#6Degrees of Separation: From Wolfe Island…

Spring is in the air and another opportunity to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Of course, it does help if you know the starting book, but once again this month I do not! The book is Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar and the blurb states: For years Kitty Hawke has lived alone on Wolfe Island, witness to the island’s erosion and clinging to the ghosts of her past. Her work as a sculptor and her wolfdog Girl are enough. News of mainland turmoil is as distant as myth until refugees from that world arrive: her granddaughter Cat, and Luis and Alejandra, a brother and sister escaping persecution. When threats from the mainland draw closer, they are forced to flee for their lives. They travel north through winter, a journey during which Kitty must decide what she will do to protect the people she loves.

I want to move away from end-of-the-world narratives, as they feel a bit too topical at the moment. So instead I will focus on the fact that Lucy Treloar is an Australian writer. I have to admit I only very seldom get to read writers from Australia, especially women writers. One Australian author I particularly admire (although she travelled so much, she must surely have considered herself a global nomad author) is Shirley Hazzard. One book of hers I always, always recommend is the collection of linked short stories People in Glass Houses, which is a brilliant satire of the United Nations in particular (but really of all international organisations).

There are far too few good novels about office life, especially considering we spend so much of our time there. Perhaps publishers assume we all seek escapism rather than to be reminded of our deadly everyday? Another book about office life which I greatly enjoyed is Jonas Karlsson’s The Room, translated by Neil Smith. A narrator who evades all description and manages to find that secret escape room that I’m sure we’ve all longed for at the office at times. When I read it five years ago, I said: Very sharp, painfully funny but also ouch-harsh observations of office politics and recognisable office characters. Plus the lovely corporate jargon we all love to espouse at times. A short, unusual book which tests our own capacity for tolerance and imagination.

Turns out, there are a lot of novels with ‘room’ in their title, so I will opt for quite a well-known one next, one that I would like to re-read, as I was in my late teens or early 20s when I read it. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a classic of gay literature, a story evoking all the giddiness of falling in love, but ultimately all the sadness and suffering of a failed love.

The book is set in Paris, so of course I couldn’t resist picking another novel set in Paris for my next link. I saw it recently on the library shelves at university and was very tempted to pick it up for a re-read. Zola’s The Masterpiece is the tragic story of Claude Lantier, an ambitious and talented young artist who has come from the provinces to conquer Paris but is conquered instead by the flaws of his own genius. Another young man seduced but ultimately undone by the bright lights of Paris!

One book about art and artists that I was obsessed with in my childhood, so much so that I took it with me on a family trip to Florence and insisted that we walk through the streets as described in its pages, was Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, a fictional biography of Michelangelo. I don’t know if it’s well regarded nowadays, or if it’s perceived as somewhat dated, but at the time I loved the descriptions of Florence and Rome, but above all, how the author managed to enter Michelangelo’s mind (via his notebooks, if I am not mistaken) and described the creative process.

My final link is via the word ‘ecstasy’ to a book that was part of my anthropological training. Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy was written in the 1950s but remains one of the key texts in the anthropology of religion. Needless to say, I’ve always been fascinated by this strange phenomenon of the Shaman, both healer and threat, revered and feared, the madman and the poet who does not subscribe to society’s rules.

So this month we have travelled from Australia to the United States to Sweden and Paris, to Florence and, in the last book, from Siberia to South America to Tibet and China and pretty much everywhere in-between. I’ve also noticed that I’ve mentioned mainly male authors this month, so will endeavour to change the proportion next month. Where will your six links take you?

Reading Challenges Update

This is a bit early for a monthly reading update, but I seem to be currently stuck in three books which will take me through right to the end of January and beyond, so it is fair to say that the ten books below are the only ones I read through January.

My only New Year’s resolutions have been my reading challenges. I have signed up for three of them – how have I fared this month? Well, it’s a mixed picture, but I’m not quite ready to give up on my resolutions just yet.

2015global_reading_challengev21)¬†Global Reading Challenge hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise: I’m making it easy on myself this year and opting for the Easy Level – one book from each of the 7 continents (Africa, Asia, Australasia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America, plus a new continent – Antarctica or a new threshold you are willing to pass – paranormal, historical, space, sea). The reason I have pulled back a little is because I want to choose really brand-new settings/authors, rather than falling back on my usual French/German/Scandinavian/South African staples. So, although I read 3 French books, 1 Japanese book, 1 German book, 1 Irish and 1 Swedish book and 1 ‘vampirish’ novel this month. I am reluctant to put any of them down as my European component. Because none of that would be new to me. Mission not accomplished.¬†Have to do better next month!

2) January in Japan Challenge hosted by Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List.¬†Not quite good enough.¬†I only managed to finish one book: Kanae Minato’s¬†Confessions¬†and am still in the midst of reading Natsume SŇćseki’s last, unfinished novel¬†Light and Dark.¬†As for my ambition to read the new(ish) translation of¬†Tales of Genji (Royall Tyler version): well, this will have to wait, but will hopefully be my epic undertaking for the year.

tbr-dare-20143) TBR Double Dog Dare  hosted by James at James Reads Books. This is a last-ditch attempt to bring some order into the chaos which is my TBR pile Рoverflowing on shelves, on the floor and threatening to inundate my laptop and tablet as well. The aim is to not buy any new books until I have made a sizeable dent in my pile of ready and waiting books. With a little cheating. i.e. borrowing from libraries just before the holidays and last minute purchasing of books in 2014, I managed to do quite well with this challenge Рvictory!

The three library books I borrowed were all in French, so they don’t count, because it’s like work (improving my vocabulary, making the most of my current location etc. etc.) They were:

  • Patrick Modiano:¬†L’Herbe des nuits

Given the blurb on the back, I was expecting more of a crime fiction type mystery, but it’s the usual Modiano fare about the reliability of memory, how well we really know people, trying to recapture the past and whether nostalgia really lives up to its name.

  • Jeanne Desaubry:¬†Poubelle’s Girls

poubelles-girls-jeanne-desaubyA touching Thelma and Louise type story of two women living on the margins of French society and the unlikely friendship which arises between them. A depressingly realistic story of the poor and downtrodden, but also quite funny, with fascinating, well-rounded characters and juicy dialogue.

  • Daniel Pennac:¬†Comme un roman

An essay about the joys of reading and how schools, parents, teachers and book snobs are in danger of killing off the joys of reading for young people. Contains the famous Ten Comandments of Reading (or the Rights of the Reader)

1. Le droit de ne pas lire. The right to not read.
2. Le droit de sauter des pages. The right to skip pages
3. Le droit de ne pas finir un livre. The right to not finish a book.
4. Le droit de relire. The right to reread.
5. Le droit de lire n’importe quoi. The right to read whatever you please.
6. Le droit au bovarysme (maladie textuellement transmissible). The right to Bovaryism (textually transmitted disease).
7. Le droit de lire n’importe o√Ļ. The right to read wherever you please.
8. Le droit de grappiller. The right to dip into books.
9. Le droit de lire à haute voix. The right to read out loud.
10. Le droit de se taire. The right to shut up.

The other books have all been from my existing shelves and most of them have been reviewed elsewhere:

  • Tana French: The Likeness – bought second-hand last year . My first, but certainly not my last Tana French book.¬†Although the plot did seem implausible in places, I really enjoyed the¬†engaging writing, poetic at times, and the genuine sadness of the failure of any idealistic community.
  • Lynn Shepherd: The Pierced Heart¬† – ebook sent to me by the author in exchange for an honest review (having reviewed a previous book of hers). The vampire story for those who do not like vampire stories (which I don’t).
  • Jonas Karlsson: The Room¬†¬†–¬†Netgalley ebook sent by publisher way back in November. A perfect modern fable about corporate life and the death of the imagination.
  • Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train¬†– downloaded from Netgalley several months ago.¬†The life of others always seems more attractive when we are making a mess of our own… and when we see them from a distance. A psychological thriller full of unreliable narrators and domestic claustrophobia.
  • girlwhowasntFerdinand von Schirach: The Girl Who Wasn’t There¬†– copy sent by publisher for review on CFL. Not really a crime novel, more of a ‘coming of age’ story, plus a courtroom drama debating issues of justice, art, trial by media and much more – beautifully written.

The final book I read this month was¬†Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment,¬†which I bought in the last few weeks of 2014 following the review by Jacqui. I had previously read the reviews by Tony and Bibliobio, but kept putting it off as far too depressing a subject. Then Jacqui gave me the final nudge. A very emotional read, engaging all your senses – abandon all rationality ye who enter this maelstrom! Will review in more depth shortly.¬†¬†¬†

 

 

Review of The Room by Jonas Karlsson (transl. Neil Smith)

It’s that time of year when Christmas revelry has given way to austerity, when budgets are strained and when the daily grind of work and commuting becomes very nearly unbearable. So much so that the last or last-but-one Monday in January is frequently (though controversially) cited as Blue or Suicide Monday, the most depressing day of the year.

THE ROOM cover (1)So what better time to read this short but deadly satire against cubicle life? It is a wickedly humorous analysis of the lows (and no highs) of office life, as encountered by rather strait-laced, deadly-earnest but initially naive protagonist Bj√∂rn. His organisation, which goes by the rather sinister name of ‘The Authority’, looks favourably upon those employees who are positive, efficient, ambitious and meticulous.¬†Bj√∂rn feels he has all of these qualities, but none of his colleagues or bosses seem to agree. It’s only when he discovers a mysterious room at the end of their open-plan office, that he finds a congenial place for his finicky temperament, a place where he can get his best work done, where he can really shine. Unfortunately, none of his other colleagues can enter or even see the room. Suspicion, misunderstandings and office wrangling for power abound and fester. As readers, we are swept along with the torrent of acerbic, witty observations, always seeing a little beyond¬†Bj√∂rn’s blinders, but also acknowledging the justice and sheer fun of his¬†observations. I love the way he pokes fun at corporate jargon.

I got an email from Karl the other day. It was a group email to the whole department. The introduction alone made me suspect trouble: We will be putting staffing issues under a microscope. Anyone with even a basic understanding of the language knows that you put things under ‘the’ microscope, with the definite article. (Sadly, this sort of sloppiness is becoming more and more common as text message and email are taking over.) I let it pass this time, but knew that I would have to act if it happened again.

We suspect he might not be a reliable narrator, but his colleagues’ reactions are inexcusable, veering towards bullying. Case in point: the incident with the ‘indoor shoes’, which the well-intentioned but weak boss Karl buys for Bj√∂rn. This results in a murmur of discontent around the office. This passage illustrates perfectly the author’s minimalist style:

‘Well…’ Jens said from over in the corner. ‘I’d just like to know… how much those shoes cost?’

‘The shoes?’ Karl said, stretching to his full height.

Jens nodded, with a self-important expression on his face.

‘I mean, they weren’t free, were they?’

‘No,’ Karl said, picking up a pen, which he drummed idly against the edge of the desk. ‘I took the liberty of – ‘

Jens didn’t let Karl finish his sentence.

‘So how daft do you have to behave to get a pair like that?’ he went on, to scattered laughter.

The absurd situations described with a straight face remind me of Eug√®ne Ionesco. We find in both authors the same feeling of alienation, that step back to examine the banal everyday things we take for granted… and seeing them afresh for the ridiculous and surreal experiences which they really are. ¬†Another way to read ‘The Room’ is as a failure of imagination, the tendency of the mainstream to fear those who are ‘different’. It is clear that the office workers object to Bj√∂rn’s behaviour not because it threatens them in any way, but because he refuses to conform and fit in, because he is not part of the herd.

This book falls into a long tradition of quiet but steadfast rebellion against the tyranny of work. In Balzac’s ‘The Physiology of the Employee’, we read about personal expenses of employees being thoroughly examined, benefits being cut, and my all-time favourite sentence about the door on which ‘the sign reads “Human Resources,” which really strictly means “Human Capital,” and in practice amounts to little more than “Slave” ‘. Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener is every bit as prickly, difficult and unknowable as Bj√∂rn. ‘The Authority’ for which Bj√∂rn works has echoes of Kafka’s faceless, relentless bureaucracy in ‘The Castle’ (and Kafka’s diaries are full of his exhaustion and revulsion for office work). More recently, Ricky Gervais as David Brent made us squirm in recognition with his mockumentary ‘The Office’.

For a taster of the book (read by the author with a wonderful sing-song Swedish inflection), try this:

 

https://soundcloud.com/vintagebookspodcast/the-room-by-jonas-karlsson-what-are-you-doing/s-IGmxT

And here is the prize-winning animation of the book’s theme by a group of students from Kingston University:

The book is published today by Vintage Books in the UK. Thank you to the publisher and to Netgalley for an advance copy of this essential reading for anyone who has ever despaired of corporate life.