Tag: Karl Ove Knausgaard

The Best Books from the First Half of 2017

Believe it or not, but the year is almost half over already. A look back at the “Best of 2017” shelf I’ve started on Goodreads has revealed the eight releases that have stood out most clearly for me so far. All but one of these I have already featured on the blog in some way; links are provided. I’ve also included short excerpts from my reviews to show what makes each of these books so special.

 

How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give a fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream. As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about a woman’s life: loneliness, the patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. Cocozza sets up such intriguing contradictions between the domestic and the savage, the humdrum and the unpredictable.

 

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: This isn’t a happy family story. It’s full of betrayals and sadness, of failures to connect and communicate. Yet it’s beautifully written, with all its scenes and dialogue just right, and it’s pulsing with emotion. One theme is how there can be different interpretations of the same events even within a small family. The novel is particularly strong on atmosphere, reminding me of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Fuller also manages her complex structure very well.

 

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting his protagonist’s bewilderment at the sudden loss of his partner and his new life as a single father. While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one. This is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.

 

My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: I’ve found a new favorite bibliomemoir. Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. Just the sort of book I wish I had written.

 

My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why. From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar. I was consistently impressed by how she draws thematic connections and locates the resonance of religious ritual in her daily life.

 

The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. A wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.

 

Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery. Westaby conveys a keen sense of the adrenaline rush a surgeon gets while operating with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that he has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.

 

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker: Though it seems lighthearted on the surface, there’s a lot of meat to this story of the long friendship between two female animators. The cartooning world and the Kentucky–New York City dichotomy together feel like a brand new setting for a literary tragicomedy. I appreciated how Whitaker contrasts the women’s public and private personas and imagines their professional legacy. Plus I love a good road trip narrative, and this novel has two.

 


And here’s five more 4.5- or 5-star books that I read this year but were not published in 2017:

 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?

What 2017 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

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Four Recommended June Releases

Here are four enjoyable books due out next month that I was lucky enough to read in advance. The first is the sophomore novel from an author whose work I’ve enjoyed before, the second is a highly anticipated memoir from an author new to me, and the third and fourth – both among my favorite books of 2017 so far – strike me as 2018 Wellcome Book Prize hopefuls: one is a highly autobiographical novel about bereavement, and the other is a courageous memoir about facing terminal cancer. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.


The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro

(Coming from St. Martin’s Press on June 6th)

It’s the summer of 1992 and a plague of gypsy moth caterpillars has hit Avalon Island, a community built around Grudder Aviation. The creatures are just one of many threats to this would-be fairy tale world. For Maddie Pencott LaRosa, it’s no simple Sweet Sixteen time of testing out drugs and sex at parties. Her grandfather, Grudder’s president, is back in town with her grandmother, Veronica, and they’re eager to hide the fact that he’s losing his marbles. Also recently returned is Leslie Day Marshall, daughter of the previous Grudder president; she’s inherited “The Castle” and shocked everyone with the family she brought back: Jules, an African-American landscape architect, and their two mixed-race children.

Depending on when you were born, you might not think of the 1990s as “history,” but this novel does what the best historical fiction does: expertly evoke a time period. Moving between the perspectives of six major characters, the novel captures all the promise and peril of life, especially for those who love the ‘wrong’ people. I especially loved small meetings of worlds, like Maddie and Veronica getting together for tea and Oprah.

My main criticism would be that there is a lot going on here – racism, domestic violence, alcohol and prescription drug abuse, cancer, teen sex (a whole lotta sex in general) – and that can make things feel melodramatic. But in general I loved the atmosphere: a sultry summer of Gatsby-esque glittering parties and garden mazes, a time dripping with secrets, sex and caterpillar poop.

[It felt like I kept seeing references to gypsy moths in the run-up to reading this book, like a passage from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, and a random secondhand book I spotted in Hay-on-Wye (though in that case it’s actually the name of a ship and is a record of a sea voyage).]

Read-alike: The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

My rating:

 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

(Coming from HarperCollins on June 13th [USA] and from Corsair on August 3rd [UK])

I’d never read anything by Roxane Gay before, but somehow already knew the basics of her story: the daughter of Haitian immigrants to the American Midwest, she was gang raped at age 12, and to some extent everything she’s done and become since then has been influenced by that one horrific experience. Not least her compulsive overeating: “I ate and ate and ate to build my body into a fortress,”she writes. At her heaviest Gay was super morbidly obese according to her BMI, a term that “frames fat people like we are the walking dead.”

Though presented as a memoir, this is more like a collection of short autobiographical essays (88 of them, in six sections). The portions that could together be dubbed her life story take up about a third of the book, and the rest is riffs around a cluster of related topics: weight, diet, exercise and body image. The writing style is matter-of-fact (e.g. “My body is a cage of my own making”), which means she never comes across as self-pitying. I appreciate how she holds opposing notions in tension: she doesn’t know how she developed such an “unruly” body; she knows exactly how it happened.

The structure of the book made it a little repetitive for me, but I think what Gay has written will be of tremendous value, not just to rape victims or those whose BMI is classed as obese, but to anyone who has struggled with body image – so pretty much everyone, especially women.

Read-alike: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

My rating:

 

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist

(Coming on from Sceptre on June 1st [UK] and from Melville House on February 6, 2018 [USA])

In this autobiographical novel from a Swedish poet, Tom faces the loss of his partner and his father in quick succession. The novel opens in medias res at Söder hospital, where Tom’s long-time girlfriend, Karin, has been rushed for breathing problems. Doctors initially suspect pneumonia or a blood clot, but a huge increase in her white blood cells confirms leukemia. This might seem manageable if it weren’t for Karin, 33, being pregnant with their first child. The next morning she’s transferred to another hospital for a Cesarean section and, before he can catch his breath, Tom is effectively a single parent to Livia, delivered six weeks early.

Malmquist does an extraordinary job of depicting Tom’s bewilderment. He records word for word what busy doctors and jobsworth nurses have to say, but because there are no speech marks their monologues merge with Tom’s thoughts, conversations and descriptions of the disorienting hospital atmosphere to produce a seamless narrative of frightened confusion. There is an especially effective contrast set up between Karin’s frantic emergency room treatment and the peaceful neonatal ward where Livia is being cared for.

While it’s being marketed as a novel, this reads more like a stylized memoir. Similar to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books, it features the author as the central character and narrator, and the story of grief it tells is a highly personal one.With its frank look at medical crises, this is a book I fully expect to see on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist.

Read-alike: Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal

My rating:

 

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

(Coming on June 6th from Simon & Schuster [USA] and from Text Publishing on August 3rd [UK])

You’re going to hear a lot about this one. It’s been likened to When Breath Becomes Air, an apt comparison given the beauty of the prose and the literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. It’s a wonderful book, so wry and honest, with a voice that reminds me of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth McCracken.

It started with a tiny spot of cancer in the breast. “No one dies from one small spot,” Nina Riggs and her husband told themselves. Until it wasn’t just a spot but a larger tumor that required a mastectomy. And then there was the severe back pain that alerted them to metastases in her spine, and later in her lungs. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy of life to put things in perspective.

Riggs started out as a poet, and you can tell. She’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – sometimes both at once. Usually these moments are experienced with family: her tough mother, who died after nine years with multiple myeloma, providing her with a kind of “morbid test drive” for her own death; and her husband and their two precocious sons. Whether she’s choosing an expensive couch, bringing home a puppy, or surprising her sons with a trip to Universal Studios, she’s always engaged in life. You never get a sense of resignation or despair.

Some of my favorite lines:

“inside the MRI machine, where it sounded like hostile aliens had formed a punk band”

“my pubic hair all falls out at once in the shower and shows up like a drowned muskrat in the drain.”

“My wig smells toxic and makes me feel like a bank robber. But maybe it is just a cloak for riding out into suspicious country.”

“‘Merry Christmas,’ says a nurse who is measuring my urine into a jug in the bathroom. ‘Do you want some pain meds? Do you want another stool softener?’”

(Nina Riggs died at age 39 on February 23, 2017.)

Read-alike: A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles by Mary Elizabeth Williams

 My rating:


What June books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?

First Encounter: Karl Ove Knausgaard

For years I felt behind the curve because I had not yet read the two prime examples of European autofiction: Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. It seemed like everyone was raving about them, calling their work revelatory and even compulsive (Zadie Smith has famously likened Knausgaard’s autobiographical novels to literary “crack”). Well, my first experience of Ferrante (see my review of My Brilliant Friend), about this time last year, was underwhelming, so that tempered my enthusiasm for trying Knausgaard. However, I had a copy of A Death in the Family on the shelf that I’d bought with a voucher, so I was determined to give him a go.

I read this first part of the six-volume “My Struggle” series over the course of about two months. That’s much longer than I generally spend with a book, and unfortunately reflects the fact that it was the opposite of compelling for me; at times I had to force myself to pick it up from a stack of far more inviting books and read just five or 10 pages so I’d see some progress. Now, a couple of weeks after finally reading the last page, I can say that I’m glad I tried Knausgaard to see what the fuss is all about, but I think it unlikely that I’ll read any of his other books.


Written in 2008, when he was 39, this is Knausgaard’s record of his childhood and adolescence – specifically his relationship with his father, a distant and sometimes harsh man who drank himself to an early death. And yet at least half the book is about other things, with the father – whether alive or dead – as just a shadow in the background. I found it so curious what Knausgaard chooses to focus on in painstaking detail versus what he skates over.

For instance, he spends ages on the preparations for a New Year’s Eve party he attended in high school: acquiring the booze, the lengths he had to go to in hiding it and lugging it through a snowy night, and so on. He gives a broader idea of his school years through some classroom scenes and word pictures of friends he was in an amateur rock band with and girls he had crushes on, but these are very brief compared to the 50 pages allotted to the party.

Part Two feels like a significant improvement. It opens at the time of composition, with Karl Ove the writer and family man in his office in Sweden – a scene we briefly saw around 30 pages into Part One. I like these interludes perhaps best of all because they make a space for his philosophical musings about writing and parenthood:

Even if the feeling of happiness [fatherhood] gives me is not exactly a whirlwind but closer to satisfaction or serenity, it is happiness all the same. Perhaps, even, at certain moments, joy. And isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough? Yes, if joy had been the goal it would have been enough. But joy is not my goal, never has been, what good is joy to me? The family is not my goal, either. … The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning.

Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself.

At about the book’s halfway point we finally delve into the title event. About a decade previously Karl Ove got a call from his older brother, Yngve, telling him that their father was dead. Almost instantly he found himself trying to construct a narrative around this fact, assessing his thoughts to see if they had the appropriate gravity:

this is a big, big event, it should fill me to the hilt, but it isn’t doing that, for here I am, staring at the kettle, annoyed that it hasn’t boiled yet. Here I am, looking out and thinking how lucky we were to get this flat … and not that dad’s dead, even though that is the only thing that actually has any meaning.

Karl Ove Knausgaard at Turku Book Fair, 2011. By Soppakanuuna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
He and Yngve met up to make funeral arrangements and view their father’s body, but the majority of this section – about 175 pages with the exception of flashbacks, many to earlier moments in his relationship with his brother – is about cleaning up the house where his father died. Their grandmother, who was in an early stage of dementia, still lived there and was barely in better shape than the property, littered as it was with empty bottles and excrement.

What puzzles me, once again, is Knausgaard’s fixation on detail. He describes every meal he and Yngve shared with their grandmother, their every conversation, what he ate, how he slept, what he wore, what he cleaned and how and when. How could he possibly remember all of this, unless the journal that he mentions keeping at the time was truly exhaustive? And why does it all matter anyway? Does this slavish recreation fulfill the same role that obsessive action did back then: displacing his feelings about his father?

This is all the more unusual to me given the numerous asides where the author/narrator denigrates his memory:

I remembered hardly anything from my childhood. That is, I remembered hardly any of the events in it. But I did remember the rooms where they took place.

nostalgia is not only shameless, it is also treacherous. What does anyone in their twenties really get out of a longing for their childhood years? For their own youth? It was like an illness.

Now I had burned all the diaries and notes I had written, there was barely a trace of the person I was until I turned twenty-five, and rightly so; no good ever came out of that place.

Why did I remember this so well? I usually forgot almost everything people, however close they were, said to me.

The best explanation I can come up with is that this is not a work of memory. It’s more novel than it is autobiography. It’s very much a constructed object. Early in Part Two he reveals that when he first tried writing about his father’s death he realized he was too close to it; he had to step back and “force [it] into another form, which of course is a prerequisite for literature.” Style and theme, he believes, should take a backseat to form.

Ultimately, then, I think of this book as an experiment in giving a literary form to his father’s life and death, which affected him more than he’d ever, at least consciously, acknowledged. Even if I found the narrative focus strange at times, I recognize that it makes for precise vision: I could clearly picture each scene in my head, most taking place in an airy house with wood paneling and shag pile carpeting matching its 1970s décor. Maybe what I’m saying is: this would make a brilliant film, but I don’t think I have the patience for the rest of the books.

My rating:


Whether or not you’ve read Knausgaard, do you grasp his appeal? Should I persist with his books?

Four Books for World Kidney Day

Today, March 9th, is World Kidney Day. “The kidneys are like the Rodney Dangerfield of vital organs—they get no popular respect,” Vanessa Grubbs (whose memoir I discuss below) wryly comments. Chances are you rarely have occasion to think about your kidneys. But I’m honoring them with a reading list because several years ago I was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, a degenerative condition that runs in my family. My maternal grandmother had it – we’ve never definitively traced it further back than her – and four of her six children have it, too. (If you took a high school genetics class, you might remember that with an autosomal dominant condition offspring have a 50% chance of inheriting the gene for the disease.) A few cousins of my generation also have PKD, and starting with my mom we’ve had a few successful kidney transplants in the family so far.

I must mention the excellent work done by the PKD Foundation in the States and the PKD Charity here in the UK. Both are a great support and source of information for me and my wider family.


The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendáriz

As soon as I read Melissa’s review at The Book Binder’s Daughter, I knew I had to get this one. “The Plimsoll line” is a maritime term indicating how low a cargo-laden ship can sit in the water without sinking; here it’s used metaphorically to ask just how much one man can take. Gabriel Ariz is a 52-year-old art professor who lives not far from the city yet surrounded by oak woods. He’s divorced from Ana, who’s pressuring him to sell the house, and their young adult daughter Laura died a few years ago in a car accident. Now this pack-a-day smoker who gets drunk with his brother, traveling photographer Óscar, learns that he has end-stage renal disease and his life will have to change. On indefinite leave from work, he attends a dialysis clinic several times a week and joins the organ transplant list.

At times this was a bit overwritten for my tastes – some paragraphs stretch to several pages, and I’ve had to look up words, including “lentitude” and “logomachy” – but I did love the author’s trick of jumping into different perspectives. On multiple occasions he employs an “anonymous observer,” and in various chapters the point-of-view shifts to a member of the animal kingdom: Polanski the cat, a black kite flying overhead, a mole popping up in the garden, or a beetle winging across the detritus of Gabriel’s untidy household. We also get an extended section from Laura’s journals that reveals a disturbing family secret.

This is not one for the squeamish as it gives an unflinching account of dialysis: “His forearm throbbed, lacerated by needle marks. Sara had taken a while to find the fistula, and now the pain spread under the surgical tape like a jellyfish sting.” But for every passage that makes you cringe there’s a beautiful one that captures things perfectly: “he is living in constant deferment, between parentheses” and “If the succubus of his bad dreams were to say to him, ‘Make a wish,’ he would ask to be able to mold himself to the geological quietude of stones.”

The Plimsoll Line won Spain’s Premio Tiflos de Novela in 2008 and first appeared in English translation in 2015. It is part of a “Trilogy of Illness”; I presume the other volumes are not yet available in English, though I’ve enquired of the translator, Jonathan Dunne, via a Facebook message just in case. Forget Ferrante and Knausgaard; this is the semi-autobiographical series I’ll be awaiting the next installment of with bated breath.

My rating:

 

Hundreds of Interlaced Fingers by Vanessa Grubbs

Grubbs is a nephrologist and assistant professor of medicine at San Francisco General Hospital. Well before she made the kidneys her clinical area of expertise, a personal encounter made them special to her. In 2003 she met Robert Phillips when she was an attending trying to get support for her Office of Diversity Affairs; he was a hospital trustee. She only later learned, after they started dating, that due to FSGS his kidneys had failed in his twenties and he’d been on dialysis for years. In 2005 she donated him one of her kidneys. Robert’s health was touch-and-go for a little while there, but he proposed to her soon afterwards. I read about a third of this and then skimmed the rest because I wasn’t all that interested in their separate histories. However, I did like the context Grubbs gives, such as a brief history of dialysis, nephrology case studies, and a great set of FAQs. She also notes that minorities are less likely to get organ transplants, a disparity she is working to rectify.

This memoir grew out of an essay for Health Affairs, “Good for Harvest, Bad for Planting.” Releases June 13th.

My rating:

 

The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah

(First reviewed in November 2015; here’s a shortened version.) Lying in a hospice bed, 40-year-old Ivo looks back on his life. Even after just four short decades and a modest career at a garden center, he has plenty to regret. Hard partying and drug use exacerbated his diabetes and prompted kidney failure. His lifestyle also led indirectly to his girlfriend, nursing student Mia (the “you” he often addresses directly), leaving him. He’s estranged from his sister and his friends from school days, especially Mal. How did he mess up so badly and cut himself off so completely that he’s now dying alone? And how much can he put right before he goes?

There’s plenty of affecting writing in Hannah’s debut novel. I liked how he captures the routines of institutional life. Nurse Sheila’s A to Z game, encouraging Ivo to think of a memory attached to body parts starting with each letter of the alphabet, provides a hokey but effective structure. Keeping in mind that in British English Z is pronounced ‘zed’, the title doesn’t rhyme, but this is still somewhat sappy. I’d recommend it to fans of Mark Haddon and David Nicholls. I’ll follow Hannah’s career and hope he avoids melodrama and a contrived setup – the two near-pitfalls of this one – in the future.

My rating:

 

The Reluctant Donor by Suzanne F. Ruff

A sepia-toned photograph at the centerfold tells a solemn tale: six of these eight members of Ruff’s Irish-Catholic Chicago family died, directly or indirectly, as a result of PKD. I’ve always known there’s a long waiting list for transplant kidneys, but I was surprised to learn that dialysis machines used to be rare; demand far exceeded supply, and the procedure was not covered by Medicare until 1973. Ruff’s aunt, Sister Mike, decided the lives of people with children were more important than her own, so didn’t press for dialysis; when her kidneys failed in her forties, death followed just a few months later.

Things had greatly improved by the time Ruff’s mother needed a transplant. Joan sounds like a feisty, lovable character, with plenty of good advice on being a patient: fight for your rights (the meek ones often end up being carried out feet first), get up and walk as soon after surgery as you possibly can, and appreciate the joy of an entirely ordinary day. Ruff’s parents had her and her sisters tested for PKD when they were teenagers. Having gone to the trouble, they then lied about the results! They said no one had PKD, but in the end two out of three did; only Ruff was spared. This is how she ended up donating a kidney to her younger sister, JoAnn. The more interesting sections of the book are about Ruff’s family history; her internal struggle to convince herself to commit to organ donation makes for pretty repetitive moaning.

In general, the writing isn’t great. Skimming through, I found a page with 16 of my proofreading marks; on most pages it’s more like 2–3. There’s also a tendency to over-write when portraying emotion: “Genetic disease. Those two words made my spine shiver, my ears ring, my throat close, and my heart pound; I became lightheaded and faint. Terror crept into my core and gripped me in its vice [sic].” While I’m not sure I could recommend this to someone who doesn’t have a personal stake in organ donation, for those who are interested in an autobiographical account of genetic disease/transplant surgery, it’s a quick, pleasant read.

My rating:


Plus two more kidney-themed novels I’m on the look-out for:

  • Useful, Debra Oswald, about a man who decides to donate a kidney to a stranger
  • The Kidney Hypothetical: Or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days, Lisa Yee, a YA comedy in which a girl asks her boyfriend if he’d give her a kidney. Hypothetically, right?

I’m on the fence about:

  • Larry’s Kidney: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China with My Black Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant—and Save His Life, Daniel Asa Rose (I think the subtitle says it all!)
  • I, Kidney, Chris Six: a self-published, semi-autobiographical novel

Three Recommended March Releases

Here are three enjoyable novels due out next month that I was lucky enough to read early. The first two are debuts, while the third is by an author I’ve had good luck with before. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.


Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař

(Coming on March 7th from Little, Brown and Company [USA] and March 9th from Sceptre [UK])

spacemanCall this a cross between Everything Is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) and The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber). In April 2018 Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka is launched to investigate cosmic dust storm “Chopra,” but realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. Amid the drudgery of daily life onboard the JanHus1 space shuttle, he makes a friend: a giant, alien spider he names Hanuš. Jakub has the sense that Hanuš is sifting through his memories, drawing out the central tragedies that form his motivation for going to space, including the shame and persecution that resulted from his father being a Party loyalist and member of the Secret Police prior to the Velvet Revolution.

This debut novel is a terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space. There is much to enjoy: Jakub’s sometimes baroque narrative voice (“What good am I, a thin purse of brittle bones and spoiling meat?”) – all the more impressive because Jaroslav Kalfař is in his late twenties and has only spoken English for about 13 years; the mixture of countryside rituals and the bustle of Prague; and the uncertainty about whether Jakub has a viable future, with or without his wife Lenka. The book goes downhill in Part Two and doesn’t quite pull everything together before its end. However, it’s still one of the best debuts I’ve encountered in recent years, and I’ll be eager to see what Kalfař will come up with next.

My rating: 4-star-rating

 

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

(Coming on March 14th from Penguin [USA] and June 1st from Jonathan Cape [UK])

idiotAn odd but very funny anti-Bildungsroman. This is Selin Hanim’s account of her freshman year at Harvard (circa 1995) and the summer of European travel that follows. A daughter of Turkish immigrants, she wants to become a writer, but even as she minutely records every happening and thought she doubts the point of it. In Russian and linguistics classes, in interactions with her roommates and her Serbian friend Svetlana, and in her growing obsession with Ivan, a senior math major from Hungary, she includes a Knausgaardian amount of mundane detail yet always remains at an emotional distance from events. The tone is so very deadpan that you may never warm to Selin. However, it feels appropriate for what the novel is attempting: a commentary on the difficulty of having real, meaningful conversations when language breakdown is rife.

Once again Batuman has borrowed a Dostoevsky title (her 2010 memoir was called The Possessed). I suspect her debut novel is generally indebted to Eastern European literature in the randomness of the incidents and the way they are bluntly recounted rather than explained. This can be problematic for the story line: it feels like things keep happening that serve no purpose in the grander scheme. It’s as if Batuman is subverting the whole idea of a simple coming-of-age trajectory. At the same time, she convincingly captures what it’s like to be young and confused. This reminded me of my college and study abroad experience; that familiarity plus the off-the-wall humor kept me reading.

Sample lines:

(On a plane) “I opened the foil lid and looked at the American meal. I couldn’t tell what it was. The man in the seat ahead of me started tossing and turning. His pillow fell into my dessert. The pink whipped foam formed meaningful-looking patterns on the white fabric. I saw a bird—that meant travel.”

“Spiderwebs attached themselves, like long trails of agglutinative suffixes, onto our arms and faces.”

My rating: 3.5 star rating

 

My Darling Detective by Howard Norman

(Coming on March 28th from Houghton Mifflin)

detectiveWhen Jacob Rigolet’s mother Nora, former head of Halifax Free Library, throws ink on a photograph during an art auction in 1977, it sparks an unusual quest into his past. Jacob’s fiancee Martha Crauchet, the detective of the title, learns two startling facts from Nora’s police file: Jacob was born in the Halifax library; and Bernard Rigolet had been serving overseas for more than a year before his birth in 1945, so can’t be his father. Three years ago Nora’s obsession with World War II led to a breakdown she calls her “fall from grace”; she’s been confined to a rest home ever since. As Jacob gives up being an art buyer to attend library school, Martha gets involved in a cold case that involves his real father. The film noir atmosphere is enhanced by a hardboiled detective radio program he and Martha are hooked on: set in the year of Jacob’s birth, Detective Levy Detects keeps overlapping with real life.

This offbeat mystery reminded me of The World According to Garp. I could see it working as a low-budget indie movie or TV special. I loved how climactic things kept happening at the library, and enjoyed glimpses of bad borrower behavior: selling the library’s art books to a secondhand bookstore and a 105-year overdue loan found in someone’s attic. I have a suspicion this novel won’t linger long in my mind, but it was a fun weekend read. (Historical note: one character’s mother was killed in the Halifax Explosion.)

My rating: 3.5 star rating


Have you read any March releases you would recommend?

Year-End Reading Goals

With less than a month left in the year, it’s time to be realistic about what I’m likely to finish before the end of 2016. My goals are fairly simple:

  • Finish all the books I’m currently reading.
  • Get through my stack from the public library; it’s not as daunting as it seems because I plan to just skim two or three of them.
  • Make as much of a dent in my giveaway books pile (below) as possible. This particular goal is looking increasingly unlikely. I certainly don’t have any illusions about getting through the 900+ pages of City on Fire, though I might start it over Christmas and hope to get caught up in it. Before then I’ll try to read another couple books I won in various giveaways; any that remain will be priorities for January.

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  • Finish my next two review books for BookBrowse, due in early January: Valiant Gentlemen by Sabina Murray and The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon. They’re extremely different – rollicking historical fiction set in the 1880s–1910s and a contemporary YA story with teen narrators – but I’m very much looking forward to both.
  • I had hoped to make this the year I finally try Karl Ove Knausgaard. I might start the first volume over Christmas and see how I get on with it. I was also thinking about picking up the first book of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Luckily, Christmas promises to be conducive to reading: a very quiet few days sat around the fire in my in-laws’ Hampshire rectory and at their home by the coast!

As usual, a peek at a few Books of the Year lists has left me feeling glum about how few of the year’s best books I seem to have read. From the Kirkus list, I’ve read 11, skimmed one, and am currently reading another two = 13/100 read. I’ve done slightly better according to the New York Times list: I’ve read 20, skimmed two, abandoned one, and have one (Murray, see above) to read soon = 21/100 before the end of the year.

What do you hope to read before the end of 2016?

How have you done on various best-of lists?

Mixed Feelings about Elena Ferrante

I paid my 40 pence and waited in what felt like an endless holds queue to get my hands on a public library copy of My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels. For months I’d been eager to try out this literary phenomenon in translation. I read about the first 100 pages and then my interest started to tail off. Aware of the impending due date, I skimmed the rest – so this doesn’t count towards my year’s reading list.

What went wrong? I didn’t dislike the book; in fact, I found it to be an accomplished psychological study of a female friendship and how it changes over time. Yet there were some factors that kept me at a distance. I’ll give a quick synopsis before listing pros and cons.

my brilliant friendThe Story:

Elena, in her sixties, gets a call from the son of her childhood best friend, Lila. His mother and all her possessions have vanished from her home. Elena recalls Lila’s longtime desire to disappear without a trace, and decides she won’t let her: she sits down to her computer to write the story of their friendship, a bulwark against failing memory and deliberate sabotage.

From here Elena, a novelist in her own right (often assumed to be an autobiographical stand-in for Ferrante), returns to the girls’ childhood in 1940s and 1950s Naples, a place of organized crime, domestic violence, and what seems like surprising social backwardness. Neapolitan dialect contrasts with educated Italian. Lila and Elena have a low-key academic rivalry until Lila has to quit school to help her father, a shoemaker. Even then Lila finds ways to show her friend up, maxing out her whole family’s library cards and learning Latin and Greek on her own time. Lila is always one step ahead of Elena, whether in her studies or in attracting boys’ attention. This volume concludes with Lila’s wedding at the age of 16.


What I Loved:

  • The psychological acuity Ferrante brings to the relationship between Elena and Lila. Their friendship has a shifting dynamic, vacillating between jealousy and support as they move from childhood through puberty. The novel powerfully captures Elena’s hesitation and Lila’s brazenness, often in piercing one-liners:

she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life.

In general I was the pretty one, while she was skinny, like a salted anchovy, she gave off an odor of wildness

Lila acted … on me like a demanding ghost

only what Lila touched became important.

  • The choice between education and a trade. Money and class have a lot to do with it, but both girls long for a Woolfian “room of one’s own” and even talk of writing novels together one day. Although Lila finds fulfillment designing shoes, it’s plain she envies Elena’s chance to complete high school. “My brilliant friend” is what Lila calls Elena late on in the novel, but it’s what Elena has always thought of Lila too.
  • The Naples setting: Don Achille’s murder; setting off fireworks on New Year’s; the sense that the community is on the up and up when someone they know publishes a book. A few of my favorite lines describe the girls’ neighborhood:

We didn’t know the origin of that fear-rancor-hatred-meekness that our parents displayed toward the Carraccis and transmitted to us, but it was there, it was a fact, like the neighborhood, its dirty-white houses, the fetid odor of the landings, the dust of the streets.

Naples in 1956 (By H. Grobe [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons).
Naples in 1956 (By H. Grobe [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).




What I Struggled with:

  • A lack of context. Footnotes would have been intrusive, but perhaps a short introduction from the translator or an English-language critic could have helped set the scene and given some sociological details that would aid in my understanding of mid-twentieth-century Italy. Even just within the first chapter of Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson, a memoir I’m currently reading, there’s more basic information about Italy to help orient foreigners.
  • The confusing names. The central characters are known by multiple names – for example, Lila’s full name is Raffaella Cerullo – and nicknames aren’t always intuitive; it reminded me of the variations in War & Peace. Thank goodness for the three-page index of characters.
  • Short shrift given to Elena’s odd relationship with her mother. I felt there was a lot more that could have been explored. Perhaps that is a matter for another volume.
  • Repetition in the day to day, especially regarding Elena’s schooling. I wondered whether all four, or at least two, of the books might have been condensed into one 400-page novel.
  • Minor punctuation and translation issues. I only marked out one passage that sounded false to my ear (“I’ve kept a place for you.” / “Go away, my mother has understood everything.”), but the punctuation drove me a little nutty. I dislike lots of phrases being strung together with commas – as in the anchovy sentence above; I always look for a semicolon!
Students at an elementary school for girls: Naples, 1950 (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
Students at an elementary school for girls: Naples, 1950 (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

In general, I avoid series fiction. I hate being saddled with a sense of obligation, and I don’t like feeling that a story is unfinished. That doesn’t mean a book’s last pages can’t be open-ended, but I’d prefer to imagine my own future for the characters rather than have to read about it in another book or three or 14. While I seriously doubt I will pick up another of the Neapolitan novels, I could possibly be persuaded to pick up one of her stand-alone novellas. Naomi at Consumed by Ink wrote a very appealing review of The Lost Daughter, for instance. Although this long-awaited literary experiment was a touch disappointing, I’m still eager to try another model of “autofiction” in translation, Karl Ove Knausgaard.

My rating: 3 star rating

Further reading: Meghan O’Rourke’s 2014 Guardian article about Elena Ferrante’s growing popularity and mysterious persona.


Have I given Elena Ferrante a fair shake? If not, what should I try next?