Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo

I read Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other this summer, but the book, and it’s characters, have stayed with me. And this is just going to be a very short review, partly because my backlog is looooong, partly because I find I have very little to say when I come to talk about excellent books (it’s much easier to elaborate criticism than praise).

Really the only thing I have on my con list is that when I got to the end of the first section about Amma and realised that she would only figure as a supporting character in the other sections, I felt the same kind of loss or frustration that I do when I come to the end of a short story; “Is that it? Is that all I get?” Which is why I hardly ever read short stories.

But, I don’t know, the narrative technique grew on me, and though I would have LOVED a whole novel about Amma (and several of the other characters), this particular novel works precisely because you get 12 different stories. And then the last chapter and epilogue wraps it up so splendidly that I really cannot fault the book at all.

The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro was the March pick for the reading circle. For obvious reasons, our March meeting never went ahead, and so I have not had the chance to discuss this book with the others, which is a pity, because I really need to talk to someone about it in order to figure out what to think. Because… It’s weird.

Even after finishing the novel I still don’t know what genre it is. It’s historical fiction, I suppose, but it’s also… fantasy? Magical realism? Allegorical? A bit of all of them? The setting being “post-Arthurian Britain” means it can’t be straight-up historical, the addition of mythical creatures does not help, but on the other hand it’s not very like any fantasy I’ve ever read, either.

And then we get to the, well, I suppose we have to call it the plot. Axl and Beatrice, our main protagonists, set out from their village (where we get the impression that they are… not outcasts, exactly, but certainly on the margins) to find their son, who has moved somewhere else. A mist covers the known world, and this mist seems to make everyone forget who they are and what has happened to them. So exactly why their son is living somewhere else is not known, and Axl and Beatrice are at times wanting to find him to make up somehow and at other times seem to think that he is expecting them and awaiting their arrival anxiously.

On the way they meet various confusing situations and eventually end up travelling in the company of a Saxon warrior, a young boy who has been marked as an outcast by his village and is in the Saxon’s charge and an elderly knight, who is supposedly on a mission to slay a fierce dragon, but has been on this mission for an indeterminable length of time.

There is a portentious meeting with a ferryman. There are self-flagellating, or perhaps blood-thirsty, monks. There are guards on the lookout for the Saxon warrior. Maybe.

And there is this mist. And as it starts to lift, memories come back, but are they welcome memories?

I found it slow going at first and kept reading past page thirty or so only because it was a reading circle book. And then I was somehow sucked it and after a hundred pages it was hard to put the book down, but more from the sort of horrible fascination that makes it hard to look away from a train wreck than because I actually in any way enjoyed what I was reading.

I can see that Ishiguro is trying to say something about memory and the act of forgetting, and especially of the role forgetting plays in forgivness. Can we move on and live in peace after a horrendous war if we do not, at least to some extent, forget?

But. It doesn’t work for me. I fully accept that this might be my fault as much as the author’s. The mist that makes people forget keeps the peace, perhaps (though that is a moot point) but it also hampers any sort of meaningful progress (if we can’t learn from the past, how are we supposed to improve?). And in any case the mist is part of the magical realism-ish elements, and so this forgetfulness is not actually a) a choice or b) a realistic one if one would want to chose it. We are stuck with remembrance. And the whole ferry-malarkey is obviously an allegory of sorts, but I really don’t understand what it’s supposed to signify.

I like the novel best when it touches on religion and it’s role in “forgiveness” or “just punishment”:

“What use is a god with boundless mercy, sir? You mock me as a pagan, yet the gods of my ancestors pronounce clearly their ways and punish severely when we break their laws. Your Christian god of mercy gives men licence to pursue their greed, their lust for land and blood, knowing a few prayers and a little penance will bring forgiveness and blessing.”

(Page 151.) But that is drowned in the whole mist and dragons and Merlin and what-did-Axl-actually-do-in-the-war and why-is-Axl-and-Beatrice’s-son-estranged plotlines. Neither of which are really resolved to my satisfaction, either, but that’s by-the-by.

And I really, really hated Axl’s insistence on calling Beatrice “Princess” in every other sentence. That may have had some deeper meaning, too, for all I know, I just know I wanted to shake him each and every time.

So. I have so far abstained from rating the book on Goodreads, because I can’t make up my mind whether it deserves a “didn’t like it” one-star, a “meh, it was ok” two-star or a “well, at least it was interesting in a way and hard to put down” three-star. I might just leave it unrated.

Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre

Jeg plukket med meg Vernon God Little fra Bookcrossinghylla på Østbanen søndagen etter bokbloggertreffet i høst, og foreslo den for boksirkelen der den ble valgt. Når vi skulle diskutere den i desember var jeg bare halvveis selv, men ganske begeistret. Flere av de andre hadde enten gitt opp eller ikke engang prøvd etter å ha hørt at noen hadde gitt opp (vi har lavterskel boksirkel, det er lov å møte opp uten å ha lest boka…) En av de andre hadde lest den (ferdig) og likte den. Skillet mellom oss som likte boka (jeg er nå ferdig og er fortsatt begeistret) og de som prøvde, men ga opp gikk på språk. Vi som ga tommel opp leste på engelsk (altså orginalspråket), de som ga tommel ned leste den norske oversettelsen.

Derfor er dette innlegget på norsk, selv om det er en engelsk bok jeg har lest (og de omtaler jeg jo normalt på engelsk). For selv om det skal handle om Vernon God Little, og hvorfor jeg likte romanen, blir det nødt til også å handle om oversettelsens begrensinger. Jeg hadde nemlig lurt på, før boksirkelmøtet, hvordan i alle himmelens dager denne boka overhodet kunne fungere i oversettelse.

Vernon Gregory Little er fortelleren av sin egen historie, og historien starter med en skoleskyting, utført av Vernons beste (eneste?) venn som også skyter seg selv. Vernon blir mistenkt for å ha medvirket, han blir i grunn forhåndsdømt, ikke bare av politiets etterforsker, men av mesteparten av lokalsamfunnet, inkludert sin egen mor. Media camper i byen og noen journalister er mer skruppelløse enn andre når de skal grave frem historier og nye vinkler. Det hele kulminerer i reality show – med utstemming – direkte fra death row.

Det er en ganske mørk historie, med klar kritikk både av media og av det juridiske systemet i USA.

Og det som bærer boka er Vernons fortellerstemme. Den er mildt sagt unik. For det første er det ikke en bok du bør lese om du misliker banning, for det er det nok av. Det er “fucken” både det ene og det andre. Men det er også lek med ord, som av og til fungerer som vitser og av og til heller framhever alvoret og patosen. Som her, fra retten, der foreldrene til de skutte barna har møtt opp for å se på (side 72):

Faces disfigured with memories of black blood and gray skin dot the crowd. Kin of the fallen. Mr Lechuga stares death-rays at me, and he ain’t even Max’s real daddy. Lorna Speltz’s mom is here, like a damp kind of turtle. I get waves of sadness, not for me but for them, all mangled and devastated. I’d give anything for them to be vastated again.

Eller her, når Vernon har blitt nær sodomert (det vil si voldtatt) av psykiateren som skal vurdere hans psykiske tilstand (side 70):

I sit under a personal cloud in back of the jail van, like a sphinx, a sphinxter, to the beat of that rude orchestra music by Goosestep Holster. It does nothing to erase memories of the shrink, and his fucken ass-banditry.

Hvordan oversetter du noe sånt?

Vel, jeg måtte rett og slett låne boka på norsk for å sjekke, og akkurat den setningen er blitt til:

Jeg sitter under en privat sky, bakerst i fengselsbilen, som en banal sfinx, en anal dings, i takten til den rå musikken av Go’stav Holster. Den gjør ikke noe for å viske ut minnene etter hjernekrymper’n og det forbanna rævrøveriet.

For å være ærlig er det en ganske god oversettelse, men den når jo likevel ikke opp mot orginalen. De før omtalte “fucken” som Vernon slenger rundt seg med oppnår en slags egen poetisk kvalitet etter mange nok repetisjoner. I oversettelsen er banneordene langt mer varierte, det veksler mellom jævla, forbanna og fuckings. Jeg tror boka taper noe på det, og ikke bare på grunn av det språklige skillet i tommel-opp vs tommel-ned i boksirkelen vår, altså.

DBC Pierre vant forresten The Man Booker Prize 2003 for denne boka, som var debuten hans som forfatter.

Vel, jeg anbefaler også Vernon God Little. Men les den på engelsk.

Denne kopiens Bookcrossing-side finner du her. Om du er interessert i å overta boka, meld fra, ellers blir den kanskje med til London for vill-slipp i slutten av måneden.

Sweet Masterpiece – Connie Shelton

I’ll readily admit that the only reason I read Sweet Masterpiece was that it popped up in one of the Bookhub-emails that I actually read as a free book for Kindle, so I downloaded it to my “emergency library” (i.e. my phone), and then started it one of those times I was suddenly stuck somewhere without a book. It seems to be self-published, which would not normally be something I consider as a selling point. “Free,” however, sometimes works.

On the other hand, I would hardly have continued past the first few pages unless I found something to interest (cue trying to pick the next phone-read and dropping No Game for a Dame by M. Ruth Myers, also downloaded because it was free, like a hot potato after only a few sentences). Because I did. I also found quite a few things to irritate, though, so whether I’ll ever read another book of Shelton’s remains to be seen.

Sweet Masterpiece is the first in a series which belongs to the sub-genre “cosy mystery”. I’m not neccessarily averse to a bit of cosyness or a bit of mystery, even in combination, however, a little bit of origininality could perhaps have been nice. The mystery is… well, not very mysterious. The cosyness dominates to the exclusion of much of an actual plot. Add to that a magical element – and fond as I am of fantasy, there is a time and a place for magic and I’m not sure this was it – and an ending which was… Well, both unpredictable in a “they lived happily ever after” sort of way and quite, quite as unbeliveable as that phrase is at the best of times.

On the other hand, I liked Shelton’s characters. Sam is charming (dare I say “sweet”) in the way which makes you want to curl up with a glass of wine with her and get her to tell you her life story. And the, well, I guess I could call it extended family do their best to liven up an otherwise lumbering story. Add to that some snippets of local detail from an area of the USA I’m not that familiar with and you have enough to keep me going through the 200 odd pages. But, well, unless the next story in the series turns up as a freebie, I guess I’m unlikely to revisit Sam Sweet.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

kent_burialritesBurial Rites was the book club pick for June, and I finished it late. However, I’m not sure the fact that it’s not been very long since I finished is going to make this note a long one. Still, anything is better than nothing.

Hannah Kent’s first novel has had praise heaped on it, and I guess I’m going to join the choir. I was fascinated, and in a way I didn’t really expect. I suppose I expected to be bored by the gloominess and the hopelessness of it all. But instead the changing points of view and the way the story is told from several perspectives of time as well as of character leaves me wanting more, and the tale is at times as gripping as a crime novel (which, in a sense, I suppose this is): Who did it, and why?

The novel is based on actual historic events, Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, in 1829 and each chapter starts with an excerpt from official papers regarding the case; letters or court documents. The framework, therefore, is a true story, and much of the detail is based on thorough research into the lives of people in 19th century Icelandic society. The motives, the thoughts and the actions of the characters, are, of course, fiction, but they, also, ring true.

Agnes is a cleverly drawn character and she wins the reader over, just as she wins her unwilling gaolers over in the end.

If I was young and simple-minded, do you think everyone would be pointing the finger at me? No. They’d blame it on Fridrik, saying he overpowered us. Forced us to kill Natan because he wanted his money. That Fridrik desired a little of what Natan had is no great secret. But they see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted. Believe there’s no room for innocence. And like it or not, Reverend, that is the truth of it.

(Page 132.)

Snowdrops – A. D. Miller

snowdropsI have some catching up to do, so I am going to zip through a couple of book reviews. Well, I’ll try to, anyway. First off is Snowdrops by A. D. Miller, which we read in the book circle last month.

Snowdrops was a fairly quick read, the story was engaging, despite the fact that the narrator pretty much lacks a personality and for a long time nothing much happened.

The narrator is a British lawyer stationed in Russia, mostly because he doesn’t really have a life in Britain:

I found myself entering the thirty-something zone of disappointment, (…) The time of ‘Is that all there is?’ (…) People started running marathons or becoming Buddhists to help them get through it. (…) The truth is, the firm asked me if I’d go out to Moscow, just for a year, they said, maybe two. It was a short cut to a partnership, they hinted. I said yes, and ran away from London and how young I wasn’t anymore.

(Page 35-36) He falls in with a couple of Russian girls (and in love with one of them), Masha and Katya, sisters they say, and gets tangled up in some pretty unsavoury dealings. He is also involved in a rather unfortunate, equally unsavoury deal at work. All in all it’s a bit of a disaster and he is sent home in disgrace. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the novel is the way the story is framed, it’s written as a sort of a letter to the narrators fiance, whom he met after his return from Russia, as a sort of confession prioror to their nuptials. I can’t help thinking that the wedding will have been called off, because he really doesn’t come out of the sorry mess very well (he’s either a cynical douchebag or a pretty pathetic, naive dumbass – take your pick).

Where the novel failed, I think, is in creating the duality that I suspect the author intended. I had some sympathy for the narrator, be he ever so wishy-washy, and wanted to belive he was trying to act for the best, at least until he as so far in as to make backtacking almost impossible. However, I thereupon found myself having to remind myself that the end result of both “deals” was actually pretty horrendous. I wasn’t feeling it at all, I had to step back from the story and say “Wait, what, that is really not very nice.” Interestingly, those in my book circle who really felt how horrible the outcome was had had no sympathy for the narrator from the start (even before he’s really done anything). I should imagine what the author had in mind was for the reader to have some sympathy for both sides, so to say, to think of the narrator as a decent guy to start with and then gradually to realise (as he is supposedly realising it) what atrocities he is actually able to take part in.

The other main point that arose from our discussion of the book was how one-dimensional and distasteful the population of Russia appear in the novel. Well, there are two types of Russians, judging from this book: The scheming crooks who’ll swindle you out of your home, money and everything else, and the naive, kind-hearted souls that are there mostly to be swindled. Hardly the most flattering picture of a nation.

The best thing about Snowdrops was the occasional flash of lingustic brilliance. The quote above, especially the phrase “how young I wasn’t anymore” appealed to me, as did random sentences such as this one:

My nostrils froze together, the hairs inside them hugging each other for survival.

(Page 114) It’s not enough to save the novel, though. Not bad as such, but underwhelming, on the whole.

Factotum – Charles Bukowski

factotum1Factotum was on our book circle summer reading list, so it’s been a couple of weeks since I finished it, but it takes a while to get around to blogging, obviously.

Factotum is surprisingly readable considering the synopsis is “Henry Chinansky travels around the US, being regularly hired and fired all the while constantly drinking and having quite a bit of sex.” I mean, really. That’s the plot.

As usual Carmen was wearing a very tight knitted dress that fit her like a balloon fits the trapped air, maybe tighter.

(Page 68) Much of the charm has to do with language, of course. There are little nuggets of beautifully formed thoughts throughout the book. I found it hard to pick just one or two for this blog entry, so you get a slew of them

He jumped up on the dusty seats, began walking along ripping out old posters with his can opener. So that’s how those things get up there, I thought. People put them there.

(Page 27) This is not life-changing literature. Well, not for me, anyway. But despite Henry hardly being the sort of person you’d trust with… well, anything, really, and despite having more than a little sympaty for his father who insists Henry pay rent and board while staying “at home” for a stretch in the book, it’s hard not to like him.

The problem, as it was in those days during the war, was overtime. Those in control always preferred to overwork a few men continually, instead of hiring more people so everyone might work less. You gave the boss eight hours, and he always asked for more. He never sent you home after six hours, for example. You might have time to think.

(Page 38) And though the hiring and firing gets a little repetitive, the insight it offers into the unskilled, odd-job market is interesting. Most of the time Henry is quite deservedly let go, but occasionally he is fired through no fault of his own, and those occasions serve to illustrate why, perhaps, he cares so little about trying to keep any job. He seems  to think that sooner or later he’ll be fired anyway, so why bother actually doing a good job, and to some extent he may be right.

I always started a job with the feeling that I’d soon quit or be fired, and this gave me a relaxed manner that was mistaken for intelligence or some secret power.

(Page 99-100) If the book has a fault it’s that it sort of peters out at the end. Henry doesn’t get a job as a writer and get his act together, neither does he die in squalour of alchohol poisoning. There you are reading about Henry drinking and losing another job and then on the next page the book ends. No closure, so to say.

Still, I rather enjoyed it.

 

The Mystery of Mercy Close – Marian Keyes

keyes_mercy_closeSince I read everything Marian Keyes publishes, it was only a matter of time before I got around to The Mystery of Mercy Close (when I’ll get around to blogging about This Charming Man – Excellent! – and The Brightest Star in the Sky – Charming. – is another question entirely). As it is when the book circle met before the summer and everyone presented their suggestions for summer reading, two of us had Keyes in our pile (though my pile was virtual, I was badly prepared). And so it ended up on our combined list almost by default.

Things were looking grim, though, until I got out of the funk, fiction was not pleasing me at all. However, I got out somehow and finished The Mystery of Mercy Close, well, not in record time, but certainly quite quickly.

In other words, it’s highly readable. My friend Linda said she had a hard time getting into it because she’s stuck on the other Walsh sisters’ depictions of Helen, but my memory is bad. I mean, really, really bad. It leaks like a sieve. This is one of the reasons I reread, after all. Anyway, I remember Helen being mentioned, obviously, but that’s it. So I found her rather intriguing from the start. She doesn’t “belive in love, fear, depression or hot drinks”. She is sour, misantropic and sarcastic.

I have a habit of taking instant dislikes to people. Simply because it saves time.

(Page 72.) She is also distinctly weird, and you can see how she would rub her sisters quite the wrong way, in fact she would rub most people the wrong way. Life in a presumably regular-sized Irish (lower?) middle-class house with 6 other people (parents and four sisters) must have been hellish for someone like Helen.

The fact is that the human race has survived for a very long time (way too long, in my opinion; they can bring on the Rapture anytime they like)

(Page 184.) Anyway, I like her. She’s prickly, but I can feel quite prickly myself on occasion. It will be interesting at some point in the future to reread the other Walsh sisters’ books and see how Helen is actually viewed by them. I must remember to take notes or something, though. (Memory. Leaks. Sieve.)

The Mystery of Mercy Close is partly a classic mystery, Helen is, after all, a private investigator and partly a love story, but it is also very much a book about depression. And it’s the latter that demonstrates, yet again, how Keyes at her best manages to describe the indescribable. Actually, this is not Keyes at her absolute best (Rachel’s Holiday is probably her masterpiece and I also really like This Charming Man), she fails to make me feel what Helen is feeling and there are times I would like to shout “Oh, snap out of it!” even though I know perfectly well that would be quite pointless. What Keyes does manage to convey, though, is the variety of utterly unhelpful reactions someone with depression may expect to encounter in their family and friends (one of which, incidentally, is the “Oh, snap out of it!” thing).

Additionally, the mystery part is compelling, why HAS Wayne Diffney disappeared? The descriptions of boybands, their stereotypes and more especially of the desparate measures old and decrepit boybands might take, are hilarious, as are the scarily accurate analyses of how the originally uninterested general public reacts with the right sort of PR.

As for the love story, the publishers have done the book a disservice by presenting it as some sort of love triangle struggle in their synopsis on the back of my copy, anyway:

When a missing-persons case draws her into the dark, glamorous world of her dodgy ex, Jay Parker, Helen finds she’s seeing more of him and less of Artie Devlin, her sexy detective boyfriend. Caught between smart, stable Artie and chaotic, up-for-anything Jay – two different, equally enticing men – and plagued by her own black doubts, Helen finds she’s beginning to believe in something. But is it fear or is it love?

Sure, there is baggage with Jay and sure, he’s moving in somewhat glamorous circles right now (hardly that glamorous, though, mostly washed-up ex-b-list celebs) and dark? Hardly. And the caught between two men, thing, as a plot? I’m so over it. I was put off by this description and had it been an author I liked less it might have prevented me reading the book. As it is, and I apologize if this is a major spoiler for you (stop reading NOW if you’re intrigued by the love triangle!) Helen is never even close to considering getting together with Jay again. The story with Artie is interesting, however, though it plays a fairly minor role in the grand scheme of things.

In conclusion: Not Keyes’ best (but far from her worst). Definitely worth reading, though.

Incidentally, for the best description of what depression feels like that I have ever read (take into account that I have never experienced clinical depression and therefore cannot judge its accuracy from the inside, so to say, just it’s usefulness in understanding my fellow humans’ behavior) can be found in Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half.

Dead Until Dark – Charlaine Harris

dead_until_darkSomeone had left the three first Sookie Stackhouse novels on the shelf at my doctor’s office, and since the other available reading material consisted of old parenting or womens’ magazines, I thought I’d check it out. I read far enough to decide to take it home, but then found I had rather more interesting things to read when I got there, so it was left on the “in progress” pile for a few months. But then I had this funk, and starting something I want to like when I’m in a funk is not a good idea, as even things that ought to please me tend not to, so I decided to try something I wasn’t expecting to like and see if that could snap me out of it. And do you know, I think it might have worked.

At least I read the book right through, I even found myself wondering what would happen next and actually wanting to pick up the book. A far-fetched yarn was obviously just what I needed. A well-written one, mind you. Dead Until Dark certainly is competent handiwork. Not great art, perhaps, but no annoying linguistical flaws and a storyline that works.

As for Sookie. Well, I sort of like her, though I found some of her reasoning annoyingly rather than charmingly naive, but Dead Until Dark did not really convince me I should go on to read more in the series. The whole vampire thing creeps me out in entirely the wrong way. Not the deliciously creepy “Oooooh, I’m scared” sort of way, but in the “Ugh, gross” and “this vampire is entirely too sparkly and the sex scenes seem gratuitous, I am too old for this shit” sort of way. And I find the whole concept of society as a whole accepting vampires because of the entirely fake “it’s a virus” story completely unbelievable. So, no. I probably won’t read any more Stackhouse novels (and I certainly won’t be watching True Blood any time soon).

But I am grateful to Harris for helping me out of the reading funk. At least I’m reading fiction again. My copy has now been registered at Bookcrossing, and I’ll drop it off somewhere to please or annoy another reader.

The Chronicles of Narmo – Caitlin Moran

moran_narmoAfter How to be a Woman I have a bit of a crush on Caitlin Moran, and so The Chronicles of Narmo was an obvious purchase when I managed a few minutes in a book shop in London. It’s a short novel, written when Moran was just fifteen and based on her own family’s (mis)adventures.

It’s not a brilliant book. As a narrative it only works haltingly and there isn’t much of a plot, really. Where it excels is where Moran still excels, in the clever turn of phrase. It is what makes the book worth reading.

In order to reach the Earth, the Sun has to travel eighty million million miles, across the universe, through the atmospheres and magnetic pulls of countless planets; it has to seep its way through clouds of stardust twelve thousand miles thick. It plays leapfrog with time and has a neat little party trick of standing where it was eight and a half minutes ago. And still – after all this exertion – it still had the energy to struggle through the yellowing nets and purple nylon curtains of Bill and Carol’s bedroom, and wake them up.

(P 48) Not entirely accurate astronomy-wise, perhaps, but still rather lovely.