Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Winter Readings

What else to do when snow hits as hard as it did since December 19, but read even more? Cuddled under my many blankets and even with a flashlight when I lost power, I turned many pages during this long and never-ending winter. As I write this review, snow still muffles the sounds of bird chirping and the garden still looks more like the backyard of a Datcha than Suburban America.

However, from December to February, I traveled in time and space: from Scandinavia to India via France and Ireland, without leaving my house… Surprisingly, I have discovered a new taste for Northern European Literature. I still remember how I deeply disliked Karen Blixen’s prose when I was in my 20s, so it came as a real surprise for me to fall for the pristine clarity of such writers as Per Petterson or the infectious addictiveness of no other than the late Stieg Larrson. Of course, the subjects and styles are very different: the former writes about war, about the grey shadows of life – nothing is ever black or white with Petterson- and what consequences all this bears on its narrators, in Norway (Out Stealing Horses) and in Denmark (To Siberia). Solitude is the link between Petterson’s masterful pieces and the more addictive Millenium series. If Petterson’s heroes end up lonely, Lisbeth Salander is alone from the start of her tragic life and so is Super Blomkvist (although he is more sociable) when he investigates the world of finances, corruption, and violence done to women. If I ever travel to Sweden, I will definitely sign up for one of the Millenium-themed walking tours of Stockholm! It was supposed to be a Decalogue, but ended up being a trilogy due to Stieg Larrson’s untimely death. All of us fans of Millenium will have to try and imagine what other adventures Lisbeth could have gotten into and what other unknown aspects of Sweden Super Blomkvist would have brought out in the open. If you think of Sweden like I did until I read the book in terms of Ikea, meatballs, best social services and women’s rights, you are in for a shock!

For American readers, volume 3 of the trilogy will be released in May 2010. The American titles are: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (volume 1), The Girl Who Played With Fire (volume 2) and the last one will be called The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. These books have been a phenomenal success in Europe since their release in 2004; translations in French and other European languages have been available since 2005...

From Scandinavia, I jumped to Ireland and hated Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I know it won the Man Booker Prize and in general this Prize is a notch higher than the Goncourt in its decisions, but this book did nothing for me. I am tired of Irish multigenerational books, always filled with alcoholism, religion and the odd domestic violence and now of course, revelations on pedophilia. What do you expect of families of twelve children in a country that only started to get out of poverty thanks to the EU subsidies? All families have their shares of secrets; the Irish simply have more because they breed more! Enough! The prose is so convoluted that one even wonders whether the author is not also an alcoholic. No Irish writer seems to be able to ever match James Joyce’s Ulysses

Delphine de Vigan’s Les Heures Souterraines is not the most cheerful book; it is actually very depressing. But it should have gotten the Goncourt. To make do, a new literary award was created and given to the author for this book: "le prix du roman d’entreprise" (Corporate World Literary Award). Kafkaian to the very end, claustrophobic, extremely well written, with alternate chapters and alternate narrators, Les Heures Souterraines is the literary dissection of France’s corporate world and traditions. If they ever make a movie of that book, it will be the new “Modern Times” (Les Temps Modernes, Chaplin) but with a darker touch. Chilling!

A hop over the Atlantic took me to Canada and Iceland this time. As I was reading Christina Sunley’s masterful debut novel, The Tricking of Freya, I discovered the intricacies of Icelandic language (one of the most difficult to learn). The unraveling of words goes hand in hand with Freya’s family secrets finally out in the open. It also deals with mental illness with a sensibility rarely seen in literature. Freya, her mother, her aunt, her grandmother, are women living poetry, breathing poetry, even dying for it. This was probably the best book I read in 2009.

A Country Called Home, by Kim Barnes – just like Two Rivers, by T. Greenwood- is a twist on American Suburbia. Many novels in recent years have dealt with this theme: The Little Children, by Tom Perrotta, and the re-released Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. I find it interesting that in Perrotta’s and Yates’s books, women are at the crux of rebellion against suburbia, while in Barnes’ and Greenwood’s, it is men who have to face life in the middle of nowhere. While the women often are characterized as hysterical (Yates) or newly-minted Bovarys (Perrotta), the men in Greenwood’s and Barnes’s books have to genuinely confront existence. Both men find themselves widowed with a child (a daughter in each case), and at a loss as to what to do. But where Thomas Deracotte becomes a junkie doctor, addicted to morphine, unable to take care of his daughter, Harper Montgomery is a little bit better, and suffers more from endless daydreaming or nostalgia for what could have been. Both men will rely heavily on loving caretakers: Manny and Maggie. The similarities between the two books are remarkable and it is worth a comparative reading. I still wonder though about the fact that Barnes and Greenwood, both female authors, treated their “fallen men” in a much more positive way than Perrotta and Yates did their “ fallen women.”

Far North, by Marcel Theroux, is a take on the future. The son of famous writer Paul Theroux, Marcel Theroux is not a newcomer on the literary scene. Far North takes place in Siberia, when a group of pacifist Quakers intent on saving their flock and trying to build a better world after global warming kills off the temperate hemispheres, buy land from the Russians and settle there. It is a rewriting of the Pioneer Movement, set in a very bleak future, slightly evocative of French writer Robert Merle’s Malevil (in which people tried to rebuild a life after a freak nuclear accident). Theroux’s strengths lie in a vivid imagination, a global culture and a research that may have included the best narrative accounts on the Goulag (in both tsarist and communist times, one thinks of Dostoievsky’s Notes from the Underground but also of Solzhenitsyn, of course!). His narrator’s name, Makepeace, is a probable literary homage to William Makepeace Thackeray. The narrator is in fact a woman, a fact one discovers only in the middle of the book. The writing style would not give this fact away, as it is clearly masculine writing. There is more than just one big surprise in the book so I will let you discover them. I am concerned though with the writing: at times, it is a bit shaky, almost grammatically incorrect.

Finally, to warm me up after all these snow-abundant books, I read Atlas of Unknowns, by Tania James, an Indian-American writer and Between Assassinations, by Indian writer Aravind Adinga (Booker Prize winner for The White Tiger). The first book is the beautiful story of two young Indian sisters living in the little-known Syriac Christian (Orthodox) Indian community: one is crippled by a firework accident but becomes a talented pictorial artist and the steady rock of a family still trying to recover from their mother’s “suicide” (it is not) and the other who is gifted and talented academically but who will have to steal her sister’s talent to get to America. The second book gathers chapters like a travel guide, and is in fact a very clever collection of stories between Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassinations, a real window on life in a Third World Country small city.

I read many more books than those mentioned here, but that is another story!

©Sarah Diligenti Pickup for The Quill and The Brush, February 2010.