Saturday, 28 May 2011

Middagen av Herman Koch

I normally write my reviews in English, but as I cannot find any indication that Middagen (original Dutch title Het Dinner) exists in English, I'm writing this in Norwegian.

Middagen (utgitt på Pax forlag) er en skikkelig saftig biff av en roman! For en litteraturviter som meg selv er det ekstremt mye å ta tak i og utforske. I så måte er dette en roman som man med letthet kan lese flere ganger, og oppdage nye ting ved hver lesning.

Handlingen er tilsynelatende enkel: to brødre skal møtes på restaurant med sine koner. Fortelleren er én av brødrene, og gjennom hans tanker, som han delvis skjuler og delvis avslører for leseren, får man fort inntrykk av at det er noe underliggende her; noe kommer til å skje.

Scenen settes. Vi er i restauranten, og fortelleren går ofte i detalj på hendelsene som skjer rundt ham, for eksempel den pekende lillefingeren til kelneren, som gjør at scenen blir levende for leseren. Samtidig får vi tilbakeblikk på hendelser som har skjedd tidligere, og som fortelleren, i sine mange tankerekker, får plutselige (eller svært kalkulerte?) assosiasjoner til. Tilbakeblikkene er nøkkelhendelser som litt etter litt er med på å gi leseren et helhetlig bilde av hva vi egentlig er vitne til under denne middagen.

Romanens er inndelt i fem deler som er strukturert rundt middagen: Aperitiff, Forrett, Hovedrett, Dessert og Tips. Scenen settes i hver enkelt del av måltidet (og boken), og så "forlater" jeg-personen scenen for å vise oss tilbakeblikkene. Dermed fungerer fortellingen både på et konkret, og på et mer abstrakt plan samtidig.

Som leser sympatiserer man ofte med jeg-fortelleren og dens syn på verden. Koch bruker sin jeg-forteller på mesterlig vis, og er ekstremt dyktig til å manipulerer leseren. Fortelleren kontrollerer hva man vet, og når man eventuelt får vite noe, og leseren har hele tiden en følelse av å bli ført litt bak lyset, at fortelleren leker litt med oss. I tillegg er det også en tradisjonell oppfatning at jeg-fortellere representerer gode grunnverdier; i denne romanen må man være forsiktig med slike antagelser.

Som leser blir jeg dratt mer og mer inn i nettet som fortelleren spinner rundt meg. Et utdrag fra side 51 bygger opp spenningen:

"Men likevel var det skjedd noe som fikk meg til å bevare håpet om en eksplosjon senere på kvelden. Det var som med pistolen i teaterstykket: Hvis det blir vist fram en pistol i første akt, kan du banne på at det vil bli skutt med den i siste akt. Det er dramaets lov. Ifølge samme lov er det til og med forbudt å vise fram en pistol hvis det ikke blir skutt med den."

Her blir man direkte fortalt at noe ganske dramatisk kommer til å skje i "siste akt", og ja, det blir skutt med pistolen i siste akt, men fra et litt uventet hold. Før den tid rulles den mørke hemmeligheten etterhvert opp, og omfanget fortsetter å sjokkere. En nesten pervers fascinasjon preger lesingen av avsløringene. Man vil holde for øynene, men samtidig klarer man ikke se vekk. Man blir tvunget til en konfrontasjon med ondskapen, og en metaforisk beroligende klapp på skulderen kan man se langt etter.

Et sentralt tema i romanen er å ha en lykkelig vs. en ulykkelig familie; den tynne linjen som skiller disse to, og hvor langt man er villig til å gå for å sikre lykken.

Et annet tema er "violence vs. victim", eller vold vs. offer. Her problematiseres offer-rollen, og det stilles spørsmål ved hvorvidt et offer egentlig er uskyldig, og i hvilken grad et offer på et vis påtar seg denne rollen. Tilknyttet dette er det også en interessant diskusjon om dødsstraff, som blir nesten litt ironisk pga. hendelser som på dette punktet er avslørt, og også om man setter dette i sammenheng med et abort-spørsmål som nevnes. Kanskje noe man kunne skrive et essay om?

Et siste tema jeg ønsker å nevne er history (his story), eller historie vs sannheten. Ettersom det er en jeg-forteller, blir hele historien (bokstavelig talt) fortalt slik han oppfatter hendelsene. Fortelleren innrømmer at han gjerne pynter på sannheten, og da vet vi som lesere at det også gjelder historien vi sitter og leser. På toppen av dette får vi vite at jeg-fortelleren tidligere jobbet som nettopp historielærer, men må forlate jobben pga. versjonen eller tolkningen av andre verdenskrig som han presenterer til elevene sine. Ja, for ikke å snakke om hvordan han også avgjør, helt åpenlyst og direkte, hvorvidt det er interessant eller ikke for leseren å vite hva slags sykdom hans kone hadde, eller hva han hadde sagt til en av elevene sine som gjor at han ble oppmuntret til å forlate jobben. Eller hva en viss fostervannsprøve muligens kunne ha avslørt for 16, eller for den saks skyld, 40, år siden.

I konklusjon vil jeg si at dette er en skikkelig bra roman. I was taken for a real ride, men jeg likte det. Språket er ekstremt godt, og scenene fungerer svært bra i samspill med tilbakeblikkene. Spenningen i boka er til å ta og føle på. Boken kan leses både satirisk og kontroversielt, og det gjør den interessant og innholdsrik. Den er tankevekkende og tvinger leseren til å reflektere over ubehagelige spørsmål. Jeg må innrømme at til tider er boken rett og slett ukomfortabel lesing, men dette er gjort med overlegg; det skal være vondt. Samtidig er fortelleren så smidig og nesten "god-snakkende" ovenfor leseren at man nesten tar seg i å nikke og smile på siste side. Men bare nesten (eller bare litt).

Middagen er en vellykket og intelligent roman som provoserer og inspirerer. Boken kan trygt anbefales til de som liker litt tankevekkende litteratur med litt å "tygge i".

Book Art

I just love artistic things made with/of/connected to books. A total book nerd, in other words. I think I'll have to get a tattoo at some point with something bookish. Just have to figure out what.

This creation was part of Discovery Health's "knowledge is the new currency"-campaign, and I think it's really awesome! It is designed by Global Mouse. I saw it in the wonderful Exclus1ve Books, Hyde Park, and I just *had* to take a pic! But most of all I wanted to take it home with me... An entry in Forlagsliv, publishing house Cappelen Damm's blog, had pics from a book dress in a Fretex window, and I'm reposting some here... I just love love love this dress! How kewl it would be to wear something like this!



Friday, 27 May 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue's novel Room is inspired by the kidnapping and escape of Natascha Kampusch, and the Fritzl case in Austria. It tells the story of 5-year old Jack, whose whole life is confined to Room with his mother. They are being held there by 'Old Nick', a man who only comes at night and who Jack sometimes spies on through the cupboard doors.

The story is told from Jack's perspective, and so the reader is introduced to the "world" as Jack understands it. We learn that Jack is born inside Room. Jack believes Room is the world, and everything else is just TV.

Jack as a narrator works extremely well. The full seriousness of the situation for Jack and his mother is slowly revealed to the reader, but because Jack is an innocent, he accepts their lot matter-of-factly. The novel try to deal with very dark topics, but through Jack some of the sting is taken out. That does not mean the novel trivialised the issues, but rather that it prevents the novel from becoming too dark and broody. If the story had been written from the mother's perspective, we would be looking at a completely different type of work. Jack makes the incomprehensible evil which imprisons their lives accessible.

Although the novel deals with themes of imprisonment, there are many light moments, and the novel is surged with hope. Literary references to Alice in Wonderland, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Dora the Explorer all suggest that Jack as a character is somehow related to these. I will obviously not reveal how, but suffice to say that Jack does take a leap into the unknown, or enter the realm of the giants.

This is a novel which can be hard to read at times, but the reader has to get to the end (or the beginning?) of Jack's story. Despite some of its dark themes, Room is a beautiful story of love between mother and child, of hope and courage, and of building a world out of a tiny, barren room.

I recommend this book. It demands that you stop and think, that you feel and that you accept, in the same way Jack accepts, the world as it is presented to him.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I just finished Jeannette Walls' autobiographical novel, The Glass Castle, or Krystallslottet in Norwegian. Oh what a read!

Jeannette describes her childhood, from her earliest memory of catching fire, and until she's a grown woman working as a journalist in New York. We are introduced to her alcoholic, but genious father, her eccentric artist-sometimes-reluctant-teacher mother, and her three siblings as they struggle through life.

The story is a great read. Every page burst with life, and the reader becomes completely involved in the fate of the family, and Jeanette's especially. Some episodes are laugh-out-loud funny, whereas others really make you stop and think. Walls' reveals some really serious and tender sides of her family life, and she does so without self-pity. She matter-of-factly recounts digging through the trash at school for food when times were hard, and fighting for her life in brawls with other kids. She beautifully portrays her parents, who at times are so negligent towards Jeannette and her siblings that it's almost unbearable to read. Yet you grasp the complexity of these characters, and get an understanding of what drives them, even if you cannot justify their actions.
In all, this is a simply stunning read. Jeannette Walls has written a declaration of love and acceptance of her parents, a depiction of a truly extraordinary up-bringing, and encompasses a strenght of character that defies all obstacles. As I was nearing the end of the story, I dreaded the final page more and more... I really didn't want the story to end.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Zoo City wins Arthur C Clarke Award!

Woop woop! Lauren Beukes' amasing sci-fi novel Zoo City won this year's Arthur C Clarke Award. Jacana Media is the original South African publisher, and I hope winning this award will boost sales figures in SA, as well as globally.

I read the novel last year, and I really enjoyed it. Part of the enjoyment for me was that it was set in Jo'burg. However, the Jo'burg of Zoo City is a lot darker and more sinister than the one I know and love, and it is full of "familiars" (ecchoing His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman) and missing people and things. Our heroine is especially apt at finding missing things, and that gets her into all kinds of problems. Beukes' dystopia draws you in and does not let go (even after you are done with the book).

The cover design for the book is stunning! The intricate details are most easily perused with a copy of the book in hand. It perfectly captures the sinister essence of the book. I love it.

Also check out Beukes' earlier novel Moxyland, set in Cape Town. Another sci-fi dystopia, but completely different and exciting. The cover grabbed my attention in a bookshop, and I just had to get it! The novel is clever, fun, and oddly realistic. It really makes you stop and think about all the information we send out using phones and internet (like I'm doing now!). Who said sci-fi is only for boys and can't be set in Africa? If anyone did say it, Lauren Beukes sure has proven them wrong.

As an aside, I wanted Lauren Beukes to write a sci-fi series for "tweens" for my fictional publishing house (Mtoti Press) in one of my publishing assignments last year. I'll get right on that when I'm a commissioning editor.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Jo Nesbø, a New York Times Bestseller!



Just read in today's Dagbladet that one of Norway's greatest writers of detective fiction, Jo Nesbø, is hitting the New York Times bestseller list with The Snowman. Apparently this book has sold more copies than Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo . That's an impressive feat!

The Snowman is a solid piece of detective fiction, and thoroughly enjoyable and chilling. I myself do not read a lot of detective fiction, but Jo Nesbø is my first choice in this genre. Rumour has it that this title might become a movie soon. Exciting times!

A few months ago, Dagbladet reported that Jo Nesbø's book The Leopard topped the British list for Hardcover titles. I haven't read this book yet, but I hear it's brilliant.

In June this year, Nesbø's latest novel Gjenferd (Ghost?) is due for release in Norway. People are excited, to say the least. In my bookshop, people keep asking when it's due for release. Which reminds me that I should request a reading copy from the publisher so that I have a chance to read it!

Jo Nesbø, your international success is truly deserved. You raise the level of detective fiction globally.

Friday, 20 May 2011

For booklovers

Some of the coolest decorations I've seen is at Tashas (delicious pizzas and pastas) in (new) Rosebank, Jo'burg. It really spoke to my booklover's heart. I haven't tried to make this myself, but I'm sure with some skill, a few beautiful old books, glue, and a passion for the written word, someone like me could put this together.

I'm not sure what they should be described as. Book-tree-houses (since they hand from the ceiling?).

Cam-cam, I think you should make this, btw!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Waiting Room: On life and reading


I love reading, and thus I read a lot. I always have at least a couple back-up books lying around in case I finish the book I'm reading sooner than planned. And mostly I'm busy with at least two books at a time. One for bed; one on the bus; and maybe one at work.

I've read a lot of fantasy, and now that I've been busy rereading Robin Hobb, I've come to realise that when I read series, I remember most of the first book, and less of the following titles. My theory is that once I'm into a series, I'm so eager to get to the ending and find out what's going to happen, that I pay less attention to all the marvels and wonders along the way. (When reading Fool's Fate for the second time, which is the conclusion to both The Tawny Man trilogy and to the stories about Fitz as a whole, I hardly remembered any of the plot. I was that obsessed with finding out the fate of the beloved Fool when I read it the first time!)

Reading Shantaram was a different experience. The closer I got to the end, the slower I read. I dreaded that final page which would close off the initial awe of the story to me forever (unless I sometime in the future suffer oblivion's kiss).

My realisation of my reading habits made me think about my life as well. I'm a planner; always looking forward. It's almost as if I enjoy planning a party more than I enjoy being at the actual party. Or I'm more eager to embrace my future than to centre myself in my now. This is my story and I'm sticking to it (pun intended), I shouldn't live my life eager to read my final pages.

("With the story coming to its end, all one's last bad poetry finds release", In the Heart of the Country by J M Coetzee).

I'm in a place now where it would be easy, understandable even, if I focussed all my hopes and my attentions on the future, rather than the now. Despite being in the metaphorical waiting room at present (oh literal irony), I've decided that I refuse to put my life on hold. I must find meaning in my now, because it's pretty much all I've got ("I'm gagging on a diet of universals", In the Heart of the Country by J M Coetzee).

And what's better, really, than a nice cup of tea, a new book to read, an exciting gym class and people you love?


...Or am I like Magda in In the Heart of the Country, who's living a fictional life (obviously) based on literary conventions of what makes up a life ("This too happens to women")?

I often get ahead of myself in my walk (race?) of life. Consciously deciding to stop and enjoy helps me be thankful for all the wonderful things in my life. So I'm gonna let myself surge ahead when I read and I just have to know how the story will end.

The truly great ones will make me pause anyway.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Hothouse Flower by Lucinda Riley

After having read an intellectually stimulating book, it can be nice to read a "light" one. Hothouse Flower, or Orkideens Hemmelighet, as it is named in Norwegian, is one of the summers major titles coming from Cappelen Damm. The publisher seems to have singled out this title to be the summer's major holiday read, and so I thought to give it a go.

Often when I order a book for the bookshop I work in, I'll consult Amazon or Play to see what other readers have thought of the book. I was surprised to see that Hothouse Flower had got as much as 4 out of 5 stars on Amazon.

Not all books need to challenge you intellectually. However, what is challenging in Hothouse Flower, is the, at times, unbelievable turn of events, and the reliability of the characters. The book, in all, strikes me as a very long Romance novel, disguised and marketed as something more like Kate Morton.

It starts out promising, with a beautifully told Thai myth about the very rare black orchid. The illusion of quality work, however, is immediately broken by the transition to the frame narrative of Julia, who is struggling to deal with the loss of her husband and son. There's something very flat about the dialogues (perhaps intentionally?), and the story seems a lot less intriguing for me.

To return to the plot, we have Julia, a successful pianist, now broken by loss. On a fluke, she returns with her sister to visit Wharton Park, where their grandfather worked as a gardener and bothanist when they were children. The fateful return puts into motion revelations of the past that ties their family to that of the late Lord Harry of Wharton Park. Dark family secrets slowly come into the light.

In the story within the story, we find ourselves both in Englang and Thailand around the time of WW2. Themes of love and loss, honour and family, are central. The frame narrative echoes the themes and events of the story within the story. And yes, I must admit that at times I am intrigued, but I just cannot come to grips with the characters' lack of communication, and constantly jumping to conclusions. There are constant backs and forths with no other purpose than to create unnecessary attempts at further "suspense". The story within the story is a lot better written than the frame story, and here the author seems to have her strength. I quite enjoyed the language and the nostalgic setting, and the plot was both intriguing and more realistic.

The mysteries in the novel are very slowly revealed, and when the reader starts to think that everything has finally been resolved and that the happy ending draws near, the author introduces the most shocking (and unbelievable?) revelation. This is the point in which the story as a whole lost all credibility to me. Yet again the author goes on to demonstrate that the male characters in the book have no real substance (and all seem to be more or less the same character), except for the obvious villain, whose identity I shall not reveal.

Despite the last-minute obstacles, the hero and heroine get their happy ending, and I am left feeling cheated. The ending is so Disney fairy tale that I'm almost annoyed.

These things aside, Hothouse Flower is one of those stay-up-all-night-to-finish type of books. The story from the past is very engaging and opens up the imagination to another place and time, allowing you to dream away. Despite its many flaws, the book has a definite audience, and I can see why a lot of women would love this book as a beach companion.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt

What better time to read a novel about a nervous breakdown after a forced Break with your hubby, than when I myself am separated from my better half? Siri Hustvedt's latest novel is a joyous read, a study of gender and identity, and an assurance that things are going to be ok.

Mia Fredricksen, a semi-successful poet, finds her life come crashing down when her husband wants a Break, or more concretely, a much younger, French colleague. After a short stay at a mental fascility, Mia is back to normal, but decides to visit her hometime, Bonden, for the summer. Despite her early conviction that she will be unable to stop thinking about her husband, life in Bonden keeps her occupied and gives her new insight.

Different groups of women become central in Mia's life in Bonden. Her mother and her friends at the old age home are one of these groups. Mia admires and connects with these women who all have survived their husbands' deaths, and who are determined to go on living and as well as they can, because, after all, my life is just wind. Gone too quickly.

Another group is the tween girls who attend poetry classes Mia teaches. The group dynamic forces Mia to confront her own past, and take a stand in a situation that quickly goes from bad to worse. When one of the girls is frozen out of the group, Mia makes them all write the narrative of events from the others' perspective, until all of them have written the story as seen by X, Y and Z. In the metafictional tradition, Mia concludes that the girls have now written the story of what happens they can all agree on. It might not be the story of what actually happened, but it is the story they can live with.

The last group is the family next door. We never get to know much about the husband, other than that he shouts and slams doors. Lola, the wife, is in her mid twenties and mother of a baby boy and a girl of around four. Mia's friendship with Lola and her children become important pieces in Mia's narrative, where she explores the role of women versus men, identity, both in groups and in a marriage, and growing older and taking on new roles as you do.

Roles and identity are very important themes in this novel. Mia constantly returns to a notion of repetition (virgin, mother, old woman), and we can clearly see the connection between Mia's own past, and the issues in her tween group now; Lola's fresh motherhood, and Mia's experience of being a mother herself, and the inevitability of aging, embodied in Mia's mother and her friends, some of which pass away in the course of the summer.

Identity is also connected to hiding yourself. Lola's daugther insists on wearing a large wig, and refuses to part with it, perhaps to hide herself from her parents' fighting. The tween girls all hide in numbers, or dress their poetry in the words of the Classics (Brontë, Dickens, etc). Mia herself is confronted with being identified as her husband's wife, rather than as a person in her own right. Gender becomes extremely problematic. In the older generation, Mia's mother's friend Abigail reveals her own secret delights in her own artwork. Despite having been an independent woman for years, Abigail considers her work to be to wild to display openly, and Mia is one of the trusted few who is ever shown the secret to her artwork.

Identity is also strongly connected to family, and heritage. You are who you are partly because of where you come from. Mia realises that the experiences from her parents have affected her in her married life, and that her husband has also brought with him his parents into their marriage.

In amongst all these issues, Mia is also concerned with her mental health, and notions of a presence, as if someone is "almost there", even if she can't see this person. On a more concrete level, she receives strange emails from (Mr?) Nobody, who at first criticises her, but gradually goes over to challenging Mia on an intellectual level, and in many ways perhaps proving to Mia that she has thoughts and opinions in her own right, separate to that of her esteemed husband.

Throughout the summer, Mia and her husband keep in touch, and Mia does not try to hide that she still loves him. What is refreshing, however, is that the narrative is far from a sulky "my husband left me"-story, but rather a story of love that comes from having an identity that blends so closely with your husband, and of trying to forge a life for yourself despite this. Mia's remark about the tween girls' conflict, that they now have found a story they can all live with, ecchoes in my mind as a possible key to Mia's own mind. Is she (and her husband) trying to find the story they can both agree on?

The Summer Without Men has been a perfect read for my state of mind, as I’ve had to come to terms with enjoying life despite missing my better half. However, this is a novel that has a much broader appeal than merely working as a pick-me-up. Mia makes a point of the fact that the vast majority of novel readers are women, and there seems to be little doubt that Siri Hustvedt considers women to be her main audience. That being said, men could learn a lot by reading this book.

In all, The Summer Without Men is an intelligent journey into life after love, a refreshing look at gender and identity, and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Mia's voice is smart but playful, and she keeps the reader interested and engaged to the very end.