Stikkordarkiv: contemporary fiction

Mutton – India Knight

muttonMutton is a free-standing sequel to Comfort and Joy (which I loved) though I only realised this once I started reading, as the publishers have completely neglected to include this information on the cover. This is a shame, because, although you could quite definitely read Mutton all on its own, it does contain Comfort and Joy spoilers, so if you want to read both you should definitely read them in the correct order.

Clara is still my BFF, or something like that. I like her a lot. The two of us have differing views on things like shoes (I’m more interested in comfort than looks) and makeup (I can hardly ever be bothered), but so do a lot of my real life friends. What Clara does have in common with me (I think) is what the cover calls «a healthy sense of what matters in life». But then Clara’s old friend Gaby moves in. Gaby is older than Clara but looks substantially younger. Because, of course, she has had «things done». And Clara, who has just discovered a frown taking root on her forehead, starts wondering whether, perhaps, she should get a few things done herself.

I’ve never been the sort of person who worried too much about how I look (hence the lack of interest in shoes and makeup), but I do see how a nip here, a tuck there and a little shot of Botox may seem quite tempting to people (we’re talking the subtle(ish), small alterations here, not full-on duck lips and scary expressionless faces). And it’s all very well to tell people to «grow old gracefully» as long as most actresses don’t look a day over thirty (even the ones that are supposed to be old) and women get laughed at for not dressing their age (as if, magically, at say, forty, we should stop liking to dress up and start preferring shapeless beige and navy dresses). And if you’re single, as both Clara and Gaby are, and would rather like to have sex with someone vaguely attractive (to you, definitions differ, obviously) occasionally, then living up to what society tells you is an attractive woman will of course seem massively more important.

So Clara worries a bit, but on the whole her outlook is that it is what it is and if you have to forego pasta forever in order to live up to the ideal, then perhaps it’s the ideal that’s wrong, rather than the pasta. But having Gaby in the house is unsettling, however, not all is hunky-dory with Gaby either:

For the first time since she re-entered my life, I feel properly sorry for Gaby, beautiful, gorgeous Gaby, pretendy Gaby, who has made herself a captive of her looks, who can never stop, who is never going to say, ‘Sod it, I’m nearly fifty, I think I’ll skip the daily punishment and the starvation regime and just do what I like. And if my arms sag a bit, then so what? I’ve had a good innings and it isn’t the end of the world.’ Instead here she is, snaffling down the Class As and trying to keep up with people she could realistically have given birth to. Kate would say it’s undignified, and at this very moment I’m inclined to agree.

(p. 82) They rattle along, and learn bits and pieces on the way, helped along by some of Clara’s other friends. At the same time, things are going on with Clara’s son Jack and his girlfriend Sky. Sky’s father is a successful fantasy writer, in the middle of writer’s block over his seventh novel, and is sent by his publishers in isolation to the outer Hebrides in the hope that this might help, so Sky is also a temporary lodger i Clara’s house. It turns out that Gaby is a complete fangirl when it comes to Sky’s dad’s books, and that provides both entertainment (being a bit of a fangirl myself, I chuckle over Gaby and Sky and their conversations filled with in-jokes and unintelligble gibberish – to an outsider like Clara) and plot twists.

The main focus of Mutton, though, is looks, whether to «fix» them and how to live with them. As such, I found Mutton less engaging than Comfort and Joy, simply because looks interest me far less than divorce (or Christmas). And some of the dilemmas seem quite foreign as well. Though one of the novel’s tenets is that far more peope have had «things done» than will readily admit it, I can’t help but feel that this might be true of middle-class-and-up London, but I somehow doubt it is true of Trondheim. I’d be rather surprised, in fact, if any of my friends had had «things done» (at least more drastic than a bit of teeth bleaching or such). Perhaps I’m naive, but it does make the novel’s main existential discussion seem even less relevant.

So, yes, I liked it. I read it cover to cover much more quickly than I generally read things nowadays (what with life happening and all), and I will probably get hold of India Knight’s next book the moment it hits the shelves (as usual). And I half-way wish the next one will be about Clara and her familiy, too, because I’d like to know what happens next. But, no, I didn’t love it.

I may have to reread Comfort and Joy come Christmas, though.

Minaret – Leila Aboulela

aboulela_minaret I finished Minaret towards the end of November, but have had a hard time finding something sensible to say about it.

I initially found the story fascinating, and at some point I felt I could understand how Najwa ended up going from ‘secular’ to ‘religious’. She never really belongs anywhere and once she ends up quite alone in London, it’s easy to understand how the mosque can feel welcoming in that it provides a sense of belonging and a sort of family. The novel also provides an interesting insight into islamic life in a western society from the inside.

However, Najwa is drawn to religion not just for the sense of belonging it provides, but also seems to find ‘religiosity’ (for lack of a better word), saintliness and religious devotion and submission attractive in itself. This is obviously not a unique trait, naturally I don’t think the entirety of the world’s population defining themselves as religious are just ‘in it for the community’. However, it’s an attraction I find it hard to understand, and this novel did not help me understand it any better (in fact, if anything, it left me more baffled).

Where everything that happens to Najwa underpins her need for a community, nothing – as far as I can see – explains this need for submission to a deity, to the contrary, several parts of her story would rather have me reject the idea that a god worth worshiping would sanction such things.

So, on the whole: Worth reading, but not entirely satisfactory.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Moshin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is book of the month at NRK Bok, and since it’s a short book and available for the Kindle I thought I might as well play along. And I’m glad I did.

The novel is a monologue by the young Pakistani Changez, told to an unnamed American visiting Lahore. Changez relates how he was educated at Princeton on a scholarship, was a star student and got a job with the prestigious firm Underwood Samson, who specialize in valueing businesses, and whose motto is «focus on fundamentals».

Focus on the fundamentals. This was Underwood Samson’s guiding principle, drilled into us since the first day at work. It mandated single-minded attention to financial detail, teasing out the true nature of those drivers that determine an asset’s value.

He starts his work with them shortly before 9/11, and the narrative relates how things changed with the terrorist attacks. So does his relationship with a girl named Erica, who has been mentally ill after losing her «soulmate», Chris, to cancer and who slowly slips back into illness after the attacks, retreating to an internal, nostalgic world.

The story is a powerful illustration of how the 9/11 attacks forced a lot of people to chose sides in an argument not of their making. The narrative structure is cleverly constructed, the silent American somehow plays an active part in the monologue, and it draws you in, making it a difficult book to put down. The ending is very open, which is undoubtedly one of the novel’s strengths.

Wasim Zahid suggests in the comments at Bokbloggen that «Erica» is a symbol of «AmErica». I hadn’t noticed the suggestive name, but I had already concluded the same thing. Changez falls in love with Erica in the same way he falls in love with the States, but just as his relationhip with the country deteriorates after 9/11, so does his relationship with Erica. It is hard to avoid the symbolism in that the only time Changez and Erica make love is when Changez asks her to pretend he is Chris, just as he is only accepted the American society when he pretends to be «like them» – after having been to Lahore for Christmas (ironically?) he lets his beard grow, which is commented upon by his peers (and superiors). His answer that a beard is quite common where he comes from does not improve the situation.

And just as Erica retreats into nostalgia, so does the United States:

it seemed to me that America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.

If Erica’s name is symbolic, surely Changez’ is no less so. Wikipedia tells me it is the Urdu version of «Genghis», which could probably be analyzed, but I cannot imagine that it’s similarity to the English word «Changes» is coincidental.

Relevant links (though in Norwegian): Interview with Wasim Zahid. NRK Bokbloggen on the novel – discussion in the comments.

Ned til hundene – Helle Helle

helle_hundeneNår jeg hadde lest ferdig boka i kveld lukket jeg den og sukket tungt. Mannen lurte på hva som var galt. «Boka er slutt,» sa jeg.

Jeg ble anbefalt denne boka av mjoff på Bokelskere.no (vel, rett skal være rett, Ingalill anbefalte også Helle Helle), og tenkte at den var jo verdt et forsøk siden jeg uansett måtte finne meg noen danske forfattere dersom jeg skulle komme meg gjennom den nordiske utfordringen. Likevel var jeg forberedt på å bli skuffet, mine erfaringer med norsk samtidslitteratur er nedslående, så hvorfor skulle danskene være noe bedre? Vel, ikke vet jeg med danskene, men Helle Helle? Hun er storveis. I alle fall å dømme ut fra Ned til hundene.

Sitatet fra tidligere er altså åpningslinjene i boka. Boka er fortalt i førsteperson, og jeg’et har altså nettopp steget av en buss et sted ved kysten på leting etter et sted å gråte – man må formode i Danmark, men det blir aldri nærmere bestemt. Stedet er nokså øde, og det går slett ikke buss særlig ofte, selv i normalt vær, og nå er det i ferd med å blåse opp til orkan. Jeg’et blir hentet inn av et par som bor i nærheten – Putte og John – og får sove på deres sofa. Og der blir hun, og blir viklet inn både i det dagligdagse og det mer katastrofale. Men det er først og fremst det dagligdagse som preger romanen. Her er kaffedrikking, fyring i vedovnen og lufting av hunder.

Stillferdig og likevel intens. Denne boka kommer til å sitte i en stund. Jeg skal nok lese mer Helle Helle.

Det er noe med språket, med det dagligdagse som likevel sier så mye. Jeg-personen har, framkommer det etterhvert, forlatt samboeren sin i «parcelhuset», men før det har hun vært i en depresjon (eller noe slikt) en tid, og ikke gjort stort – knapt kommet seg opp om morgenen – og i alle fall ikke skrevet, som var det hun burde gjort siden hun er forfatter. Likevel tas det hjelpeløst hensyn:

Han var lige kommet hjem med en gave til mig, en uopsprættet digtsamling fra firserne, han sad ved sofabordet og sprættede den op, så jeg ikke skulle have dét at tænke på, jeg har jo så meget andet for tiden.

Jo. Jeg liker det.

Og slutten, slutten er altså bare så bra som den kan få blitt, egentlig, men du må lese boka selv for å få vite hva som er så bra med den (og om du ikke sukker når du lukker boka etter siste side, ja da vil jeg mene det er deg det er noe galt med).

Started Early, Took My Dog – Kate Atkinson

atkinson_startedearlyHaving gotten my hands on Started Early, Took My Dog, I obviously had to start it as soon as possible.

Jackson Brodie gets himself mixed up, yet again, with a lot more old history than he had bargained for. This time missing children is the variation of the recurring theme. A far cry from archetypal crime, Atkinson is firmly rooted in tradition, but runs circles round most of her fellow crime writers.

For one thing, she produces passages such as this: «Schrödinger, whoever he was, and his cat, and anyone else that felt like it, had all clambered inside Pandora’s box and were dining on a can of worms. Jackson felt the beginnings of a headache, another one, on top of the one he already had.»

I’m already waiting for her next book.

A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving

irving_meanyThis was a pleasant surprise for me, in terms of John Irving, as I’d concluded I needed to give his novels quite a bit of time before «getting into them». Not so much with this one, it had my interest before I’d reached the 50-page mark.

With around 100 pages left I got to work Monday morning after reading on the bus (as you do), opened the lokal paper’s web edition, saw a picture of Norwegian soldiers in uniform and thought «Huh? We have troops in Vietnam?»

A novel that makes me forget which century I live in? Now that’s a good sign.

It happens occasionally, but not all that frequently. I met a Norwegian who was on an exchange programme from the Norwegian army to the Swedish army in Stockholm once and my first reaction was «But I thought we were at war?», since I was currently embroiled in the Napoleonic wars in the company of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. This confused the poor bloke no end until one of my friends told him not to worry as my madness was of the harmless sort.

But back to Owen Meany. It’s a compelling story, where you get to know increasing amounts about the end throughout which I frequently find annoying but which Irving makes work. I realised what would happen some time before it happened, but not, I think, before the author intended.

Round-up

Woooooody’s round-up. Eh, no, sorry, wrong movie.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Ok, so I’ve only read half. That half was really rather good, but I find myself unwilling to keep reading because I’ve got an uneasy sense of impending disaster. I might have to do something I would never normally do and find someone who’s finished it and make them tell me what happens. Then I might just finish. We’ll se.

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave
On the back this books gives a very sketchy idea of what it’s about and it asks you, when you’ve read it and want to recommend it to others, not to tell them much beyond «read this», which makes sense, since part of the charm of this book is how the story unfolds. I say «charm», because the book is charming. It is also very life-affirming. However, it is not for the faint-hearted. It deals with refugees and their stories, and the stories are never nice. They all start, as the narrator says, with the phrase «The men came and they…» and there is never a happy ending.  We only get one complete story, but the others are hanging about in the reader’s consciousness and are even more awful for being incomplete. Read it, though.

coupland

Generation A by Douglas Coupland
Served mostly to remind me of why I find it hard to like most new novels. It’s because they aren’t as good as this. This is what a novel should be like.

india

India by Torbjørn Færøvik
Excellent. Part travelogue, part condensed history of India. Note to self: Read more of Færøvik’s books.

Nåde – Linn Ullman

ullmannJeg plukket opp Linn Ullmans Nåde på forrige bookcrossingtreff i Trondheim, siden jeg jo til stadighet tenker at jeg burde lest mer norsk samtidslitteratur. Når vi skulle en tur til Oslo i helgen ble den med, delvis fordi den så ut til å være noe jeg kunne bli ferdig med i løpet av turen og dermed sette igjen på OBCZ’en på Oslo S. Og slik ble det. Bokens bookcrossingside finner du her.

Fra forlagets omtale:

Da Johan Sletten blir alvorlig syk, inngår han en avtale med sin kone Mai. Den dagen livet oppleves som uverdig eller uutholdelig, den dagen han blir en byrde for henne og sine omgivelse skal hun bistå ham med en siste handling. Da øyeblikket nærmer seg, er han likevel usikker på om det er dette han vil. Uforvarende krysser ekteparet grensen til et landskap de ikke kjenner, der språket forvitrer og kjærligheten er utrygg.

Det er jo en grei oppsummering av handlingen. Selv synes jeg at boka langt på vei var vakker, men at den kom litt til kort i å skape den nødvendige, vel, nerven for at historien virkelig skulle treffe meg.

Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby

julietI’ve seen Juliet, Naked hailed as «Nick Hornby back on form». I’m slightly puzzled as to what he’s supposed to be back from. The phrase suggests that he’s been churning out mediocre novels, which is hardly the case. «Nick Hornby back» would be more accurate, as his last novel for adults was A Long Way Down in 2005, but 2005 is hardly that long ago, and it’s not as if he’s been sitting around twiddling his thumbs in the meantime. I suppose it’s possible that whoever thought this was Hornby back on form has really only liked High Fidelity and has been waiting for a new Hornby-novel with music geekdom as a backdrop.

Whatever. Juliet, Naked is a Very, Very Good Book™. For the record, I also think High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to be Good and A Long Way Down are Very, Very Good Books™. For me, then, this is simply Nick Hornby doing brilliantly what he’s always done brilliantly (and what I hope he will keep doing brilliantly for a very long time).

Annie has spent the last 15 years with obsessive music fan Duncan. The object of Duncan’s obsession is the reclusive singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe. As the novel starts, Annie and Duncan are on a tour of the US visiting sites connected (sometimes tenously) with Crowe, and Annie is beginning to wonder if she has wasted the last 15 years and what to do about it. They return to the sleepy little English seaside town where they live and shortly after Duncan receives an early copy of Juliet, Naked, the first Tucker Crowe release in over a decade, which consists of early versions of the songs on his signature (and last) album Juliet. Annie and Duncan’s different reactions to the album are a major part of their breakup. Annie is annoyed by Duncan’s glowing review, posted on the fansite he runs, and writes her own, which Duncan grudgingly agrees to post. She receives a couple of emails as a reaction, one of which is signed Tucker Crowe.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the infamous Tucker Crowe has his own problems. He’s preparing for a visit from a daughter he’s never met, and coming to the realisation that his relationship to his youngest son’s mother is coming to an end.

I’m not quite sure how to describe Juliet, Naked. Words like «charming» and «fetching» come to mind, but they give the wrong impression to a certain extent, a little belittling, perhaps. The novel is serious enough, for all love, and deals quite effectively with themes of love and parenting, and fandom, too. «Intelligent, charming and laugh out loud funny» – how’s that? All I can say is I had a minor crisis the day I accidentally left the book at work with only 50 or so pages left to read.

Until I Find You – John Irving

I brought Until I Find You by John Irving along to The Gambia in February, despite being in the middle of Aubrey/Maturin. I thought it would be a good idea to bring a book I could leave behind. Which it would have been, of course, if I’d had more time to read so that I had actually finished it, or if it had been uninteresting enough to dump half-finished. I didn’t and it wasn’t, so it came back home again, and having (finally) finished O’Brian last week I picked up Irving again.

I have some issues with Irving. This is only the second Irving I have actually managed to finish (the first being A Widow for One Year), and it’s a question of circumstance rather than of them being essentially different to the ones I tried and failed with. In both cases I have brought them along for travel reading, so that in both cases there haven’t been all that many other options beckoning me. This is to Irving’s benefit, because I find his novels really slow to start with. In the case of A Widow for One Year I positively disliked the first part, getting more interested once Ruth-as-adult entered the scene, and it wasn’t until two-thirds of the way through that it acquired the can’t-put-it-down-quality of a really good read. Until I Find You similarly drags at the beginning, and though I found Jack and Alice more interesting all the way through, I probably wouldn’t have persisted if I hadn’t already read A Widow for One Year and known Irving to be a slow starter (unlike the Vienna trip, I did bring other books to The Gambia, so I had a choice).

That said, once the pace picks up after a twist in the tale, it really picks up, and I resented having to put the book down for any reason throughout the last 200 or so pages. I felt a little let down by the ending when I read it, but only a little, and it’s growing on me.