Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom | Interesting about time

I haven't read Mitch Albom before, who is probably most famous for Tuesdays with Morrie, so I didn't quite know what to expect from this novel. But I must admit that I somehow had formed the notion that I would be served something quite deep. In this regard I personally was disappointed. The beginning was simply too obvious, and I felt that Albom left little for the reader to conclude on her own. In addition, the style of the novel was very un-novelly. At times the narrator steps out of the story and says things like "consider the word 'time' ", and then goes on a quasi-philosophical explication of the concept. This is yet another example of how he makes it too obvious for me personally. That could also be Albom's style of writing, but unfortunately this type of writing doesn't appeal that strongly to me. I prefer the power of implication. That said, I eventually got interested in the story, if only to find out the fate of "father time" Dor.

In the book we meet three characters. Dor, who lived 6000 years ago and who in this novel is the embodiment of "father time". Dor's big flaw is that he invents the concepts and measurements of time, thus cursing mankind with a feeling of never having enough time, or of having too much time. When his wife lays dying of plague, Dor's attempt to stop time leads to his imprisonment by God in a cave where he has to listen to the voices of mankind begging for more -or less -time. 

The other two characters are contemporary people. Victor is dying from cancer and has decided to defeat death through cryonics, where his body will be frozen, to be revived in the future when his disease can be cured. He keeps his plans hidden from his wife Grace, and spends his every waking moment finalizing his plans for his next life.

Our last character is the teenager Sarah who is head-over-heels in love with Ethan. Being a loner, Ethan's attentions are even more worth, but it soon becomes clear that Ethan is not interested. When Ethan not only rejects Sarah, but takes it one step further and humiliates her, Sarah can see no other way out than for it all to stop.

God returns to set Dor free, but has one last task to give him. He must find Victor and Sarah, and he must understand why man's days are numbered. Thus after 6000 years, father time is set free into the world again.

Once more I have to say that Albom wasn't deep enough for me. Of the characters, I only really sympathize with Dor. Neither Victor or Sarah moved me, and I didn't feel that I got to know them well enough to understand their choices. Albom is merely scratching the surface. I feel as if Albom was more concerned about the form of his book, the way the stories of Sarah and Victor were construed as parallels, the way the concept of time was at the core of every scene, rather than getting to the deep-down psychology. Despite its flaws, though, Albom brought up some interesting points and made some fun historical connections which I enjoyed.

The Time Keeper is in no way a deep delve into the concept of time, but it definitely gets you thinking and philosophizing about time and your personal appreciation of the moment. It's a quick read, so I didn't lose too much time of my life reading it;) And Dor made it all worth it in the end.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson

Maybe I've just read too many metafictional novels or just wasn't in the mood for so-called "literary" fiction at the moment, but I had a hard time really getting into Howard Jacobson's Zoo Time. Jacobson is heralded as a funny writer, and I could see what was supposed to be funny, but it wasn't for me. Only when I was about 100 pages in did I start appreciating the book, but considering that the narrator Guy keeps lamenting that nobody reads anymore, I think that's fair.

The novel is very much a novel about writing. Guy Ableman is a semi-successful author who is currently going down along with the rest of the publishing industry. Female readers complain that he doesn't understand women, his publisher has just committed suicide, and it seems that the rest of the industry are all constantly constipated. Lacking inspiration, Guy turns to his real-life fantasy for material. He wants to write about having an affair with his mother-in-law Poppy, much to the despair of his agent, who feels that this material will appeal to noone. But when his wife Vanessa finally gets serious about her threats to write, things really start looking dark for our "hero".

The parallels are not lost on the reader. What Guy wishes to do in his novel, Jacobson essentially does in Zoo Time. While Guy is watching the book industry crumble, Jacobson is also commenting on a declining industry.

I have to admit that the more I read, the more I enjoyed the book. Guy isn't easy to sympathize with, but one can still enjoy the read. And the ending is just priceless. I kind of had the feeling that Guy pretty much deserved all the misfortunes that came his way, and this is turned around towards the end.

I didn't laugh as much as the "funny" on the book cover suggested I ought to, but then again, Guy does point out that having that branding on the cover of one's book is a guarantee to make people not find it funny. 

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The City of Devi by Manil Suri | Apocalypse now

I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I started reading The City of Devi by Manil Suri. I love Indian literature, and the apocalyptic theme intrigued me, so I simply had to throw myself into it. The novel turned out to be nothing like what I imagined, and I'm kind of glad. It's refreshing to get some new perspectives, and Suri certainly conveys some interesting ideas!

Sarita's world is falling apart. Bombs have struck her city of Mumbai, all communication channels are cut off, rumours claim that terror has struck world-wide and that Pakistan will drop the atom bomb over Mumbai this week. Worst of all, in the middle of all this, her husband Karun is missing. We follow Sarita as she navigates the new warzone in her search for her husband. Muslims and Hindus are at each other's throats, and manage to find time between the bombings to brutally murder each other. But in the midst of all this, Sarita's mind is full of memories. Her and Karun's courtship, their marriage, and the importance of a pomegranate.

Enter Ijaz, a Muslim Sarita saves from certain death, who claims to want to pay her back by seeing her safely to her husband. Unsure if she can trust this smooth stranger who always has a new story for everything, it quickly becomes clear that they need each other to safely pass through areas that are either Hindu or Muslim. But Ijaz has secrets of his own, which ties him together to Sarita and Karun. As they start closing in on Karun's trail, it becomes clear that Ijaz has his own agenda. But will they even find Karun before the bomb is supposed to go off?

Sarita and Karun are navigating a landscape of religious fanaticism. After the Bollywood hit movie Superdevi, Mumbai has become the city of Devi. Our heroes start hearing rumours that Devi is here, and will protect her city against any attack. Fate leads them straight to the so-called Devi's doorstep, where they get up-close and personal with the young "goddess". Will the moody and whimsical Devi-ma be able to protect them, or will she be the cause of their demise?

The plot of the novel keeps thickening, and is constantly moving forward. We move between Sarita and Ijaz as narrators, and they in their turn move between the present, and their memories of the past. This works really well to create suspence and to let us see more sides to the story.

I can totally see this as a bollywood movie. The colours, the action, the grandness, the secrets, the identity crises. A major theme is the novel is identity. We never get to see Karun's perspective, but we get a strong sense of him as a troubled individual floating without an anchor. Sarita tries to be his anchor, but Karun sees the triangle as the perfect balance, and that is what is missing for him to be whole. He keeps returning to his father's notion that the divine triangle consists of Vishnu, Shiva and Devi, instead of the traditional assumption that Brahma was the third wheel. Similarly, this is the third book in a trilogy, the first two being The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva.

Suri explores a number of conflicts in the novel. The clashes between hindus and muslims, between gays and straights, but perhaps most importantly the inner conflict of a person who is totally lost. Is it possible to find healing in a world that is at war?

I find that some of my beliefs have been challenged in reading this book. I question the devotedness of Sarita, and Ijaz, I am annoyed with Karun's lack of a backbone. But I was also taken for a joy ride. There are some really funny passages, and I was completely absorbed in the story, both of the present and the past. And even though Ijaz could be a completely selfish a**hole, he had some redeeming qualities.

The City of Devi is only available in 2013, so in the meantime you can read the other two novels. The Death of Vishnu was even nominated for the Booker, so well worth a go. Next time I'm in the mood for Indian I'll check it out;)

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Murder of Norman Ware by Rosamund Kendal

Rosamund Kendal is a delightful South African author whose previous bestselling novels The Karma Suture and The Angina Monologues were great hospital chicklits. With her latest novel, Kendal makes the move into crime fiction. The Murder of Norman Ware is a fun and enjoyable crime book, with a strong tone of Desperate Housewives. So if you get a kick out of the narrating voice in Desperate Housewives, Kendal's novel will be right up your alley.

The residents of the luxurious San La Mer eco-estate outside Durban wake up to shocking news. Advocate Norman Ware is found mutilated and murdered in the men's  bathroom. Judging from the missing body parts, he was tortured before being dealt a deadly blow to the head. How could such a thing happen in a secure estate?

Kendal introduces us to a large range of characters, each representing extremities of South African lives, and each playing some sort of part that lead up to the murder. From the Sangoma who trades in muti, to the corrupt businessman, from the bored housewife to the cheating husband. They all have interesting and highly South African stories to tell, and in this seemingly idyllic place, no one is innocent.

The Murder of Norman Ware is a joy to read. It's a novel that doesn't take itself too seriously, but it still offers pungent social critique. It's got loads of black humour, and if you're looking for an escape read, The Murder of Norman Ware is just the ticket. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins | *crushing*

Oh how happy I am that my friend insisted I read the first book in the Hunger Games Trilogy even though I was persistent that I didn't need to read it since I'd seen the movie. I loved it!! And in quick succession I had to read the other two books as well. My conclusion? I want more!! And I can't wait for the rest of the movies to come out. According to IMDB there's a whole year to wait for Catching Fire and another two years for Mockingjay. It's much too long, and I've got serious withdrawal symptoms from Katniss and Peeta... *sigh* I just love it when I fall in love with books.

My second happiness came from realizing that I actually really enjoyed reading a so-called "Young Adult" series. I guess it's the fantasy element that pulled me in. "Adult" books seldom have the same magic as children's books, but I enjoy the magic. However, I still think I'll have a hard time finding a book that will fill the gap after Hunger Games. Anyone got any good suggestions? Love is essential.

Now to say a few things about the books. I thought all three books were brilliant. They're such accessible reads, the sentences flow beautifully and Collins' style is on the money. I loved how the plot kept thickening and how we were as much in the dark about things as Katniss. Katniss and the other characters keep changing and developing throughout everything that befalls them. And Katniss is a piece of work on her own... My only problem with the books is that Mockingjay simply was a little too short. I only wanted another two pages where everything could come together properly, but I am sure that was an editorial decision, and not entirely Collins' fault. I understand that "Young Adult" readers might only cope with a certain amount of pages, but I'm only asking for two more pages..!

Oh, and I really felt the story through music. Maria Mena's "I'm on Your Side" seemed like a perfect match to the books... If I could make one of those edits with clips from the movie to this song I'd totally do that.

Each confession I make
Translates to you as an insult.
We must rid ourselves of this habit.
I once heard you say you'll
never love anyone more.
Then why am I still fighting you?
And it's never felt like this, before.
No, we've never fought like this, before.
But you, should, know,

That I am on your side,
I am on your side.
Although it may seem useless.
I am on your side.

Your hands are bearing,
worn down to the bone.
But you're still holding on me.
So I tighten my grip,
By god, I won't let you slip.
But can you breathe this way?
And it's never felt like this, before.
No, we've never fought like this, before.

And I am on your side,
I am on your side.
Although it may seem useless.
I am on your side.
I am on your side.

Love was never this frail or so
good when it's good.
No, it's never felt like this, before.
No, it's never felt like this, before.

And I am on your side,
I am on your side.
Although it may seem useless.
I am on your side.
I am on your side.
I am on your side.
Oh, and Beth Ditto's "Good Night Good Morning" also perfectly fits the theme of cameras, identity and total confusion...

Are you listening very carefully
Close your eyes and come with me
To go where the evening comes undone
Late at night in the city streets
I feel the need to see the streets
I go where you'll always find someone yeah

Is it good night, is it good morning
Is this real life, are you performing
You're like a vision I can't control
We're in a movie I'm playing a role

I can be by myself sometimes
But I won't be by myself tonight

The sun comes out and suddenly
Something's happening inside of me
I wanna now where the silence has come from

Is it good night, is it good morning
Is this real life, are you performing
You're like a vision I can't control
We're in a movie I'm playing a role

I can be by myself sometimes
But I won't be by myself tonight

I can be by myself sometimes
But I won't be by myself tonight

So yes, I am properly crushing on these books. I am proudly "Team Peeta". The sad thing about finishing a book is that the initial awe cannot be relived. My comfort now is the upcoming movies which will hopefully be a great source for more of the Hunger Games magic.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Winter of the World by Ken Follett | The Great Story(teller)

I have been a proper slow-poke this last month. Reading Ken Follett's amazing new novel Winter of the World took me a long time, but truth be told, I'm glad it did. It deserved not to be raced through, but savoured rather.

I read Fall of Giants last year, and had high expectations to the second installment in the Century trilogy, but Follett didn't let me down. Follett is one of the greatest storytellers alive, and once more he perfectly weaves together factual history with fictional characters who come to life in a stunning way. Follett has managed to put together a daunting amount of material in a highly accessible way.

I was happy to see that we hadn't seen the last of my beloved characters from Fall of Giants. But 20 years have passed and the main characters are the children of the main characters of Fall of Giants. The characters are spread over England, France, Germany, Russia and USA, so we are presented with a very full picture of the war from all sides. Since all of the characters are very reflected, regardless of political view, we get insight into a variety of situations, ranging from the Nazi supporter to the Russian spy, from the British soldier to the American politician. All are fully fleshed characters who are forced to change in the course of the war.

In Ken Follett's stories, there is always a very strong dichotomy between good and evil. There are always evil characters involved who are making life difficult for our heroes. But you can trust that good always defeats evil in the end in his writing. Now that I have read a few of Follett's books, I question if Follett perhaps makes those distinctions a little too easy at times. As "classic" stories go, we do expect and want good to win in the end, and of course in the big picture of the war it did, but I still feel that Follett can be a little harder on his "babies" and not always conveniently killing off the bad-guys towards the end. Real life isn't like that (yes, I know, this isn't real life, and people do want a happy ending).

Winter of the World is a history lesson with soul. It brings to life the horrible years of war, the terror, the hunger, the desperation, the blood, but it does it with heart. Once again I genuinely came to care for the characters who was at the heart of it all. And once I finished the book I just wished my grandparents were still alive so that I could pick up the phone and get an answer to all the questions this book triggered in me. I am hungry for more.

I am so excited now about the third installment! Follett keeps blowing me away, and I want him to just keep writing, keep the good stuff coming..! Winter of the World fully satisfied my cravings for a good story and left me with a lot to chew on. Come Christmas, I will pick my parents' brains for what blanks they can fill in, but unfortunately my grandparents' stories were never written down. 


Wednesday, 3 October 2012

City of Dragons by Robin Hobb | Coming Home

Reading Robin Hobb is like coming home. It's familiar, warming and things are the same, but different. City of Dragons, the third installment of The Rain Wilds Chronicles ties together this series with the previous trilogies The Farseer and The Liveship Traders.

The dragons and their keepers have finally reached Kelsingra, the mythical city of the Elderlings. But because most of the dragons cannot fly, they are stuck on the other side of the river. Only Heeby can so far fly to Kelsingra at will, and she is happy to bring her keeper Rapskal, as well as the "expert" on Elderlings, Alise.

Through their explorations of the city, readers of The Farseer will rediscover Kelsingra, and some of the mysteries Fitz never got to the bottom of will be shed light on. Will the city drown the keepers in memories? And what will happen to the city once Leftrin reaches Cassarick and the rest of the world learns about the existence of the mythical city? 

Malta, Reyn and Selden are also prominent characters in this book. They didn't play a big part in the first two books of the series, but here we finally meet them properly again and learn their fates after the events of The Liveship Traders. Malta is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Reyn's first living child. Malta's younger brother Selden is in a very different predicament. Taken captive in Chalced as "the dragon man" he has to endure cruelties untold.

On top of this, the Chalcedeans are upping their hunt for dragons and dragon parts. Tintaglia learns a painful lesson in an unexpected encounter with arrows. And on his return to Cassarick, Leftrin learns that more people than expected are involved in the Chalcedean plot. The Chalcedeans are desperate, and will stop at nothing to get what they want. Once the idea strikes them that Elderling parts might serve the same purpose, things get very dangerous for our Elderling heroes.

I love being back in Robin Hobb's world, and I cannot get enough of this universe. I get to relive the initial awe of Kelsingra from The Farseer, but now the pieces are coming together. The two first books of this series was possibly a bit slow, but City of Dragons really picks up the pace and widens the scope of the story. We are no longer solely focusing on the slow trek upriver, we have reached the destination and get to see what else is happening in the world. I'm just bummed I now have to wait 6 months to read the final book, Blood of Dragons. Is it too much to ask, dear sweet Robin Hobb, that Fitz or the Fool/Amber make an appearance in the final book? All the other knots are being tied up, but I have to admit, every now and then I stop and wonder what Fitz is doing now. The end of Fool's Quest left room for a last adventure, but perhaps that is another novel (or trilogy)... *fingers crossed*

It should be clear by now that I really loved this book. Robin Hobb delivers reading experiences like no other. It's when I read her novels that I remember why I love fantasy fiction. I have to say, it seems that she's become more brutal in this book, and I like that. She's not at George R R Martin-level, but it's still nice.

Robin Hobb, please keep writing. You practically took my fantasy-virginity, and I will always love you for that and return to you again and again. 

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

My boss recommended this book to me the other day, and since I found the cover so awesome, I decided to give it a shot. I literally devoured it. Liza Klaussmann's debut novel is an impressive piece of narrative technique and elegance. A closely knit plot with characters you can't decide if you love, loathe, or simply fear, this is a novel which will keep you guessing right until the end (and it's not even a crime fiction book, technically).

The book kicks off in 1945 when the cousins Nick and Helena's ways are parted with the end of the war. Nick is to be reunited with her husband Hughes who fought in the war, and Helena is off to Hollywood to marry her new husband Avery. But the honeymoon period is short-lived. Nick finds herself whiling away the days in the choking Florida heat, waiting for her husband who she now longer feels she knows. And Helena quickly wakes up to a reality where her new husband's attentions are focused on his "life project". In a year, both woman are pregnant. And as the years pass by, the cousins reunite in New England at Tiger House. But one summer the children Daisy and Ed witness something that will change all their lives forever.

I love the structure of the book. We start off with Nick as the focalizer, and we get her perspective from her life as a bored housewife who aches for her husband's attention and gets a kick out of flaunting her tiny bathing suit in front of her neighbours. One day an incident occurs, and Hughes finally decides they should move back to New England.

After Nick, we have skipped forwards in time to 1959 when Nick's daughter Daisy is 12. Daisy and Nick, Helena and Ed are all at Tiger House for the summer. Daisy is obsessing with her tennis, but she's also falling in love for the first time with Tyler Pierce. Though Daisy finds her cousin Ed strange, she's easily persuaded when he asks her to come spying with him, and through their eavesdropping, we get suggestions as to what is going on under the surface in the relationships between the adults. The tension is thick in the air, and we quickly realize that all is not how it should be. This turns out to be the summer that will change everything for the kids, and the consequences will be fatal.

We skip forwards in time to 1967 and another summer at Tiger House. The focalizer is Helena, and through her flashbacks we learn about her early days of marriage and how she discovered she was stuck with her Hollywood husband who devouted all his time and money to his "project". When she fell pregnant with Ed, Helena started hoping for a better life. But Ed turned out to be a lot like his father, always conducting "research" and not really getting along with other kids. The only one who seemed to like Ed was Daisy, who is now engaged to Tyler Pierce. But Helena is anything but happy for them, and we learn that she's nurtured a growing resentment towards her cousin Nick. The tension in the novel keeps growing and we know that a disaster is about to happen.

The next focalizer is Hughes. His story skips between the war and until the present time of the story. We meet a man who feels that he's made a mess of things but is unable to make it right. His own mistakes cripple him from confronting others', and despite having dark suspicions about certain people, he is unable to do anything concrete about it. But Hughes really tries. Through Hughes' perspective some light is shed on certain occurrences, and we're starting to form a fuller picture of everything that's going on under the surface in Tiger House.

Fittingly, the last focalizer is the ever silent and unnerving Ed. Ironically, in his segment Ed is unable to speak. But he is still able to reveal what is going on behind his blank facial expressions. The build-up is perfect, and until the very last pages we are holding our breaths for fear of what will happen. The tension is so high-strung you can feel it in the air of the house. And Ed's distanced way of seeing things keeps us on the edge until the very last.

Klaussmann has written an almost perfect novel. "Almost" because I want her to keep doing it. I love the retro nostalgia of the setting, the nod to The Great Gatsby, the skips in focalizer which keeps the tension, the perfectly timed revelations of past incidences, the fullness and complexities of the characters, which seem to add dimensions with each person's point of view... It is simply put one of those really good novels that I'll recommend to ANYONE.

Finally I want to make a comment about the title, which I did not know came from the Wallace Steven's poem "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock". The title is taken directly from the poem, and Klaussmann was inspired by the poem to write the book. The poem juxtaposes the ordinary vs. the extraordinary, and lack of imagination vs. a vivid imagination. I find this resonates well within the novel in several ways, and one could easily write an article exploring this. I would just like to say that Nick constantly strives for the extraordinary within her life as a "housewife". She wants to break free of her "place", but that does not always turn out for the best. I also feel that the poem suggests that everything is not always how it seems on the surface, and this is very true for Tiger House.

Read it and see the tigers prowling around the house at night, preying on each other.

Philida by Andre Brink | Long Walk to Freedom

Andre Brink says that his latest Man Booker-nominated novel, Philida has been the hardest one to date. Perhaps because in writing it, Brink had to delve into the past, truthfully as well as fictionally. Philida is inspired by true events that happened on a 1800s farm in the Cape area. At this point in this, this farm belonged to relatives of Brink's ancestors.

Philida opens with the slave woman Philida walking all the way to Stellenboch to file a complaint against her master's son, a Francois Brink. Four kids have come from their union, but the main problem is that Francois promised Philida her freedom in exchange for her body. Now that Francois is being pushed into a favourable marriage by his parents, Philida's prospects are suddenly bleak. But come hell or high water, Philida refuses to see her dream of freedom shattered.

 Set around the same time as In the Heart of the Country by J M Coetzee, I can't help but make some connections between the two stories. Both novels focus on a female isolated character. But the racial, and in other words, social differences also makes their choices different. Ironically, whereas Magda in In the Heart of the Country wants to escape her isolation and desperation through words and fiction, Philida can settle for nothing less than freedom. She wants to have the freedom to say "this I will do, and this I will not do". She wants to exert herself to proclaim her own freedom. Magda sees herself trapped within a male hierarchy, but can only escape it through imagined patricide. Philida defies her "place" and confronts her suppressors head on.

There is a lot of walking in the book. I cannot help but draw lines to the metaphorical 'long walk to freedom. Philida walks to Stellenboch and back, to Cape Town, and finally, her last trek to the Gariep, which is a kind of promised land for slaves. In her journey of discovery, Philida comes to find herself, the muslim faith, and she realizes how she can be free. Philida is becoming a real pilgrim.

An added dimension in this story is that we do not only see Philida's viewpoint, but also Francois' and his father's. Even though our sympathies remain with Philida, we are reminded that each story has more than one side, and that slavery makes slaves of us all - including the 'baas'.

Philida is a beautifully written novel which I enjoyed immensely. Philida truly comes to life and is an intriguing and complex character. I haven't really read any books addressing slavery in SA before, so this was educational for me.  I'm not sure I think it deserves a Man Booker prize, but it definitely deserves a large readership.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Booke Spyne Poetrie

Tried my hand at some book spine poetry today! It was quite fun, so will probably do it again!

Read two lines at a time, and then the final one:)

Ancient Light by John Banville | The Invention of the Past

I would like to suggest that a lot of contemporary novel authors have a preoccupation with how our memories are part "truth" and part fiction. J M Coetzee said "we half perceive but we also half create" (Age of Iron). Increasingly this notion is being explored in fiction, and Ancient Light is a great example of a novel that deal with this specific issue. Aging actor Alexander Cleave finds himself reminiscing about his fling with his best friend's mother when he was 15. These memories are juxtaposed to the heart wrenching memory of his pregnant daughter's suicide ten years ago. Alex is desperate to find out the truth about his daughter's death, as well as the truth of what became of Mrs Gray after their fling abruptly came to an end. But he is forced to make up some of it: 'often the past seems a puzzle from which the most vital pieces are missing" (p. 211).

What I find extremely inviting about this novel is not only Banville's excellent prose and his meticulous choice of words, but also the fact that he seems to draw inspiration from two of my favourite authors, Paul Auster and J M Coetzee. If Auster and Coetzee's imaginative powers had a baby, the baby might come out as this novel. Both Auster and Coetzee's novels are often very metafictional, and especially the story set in the present tense of Ancient Light have some interesting metafictional traits. Alex has been offered a role in a movie, to play the elusive Alex Vander, whose identity was stolen after his death. The man who pretended to be Alex Vander was then as much of an actor as Alex Cleave. And in his remembrance of the past, it seems that Alex Cleave is inventing the past as much as the fake Alex Vander did. In playing Vander, he is becoming Vander; "...his usurper stepping seamlessly into his place and walking on, into the future, and overtaking me, who will presently in turn become a sort of him, another insubstantial link in the chain of impersonation and deceit" (p. 82).

Everyone involved in the movie production have strangely fictional names. Marcy Meriwether, Toby Taggart, Dawn Devonport and Billie Stryker all have a melodious but artificial quality which made me question if Alex was making them all up, or if they were somehow a figment of his imagination. And when Alex discovers that Alex Vander was in Portovenere, the Italian town where his daughter died, at the same time she was, I really start to question how everything is connected. It is almost an Austerian detective plot.

As mentioned above, the story happens on three time levels. Alex at 15 involved in an almost incestuous relationship with his best friend's mother; the time when his daughter committed suicide and the autopsy revealed that she was pregnant, while her personal notes revealed that a certain Svidrigailov was somehow involved; and now, Alex making his movie debut playing a man who pretended to be someone else. The great star Dawn Devonport has the female lead, playing Vander's much younger love interest. There is always a sexualized mother/son or father/daughter relationship involved in all, and in Dawn Devonport's case, she and Alex symbolically become surrogates for one another.

The title is mentioned a few times in the book. At one point it is referred to as a woman's right to have a window through which some piece of sky will be visible at the far end of the room. This I can only read as symbolizing hope and freedom. Was Mrs Gray's choice to have an affair with a boy her claim to the right of 'ancient light'? Later a different notion of the concept is brought up: "Now he was speaking of the ancient light of galaxies that travels for a million - a billion - a trillion! - miles to reach us. ...and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past" (p.172). Cleave is looking into the past of his youth, to an unresolved event that seems to have kicked off his acting, as well as the death of his daughter, which might never be resolved.

Grief is a strong theme in the novel. Similar to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the protagonist of Ancient Light cannot be reconciled to the fate of his child, and he feels forced to hang on to his grief: "to lay down the burden for the merest moment, would be to lose her with a finality that would have seemed more final than death itself" (p.140).

Ancient Light is a novel that deserves to be read in depth, to be lectured over, have theses written about it, and be compared and contrasted with author x,y and z. Unfortunately I have time only to scratch the surface and catch a hint of what it is about. It is without a doubt an excellent piece of literature, and it is when reading books like this that I really miss studying literature. Greater than The Sea, Ancient Light is a novel with sparks of excellent scattered throughout.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane | Confessions of an outlaw gone gangster

Shutter Island author Dennis Lehane's latest novel, Live by Night is a thrilling dive into the 1920s-1930s gangster underworld of Boston and Florida. The self-proclaimed outlaw Joe Coughlin gets involved with the girl of one of the big local bosses, Albert White, and before he knows it finds himself jailed for a crime he did not commit. In jail, however, he becomes the "adopted son" of a bigger boss, Maso. When Joe returns to freedom, he's put in charge of Maso's Florida operation, and Joe quickly goes to work bribing the cops and fighting off the KKK in the area.

Joe lives by night, and there is always the threat of being betrayed by one of your own men. As we follow Joe's own experiences, the pendulum always keeps changing. Despite the unbearable heat in Florida, Joe builds a life and a name for himself there. However, Joe meets unexpected resistance in a drug and prostitution victim he helps rescue. The girl's father instills the fear of God in her, and she starts preaching against the potential casinos which could become legal at the end of prohibition. Joe has a lot riding on the casinos, but the girl gets the popular vote. Joe's reluctance to "turn her lights off" become fatal for him, and soon Joe finds himself on a boat, knee deep in a block of cement.

Joe always emphasizes that he lives by night, because the rules are different. "You, you buy into this stuff about good guys and bad guys in the world. A loan shark breaks a guy's leg for not paying his debt, a banker throws a guy out of his home for the same reason, and you think there's a difference, like the banker's just doing his job but the loan shark's a criminal. I like the loan shark because he doesn't pretend to be anything else..." (p. 144). However, as time goes by, Joe has to admit to himself that the boundaries between living by day and night, between good and bad, are becoming blurred: "Something was getting lost in them, something that was starting to live by day, where the swells lived, where the insurance salesmen and the bankers lived, where the civic meetings were held and the little flags were waved at the Main Street Parades, where you sold out the truth of yourself for the story of yourself" (p. 284). 

The story is action packed and always entertaining. Lehane uses proper hard-boiled language which I just savour reading: "Dion Bartolo hit him in the mouth with his pistol. hit him hard enough to knock him out of his chair and draw some blood. It got everyone else thinking how much better it was to be the one who wasn't getting pistol-whipped than the one who was" (p. 5). The plot keeps thickening, and we can't help but remember the proverb "live by the sword - die by the sword".

I couldn't have read Live by Night at a better time. I recently started watching Boardwalk Empire, a brilliant "gangster" show set in the early 1920s, so I've got the social setting and context just right to get the most out of this book. A great story with everything you expect, brutal action, thrilling suspence, passionate romance and the femme fatale, as well as characters you enjoy knowing. Recommended!!!

Oh, and best of all? Not only are they making a movie version, but the crown prince of gangsters, Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing Joe! Eeeeeeeeeeeek! Can't wait! I hope there are certain scenes (uhum) they don't cut out for the movie script..!

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce | The Old Man and the Road

Longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a real gem. This novel is truly tender, and I came to grow fond of and care for Harold and Maureen, the main characters of the story. Retired, they live a quiet life in Kingsbridge in the south of England. One morning a letter arrives that will change their lives. A colleague Harold has not seen in twenty years, Queenie Hennessy, is terminally ill with cancer. After Harold has penned a reply and walks on his yacht shoes to the post box, something changes, and Harold gets this urge to keep walking. A chance encounter with a girl working in a petrol station spurs what will be Harold's pilgrimage, as he carries on walking, all the way towards Berwick-Upon-Tweed in the north of Scotland in the hopes of saving Queenie. 
Maureen is left clueless behind. While Harold phones her to let her know what's going on, Maureen lives in denial about the whole situation, and feels forced to fend off the neighbour's questions regarding Harold's whereabouts. Does Harold love Queenie Hennessy? 

As his pilgrimage progresses, Harold has to deal with more than merely nth degree blisters, hunger and unpredictable weather. All the people Harold meets on his way share part of their stories with him, and Harold feels it as a slight burden to get a peak into their lives. As he walks, Harold finally comes face to face with the problems in his marriage and in his life that he has been oppressing for twenty years. But when Harold's pilgrimage hits the news, Harold is blessed with co-pilgrims he didn't ask for who also claim to be walking to save Queenie. 

Meanwhile, Harold's absence is forcing Maureen to take a good hard look at herself and their marriage. I love the friendship that grows between Maureen and the neighbour Rex, and the way Harold's absence becomes the catalyst for Maureen to come out of her shell. 

This is overtly a story of a pilgrimage, but it is also the story of life as a pilgrimage. Harold's walk becomes a metaphor for his walk through life. On his walk he experiences moments of elation and great fate, he seemingly comes into his own: "He watched the squares of buttery light inside the houses, and people going about their business. He thought of how they would settle in their beds and try to sleep through their dreams. It struck him again how much he cared, and how relieved he was that they were somehow safe and warm, while he was free to keep walking" (p. 186). But he also suffers moments of extreme pain and doubt, and there are times when he can barely continue putting one foot in front of the other. And as the days go by, it becomes more and more questionable if the elderly man in yacht shoes can make it in time to save the dying Queenie.

The novel is also to a large degree a story about border crossing. Apart from the geographical border crossing of the walk itself, Harold also crosses all kinds of psychological borders; his walk is in a sense making him connect with nature and everyone in it."Again he felt in a profound way that he was both inside and outside what he saw; that he was both connected and passing through. Harold began to understand that this was also the truth about his walk. He was both a part of things, and not" (p. 188).

I loved this book. When I think back on the reading experience, I feel warm inside. I want to give Maureen and Harold a great big hug, and I want to join Harold on his pilgrimage, but maybe with better shoes. I think there is a lot to learn about acceptance, forgiveness and redemption in this book, and that it is never to late. It's no harder than putting one foot in front of the other.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne | The Angel Killer

The Guilty One is Lisa Ballantyne's debut novel. According to the publisher, the crime fiction book is bound to be a success, and based on the unusual and unsettling topic, I can definitely see it getting a lot of attention.

11-year old Sebastian Croll is accused of the murder of 8-year old Ben Stokes. Having been spotted fighting on the day of the crime, and with blood traces on his clothes, things are not looking good for the strange Sebastian who claims to have been with his fragile mother at the time the crime was committed. We follow Sebastian's attorney, Daniel Hunter, as the case forces Daniel to take a closer look on his own troubled childhood.

At 35, Daniel is a successful London attorney, but Sebastian reminds him that at his age, Daniel lived a very different life. With an absent father and a drug addict mother, the young Daniel is used to fighting, running, and always worrying about his mother. When he is placed with the foster mother Minnie on a country farm, Daniel manages to turn his life around. However, when Minnie does the unforgivable, Daniel walks out of her life and never looks back. Until now.

There is a strong link between "the Angel Killer" case and Daniel's own childhood problems. Daniel feels a tie to Sebastian, who seems to look up to him. If Sebastian is found guilty, he will be thrown into a prison system which will only worsen his problems. In the book we learn that in the UK, children are from the age of 10 considered legally responsible. In my home country of Norway, and the rest of Scandinavia, the age is 15. That said, there was a tragic case in Sweden in 2011 where a 10-year old child killed a 4-year old child on a playground. Because the perpetrator was a minor, child welfare took over. In the UK, however, that is not the case, and Sebastian risks actual prison sentence if he is found guilty.

The Guilty One is at times really creepy. There is obviously something up with Sebastian, guilty or not. The court case details were really interesting, and it is unusual get the perspective of the accused and the defender instead of the victim and prosecutor. The story of Daniel was also well developed. Minnie is just a great, complex character, and so is Daniel.

What I really enjoyed about this novel is the social commentary and the way nothing is clear cut. There are no innocents in this novel, everyone is guilty in some way. It is also nice that not everything is resolved or put out in the open. There are still aspects that are left to the imagination.

Well done on your first novel, Ballantyne. I wouldn't mind revisiting Daniel some time in the future.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Lessons in Husbandry by Shaida Kazie Ali | A Memoir of Grief and Hope

I just love it when something unexpected hits me. When my boss asked me to read Lessons in Husbandry I wasn't expecting much. But Shaida Kazie Ali's book caught me completely off guard. The story is beautifully written, the plot grips you from the very first pages, and up until the last page I didn't know how she would pull it all together. But pull it together she does, and I'm now excited to have made the acquaintance of a new, exciting South African voice.

10 years after her sister Amal disappears, Malak is still struggling with coming to terms with the gap left behind. Shortly after the disappearance, Malak agreed to marry Amal's fiance Taj, but their union is solely based on their mutual grief. Encouraged by her partner in Cupcakes, Rakel, Malak start attending writing classes. She'll write about Amal's disappearance, and the novel basically makes up this memoir.

Malak leads a fairly predictable life. Her days are spent making cupcakes, speaking to her husbands "brother" Precious while Taj is busy in his career as a fertility doctor, and paying the regular visits to her mother. Every day bears the absence of her sister. Malak's life is turned upside down when she is stuck in an elevator with a strange man. For the first time, Malak understands the meaning of passion, but she's now caught between two men - neither of who know of the other. Afraid of severing her last ties to her sister, Malak simply cannot leave Taj, but she is also unable to picture a future without Darya in it.

The book is divided into seven chapters, each of which is its own "lesson in husbandry". Each chapter begins in the writing classes, and the different writing exercises they do allow us to dig deeper into the story of Malak and Amal. Not everything they write has to be true, however, which reminds us as readers that Malak could be hiding facts or rewriting the history for all we know. So Lessons in Husbandry is not only a story about grief and love, it is also a novel about writing (which tend to be my favourites). 

I can't emphasize enough how much I enjoyed this book. With a healthy dose of irony and humour, Ali sculpts her novel masterfully. Read it.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Blue Door by Lise Kristensen | A Silenced History

Now while my last read was Across the Bridge of Dreams which romanticizes the samurai culture, The Blue Door by Lise Kristensen depicts a very different view of the Japanese. I decided to read it because not a lot of Norwegian authors are represented in my bookshop in Jo'burg, but I think it's actually not available in Norwegian (yet).

The Blue Door moved me deeply. The author Lise Kristensen was born in 1934 in Java, and she narrates what befell her and her family during the second world war. Her family lived a rather easy life in Java before the war. But gradually their carefree existence started changing. One day her father is brutally taken away by Japanese soldiers. Soon after, the women and children are taken away too. Lise along with her mother, sister and brother are transported to a POW camp. Lise's personal hell is about to start.

I expected the starvation, the discomforts, the small space, the diseases. What I didn't see coming was the torture, the brutality, the cruelty, the evil. This is not for the faint-hearted. What the 10-year old Lise sees and experiences is beyond anything I can imagine. They stay in a camp with women and children, yet the Japanese soldiers do not hesitate to torture, rape, taunt, abuse... -All the while saying that the Emperor wants his prisoners to be healthy. I have to admit that this piece of history is unfamiliar to me. Kristensen backs this up in her afterword, saying that Japan has silenced the memory of their POW camps.

Apart from a description of the atrocities Lise, her family and all the other people in the camps had to face, Lise focuses on how they managed to LIVE in this place. Lise realizes that in order not to starve to death, she has to steal whatever she comes across. There are some really fun passages of Lise's escapades in the camps, including some very close calls. The fly hunt is also quite amusing. Lise becomes a very resourceful girl, and she basically takes care of her younger siblings because their mother becomes very ill in the camps.

Kristensen doesn't wallow in self-pity, but she relates how she survived the POW camps, and what impact this experience came to have in her life. She is always reflective, even though her childhood self always wonders why the Japanese soldiers do their evil (or neglecting) deeds. In her afterword she says that writing this book is part of her healing process. That said, she also wanted to prevent this part of the WWII history from being forgotten. I think she does an amazing job of it.

Years ago I read Dessert Exile, an autobiography that deals with the internment of Japanese Americans in America. I think The Blue Door is a sort of antithesis to that. Kristensen has written an important contribution to our collective memory of WWII. The book is deeply moving, but also funny. I recommend it strongly, and I think "everyone" should read it.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Across a Bridge of Dreams by Lesley Downer | Retelling "the Last Samurai"

So I love Asianvision movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Hero" and "The House of Flying Daggers", but I have to admit that I haven't read a lot of books about Samurai, with the exception of the brilliant Shogun by James Clavell. When I saw the cover of Across a Bridge of Dreams I knew I had to read it. It turned out to be an impossible love story, a Japanese version of  "Romeo and Juliet". I loved it!

Taka is the daughter of the geisha Fujino and the greatest Satsuma samurai of all, Kitaoka. Japan is in turmoil after a period of war between north and south. Nobu is a northerner whose family was greatly affected by the war, and despite being samurai, he has to make a living by working as a servant. Unforeseen events place Nobu in the Kitaoka household, but despite Nobu's hatred for the name that is responsible for all his misfortunes, he cannot help but be drawn to beautiful Taka. In secret, Taka helps Nobu with his reading and writing, and a bond quickly develops between them. Taka's suspicious brother Eijiro ensures that Nobu is kicked out of the house and Nobu starts training for the army.

Fujino starts making arrangements for Taka to be married. As a daughter of a great samurai, she can be married well, despite her geisha background. Taka dreads a future as a samurai wife, but she pretends to be excited about it. Meanwhile, trouble is stirring in the country. Western culture is putting a lot of pressure on the Japanese way of life, and a lot of changes are enforced by the new government. General Kitaoka has not been heard from for years, but there are rumours that he is behind an uprising in the south. Just as Nobu and Taka find each other again, war breaks out, Taka is forced to flee Tokyo, and Nobu has to go to war against her father.

Downer describes really well how the Japanese had to get used to Western clothes and food, and the challenges people faced in getting used to this. I also feel that I got a better understanding of Japanese culture at the end of the 1800s. Geishas and samurai occupied very different spheres of life, yet they often came together. The hate/love relationship people had to geishas is fascinating, and I truly felt for Taka when she had to go to school with "pure" samurai girls who turned their noses up at her.  

I love how Downer weaves together Japanese histories and myths in her narrative, giving it a magical element. Nobu and Taka seem destined for each other, despite the odds. Yet I kept guessing to the last few pages. Downer builds the tension steadily, so that towards the end the story literally reaches a climax. All the events come together in a surprising and nerve-wrecking way.

Across a Bridge of Dreams is both beautiful and tragic. The characters are facing the death of a way of life, but this death might bring new hope to our star-crossed lovers. Taka and Nobu  grow from teenagers to proper heroes. I loved this story. I hope you'll love it too.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani | Fated love

Ok, so I'm not overly fond of "love stories", but The Shoemaker's Wife is just such a different "boy meets girl" that I could not help but fall in love with it. Northern Italian Ciro and his brother are raised in a convent after their father dies and their mother takes ill. Further up the mountain lives Enza, a strong young girl who will do anything for her family of mother, father and six children. When tragic events lead to the first meeting between Enza and Ciro, it seems destined that the two are made for each other. However, soon after their meeting, Ciro sees something he should not have seen, and he is sent away to America. Back in Italy, Enza's family faces disaster after they are evicted from their rented home and their loyal horse dies. With poverty looming, Enza sees no other option but to try her luck in America and send money back to her family. But without knowing the wherabouts of the other, are Enza and Ciro's paths destined to cross in the land of the free? Or will the timing always be just off the mark?

The story is set in the early 1900s. Italy is struggling, and everyone who can raise the funds, leave for America in the hopes of creating a better tomorrow. This is a period of great social differences, and this affects the characters in different ways. Ciro is lucky and is taken in by a shoemaker, so he learns the trade and soon starts dreaming of his own venture. Enza is less lucky, working day and night sewing clothes, whilst being treated like a maid by her landlady. But Enza's friend Lauren is determined to get them out of the gutter and into the flashing lights of Manhattan, and together they start planning their "escape".

Throughout this, Enza and Ciro keep meeting, then missing each other. And when Ciro signs up to fight in the first world war after being misinformed that Enza has gone back to Italy, Enza refuses to keep her life on hold for him. Enza's life is changing for the better, and she is enjoying the good life. She has a boyfriend that spoils her, and surely that is better than the ever-changing Ciro with his many lady friends.

This is a book about love that transcends space and time. Our heroes are star-crossed lovers attempting to defy destiny. Two strong themes are the importance of friends and family, and these notions seem to drive the plot forward. For Ciro, a lot of his actions are focused in some way around his brother. Enza sacrifices everything for her family, but it is her friend Lauren that teaches her to also do things for herself.

The novel is an interesting exploration of Italian culture in America, as well as the immigrant experience. The characters face hardships as well as good times on their way through life. What I find interesting is that Trigiani refrains from glorifying her characters (too much), but rather paints them as vivid and lifelike as she can. In all, The Shoemaker's Wife is a beautiful story that brings you to a different time and place where you can hear the opera music and the sewing machines and smell the gnocchi.  

Friday, 1 June 2012

Habits of the House by Fay Weldon | Downton Abbey meets Jane Austen

So I've never read Fay Weldon before, but my boss got a preview copy of her new novel Habits of the House and asked if I was interested, and how could I say no? Luckily I had a blast reading it. If Jane Austen had written the script for Downton Abbey, it might have come out something like this! Fun, sharp and a plot that keeps thickening and keeps you guessing right until the end. It's due for release in July, so you have something to look forward to!

October 1899. Disaster strikes the Earl of Dilberne and his family as his attorney Mr Baum informs him that the gold mine they've invested in in South Africa has been flooded. The family's bills are piling up, and since Rosina, the daugther of the house is a "new woman", it falls on Arthur, the son, to marry for money. But Arthur keeps a mistress that he is not ready to part with and sees no reason why he should be the one to make sacrifices.

Meanwhile, the wealthy and beautiful Minnie O'Brian and her mother Tessie come on a ship from Chicago in search of a husband with a title for Minnie. But Minnie is a girl with a past, and soon all the servants in the Earl's household know all the details of Minnie's secrets and are determined to prevent any disgrace on their household.Do Minnie and Arthur have a chance at happiness against these odds?

In the middle of this, Lady Isobel is stressing about a charity dinner where the Prince, who is a friend of her husband, will attend. With their current money problems, will she have to compromise the amount of courses? And will she be forced to extend an invitation to Mr Baum's wife, who *shudder* lives in the wrong part of London?

The characters are all over the place, and I love it. All of them have their flaws, from the servants who spy on and gossip about their "betters", to the men who keep mistresses while expecting the women to be virgins, and the women who will ignore someone based on where they live or where their money comes from. Weldon's ridicule of her characters is hilarious and entertaining.

1899 is a period of great changes, and these changes make up an important part of the plot. Feminism has entered the stage and "masculine" behaviour is being challenged. Meanwhile, being a lord is no longer equivalent to wealth, and being from trade is no longer equivalent to poverty. Keeping the bloodline "pure" is also losing its value as the need of money becomes more pressing.   

The whole plot of the novel runs over the course of two months, and the structure makes it interesting. Each chapter has a date and time, as well as a title literally explaining what will happen in the chapter. The style works really well. The final chapter is a newspaper entry which pulls it all together and gives us all the answers without being too obvious.

Habits of the House is the first novel in a new trilogy, and I really look forward to reading the next installments. Hope they are due for publication soon too.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Red House by Mark Haddon | Families in Crisis

I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time years ago, and it's one of the best books I've read. After hearing Mark Haddon speak at the London Book Fair a few years ago, I realized he is one of the funniest serious authors alive, and since then I've continued reading his book. His latest novel, The Red House is no disappointment, and follows A Spot of Bother as a novel about the family in crisis.

Basically we have a sort of situation drama on our hands. Brother and sister Richard and Angela do not have the closest of bonds, but after the passing of their mother, they go on a holiday to a small town in Wales together. Angela is bringing her husband Dominic, her daughter Daisy, and her two sons Alex and Benjy, as well as the ghost of a daughter that didn't live. Richard comes along with his new wife Louisa and her daughter Melissa. The scene is set for long hours of reading (for our characters), less pleasant trips down memory lane, revelations, conflict and confrontation.

The families try to keep entertained throughout the duration of their stay by going to town, reading, "sightseeing" and going for walks. However, all of them bring emotional baggage with them, and this is forced to the surface as the days pass. Richard's problems at work, Dom's infidelity, Melissa's bitchiness, Daisy's secret, and Angela's grief over a child that died 18 years ago. As the secrets are revealed, some of the characters inch closer and closer to a breakdown.

What is interesting is the relationships between parents and children, and how they keep changing. Angela struggles with Daisy, whereas Dominic is the "cool" parent. However, when Daisy's secret is brought out, it is her mother she seeks. There is also a sense that disillusion and disappointment work both ways. The parents might dislike who their children are becoming, but as the children mature, they see their parents for who they really are. Angela herself must face this, as her memories of her dad differs from the view Richard portrays. 

What is initially striking about the novel is that all the characters are focalizers in the story, i.e. the point of view of the story keeps changing from one person to the next. This happens without warning, and in the beginning it was a bit hard to keep up with who was thinking what. Additionally, the dialogue is all in italics rather than inverted commas, which increases the confusion. It feels like we are inside the characters heads, and the italics underline the monotony and silence of the place.

What I love about Mark Haddon is that the families and problems he portray are so recognizable. And he is not afraid to broach any subject. I love how his characters are forced to not only confront others, but themselves. And I love the tenderness with which he portrays children. There is something so genuine and real about them, funny and confusing at the same time. There are not a lot of authors out there who has skill in that department. Haddon balances between funny and sad, but he never lets us down, and brings the book to a worthy conclusion. We might not have solutions to everything, we might only have seen a glimpse of these people's lives, but we do feel we were present at a pivotal moment. And when the families have packed up and left, all that remains to witness they were ever there are the used books they bought and left behind.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

A gem for any bookseller, this fun collection of quotes from bookshops is, in Neil Gaiman's words "so funny... So sad"... This is the book I wish I'd written! I guess I still can. In fact, all bookshops should have a notebook behind the counter to record outrageous questions and comments from the customers -all due respect!

Hihi, here are some quotes from the book:

CUSTOMER: Do you stock Nigella Lawson under 'sex' or 'cookery'?
BOOKSELLER: It's a tough call, isn't it?
p. 56

CUSTOMER: Have you read every book in here?
BOOKSELLER: No, I can't say I have.
CUSTOMER: Well you're not very good at your job, are you?
p. 70

... And here's a recent experience from yours truly in EB Nicolway:

CUSTOMER: Can you tell me where the nearest bookshop is?
ME: ...You're standing in it...
May 2012

This is a must-read for all booksellers - and customers! Read it and weep:) 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey | Modern Grief Meets the Gothic

I decided to read this book because of the reference to an automaton on the back cover blurb, which immediately got me thinking about E.T.A. Hoffman's short story "The Sandman" (1916).
A gothic classic, "The Sandman" has a strong concept of the "unheimlich" or the uncanny. In other words, when reading it, you are left with an uneasy feeling (an enjoyable uneasy feeling, that is).

In The Chemistry of Tears we meet Catherine, whose lover Mattthew just passed away unexpectedly. Being the mistress, Catherine has to confront her grief and memories on her own. She is set to work piecing together an automaton, a swan built in the 1800s. Among the parts are a bunch of notebooks written by the man who commissioned the swan, a Henry Brandling. To battle her grief, Catherine disappears into Henry's world, and reads obsessively about how the father Henry, after losing a girl child, attempts to nurture his son's will to live by getting a mechanical duck built for him. He leaves his failing marriage and his son behind to go to Germany to find a clockmaker who can build the duck for him. His welcome is anything but warm, but a mysterious Herr Sumper is willing to help him. In his desperation, Henry provides all the funds he has, and finds himself a prisoner whilst awaiting the construction of his duck. However, the elusive Herr Sumper seems to have other ideas, and Henry soon has doubts about his duck ever being constructed.

In the present time, Catherine drowns herself in alcohol, works on the swan with Amanda, an assistant who is not altogether balanced, and gets unexpected visits on her doorstep. Finding the secrets of the swan becomes almost an obsession to her, especially when she finds a cube that Karl, Herr Sumper's prodigy helper must have left there. Catherine is pushing the boundaries more and more, taking the cube home with her as a sort of souvenir, all the while refusing Amanda to even think about the significance of the cube. Amanda is convinced that the swan holds dark and menacing secrets.

As the mysteries surrounding its conception start to unravel, other mysteries appear. Herr Sumper gives dark testimonies to Henry, who shakes it all off as bogus, but both Catherine, and we as the readers can feel the chill run down our spines. The end of the novel is left rather open, and we are left with a delightfully uncanny feeling of not knowing.

If I had reread "The Sandman" while reading this novel, I am sure I would have a lot more to say about the obvious link between them. However, some parallels are clear. Both deal with someone who passed away and is being grieved. Both deal with a sort of haunting. And both deal with a sort of impossible love story.

I enjoyed this novel quite a lot. Henry's Gothic story sucked me in and left me hungry for more. Catherine's attempt to come to terms with the sudden death of her lover for thirteen years, in a world where she is not allowed to grieve him openly, touched me deeply (all my relationships together don't even come to thirteen years!).

The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavic | A Proofreader's (wet) Dream

After reading Double Negative recently by Ivan Vladislavic, I was very eager to read the re-launch of an older novel, The Restless Supermarket. Once again Vladislavic writes about Jo'burg and the many changes it has undergone in recent times. Reading it left me with no doubts about Vladislavic' skills as a writer. What that man can do with the English language leaves me breathless at times; I am either stunned into pure awe or laughing so hard (inside) that I can't breathe! This book is a definite treasury for proofreaders, or anyone interested in/involved with the publishing industry, as well as logophiles in general.  For me, having done proofreading at Uni and being in possession of that healthy dose of anal retentiveness required for proofreading, I really had a fun time reading it. For people who can't stand being corrected, perhaps this isn't the book for you.

Retired proofreader Aubrey Tearle finds his world turned upside down when his daily haunt, the Cafe Europe in Hillbrow, announces that it is shutting down. Tearle is a lonely nit picker, and it seems that his only social contacts are other guests at the Cafe Europa. Little by little he tells us how he became part of a group of people frequenting the place. However, we get a strong impression that Tearle's strong opinions created a gap between his acquaintances and himself that he failed to see until it was too late.

Tearle is busy with his life's work, the Proofreader's Derby. Throughout his career, Tearle collected examples of written errors and typos. They now make up the Proofreader's Derby, a competition Tearle is determined to show his "friends" on the farewell bash that marks the end of the Cafe Europa. But will he finish it on time? And do any of his "friends" have the skills needed to correct it?

The Cafe Europa stands as a sort of symbol of apartheid in the novel. The name itself should be an indication. Hillbrow used to be one of the most trendy "white" suburbs of Jo'burg, but towards the end of apartheid an increasing number of black people moved in, and the whites basically ran away. Tearle mentions how the Cafe came under "new management", which echoes how South Africa itself came under "new management" in 1994. Tearle doesn't seem to be very happy about how the world as he knows it is changing. He sees the increasing number of errors in the newspapers as a sign that society as a whole is deteriorating.

Tearle sees himself as a kind of savior. Towards the end of the novel, we get to read his Proofreader's Derby, which is a kind of story or fairytale about an imaginary place where everything suddenly falls apart. The proofreaders are the ones supposed to hold it all together, and Tearle's alter ego is their leader. Boundaries are literally moved and erased, literary as well as geographical. There is a lot we can read into this as a comment on the novel as a whole. The South African geography is literally changing, but the language is also changing. And when you look around Jo'burg today, streets, hospitals, airports and universities have changed names, and there has been a geographical move of people and places in a much larger sense.

As the reader, I didn't much like Tearle, and to be honest, I don't think I'm supposed to. I sympathize with him, however, and I can kind of understand where he's coming from. Tearle estranges people, insults his "friends" without realizing it, and is completely oblivious to anyone else's needs. I often laugh at him (and a few times with him). Towards the end of the novel Tearle kind of gets a chance to redeem himself, however.

The Restless Supermarket is a comment on the changing South Africa, the changing political climate, and the many prejudices that are bound to stick around. It is both funny and thought-provoking, intelligent and sad. Tearle's fear of being erased by the changing landscape is understandable, as the world as he knows it is disappearing in front of his eyes.

A quality read, I hope countless logophile geeks take the time to read, and reflect on Vladislavic' book. It is important. And in today's political climate, where freedom of expression and artistic freedom is under attack by the current ANC government, it becomes even more important.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Literary tattoos

I have been thinking about getting a tattoo that illustrates my love for words, words, words. My awesome boss borrowed me a copy of the book Literary Tattoos: The Word Made Flesh* by Talmadge and Taylor. I'm in love! She also tipped me that there is a website devoted to "our kind". Check out for some really stunning and inspiring bookish tattoos!

I am still undecided about what to get, and whether to get a quote or illustration - or both! I have far too many fave literary quotes! My mantra is "the words are purposes, the words are maps" ("Diving into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich), but I'm not sure I want that tattooed on me. Khalil Gibran and the Bible are more spiritual options. And what about my Uni fave, J M Coetzee? Or my newfound love for Ivan Vladislavic' playful prose? My first fantasy love, The Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb? So many books, so little time! I'm even considering rereading my fave books to find the perfect quote! be continued... 

*the phrase brings to mind the repeated mantra "dreams made flesh" from the excellent The Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop. What a read! I wish I could be a "virgin reader" of that book again...

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Burning Bright and The Waking

Sho! I've been a busy bee lately, and haven't had time to write about my latest reads, Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier and The Waking by T M Jenkins, two VERY different books. I'm happy tho, because I've been busy working! I am now a proud bookseller at the brand new and beautiful Exclusive Books in Nicolway:) The last week has consisted of carrying millions of boxes, unpacking books, placing and replacing to the nth degree, and making pretty! We opened yesterday, and so far it's been a great success, and we're all very happy about our new home <3 I'll probably post some pics later.

Anyway. About the books. Burning Bright is a sort novel based around the romantic poet William Blake, who happens to be one of my favourites. We follow a family from the countryside who has just moved to London to start a new life. The two children in the familiy, Jem and Maisie, are curious to explore this new place, and luckily they meet Maggie, a savvy neighbour who is more than happy to show them the ropes. With the french revolution as a backdrop, the kids often run into another neighbour, the mysterious and eccentric printer and poet, William Blake. The children take a liking to this strange man and his wife, who always have time for the childrens queries. But as the children move from innocent to experienced, they must leave their childhood selves behind.

Burning Bright is fun for me to read because of my interest in William Blake, but it doesn't hit a deeper note. I was hoping for a more [how to put it] intellectual novel with more philosophical and psychological references... A more meaty novel to do William Blake justice. By all means, it is a ok novel, but I'm in no hurry to read other books by Chevalier.

The transition to The Waking by T M Jenkins could not be greater. A medical sci-fi dystopia where we are dealing in human flesh and nanotechnology. The year is 2006. Dr Nate Sheehan is shot in the street, and his wife, also a doctor, decides to freeze his head. Fast forward to 2070, when technology has come far enough to attach the head to a donor body, and bring it back to life. Nate wakes up to a living nightmare, with a body that has a will of its own, and a world where little is recognisable. Literally a modern Frankenstein story, Nate, who never wanted to frozen or resurrected, find himself hunted both by the people who created him, and the world that find him an abomination.

The Waking is definately a scary exploration of a future that is looking more and more possible. I enjoyed the book, even if I would not normally refer to it as my cup of tea. There are a lot of mysteries that are only revealed in the end of the book, so despite what I'd call a bit of a slow start, it does pick up the pace significantly. For people who like this type of book, I'm sure it's great. Personally I don't expect to remember it for too long.

I'm not reading The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavic, which is being relaunched in May. Vladislavic is really an excellent writer, and I'm enjoying it so far. :)

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt | Secrets and strangers

This is the second novel by Siri Hustvedt I've read, and I'm liking her writing more and more. The Summer Without Men was a refreshing read, but The Sorrows of an American cuts deeper. My first thoughts when starting on the novel, was the there are many parallels to The History of Love by Nicola Krauss, which I just read. Once more the story is set in New York, but the setting of the past is somewhere else, and again we are dealing with immigrants. In both novels the protagonist's father has died, and those who are left behind reads the diary of the deceased. In both cases we are dealing with a mystery in the past that the protagonist is trying to unravel.

The Sorrows of an American introduces us to siblings Erik and Inga Davidsen following the death of their father. Erik is a recently divorced psychiatrist, and Inga is a recently widowed writer and mother of Sonia. Inga's late husband Max was a famous writer, and we can draw some clear parallels between Siri Hustvedt and the character of Inga, who sometimes suffers seizures. Among their father Lars' papers, Erik and Inga find an old letter which implies that their father was involved with someone's death, and that he took this secret with him to the grave. Lars edited his diaries before his death, and Erik starts searching for clues to find out who his father really was. This takes us back in time to a harsh life during the depression, to war time horrors that haunted their father into walking at night in an attempt to escape his demons.

While Erik is getting to grips with the loss of his father, the beautiful Miranda and her daughter Eggy move in to the downstairs of Erik's house. The lonely Erik quickly develops an erotic fascination with Miranda, but when photographs of Miranda and Eric start appearing on his doorstep, Erik senses that something is wrong.

Meanwhile, Inga is harassed by a journalist who suggests that her late husband might have had some secrets from her. Another woman enters the picture, and with her some letters Max apparently wrote to her, and which supposedly contain some great revelation. Inga wants to protect her daughter Sonia from these news, and Sonia has had enough on her plate. Two years previously, Sonia witnessed people falling out of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Following her father's death, Sonia has not shed a tear. Psychiatrist Erik is worried about her, but can only be patient as the girl tries to express herself in poetry.

In her narrative, Hustvedt ties connections between the second world war, 9/11 and the war on Iraq and Afghanistan. She is preoccupied with the physical damages on the body, as well as the psychological scars that might stay hidden. She goes about this in a powerful way, tying together the narrative of Erik's father Lars, who felt the war on his body and came back a changed man, who used his wife's name, Marit, as an involuntary verbal tic or mantra, to cling on to, to that of the dead and wounded - physical and psychological - of 9/11 and the following wars.

A strong motif in the novel is that of someone you know appearing as a stranger. Erik has to reconcile with the fact that the father he might know, had secrets that can change their perception of him. Inga has to realise that her husband cheated on her, while Sonia is afraid of reading his books because she is scared of not recognising her father in his writings. The photos Erik finds of Miranda have been distorted somehow, but the worst situation is when Erik sees a photo of himself that he can't recognise. In contrast, one of Erik's friends, Burton, dons women's clothes to spy on the people that are causing problems for Inga. To Erik, Burton is coming into his own.

Everyone is hiding something. Even Erik, who in his profession is used to get to the core of the truth from his patients. However, this period in Erik's life marks a crisis. He tells us he is lonely, and in his encounters with his patients, it becomes more and more clear that Erik is struggling. They are getting under his skin, and drawing a line between his patients and himself is becoming increasingly difficult.

I really enjoyed this book. Inga expresses a feeling of being in her late husband's shadow, but I really hope Siri Hustvedt is not worried about being in her husband Paul Auster's shadow. In fact, it is only Burton-turned-private-eye that brings to mind Auster's writing. Siri Hustvedt is a powerful author in her own right. In her acknowledgements, she admits that the diary excerpts belong to her own father, and one of the most moving parts for me, the newspaper piece about "Dave the Pencil Man" is about her great uncle.

Once more, Siri Hustvedt baffles me with her knowledge, her imaginative powers and her excellent prose. The Sorrows of an American is a complex story which has mysteries within mysteries within mysteries. We get to the bottom of most of them, but the rest is left to our imagination. Siri I hope you have plenty more novels of this calibre left in you, because I'll sure make efforts to read them.