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.

Comfort and Joy – India Knight

Amazon has sent me no less than three emails recently suggesting I might want to buy My Life on a Plate by India Knight, which is silly of them because I already have it – I even think I purchased it from them to start with, though I can’t guarantee that. At the same time they COMPLETELY failed to tell me that India Knight has a new novel out. Luckily I follow @indiaknight on twitter and she told me herself that it was now out in pocket. And people wonder why we need twitter. Sheeesh. Anyway, a few clicks later, a couple of days waiting and bam, there it was in my hands and I fell to it as soon as I finished Helle Helle.

Comfort and Joy lives up to its title, it is nothing less than a feelgood book, and I strongly suggest you treat yourself to it in the run-up to Christmas. It is absloutely the best book you could curl up with in the moments between shopping for last minute gifts, dressing a turkey or worrying about how to get the svor on the ribbe properly sprø (yes, you’d have to be Norwegian to understand that last bit, at least to understand the importance, suffice it to say it’s one of those things that is essential to making Christmas perfect for a lot of people). And if you are too busy with the cleaning, shopping cooking and worrying about sprø svor, then the book will also be a very, very good companion for those peaceful moments that usually happen somewhere between the 25th and the 30th of December*.

The action is set at Christmas in the household of Clara Dunphy – three consecutive Christmases (or Christmi** – oh, I love that word, I think I will adopt it), in fact. I called it a feelgood book, and it is, despite the fact that to a large extent it is about divorce, and how divorce affects both children and adults.

And may I say I adore Clara?

‘I observe that you are,’ he says. ‘You’re very good at holding it together. Always were.’

Wrong thing to say. Just because I’m not doing ugly crying with nose stuff doesn’t mean I have no feelings, the git. Second, it’s so easy to tell someone what they’re like – it exonerates you from having to do any thinking or empathizing: ‘Oh, Clara, she’s absolutely fine, because she’s really good at holding it together. Me, on the other hand… Me, I’m sensitive.’ I mean: fuck off.

(p. 105) Yes, I know that gut reaction. I’ve never had to handle divorce (not my own, nor my parents’), but I’m the sort of person who’s pretty good at holding it together – in public, anyway – and I HATE it when people suggest that that means I don’t really feel anything, or that they somehow deserve more sympathy because they break down and cry instead of holding it together. How about I get some credit for holding it together DESPITE having a shit time? (Which is not to say I have a shit time a lot, life is pretty good, but, you know?)

The following is a quote related to stepfathers and what happens if they break up with your mother. Quite often, of course, that’s basically the last you see of him if you’re the child, nevermind he functioned as you father in everything but genetic material for years and years. Even in so-called well-adjusted families where the adults make an effort, there is no denying that the child’s claims on a stepfather are far from the same as that same child’s claims on a biological parent, and also that if you’re really unlucky you may end up with a series of stepfathers, all suddenly disappearing from your life.

This is the difficulty with stepfathers, I think to myself. They come with their own detonators built in, and as a child you have absolutely no idea if – or when – the detonator’s going to detonate. So you put all your eggs in that particular basket – well, your one egg. Your Egg of Self. One egg, one basket, like one man, one vote. You put your egg in the basket called ‘my new daddy’, and you think, ‘Well, there’s my Egg of Self, I don’t know why I made such a fuss about putting it there: it’s so happy in the basket. Everything’s fine. The egg, and the basket are a pretty good match.’ Sometimes this goes on for ever, in which case everybody is extremely fortunate. But sometimes something comes along and BOOM. Your egg is smashed, tipped out of its cosy basket through no fault of you own. ‘Where’s my new daddy now?’ you think, lying on the ground, which frankly isn’t a very nice thing for any child to think.

(p. 160) Clara and her family handle all the complications of splitting up better than most, I think, which is one of the reasons this book is so lovely: It presents a picture of how these things can actually be handled without big drama and children who are traumatised by parents demanding that they chose «whose side they’re on». I don’t know that I could be that sensible about it myself, but I would sure try if ever I have to – god forbid I ever have to, though.

And did I mention that I love Clara? This is one of the reasons why:

I am astonished by air travel. Astonished. I know it’s the twenty-first century and even babies are used to long-haul flights, but I genuinely marvel every time at the fact you were in place A not so long ago and now you’re in place B, in a whole other country – continent, in our case. It strikes me as one of those things that is actually a proper miracle – albeit one that can be explained

(p. 193) Isn’t it just? You know something else that is magical, though it can be explained? Mobile phones. This struck me a few years ago when I was standing in a supermarket and got a call from my dad. I asked «Where are you?» and he answered «Montreal.» And it did, literally, sound like he was standing next to me. And no cords or anything! Magic, I tell you. (As my father has travelled a lot I have been used to calls throughout my childhood with crackly lines and several seconds lag – and an echo, if you’re really in luck. A clear reception in itself is therefore still something of a novelty.)

This is hardly a coherent review, is it? My apologies. Suffice it to say I loved this book, I laughed and yes, I did cry (on the bus, just a little, towards the end, but nonetheless), and I think you ought to read it.


* I should point out that it doesn’t HAVE to be Christmas time for the book to work, even if I just made it sound like that. It’s a bit like the film Love, Actually, which works any time of year but possibly especially well at Christmas, since that’s when it’s set.

** One of Clara’s little sisters used to believe it was spelt Christmus, in which case the plural, naturally, would be Christmi.


(Here is one I prepared earlier, i.e. last night:) This is not good. The diary seems to be stopping me from updating this reading log (would that be a rlog or a glog, I wonder?). I will try to improve the frequency, especially because this is going to have to be some post to get me up to date…

Hornblower… Finished the series. Thought once again what a pity it was that there are only 10 books. Reflected that I am glad there are 20 Aubrey/Maturin books (O’Brian), especially since they are infinitely better than Forester’s books, although there should have been more. There should always be more books, good ones, that is.

Read some more Sayers. Thrones, Dominations arrived, so I dropped everything to read that. Kjetil was a bit miffed, as he was visiting that week, and I became rather engrossed. Lovely book. I don’t think I would have noticed that it wasn’t all Sayers’ work if I hadn’t known (it was finished by Jill Paton Walsh), and also suspect that the bits I did wonder at were probably Sayers’ own. At least considering JPW’s statement that the majority of the letters she’s had saying «that’s not the way Sayers would have wanted it» actually referred to Sayers’ own passages.

And, of course, I’ve been reading No Logo. It really is highly recommended. Even if you don’t want to get involved in actual activism, and even if a boycott of all the brands that deserve being boycotted is virtually impossible (unless you start producing everything yourself), knowing why others become activists and exercising a little bit of consumer awareness when shopping is no bad thing. And if you think, as I vaguely did, that the main focus of the book is the exploitation of the «third world», you really should read it. The main impression I am left with is that the so-called globalisation is not only an economic and ecological threat, first and foremost it is a cultural threat. Corporate thinking is taking over our cultural space. That can’t be good. Read the book!

On a lighter note, I got hold of India Knight’s (my favourite columnist) new novel, Don’t You Want Me. It is a vast improvement on her first, My Life on a Plate, and that is very good, so this is rockin’. The most enoyable parts of Don’t You Want Me are, in fact, the parts that are most like her columns, rants of various kinds on any topic that happens to be remotely related to the plot. There are also a couple of hilarious scenes when the main character takes her toddler to an extremely PC playgroup. I suspect, however, that the reason I liked it so much more than the first one, is that this has a perfectly happy ending of the «and they lived happily ever after» sort. I like happy endings.

The new job gives me plenty of bus-time to read. It makes up for the fact that getting to work now takes 45-50 minutes instead of 20-30. So I read Populärmusik från Vittula on the bus. Risky stuff, as it’s of LOL quality, and that sort of thing tends to startle the other passengers. Apart from being side-achingly funny, it is a very enjoyable book on many levels (though enjoyable might be the wrong word, it’s rather tragic in a way), and fully deserves all the attention that’s been lavished on it in the Scandinavian media lately (and how often does that happen?).

This weekend I read Arthemis Fowl, after having put it off for ages, thinking I probably wouldn’t like it much. I finally caved in (due to the «what to read while waiting for Harry Potter 5» hype), hoping to be proved wrong. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. It’s decently written, but suffers from a severe lack of likeable characters. People talk about Harry Potter being immoral and bad for children, well, what about a twelve-year-old criminal mastermind? How moral is that. Ok, so he loves his mother and he has a soft spot, preferring not to kill people (or fairies), but that really does not make him sympathetic. And the other characters aren’t much better. By the end of the story I was rooting for something to go wrong and blow up and kill everyone involved so the rest of the world could get on with it, and good riddance. NOT a book I will put on my «what to recommend to children (of any age)» list (notice that I have NOT linked to this book).

I’ve also read, of all things, a couple of so-called «erotic classics», The Story of O, which was more disturbing than erotic, really, and Uten en tråd (Jens Bjørneboe). I can see why the latter caused a stir when it was published in the latter half of the 60ies, but in a way I also wonder at it, because it is so obviously written to provoke. I thought I’d read Mykle next, the other serious Norwegian author tried in court for publishing obscene/pornographic material. Unlike Bjørneboe, Mykle apparently was caught unawares by the hullaballoo, he was simply trying to write good literature. Hopefully that will mean the books are better worth reading, and possibly have an actual plot (I like plots).

This Saturday saw me on the prowl for more Saxegaard books, and I had amazing luck at one of the second-hand book-shops at Majorstua, where I found the last Ina-book, Ina og Ingolf (which means I’m now down to missing only four Ina books to complete the collection). Obviously, that’s what I read Saturday evening.

I’m sure I’ve left something out, this doesn’t actually seem like a lot for one-and-a-half month’s reading. I’ve watched a lot of television, though (bad girl!), and I’ve read at least one trashy romance of average quality (no, I’m not going to tell you the title, there’s no point, they’re pretty much all the same anyway).

Right now I’m in one of those «too many books at once» moods, where I have a hard time settling down to one book, because there’s so many others I’d like to be reading at the same time. Consequently, I read a chapter of one and then swap to another one and then back and then to a third, and sometimes end up just turning the television on instead (which is quite stupid, really, as that’s just going to postpone the finishing of the books further). Anyhow, I am currently in the middle of the following:
Two Feet, Four Paws, the travelogue by a girl, Spud, who, with her dog, Tess, walked the coastline of Britain in order to raise money for Shelter. Very enjoyable, though I have not yet come to Scotalnd, which was what I was looking for when I bought the book (trying to read as much about Scotland as I can before I go in September).
The Port-Wine Sea, by Susan Wenger, fellow O’Brian fan and member of the Gunroom – the book being a parody on the beloved series. Immensely satisfying.
Hele verden er min, Annik Saxegaard – another of Saturday’s finds.
Big Chief Elizabeth, by Giles Milton, is reminding me why I so seldom read history. Despite being avidly interested in the subject, I tend to find «proper» history books too heavy going (remember I do a lot of reading on the bus and such places), on the other hand, «popularisations» like this are just too lightweight – I keep looking for more depth, more source references, more detail, more critical reflection (not PC condemnation of anything resembling racism and sweeping generalisations).
Sangen om den røde rubin (Song of the Red Ruby), Agnar Mykle – as mentioned above, I’m only a few pages in, though, so no opinions to vent yet.
Those, as well as several others, including Min son fäktas mot världen by Björn Ranelid, which I stranded in half-way through sometime around Christmas and still really want to finish (I was enjoying it before I got stuck), but can’t quite work up enthusiasm for. We’ll see. I’ve also got the Chaim Potok biography by Abramson on the table, and I want to get started on it in order to write a proper Potok page for the bookshelves – there is very little good information on Potok on the web, and I feel I ought to at least try to remedy it somewhat.

Updates will (probably) follow once any (or all) are finished.