Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize for Literature!

How exciting that the winner of the Nobel is actually an author that I know and love!  And I just finished her latest collection of short stories, "Dear Life", very recently - it is on the pile of "to-be-blogged-about" books on my windowsill.  It was very good.  I'm not a huge short story reader, but I for Alice Munro I've always made an exception.  Here is a review I wrote a few years ago about an older collection of her stories:

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)

I had never read anything by Kate Atkinson, but our newspaper's literary section recently had a glowing review of the newly released Dutch edition of this novel, and that is always a tip-off for me to a good book.  Not only a book that is good enough to get translated, but also worth a two page review in the paper - those are the books I make an effort to seek out.  And I was lucky - the local library had a brand new copy of the original English version.

The novel starts in 1930, with the main character, Ursula, walking into a Munich coffee house and assassinating Hitler.  And then we are immediately transported to February 11, 1910, the day Ursula was born.  And we revisit that day again and again, as well as other significant periods and days in Ursula's life, flipping back and forth in time, and in each successive revisit to a certain time the author changes a few minor details that end up having a huge impact on the events, changing Ursula's life in significant ways, and even changing history.  The title of the book is to be taken literally: Ursula experiences different versions of her own life, one after another.

I've never read a novel written quite like this one, and it was highly disorienting at first.  It is not at all clear how aware Ursula is of her unconventional gift of infinite "do-overs" or how much control she herself has of the process.  But once the reader catches onto Atkinson's technique, we're off for a wildly entertaining ride through England, London, and Europe from 1910 to 1967, all seen through the different possible lives Ursula might have lived as well as through the beautifully wrought extended family, friends, and lovers that people the novel, as well as various historical figures.

I felt the best parts of the book were young Ursula's lovingly described childhood in a grand English country house, and the struggle for survival during her very dark days in London during the Blitz; the time she spent in Germany seemed more contrived and less vivid than the rest of the book.  But altogether this was a great read I'd highly recommend.

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell (2013)

A review on Booking Mama alerted me to this new novel by Maggie O'Farrell, her sixth.  I've read a couple of her books before - see my review of one here - and loved them, so I quickly checked the online catalog to see if the library had a copy in English.  Score!

The book is set in the summer of 1976 in London, which is straining under a fierce heatwave.  Gretta Riordan's husband, Robert, leaves the house for his daily walk to pick up the newspaper, and does not return.  The rest of the novel details how Gretta and her three adult children deal with and ultimately solve Robert's mysterious disappearance, all the while struggling with their own relationship issues.  Michael, the brother, is trying desperately to save his marriage, while the two sisters, Monica and Aoife, not only are estranged from each other, but are dealing with problems in their personal lives as well.  And all three of them have to figure out how best to manage their mother and the secrets she is unwilling to reveal.

I loved this book.  It sounds like quite a lot of heavy, somber material, but somehow O'Farrell manages to imbue the story with a sense of buoyancy.  Hearing the dialogue with an Irish accent in mind, and imagining the characters with a (stereo)typically Irish no-nonsense, practical approach to the most difficult of situations (for example, the scene where the extended family comes by with sandwiches to commiserate with Gretta), gave the book a jaunty, almost comic feel.

And yet at the same time, the author still tackles the difficult issues, revealing in small measures why Michael is having such a difficult relationship with his wife, why Monica and Aoife aren't speaking to one another, and finally why Robert disappeared.  Adultery, abortion, illiteracy, sibling rivalry, deception - all these issues come to the fore in this family.

Ultimately, however, what makes this book such a joy to read, is not all the misery, but in the way the family deals with it, forgives one another for their weaknesses and injuries, and moves forward.  Imperfect as they are, they still love each other.

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007)

My 14-year-old son has to read this book for school this fall, and so I went to the library to check out a copy for him of the Dutch translation.  When I saw the library also had a copy of the original English version, I decided to check it out for myself and read along with him.

I remembered hearing that this was a good book, and it was made into a movie with Kristin Scott Thomas in 2010.  The book takes place in Paris and the chapters alternate between 1942 and 2002.  The 1942 portion of the book follows a young Jewish girl, Sarah, as her family is rounded up by the French police in the most notorious act of French collaboration with the Nazis.  Thousands of Jewish men, women and children are taken to the Velodrome d'Hiver, an indoor bicycle racing track, and held for days in dreadful conditions, until they finally are sent to Auschwitz.  Sarah is desperate to escape, as she has locked her little brother in a secret cupboard in their Paris apartment, promising him she will come to let him out.  The key of the title is the key to the cupboard she keeps in her pocket.

The 2002 portion of the book is the story of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist in Paris, who is investigating the Vel' d'Hiv roundup for a story commemorating the 50th anniversary of this tragic event.  Woven into the chapters about Julia's research are the details of her life, including her troubled marriage to a Frenchman and what it's like to be an American expat in Paris.  Little by little, Julia also begins to discover that her in-laws are connected to the events she is researching, and has to overcome their resistance to revealing what happened in the past.

In the end, the two stories tragically merge, with the surprising involvement of Julia's father-in-law.  After finding out what happened to Sarah and writing her piece, Julia has to deal with her own portion of tragedy in the crisis in her marriage (this is the part I am thinking my 14-year-old son is really not going to enjoy reading).  She ends up returning to New York, and tracks down Sarah's son, resulting in a final twist to the story.

I enjoyed this book most for the historical background and Sarah's part of the story, which was harrowing but truly interesting.  I found much of Julia's story to be overly melodramatic, the modern Parisian characters felt like caricatures, and some of the twists you could see coming a mile away.  Nevertheless it was an engaging and fast-paced read.  I hope my son feels the same way as we have to return the book this weekend and he's only halfway!

Friday, September 27, 2013

I love paintings of ladies reading books!
Here's one I just came across on the publicity for an art exhibition at Ursel Castle, Hingene, Belgium

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch (2009)

The Dinner (Het Diner) by Herman Koch (2009) is one of the most hyped Dutch novels in recent years.  Not only has it been translated into 33 different languages - more than any other Dutch book ever - it will also end up being made into two major movies.  The first one, a Dutch version directed by Menno Meyjes, just premiered at the Toronto film festival, and the second version, in English, will be Cate Blanchett's directorial debut.
I was planning to read this book in Dutch, but the waiting list at my local library was very long (another attest to the book's popularity) and then my mother sent me a copy of the English translation.  So I ended up reading it in English. (Thanks, Mom!)
Here's a short summary from the website of the Dutch Foundation for Literature:
"Four people. One dinner. An unavoidable decision. The story of a father wanting the best for his child unfolds like a tightly directed family drama with black edges, in which at every turn a little more of the underlying reality is revealed. How far will the father go to protect his son after he finds out what terrible thing the boy has done? Far, is the answer.
In the most congenial of settings, a sumptuous dinner for two brothers and their wives at a fashionable establishment in the capital, knives are sharpened. They are meeting to discuss what to do about their fifteen-year-old sons, partners in crime. During the diner the dissatisfactions and frustrations that have smouldered for years rise to the surface. Paul Lohman, a history teacher who’s taken early retirement, is full of aggression, both towards the restaurant with its pretentious food and service, and towards his brother, Serge Lohman, the popular politician whose ambition is to become prime minister of the Netherlands in the forthcoming elections.
Comforting and loyal as Paul’s wife initially seems, her true role in this horrifying story turns out in the end to be one of treachery. Brother Serge and his wife have a hidden agenda too. After this dinner – you can hear the film music swell – nothing will ever be the same again. Het diner (The Dinner) is a portrayal of modern mores, exploring a contemporary moral dilemma about honesty and dirty tricks. Koch distills this dilemma into the question of how far, as a parent, you open your eyes to the actions of your child and call him to account. The drama cuts close to the bone."
This is one of those books where important elements are slowly and strategically revealed to the reader, and leave you shocked and not sure what to believe at the end.  It was definitely original, it gives you a good feel for modern life in the Netherlands, and it is a quick read.  However, it was difficult to have any empathy for any of the characters, as they all make incredibly poor, selfish, and in some cases, downright evil choices.  It will be interesting to see who Cate Blanchett casts for the roles!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

1Q84 (2009 and 2010) by Haruki Murakami

My oldest son is a huge Murakami fan.  So of course I treated him to the English translation of the three volumes of 1Q84 when it came out.   And of course, ever since, I've been eyeballing the dark, thick book on his bookshelf every time I drop off a pile of clean clothes to his room.  With its 925 pages I thought it would be a perfect book for several long slow months of reading, and so I decided to tackle it this summer.

Having read two other Murakami novels, I was prepared for the his unique way of skewing reality and
expected a completely unexpected story line peopled by quirky characters who live somewhat marginal lives.  I was also looking forward to the way he peppers his books with the most diverse references to music, literature and popular culture. What I also expected and enjoy most about reading Murakami, however, is the little window it gives me into life in Japan: the way he describes the foods they eat and how they prepare them, their homes, public transport, the way people interact with each other, the educational system, and life in general.  I have no idea, of course, if the way he writes about these things actually corresponds to how they really are, but his matter-of-factness in describing them rings true somehow, even when his characters are going through the most fantastical experiences at the same time.

1Q84 tells the strange story of Aomame and Tengo as they get caught up in events in a world that is parallel to the real world of Tokyo in 1984.  Aomame is a lonely young woman who works as a fitness instructor at a gym but also a hit woman for a mysterious organization.  Tengo, an equally solitary young man, teaches math at a Tokyo "cram school" and is an aspiring novelist who gets caught up in rewriting a young girl's strange submission for a literary prize.  At first there seems to be no connection between Aomame and Tengo's lives, and their alternating chapters seem to be two separate novels, intertwined.  But Murakami has used this technique in previous work (see my blog post on one of his other books) and as the reader senses intuitively, Aomame and Tengo become increasingly important to one another.  (For a very detailed plot summary and list of all the characters, click here.)

Book 1 and 2 are gripping and fast paced, and peopled with several interesting characters.  It is also in the first two books that the reader is exposed to the fascinating properties of the parallel world, as well as the life stories of Aomame and Tengo.  Book 3 is slower and somewhat repetitive, doesn't really add any new elements to the story, and we learn nothing more of some of the more intriguing and important side characters - they seem to just vanish into thin air.  But after already investing myself in the first two thirds of the trilogy, I was highly motivated to get to the end and find out what happened to Aomame and Tengo.  Because, despite the fantastical twists and turns of the plot and the utter strangeness of the world they inhabit, Murakami is able to make us care about his characters.