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: Writers and their Writing Dens

A day early, but just in time to build up a little book(shelf) envy for the weekend: a peek around the studies or home libraries of famous writers. Some impress us with their tidiness…

Colson Whitehead in his study. From New York Times website.
American novelist Colson Whitehead in his study. From New York Times website.

British writer Ali Smith takes a more relaxed approach to bookshelves…

Ali Smith at home. From The New Statesman.
Ali Smith at home. From The New Statesman.

Others excel in collecting precious items not just in the kitchen, but also in their study.

Food writer Nigella Lawson at work. From Buzzfeed.
Food writer Nigella Lawson at work. From Buzzfeed.

One might expect Karl Ove Knausgård to dedicate a lot of time and thought to his books. Sure enough… and he smokes too!

Knausgaard in his studio. From The Guardian.
Knausgaard in his studio. From The Guardian.

Of course, you expect a trendy office for fashion journalist and co-founder of Clique Media, Hilary Kerr.

Hilary Kerr's office redesign. From Domaine Home.
Hilary Kerr’s office redesign. From Domaine Home.

But then again, simplicity is best. Here is Louis de Bernière’s garden shed – things don’t get much simpler than this! Proving that all you need to write is willpower.

Louis de Berniere's outdoor study. From The Guardian.
Louis de Berniere’s outdoor study. From The Guardian.

 

 

 

Reading Bingo for 2014 (Mostly)

Thank you to the wonderful Cleo for making me aware of the reading bingo meme below. She has some wonderful selections on her own blog, do go and check them out, and I doubt I’ll be able to do quite as well, but here goes. I’ve stuck mainly to books read in 2014 and linked to my reviews of them (where available).

reading-bingo-small1) 500+ pages: Pierre Lemaitre’s wonderful recount of the end of the First World War: Au-revoir la-haut

2) Forgotten Classic: Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – I hadn’t read it since my schooldays and it was much better this time round

3) Book that became a movie:  Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Judge and His Hangman – adapted several times for TV and cinema, but its most famous and stylish adaptation is directed by Maximilian Schell

4) Book Published This Year: probably far too many, but one that comes to mind instantly is ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur‘ by Gregoire Delacourt

5) Book with a number in the title: 220 Volts by Joseph Incardona (review still to come) – an ‘electrifying’ account of a marriage in its death throes and a writer searching for inspiration

6) Book written by someone under 30: No idea, as the younger authors don’t usually have a Wikipedia entry with their date of birth, but I suspect that Kerry Hudson might fit into this category. I really enjoyed her novel ‘Thirst’.

7) A book with non-human characters: not really my type of reading, but Lauren Owen’s ‘The Quick’ featured vampires. Does that count? They are humanoid…

8) Funny: Light, witty and making me love my cat even more: Lena Divani’s ‘Seven Lives and One Great Love

9) Book by a female author: LOTS of them, hopefully, but a special shout-out for the delightful Wuthering Heights-like epic by Minae Mizumura ‘A True Novel’

10) Mystery: Well, most of my reading revolves around crime fiction, but I will mention David Jackson’s thrilling, heartbreaking read ‘Cry Baby

11) Novel with a one-word title: Surprisingly, there were a number of contenders for this, but I chose Shuichi Yoshida’s ‘Villain‘ – which is also a single word in Japanese ‘Akunin’.

12) Short stories: I realised this year that I haven’t read many short story collections recently, so I tried to make up for this and read about 4-5. My favourite was Alma Lazarevska’s  ‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art‘, stories set during the siege of Sarajevo.

13) A book set on a different continent: You know how I like to travel, so I have quite a choice here and went for the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean, as portrayed in ‘Devil-Devil’ by Graeme Kent.

14) Non-fiction: Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking‘ – the most honest and poignant depiction of grief I’ve come across in a long, long time

15) First Book by a favourite author: I’m cheating a little bit here, as I did not read it this year, but ‘The Voyage Out’ by Virginia Woolf surely counts? A much more conventional novel than her later work, it nevertheless contains many of her perennial themes (of trying to fit in, of the difficulties of communication, of allowing your emotions to be your guide and, finally, of becoming your own person with your own thoughts and stimulating intellect).

16) A book I heard about online: I discover many, far too many books and add them to my TBR list as a result of reading so many good blogs. Tony Malone has been the one to blame for many an impulsive purchase (usually well worth the effort!), and now he is also responsible for my obsession with Karl Ove Knausgård and his ‘A Man in Love‘.

17) Bestseller: I’m never quite sure if what I’m reading is a bestseller or not, as this is not one of the criteria I bear in mind when selecting a book. However, I’m pretty sure that ‘Norwegian by Night‘ by Derek B. Miller qualifies for that title – and it won the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award.

18) Book based on a true story: The partly autobiographical account (supplemented by a lot of imagination and memories from other participants) of the life of her mother by Delphine de Vigan 

19) Book at the bottom of the TBR pile: Well, it depends if it’s electronic book or physical book. I have a massive chunk of double-shelving to get through and the one that happened to be behind all the others was a book I picked up at a library sale ‘Un sentiment plus fort que la peur’ by Marc Levy. Levy is the most-read French author, has been translated into 49 languages and currently lives in the US. I suspect his thrillerish bestsellers might not quite be my style, but at 50 centimes for 400+ pages, I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

20) A book that a friend loves: Several friends (both online and real-life) have recommended Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs‘. I can completely understand their passion for it.

21) A book that scares me: I don’t read horror fiction very much and am not easily scared. However, horrible situations or characters, such as the mother in Koren Zailckas’ ‘Mother, Mother‘, do give me the creeps.

22) A book that is more than 10 years old: So many of my favourite books are… However, one I recently (re)read was Fumiko Enchi’s ‘The Waiting Years‘, written in 1957, and depicting an even older Japan.

23) The second book in a series: Frédérique Molay’s Paris-based detective Nico Sirsky reappears in the intriguing investigation concerning a dead man’s hidden message in ‘Crossing the Line

LongWayHome24) A book with a blue cover: I am susceptible both to blue covers and to this Canadian writer’s series about Armand Gamache: Louise Penny’s latest novel ‘The Long Way Home

 

What I’ll Remember of 2013

In terms of books, of course. I know the year is not quite over, but I am stuck in a huge book, so I don’t think I’ll get to read much else. 

I’ve done a summary of my top five crime reads (books published in 2013 and reviewed by me) on the Crime Fiction Lover website. These, however, are more of a motley collection of books I’ve loved, regardless of genre, reviews, whether they were published recently or not.  And they don’t fit neatly into a list of ten.

the harbour of Marseille
The harbour of Marseille (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner     The most frightening description of OCD, conveyed with a real sense of menace. Psychological shudders guaranteed.

Jean-Claude Izzo: Marseille Trilogy    Just glorious, despite the darkness – a symphony for the senses.

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast    Damning, elegant prose, as precise as a scalpel, dissecting families and tyranny of all kinds.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers      Somewhere between anthropology and fiction lies this utterly moving book, an unflinching look at the everyday life, hopes and horrors in an Indian slum. The book that I wish more than anything I could have written.

Esi Eudgyan: Half Blood Blues     Who cares about accuracy, when it has the most amazing voice and melody, all of the whorls of the best of jazz improvisation?

English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary
English: Glasgow Cathedral and Royal Infirmary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Denise Mina: Garnethill       Another book strong on voice and characters, perfectly recreating a Glasgow which I’ve never known but can instantly recognise. Initially depressing but ultimately uplifting.

Karin Fossum: Calling Out for You     Almost elegiac crime fiction, with uncomfortable portrayals of casual racism, the cracks in an almost perfect little society/ This was an eerie and haunting tale, almost like a ghost story.

Ioanna Bourazopoulou: What Lot’s Wife Saw       The most imaginative novel I have read all year, it defies all expectations or genre categories. I felt transposed into an Alice in Wonderland world, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Bangkok
Bangkok (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

John Burdett: Bangkok Eight      Clash of cultures and unsentimental look at the flesh trade in Thailand, this one again has an inimitable voice.

Carlotto: At the End of a Dull Day     If you like your humour as black and brief as an espresso, you will love the tough world of Giorgio Pellegrini. So much more stylish than Tarantino!

Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Man in Love      Perhaps it’s too soon to add it to the list, as I only read it last week, but it felt to me like an instant classic.

So what strikes me about this list?

1) They are none of them a barrel of laughs, although there are occasional flashes of (rather dark) humour in them.

2) With the exception of the Katherine Boo ethnography, I wouldn’t have expected to be bowled over by any of the above. So keeping an open mind is essential for discovering that next amazing read.

3) There were other books which initially made much more of an impression (the Fireworks Brigade, shall we say), but when I look back on what really stuck with me, what made me think or feel differently as a result of reading them, those are the books I would have to point out.

English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Ca...
English: Stockholm panorama. Lithography by Carl Johan Billmark 1868. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) They are each set in a different city and country: London, Marseille, a dining room in Germany, Mumbai, war-time Paris, Glasgow, Norway, the Dead Sea sometime in the future, Bangkok, Venice and Stockholm.  What can I say? I love to travel!

On that more upbeat note, I’ve discovered many new (to me) writers and series this year. Some of them are gentler, funnier reads, perfect to unwind. Here are a few that I hope to read more of: Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Pierre Lemaitre and Anne Zouroudi.

A Man (a Writer) in Love

KarlOveKI had read about Karl Ove Knausgård (or Knausgaard, as he has been anglicised) and his scandalously candid and painful memoir ‘Min Kamp’ (My Struggle)before, but it was Tony Malone’s thoughtful review of it which drove me into its arms. I downloaded the free sample chapters from Amazon and read them in one go. I immediately ordered a paperback edition of the book – this was going to be a keeper. Not only did I laugh at the descriptions of my own family holidays and children’s parties, but I also shame-facedly had to admit that perhaps I shared some stylistic similarities with this writer. (Endless sentences, showing off one’s literary knowledge and fascination with trivia, anyone?)

Wry recognition: that was my first reaction to the sharp, witty observations of the daily struggle to balance creativity and family obligations, social life and the desire to be alone, the polarity between the compulsion to write and the frustration of daily chores.

Then gender loyalty kicked in. Wait a minute, what about his wife Linda? Maybe she wanted to be creative too, reignite her writing career? Maybe she too needs to be alone with her thoughts from time to time, or hates Rhyme Time singing with smug yummy mummies? I can recall all to clearly how lost I have felt at school gates, how much of an outsider at playgroups, bored to tears by all the talk about feeding and potty-training, and (more recently) about best schools and 11+ exams. Maybe well-educated women feel a toddler’s conversation is somewhat less fascinating and stimulating when they too could be spouting forth with friends about Hölderlin or the Norwegian/Swedish cultural differences over beer and cognac.

It’s not that most women are happy with or convinced by domesticity: but they simply are realists. There is no other way to raise children in a satisfactory manner. They are just as trapped as Knausgaard himself claims to be, a 19th century man caught in Scandinavian 21st century expectations. Perhaps there is a far more profound and chilling social statement he is making, namely that men in the Scandinavian countries, whom many consider to be a paradise for women and mothers, are experiencing a backlash. They are feeling emasculated by these expectations of equality, which to me feels like an admission of the greater selfishness of modern man (and woman).

The pursuit of happiness as a legitimate and valuable life goal is something quite new in the history of humankind. Our lives were previously so brief, our daily existence so precarious that any joy was a fleeting coincidence. Gritting one’s teeth and getting on with it, self-sacrifice, was the norm, even for my grandparents’ generation. But we are different now – we seek happiness, self-fulfillment, and we often equate that with comfort. That is why we complain so much about the demands of work (although it is often much easier than hard manual labour), the pressures of parenting, the difficulties of writing and creating.

AmazoncoverIt’s this kind of thinking which the book provoked in me, and it ultimately transcends any petty gender disputes. The reviewer from the Independent got it spot-on with the comment: ‘By closely examining his world, [Knausgaard] gives readers impetus to reflect on their lives. He reveals plenty about himself… but the people we learn most about … are ourselves.’

The book, to me, raises questions about the intrinsic selfishness of all true creators or inventors, anyone who is single-mindedly pursuing an artistic or scientific goal. Art (or science) is an exacting mistress, demanding so much of you that she leaves little room for anything else, whether you are a man or a woman. Darwin, Tolstoy, Dickens – those bearded patriarchs with large families, who ostensibly managed to have both – were in fact helped by stoic wives in the background, taking over all family responsibilities so that the man of genius could show his genius.

And, as fewer and fewer partners are willing to accept this background role (nor should they), I wonder what will happen with that fierce mistress? Will she cave in, become more sensible and puny, ease her demands? Or will all great artists have to resign themselves to a life of solitude or of dysfunctional families?