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Shantaram

February 17, 2014

Disclaimer: This review was written on my iPhone on an overnight bus in Vietnam. 

downloadWhen I spotted the weathered copy of Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram lying in a pile of books in a dark hostel lobby on a small island off the coast of Vietnam, I immediately picked it up. I’d seen it on book shelves of parents and family members and friends for years, and recognised it mainly because of it’s obnoxiously fat spine with the gaudy red green and gold print. Having covered my share of post-colonialism in my years as a literature student, Shantaram has lingered in the periphery for years, too fat and not serious enough to make the cut. But beggars, as we know, cannot be choosers. Stranded on an entirely non-English-speaking island with an uncharged kindle and an already devoured Stieg Larsson in my backpack, pickings were slim and I decided to give the to too-ubiquitous Shantaram a chance.

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One paragraph in, lying languidly on a beach chair with a freshly cut watermelon and sickly-sweet iced coffee at my side I announced to my sister that I probably wasn’t going to read this brick, and followed that statement with a cuttingly sarcastic reading of some of Roberts’ soul searching first person opening lines: “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured”. The combinati on of gritty prison thriller and elaborate winding philosophy was enough to set all my literature snob warnings blaring, and I giggled as I read onwards.

However, a few chapters later, I was forced to concede that perhaps a bit of eloquence and grit wasn’t to be despised. The thrilling tale of an escaped Australian Convict ending up working for the Bombay mafia had me transfixed. Perhaps it was the exotic yet peaceful setting in which I was reading it, but I was hooked.

Not one for reading blurbs or judging a book for anything but the front cover , it wasn’t until I was completely stumped as to how ANYONE could invent such tales and do such research that I turned to the back of the book and learnt that it was indeed a literary autobiography.

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Perhaps at some points filled with a little too much of that eye-opening, cross-religious, deeply philosophical meandering through florid phrases of soul searching “meaning”, Shantaram is nonetheless a well written and extremely captivating tale of the secret life of Bombay. Weaving through slums and palaces and Bollywood studios, 5 star hotels and crack dens, slave markets and harvest villages, Roberts’ 933 page narrative is fast paced enough to keep the pages turning avidly, compulsively, while leaving the reader that little bit more enlightened.

Delving deep into the characters surrounding Roberts’ Indian exile, it almost makes one wish for a similar life. The mysterious Swiss Karla, queen of foreign contacts, bane of the protagonist’s heart. The disarmingly foppish, irritable and flamboyant yet lethal Didier, Francais to the fingertips. Always smiling villager-turned-slum dweller Prabaker and his host of head-wagging natives. And of course, the all powerful, all compassionate father figure – lord Abdel Khader Khan, the ultimate Bombay mafia don.

The eclectic mix of characters do a lot for the narrative, keeping it varied , interesting, and above all extremely unpredictable. Though the protagonist’s anguished flashbacks, “I know now, of course, that that was the wrong question”; “had I only known then, what I know so well today” and so forth, get a little frustrating at time, combined with his subtle begging for forgiveness (unavoidable, I suppose, in the autobiography of an ex-heroin addict ex-con), can get a tad repetitive, there is enough genuinely good writing and interesting detail to stave off cover-closing irritation.

Perhaps Shantaram had given a different impression had I read it on American buses or in a garden in Norway. Nonetheless, I’m fairly sure this backbreaking tome is worthy the time and effort  (physical as well as mental) it will take.

Jonas Jonasson – The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

January 25, 2013

Being a trusting consumer, when Amazon for the fifth time recommended a book with the entertaining title The 100 year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared, I pressed Buy, and started reading.

100yrold

I had not heard about the book, didn’t know the name of the author, hadn’t even seen the cover. This was a whole new level of judging a book by it’s cover – judging the book by it’s title (and Amazon rating). I was right away taken with not only the premise, but the names.

A profoundly Swedish Book

A profoundly Swedish Book

The story is set in the “not what you’d call bustling” Swedish town of Malmköping, and circles around the centenarian Allan Karlsson. Intrigued by the pervasive swedishness of these facts, I went to the home screen of my Kindle and checked the author’s name. His name was even more agressively Swedish: Jonas Jonasson. So it turns out the book was, in fact, translated from Swedish, in which the original title reads Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann. 

I immedately felt a little sheepish, even more so when my grandmother a few weeks later asked me which language I was reading it in – Swedish or Norwegian. For once, I was reading something from, if not my own country, at least it’s neighbour and previous owner, and I didn’t even know! Moreover, I was reading it in translation! After my initial emotional response, I decided it didn’t really matter as I hate reading Swedish anyway, and continued on in Allan Karlsson’s cheery and vodka soaked path.

A simple soul on an epic journey

A simple soul on an epic journey

As the story unfolded, I was struck by three things:

1) The incredibly and surprisingly epic scope of the storyline considering it concerned a pensioner escaping his retirement home in his pee-stained slippers

2) the similarity of writing style to one of my all time favourite authors, Dan Rhodes, and

3) the similarity of the epic sweeping historical event based plotline to one of my all time favourite films, Forrest Gump.

The story starts, as the title makes clear, with Centenarian Allan Karlsson deciding that he really cannot be bothered with the fuss of the 100th birthday party arranged for him at his retirement home, and so he climbs out the window. Making his way, logically, to the bus station, he encounters a thug with a suitcase. Allan, despite being one hundred years old, is a character of gumption and a low tolerance of rudeness. Thus, when the youthful thug is obnoxious, and thereafter asks Allan to watch his suitcase, Allan does as any 100 year old explosives expert would do; takes the suitcase, boards a bus, and, effectively, disappears.

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To this small but already eccletic ensemble of characters is soon added Julius, a rural character of dubious morality. Thereafter joins Benny, a man with a curious background story that has led him to be a nearly-doctor, nearly-architect, nearly-botanist, nearly-vet, to mention a few. This trio seeks escape from an increasing band of less-than-intelligent thugs and police officers, as well as the unpleasantly authoritative Old Folk’s Home Director Alice, while the accidental murders pile up in their wake. Though outlined like this the plot may seem like something out of a mediocre 90s movie featuring Jeff Daniels, the novel is in fact hilarious. With a huge and quirky character set, dubious morals and the delightful opposition between the Swedish small-town centenarian and his previous life which, Forrest Gump style, includes roles in the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Chinese Communism, the development of the atom bomb (to mention a few).

Can we all just please agree how outrageously, delightfully Swedish Mr. Jonasson looks??

Jonas jonasson Jonas jonasson

Ringing with Dan Rhodes-oddities, moral ambiguity and slight uncanniness, “The 100 year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared” is a gem of a popular novel, and a delight. I will however take a moment to lament the fact that Dan Rhodes is not as widely read and recommended, because he should be. So please, please; read this, and read This is Life, read Gold, read Timoleon Vieta Come Home – and be excited for Marry Me, which is out January 31st!

Baby! Dan Rhodes book! All things great and wonderful!

Baby! Dan Rhodes book! All things great and wonderful!

“Commute”, or, “A Love Letter to Reading”

September 5, 2012

Three months. No posts.

This is because  for the last three months, there has been NO COMMUTE (pivotal point in the lack of reading time).

Also, I moved to Norway. Then I moved to Chicago. 

Today, however, I found something thoroughly inspiring which makes me want to go read read read. This:

Underground New York Public Library

Even though most people around me aren’t reading novels (yes, it is true.) people still are.

And they love reading books.

And they are engrossed in the reading of said books.

I miss being engrossed in book on public transport. So now I am going to take one of my six books (that is all I have over here. So naked.) and go read.

Because reading is fun. It is beautiful. People reading look great. And damnit if it isn’t instructional as well.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

June 11, 2012

One of the many beautiful covers for this novel

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every hugely successful work of fiction will spawn numerous official and unofficial sequels, prequels, and spinoffs. (Joey, Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, Private Practice, Mean Girls 2, Joseph Andrews and Shamela, etc.) Some, like Joseph Andrews and Shamela, are more enjoyable than the original, whilst others are just appalling (American Pie 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…). Some very few take on a life of their own, and can comfortably stand by themselves simply as work of art inspired by another. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys (1966) is one such.

Though Jane Eyre is the object of fewer terrible “re-imaginings” than, say Pride and Prejudice, there are nonetheless endless TV and movie adaptations (HOW dull was Mia Wasikowska as Jane? No chemistry with Michael Phoawrbender. What a pointless film). Wide Sargasso Sea is, thankfully, neither pointless or boring.

If I don't feel it I won't fake it, no, no

Good thing he is so attractive.

Telling the story of Antoinette “Bertha” Mason, Mr. Rochester’s fearful and insane first wife, locked up in a tower of lunacy (and the object of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar‘s groundbreaking feminist study The Madwoman in the Attic), Wide Sargasso Sea shows the part of the story Charlotte Brönte tactfully avoided for dramatic emphasis. If the wife in the attic is not only cunning and simultaneously an object sold by her even more cunning relatives, but also completely animalistic/dehumanised and with no back story and personality, it is so much easier to avoid the niggling discomfort at Jane Eyre’s treatment of her.

Jean Rhys – she looks like a cheeky old lady!

What Jean Rhys, the reclusive author of the thoroughly depressing Good Morning, Midnight (1939) does, is create an incredibly multi-faceted portrait of one of literature’s least multi-faceted characters. The “history of family insanity”, so scathingly hissed by the sex-starved and suppressed Mr. Rochester is recounted in vivid, tender and frequently painful detail. The “crazy mother” is given a reason of insanity, as is Bertha herself.

Set against a humid and highly political background of Bertha’s native colonial Jamaica, this novel has very little in common with the puritan classrooms of Lowood and the rainy moors of Thornfield Hall. The novel is filled with characters for whom the readers sympathy constantly sways, uncomfortably realistic in their flaws – this does not exclude Bertha or even the youthful Mr Rochester himself. Yes, he is to be pitied, but there is a lot more unease about him than in Jane Eyre.

Rebecca Hall as Bertha

This book is not a romp to read. There is no happy ending (although it is quite sexy, I have to say). Do not mistake it for a flippant “Happy ever after at Pemberley” or whatever they are called. But it is stunning for it’s concept, it’s portrayal of psychological trauma, and the fact that it is so independently good though it is, in effect, a really well written fan fic.

(Oh, and after writing about this book I realized there is a 2005 movie based on this book, with Rebecca Hall, who I love. She is way better than Scar-Jo in Vicki Cristina Barcelona. There is also a 2003 movie with Karina Lombard, who is in The L Word. Better and better.)

Karina Lombard in the (apparently very steamy!) 2003 adaptation.

Being a massive book nerd is finally socially acceptable

May 28, 2012

So, while I was jet setting, I also had my birthday (kind of. I got presents. In advance. Which counts). One of the presents I got from my parents (the other was, awesomely, a dot com. writingaboutbooks.com and .co.uk So exciting. So much pressure) was Western Lit Survival Kit: How to read the classics without fear, by Sandra Newman.

Now, I know most of you must be thinking “How rude! Obviously Hannah has read all the classics, or very nearly! And those she hasn’t she would never fear! She is fearless when it comes to literature! (and has really boringly obvious taste)”, right? Right.

Clearly me.

However.

I hugely, immensely enjoyed Caitlin Moran’s How to be a WomanAnd obviously (obviously, right?) I know how to be a woman. So it should be no different reading a book telling me to have no fear face to face with the classics. Also, reading the classics is much like being a woman. Pretty much self-explanatory, and people have been doing for aeons, but still everyone is making such a massive fuss about doing it. (Much like other things I could think about as well, actually). 

So I dove in, headfirst. And guess what.

IT IS AMAZING.

This woman is hilarious. About everything. (actually, she is funnier about stuff the older it is. Maybe easier, politically speaking, to take the piss out of Chaucer than out of some modernist, people who love modernism are so holier-than-thou they might start a hate campaign: How dare dare emotion dare you you how dare time how memory fade dare you stein dare dare you genius no stein. Punchy.)

So here, for example, on Athenian Old Comedy:

Really not funny.

Really not funny.

Aristophanes (446-386 B.C) is a deadly cocktail of bawdiness, toilet humor, political satire , and men being hit with sticks. In his plays, what all these ingredients have in common is that they’re not funny. While Aristophanes can be surprisingly contemporary and clever, it is always in a way that adroitly avoids humor.

See? Informative, clever, and funny.

Newman covers every part of the canon, from the abovementioned Old Comedy, to the also abovementioned Modernism. Sensibly, she mainly stays away from the 20th century, as that is one hot mess of things that may very well turn out to be terrible in hindsight. And one wouldn’t want to be seen to endorse that (imagine how embarrassing if one publicly said one enjoyed, say, Ian McEwan, and thought him a beacon of 20th century brilliance … oh, wait #booker).

On the way, she includes chapters such as

Here Come the Puritans: Parade, Meet Rain.

and

Unwelcome Realism: The French and Russians Team Up to Depress Mankind

 And, of course it helps that I share her opinions on large parts of the Canon. Like Beowulf. It is awesome. A “speardane” rips the arm off some green monster who lives in a cave with his mum. His mum goes off to avenge him. Beowulf follows her to her swampy underwater cave (and can miraculously breathe underwater for days on end), and in the end, as Newman so adroitly puts it:

Monsters who keep a loaded sword in the lair for self-defense are much more likely to be killed by intruders

SO WHAT IF I CAN’T AFFORD MY OWN PLACE JUST YET??

This books will make you want to read the (good) classics you haven’t read, make you feel clever but not smug about having read the ones you have read, make you want to re-read your favourites, without feeling smarmy and all “I’m just casually reading Kafka on the tube IN YOUR FACE LOSER READING GAME OF THRONES“.

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, James Frey

May 19, 2012

Firstly – an apology.

I have quite literally been jetsetting the past few weeks. I am not the sort of trendy jet-setter with a laptop typing away in transit, as I am always reading, and as such there have been no blogs, but lots of reading (and desperate, but ultimately failed attempts at tanning).

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First of all I started – and finished – my first James Frey novel, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. I have always been a huge fan  of books concerned with religion (which makes me realize I still have not posted my Top Ten Fiction Featuring the Devil – coming soon! I promise! It is written – it is just very long). I loved The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman, and The Screwtape Letters by C.S.Lewis, and so forth (and actually even contemplated studying religion after finish school). I also love, love, love anything that gives society a good whack across the head. Not just defying convention (like postmoderism, modernism, Tristram Shandy, Damien Hirst bla bla bla) but actively saying “Hey! Society! A lot of things suck about you! Let’s change them!”. I also love things that have gay activism in them. As such, it should come as no surprise that I jumped at Frey’s book immediately when I was sent the following description of the book:

What would you do if you discovered the Messiah were alive today? Living in New York. Sleeping with men. Impregnating young women. Euthanizing the dying, and healing the sick. Defying the government, and condemning the holy. What would you do if you met him? And he changed your life. Would you believe? Would you?

And guess what. This book wasn’t just good. It was completely, all-absorbingly, compulsively pageturningly amazing. True story:
I sat opposite a colleague on the tube for half my journey home without seeing her, and she didn’t even want to interrupt me because I was, apparently so completely absorbed in my book as to be oblivious to everything else.

The short pitch above pretty much sums up the book. I can include that it is written in several different narratives, with each section being told by someone whose life Ben (i.e. the Messiah) touched, in some way or other. Some sections are told by Mariaangeles – a young, impoverished single mother in a particularly poor district in Brooklyn, one is told by a Catholic Priest whose entire life was shaken upside down after the meeting. All the narratives each tell a strong story, as well as tying together a narrative of questioning basically everything established in society, but firstly and foremostly what influences religion has in the world.

What is striking is that Frey proposes no utopia, no different world, no changing of the past – simply the act of embracing the present for absolutely all it is worth. This novel questions a lot of “truths”, and practices, frequently in a way that, to me, is obvious. But I certainly could not have phrased it so beautifully. (But then James Frey himself is slightly beautiful as well:)

If I do have one (completely forgot the word for objection – was so absorbed in Peter Andre on ITV – he went on a date with a belly dancer! Called Nelly!) (see what I did there? Lightening the mood with a bit of high/low contrast) (though not sure James Frey qualifies as high)(unless we are talking about the kind of high you get from illegal substances, in which case he definitely does, more on on that in a different post when I review A Million Little Pieces) ( brackets over) objection it is that Frey perhaps goes too much in extremes in the messages Ben gets from “God”. For a specifically undidactic, undogmatic nonreligious religion, Bens “rants” are remarkably anti-everything and extremist.

I have no problem with most of the things he says, but sometimes, even for someone who considers herself pretty pro-liberalism, pro-gay, anti-traditionalism and religious extremism, it feels a bit like someone who is venting his personal issues more than writing a balanced and powerful critique of the state of the world. Now I am not saying there is something wrong with venting personal issues in literature. However, this book could potentially have such an impact that I am worried the rants could scare off people who might otherwise find some eye-opening truths, or at least could see their own half-formed ideas confirmed.

Please do not let this stop you, though. Read it. It may not be for the faint of heart, but I think everyone could learn something from this. It is very frank, and does not pussyfoot (sorry, I just love that phrase) around anything. At all.

This book is a piece of terrific writing – raw, completely new, absorbing, awakening.

Suffice to say, I am already halfway through A Million Little Pieces.

This turned into a quite a long post, so there will be no “secondly”. The rest of what I have been up to whilst jetsetting will be revealed over time – but there will be some non-fiction, there will be some Ibsen, and other exciting things, so stay tuned.

The Jump Artist, Austin Ratner

May 2, 2012

10 september 1928, the Zillertal, Austria.
Eduard Severin Maria, One of the elder princes of Auersperg, led a hunt that day in the valley. His horse fell and was later found beheaded in the grass.

 
I knew nothing of Austin Ratner, or of The Jump Artist, when I picked up this book. It was also a review copy, and as such had barely any blurb, just lots of rave reviews. I found out, though, that it was the story of Latvian celebrity photographer Philippe Halsmann, or the story of his past before he became the photographer of Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and all those other shiny, myth-encased names of black-and-white beauty.

I had just finished Tom Bullough’s Konstantin. Like Konstantin, The Jump Artist was part of the treasure retrieved at the Penguin Book bloggers night, and like Konstantin, it was the story of the hardships and really tough life of a man who overcame his struggles, and became someone great.

Salvador Dali and Rhinoceros, by Philippe Halsmann

I don’t know if this genre, this biographical fiction, is particularly en vogue these days, or I have just happened to stumble over a lot of it, but I have to say that I am a huge fan of the genre. Admittedly, I have spent the weeks since easter reading Game of Thrones, which is sharply opposite, but I have decided that once I finish reading things on my “urgent” to-read list (book club books, and books I have already bought or been given, as opposed to my “one-day” to-read list, which is books I have only on goodreads) I am going to read my way through the real fictional lives of history. I think perhaps what I love about these books, and The Jump Artist in particular, is the astounding truth behind every word.

Truth is stranger than fiction, it is said. And I have to say I agree. It is also more moving, for being true, and more poignant. And when an account of someone’s real life is written as beautifully, astoundingly as Ratner has written the life of Halsmann, it bites deep.

Self Portrait by Philippe Halsman

Self Portrait by Philippe Halsman

At the novel’s outset Philippe is hiking through the Austrian mountains with his father. He is a boy. However, the chapter his headed by the following excerpt:

Tell me, have you ever dreamt that you were flying?
Phillippe Halsmann, letter to Ruth Römer, Innsbruck  Prison, 30 july 1929.

It is soon clear that Philippe is being accused of murdering his father, of being a vatermörder. He is in a swiss jail, in the grips of a pre-world war II nazi central Europe. He is a jew. He is peculiar and intelligent, and in jail for killing his father. It is hard to do anything but sympathise with Philippe, though he by no means a meek lamb of 2D victimising. He has his ups and downs, and Ratner paints a multi-faceted picture of this young man, grieving for the loss he being accused of having caused.

Make no mistake, this is a heavy book. In addition to being an account of a renowned portrait photographer’s rise to fame, The Jump Artist is also an account of nazism, not in it’s shiny boot-ed, parade-ed, nightmarish completion, but in it’s casual, every-day, regular-people indoctrinated, truly scary early stages. But it is also an extremely well written, moving novel, by a great writer.

It is not some flippant description of a celebrity photographer, but a portrait of someone shaped by hard choices, by ruthless cruelty, and in the end by a gift of seeing and portraying. And just as with Konstantin, I finished the last page feeling that I had learnt something important, and that this was a beautiful book I wanted to tell the world to read.

And so I am.

UK Cover

The Jump Artist by Austin Ratner will be released by Penguin on 5 July 2012.

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