Red Chair Reads: The Murder of Halland

The Murder of Halland, by Pia Juul, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitkin

Whodunit, who cares?

Halland and Bess live in a small town where everyone knows your name.  One day, Halland is shot dead in the town square, and not surprisingly, this is the catalyst for Bess to reassess her life.  Who killed Halland? Bess is not all that interested, even as her life lurches on and unexpected people keep showing up on her doorstep.  Who, after all,  was the Bess who lived with Halland and yet did not share his life, and who is the Bess who seems unable to grieve for her not-quite-husband?

The book might be called The Murder of Halland, but that is not the actual subject of the book.  Bess is the focus, and we are meant to see the world from her viewpoint.  She is smart, she is skewed, and she may be slowly unhinging.  She does not mourn Halland so much as mourn for the person she may have been: he was never in her life, and neither was she ever in his.  Bess finds out about the pregnant foster-niece in Copenhagen, about the apartment she lives in for which he paid the rent, about his share of the apartment, a small locked room with a gigantic poster of Martin Guerre.  What does it all mean?  She speculates, she gets drunk, she finds out things that she doesn’t share with the police, she loses interest . . . .  and so did I.  In the end, Bess was just too irritating to be intriguing.

The Murder of Halland was my first dip into the Peirene Press, “two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film.”  Clever, well-written, claustrophobic, perhaps too interested in “intellectual dismantling” of an entire genre, and ultimately a most unsatisfying two hours of my life.

Chia, the assitant Red Chair Reader

Chia, the Assistant Red Chair Reader

Chia, who is quite perturbed that Martin Aitkin, PH.D in Linguistics, does not know the difference between further and farther.


For much of my life I was pretty sure I was faking “it” — whatever “it” was.

Piano?  I would win competitions big and small, teachers (and judges) would ask me how many hours I practiced, and I would feel obligated to lie and  give them many more hours than I was putting in.  Suppose I really had practiced that many hours?  I could improve the mechanics, but I knew I would never have the true talent.

In high school I met HS Boyfriend and his best friend; they were two of the smartest people I have ever known, and I had them convinced that intellectually I was in their league.  I was not.  This is not self-deprecation, it is the truth.  I was really good at memorizing: if I could read it, I can remember it.  My ability to memorize pretty much anything got me through college and medical school — if nothing else, I had the mechanics of learning down.

Tonight, The Teenager mentioned the possibility of going to see the movie Lincoln — and the conversation deteriorated from there:

“Who was Lincoln?”

“A president.”

“Which century?”

After a long pause . . . .



The Teenager is in 10th grade, she has read about the Civil War in history texts as well as in fictional works.  We have discussed slavery, Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., and yes, Abraham Lincoln — we have done our best to supplement the meager history offerings of the public school system, and clearly someone has failed.  I would love to blame “the school,” but that would be wrong.  The Teenager has failed, and it is not the school’s fault, nor is it our fault.  It is her fault, and her failure.

Which brings me to “faking it.”  She does her homework religiously, she attends classes, she takes her tests.  She is a straight A student.  I don’t know if she really believes she is a good student — I suppose it depends on what she believes are her goals and responsibilities, and how she defines “education.”  My daughter has an academic facade that can bear no scrutiny.

When is a child’s failure no longer the parent’s failure?  DH thinks he needs to keep plowing ahead until she is eighteen.  I do believe The Teenager will be reading parts of Battle Cry of Freedom over Christmas break.  Bless his heart, he was always an optimist.

An “Unfortunate” Encounter

Years ago, I saw a patient in the outpatient clinic who came in complaining of a heavy cold.  All his symptoms were consistent with a cold, and in fact, we both agreed it was a cold.  But he wanted antibiotics — and I could not convince him (he was a junior high school principal) that antibiotics were of no use for  the common cold.  He left, mad at me, the clinic, and the whole managed health care system — but without antibiotics.  My preceptor agreed with me, of course, but being older and wiser, advised me to “document everything.”  And she wrote a preceptor note at the bottom of the chart, beginning with: “An unfortunate encounter …”

Today I had an “unfortunate encounter,” different setting, different profession, but it left me feeling about the same: rather inadequate.  I am working on a architectural survey of a somewhat run-down neighborhood near the university; as the city and the university have grown, this neighborhood, established in 1920, has evolved from owner-occupied residences to student rentals and commercial conversions.  It is, basically, a student ghetto.  The powers that be in the city government have finally decided that they should figure out 1) what properties are in this area (the inventory survey), 2) which properties are of historic value (intensive survey), and hopefully with all this information, come up with 3) a development plan that  not only makes sense from an economic and preservation point of view, but that also do not impose on private ownership rights.

The “curbside” surveys look a lot like laundry lists: the form is essentially a checklist for things like what sort of roof, what sort of foundation, what type of material cover the exterior walls …  things, in other words, that can be seen from the sidewalk without stepping onto private properties.  One building we were interested in had been converted into a hair salon almost 40 years ago, and remains one today.  The owner noticed me taking pictures a week ago, and asked me what I was doing.  I explained, we chatted, and she seemed amenable to having an intensive survey done, which involved digging around for more details with regards to the construction and uses of the house, as well as establishing the chain of ownership and occupancy — but again, these were all information that could be gathered from public records (much of it online).   She gave me her phone number, and told me she had records she could share with me, but probably would not be able to get to them until the new year.

Today I saw her again, and she was deeply unhappy with me, my demeanor, my approach, my qualifications, my explanation of the project, the project itself, and of course, the city:

“How long have you been a historian?”

“Five, six years.”

“You have a lot to learn.  How long have you lived in the city?”

“Sixteen years.”

“You have a lot to learn,” she sneered.  “And see, you’re not happy about me asking you these questions.”

Well, actually, I didn’t mind them at all.

“You know, you are very antagonistic.  You come in here, and you want to know about changes to the building.  Why should you care?  It’s not your business, and you are just being a snoop.”

And so it went.  Not only was I a crappy historian, but I have not lived in my city long enough to be any sort of historian, even a crappy one.  And since I have not lived here long enough, I could not possibly be interested in its history, let alone actually care about what happens to buildings miles away from my own neighborhood.   So therefore, I am nothing more than a snoop butting into private business.  Moreover, the city is far too late getting into the act of figuring out how to protect her neighborhood — they let the beautiful old frat house be razed, didn’t they?

Well, yes, they did.  And perhaps it is too late, but this is a step in the right direction — isn’t it?

Two minutes ago she called me to find out exactly who I was working for.  I’m not sure if working on a project for the city is any better than being an actual city employee.  But I suppose, ultimately, none of this matters.  I assured her again that because of her reservations and objections, we would not be doing the intensive survey of her property.  And she muttered, “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter — I don’t care what the project is about, I don’t want to know;  I don’t know what the city is doing, I don’t know what’s going on.”  And she hung up.

So what have I learned from this “unfortunate” encounter?  It was much like the earlier encounter with the patient with the cold.  This time, I did my best to address her concerns, I did my best to explain what it is I am trying to do with the survey, and I apologized for whatever I did that offended her — I know there is always room for improvement in how I approach people.  I understand that she is afraid the city will impose more rules and regulations on her property, and it is a legitimate fear — although I also know that nothing I do will have any direct impact on what the city chooses to do or not do.  Historians know better than to believe that they have any influence at all over decisions that are ultimately economically driven; I am the information gatherer, not the policy maker.  I understand she feels that what I do is an invasion of privacy, and the fact that by law all the information I have found are available to the general public is of no consequence to her.  She has taken good care of her house —  it is in wonderful condition, and she has done a good job of preserving its exterior — so what right does the city have to tell her about historic preservation?   I recognize her fears, and I begin to doubt myself, that what I am doing should be done at all.  Perhaps it is all an academic exercise, and the whole idea of “historic preservation” is akin to a paternalistic conceit.

So here I am, trying to “let it go” by writing about it.  I am still learning, I say to myself.  But I am also left with an uncomfortable truth: I had compromised my integrity.  With respect to Albert Einstein, I should have remembered that insanity is doing (in this case, saying) the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome.  The property owner was right about one thing — she really did not want to know what the project is about . . . .  and I should have taken her at face value and walked away.  I had pandered to a narcissistic woman who thought she had exclusive rights to the city’s past and future — and I had grovelled.  It makes me physically sick to think of what I had been willing to do for the job.  I Will Not Grovel Again — not for my work, not for the project, not for the city.

Opie: Who, me?  Grovel? 

The Teenage Brain

Quote of the Day, from The Kid (age (almost) 14):

No one ever showed me how to hang up clothes!

Preface that with “It’s not my fault!”

The Kid has been having difficulties putting away her clothes: the clean laundry goes from the dryer to the floor of her closet, and then presumably onto her body.  And she isn’t clever enough to close the closet doors so that Dear Old Mom won’t notice the clean laundry everywhere except on hangers or in the drawers.  Every once in a while, I give her a friendly warning: “Clean it up or I will do it for you — and you will absolutely hate the results if I do it.”  And she usually heeds the warning — except when she doesn’t. Two days ago I cleaned up her closet for her, with the assumption that clothes on the floor clearly meant she didn’t want them anymore.  One of our local charities got some nice winter clothes suitable for teenage girls, and my rag pile got replenished with bits of socks and underwear.

Soft-hearted DH let her fish the bits of socks and underwear out of the rag pile, and she cried about the rest.  Not because she loved those clothes, but because she knew that she would have to fork out her own money for the replacement wardrobe.  DH thinks I was too harsh, and that it is a battle “not worth fighting.”  And he brings up all sorts of great things about The Kid: she doesn’t drink, do drugs, or fight; she is a decent student; and, she is kind to old people and small furry critters.  All true, but I don’t know what that has to do with the expectation that she should take at least minimal care of her possessions.  DH thinks that if I wanted to pick a battle, I should pick one having to do with her academic performance.  Well, yes.  But the interesting thing is that he brings up the same points when I do get on The Kid about her academic performance (or lack thereof): she doesn’t drink, do drugs, or fight; she is a decent student; and, she is kind to old people and small furry critters.  Still all true, but what do all those things have to do with the fact that after four trips through the colonial era and the Revolutionary War, she still has no idea why the colonists rebelled?  (And don’t even get me started on her hazy understanding of decimal points, negative numbers, fractions, percentages . . . .)

There are only so many hours in the day, after all — and, well, Facebook-ing and i-Touch-ing (hey, Kid, are you reading this?) all take time, don’t they?  But I am sure DH would tell me: she doesn’t drink, do drugs, or fight; she is a decent student; and, she is kind to old people and small furry critters.  Yes, all that …  and it is enough?


Three more weeks, and the new school year begins.  The Kid is an 8th grader — more than that, she is an 8th grader with ambitions.  She has a reputation to maintain, if not enhance; she will be taking algebra this year.  Over the summer, she has been working on-and-off — and not all that successfully– on mastering the basic concepts of pre-algebra.  Stuff like constants and variables:  “What is 0.5x + x ?”  “0.5x. “What happened to the other x?”  “Oh, it canceled out.”  Then there were the occasional forays into the recent past, like percentages, or even further into the more distant past, like addition and subtraction.  If she were not my child, I would have been entertained by the instances of brain infarcts: “If a woodchuck chucked wood for 8 hours a day, how many hours did the woodchuck chuck wood over 3 days?”  “84 hours.”  Her academic brain is something of a mystery to me.

That she might fail used to haunt me; I thought her failure would be my failure, and surely that was  something I must not let happen.  More recently, I began to realize that by her school’s standards, she most likely will not ever come anywhere near failing, and that is actually a much more appalling possibility.  When the Kid was 5 years old, she was part of a skit put on by the children (ages 5-10) attending a weekend “camp” at the Environmental Learning Center.  It was a very informal affair, and the children read their lines from a cheat sheet.  The Kid was the youngest one there and did not, of course, know how to read — yet there she was, sheet in hand, “reading” her lines, just another kid.  Even then she understood what it was to belong, and that sometimes, it is all pretense.  DH wonders whether the concept of variables will “do” her in.  I think not.  After all, even an honours class has a lowest common denominator.

Time Passages

“Yesterday gets to be a long time ago.”

The Kid has just finished 7th grade.  In the fall, she will be a full-fledged “honor” student at her middle school — full-fledged because this past year, she was in all the honors classes except the not-so-honorable 7th grade math class.  Shortly before summer break began, she lobbied her teacher to be included in the 8th grade honors algebra.  Why?  Because apparently peer pressure (her peer group being the “smart” set) can work in mysterious ways.  It should be an entertaining year for all concerned.

It may be entertaining in other ways too, especially if they ever crack open a history book.  Tonight she watched the first Indiana Jones movie with DH, and though I should have known better, I just had to ask:  “When was WWII?”  And she began to answer, “18 –”


Of course, she also thinks she’s living in the 20th century — and though she was able to tell me a century is one hundred years, she also thinks the 21st century goes from 2001 to 3000.


In a very small but real way, I envy her grasp of time, and how very flexible and meaningless it all is to her: the Union versus the Communists, the Nazis versus the Confederates, the colonists versus the Russians.  What is it like to view time with such fluidity?  When the Kid was in 5th grade and learning how to knit, she decided the best way to wind a skein into a ball was to completely unwind the skein first into a big pile of yarn, then wind the big pile of yarn into a ball.  I imagine that time, for her, is like that big pile of yarn, too difficult to untangle . . . .  Back then, she surreptitiously dumped the yarn into the trash, hoping I wouldn’t notice.  I did then, I do now.  She wants the appearance of intelligence without having to work hard at it.  I wonder when she will realize that side-stepping of reality — then I think, surely she already knows.  What would I like for her — self-knowledge, or self-acknowledgment?