Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Goat Mountain by David Vann (5/5)

First published: 2013
Page count: 239

The back says: In David Vann's searing novel Goat Mountain, an eleven-year-old boy is eager to make his first kill at his family's annual deer hunt. But all is not as it should be. His father discovers a poacher on the land, a 640-acre ranch in Northern California, and shows him to the boy through the scope of his rifle. With this simple gesture, tragedy erupts, shattering lives irrevocably.

Set over the course of one hot and hellish weekend, Goat Mountain is the story of a family struggling to contend with a terrible crime and its repercussions. David Vann creates a haunting and provocative novel that explores our most primal urges and beliefs, the bonds of blood and religion that define and secure us, and the consequences of our actions - what we owe for what we've done.

I say: How utterly disturbing and yet so beautifully written.

Every fall the boy and narrator, his father, grandfather and his father’s friend Tom drive up to Goat Mountain to hunt. This year, at age eleven, he is to finally make his first kill. But before they even get to the base camp, as the synopsis so conspicuously reveals, the boy shoots and kills a poacher. What follows is a few days of the men arguing about how to deal with the situation, while the boy calmly observes.

The narration is that of the boy as an older man reminiscing about that time and in retrospect compares his kill to the story of Cain and Abel. Time and again he questions what he was thinking at the time, and it often feels like his telling is a form rationalisation in order to come to terms with his crime.

What is the difference between killing a man and killing an animal?

That question lies at the base of the distressing elements of this novel, and with it comes the way that the three men deal with the corpse. Each man looks at the situation, and the boy, from different angles, and it is their inability to understand each other that leads to even more tragedy.

I did not see the end coming and was shocked when it did.

Vann’s prose is straightforward and somewhat repetitive, which is part of what makes it so unsettling. I kept hoping for more emotions from the boy, but he tells the story with such unnerving detachment and matter-of-factness.

5/5 because as troubling as this was, I actually want to re-read it sometime in the future.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Så Går en Dag från Vårt Liv och Kommer Aldrig Åter av Jonas Gardell (4/5)

Publiceringsdatum: 1998
Antal sidor: 170

Baksidan säger:
Sverige inför tusenårsskiftet. Vad gör vi? Vilka är vi? Hur ser våra liv ut? Denna vecka gäller gula rabattkuponger, nästa vecka blå. Livet går ut på att leta så långt bak i mjölkdisken som möjligt för att hitta en förpackning med en dag bättre bästföredatum, och då har man överlistat den lokala Ica-handlaren.

Skriven med lika delar humor och förtvivlan, och med ett absolut gehör för samtidens alla detaljer är detta berättelsen om en handfull människor, deras drömmar, tillkortakommanden och längtan i det lilla landet långt upp i norr under stjärnorna.

Jag säger: Ångestframkallande till tusen, men ack så sann.

Här får vi träffa Pia som är över 30, ensam, arbetslös och bitter över allt i sitt. Hennes syster Anna är gift med Håkan och har två söner, och trots att ingen av dem är lycklig med tillvaron så vågar de inte lämna varandra. Håkans far Henning bor ensam ute i skogen och spenderar sin tid med att skriva insändare och undvika människor. Medan Pia och Annas mamma försöker och försöker men lyckas aldrig nå fram. Alla är de olyckliga, men ingen gör någonting åt saken.

Detta är en bild av mina värsta mardrömmar.

Gardell beskriver avskalat denna längtan efter något mer; något till synes ouppnåeligt och något som man kanske inte förtjänar. Och det är där skon klämmer på alla karaktärerna; de tycker inte att de förtjänar mer än de har. Detta är livet de valt och nu måste de leva ut det till slutet. Alla utom Pia, som trots att hon förstår att det är hennes val som lett henne dit hon hamnat aktivt letar efter någon att skaffa barn med – aktivt försöker ändra sin situation. Iof gör även Anna och Håkan några tafatta försök till förändring, men i slutändan så vet de att det hela är symboliskt.

Och det är just det som är så sorgligt.

Hur många där ute lever liv de inte vill men inte vågar ändra?
4/5 för en tacksam inblick i Svenssonlivet i slutet på förra seklet.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Clash of Civilizations over and Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous (4/5)

First published: 2006
Original title: Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio
Original language: Italian
Translation to English by: Ann Goldstein, 2008

Page count: 131


The back says: A small culturally mixed community living in an apartment building in the center of Rome is thrown into disarray when one of the neighbors is murdered. An investigation ensues and as each of the victim's neighbors is questioned, the reader is offered an all-access pass into the most colorful neighborhood in contemporary Rome. Each character takes his or her turn “giving evidence,” recounting his or her story - the dramas of racial identity, the anxieties and misunderstandings born of a life spent on society's margins, the daily humiliations provoked by mainstream culture's fears and indifference, preconceptions and insensitivity. What emerges is a moving story that is common to us all, whether we live in Italy or Los Angeles.

This novel is animated by a style that is as colorful as the neighborhood it describes and is characterized by seemingly effortless equipoise that borrows from the cinematic tradition of the Commedia all’Italiana as exemplified by directors such as Federico Fellini.

At the heart of this bittersweet comedy told with affection and sensitivity is a social reality that we often tend to ignore and an anthropological analysis, refreshing in its generosity, that cannot fail to fascinate.

I say: What an absolutely delightful read. This is social satire at its finest and most hilarious. I laughed out loud a lot.

As well as shaking my head at some of the nonsense that was spouted.

In total we are dealing with 11 testimonials from people who are all somehow connected to the elevator in Piazza Vittorio; some because they live in the apartment building, and others because they deliver goods or have friends there. The 12th person we hear from is the detective that has been handed the case, and as usual with detective stories, the person I thought had murdered “The Galdiator” wasn’t the one. It doesn’t really matter that much since the murder is more of a plot device to get the characters to show their prejudices against and little quarrels with each other.

And there were many of them.

When I was studying Conflict Resolution at uni The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington was referred to in pretty much every class. As wiki simplifies it, it is the theory that people's cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world, which is what Lakhous is embodying in this novel. There is no need to have read Huntington to get the message, I just thought I’d put it out there as an explanation of the title.

At the heart of this story is the elevator and the one person that everyone gets along with, Amedeo, whom they all assume to be Italian because he speaks the language like a native. Amedeo himself never gives a clear answer as to where he is from, but responds with a vague “south”. He is also the only one who doesn’t use the elevator – until one of the tenants gets so overweight they forbid her to use it. Here we naturally segue into what the elevator symbolises; which I’m not going to go into because it will entail spoilers.

The humour and satire of the novel lies in the different parts of roman society that the characters represent and how they interact. We have the immigrant who seemingly hates Rome, but is unable to go back home; the immigrant without papers and therefore afraid to report crimes against her for fear of being deported; the old native lady that blames the immigrants for everything bad that happens; and so on (I can’t name all 11 characters). At the end of each testimony we are treated to excerpts from Amedeo’s journal where he speaks about their relationship. As a result we get to know all the characters through their own, Amedeo’s and their acquaintance’s eyes which leads to equal parts hilarity and frustration. Prejudices run rampant and I couldn’t help but consider how I view myself and those around me.

4/5 because it is more profound than one initially thinks.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy (3.5/5)

First published: 1889
Original title: Крейцерова соната, Kreitzerova Sonata
Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: David Duff, 1983

Page count: 144


The back says: Love can be murderous

Pozdnyshev and his wife have a turbulent relationship. When her beauty blossoms after the birth of their children, men begin to flock around her and he becomes increasingly jealous. Convinced his wife is betraying him with a young musician, he is driven to ever more dangerous lengths by his overpowering suspicion.

I say: I have been meaning to read this for the longest time, and am glad that I finally did, but I also wish that I had done it with a book club because it contains a lot of subjects to discuss.

On a train ride a man, Pozdnyshev, engages in a conversation about marriage, divorce and love, presenting some really interesting views. When only one man remains, the narrator, Pozdnyshev tells him the story that led him to the conclusions he previously shared. It’s a confession that we’re listening to – and a very candid one with extremely misogynistic views. There is such an intense bitterness that seeps through every page that made it fascinating to hear him tell the story of his life, refusing any responsibility for his actions. He admits to them and regrets them, but maintains throughout that he was led to them by his wife, her lover, society’s misguided views on love, and more.

Without going too far into it all, what he affirms is that men exploit women and he equates it to slavery which he defines as “the exploitation by the few of the forced labour of the many” (p. 62). Woman is an instrument of pleasure, is brought up to view herself as such and that is the reason she’ll stay enslaved. Furthermore, children are a burden and a torment.

Yeah...

I was more impressed by the ideas presented than the actual writing. Not that I think Tolstoy could have done that much more with it; it was a confession by an unyielding misogynist.

3.5/5 for the endless discussions this can lead to.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future...: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned by Michael J. Fox (4/5)

First published: 210
Page count: 100

The back says: Michael J. Fox abandoned high school to pursue an acting career, but went on to receive honorary degrees from several universities and garner the highest accolades for his acting, as well as for his writing. In his new book, he inspires and motivates graduates to recognize opportunities, maximize their abilities, and roll with the punches--all with his trademark optimism, warmth, and humor.

In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future, Michael draws on his own life experiences to make a case that real learning happens when "life goes skidding sideways." He writes of coming to Los Angeles from Canada at age eighteen and attempting to make his way as an actor. Fox offers up a comically skewed take on how, in his own way, he fulfilled the requirements of a college syllabus. He learned Economics as a starving artist; an unexpected turn as a neophyte activist schooled him in Political Science; and his approach to Comparative Literature involved stacking books up against their movie versions.

Replete with personal stories and hilarious anecdotes, Michael J. Fox's new book is the perfect gift for graduates.

I say: I waited for a very long time to buy and read this, which is strange since I bought and read his two previous books the week they were released. And not having read the synopsis, I was surprised at the content.

Pleasantly surprised, mind you.

I’ve had a crush on MJF for over 20 years as well as an admiration for his candour about his life, so it was nice to read this book of compressed wisdom accompanied by personal anecdotes. I would love to give this to my niece who is about to graduate the Swedish equivalent of high school, but I fear she’ll never read it. Which is a shame because it has a lot of life lessons in it that I wish I had been given at that age.

4/5 because it manages to capture the essential in only 100 pages long and effectively does what it says on the tin.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Best People in the World by Justin Tussing (4.5/5)

First published: 2006
Page count: 336
The back says: Thomas, a seventeen year old with the face of an angel, is living with his parents in a house that has begun to feel crowded; Alice, his high-school teacher and first love, is getting calls from her violent ex-husband; and Shiloh, a survivor of a life lived on the fringes, has seen his shack swept away by the mighty Ohio river.

They run away together, in pursuit of an ideal that none of them are quite able to define, eventually finding shelter in an abandoned farm house in the hills of Vermont. But as the chill of autumn sets in, dependency and deprivation start to take their inevitable toll on each relationship, and Thomas begins to see this time – when he was with ‘the best people in the world’ – come to an end.

I say: Not since Bella Swan, then Tess of the d’Urbervilles and finally Jane Eyre has a female character annoyed me to such an extent as Alice did.

Gah.

She made me violent.

And now that I have gotten that out of the way I will continue on to say that I fell in love with Shiloh, felt compassion for Thomas’ misguided youth and kindness, and just hated Alice. The way that the three of them found each other makes more sense than the synopsis had me believe – somehow Tussing made it all seem so natural and evident – and yet at the same time there was an underlying sense of doom in everything they said and did. Usually this sort of thing annoys me, but here it felt inevitable and therefore acceptable.

I desperately wanted to know what would ultimately break them up, and simultaneously didn’t want to see an end that was destined to be painful.

Never had I imagined the deceit that would unfold.

The story is told by Thomas, looking back at that time in his life, and at first it took me a while to get into the prose. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Thomas surly; maybe that is how 17 year-old-boys can be – I wouldn’t know – but there was a naivety to him that vexed me. Thankfully there were a few times that Thomas, in the present, commented on his lack of insight at that age that felt genuine, and he did seem to live rather sheltered life.

Having made my peace with Thomas’ trying inner voice, I later came to appreciate the way Tussing allowed the reader to witness his growth. It’s the relationships he forms with Alice and Shiloh that breaks this story away from the usual coming of age voyages; and ultimately his innocence is the reason why it works.

At times it was beautiful, more often it was infuriating, but always engaging and within the realm of possibility that I enjoy watching others walk. I was lost in their world, wanting to stay there a little bit longer with each chapter read, yet hoping the end would soon arrive to release us all.
 
4.5/5 because of the chapters with the two men travelling looking for miracles, which felt contrived.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2.5/5)

First published: 2008
Original title: Heimsuchung
Original language: German
Translation to English by: Susan Bernofsky, 2010

Page count: 150


The back says: By the side of a lake in Brandenburg, a young architect builds the house of his dreams - a summerhouse with wrought-iron balconies, stained-glass windows the colour of jewels, and a bedroom with a hidden closet, all set within a beautiful garden. But the land on which he builds has a dark history of violence that began with the drowning of a young woman in the grip of madness and that grows darker still over the course of the century: the Jewish neighbours disappear one by one; the Red Army requisitions the house, burning the furniture and trampling the garden; a young East German attempts to swim his way to freedom in the West; a couple return from brutal exile in Siberia and leave the house to their granddaughter, who is forced to relinquish her claim upon it and sell to new owners intent upon demolition. Reaching far into the past, and recovering what was lost and what was buried, Jenny Erpenbeck tells a story both beautiful and brutal, about the things that haunt a home.

I say: This was a rather painful exhausting read that I had to fight my way through. It started out interesting enough, but then quickly descended into too many detailed descriptions of the gardening and work being done on the property.

Why would anyone care about the precise measurements or how often the garden was watered?

Nonsense.

Furthermore the entire text was too repetitive. Espenbeck would literally repeat the same sentences and passages several times on the same page. It was not beautiful and did not cement what was being communicated, but merely served to annoy – especially considering how short the novel is.

Having said all that I liked the idea of the house being at the centre of so many lives. Each person has their own chapter, and they’re all tied together by the only constant; the gardener’s chapters - positioned between the other chapters and annoying the hell out of me – showing the house and garden from a rather neutral point of view. Some of the chapters were interesting and even emotionally powerful, but unfortunately they were eclipsed by the prose, which is a shame because Espenbeck had a nice way of entangling all the people who visited the house.
 
So, 2.5 more of what could have been that what was.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (3.5/5)

First published: 1907
Page count: 304

GoodReads says: Mr Verloc, the secret agent, keeps a shop in London's Soho where he lives with his wife Winnie, her infirm mother, and her idiot brother, Stevie. When Verloc is reluctantly involved in an anarchist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory things go disastrously wrong, and what appears to be "a simple tale" proves to involve politicians, policemen, foreign diplomats and London's fashionable society in the darkest and most surprising interrelations.

I say: This must have been the fifth time I started reading this, and if it weren’t for it being on my completely ignored 100 Classics Challenge, I would never have finished it. And what a shame that would have been.

Somewhat.

As may be deduced from that initial sentence, this was a very slow start for me. A lot of information about Mr Verloc and his family – too much information, I later found out – and I was glad that I had never read the synopsis before picking this up, because it’s not the type of book I enjoy. And I didn’t really enjoy it, but had to keep forcing my way through, which is sad because it could have been a good read.

Conrad has a way with words (though somewhat repetitive with certain phrases) and the ability to build up excitement only to have it all fall a shambles in ridiculous conclusions. Considering all the information and details we were given, it was disappointing to find that most of it went absolutely nowhere. So, hat’s off to Conrad for tricking the hell out of me.

3.5/5 because there were a lot of curious beginnings, but most of them fell flat.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov (3/5)

First published: 1925
Original title: Роковые яйца
Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: Hugh Alpin, 2003

Page count: 102


The back says: [Super-spoilery, so highlight at own risk]Quite by chance, Professor Persikov discovers a new form of light ray whose effect, when directed at living cells, is to accelerated growth in organism. But when this ray is shone on the wrong batch of eggs, the professor finds himself both the unwilling creator of giant hybrids, and the focus of a merciless press campaign. For it seems the propaganda machine has turned its gaze on him, distorting his nature in the very way his ‘innocent’ tampering created the monster snakes and crocodiles that now terrorise the neighbourhood.

I say: As almost always with authors I have already read, I didn’t read the synopsis before starting this, and glad am I of that, since it pretty much gives it all away. Thus not saying that I wasn’t able to predict what was going to happen before it did. Supposedly this was “inspired” by H. G. Wells, which is going to be my excuse for not liking it.

*shade*

But seriously, the prose was stiff and at times too scientific for my liking; it was presented in the form of a news report, with a detachment that I didn’t appreciate. In a lot of ways, this detachment serves a certain purpose, especially if one looks upon it as a satire and political allegory of the Russian Revolution (of course). Therefore I am of two minds; on the one had I didn’t very much enjoy the writing, but on the other hand I understand the satire – even if it wasn’t as subtle as I prefer my satire.

As always with Bulgakov, there were a lot of humorous and absurd incidents, not to mention bizarre characters. One really good thing with this edition is that it had notes at the back explaining all the things that would have gone over my head.

3/5 because it was a worthwhile read, but ultimately nothing special.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Amulet by Roberto Bolaño (4/5)

First published: 1999
Original title: Amuleto
Original language: Spanish
Translation to English by: Chris Andrews, 2006

Page count: 184


The back says: Auxilio Lacouture is trapped. For twelve days she hides alone in a lavatory on the fourth floor of the university. Staring at the floor, she begins a heartfelt and feverish tale: she is the mother of Mexican poetry.

I say: I expected this to be a tale about Auxilio being trapped in the lavatory for twelve days and reminiscing about her life prior to that incident. However, it was hard to tell exactly from which point of time it was told, veering indiscriminately from before, during and after that imprisonment, and somehow this made the tale more powerful and magical.

Unfortunately, I do not know enough of Roberto Bolaño to give an opinion on the character Arturo Belano being his alter ego, the fact that he refers to his magnus opus 2666, or that Auxilio has her own 10-page chapter in the novel The Savage Detectives. Therefore, for me this is a first-person stream of consciousness (which I love) that begins as such:


This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that. Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime.


And continues to follow the self-proclaimed mother of Mexican poetry, and what I loved the most was the depictions of her time spent with the young poets of Mexico and Latin America – and her namedropping of Ché Guevara.

Mind me, the only name I recognised was Federico Garcia Lorca (whom I adore).

There is something authentic about the prose that made me want to believe every word. Perhaps it was the combination of adding actual people and the fact that the occupation of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) was a historical event that I knew nothing about (an appreciated unexpected lesson in history reading this novel).

4/5 and now I’ve bumped up 2666 a few spots on my TBR-list.