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.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss | Love and Loneliness

Some books just need to be read. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is one of those books. My written words won't even begin to give it justice. And yet. This is a powerful novel about the universal themes of love and death - but also so much more. It is a story of stories untold, of dreams forgotten and of voices silences. And in its telling, it revokes the dreams and gives voice to the silenced.

In the story we meet Leo Gursky, an old man now, who escaped the Nazis in Poland and came to New York. He spends his days contemplating who will be the last person to see him before he dies, and he makes sure those who see him remember him: "If the store is crowded I'll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction" (p. 3). After years of being a locksmith, Leo has taken up his writing again. He nurtures secret hopes of becoming famous after his death. We also learn that Leo has a son who doesn't know him. Leo yearns to get to know his son, who is now a famous author, and it is through the written word Leo hopes to finally reveal that he is his father.

We also meet Alma Singer, a girl of fourteen who is struggling to make sense of her life. Her father died when she was seven, and ever since then her mother has been sad. Her younger brother Bird has his own problems, convinced that he is a "lamed vovnik", a chosen one, a sort of Messiah. Alma is named after all the female characters in a book her father once gave to her mother, The History of Love (so we literally have a novel inside the novel). When the mother receives a request to translate the book from Spanish to English for a mysterious Jacob Marcus, Alma sets upon bringing the two together.

The structure of the novel is rather complex. We have two main focalizors: Leo and Alma, who tell their stories. Towards the end, Alma's brother Bird also enters as a focalizor. In addition, we have a third person narrative of the story of Zvi Litvinoff, the author of the novel inside the novel, The History of Love. And finally, we get excerpts from The History of Love. What impresses me is the clear distinction between all these voices. Leo, being a writer, tells his story with a certain flair and an enjoyment for dramatic effect. There's a bit of humour to his dark loneliness. Alma writes like a journal, with small headings. Bird's writing is influenced by his religious fanaticism, which is his way of making sense of the world. All the voices are genuine and very much their own.

One of the main themes in the novel is loneliness: "who doesn't wish to make a spectacle of his loneliness?" (p. 117). As mentioned, Leo has a desire to be seen, but he has lived in the shadows ever since he came to New York. He's worked as a locksmith, and likes the idea that he can gain access to any door, but the irony is that the door he most wishes to access - that of his son's heart, he dare not even approach. Alma's mother Charlotte is also lonely, and she buries her loneliness in her work as a translator, where she endlessly searches for the right words. Alma and Bird are equally lonely, both having only one friend. Bird escapes his loneliness through his mission as lamed vovnik, whereas Alma tirelessly works towards one day conquering the arctic on her own.

Loneliness is connected to silence and a lack of communication. This is turn connects to notions of language, which Krauss plays with in the novel. For Leo, he has had to leave Poland behind, and in so doing, he has also left Yiddish behind, "life demanded a new language" (p. 6). Charlotte is a translator who perfectly conveys the meanings in one language to another. However, with her children, the lines of communication are off somehow. After the passing of her husband, Charlotte has lived disconnected from the world, and she is hiding in the written word. Her children has also inherited a disconnectedness from language, and they start denying words: "I'd point to a chair. 'This is not a chair,' I'd say. ... We denied whole rooms, years, weathers. Once, at the peak of our shouting, Bird took a deep breath. At the top of his lungs, he shrieked: 'I! HAVE NOT! BEEN! UNHAPPY! MY WHOLE! LIFE!' " (p. 36). It is as if Charlotte's children feel that they have to pretend to be happy, for her, but Charlotte's own sadness remains the same.

Another important theme is love, or first love. Leo's first love is what drove him to write his novel. In many ways, Leo's love is the driving force for the whole story we are reading. He wrote a love story which travelled years and continents and ended up naming a young girl. Once Alma's love was unavailable to him, Leo transferred some of that love onto his unknown son. However, Leo never moved on from his first love. Charlotte parallels Leo in this way. After her husband David passed away, she has continued living for his love: "She's kept her love for him as alive as the summer they first met. In order to do this, she's turned life away" (p. 45). Alma is experiencing love for the first time, but it is a bitter sweet feeling for her. Only too late does she realize who she is in love with, but she has already managed to ruin things between them.

And the theme we cannot escape, and which has haunted Leo for centuries, is that of death. What makes the lonely Leo live a little longer, is the notion of not being forgotten. His book will forever remain testament to his life, apart from the fact that it has another man's name on its cover. The new book he has been working on is ironically also attributed to another. What hope left of being remembered is there? Can the young Alma somehow be the one to see Leo for who he is?

This is a book about writitng and being written, of the fear of dying and being forgotten, of the past that is unchangeable, of searching for identity when you're in limbo. The ending of this novel is one of the most moving I've read in a long time. Beautiful in its subtleties, it touches my heart. This novel needs to be read.