An Independent Author

August 19, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Posted in Literary Fiction | 2 Comments
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‘Independent People’ Halldor Laxness Vintage Books 1946

I was inspired to read Halldor Laxness’s ‘Independent People ‘ because of its similarity to Rose Tremain’s most wonderful novel ‘The Colour’ which dealt with the mid 19th Century New Zealand gold rush. In ‘The Colour’ the characters pursuit of  dreams of gold become for them in tandem a source of all-consuming hope and madness.

  ‘Independent People ‘ deals with the struggles of early 20th Century Icelandic sheep farmer Guðbjartur Jónsson who pursues a dream for independence above all things in the social reality of  capitalism and materialism of his time. Very like Tremain’s characters  Guðbjartur is stubborn and often brutal in his pursuit of his dream in the middle of which World War 1 breaks out and becomes for Guðbjartur a financial asset as the price and demand for his mutton soars.

After working for eighteen years for a wealthy landowner Guðbjartur earns enough money to buy a piece of land to live off and marries the beautiful but tragic Rosa whom he frequently leaves alone in winter in dogged pursuit of familial independence.

Rich in scope and emotion this is a rewarding novel that earned the author a Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. It’s capitalist and materialist  indictments are balanced by the characters involvement in Icelandic folklore culture in particular the poetry of rural Iceland that survived and blossomed during these times.

Not an easy read but the most rewarding novel’s are often demanding of their readers. As rich and eloquent as a novel should be and its economic theme is  not lost in our current climate.

Click here to view this book in DLR Library Catalogue. 

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Freedom comes in Time

April 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Freedom, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | Leave a comment
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Jonathan Franzen ‘Freedom’ Macmillan, August 2010

The American middle class has been deconstructed and it is fantastic. Believe what you hear about this book Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ is a truly great state-of-the-nation, deconstruction of our times,  polemic epic of a novel.

The story explores the public and private life of a middle class american family ‘the Berglunds’ and is electrified with Franzen’s own interest in socio cultural issues such as the post 9/11 economy, nature conservation and overpopulation. This gives the novel it’s serious literary value and the reason why I believe it is becoming so acclaimed.

When the novel opens the parents in this family saga aren’t doing well. She is drinking, he is working for a corrupt coal company and they have greatly drifted apart.  Each family member has ideas of reality, entitlement, love, morality and general life expectations that mostly are disappointed. A lot of novels look at these ideas too but Franzen couples them with global issues, hot american topics and ethical conflicts (at one stage father and son, Frank and Joey, become embroiled with a Haliburten like company in a very ill-advised financial pursuit) and these coupled ideas are the tools Franzen uses to dig at and explore middle america with. The socio-cultural aspects of this novel work to create a swinging pendulum of doom that moves in time with the family’s own demise gaining weight with every swing it is a fantastic literary technique reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’.

This family are written in 3D every dimension of them is soaked in detail and their humanity lend’s the story its page turning compulsion. Between them they are vain, self-pitying, passive aggressive, disloyal, unfaithful, uncommunicative, hungry for love, sexually promiscuous, mercenary, angry and vulnerable.  Franzen is a natural writer in showing how they are all these things only in their struggle to find meaning in a cheapened world and the reason that readers like them so much is because they are struggling. They know something is very wrong the world which they don’t accept and all of them are on the quest for transcendence in their own individual ways.

With this novel Franzen is the first author to appear on the cover of Time magazine since Stephen King did ten years ago. This is one of the most hyped novels in a long time. It is a fantastically well crafted story but so is Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘American Wife’ and so is Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’. It is unfortunate that this novel has become a little overshadowed by the hype and a precocious side to the success of this novel is now showing with the New York Times describing Franzen’s own comparisons of ‘Freedom’ to ‘War and Peace’ as ‘laughably conceited’.

An unbelievably well executed novel in good company with Ian McEwan, Don Delillo, Damon Galgut and Curtis Sittenfeld but I haven’t been carried away with the hype to value it as anything more than this.

Haiku; Will ‘Freedom’ now be the new book club selection for Oprah Winfrey?

Mr Chartwell is dark and deep….

January 11, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment
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Rebecca Hunt ‘Mr Chartwell’ Penguin Fig Tree, Oct 2010

‘…Churchill wasn’t alone in his bedroom; something else in the dark, a mute bulk in the corner, a massive thing, was watching him with tortured concentration….”you’ve been waiting for me,” said the heartless voice “I could hear you waiting”‘.

Debutant author Rebecca Hunt has imagined a novel as novels should be imagined on a huge emotional scale and conceived by an idea that truly inspired her.

It is a fictional account of Winston Churchill in 1964 who is on the cusp of retiring from his long political career as a Statesman and having lead Britain through the Second World War as Prime Minister. Churchill suffered all his life with depression which he famously referred to as his ‘black dog’.

In this novel Churchill’s depression becomes an anthropomorphic animal. Rebecca Hunt conceives of this black dog as a living breathing revolting creature who walks on its hind legs and talks with seductive passive aggressive cruelty humanized by the name Mr Chartwell. Mr Chartwell takes up residence with the novels other principal character Esther Hammerhans, a quiet Library Clerk whose life becomes intertwined with Churchill’s on the arrival of her new lodger.

This novel is utterly original and tenderly written. Never has such bleak subject matter been elevated to these tactile and poignant heights through writing style in my opinion. I have struggled to find another literary example where an author has conceptualized such a metaphorical state as well as Rebecca Hunt.

Interestingly Winston Churchill remains the only British Prime Minister who has received the Nobel Prize in Literature. For someone who took refuge in the arts from his depression I’m sure Winston Churchill would have approved of this work of fiction.

Haiku; A dark ugly thing, is often mezmerizing, let the black dog in.

Click here to view this book on Penguin Books

* Mr Chartwell was the longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2010

 

 

One story too many narrators

December 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | Leave a comment

Rose Tremain ‘Trespass’ Chatto & Windus, August 2010

Rose Tremain’s literature is a beacon of great writing and she herself is an ambassador of the literary world. A teacher of creative english who graduated from the Sorbonne she counts among her influences Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Golding and is enamoured with the modern magic realism style of writing. She has judged the Booker twice and was an Orange Prize winner for fiction in 2008.

She is predominantly an historical fiction writer and it is to her credit that all of her works are completely different in style, tone and mood. Her 2003 novel ‘The Colour’ which tells the story of two young newlyweds emigrating to New Zealand and getting swept up in the gold rush of the 1860’s, is one of the most moving and well executed novels I have ever read.

In ‘Trespass’ Tremain’s latest offering we encounter Aramon, a brute of a man and a rapidly descending alcoholic who lives among the hills of Cevennes in southern France, in the time of his life when he is desperate to sell his majestic but dilapidated home to a foreigner to use as a second home. His sister Audrun lives beside him in a small modern bungalow. In a neighbouring area two women live together, Kitty a watercolourist and Veronica a successful garden designer to whom Veronica’s brother Anthony Verey comes to visit from London. Anthony is a celebrated and rich Antiques dealer who decides to spend his retirement in the south of France to be near his sister, and begins a search for his perfect home with life-altering consequences.

Tremain explores the idea of trespass on many levels in this novel. The trespassing of the English tourist into the gentile way of life in southern France through the polemic rants of the local mayor, the intrusion of Anthony on his sisters way of life, the intrusion of Audrun’s little bungalow on Aramon’s life and the trespass that occurs when social boundaries are broken. These dichotomy’s in this book don’t work. Why? Although Tremain’s writing is compelling the sense of the story is lost as there are too many narrators and too many large ideas introduced throughout the novel that require more space to be developed. This disparity of many individual stories causes a lack of overall connection between the cast of characters and after the halfway mark the book’s chemistry fizzles out and it degenerates into a who-dunnit game.

The character of Kitty is the most intriguing and real of all the characters portrayed however she is a minor player in this story who becomes relegated with time and disinterest from many parties. Tremain attempts to say something original with this work but I feel it should have been either scaled back into a novella or scaled up into a roaring epic of a novel where the characters come to know themselves much better and have a more natural atonement by the novels end.

‘Trespass’ was longlisted for this years Booker Prize. It is a good read, it has villans and innocents and Tremain’s writing as always is evocative and laced with sensitivity for her characters and settings. The characters own human failings cleverly bring about their own personal demise but the story is too heavily plotted and full for the characters to survive it. They become victims of their  battered around by the plot and fail to interweave in meaningful ways.

Tremain beautifully depicts the Mistral that blows and carries a cathartic fire through the Cevannes at a point in the novel unfortunately it seems to have taken the heart of the book with it too.

Haiku; In France’s valleys, families wage quiet war, Rose Tremain observes.

Click here to view this book on DLR libraries catalogue

The prose road is the road less travelled

October 8, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Posted in Award winners, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | Leave a comment
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Howard Jacobson ‘The Finkler Question’ Bloomsbury August 2010

Howard Jacobson’s ‘The Finkler Question’ has won this year’s Man Booker Prize.  However reading it didn’t change my decision to have firmly backed Damon Galgut’s ‘In a Strange Room’ for the prize although the two books are very different types of novels. What is likeable about ‘The Finkler Question’ is that it is a very dark comedy, something which is so rare in fiction and it is also a remarkable piece of prose writing whose plot allows Jacobson to explore many interesting ideas.

The book hinges itself on the dynamics of Sam Finkler’s friendships with two other men, Julian Tresolve a former BBC worker whose life and career appear to have suffered from his disgruntled world views and values and his inability to commit to people and long term projects and also with Libor Secivk an elderly Jewish widower. Finkler himself is a philosopher and television producer and philosophical musings are resonant in Jacobson’s writing style.

One evening Tresolve is attacked and his pride and values are disturbed when he realises 1. his attacker is a woman and 2. when he believes she slurred the words ‘you Jew’ when robbing him of his valuables. The novel then begins to meditate on ideas of anti Semitism and the Israeli – Palestine conflict with his friend Libor taking over the narrative for a large part of the book musing what it has been like for him to be Jewish in the21st Century.

I must be honest and say I found this book to be quite difficult. The prose road in fiction for me is definitely the one less travelled in my reading. The novel’s concepts are very interesting but heavily ideological, Jacobson’s writing voice is strong but heavily philosophical and these elements compounded together to make the novel more challenging than enjoyable.

Haiuk; Ideology, heavy literary prose, study the story.

Click here to view this book on Amazon.co.uk

The Good Author

September 1, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

Damon Galgut ‘In A Strange Room’ Atlantic Books April 2010

‘In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.’ The title of this novel and quotation are Damon Gal guts nod to William Faulkner. This is a greatly admirable story for its literary skill and for the story’s ability to drive your thoughts while you read it.

Its’ literary skills alone address the ideas of memory, fiction, travel and self identity. The novel is broken down into three parts called The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian which interestingly have been published as separate stories already in the Paris Review. The lead character is a young man travelling who experiences many profound encounters with fellow travellers on the road affecting him until he returns home a changed man. In The Follower he meets Reiner with whom he travels and hikes across Greece. In The Lover a relationship flourishes in Africa but is neither physically nor emotionally consummated and in The Guardian Damon travels through India with a mentally ill friend under very difficult circumstances.

This novel is brimming with intensity, ideas of home and travel and one man’s relationship with his own peace of mind and at times the consequences of reaching the limits of this peace. I can liken it to a very interesting person articulately expressing the effects other people are having on them, the constraints of lust and love in their life along with their values of home and travelling. It uses the first person slipping into the third person narrative naturally which separates this from a memoir into a work of fiction, exemplifying the idea that memory is no more than fiction.

I think Damon Galgut is a very interesting author, I think he expresses human encounters very acutely and I think he is distinguished because of his command of literary skill.  This is a compelling read and has earned a well deserved place on the short list for the Booker Prize. This novel can’t be put into a box but I would exalt it for Galgut’s writing style. It is an intense read that says so much so simply and it has inspired me to re-read Galgut’s earlier novel ‘The Good Doctor’ (Atlantic books June 2004) I highly recommend it.

Haiku; Memoir or fiction, how to tell the difference? through writing technique.

Click here to view this book on Amazon.co.uk

Where isolation is beautiful and death delivers transparency…..

August 3, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

‘Chef’, Jaspreet Singh, Bloomsbury March 2010

The finest fiction takes base human conditions and emotions, chips and sculpts away to reveal what is fine in them. What does this mean? The finest authors, I believe, take the most common emotions known to us all such as guilt, love, hate, boredom, patience and commitment and elevate them by using a story to reveal how uncommon these experiences actually are to us and in the case of this novel how desolation can be movingly beautiful. Jaspreet Singh is a very special author who makes these common human emotions, we all experience in one form or another, into a shared experience through this story that is sharp like a razor.

Chef’ is a novel full of grace and powerful storytelling. A novel where isolation becomes beautiful in its description and in its place in the story both emotionally and geographically. A novel in which death delivers transparency on a life chastened by guilt and moulded by circumstances. How does Jaspreet Singh make this happen? Through sublime storytelling. This is the memory of a life that reveals itself to be a requiem for India and Pakistan.

Kirpal Singh is dying on a train. He is making his way back to a military camp in Kashmir where fourteen years previously he worked as a chef for the General there to cook a final wedding feast for the Generals daughter. He worked in an isolated part of Kashmir flanked by glaciers which are both violently beautiful and physically cruel and become a testament to Kirpal’s own life. He is making sense of his life as he travels on the slow train. He joined the Indian army out of an allegiance to his father who died in the line of duty. During his career Kirpal bears witness to sectarian hatred his life’s story in its own way painting the personalized history of Pakistan and India. He experiences love, learns the art of food and women and experiences relationships that occur outside normal social rhythms.

Duties as a military man are not always easy for Kirpal, carrying out orders he can’t agree with and working with people he doesn’t always understand culminates in Kirpal having to leave Kashmir in a shroud of mystery. Kirpal is a soldier but not of the army he a soldier in his own life.  Jasprett Singh’s writing has earned him several awards and nominations, notably ‘Chef’ was long listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2010. Singh has a PHD in chemical engineering and is a former research scientist living in the Canadian Rockies. With this novel Singh has announced himself as a major literary player. This is extraordinary writing.

Haiku; The border between, India and Pakistan, crossed with princely skill.

Click here to view this book on Bloomsbury.com

Another string to the wonderful bow of Ian McEwan

May 29, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

Ian McEwan ‘Solar’ Jonathan Cape, May 2010

A Nobel Prize winning physicist is living on the legacy of his achievements long after they have been achieved. McEwan’s disagreeable protagonist of his latest novel ‘Solar’, Michael Beard, is a celebrated genius of his time. In his youth he invented the Beard-Einstein conflation delving deeper into the world of experimental physics than any scientist before him. He lives happily off the royalties of this work lending his name to institutions and commanding outrageous fees for speaking at conferences. The problem for Beard is that he is getting older, fatter, more disagreeable & philandering and is also finding it difficult not to drink daily. His fifth beautiful wife is about to leave him and for once she is the one having the affair not him. ‘Solar’ could be a typical well written literary novel that meets the high standards we have come to expect from Ian McEwan, but it’s greatest strength is the craft of its storytelling which is a thing of almost perfection.

Beards character is laid out in quite slow detail in the beginning of the story along with the ins and outs of his life. These details of his character are used after the halfway mark in the novel to build the subconscious rhythm and pace of the plot, which is, just as McEwan describes Michael Beards work in the field of physics, genius. For all his achievements Beard in not a moral man and his self centeredness come to be his downfall and the reader has been well informed of all his immoralities from the start.

McEwan elevates Beard at the start of the novel for his intelligence and for maybe being the type of philandering man that is secretly admired by other men. But the higher McEwan puts his leading character is the measure of how far his is going to fall. Beard becomes involved with a young scientist who passionately convinces him to use his body of work to help address the problem of climate change. The science of climate change I must admit also McEwan has also been researched immaculately.

How does the rhythm of the plot make this novel stand out from so many others?  It uses fraying friendships, geography and physical conditions to excel the inevitability of Beards downfall. Beard heads to New Mexico to deliver the most important speech of his career to convince high powered conglomerates to invest in solar energy. For all his awareness Beard unrealistically does not see that this is the penultimate moment in his life when all opposing forces in his personal and professional life collide horribly. Throughout his life Beard due to his hectic schedule has had little time for trusted partners, friends, loyal solicitors and women, to use the American expression, he has never been fully in the room with them. Phone calls go unanswered, emails unreturned, meetings cut short, commitments never made.

As the plot spreads out these trusted partners become, through their efforts to get in touch with Beard about important matters, like hunters of Beard. Chasing him over the phone across the Atlantic, sending emails and warnings. It is so clever towards the end of the novel how this climax of disaster is delivered. Trusted allies along with enemies get on trains, buses and planes and work the plot into a boiling pot of revelations. You feel the inevitability of Beards situation without Beard feeling it himself. Time and pressure are built up by characters travelling distances, phone calls increasing and threats and promises looming. Towards the end of the novel Beard has arrived in New Mexico to deliver the most important speech of his career. The physical temperature has greatly increased in the New Mexico sun, Beards health that has been deteriorating  and which he has been ignoring is burgeoning into frightening territory with wheezing, coughing, blueish marks appearing on his hands and profuse sweating become like many of the other aspects of his life a thing he can no longer ignore.

We have met scientists in Ian McEwan’s stories before, neurosurgery in  ‘Saturday’ and molecular biology in ‘Enduring Love’. We have also met typical alpha male and sexually driven characters in McEwen’s stories. This story bears those hallmarks. Beard’s personal life will stress you out but look at the craftwork of an experienced storyteller with empathetic insights into human failings. Enjoy the compact insight into solar energy and the problems of climate change and maybe agree with me that it is another string to the wonderful bow of Mr Ian McEwan.

Haiku; Will there ever be, a female protagonist, in McEwans books?

Click here to view this book on Amazon.co.uk

We shall see each other by our mind’s eye

May 4, 2010 at 7:59 pm | Posted in Literary Fiction | Leave a comment

Sarah Hall ‘How To Paint a Dead Man’, Faber, April 2010

What kind of reader are you? Do you skim through prose looking for the narrative in a book, do you find a happy balance between the two or maybe you like both at different times? ‘How To Paint a Dead Man’ may make you want to re-identify what type of reader you are for a few reasons…

In her novel ‘How To Paint a Dead Man’ Sarah Hall is an author in the traditional sense. An author of traditional long passages of poetic prose. However the complexity of how the story is crafted shows her as an author in the modern sense. Four very different characters, with slight connections, guide Sarah’s prose on the idea of art and death. In the 1960’s Umbria, Italy, a much celebrated still life painter is dying and is seeing ever more life in his art.  In a neighbouring village a girl is going slowly blind and is developing strong inner vision. In contemporary Britain a bohemian landscape artist  is struggling with middle age and his daughter, a museum curator, is embarking on an affair of reckless sexual abandon in order to cope with the death of her twin brother from a drug fuelled bicycle ride. The contemporary characters struggle to find an inner vision and establish a position on art and death which is the novels central tenant.

Sarah’s first novel ‘The Electric Michelangelo’ was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and her third novel ‘The Carhullen Army’ won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. This latest novel is resplendent. I just love her literary style with long passages of poetic prose, meditations on very tangible ideas of art, death, fragile and delicate human emotions. The lonely and the outgoing work together in a novel where identity and dislocation flirt with grief and sex.

It is a very interesting novel in that Sarah cannot, in my opinion , be pegged as a certain type of author by her style just as opposing ideas and characters are used to evoke some of the most ripe prose on themes common to us all; life, death, art, relationships and identity.

It is undeniable to say that the story becomes overshadowed by sentences and prose but it is nothing to ruminate over. I could have continued reading this novel’s prose for another week. I loved seeing life itself in the still life paintings of bottles by the dying artist ‘which footprints in the dust lead to the real bottles and which lead towards duplicity’ and basked in Sarah’s sentences in description of the dying artist He smelled of smoke, like a bonfire in autumn, and he was wise and kind. ‘Remember’ he told her, ‘when there is no more hope, we shall see each other by our mind’s eye.’

Haiku; Prose reveals the art, of how to paint a dead man, reveal more Sarah.

Click here to view this book on Amazon.co.uk

The harder I looked, the more I saw……..

April 20, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Posted in Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

‘Point Omega’ Don DeLillo, Picador, March 2010

I read a review of Don DeLillo’s latest book, ‘Point Omega’, where it simply said ‘This is literature’ and how apt it is. ‘Point Omega’ will remind you what polished literature can comprise of. Contained within two chapters and four characters is world that the reader has to look closely at to see but is richly rewarded when they do.

‘Point Omega’ opens with a man watching the ‘Psycho’ movie as an art installation slowed down to a twenty four hour running period and ‘the less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw’. This idea runs through the book. A film maker, Jim Finley, has visited Richard Elster, a former Defence Department Advisor in order to make a film about Elster’s time with the Department during the second Iraq war but Elster is reluctant to talk. The visit to Elster’s home, somewhere in the desert near San Diego, becomes distended and a powerful story is brought about by Elster’s little disclosure. Sounds strange but it works.

The man watching the psycho installation, at the beginning of the book, carefully watches the people around him’s reactions to the violence on the screen. This juxtaposition offers the reader an understanding to Elster’s reluctant disclosure on the Iraq war. The book takes a more emotional turn when Elster’s daughter Jessie visits her father during Finlay’s stay, to whom Finlay becomes attracted, becoming a little like the equivalent of Psycho’s Janet Leigh. It could be argued that the novel turns into a thriller in the second chapter with the disappearance of Jessie but to no real detriment to the novel a whole.  The realizations of the characters are mirrored in the art installation of the Psycho film which I think distinguishes this novel from so many others on bookshelves out there. Don DeLillo gets to the heart of matters very quickly with his sparse language. This novel deserves a few readings as it is very intricate, just like the opening line the harder you look the more you will see…..

Haiku; Disclosure and art, DeLillo is the master, reader look closely.

Click here to view this book on Amazon.com

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