The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl, translated from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally

The Land of Dreams can be classified as Nordic Crime.  On the surface it is the story of an elaborate murder in a small Minnesota town. Minnesota is known for having a large Skandinavian-American community. Norwegian characters are involved. The book explores the dark side of human nature.  But, if it is Nordic Crime, it is atypical of the genre. Put aside the fact that the story is set in America.  The plot is only tangentially interested in solving the mystery or describing the minutiae of the investigation.  Writing in the third person Vidar Sundstøl focuses on two men – the American officer who found the body and the Norwegian detective who is sent to represent his country in the investigation.  Their interactions and impressions, both on and off the case, overshadow the mystery.

Lance Hansen is a police officer for the U.S. Forest Service with a predilection for local history. While investigating a routine call – illegal campers – he makes a gruesome discovery. Two Norwegian canoeists: one dead. The other huddled, bloody and naked, at the base of a large stone cross.  When a fellow officer comments that this is the first murder committed in Cook County history Hansen becomes curious.  What he learns impacts his relationship to the past and has repercussions in the present.

Because the murder takes place within the borders of Lake Superior National Park the FBI is brought in to head the investigation. Hansen is indisputably the novel’s protagonist, but Sundstøl chooses to spend much of the book following Eirik Nyland, a detective sent from Norway to partner with the FBI.  Nyland is obviously a stand-in for the author (who lived for 2 years in Minnesota).

The locals identify themselves as Norwegian- and Swedish-Americans, but most are several generations removed and have never visited their “homelands”.  Nyland’s observations are surreal and funny, without being cruel.  A tenderness comes through, one that makes me believe that Sundstøl enjoyed his time in America.  In one passage a local police officer working on the investigation, Sparky Redmeyer, invites Nyland and the American FBI agents to the local Fourth of July celebration.  The American agents are obviously not impressed.  After they leave Nyland learns that Redmeyer gave up spending the day with his family in order to show the men around.  Nyland tells him “I think it’s great…. I’ve never been to a Fourth of July celebration before.  It’s something I’ll remember all my life.  I’m grateful you took the trouble to bring us out here today.”

“Oh, that’s okay.  It was no trouble,” said Redmeyer.  His face suddenly radiated genuine joy.  “Really no trouble at all.  Just ordinary hospitality.”

Nyland turned around, pretending to study the people at the neighboring tables as he smiled.  It was impossible not to smile. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d encountered such a sincere response from an adult.  And someone he didn’t even know very well.  It made him happy.  At the same time, it struck him that Sparky Redmeyer would not have made a very good investigator.  That job required being able to play a covert game with people, as well as the ability to expose the double-dealing and hidden agendas of others.  An investigator constantly had to listen for what people were not saying.

Later that day the two men will run into Lance Hansen.  They separate, agreeing to meet again later. The author then follows Hansen who walks along the shore of the lake and has an eerie encounter.

A man was kneeling in the back of the canoe. He was using a short, old-fashioned oar, which also looked new and beautiful. The man wore a dark jacket nd a big round hat. His clothes looked old and tattered. He was paddling with slow, steady strokes,  making the canoe glide lightly and quickly through the water.

Lance had an urge to call out to the man.  It wasn’t unusual to shout and wave to somebody in a boat. And this was a very special kind of boat.He was just about to raise his hand when the man stopped paddling and turned to look toward Lance standing on the breakwater. His face was filthy, in a shin sort of way, as if he’d spent a long time sitting in front of a bonfire. And now Lance recognized him.  This was the man he’d seen walking along Highway 61 the day he drove to Two Harbors to visit Andy and Tammy….

Lance thought his jacket looked like he’d found it in the attic of a house that had been unoccupied since before World War II.  Discovered in the attic and then put to use, without giving it so much as a good brushing. At one time it had apparently been black, maybe a suit jacket, but now it was so worn it seemed almost gray. And then there was the man’s hat with the wide, round brim that drooped a bit, as if it had been in the water for a long time and lost some of its original shape. The man in the canoe was truly a pitiful sight. And yet Lance felt nailed to the spot by the man’s eyes. Because he wasn’t merely looking at Lance, he had fixed his eyes on him. Lance felt his legs turn heavy and stiff while his heart hammered unpleasantly. He didn’t know what there was about this man – all he knew was that he’d never experienced this feeling before. Never. To feel someone looking at him this way. A man like this.

Most events, including the initial discovery of the body, are written in this kind of even-handed prose style.  The graphic violence and gratuitous sadism that I’ve come to associate with Nordic Crime is (thankfully) absent from The Land of Dreams.  Furthermore, Sundstol’s writing is devoid of emotional bias.  The reader never ascends dramatic peaks or falls into valleys.  None of the characters descend into archtypes.  Nyland, while kind, views his hosts with the attitude of a scientist peering at amoebas through a microscope.  Hansen, while both decent and honorable, sometimes displays a small-mindedness that fits a little too neatly into the small town/Red State stereotype.  The story drifts amiably along in this way until the end, with little to no fanfare.  Everything – the characters, all the descriptions and dialogue – feels normal.  Almost mundane. Even Tiina Nunnally’s translation; which rings somewhat awkward and overly formal to American ears. The combined effect is charming.

The Land of Dreams is an unusual interpretation of what, in the beginning, appears to be a fairly typical murder-mystery.  There are allusions to a ghost story. Pages are spent on the history of the town, the immigrant families who settled the area and the Native Americans who were there first.  The central mystery – the murder of the Norwegian tourist – feels more like a red herring than a central plot point.  In that way it reminded me quite a bit of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin.  The stories are very different, of course.  But the authors both use murder as the jumping off point to explore family dynamics and the secrets that can tear families apart.


The Land of Dreams is Book 1 of Sundstøl’s  award-winning Minnesota Trilogy.  There is a lot of material in this first book, much of it left unresolved, any piece of which could be spun into a novel all its own.   After doing a little research online I found a link to a description of Book 2: Only the Dead (contains spoilers for The Land of Dreams!).  And at the blog Mystery Fanfare there is a great guest post by Vidar Sundstøl.  Only the Dead is due out in 2014.

Publisher:  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8166 8940 8

In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made by Norman F. Cantor

The hypothesis on which Norman F. Cantor bases his book – In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made – is sound. That the Black Plague swept across Europe and performed a kind of natural selection that set the course of history is indisputable. Cantor manages to also make it completely uninteresting. Almost immediately the book falls into a pattern of “because this person died of the Black Death, that person came into power”. And while this is all probably true, men and women in the Middle Ages did not exclusively die from the Plague (a point Cantor makes as well, undermining his own argument). The title and subject of his research could easily have been Cholera & the World It Made or Small Pox & the World It Made. All were equally deadly, comparatively devastating and arguably as influential to Western history. People can die of many, many things – what Cantor fails to do is convince the reader as to why his vehicle of death was so much more devastating than all the others.

Which is a shame, because there are some very interesting bits to this book. As a connoisseur of disease non-fiction (a.k.a. – a hypochondriac-in-training), I found the theories on the possible origins of the Black Death and the bio-medical data fascinating. What’s not to like about extraterrestrial viruses dropped to Earth in cosmic dust? Or the idea, really quite convincing, that the Black Death was actually concurrent outbreaks of multiple disease – such as Bubonic Plague and Anthrax? Or that a genetic relationship may exist between the Black Death and AIDS, which causes modern ancestors of those who survived the former to be immune to the latter disease? In my opinion, that’s wow-factor Cantor was looking for. Not the fact, however interesting in its own way, that Princess Joan of England died on the eve of her marriage to a Spanish prince and thus thwarted an alliance between the two countries that could have changed history. <yawn>

The other day there was a program on The History Channel about WWI trenches, many of which still remain part of the European landscape. I love WWI history and was instantly transfixed. But I quickly became frustrated as I realized that, based solely on the belief that more people were interested in WWII & Adolf Hitler than on WWI trenches, the host kept repeating (like clockwork, before every commercial break) that being a German soldier in the trenches during WWI made Hitler the man he became. It was a ridiculous and obvious ploy to use the name “Hitler” to drum up additional viewers. Ridiculous, because if it is true how  do you explain away the thousands of soldiers, on both sides of the Western front, who didn’t become Hitler?

It’s difficult not to feel that Cantor (like the producers at The History Channel) refused to follow the direction In the Wake of the Plague wanted to take in a misguided attempt to make it commercially viable and to target a more casual, “narrative nonfiction” reader. The result is a book that is schizophrenic – structurally choppy and which jumps from one topic to the next without linkage or logic. Worse yet is the tone of the writing, which I believe was meant to be conversational but instead comes across as cranky and grudging. Norman F. Cantor is obviously an intelligent individual – a Rhodes Scholar, a Fulbright Professor and a Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellow at Princeton University (I’ve no idea what that is, but it sounds impressive). So it seems a shame, and a decided loss to his readers, that he chose to serve us history lite this time around.

Publisher: Harper Perennial, New York (2002).
ISBN: 978 0 06 001434 6

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BookSexy’s Most Wanted: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

Netsuke from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Guardian Books Podcast likes to torment me with books I can’t have.  The June 24th episode has a fantastic interview with Edmund de Waal, a British potter whose  memoir follows the journey of a family heirloom – a Japanese Netsuke collection – through history.   In the process, he tells the stories of the members of the family who were in possession of the collection.  All were fascinating people in their own right.

The Guardian website has a review here.

The good news is:   no need to  send your money to Amazon UK (conversion rate is currently at $1.50 to 1 British Pound), The Hare with Amber Eyes is being released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S.  The bad news?  It doesn’t come out until the Fall.

O well, I hear patience is a virtue.

A 20th Century Odyssey: Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Homer &L angley by E.L. Doctorow1.

This is the incident that made Homer & Langley Collyer infamous.  After years of the brothers being hounded by reporters, bill collectors and concerned relatives (all of whom believed their mattresses stuffed with cash), an anonymous call was made to the authorities about a dead body.  When the police attempted to investigate, they couldn’t enter the house.  They couldn’t even open the doors.  They were forced to begin emptying out the building of the accumulated garbage in order to get inside.  Homer was discovered first and pronounced dead of starvation.  It took over two weeks to find Langley’s body, buried under the debris only 10 feet away from his brother.  He’d been bringing Homer food through one of the newspaper tunnels that created a labyrinth throughout the house and had triggered one of his own booby traps.  The body was partially decomposed and eaten by the rats.  He had died first, Homer slowly after.  103 tons of garbage was eventually removed from their Fifth Avenue home, most of it worthless junk.  (These details are taken from Wikipedia and a NY Press article you can find here – and don’t worry, I didn’t just give away the ending).

Two elderly men turning their Fifth Avenue mansion into a landfill, which they eventually become a part of, hardly seems the stuff of great literature.  But E.L. Doctorow manages to create in Homer & Langley a story that transcends its subjects in ways that only the best historical fiction can do.  He accomplishes this mainly by playing fast and loose with the facts.

Those facts are as follows (and I’m going to try my best to keep this brief):  Langley was the younger brother and the pianist – roles Doctorow assigns to Homer.   Neither brother seems to have served in WWI, nor did their parents die in the Influenza Pandemic.  Those incidents are most likely part of the fiction of the book, made up by the author in order to get the plot rolling.  The actual Collyer parents did not die until the boys were men in their late 40’s.  Homer did not go blind until age 52 (in the novel this happens while he is still young).  Both brothers held jobs.  Homer practiced law and Langley was a concert pianist.  The hoarding did not seem to have started in earnest until they were both well past mid-life.

I include this contrast between fact and fiction to show how integral a novelist’s choices are to the success of a novel.  The liberties Doctorow takes allow him to enlist a blind narrator, (named Homer, no less), to tell his story.  Homer’s voice relaying their day-to-day lives takes the events out of the realm of sensationalism and gives them a sense of normalcy.   There is also the double bonus of his blindness, first as a Classical reference and second as allowing the reader to feel the accumulation of objects happening around him.  We experience Homer’s world becoming a smaller and smaller place while never actually seeing it happen.  What he describes to us is only his version, necessarily limited.  When he conveys to us the  reactions of the people  he and Langley collect like so many things throughout the book, we’re left to wonder what is his basis.

Our new friends simply assumed they were to come home with us and we didn’t even make a point of acquiescing, as that would have been in bad form.  It was as if – without knowing any of them or which of them belonged to which name – we’d been inducted into a relaxed and sophisticated fellowship, an advanced society, where ordinary proprieties were square.  That was one of their words.  Also crash, meaning, as I was to learn, boarding with us.  We’d been recognized, is how I felt, as did Langley I could tell, as if with an honorific.  And when these children – there were five who peeled off from the larger group and walked up the steps into our house, two males and three females – saw of what a warehouse of precious acquisitions it was comprised, they were moved beyond measure.  I listened to their silence and it seemed to me churchlike.  They stood in awe in the dim light of the dining room looking upon our Model T on its sunken tires and with the cobwebs of years draped over it like an intricate netting of cat’s cradles, and one of the girls, Lissy – the one I was to bond with – Lissy said, Oh wow! and I considered the possibility, after drinking too much of their bad wine, that my brother and I were, willy-nilly and ipso facto, prophets of a new age.

But unlike the objects Langley brings home, none of the people stay.


Homer as narrator shapes the novel into a kind of reverse Odyssey.  Odysseus and his crew spent 20 years zigzagging the map on their journey home.  In Homer & Langley, the 20th century shuffles through the Collyer’s mansion in a surprisingly orderly fashion.  The end result is no less epic.  The fictional Collyer brothers long outlive the factual ones, and so are allowed to experience the Depression, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the moonwalk, civil rights and more.  (Events grow fuzzy towards the end of the novel as Homer becomes deaf as well as blind, but my guess is that the end comes around the mid 80’s).    Not only do they collect a century’s trash, they collect its history.  Langley saves and clips decades of newspaper in order to complete his great project – what his brother refers to as “Collyer’s forever up-to-date newspaper”.  Eventually, and increasingly, they find themselves the subject of Langley’s clippings.

The first reporter who rang our bell – a really stupid young man who expected to be invited in, and when we wouldn’t permit that, stood there asking offensive questions, even shouting them out after we had slammed the door – made me realize it was a class of disgustingly fallible human beings who turned themselves into infallible print every day, compounding the historical record that stood in our house like bales of cotton.  If you talk to these people you are at their mercy, and if you don’t talk to them you are at their mercy.  Langley said to me, We are a story, Homer.  Listen to this – and he read this supposedly factual account about these weird eccentrics who had shuttered their windows and bolted their doors and run up thousands of dollars of unpaid bills though they were worth millions.  It had our ages wrong, Langley was called Larry, and a neighbor, un-named, thought we kept women against their will.  That our house was a blight on the neighborhood was never in question.  Even the abandoned peregrine nest up under the roof ledge was held against us.

I said to my brother: How would you run this in Collyer’s forever up-to-date newspaper?

We are sui generis, Homer, he said.  Unless someone comes along as remarkably prophetic as we are, I’m obliged to ignore our existence”.

In Langley’s forever up-to-date paper for something to have meaning it has to be duplicated.  One is never enough.  Like Plato, he is looking for the essence of things and events.  It is just another tie-in Doctorow makes to classical literature.  Yet, the Odyssey is not just a false construct that Doctorow uses to structure his novel.  No forced parallels are drawn – we do not meet the Minotaur or a character who represents Achilles.  Doctorow is too subtle.  He has simply and brilliantly given us the contemporary equivalent – modern man’s story told in epic themes.  Homer & Langley represent our 21st century selves (an interpretation I admit to having trouble accepting in the beginning).

But the reality is impossible to ignore.  Our homes are filled with the things that we collect but do not necessarily need.  Great feats no longer require long journeys from home.  In addition to objects we, like Langley, collect our own history.  Visiting & re-visiting it through the mediums of books, documentaries, lectures, papers, photographs, coursework, etc.   It seems less extreme than the Collyers’ hoarding behavior only because we have the luxury to digitization and storage units.

Homer & Langley is in the end a remarkably uncluttered and beautiful book.   It is one of those novels that will only grow better with re- reading. Each time providing new discoveries. Very, very BookSexy.