Friday, 31 May 2013

Here and Now: Letters: 2008-2011 by Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee

I finally had a chance to read Here and Now by two authors I greatly admire: Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee. A google search shows me that critics aren't crazy about the work, but I think ones enjoyment of it comes out of what one is expecting. For me personally it was a way of getting a closer look at the people behind the books I've read and loved. The letters are spread over three years, and dip into serious philosophical discourses of different topics interspersed with personal anecdotes and exchanges. For me, it greatly humanized Coetzee, whose reputation of being closed off and distanced is often criticized. Auster strikes me as a very funny and thoughtful man. And to be a total modern dork, I have to say that their "bromance" is very touching at times.

What I love about this exchange of letters is the pairing of two authors who at once have so much in common, and yet are so different. This also comes across clearly in their letters. Auster on the one hand, who even mentions at some point that he keeps on talking about himself, but only as a "anybody", and Coetzee on the other who barely brings up really personal accounts. We learn that the authors meet on a few occasions between letters, but what they've talked about in person is never brought up. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in one of their (and Auster's wife author Siri Hustvedt) meetings. Maybe that would make a good movie?

Some of my favourite quotes from the book:

- "Needless to say, I have spent my whole life exploring and meditating on my own name, and my great hope is to be reborn as an American Indian. Paul: Latin for small, little. Auster: Latin for South Wind. South Wind: an old American euphemism for a rectal toot. I therefore shall return to this world bearing the proud and altogether appropriate name of Little Fart" (Auster, p. 83-84).

- "I don't get much pleasure out of consuming novels.../ I must say that I get impatient with fiction that doesn't try something that hasn't been tried before, preferably with the medium itself" (Coetzee, p. 165). 

One quite playful - the other serious. They reflect the range of discourse between the authors, as they move easily between heavy philosophical ideas to fun and banal musings. It might not work for the critics, but it works for me. If I were still in Uni, I would have loved using these letters as the starting point for a "compare and contrast" of the novels by Auster and Coetzee. Some of the topics they discuss shine light upon their very different approaches to fiction. Characterization, inspiration, the space in/of the novel, their relationships to critics, interviewers and readers, is all discussed. It might make me think differently about their fiction in the future.

As a great admirer of Siri Hustvedt's writing, it was also nice to see the pride Auster takes in her expressed in his letters to Coetzee. Siri's presence is felt throughout the exchange, not only through her one note to Coetzee, but through her constantly being invoked by the two authors.

I wouldn't mind continuing to read their letters. If they were actually emailing each other, I would ask to be added as a CC, but unfortunately the letters are faxed and mailed in the old-school way. Alas.

Now I wish I had a pen pal I could write (or fax) real letters to. Coetzee? Auster? Any of you need one more pen pal? Or maybe I should try Siri.

Oh, and on a side note. Turns out J. M. Coetzee is on his first visit to Norway attending a literature festival. Since I am in his birth country, I could naturally not attend, but my excellent former lecturer went and got me a signed copy of Childhood of Jesus. Could a girl ask for more? And what better way to start the weekend?

Friday, 24 May 2013

Redemption by Jussi Adler-Olsen | Scandinavian noir

One of the most exciting "new" voices of Scandinavian crime fiction is definitely the Danish Jussi Adler-Olsen. A publisher by profession, he knows what is demanded of really good crime literature, and he delivers the goods. For me, Adler-Olsen does more than merely follow the genre conventions. He is a magnificent storyteller and he really takes us into the heart of evil. A couple of years ago I read Mercy, book 1 in the "Department Q" series, which was deliciously dark and creepy. In his latest installment, Redemption (Book 3 in the series), we get to see yet another glimpse of true evil. I couldn't get to the end fast enough.

Two brothers are held captive in a boathouse on the Danish coast. One of them manages to write a message in a bottle, and throw the bottle into the ocean. Years later the message resurfaces, and it becomes cold case detective Carl Morck's job to try to decipher the almost obliterated message written in blood. Even though they can only make out a few of the words, there is no doubt in Carl's mind that this is dead serious.

In another part of the country, Mia is waiting for her husband to come home. His work is secret, so she spends most of her time alone with their toddler son. But lately Mia is starting to question the man she married. His controlling nature gives rise to suspicions that maybe he isn't quite what he pretends to be. Mia's decision to investigate for herself turns out to have fatal consequences.

And in the sect the Mother Church, a family with five kids find themselves the object of attention from a potential new member. The man is caring and enigmatic - a great role model for the children and a possible new friend for the parents. All of them remain ignorant as to his real intentions as he circles ever closer to the children.

As the man with countless names, faces and identities pounce on his next victims, only Carl and his team, Assad from Syria and Rose and her sister Yrsa have any chance of tracing him with only the message in the bottle as their starting point. Soon many lives hang in the balance, and time is running out.

What is so interesting about Adler-Olsen's books, is that the past and deep grudges play a great part. We follow not only the investigator and the victims, but also the murderer himself. The dark secrets of his past are rolled up one by one, even as our protagonists remain clueless.

Dark as the book might be, it has comic moments, especially in Assad's broken Danish (or English in this version) and the general office drama. The personal lives of Carl and his assistants are used to add to the suspense, but isn't really a driving force in the novel. A lot of the unresolved personal issues will stay there - to be engaged with again in the next book in the series.

The plotting is masterly done, and it gets to the point where nobody in the novel is in control of events, be it the murderer, the victims or the police. All the events of the novel come to a head towards the end, and as the reader you just have to plunge ahead to find out how in the world this is going to pan out.

Adler-Olsen had me going from the first page to the last. As crime goes, this is the right amount of noir for me. Reviews always say "Move aside Stieg Larsson (or some other crime fiction behemoth), XXX has entered the stage" (or something to that effect). I don't need to say that about Jussi Adler-Olsen. He's in a division of his own (Division Q, that is, hehe).

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Accidental Apprentice by Vikas Swarup

I absolutely loved Vikas Swarup's two former novels, Q&A (better known as Slumdog Millionaire) and Six Suspects (still waiting for the movie version!) so I was really excited to read his new novel The Accidental Apprentice. Similar to Q&A Swarup is inspired by TV culture in his new book, but this time it's the idea of "the Apprentice" which drives a lot of the plot.

Sapna Sinha sells electronics for a living, and is the main breadwinner in what remains of her family after her father and younger sister tragically passed away. When she is accosted by a business tycoon at the temple one day, Sapna's life changes drastically. Vinay Mohan Acharya has an offer Sapna simply cannot refuse. He wants her to take over as CEO of his company when he retires. All she has to do, is pass seven tests. These will determine whether she has what it takes to be Acharya's successor. The exact nature of the tests remain secret until she either has passed or failed them. Easy, huh?

Well, the tests pretty much begin the moment Acharya makes her the offer. From this point, Sapna's life is no longer really in her own hands, other than how she chooses to deal with the (emergency) situations that keep happening around her. At the same time, Sapna is forced to revisit her past and deal with the loss of her sister and father once more, whilst simultaneously continue to be a rock for her mother and still living other sister.

What I love about Swarup's novels is that they shine a light on a lot of the social problems in India, without being sentimental or milking the social pornography. Sapna is thrown into situations where she has to face among other things child labour, black market organ sale, forced marriage, corruption, rape and general violence. Swarup balances these serious topics with a light tone and a sense of humour.

Much as I enjoyed the novel, there was one drawback for me. I had trouble really believing in Sapna, the main character. As a character, she seemed to be too many different things at once. Sensitive and scared, but the next minute bold and fearless. It just didn't seem to quite fit for me. Of Swarup's three novels, this is probably my least favourite one, but it did grow on me more and more as I read. It's still a good and exciting read (two of my friends are busy with it at the moment and loving it).

My greatest anticipation when reading a Swarup novel is that he always has a twist at the end. In The Accidental Apprentice he certainly delivers the goods. I really tried to guess what the twist would be, and I thought I had it kinda figured out, but once more he completely outsmarted me, and I didn't see it coming from a mile away. Swarup - 3, Sigrid - 0. Next time Swarup, next time!

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb | A worthy conclusion

The long anticipated conclusion to the Rain Wild Chronicles (and the trilogies set in the same world) is finally here. It was with more than a little nostalgic ambivalence I finished the last lines. Leaving this universe I've come to love so much is really sad, but finally I have some more answers to the mysteries left behind since reading The Farseer Trilogy. I just hope Hobb next decides to play with the pieces of string left that still haven't fully been elaborated upon.

In Blood of Dragons we continue following the dragons and their keepers after they've finally reached their destiny, the ancient Elderling city of Kelsingra. However, there are still numerous challenges facing them. Malta and Reyn's child Phron is dying, as their dragon Tintaglia hasn't been present to guide his growth. Tintaglia herself is in an equally bad state after a nasty encounter with Chalcedeans set on slaying her. And in Chalced, Tintaglia's singer Selden is being bled to keep the duke alive.

As the different characters have to deal with major challenges in their lives, their gusto and their qualities are tested. Usually, the good characters evolve and grow, whereas the bad just get worse and worse, before finally getting "what they deserve". Of all of the Hobb's series I've read, this is probably the most harmless, but it works really well in giving fans of her older trilogies answers to all of the mysteries they've dappled with. It's like meeting old friends again. Only disappointment was that I was hoping Fitz would appear on one of the pages. But hopefully Hobb is saving him for (yet) an even more epic finale.

I love Hobb's writing, and this amazing universe she's created. I read Hobb when I want to feel happy and to be transported to a place only she can take me. I truly wonder what she'll do next. However sad I must be to leave this world behind, it can be nothing to how she must have felt writing the last line in the book.

Thank you Robin Hobb for always delivering.