Monday, 8 April 2013
Sara reviewed this last year and sent it on to me after I expressed an interest. Given that we live on different continents, that was quite a sweet gesture! Her review is probably a bit more focussed on the literary bit, whereas for me, this hits somewhat closer to home, and I'll try to make sense of it in this review. How To Get Into The Twin Palms is the story of Anya, a young woman born in Poland, but raised in America. After a childhood spent furiously trying to be, or at least be perceived as, American, she is now bored with both the restrictive culture of her parents' home and life in L.A., where she lives in a Russian neighbourhood and struggles to survive on unemployment benefits. Trying to fit in somewhere, she is drawn to the Twin Palms, a club for the better-off Russians of L.A.. In an attempt to gain access to this exclusive club, she starts an affair with Lev, who might or might not be involved in criminal activities. The story itself is quite depressing in that Anya seems deeply unhappy and barely objects to Lev treating her as a commodity. There isn't much that excites her (she picks Lev only because he's Russian and reacts to her attempts at flirtation), and soon it becomes clear that the Twin Palms won't be the fulfillment she dreams of. It's a short novel, so Anya doesn't get much chance to grow or even just be portrayed in a sympathetic way. We never get to know her name, having been told in the beginning that she chooses "Anya" for its Russian vibe. What we get is a short glimpse of the life of a woman unsure of her place in the world, and this is what makes this novel interesting and very touching. There are many things in this novel that are familiar to me. My husband is from Poland, and from a few visits to the country alone I can relate to Anya's thoughts about family traditions, local food and - the uncomfortable highlight of any Polish road trip - the sight of prostitutes and grannies selling mushrooms in the forests. But the thing that immediately got me was the start of an early chapter: "What I am is always the first question". It is. I'm German, I've lived in Britain for 8 years, and I've made my peace with this question now. It's almost never a sign of resentment or distrust, it might even be genuine excitement about meeting someone even the tiniest bit exotic, but it still stings. It's never "What do you do?" or "Do you like [insert topic of discussion]?" Sometimes it's not even "And what's your name?" It's the fact that in some way, I don't belong. Like Anya, I'm not completely comfortable with my cultural heritage, and I'd gladly masquerade as something else for a while, but like Anya, I lack the language skills. (I will never pass as Polish, even though I'm halfway there by virtue of my marriage, because that language is IMPOSSIBLE! Erhem.) But most days I'm fine. I have become many things; I've been made welcome by a lot of people, and I will always rock in quizzes that ask questions about obscure German traditions. My children, I am told again and again, will benefit from their many backgrounds and language skills. But even that worries me. Will my daughter feel like Anya, never truly at home in any of her cultures? She's only 4, but I've heard people comment on her (very slight) German accent more than once. Her German sounds British. Her Polish is that of a toddler. For me, she's a genius, and these are the things that make her special. Will it still be a positive thing when she's grown up? At some point in the book, Lev tells Anya she speaks Polish like a child. I felt her pain jumping off the page. These are the things that ocassionally keep me up at night... There is a lot more going on in How To Get Into The Twin Palms than what actually happens in 190 pages. And while some might argue that the plot is a bit slight, I read a lot more between the lines than I thought I would. And now I need a Vodka.
Thursday, 4 April 2013
Yeah! More Amitav Ghosh! I bought this new, in a bookshop, and paid FULL PRICE! That's how much I love the man. As with his other novels, there is a lot going on here, too, and not just geographically. On the surface, this is about the flight from India of a young man who is falsely accused of smuggling weapons and causing his aunt, uncle and neighbours to die in an explosion. Alu, who really only wants to be a weaver and be left in peace, hides with friends' friends and random aquaintances, but is tracked down each time and leaves the country on a rickety smuggling boat. Hot on his heels is a young policeman looking for a promotion, although he is really only interested in birdwatching, sketching and being left alone. Again, on the surface, this doesn't make for the most exciting novel, because if it were for those two characters alone, we might as well just look at a picture of India in the 1970s, and there would be more excitement in that. BUT. If I had to sum up Ghosh's writing in one phrase, it would be "There's so much more to it". There is. This novel is full of complex characters, ideas and stories. You could criticize the fact that characters that have dozens of pages of backstory are suddenly left behind once Alu is on the move, but that's life. People come, people go, and knowing their story is never a bad thing. The Circle of Reason is a bit of a patchwork story, and the way is comes full circle in the end seems a bit unlikely, but the stories it tells are little masterpieces. On the whole, the novel deals with the big idea of rationalism and the struggle to apply reason to human life. I know next to nothing about the theoretical framework, and I'm sure I could have read a lot more into the stories, but it still served as a nudge towards a few deeper thoughts and questions on my part. For me, it was the recurring theme of all of Ghosh's novels that pulled me in: displacement. Although my life is a neverending party compared to the struggles of the characters in this novel, the story resonated strongly with me. Wherever Alu, himself an orphan, goes, he meets people who have left their homes in search of a better life. This continues all through the novel. From Bangladeshi refugees and immigrants living on the fringes of a wealthy Arab city state, to Indian doctors living in the midst of the Sahara, marvelling at the dunes, everyone has a far-away home that makes them who they are. They get on with it, and each one contributes to society in their own way. It's not a story of persecution, racism or any of the big subjects that go hand in hand with migration. It's really just the many stories of the many people living in Asia and Africa at a certain point in time. And as such, it's much more powerful than any pamphlet. Ghosh is a born storyteller, with a rich cultural background, and it's hard to pick out individual paragraphs that sum up the feeling of his novels. But here is one that made me choke back a tear or two: "As the plane came in to land, blinded by the glare of the sun, he forgot the Barbary falcon and the Saker falcon and the other birds he hoped to see, for he knew suddenly that al-Ghazira wasn't a real place at all, but a question: are foreign countries merely not-home, or are they all that home is not? He was already older." You should all go and read Amitav Ghosh now.
Wednesday, 3 April 2013
I first heard of Josephine Tey last year, just before the whole real-life mystery of Richard III was getting the media treatment. Reading The Daughter of Time had a double effect: I knew my Richard III when his bones were presented to the world (cue smug grin), and I immediately put everything Tey had ever written on my Christmas wish list. I now have a neat little collection on my shelf (are we allowed to use the words "box set"?) The Man in the Queue is Tey's first novel, written when the world was young - in 1929. It's a good old-fashioned crime novel. A man gets stabbed and dies while waiting in line for the last performance of a long-running and very successful play in London's West End. It takes a while to identify the victim, and the people who were standing close to him just before he died are not helping the investigation much. Inspector Grant does a lot of old-fashioned policing and finally runs a suspect down, only to then seriously doubt his involvement. As far as crime novels go, it's nothing new, and it's not all that difficult to guess who the perpetrator is, but that's not the point - and the plot not being the point is generally a good indication of a good book. Firstly, Inspector Grant is a good egg. He's charming, and just all-round nice, even though Tey doesn't spend a lot of time describing his inner life. Her writing simply makes everything work, and Grant's investigation, while not exactly thrilling, seems traceable and logical. I liked the man because he made a lot of sense. Secondly, it's all so charmingly old-fashioned and outdated. The thought of an Inspector of Scotland Yard running after a suspect and then running straight on to find a public phone box to report back to HQ made me squeal with delight. At one point, he turns up unexpectedly at a witness' door and pretends he just needs to use the telephone, and nobody finds that at all strange. There are even false beards, and I bet false beards were all the rage in the Twenties. I loved it. The fact that the author never meant for any of this to be out of the ordinary makes it even more charming. The majority of Tey's works were written after 1945, and it'll be interesting to see how her writing and the setting change. There are six more novels, and I'm saving them for cosy evenings.
Sunday, 17 February 2013
This was meant to be an easy read, but turned into something bigger (and more annoying). See, I'm a cricket fan. "Fan" seems such a lame word when it comes to cricket, which I found turns people into full-blown obsessives. When you've glimpsed enough of the logic behind it - and it's the most logical game, despite what 80% of the world's population might think - everything becomes important. You gladly stay up all night looking at an automatically updating scoreboard (like this) WITHOUT ANY PICTURES. You preach to the uninitiated. Your heart performs a little dance when you spot people dressed in white standing around in a field, even if they're just pharmacists on a field trip. You live cricket. And I should know. I own a 490-page anthology of cricket verse. So anything from Bumble Lloyd should be great fun. For me, having been of the initiated for only 8 years now, he's this guy off the telly, commentating for Sky Sports. He was a player and (England) coach before that, but as I said, that was before my time, and I have a lot of catching up to do in that respect. As a commentator, he's the one for the jokes and innuendo, not always to my taste, but he's definitely the voice of cricket for many (you wouldn't think cricket could be funny, eh? Well, it can be.) Now, one thing I can say about this book is that there is no need for it. Bumble might be great as a commentator; as a writer, not so much. There's a proper writer "helping", of course, but the important bits are Lloyd's, and that's where the problems start. Turns out Bumble is that bloke off the telly, and no more. He makes no secret of the fact that there isn't a deeper, more meaningful side to him than the jokes and the enthusiasm, which would be fine if that was your cup of tea, but it's not mine. He undoubtedly knows a lot about cricket, and he loves it in the same obsessive way as all the cricket nerds I've met over the years. But the whole book just reinforces the unfortunate aspects of the cricket scene. It's a laddish thing. Forget about the gentleman's game - where Bumble is concerned, it's a jolly good time with the boys, and what would that be without the thinly veiled misogyny and borderline racism... I'm sure Lloyd is a great guy, and the great lengths he goes to in order to show how much he appreciates pretty much every player he's ever met is almost annoying. He's being very, very careful not to discriminate against anyone, but as soon as he starts talking about his mates down the pub or team outings, there WILL be a casual remark about how his Chinese language skills don't go beyond saying "Herro, isn't this rubbery" or how his missus keeps him on a short leash (har har). I'm not even ashamed of being so nit-picky about it. It bloody annoys me. It shows the celebrated cricket guy as exactly what he is: a late-middle-aged bloke who's proud to have never grown out of surroundings where jokes like the above are the only jokes anybody ever makes, and innuendo is the purest form of wit. Towards the middle of the book, he makes some good points about the future of cricket and the importance of turning the English players into high-profile athletes with a rigorous fitness programme. He knows his stuff, and when it comes to cricket, his approach seems even visionary. Shame about the character. I guess I'm not the target audience when it comes to this book, not being a typical Bumble follower (maybe because I'm foreign and female? Just a wild guess...). I was looking forward to the cricket talk, but most of the book is Bumble talk, and that might not be for everyone.
Tuesday, 12 February 2013
After reading a few books that were difficult to get through for various reasons, my return to Swedish crime fiction was a relief, and I finished the book in 2 days, prompting my neglected child to yell dramatically "You can NOT read tomorrow, you have to play!" The thing that has always irritated me about Nesser is his refusal to place his stories in the Swedish countryside we all know from his fellow writers, although we've obviously never been there. Instead, his protagonists' and places' names sound Dutch, and sometimes not even that. The places don't exist, and it is never explained why. Although it really doesn't matter when it comes to the stories, it irks me. Apart from that, I have zero complaints. Inspector Van Veeteren (see??) is a likeable, slightly flawed character, just like his fictional colleagues Wallander, Adamsberg or Martin Beck. In this, his fifth outing, he ponders early retirement, without wallowing too much in his despair about the world and the depravity of the killers he has dealt with over the years. He doesn't need to say much, or even ponder much, but the reader gets him. This is one of Nesser's great strengths. Although the subject of this novel, the murder of two young girls in a super-mad-Christian holiday camp, is decidedly bleak, Nesser manages to convey Van Veeteren's slightly detached mental wanderings in at times ironic fashion. Like the best literary police inspectors, VV doesn't have to say much to get the job done. Rather than just banking on the audience's disgust for the murderer of the girls, the story opens up an interesting subject for discussion: Does the modern atheist's disgust in the face of religious indoctrination of children warrant police bias, rougher methods of questioning, or even physical assault of members of a sect? Even, and most importantly for this novel, when there is no clear indication that the sect's guru is involved at all? It makes for interesting reading, and you might catch yourself questioning your own preconceptions after you finish the book, which doesn't usually happen with a crime novel. Van Veeteren is a great detective, and I do hope he doesn't retire after all.
This was an unexpected present from a good friend, which automatically makes me like the thing, although the description does not sound like my cup of tea at all: A new housekeeper is sent to work for an ageing Math professor, whose short-term memory only spans 80 minutes, while he remembers every math problem he's ever solved. The housekeeper quickly adapts to the challenges of this particular job, and comes to enjoy spending time with the professor and the world of maths. All this in a book that's quite short - it made it seem rather arty. It is the perfect book for a book club discussion, but it turned out to be a lovely little book (I'm afraid at least half of this sentence is meant to sound condescending...). The story is quite straightforward, without much pondering and soul-searching, which, along with the detached narrative voice and the fact that the only names used are those of Baseball players, keeps it out of the arty/overdone camp that I can't stand. It's as much about the setting and the atmosphere as it is about the plot that could have easily been made into a much, much bigger book. As it is, neither the math parts nor the slightly irritating baseball connection is dwelled upon too much, and what remains is a melancholic story about unlikely friends and the importance of memory. And baseball. (Seriously! It should have been cricket. It's the original mathematical game. I would have read a 600-page novel about THAT. Instead, I just sat there shaking my head, wishing they would get back to the mathematical formulas...) In short: Don't let the subject or the review blurbs put you off this book. 'Tis lovely.
Wednesday, 26 December 2012
While at university, I met Stephen Fry's German translator. This was (and probably still is) the most exciting, nerdy thing to have happened to me, because I fall squarely into the camp of Stephen Fry worshippers. It was only when I tried to explain to my family how exciting this meeting had been that I realised that it was hard to describe to a bunch of Germans just how amazing Stephen Fry is. He is an actor, yes, but Jeeves and Wooster is not very well known in Germany, and Wilde was... well, just one movie. The whole aspect of him being the intellectual overlord and infuriatingly clever man of Britain does simply not translate. To this day, my parents roll their eyes when I start a sentence with "Stephen Fry says...". I have read all the novels and The Fry Chronicles, but somehow never got round to reading Moab Is My Washpot. Well, the time has come. I have only read a handful of autobiographies, because the thought of making the private public in such a manner scares me. Also, there is a significant risk of disliking the author, simply because any justification can so easily be seen as self-important dribble and arrogance. Fry knows that, and he keeps apologising for it. He is acutely aware of how he comes across, so much that sometimes it's exactly this self-awareness and apologising that made me angry. You just can't win... It took me a while to make my peace with this, Fry's account of the first twenty years of his life. He describes his school days at elementary and boarding schools, the development of his character, talents and vices (again, focussing on the vices), and a slow descend into adolescent angst and crime. He tries his hardest to spell out exactly how deplorable his crimes were, but it's hard to imagine all this in hindsight. The moment he turns his life around is clearly described, and you feel safe in the knowledge that he will go on to become the great man he is now. Everything before that feels alien and unreal. Or maybe that's just my impression. Life at boarding school is both terrifying, with the young boy's fear of sports and the need to lie and be evasive that turns into a real need to lie and steal, but you realise before he decribes it more explicitly that he still mourns the loss of this regulated, carefree school life. Then, of course, sex and love enter the picture, and things get more... intense. It's been described as a candid book, and there are many, many scenes of an explicit nature, but Fry never strays from his friendly, slightly apologetic and sincere tone. It's his life, and it is as it is. It's the moments when he makes a subject into more than a personal anecdote that put me off the book for a while. I have always said that I'd like nothing more than have a long conversation with the man, and make him explain the world to me. Now, I'm not so sure. I just don't like being lectured, and I beg to disagree, even with Stephen Fry. I can tell you exactly where I started thinking "No! Please don't generalise here, Stephen!" It is this point of a list of things nobody should be apologetic for: "To find anything or anyone of any gender, age or species sexually attractive." No. Just no. I get what he's saying in regards to schoolboys fancying each other, but paired with his earlier observation that caning pupils is not an act of abuse, every part of me objects. Again, I see how he never considered being caned an abuse, but in my eyes, it is, whether it immediately or in retrospect affects the child or not, an abuse of authority. I find the "age" bit of the above quote incredibly ill-considered. Brrrr. This nearly ruined the whole book for me. In most aspects, I agree with Fry. He knows stuff, he values language and knowledge. It's actually quite sobering to realise that even such a great guy says things I cannot agree with. All in all, it's a pleasure to read. There are so many true things in the book, from childhood terrors to moments of self-realisation and the agonising transformation from the adolescent clarity and immensity of feeling to an adulthood that threatens to bury all that under daily drudgery. The much-used phrase "My whole life stretched out gloriously behind me." sums it up perfectly. So, by all means, read this book. And tell me if you agree.
Sunday, 23 December 2012
At some point over the last few months I started explaining why I chose each book I read (as if one ever really needs a reason), and with this novel, the backstory is the only interesting bit of my review. I found it on a doorstep, in a box labelled "Take me home" or "Please take". I knew what I was getting into, since it was clearly marketed as local crime, with a butt-ugly cover, but honestly? How can you not rescue a book from a box on a doorstep? Funnily enough, only a few weeks later a friend asked me whether that was a typical German thing, leaving things you don't need on your doorstep, and yes, it is. I love it - it's like a small pop-up charity shop! I took it home because it was a book (see above) and because I thought it might amuse me for a while. I've read local crime a few times before, and in most cases these are a laugh, with the author trying their best to cram in as much local colour as possible while not being particularly skilled in both crime writing and just plain... writing. (Before you hate me - I wrote one myself for NaNoWriMo, and I admit that mine is terrible, too.) Anyway. Novemberasche is set in furthest south-west Germany, an area I don't know at all, and so the local colour obviously wasn't meant for me. If anything, the descriptions of endless roads and roundabouts near certain supermarkets made me giggle. Maybe Aldi pays for namedropping in novels. An amateur sky-diver dies when his parachute doesn't open, and a high-school student is found dead in a graveyard, his wrists showing marks of barbed wire, and a small piece of paper is found stuffed in his mouth, with only 3 identifiable words. The sky-diver is the brother-in-law of the police inspector on the case, and so both cases are connected before we find out just how connected they are. Which of course is obvious before the book has even started. The inspector now has to deal with his heartbroken sister and her best friend Marie Glücklich (Yes. Mary Happy.), who OF COURSE has only just recovered from a previous run-in with the same inspector and a crazed murderer (presumably axe-wielding, and presumably called Hans Horrible). It's all set up so neatly. Oh, and of course Mary Happy and Inspector Sommerkorn (It may sound German, but NOBODY is called Sommerkorn in Germany. It sounds totally made up while trying to be authentic.) are in love. But they can't find the heart to confess to each other. I forgot what the case was all about. Oh yes, neo-nazi high school students, computer games and helpless parents. It doesn't matter. We are meant to care about it just as we are meant to care about Mary Happy and her man, only we don't. In the end, after having been saved by him, Mary-injured-in-hospital decides she doesn't want him after all, because he's too narrow-minded. Huh? If that's supposed to be a romantic cliffhanger, it doesn't work. Because I don't care. Worst of all, Novemberasche isn't even over-the-top bad. There are no laughs other than the ridiculous names, an escape from a mental hospital, which turns out is just a case of getting up and leaving through the front door, and some very cliche stylistic means. It's just the kind of book you read quickly and then put in a box on your doorstep.
Saturday, 22 December 2012
More crime, but much more charming. This is one of the books my husband has brought home after hearing about it on Radio 4. He never reads them, but thinks I might like them, and I love him and think it's the most romantic thing ever. I had never heard about Josephine Tey before, and I don't know if that's strange. She died in 1952, so her novels qualify as classics, and, as wikipedia has just told me, The Daughter of Time was voted greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers' Association in 1990. I had no idea, and it makes me smile, because there is nothing particularly suspenseful or spooky about it. It's just... charming. I have a feeling I'm going to use this word a lot in this review. Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is in hospital with a broken leg, and in order not to go mad, he asks his friends to supply him with mysteries to solve. He ends up with reproductions of portraits of famous people, and is fascinated by the one of Richard III, a famously deceitful, murderous brute of a King, whose face, according to Grant, shows nothing but gentleness and suffering. With the help of a researcher at the British museum, Inspector Grant sets out to solve the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, the young nephews Richard III is said to have killed. All I know about British history is puzzled together from bits I have read in novels or seen in movies, and this particular episode was mostly unknown to me. For a British reader in 1952, it would have been one of the best-known bits of historical knowledge, I guess, which makes the novel exciting from the start. As it turns out, it's a joy to read, and quite easy to follow even for the uninitiated (me). It's a straightforward mystery, with new and astounding facts delivered to Grant's hospital bed every day, and moving along at a steady pace. Grant is charming (there!), the minor characters are lovely (even better!), and even Richard III turns out to be a good man. Everything about this book made me feel warm and fuzzy; its old-fashionedness (The time it takes to find facts! Old school books have to be ordered or rummaged for in the nurses' bookshelves, volumes leafed through in the British Museum, telegrammes waited for in hospital... Ah.), the goodwill and friendliness of the characters, the fact that the most recent bloodshed happened in the 15th century... This is a comfort read. The entire Josephine Tey boxset immediately went onto my Christmas wish list. I'll be the happiest reader for the next few weeks.