Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I finally had a chance to read Donna Tartt's The Secret History. The Goldfinch might always stand as my ultimate Tartt experience, but I still thoroughly enjoyed this dark and unpredictable novel. Donna Tartt writes beautifully and with authority about unmentionable deeds. Maybe I should also give The Little Friend a go if I come across it.

The Secret History is told by our narrator Richard Papen, now 28, who is thinking back on events that unfolded during his first year studying Greek in Hampden. Having joined a secluded and exclusive group studying under the mystical Julian, Richard feels that he's found his place. The group consists of the rather tall and extremely intelligent Henry, the beautiful orphan twins Camilla and Charles, the wealthy Francis and the unpredictable Bunny. Richard is grateful for being welcomed into this clique, despite having the notion that he's excluded from some of their "activities". When the day arrives that Richard is taken into their confidence fully, the pieces come together to make up a rather shocking tapestry. This soon escalates, plunging Richard into the midst of events he has no control over.

The Greek Classics play an important part in the plot of this novel. Richard at the beginning of the novel talks about fatal flaws and we get the sense that we might be dealing with some sort of tragedy. Several of the characters in the novel seem to possess a fatal flaw, and thus the outcome is in some ways irreversible. What sets motions into play, however, is a discussion in class about the religious rituals documented in Greek writing where the self is lost and one enters into another form of existence. Richard's friends' attempt to reach this loss of self lead them down a path from which there is no return.

Another theme they discuss in class is the notion of beauty as terror (would be interesting to compare this idea in the novel to Keats' idea of "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"). There's almost a sense that some of the beautiful things must decay and are corrupted. Bunny goes form being a good friend to a vicious taunter. Charles goes from being the most charming and kindhearted in the group to an abusive alcohol. Henry's metamorphoses works a little more lopsided, as the darkest deeds bring forth in him new beauty, but towards the end of the novel this too, is corrupted.

As in The Goldfinch, Tartt juxtaposes characters with extreme wealth and our narrator Richard who comes from rather modest means. This further increases the estrangement Richard feels between himself and the rest of the group. The moral decay seem to affect them all, however. Henry, perhaps the wealthiest of the lot, at one stage says that he and Richard are the most similar in that they both feel nothing (at least nothing bad, really) about the really bad things they are responsible for doing. Richard admits to himself that he's right.

It's also interesting to look at the title and what it refers to. At the beginning of the novel there are two quotes which suggest that modern people are cut off from fully understanding Greek history despite how well documented it is. This is supported in the class discussion where they are unable to determine how to reach the state of the lost self. At the beginning of narrating his story, Richard states: "I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell" (p.2). The irony here is that this it the story Richard simply cannot tell, and to some extent fails to tell. The main event the book focuses on, the pivotal event, is not actually told. So even if Richard promises to tell his secret history, he is simply unable to do so.

A final note. The desire to live forever. Through his storytelling, Richard secures eternal life for some of the ghosts that haunt him. And there are a lot of ghosts in this story. I hope they will haunt me too for a while.


Sunday, 2 February 2014

Never Mind Miss Fox by Olivia Glazebrook | Oh the secrets you shall keep!

This is a semi-dark novel that'll keep you glued to the pages throughout. Evoking the children's classic Fantastic Mr Fox, this novel is not exactly child friendly, but the reference creates almost a juxtaposition in the fact that a child's life could be irrevocably changed through Miss Fox' entrance in their lives.

Clive is in his thirties and is happily married to Martha who he's been with since his late teens. His life turns upside down when his only daughter Eliza comes home one day to tell her parents that her new piano teacher is one Eliot Fox that Clive's younger brother Tom was in love with at fifteen. While Martha is delighted at the idea of seeing Miss Fox again, Clive is petrified. Will she tell?

The story jumps between the present story as Eliza becomes more and more enthralled with her piano teacher, much to her father's dismay, and the story of Clive and Martha's encounter with Eliot Fox when they were all teens. Clive was an awkward guy who never felt comfortable until Martha came into his life. The flashback scenes are written from Clive's perspective, and it's unusual to read someone's perspective and not fully sympathize with them. There's something just a bit off about Clive, and even his brother Tom tells his so. Tom for his part is in love for the first time, but Eliot sees him only as a friend. There's something about Tom and Eliot's easy companionship that is getting to the young Clive, and despite having Martha, Clive watches them with a sort of envy. He does come across as quite the weirdo.

After a holiday spent together in France, Clive is filled with pent up feelings he cannot name or justify. When Martha's ex-boyfriend Dennis runs into Clive and Eliot, he's enraged to observe Eliot's response to Dennis. His jealousy leads Clive down a dark road that will haunt him until his daughter comes home to tell him about Miss Fox. Clive's nightmares are now his reality.

As for Eliot, we are never sure of her intentions. As a teenage carefree girl, she shamelessly admits to ambitions of marrying for money. We learn that she's spent years in America, and her return as a piano teacher suggests that her strategy might have failed. We're not sure if her friendship with Eliza has an ulterior motive.

As Eliot manifests herself more and more in Eliza's life, Clive becomes increasingly desperate to erase her from their lives. A confrontation is inevitable, but at what cost?

This is a story about secrets, betrayal, and of being insecure and estranged. It's a story about relationship between parent and child, about family, and about how fragile the connection really is. Never Mind Miss Fox raises a lot of questions, but the answers are not clear. It'll get you thinking about your own secrets, your own family, and the things that are in place to keep it all together. Easily read in one sitting, but then mulled over for a long time.

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules by Catahrina Ingelman-Sundberg

Another Swedish novel in the tradition of The Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared. The premise is an old person who is fed up with living in a retirement home and decides to bounce. Turns out that makes for quite entertaining literature!

Martha is done living on rations and getting less and less food, coffee and other comforts at her retirement home Diamond House. In a dream, the solution to her problems is revealed. She can rob a bank! Inmates in prison have more comforts than herself and the rest of the "choir gang" at Diamond House, so it's worth the risk. Persuading her friends to join her, however, can prove challenging. Which is why she sugarcoats her plan with some cloudberry liqueur.

The group consists of five: Martha, Anna-Greta, Christina, Brains and Rake. And even though they are old and slow, Martha's idea gives everyone a boost, and soon they aren't so slow anymore. Their transgressions start out small with a clandestine dinner in the staff kitchens, but soon escalates to art theft! But Martha has even larger ambitions, and once the paintings they "kidnapped" disappear, the plot keeps getting thicker by the minute.

This is a heartwarming topsy-turvy story. There are a lot of threads in the plot, including the detour of both the missing paintings and some money that went for a ride, not to mention the ambitious head nurse Barbara at Diamond House, and the police trying to investigate the oldies. It's fun and pleasant reading from start to finish, and we can't help but sympathize and cheer for our art thieves. Despite the limitations their age represents, Martha and her friends manage to outsmart everyone who's on their tail, be it the nurses, the police or the real hard core criminals. 

At the heart of the story is a strong critique of Swedish "elderly" politics. The author highlight cuts and abuses that happen every day at old age homes, while emphasizing that there are nurses that truly care and who do their best with meager funding. Ingeland-Sundberg reminds us that the elderly today are the ones who built the country's wealth to what it is today, and they deserve more respect and comfort than they are currently getting. In her protagonists, we meet someone who is not afraid to take what they feel entitled to themselves.

This is a lovely novel about getting old - and refusing to get old. Martha awakens the Peter Pan in all her friends, and sets off on a new beginning and a new adventure. Who knows if it'll be the last. 

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas | Spellbinding

1870s London. Devil Wix has a dream. He wants to bring Wonder to the people. When he comes across the dward Carlo Baldino pickpocketing his way through a bar brawl, he is curious to see what else Carlo can do. As it turns out, Carlo can do a lot of things, and is perhaps the finest illusionist Devil will ever meet.

Together they start a magic act at the Palmyra Theater, working for Jacko Grady, a greedy selfish man with no more vision other than filling his own pockets. Heinrich Bayer, a Swiss maker of automata is another of the acts, and together they stage the card game that wins Wix the Palmyra from Grady. But as Devil says himself, this is only the beginning.

Eliza dreams of being part of the Theater, and now that Devil owns it, she gets her chance. Devil and her have an unspoken mutual attraction, and after Devil fails to seduce her one night, they keep each other at a distance - as much distance as one can when working together and being huddled together in a tiny box onstage ever night, that is. For Eliza's playlet, "Charlotte and the Chaperone" is doing well at the Palmyra, and as the Theater grows, more people come to work there. Devil's childhood friend Jasper, who is also in love with Eliza, is an important part of the workshop that creates parts for the illusions. But also Carlo and Heinrich Bayer seem to have a sweet eye for Eliza.

Heinrich Bayer is growing weirder by the minute. His act of waltzing with his automaton Lucie is becoming more advanced as he insists that Eliza be Lucie's voice. Eliza doesn't like the idea, but cannot find a cause to decline, and Bayer records her voice for Lucie's words. After Devil drops the Lucie act, however, Bayer becomes darker by the day, and Eliza starts to fear the man she used to sympathize with.

Devil has his own demons. An act in his childhood keeps haunting him, and his enemies decide to exploit that. The persistent "friendly" rivalry between Devil and Carlo is growing worse, and Devil comes to see that even a lot of time has passed since the night he won the Palmyra from Jacko Grady.

The Illusionists is a dazzling and riveting story that gripped me from the get-go. All the characters are ambiguous and their motives keep changing throughout the story. Although Devil and Eliza are probably the main characters, we don't always sympathize with them. No one is just good or bad, (except Jacko Grady), they are all to some extent watching out for their own interests and have their own weaknesses. At the end, they all just want to be loved and understood.

We also get a beautiful portrait of 1870s London where new ideas and innovations challenge old beliefs and values. Even Eliza, who is many ways is a groundbreakingly modern woman, an act model for nude portraits, an actress on the Palmyra stage, refusing to be molly-cuddled and treated like a fragile flower just because she's a woman, has fears about her voice being recorder, or stolen, by Heinrich Bayer and his Lucie. It is a time of change, and the people of the novel feels the changes both with anticipation and trepidation.

This novel will wrap you up in its beauty and illusions, bring Wonder to your life and remind you why you believe in magic. Simply stunning.

Please check out the book trailer below for a teazer:

Odinsbarn av Siri Pettersen

Denne boka har jeg venta lenge paa aa faa lese :) Mange av mine fantasy-elskende venner har rava om denne boka siden den kom ut, og min gode venninne Camilla sendte meg en i julegave slike at jeg ogsaa kunne lese (litt vanskelig aa faa tilgang paa norsk litteratur i Johannesburg).

Odinsbarn er foerste bok i Ravneringene. Her moeter vi Hirka, ei jente paa 15 med masse bein i nesa som helt til naa har trodd at halen ble tatt av ulv naar hun var liten. I denne verdenen, Ymslanda, har nemlig folk hale. Ritet naermer seg, en tradisjon hvor alle paa 15 maa reise til Mannfalla og Eisvaldr for aa delta i Ritet foran Raadet og Seeren for aa se hvor godt de kan Favne og om de er skikket for aa faa en plass paa en av de prestisjetunge skolene i Mannfalla. Ritet skal ogsaa beskytte folk mot de Blinde.

Hirka er fortvilet. Hun kan ikke Favne. Hun kan ikke engang kjenne Evna i seg i det hele tatt. Hva kommer til aa skje naar hun staar foran Raadet uten aa kunne Favne? Hun tyr til barndomsvennen sin Rime An-Elderin for hjelp. Rime er 3 aar eldre enn Hirka, og er kommet tilbake etter aa ha tilbrakt de 3 aarene etter at han tok Ritet paa en av skolene i Mannfalla. Hans bestemor er Illume An-Elderin, en av de mektigste kvinnene i Raadet, som forventer at Rime skal sitte i Stolen etter henne. Men Rime har andre planer.

Rime og Hirkas barndom var tilbrakt i et kapploet om aa faa mest merker. De konkurrerte alltid, og Rime elsket at Hirka kunne holde tritt med han paa tross av at hun er ei jente. Naar Hirka ber om hjelp, kan ikke Rime si nei. Hirka kan fortsatt ikke Favne, men hun kan kjenne at Rime Favner, og hun kan kjenne Evna gjennom han. Sammen legger de en plan for hvordan Hirka skal kunne gaa gjennom Ritet uten av Raadet oppdager at hun ikke kan Favne.

Men saa Hirkas pappa slipper bomben. Han forteller Hirka at hun ikke er folk, men et Odinsbarn, en embling, en mytisk skapning som er foedt uten hale og som bringer Raata om man kommer for naer. Han sier at de maa flykte nordover, til Ravnhov hvor flere og flere nekter aa delta i Ritet. Men Hirkas pappa kan ikke flykte, ettesom han naa er lam i beina. En kveld naar Hirka kommer hjem finner hun pappa doed i sengen. Han var legere, og Hirka ser spor etter urten han har tatt for aa ta sitt eget liv, for aa gi Hirka sjansen til aa komme seg unna. Etter begravelsen setter Hirka fyr paa bostedet demmes, og flykter til Ravnhov uten noen aning om hvilken mottagelse hun vil faa.

Samtidig er det uro i Raadet. Urds far had gaatt bort, og i Illumes fravaer klarer Urd aa manoevrere det slik at han overtar sin fars Stol. Men Urd har egne motiver. Et ravnenebb sitter i et aapent saar i halsen hans, som han hele tiden skjuler. Urd deltok i blindverk for 15 aar siden, og han har naa begynt aa lure paa om steinofferet hans, Odinsbarnet, kanskje kom inn i Ymslanda likevel.

Krig staar paa doerstokken, de Blinde har blitt sett igjen, og i senteret av det hele er Hirka og Rime, to som bare oensker aa leve i fred.

Dette er deilig koselening. Jeg blir paaminnet Ravnejenta og de andre boekene til Toril Thorstad Hauger som jeg elsket naar jeg var yngre. Det er ogsaa litt Ronja Roeverdatter her. Og selvfoelgeli nordiske myter og allusjoner til huldra, en av mine favoritt-myter fra barndommen. Det er morsomt aa lese norsk fantasy med rot i norroen mytologi, saa naa gleder jeg meg skikkelig til oppfoelgeren, og om det blir litt Sigurd Drakedreper der, eller hva slags andre myter Siri Pettersen vil involvere i historien om Hirka.

Dette er god litteratur for liten og stor. Hirka er ei sterk jente med et godt grep om hvem hun er - paa tross av at hun gaar igjennom litt av en identitetskrise. Rime er kanskje den mer klassiske, hoeybaarne, men uvillige helten, som maa "step up to the plate" naar krisen er et faktum. Og Urd, hvilken skurk, altsaa. Skulle likt aa vite mer om bakgrunnen og motivene hans, men kanskje det kommer i neste bok. Jeg storgleder meg iallefall!

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

So I often choose books by their covers. As an avid reader, I know this doesn't always mean quality, but a cover can tell you a lot about the book. In the case of The Goldfinch, this is especially true, as the story evolves around a painting called "the Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius.

The novel begins with the end. Theo Decker, our protagonist (?) is in a hotel room in Amsterdam, terrified because he has murdered someone and he believes the world is after him. He lets us know that his life so far has been a downward spiral since the passing of his mother. In fact, his mother's untimely death set all the events that lead him to this moment into play.

We then return to the story of Theo's mother's death. Despite being naturally smart, Theo is in trouble at school, and Theo's mother has been called in for a meeting. On their way there, they decide to stop by a New York Museum, and Theo's mother shows him her favourite paintings, "The Goldfinch" numbering amongst them. Before they leave, Theo's mother goes to have a last look at one of the other paintings, leaving Theo behind in a room with an old man and his beautiful granddaughter or niece. Theo has been looking at her, wondering at her story, when the bomb goes off and chaos enters his life.

In the aftermath of the blast, Theo finds himself holding the old man's hand as he breathes his last breaths. The man is rambling, telling him to take the painting, pointing at the little "Goldfinch". The old man gives Theo his ring, rambles on incoherently, and then is no more. Unable to find his mother, or the girl, Theo leaves with the painting in his bag, to return home in the hopes of finding his mother there.

Theo's mother is dead. As Theo's alcoholic father left them without a trace a year back, and Theo's grandparents claim ill health, Theo ends up living with his friend Andy and his family for a while. Andy is an awkward child in an upperclass family. His siblings detest Theo and the attention he attracts from their parents. Andy's mother is constantly preoccupied with fundraisers and luncheons, whereas the Wall Street father is battling with his mental issues. Theo manages to trace the old man who died in front of his eyes to an antique shop across town. He brings the ring and finds a warm welcome from Hobie, the dead man's business partner, and the old man's niece Pippa, who suffered severe trauma in the bombing. Theo starts visiting them on a regular basis, before Pippa, who already is the love of his life, is taken away by an aunt and sent abroad. But before Theo can get too comfortable in this new life, his father makes a reappearance and brings him to live with him and his girlfriend in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas proves to be nothing like New York. Theo's father rarely have the temper tantrums he did back home, and money seems not to be an issue. Theo befriends the Russian kid Boris, and they literally hang out day and night. Helping themselves to Boris' dad's vodka, they soon spend every afternoon in a drunken stupor, talking about life and love. "The Goldfinch" has been with Theo the whole time, but it's wrapped up nicely to prevent anyone finding it and understanding what it is. Not even Boris knows about it.

Despite the father's seeming change of behaviour, Theo realizes that he might be involved with some dodgy stuff. When the dad is killed in a car accident, Theo refuses to wait and see what child services decide to do with him, and he takes his dog and the painting and jumps on the first bus back to New York. With nowhere else to go, he once again turns to Hobie in the antique shop, and starts building his life from there.

A few years later we meet the 26-year old Theo who now is running the antique store while Hobie does his refurbishments in his workshop. We learn that Theo has been doing some dirty deals, selling fakes as real, and so forth, to prevent the shop from going bankrupt. He is now in trouble because one of the people he tricked is onto him and refuses to be appeased. "The Goldfinch" has been locked away in a safety deposit box since Theo came to New York, and hasn't been looked at. Theo is also addicted to prescription painkillers. One day Theo runs in to Andy's brother on the streets, and to his surprise, the brother is overjoyed to see him. Bad times have befallen his family. Andy is dead, and Theo starts spending time with the family again. He is soon dating Kitsey, the daughter of the house, and before Theo knows it, they're engaged. But Theo is still in love with the ever distant Pippa, and it turns out Kitsey also has a love she's been unable to let go of. When Theo runs into Boris on the street one day, Theo's life is about to change yet again.

Ah, this is a book full of surprises. New York is painted vividly and comes to life in your head. The characters are complex and ever shifting. The prose is beautiful, the plot surprising, the pace keeps you wanting to read more. At the beginning of the book I wasn't sure if Theo would turn out to be a real arsehole, or if he would be sympathetic. As I read on I liked him more and more. But it's nice for a change to not have a flawless protagonist. Boris is also a breath of fresh air, and tells us his view on right and wrong, that sometimes wrong things can lead to the right thing.

This novel is big, powerful, gripping, full of life. It must be read.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Good House by Anne Leary

This is not the type of book I normally pick up. It looks too "woman's interest", and the endorsement by Jodi Piccoult didn't help either. However, there was something that drew me to it regardless of these obstacles. And I decided to give it a go. If I didn't like it after 10 pages, I could just abandon the effort and find another book to read. Well, those 10 first pages were literally devoured, and there was no way I was putting it down.

We enter the story two years after Hildy Good had to sit through the intervention staged by her two adult daughters claiming she's an alcoholic. After rehab, Hildy stayed off the booze for a while, until one night when she stumbled over some wine. Since then, Hildy's been drinking "two or three" glasses, or rather, finished the bottle, because wine doesn't taste as nice after being uncorked one night, in the evenings by herself. She has strict rules governing her drinking; she's not allowed to phone anyone or see anyone, or go anywhere, after drinking. And up until now, she's been following her rules.

Hildy lives in a smallish New England town, and her whole family has always lived there for generations. She claims to know everything that goes on in town, and the story starts when Hildy is becoming curious about one of the families that recently moved into a house she sold. It is clear that the wife, Rebecca, is not happy. Her husband spends the week in the city, and despite having two young sons, Rebecca seems restless. After her husband buys her a stunning new horse, Rebecca seems to bloom, and after seeing Peter, the therapist whose offices are above Hilyd's, Rebecca is hardly recognizable.

Rebecca doesn't seem to make friends with the other young mums in the area, and one night Hildy is sneaking wine from her garage, Rebecca drives past and stops upon seeing Hildy. Not knowing Hildy's rehab history, Rebecca joins Hildy for some wine, and a friendship starts to build between the two women.

A strong motif or doubleness in the story is that between female lunacy and reading/psychology. These two opposites become interchangeable at times in the story. Rebecca is depressed at the start of the story, then becomes happy, and then starts becoming very unstable (she might suffer from bipolar disorder). There's also a kind of magic attached to her. Her husband Brian claims that if Rebecca comes in touch with any kind of electric device such as clocks, remotes and so on, they just break. On the other hand, Rebecca performs a miracle when she first meets Hildy, where she saves the life of two horses. She will perform another "miracle" before the end of the story. On top of all this, Rebecca is very fascinated with the moon, which she loves painting. Historically, the moon is connected to "lunacy", madness, depression and bipolar disorder, which supposedly affected women more than men.

Hildy also have some strange traits. Her friends claims that she's a psychic, but Hildy herself admits it's nothing more than a scam. She "reads" people. Body language, eye movement, and so on. This allows her to deduce certain things about the people she meets. Despite how much she claims this is all a hoax, an art more than anything more supernatural, there is a moment in the book when she relies on her intuition, and makes conclusions beyond her "reading". Hildy's 8th great grandmother was accused of being a witch, whereas Hildy's own mother committed suicide when Hildy was only 11. Hildy's aunt, however, believed herself to be a clairvoyant, and made her living based on that.

The juxtaposition to these women is the psychologist Peter. Hildy's known him and his family since childhood and has nothing but respect for him. The feeling, however, is not mutual. Peter feels that Hildy's ability to "read" makes her a charlatan. This juxtaposition comes to a head when Hildy visits Peter in his office, sits in his chair while he sits in the patient's chair, and Hildy "reads" him, while challenging him that what he as a therapist is doing, is no more than a glorified "reading". At the end of the story, the doubleness between male "sense" and female "intuition" comes to a climax, and it seems that Peter is no better equipped to deal with his problems than the ladies are.

Hildy's alcoholism is a theme that runs throughout the story and challenges our perception of everything she tells us. Because Hildy is also the narrator of the story, we see everything through her eyes. She claims to handle everything well, to be a successful business woman, to have everything going for her, but as the story progresses, we see that this is not necessarily the case. There is a discrepancy between how Hildy sees herself and how the world sees her. Further, as the story progresses, Hildy's alcohol consumption is spinning gradually more and more out of control. It starts with her drinking with Rebecca, then moves on to her secretly spiking her own drink at a family dinner. Soon Hildy's experiencing blackouts, and it all comes to a head one morning when Hildy's lover Frank suggests that Hildy might be responsible for something terrible that might have happened the night before. Hungover with frayed nerves and a complete blackout, Hildy has no clue, and like her, we are dumbfounded that things could have come to this.

The Good House is quite a good title now that I've read the book. Hildy's last name is Good, so it could literally refer to her house. It could also refer to the sense of House as in a family or line, and we've already learned some of the dark history connected to the women of the Good line. Hildy is also a real estate agent, so it also works in terms of her job, which makes up an important part of the story. The first sentence in the book says "I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions". This refers also to Hildy's ability to read people, and ironically to her inability to see herself and the secrets she's denying. Finally, a house also refers to our minds, and the rooms and secrets we keep hidden there. This is alluded to when Rebecca tells Hildy that dreaming of houses doesn't mean dreaming of work, but rather of what's going on in her psyche. 

From early on in the novel there's a sense that something bad is going to happen. It wasn't until the very end that it started becoming clear what that bad thing was. Anne Leary builds up the story and the tension slowly, but with great skill.

I am so happy and so surprised at how much I liked this book. It has a serious theme about alcoholism, but although Hildy is in denial, she is sympathetic, funny, strong, and I have to say I quite like her. A definite book to recommend as Christmas gifts, but make sure you read it yourself first!