Here are quick commentaries on three books I read lately:
Marcelo Birmajer, Three Musketeers : Birmajer has been called the Argentinean Woody Allen, and Three Musketeers evinces Allen’s shallow but affectionate treatment of genre fiction. There’s a lot going on in this novel: a kidnapped ex-revolutionary, bad guys lurking around every corner, an over-endowed femme fatale, a labyrinthine urban setting. The plot moves along like a standup comic routine, with all of the crime melodrama’s dread limited only to the antic, anxious hero. Birmajer labors mightily to invoke Buenos Aires during its urban revolutionary heyday in the 1960s, not to mention Woody Allen’s nebbishy joke heyday. Your response to this novel will pretty much depend on your feelings about Woody Allen.
Alice Sinkevitch, ed. AIA Guide to Chicago , 2nd edition: This reference guide, designed for easy stowing in a tourist backpack, covers the entire city, plus Oak Park. You can even start your tour when you land at O’Hare, which has buildings designed by C.F. Murphy, Perkins + Will, Helmut Jahn, and I.M. Pei. The guidebook contributors, thankfully, are not shy about voicing their opinions. In a long entry Lawrence Okrent argues that despite all the praise that Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s 1958 Inland Steel Building has received, the building hasn’t been praised enough. Okrent says its main rival, the Prudential Building, is virtually ignored now, primarily because it looked backwards to the 1920s, while the Inland Steel Building was ahead of its time. Okrent is slightly unfair: I was in the Prudential Building a few weeks ago and it retains some of its Man in the Gray Flannel Suit elegance, now marred by junk space. Even when you disagree with the contributors, you will invariably learn something from each one of them.
NB: The 2nd edition, the latest edition of this guidebook, was published in 2004, so it doesn’t include recent buildings such as Ron Krueck and Mark Sexton’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.
Bengt Ohlsson, Gregorius : This novel is a retelling of Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas (1905) from the point of view of the villianous pastor Gregorius. The premise is the same as Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, which is to tell a well-known story from the point of view of a deranged outsider. However, Gregorius more closely resembles Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. Nabokov’s wizardry makes us look past the essential creepiness of his hero; Ohlsson is less successful in this trick. Ohlsson’s pastor marries a beautiful young woman he’s been lusting after since she was 12. She spends her days doing whatever a turn-of-the-century Swedish housewife does, while he smolders in desire and paranoia. Since tending to the Swedish god is a part time job, Gregorius has plenty of time to explain his villainy to us, and that’s the problem with this novel. Great villains are essentially mysterious. Ohlsson’s one-sentence paragraphs are a promising device to convey his hero’s enigma; we get the sense that something else is going on between the paragraphs. But Gregorius then fills us in on his troubled childhood and other wearisome disappointments, as if he were trying to explain himself to the much more interesting Dr. Glas. “Life, I do not understand you,” writes Dr. Glas in Söderberg’s novel. Ohlsson’s Gregorius says the same thing, only it takes him 417 pages to say it.