Misfits, Taggers and Horror Builds Up

This grouping of reviews will puzzle you, perhaps, but the three books provoked a similar reaction in me, albeit with different degrees of discomfort. They are all about misfits, and give a rather brutal picture of Scandinavian societies, which to many of us seem a haven of egalitarianism and tolerance.

somerainKarl Ove Knausgaard: Some Rain Must Fall (My Struggle 5), transl. Don Bartlett

I admit I’m a bit addicted to the long, rambling, self-absorbed outpourings of Knausgaard. It’s a little like reading all your unedited jumble of thoughts (somewhat better expressed). The author is so hard on himself (or on his younger self, which I still believe is a bit of an alter ego rather than his real self), particularly in this volume. Karl Ove is now 19 and has followed his big brother to Bergen, where he will attend the writing academy. He stays in Bergen for fourteen years, during which he feels he is not making any progress as a human being or as a writer, despite his utmost efforts. He has no one but himself to blame: he is constantly sabotaged by his own ego, envy of others, awkwardness, drinking and lust. He feels hurt when others criticise his writing efforts, plagiarises someone’s work, gets drunk and violent, is a lousy boyfriend, tries to be part of a band although he can barely play the drums, doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. This is such a powerful, unvarnished portrait of a young man trying to rise above the average but fearing that there may not be anything of substance within him.

Yes, all the usual criticism of Knausgaard applies: it is overlong, it goes off on tangents all the time, it feels unfiltered like life itself, but it is eminently entertaining and readable. Disquieting? Yes, especially when I read the book below straight after. Unfair to compare Karl Ove with Anders Behring Breivik? Well, in the sixth and final volume of My Struggle, Knausgaard explores that connection himself, looking at the darkness inherent in human nature and the choices young people make. The difference being, of course, that while both Karl Ove and Anders are self-conscious and awkward youngsters who want to believe they are the best, Karl Ove is also self-aware and self-deprecating.

oneofusÅsne Seierstad: One of Us – The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, transl. by Sarah Death

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb outside the Norwegian prime minister’s office in central Oslo, killing eight people. He then proceeded to a youth camp on the wooded island of Utøya, where he gunned down sixty-nine more, most of them teenage members of the country’s governing Labour Party. In this book, journalist Seierstad explores not only the life of the perpetrator, but also of a few of his victims, and examines the inadequate police emergency response on that day, as well as the debates surrounding his trial and plea of insanity.

We get a glimpse into Breivik’s childhood, his distant father, life with his depressed single mother, attempts to ingratiate himself with the hip-hop community and make a name for himself as a graffiti tagger, a right-wing activist, a successful entrepreneur, and then an Internet game addict and self-styled master warrior who believed he could save Europe from the threat of Islam and multiculturalism. However, Norwegian society is also closely examined: the official rhetoric of feminism and tolerance compared to real-life examples on the ground. We see that Breivik was far from alone in his beliefs, although few were willing to openly voice them and no one else was prepared to take such violent action. And we wonder if it was liberalism or indifference which allowed him to pile up such an arsenal of weapons and bomb-making equipment in a derelict farmhouse.

This was really hard to read at times: detailed, fascinating and distressing in equal measure, and at times it felt voyeuristic and too graphic in its description of the massacre and the grief of the survivors. An important book, however; no doubt about it.

girlbombJari Järvelä: The Girl and the Bomb, transl. by Kristian London

We move to Finland, to the small town of Kotka, near Helsinki. Rust and Metro are graffiti taggers and lovers, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law. Just like in the real-life account of Anders Breivik’s teenage years, the police are cracking down hard on graffiti artists, whom they perceive as ‘vandals’ and often outsource the catching of them to private security firms. As they are being chased one night by these security guards, Rust falls to his death. The guards try to cover up the incident and Metro is determined to take revenge for her boyfriend’s death.

I really enjoyed this short, sharp, clever novel, with its alternating points of view. I liked both of the main characters, feisty Metro and hapless security guard Jere, who only wanted a quiet life but finds himself taking the blame for somebody else. I kept wishing that they weren’t on opposing sides and that there would be an explanation between them and a ‘happy ending’ of sorts. But of course no such happy ending is possible when violence, accusations and misunderstandings escalate. An intriguing peek into an urban subculture, as well as a deep-dive under the seemingly serene surface of Finnish society to the murkiness below.

 

Friday Fun: More Writers’ Homes in France

Seems like I can never get enough of houses in France, especially those which belong to writers and artists. I’m ranking them in order of luxury. Some of them appear to have come from moneyed backgrounds, others seem to have made a fortune from their work… or perhaps houses were much cheaper back then. Here’s to hoping!

Colette's birthplace, the house of Sido. From maisondecolette.fr
Colette’s birthplace, the house of Sido. From maisondecolette.fr
Alain-Fournier lived here, from berryprovince.com
Alain-Fournier lived here, from berryprovince.com
I'm guessing Rabelais didn't live here during his period as a monk. From laparafe.fr
I’m guessing Rabelais didn’t live here during his period as a monk. From laparafe.fr
Painter Gustave Courbet's birthplace, now a museum in the picture-pretty village of Ornans. From museefrance.fr
Painter Gustave Courbet’s birthplace, now a museum in the picture-pretty village of Ornans. From museefrance.fr
Poet Mallarme's house and garden. From jeanro.canalblog.com
Poet Mallarme’s house and garden. From jeanro.canalblog.com
Alphonse Daudet clearly didn't write about this house in his Lettres de mon moulin. From maison-alphonse-daudet.com
Alphonse Daudet clearly didn’t write about this house in his Lettres de mon moulin. From maison-alphonse-daudet.com
Clearly, if you are a politician as well as a writer, and inherit money from the Tsarina, like Chateaubriand did, your house is outstanding. From artslettres.ning.com
Naturally, if you are a politician as well as a writer, and inherit money from the Tsarina, like Chateaubriand did, your house is outstanding. From artslettres.ning.com

 

 

I Thought I Was Doing So Well…

I haven’t signed up to the TBR Triple Dog challenge this year (which means no purchasing or borrowing new books for 3 months, until you reduce your TBR pile considerably). I love the concept, but I failed rather dismally last year. Secretly, however, I was planning to tag along unofficially. I noticed, with some satisfaction, that in January I managed to read 14 from my TBR list, 2 review books, 1 from the library and 1 that a friend lent me. So I blithely informed James at his end of January update that I had done quite well.

But then books started arriving in the post, my willpower weakened and my clicky finger got activated…

So here is the truth of the matter:

Books I borrowed and had to read quickly before returning:

Christos Tsiolkas: Dead Europe

Ian Rankin: Standing in Another Man’s Grave

Books I got sent by publishers:

Karl Ove Knausgaard: Some Rain Must Fall – Vol. 5 about attending writing school and becoming an adult – I dived into it at once

Peter Gardos: Fever at Dawn – 1945 and Hungarian Miklos has just emerged from Belsen and is recovering in a refuggee camp in Sweden; he is looking for love and writes a letter to 117 Hungarian women from his village.

He Jiahong: Hanging Devils – Set in the mid 1990s, this debut by one of China’s foremost legal experts turned crime fiction author describes a rapidly-changing society.

Succumbed to Netgalley temptation:

Simon Booker: Without Trace  – a miscarriage of justice, a childhood sweetheart released from prison and then her own daughter goes missing – can she trust anyone?

Lisa Owens: Not Working – 20-something stops working to figure out what her purpose in life is

Joanna Cannon: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – 1976 and 2 ten-year-olds decide to uncover the mystery of the missing neighbour

Melissa Harrison: Rain – 4 walks in the English weather – better get used to it again

Ordered thanks to enthusiastic reviews (I name the guilty party too):

Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (Tony Malone)

Andrew McMillan: Physical (Anthony Anaxagorou) – poetry: hymns to the male body, friendship and love

Rebecca Goss: Her Birth (Anthony Anaxagorou) – poetry: series of poems documenting the short life of a daughter born with a rare and incurable heart condition

Claudia Rankine: Citizen (Naomi Frisby) – I’ve read this but wanted my own copy

Complete Novels of E. Nesbit (Simon Thomas) – because I haven’t read any of her novels for adults

So I acknowledge defeat on the buy/borrow/download front, but will stick to reading more from the TBR pile at least…

 

 

Fragmenting into Teens

3Amigos (2)They’re training me well for the decades to come,

watching the News Year’s Concert from Vienna on my own.

Minecraft blocks in bland primaries fill their screens.

Pressure cooks; I shout and shout.

‘One more minute, please, Mum!’

At least they still say please.

Books he once loved

scatter in abandon on the floor or foisted

upon unwilling younger brother.

He still knows the name of every dinosaur ever excavated,

corrects my eras when I stutter.

If only his detailed lists extended to homework,

his attention to detail had bearing on his missing objects.

A few more months

to snuggle my nose against his smooth cheeks

and breathe in sulky childishness

before the razor bites.

 

Synopsis Alive, Alive-Oh!

Why did no one warn me that writing a synopsis is so difficult? I’ve written book reviews of other people’s books (and one of an imaginary book when I was in Primary 3 and hadn’t bothered to read anything suitable during the Easter holidays). I’ve written blurb-like teasers under the misguided impression that this was what an editor or agent would expect from a synopsis. But, even after reading excellent advice on how to write synopsis here or here , my own efforts seem exceedingly bland. And anything but alive! Here’s the first paragraph that I slaved over for hours yesterday:

Melinda is a 40-year-old trailing spouse to a banker husband, Graham, and is finding it difficult to adapt to the expat community in Geneva. A dreamy mathematician of Romanian origin who turned accountant to accommodate the family, she does not have the right background or social skills to blend in well with the snobbish environment she encounters.

Yawn! See what I mean? Too much back story and it sounds vaguely like an autobiography (except I’m neither mathematician nor accountant, nor is my husband a banker). Besides, the book doesn’t really start there. It starts with a death. Of course it does, it’s crime fiction after all. So my question is: when you start at a certain crisis point in the novel, then move backwards to show how they got to that point, should your synopsis follow the chronological story or the way you’re revealing things gradually on the page?

I spent all day yesterday producing about 300 words of synopsis, which I then deleted in its entirety. [Or at least the part of the day that I wasn’t spending on phoning doctors and researching hospitals for my husband’s stiff shoulder, which he assured me was a serious emergency, until he actually went to see the nurse at his workplace and was told it could wait until the appointment I had already made for him for next week.]

So back to the drawing board today, in-between bouts of picking up a sick child from school and nursing him. Let me try with the ‘following the storyline’ approach. I found a step-by-step guide to writing a synopsis which I think might work for me. The author suggests the following stages:

  1. List your scenes (so you are following the order that you lay them out in the book)
  2. Condense them into a summary (this is where you can lose a lot of the back story)
  3. Enrich it to give a flavour of your style (this is a part which I found missing in most synopsis advice, which is why most examples I read sounded terribly dull)
  4. Check for sense (is it an accurate and honest representation of your novel?)
  5. Reflection (this is where you can test for plotholes or clichés, unrealistic motivation or other flaws)

I can see this is going to take much longer than I’d expected, so I’m glad I’m allowing myself time to do this properly (at least until the end of next week). Here is a first intuitive stab at that opening paragraph again:

Melinda and Rob, two bored expats in Geneva, are attempting a drug-fuelled tryst with a charismatic young gigolo, Max. To their horror, Max has a seizure and dies. Desperate to conceal their affair from their respective partners and afraid that the police will accuse them of manslaughter, they decide to hide the body in nearby woodland. What they don’t know is that Max was also the protegé of Adnan, the king of cocaine in the area, and Rob’s drug supplier.

That’s still not quite right, but a bit more likely to capture my interest. What do you think? For comparison purposes, here is an example of a synopsis of the original Star Wars.

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, a controlling government called the Empire takes control of planets, systems, and people. Anyone who resists is obliterated. Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland. When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it—a message from a princess begging for help.

By the way, if you are looking for a step-by-step critique of synopsis examples, there is a no-nonsense blog called Miss Snark who does just that. Anyone else willing to share their synopsis frustrations or examples?

 

January Reading Round-Up

Another busy month of reading, partly because of holidays and children’s illnesses, when I wasn’t able to do much else. Not so much reviewing, although some of the crime novels below will be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover. A lot of rather dark reading, too, as befits this time of year. I have travelled all over the globe via books.

Crime fiction set in diverse locations

Panorama of Sarajevo, from Wikiwand.
Panorama of Sarajevo, from Wikiwand.
  1. Dan Fesperman: Lie in the Dark – Sarajevo under siege, who cares about a murder when people are dying every day?
  2. Yasmina Khadra: Qu’attendent les singes (What are monkeys waiting for?) – the impossibility of investigating murder honestly and openly in politically corrupt Algeria
  3. Johan Theorin: The Voices Beyond (transl. Marlaine Delargy) – vengeance and deadly rivalry on the island of Öland in Sweden
  4. Margie Orford: Water Music – crimes against young women and children in the beautiful surroundings of Cape Town
  5. Brooke Magnanti: The Turning Tide – London and the Hebrides alternate in this entertaining cross between chick-lit and political thriller
  6. T.R. Richmond: What She Left – suicide or murder of a young student at Southampton University?
  7. Angela Clarke: Follow Me – social media stalking and hashtag murdering in London
  8. Alison Bruce: The Promise – death of a homeless man opens up a can of worms in Cambridge
  9. Ian Rankin: Standing in Another Man’s Grave – Rebus is back and investigating a serial killer along the A9 heading north of Edinburgh
  10. Raphael Montes: Perfect Days – a crazy road trip with your kidnapper through Brazil

Non-Fiction:

Palace Hotel Gstaad, Switzerland, from betterlivingny.wordpress.com
Palace Hotel Gstaad, Switzerland, from betterlivingny.wordpress.com
  1. Padraig Rooney: The Gilded Chalet: Off Piste in Literary Switzerland
  2. Andrew Solomon: The Noonday Demon – a personal account into depression, but also an investigation into how depression is perceived and handled in the US and other parts of the world
  3. Anne Theriault: My Heart Is an Autumn Garage – a memoir of depression and hospitalisation in Canada

Other Fiction:

Dmitry Shostakovich, from allmusic.com
Dmitry Shostakovich, from allmusic.com
  1. Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time – a fictional account of the life and compromises of Shostakovich in the Soviet Union
  2. Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Go, Going, Gone) – understanding the challenges of being a refugee in Germany
  3. Christos Tsiolkas: Dead Europe – an Aussie travelling through a rapidly changing Europe which has lost its innocence
  4. Lauren Holmes: Barbara the Slut and Other People – young Americans trying to find a purpose to life
  5. Anthony Anaxagorou: The Blink that Killed the Eye – life, art and death in an impoverished British society

The three crime reads which I most enjoyed were Margie Orford, Ian Rankin and Dan Fesperman, but I would find it difficult to choose between the three of them for a Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. The best book for dipping into was The Gilded Chalet – a real coffee table book if you have any interest in literature or Switzerland. Finally, the most memorable books of the month were by Julian Barnes, Anthony Anaxagorou and Jenny Erpenbeck.

Fiction Set in Dysfunctional Societies

Yasmina Khadra’s Algeria

KhadraSingesThis is the work of an Algerian writer disillusioned with his country. Disguised as a crime novel and a murder investigation, it is actually an indictment of the corruption of Algerian politics, law, police force and journalism.

A young girl is found dead in a forest outside Alger and Nora Bilal, one of the few female officers in the Algerian police, is entrusted with the investigation. Her methods are questioned and she is personally disrespected at every turn, especially when it turns out that some political figures may be involved in a complicated story of prostitution and thirst for power. Brutal, with a high body count and utterly merciless protagonists, as well as some very brave (or foolhardy) police officers, this is not a pleasant story. Khadra can come across as preachy sometimes, but he can also weave an exciting story, which ends in a very unexpected and dramatic fashion.

Other powerful fictional (more or less) representations of Algeria: Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night; Assia Djebar’s Algerian White; Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.

Dan Fesperman’s Sarajevo

fespermanThe war in Yugoslavia: it’s about 1994/95 and Sarajevo has been under siege for about 2 years now. Vlado Petric has escaped army conscription by being a police officer, but even he has to admit that his job is utter nonsense: what does a domestic murder matter in a city where so many die daily in mortar attacks or shot by snipers?

Yet one night, when he stumbles in the dark upon a victim of shooting, close inspection reveals that this is no sniper incident, but a deliberate murder at close range. The victim is a head of security in the newly formed Bosnian Ministry of Interior, and it appears he trod on many toes: smugglers, black marketeers, local militia and so on. However, Vlado soon becomes convinced that something much bigger was at stake.

How is it possible to investigate in a city ravaged by hunger, corruption and desperation? How is it possible to keep your head and your integrity when all about you there is nothing but darkness and greed? This is an outstanding portrayal of a city and society driven to the utter limits, and you can forgive any plot inconsistencies or the rushed ending for the atmosphere it evokes.

Other books about Sarajevo which have stuck in my mind: Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Alma Lazarevska’s Death in the Museum of Modern Art and Zlata Filipovic: Zlata’s Diary, for a child’s perspective on war.

barnesJulian Barnes’ Soviet Union

Barnes is a keen Francophile and has lived in France, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has adopted the French habit of a mélange between biography and fiction for his latest novel, an imagining of three key moments in the life of composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

In the first instance, we see a young, anxious Shostakovich waiting with his suitcase beside the lift in his block of flats, fully expecting to be taken in by the KGB for questioning during Stalin’s worst purges in the 1930s. His recent opera was denounced as bourgeois and unpalatable, and he wants to spare his family the pain of being carted away in front of their eyes. The second moment occurs ten years later, when he has survived the war and even emerged as a leading composer, reliable enough to be sent to a congress in the US, but nevertheless very fearful of saying or thinking the wrong thing. Finally, we see him old, resigned and somewhat complicit with the arguably more liberal regime under Khrushchev.

Although the biographical detail is fascinating and probably quite accurate, it’s the human and individual reaction to an oppressive regime, the attempt to create something of lasting artistic value within the constraints of prescribed Communist values, which makes this book really interesting. The daily fears and gradual compromises are described with great insight, candour and compassion. I will be writing a full review of this remarkable (and quite short) work for the next issue of Shiny New Books.

Other unforgettable books about the Soviet regime: Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park; Tom Rob Smith: Child 44; Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago; Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle.