Wednesday, 17 March 2010

On My Bedside Table (if I had one)...

...would be a large pile of books, some read, some in progress, some waiting.

Since, however, I don't have such an item of furniture, books tend to get piled (well, neatly stacked) on shelves or the floor until I can get to them.

Recent additions to the library include The One From The Other, a novel of post-war German private eye Bernie Gunther, in which Philip Kerr's eponymous hero finds himself involved in a missing persons case where the client wants the subject to stay missing; Faceless Killers, the first of Henning Mankell's Wallander series, in which the detective is introduced in the investigation of a brutal murder on a remote farm in Sweden; and Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first in his so-called Millennium Trilogy, a locked-room mystery set on an island and introducing the unlikely pairing of Mikael Blomkvist, journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, the titular character, a young woman with a troubled past who finds herself assisting Blomkvist with solving a forty-year-old murder.

I've long been a fan of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, following the adventures of the Weimar-era homicide detective in Berlin's KriminalPolizei or KRIPO, striving to do his job while the Nazis begin their rise to power. Forced to quit the police, he becomes the hotel detective at the famous Adlon Hotel, before finding himself back in uniform and co-opted into the SS. Choosing a combat assignment on the Russian Front rather than continue in his police battalion, Gunther survives the war and life as a POW under the Russians and returns to Germany, trying (and failing) to run a hotel with his wife in (of all places) the town of Dachau before giving up and returning to his old trade as a detective, this time in Munich.

Kerr weaves fiction and history deftly, evoking the realities of pre- and post-war Germany while crafting solid, almost Chandler-esque detective fiction. Actual historical figures move through the stories, among them some of the most evil characters of the era, and Kerr effortlessly conveys Gunther's distaste for Nazism and its proponents, while painting a portrait of a proud society destroying itself from within and the struggle to rebuild.

In Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell gives us another character in the archetypal mould of the divorced detective, complete with problems that only his work keeps at bay. The difference, of course, is that the stories are set in Sweden, and thus while character types are familiar, the locales and customs may not be, certainly to readers used to skyscrapers, high-speed pursuits and 9mm automatics. Having recently seen episodes of both of the series produced lately that feature the character, with Kenneth Branagh in the English-language version and Krister Henriksson in the Swedish-language drama, I was sufficiently interested to go in search of the first novel, and I wasn't disappointed.

The late Stieg Larsson wrote three novels featuring Lisbeth Salander, and I've just finished the first. There is a Swedish-language movie version on release at the moment which I'd like to see, and I understand a Hollywood adaptation is in the works. (My casting suggestion would include Natalie Portman as Salander, with Stellan Skarsgaard as Martin Vanger and nobody but Max von Sydow as Henrik Vanger.) The book follows Salander and Blomkvist as, hired by octogenarian industrialist Henrik Vanger, they investigate the disappearance, forty years earlier, of his niece, Harriet, from the family home on an island from which the only bridge was blocked. Along the way they uncover family secrets and intrigue, and are met with resistance by those intent on keeping the truth hidden. Intermixed with this story are the personal lives and backgrounds of the two protagonists, who both grow as sympathetic, three-dimensional characters long before the end of the novel. Excellent stuff.

I'm about to begin book two, The Girl Who Played With Fire, which finds Salander on the hook for murder...

Saturday, 13 March 2010

I Seem To Have Discovered Portishead...

If you, like me, are one of those people who aren't quite in tune with what's musically popular (job pressures, you understand), you'll understand the feeling that comes with realising what all the young people were so enthused about a couple of years ago.


Portishead is one of those examples of how I knew the music but not the band, and it was only out of a search for a track from the movie Tank Girl (featuring the lovely Lori Petty) that I discovered the artists behind the song "Roads".


This is Ms. Beth Gibbons singing it:




There's something incredibly moving about what, in essence, is a simple, unadorned lyric, soulfully delivered, albeit (in this instance) with the backing of a full concert orchestra.

And thanks to Amazon, I now have some cool stuff to catch up on...

And on we go.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Anti-Midas Touch...

We all remember the story of King Midas, how everything he touched turned to gold, and how, in popular parlance, 'The Midas Touch' is used to refer to the ability of a gifted individual to bring success to any venture to which he or she turns their hand.

This week has felt like I have the Anti-Midas Touch, where everything I put my hand to either broke down, malfunctioned, fell over or otherwise went to pieces.

I'd have only myself to blame if it weren't for the fact that I was at no time acting outside of my expertise or intellectual comfort zone and had done a reasonable amount of planning and preparation for some important tasks during the week.

Song of the day for last Friday was this:


Next week I have brainwashing, dentistry, and troubleshooting...

The Icicles Are Melting...

The weather's growing milder, the days are growing longer; we're getting back to the time of year I like best.

Yet the temperature remains low, which, in the building where I work, means we need the heat to stay on all day, which it doesn't (The building is a listed historical monument, so there are regulations limiting how it may be maintained structurally; hence, double-glazing is not an option).

We've raised the matter with our facilities management dept., in the hopes that they might do something about it, however they're keeping us in the dark as well as out in the cold, so to speak. We think it's a timer problem, since the heat comes on early in the morning and gradually cools so that by lunchtime the room is cold again, however we've been given to believe there may be 'sludge in the pipes', something of which I'm skeptical, but then I'm an interplanetary hero, Jim, not a heating engineer.

I've mentioned before the sort of adversarial relationship we have with our colleagues in building management and how, with the exception of one individual, everybody there appears to have gotten their jobs by assmosis. Nothing has changed, except that the group have increased in notoriety following a two-page spread in the company magazine with interviews where they explain what great guys they are and what great a working relationship they enjoy with all of their corporate colleagues.

And it feels petty and small-minded to keep on about it; certainly unprofessional, but I can't understand how someone who's supposed to be trained in problem management and resolution can come into an environment where a problem has been reported, examine the situation then go away without acknowledging the problem or offering an interim solution.

To put things in perspective: in January, after a particularly cold spell, the heating failed in parts of the building. A truckload of portable heaters was delivered and distributed to most areas, but perhaps there weren't enough to go around. Once the heating was repaired the portables should have been reclaimed, so that when we gave up waiting for Buildings to offer us some and went and asked (which we did) they'd have plenty to spare.

Given the size of the room, I figured we'd need at least four to evenly heat the area.

We got one.

An old, battered-looking model that, far from being able to heat a room 40 feet by 15 by 12, had trouble with 40 inches by 15 by 12 and died five minutes after we switched it on.

Happily, however, the one helpful person in Buildings was on hand and she ordered up a new batch, four of which were delivered on Friday last. We almost broke out the champagne.

My team leader emailed the manager in charge of environmental services two weeks ago asking for an update and an action plan on what Buildings propose to do to solve the problem. He has not, as yet, received a reply in any form.

If it wasn't so tragic it'd be almost funny...