characterizes every airport, he had a distinct awareness that he was in the United States. Even in this small airport in Minnesota,  he had the feeling of a smooth, carefully structured surface concealing a violent energy underneath.

In fact, Duluth turns out to be an interesting city. We get a glimpse of its impressive aquarium when Lance takes Jimmy there on a weekend outing. In addition, the rather amazing Aerial Lift Bridge crosses the canal that connects Lake Superior to the Duluth-Superior Harbor and the St. Louis River:

Like so many that live in the region of the North Shore, Lance Hansen is descended from Norwegian immigrants. He is an avid student of the region’s history and its people; indeed, this novel provides fascinating glimpses into that history. For instance, in the 1830s, John Jacob Astor financed a fishing concern on Lake Superior’s northern shore. A financial crash stopped the project in its tracks, yet at the same time it seemed to portend what the future would bring:

Gone were the voyageurs’ romantic songs and the Celtic strains from the Great Hall. Gone were the dairy cows, the pigs waiting to be slaughtered, and the crates of Portuguese wine. Gone were the European Crowns’ colorful flags and banners, the uniforms and drums, and cries of “God Save the King!”

Instead, something entirely different was approaching. Something that would redefine the land itself. The time of treaties was approaching. Legal provisos, signatures, and maps. Rivers and mountains and valleys were given new names. The flowers too. And the birds and fish. Everything had a new name, and  the names were written down in books. And the world as it actually existed was erased and conjured into a dark spirit world.

What was approaching was the modern nation of the United States.

Since I’ve been praising the writing in The Land of Dreams, I should also praise the work of the translator, the redoubtable Tiina Nunnally. Now you may fairly ask yourself why a novel set in Minnesota needs to be translated into English. Here’s the answer: author Vidar Sundstøl is Norwegian; he writes, naturally enough, in that language. He and his wife came to live on the North Shore for two years. The result of this experience – or one of its results – is this novel, published in Norway in 2008, plus two others: Only the Dead and Ravens. Taken together, they constitute The Minnesota Trilogy. In this essay, the author provides some background on how the writing of these books came about. (According to Amazon, Only the Dead is due out here in October. No word yet on Ravens, or at any rate, none that I was able to find.) onlythedead

The Land of Dreams is aptly titled. Dreams – the act of dreaming and the content of the dreams – appear and reappear throughout the narrative. Lance can recall significant dreams from his past but none from recent times. In fact, he believes that he’s lost the knack of dreaming completely. The last dream that he can remember having – and he remembers it vividly – dates from the time of his son Jimmy’s birth:

Seven years ago he’d dreamed he was standing at the deepest spot in Lake Superior. He thought he was  going to freeze to death. At the same time, it was beautiful. A  blue landscape he was convinced existed only in his dream. Now he stared out at the darkness enveloping the lake. Once upon a time this was a place where dreams determined a person’s path in life. The Ojibwe, before they became Christianized, were a people who interpreted dreams. Their names often came from dreams. They made dream catchers to protect themselves from nightmares, and they wore amulets that represented particularly significant dreams they’d had.

And now? Now there was a different kind of land out there.

Years ago, when researching the novels of Tony Hillerman, I came upon an article  in which the author observed that the Native American peoples of the Southwest had taken that vast and dramatic landscape and absorbed into their own interior landscape. In The Land of Dreams, we see something akin to this phenomenon happening to those who dwell in the  very different surroundings of the North Shore.

(Sundstøl has also managed to evoke in this reader in a deep desire to experience the North Shore at first hand. I know from my past travels that you don’t have to be a long time resident of a place in order to fall under its spell, especially if you have envisioned it beforehand. Years ago, my reading of Willa Cather, Tony Hillerman, and Judith Van Gieson strongly impelled me to go to New Mexico. I was already half in love with the place before I got  there. Needless to say, it did not disappoint.)

Because Vidar Sundstøl’s writing is so straightforward and lacking in showiness, the events of the novel seem to unfold  naturally and inevitably. He delivers profundity by means of understatement. All this against a backdrop of boreal forest, rivers and waterfalls, and the great, unknowable Kitchie-Gami itself.

“Superior, they said, never gives up her dead…” (from ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ by Gordon Lightfoot).










Vidar Sundstøl

Vidar Sundstøl


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Some thoughts on this year’s Edgar Award for best novel

May 19, 2014 at 7:27 pm (Awards, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

The nominees for the year 2014 Best Novel Award were the following:

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Of these six, I’ve read three: How the Light Gets In, Ordinary Grace, and Sandrine’s Case.  I’d like to comment on these.

By  the time I got around to reading the Louise Penny title, I’d already read a number of glowing reviews. So I was hopeful, and that hope was vindicated.  How the Light Gets In is a wonderful novel, filled with Penny’s signature poetic writing and populated with characters we’ve come to know and care about.

At this point, I’ve read nearly all of the books in the Inspector Gamache series and enjoyed them, for the most part. You’ll notice, I qualified the previous statement. Some of the novels have worked better for me than others. And then there was The Beautiful Mystery, the series entry immediately preceding this one. Almost from the beginning, I felt as though I were slogging through this narrative. Some mysteries have a slower pace than others, and don’t necessarily suffer for it, but this book seemed to me positively inert, completely becalmed. Everyone was penned up in a monastery on an island, and all I knew was, I wanted off that island ASAP! At about the half way point, I gave up.

The Beautiful Mystery was an award winner – nearly all of Louise Penny’s books have been honored in this way, several with multiple accolades – but  it did not work for me on any level. This was one of the reasons I was so delighted with How the Light Gets In. A glorious return to form for Ms Penny.

For the record, my favorite entries in this series are the first one, Still Life, and especially Bury Your Dead, the reading of which made me want to drop everything and get on a plane to Quebec City, where I would (naturally) stay at the fabulous  Chateau Frontenac..

William Kent Krueger has garnered a slew of raves for Ordinary Grace. The novel is set in New Bremen, Minnesota in 1961; the unfolding events of that fateful summer are recounted by teenager Frank Drum. Frank’s  father is a Methodist minister; his mother, an aspiring writer. A younger brother and an older sister make up the rest of the family.

From the jacket copy:

It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.

Yes, it’s all there and it sounds sensational, yet as I was reading, it didn’t strike me that way. This may be partly because, clocking in at just over 300 pages in the hardback version, the novel proceeds at an oddly leisurely pace. We get quite a few opportunities to delve inside the daily lives of Drum family members, and, as is the case in most families, these quotidian glimpses are not all uniformly  fascinating – at least they weren’t for this reader. There were times when I became a bit impatient, in particular with Frank’s younger brother Jake, whom I found at times to be pesky. Perhaps his behavior was meant to be endearing; instead I found it annoying. (Sorry – apologies to baby brothers and sister  the world over!)

Krueger is the author of a highly regarded series featuring Cork O’Connor. It too is set in Minnesota. (The Land of 10,000 Lakes seems to be having its moment right now. I’m currently reading The Land of Dreams, a terrific novel in the Minnesota trilogy by Norwegian author Vidar Sundstol. And then, of course, there’s Fargo.) Cork O’Connor is a very appealing protagonist, and his home state is vividly described by Krueger. Native American lore and characters also enrich the novels in this series. I’ve read and enjoyed two of them: Thunder Bay and Boundary Waters, which was  a discussion selection by the Usual Suspects group.

When I sat down to read Ordinary Grace, I was optimistic, having no reason not to be. But only a few pages in, I looked up from the book and sighed deeply. I could not help thinking, I’ve been here before; another coming of age novel, a teenaged boy – it’s seems that it’s almost always a boy –  finds out the Truth about Life. Part of my problem was that I still held in my mind the recollection of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, a stellar example of fiction in this genre, beautifully written and lightened with welcome touches of humor.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I was not quite as enthralled by Ordinary Grace as other readers obviously were. I found the novel by turns engaging and exasperating. I guess the problem was pretty much mine alone: Ordinary Grace just won the Edgar for this year.


Sandrine’s Case surprised me. I’ve had problems with Thomas H. Cook’s fiction in the past. Last year the Usual suspects discussed Breakheart Hill. I had serious issues with that novel and only barely got through it. Previously, I’d tried Cook’s Edgar winner, The Chatham School Affair, and gave up at about the half way point. I was finding the portentous tone and relentless hints at profundity just a bit too irritating. But in view of the laudatory reviews Sandrine’s Case was getting, I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

Samuel Madison and his wife Sandrine are both professors at Coburn College in Coburn, Georgia. It’s a small college in a small southern town, and Samuel Madison can’t help feeling that he was destined for better things. When Sandrine, already ill, dies suddenly and inexplicably, her husband is accused of killing her. Initially,Madison’s default demeanor, characterized by an attitude of smug condescension, does him no good as a jury of his peers sits in judgment on him and on his actions.Here’s how he imagines the jurors perceive him:

I was a tenured professor, which to the people of Coburn was a ticket to a carefree and semiluxurious retirement. I couldn’t even be fired – so the locals assumed – no matter what I said in class, or even if I failed to show up in class at all. But this Samuel Joseph Madison character had wanted something more, they said to themselves and each other.A cushy life had simply not been enough for the esteemed professor, expert on Melville, Hawthorne, and God knows how many other lesser-known literary figures. Here was a man who’d lived high on the hog despite  the fact that he conceived nothing, built nothing, invented nothing, maintained nothing, sold nothing. Here was a man who lived high on the hog by…talking.

In this surmise, he’s probably not fat from the truth. But as this courtroom drama runs its inevitable course, his views on his marriage, his life, and the nature of life itself all undergo a profound change.

The day to day progress of the trial provides an equal measure of tension and tedium.

Of course, as a reader, I knew  that a great many things had been written about time. It was a river. It was a thief. It was money to Benjamin Franklin and a dream to Conrad Aiken. Tolstoy had thought of it as a warrior, but as my trial continued, I found myself recalling that it had been the peculiar power Shakespeare had ascribed to time that Sandrine had most often quoted, the notion that it voided cunning, that nothing could outfox it.

In other words, he observes wryly, murder will out.

Sandrine’s Case abounds with literary allusions. Partly these is meant to show the sphere in which Samuel Madison’s intellect nominally dwells (as did his wife’s). But they also showcase the erudition of the author himself. Cook’s knowledge and love of the world’s great literature enriches and deepens the scope of this narrative.

Be that as it may, Madison’s frequent citing of great literature risks making him look like an intellectual snob – which, to an extent, he is. At one point, he remarks to Morty, his lawyer, that he feels like Merseault, the emotionally inert protagonist of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Morty’s response is heavy with sarcasm: “‘Be sure you mention that to the press, Sam, or better yet to the jury. I’m sure they’re all great fans of postwar existentialist French literature.'”

Sam Madison’s veneer of thinly veiled contempt is a cover-up for a man who is gradually and inevitably being shaken to his core. His mind is more and more frequently cast back into the past, his past with Sandrine, when their love was new and filled with hope and happy anticipation. Here he describes his feelings after indulging, while in court, in an especially poignant reverie:

Before that moment I’d sat in utter silence, completely still. I’d faced the witnesses squarely and offered no visible response to anything they’d said. But in the surprising insistence of that particular recollection I felt the emergence of a second, far darker tribunal, the grand inquisitor in his black robe, demanding to know what really happened, how with so starry a beginning I’d reached this starless night.

That is so beautifully put – I especially like the use of the word tribunal. There’s plenty of writing like this in Sandrine’s Case. But the greatest strength of the novel lies in its exploration of one person’s mind and heart, in its depiction of what the truth really consists of, and how, once that truth stands revealed, it has the power to alter a person’s most basic assumptions about the world, about other people, and most of all, about him- or herself.


Last October, an article by Thomas H. Cook entitled “The Ten Best Mystery Books” appeared in Publishers Weekly. His annotations are so persuasive, it’ll make you want to obtain his selections immediately. (The fact that three of my all time favorites are on this list may partly account for my enthusiasm. They are The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, A Coffin for Demetrios by Eric Ambler, and The Quiet American by Graham Greene.)


The Mystery Writers of America, the organization that bestows the Edgar Awards, features on its site a database that allows you to access the names of award winners and nominees going back to the inception of the award in 1946.


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Donna Leon, Part One: “Old books had always filled Brunetti with nostalgia for centuries in which he had not lived.” – from By Its Cover

May 2, 2014 at 9:25 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

02book BY ITS COVER By Donna Leon.  There’s trouble at  Venice’s Biblioteca Merula , an elite institution famed for its priceless collection of books and incunabula. Pages have  been excised from certain books; whole books have gone missing. Commissario Guido Brunetti is called in to investigate. He and his team uncover a far reaching mare’s nest of theft, deception, fraud, and eventually – not to mention inevitably – murder.

As we loyal readers of this series have come to expect, plenty of social and political commentary finds its way into the story. Early in the novel, Brunetti is in the police launch, piloted by the skillful and reliable Foa, when they round a curve and come upon a scene that leaves them dumbstruck. It’s the stern of a gigantic cruise ship:

Seven eight, nine, ten storeys. From their perspective, it blocked out the city, blocked out the light, blocked out all thought or sense or reason or the appropriateness of things. They trailed along behind it, watching the wake it created it avalanche slowly towards the rivas on both sides, tiny wave after tiny wave after tiny wave, and what in God’s name was the thrust of that vast expanse of displaced  water doing to those stones and to the centuries-old binding that kept them in place?

And that’s not all:

Suddenly the air was unbreathable as a capricious gust blew the ship’s exhaust down on them for a few seconds.

Curious to see what these behemoths looked like, I googled “large cruise ships in Venice.” Here are a few of the images I found (Be sure you click to enlarge, to get the full impact.):




At one point in Brunetti’s investigation, mention is made of the Biblioteca dei Girolamini in Naples. Donna Leon’s idea of using a vandalized library as the wellspring for the plot of  a crime novel may have sprung from the real life depredations that were recently discovered to have taken place in Girolamini Library.



Beautiful place, n-est-ce pas? Ah, but what happened there is anything but….

Standing accused in a case of multiple thefts of rare and priceless volumes is the library’s former director and thirteen other individuals, including a priest. The New York Times reported on the crime in an article entitled “Rare Books Vanish, With a Librarian in the Plot.”   (Alas, such a stain on the profession I love!)

Here’s what some reviewers (quoted in blurbs on this book’s back cover) have to say about Guido Brunetti:

“It is as a man of sensibility that this endearing detective most engages us.” New York Times

“The sophisticated  but still moral Brunetti, with his love of food and his loving family, proves a worthy custodian of timeless values and verities.” Wall Street Journal

“Brunetti is the most human sleuth since Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret….A decent man [who achieves] a quiet heroism.” Philadelphia Inquirer

I can think of no better illustration of the above statements than the following scene,  which occurs as the Commissario, after a day’s work, is returning home to his wife:

As he closed the door, he heard Paola call his name urgently from the back of the apartment. When he entered their bedroom, the last light was disappearing in the west, and silhouetted against it he saw his wife, bent to one side, as if in the grip of pain or frenzy. One arm was wrapped across her throat, the elbow pointing in his direction. Only half of her other arm was visible. He thought of swift-striking disease, a ruptured disc, a stroke. As he moved towards her, heart chilled, she turned her back, and he saw that the fingers of both hands were joined at the zipper of her dress.

‘Help me, Guido. It’s stuck.’

It took him a few seconds to conjure up the appropriate husbandlike behavior.

In just a minute or two, he is able to free the mechanism. “‘That’s fine now,’ he said and kissed her hair, saying nothing about the punch his lungs had taken.”

For me, By Its Cover is one of the best entries in the Brunetti series in quite some time. Rich with cultural references, touched with Leon’s trademark sardonic humor, and enlivened by a wonderful cast of characters, it is a real treasure.


my venice  Many of us who cherish Donna Leon’s oeuvre harbor a longstanding curiosity about her as a person. Her life has followed an  unusual trajectory, starting in New Jersey and ricocheting all over the world from one country to the next before fetching up in La Serenissima for good. When I saw that she’d published a collection of essays on a variety of subjects, I was eager to get the book. I’ve now read about half of the pieces in it, and it’s been interesting, to say the least. I’ll have more to say about My Venice in an upcoming post, Donna Leon Part Two.


Donna Leon


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