Wednesday, 27 March 2019

About Grace by Anthony Doerr

I loved his book All The Light We Cannot See, and when my book club choose this for the next read, I decided on another book by the same author. This novel is not an easy read. It took me more or less 200 pages before I felt that the story ran off with me. Usually, I don't wait that long to continue a book, but Anthony Doerr is different. His stories do engage you and the prose is so beautiful, it is a pleasure to read it, for this feature alone. From the back cover:
"Here Doerr tells, in luminous prose, the story of David Winkler, a man graced with the gift of premonition and plagued by a dream that foretells his daughter's death. He flees thousands of miles from his family and home in a desperate hope that his dream will not come true. Set in Alaska, Ohio, and the Caribbean, About Grace is a heartbreaking, radiant, and astonishingly accomplished novel about the tiny but lifesaving miracles happening around us at each moment, and about our longing for grace."
It is a very tragic story and you feel this sadness all through the novel. A man's gift of premonition can easily turn into a curse. It is easy to just take in the sadness of the story, but when you stop and think further, you do find, among all the misery, a few things, which might be the most important things in life. Winkler thinks a lot about how life is treating us, what we do, and don't do with our lives. What is time?:
"Did time move forward, through people, or did people move through it, like clouds across the sky?"
"What is time? he wrote in his pad. Must time occur in sequence - beginning to middle to end - or is this only one way to perceive it? Maybe time can spill and freeze and retreat; maybe time is like water, endlessly cycling through its states."
After his flight from his family, David Winkler ends up in St Vincent, with Felix and Soma and their children. They are refugees from Chile. He is welcomed into their family, and he creates a special bond with their daughter Naaliyah, who is the same age as Grace. He is a scientist and has a special interest in nature. In Naaliyah he finds a soulmate, and he teaches her on how nature is working. They become his new family.

When, finally, after 25 years, he decides to go back and find out whether his wife and child are still alive, his life turns into another loop. During the 25 years in the Caribbean he let life lead him wherever it took him. "The inn itself began to slump, as though it had simmered too long in a covered pot." The same could be said about himself. Finally, he takes his life in his own hands. Or, does he really? Is he not just moving into another timeframe and continue to let life take the lead?
"He marvelled at the indifference of the world, the way it kept on, despite everything."
He decides to go looking for Sandy and Grace. Like in his earlier life, he is once again pushed around by life rather than by his own decisions, maybe guided by his fears of what he will find.  "To enter a world of shadows is to leave this world for another."  Failing to find his family, he goes back to Anchorage where it all started.

"It was as if her vigil from the boat shed, decades earlier, had begun anew. In his clearer moments Winkler wondered if, sooner or later, every event recurred, if life consisted of a series of repeated patterns: the scar on his knee; now an injury to his foot. Viewed from above, maybe lives looked like matrices of color, scarves on a loom. He wondered: When I wandered out of that town, heading toward the airstrip, was I planning on coming back? Or was I trying, as I did with Nanton's rowboat, to let the world take me?"

There are a lot of layers in Winkler's story and life. Must family be blood bound, or could family be accidental. Could you be considered a family, living among friends, sharing their lives, their children, their sorrows and happiness? Being part of some kind of unity. Is life taking us on a ride, or is it possible to control it? Can we change our destiny?
"But what was family? Surely more than genes, eye color, flesh. Family was story: truth and struggle and retribution. Family was time. "
"But there was a worse feeling: the possibility that it didn't matter what he had done, that outcome was independent of choice, that action or inaction, no decision mattered, and his entire attempt at family was now dead and nobody was left to care whether he gave up or kept on."

I started saying this is a very sad and tragic story. It is. Part of the time I was irritated with Winkler and his lack of action. Why does he not speak up? Why does he not take his life in his own hands? What is he waiting for? As I said, not an easy read. Having finished the book, it did stay with me, made me face the big questions in our lives. Who are we? Are we able to control our actions, or are we bound by destiny?  What have we become? And why? And how does time affects our life? Is there any hope for Winkler in the end? I was really hoping there was, but will not spoil the end for you who intend to read it. The book is definitely worth reading, if not solely for the story itself, but also for the prose, the thought provoking comments and a look at life from another angle. The beautiful prose, which makes the novel a pleasure to read, in spite of the difficult story. Just look at the quotes here. Much more where these come from.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Saratoga Trunk by Edna Ferber

A book that has been on my shelves for a very long time. I read it for the Book Challenge by Erin, as a "book that has been made into a film". It was filmed with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper, directed by Sam Wood. I have been trying to watch it, but am not able to find it anywhere (at least not for streaming).

It is a great read and has a lightness about the story. The novel starts in Saratoga where Colonel Clint Maroon and his wife Clio Dulaine attend the Saratoga season as usual. They are now in their 80s and still the most popular persons during the season. This year Clint Maroon has decided to tell the truth about himself and his wife. However, the gathered journalists do not want to hear. They just see the successful, beautiful couple, still in love with each other after all the years.

Instead, Ferber tells us the story of how Clio Dulaine, an illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic New Orleans Creol father and his beautiful mistress Rita Dulaine. When she happens to kill her lover, she, her sister and daughter have to leave New Orleans and Clio grows up with her mother, aunt, the maid Angélique Pluton and a dwarf manservant, Cupidon in Paris, France. When her mother and aunt dies she decides to go back to New Orleans. The somewhat mixed family enters, Clio moves in and renovates her mother's old house and settles down to become a nuisance to her father's family. There is a half sister ready to go out into society. Clio needs money and she knows how to get it.

She very soon meets a cowboy, Clint Maroon; tall and handsome who falls for Clio. Clio sees something special in him and they start a relationship. He lives on gambling and day by day. Clio has a more settled situation in mind. She wants to marry rich and not have to worry about anything more in her life.

Together with Maroon they plan a sejour during the Saratoga season. Clio is pretending to be a widow of a French aristocrat, Maroon is there as himself. In Saratoga the crème de la crème meets during the season, and there are not shortages of eligible, rich bachelors. Clio plays out her scheme as the full feathered actress that she is.

It is a totally charming story, intermingled with the fight for the control of the lucrative railway lines, being constructed at the times. It is exciting and as the people gathering in Saratoga, with gossips, relationships and a place at the top, they await the next move from Clio, as is the reader.

This is the first book I have read by Edna Ferber, and it makes you want more. It was published already in 1941, but the writing is easy and charming. The story grows slowly, and although you do know the end of the affair, she manages to capture your attention for the whole of the novel. It makes for more. I see some titles of her that I will try to find;  So Big (won the Pulitzer Prize), Show Boat, Cimarron, Come and Get It, Giant, Ice Palace. I think some of these titles have been made into films as well.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

This is the first book I have read by Jo Nesbø, so I can't say whether it is a typical book of his. I suspect it might not be. The title itself reveals what the story is about. Nesbø has used the Shakespeare play as a base for his own story. It is not set, as the original, in 11th century Scotland, but in Norway in a near, somewhat dystopian future. I was not familiar with the plot of Macbeth and took some time off from the book to read it. It seems that Nesbø uses it almost to the point.

Instead of a fight for the throne of Scotland, we face a fight for the post as head of the police departement, or even as the mayor of the city, which is the highest post. We find all the characters and names from the original play, and it is masterly adapted to modern times.

Macbeth's role in the police is head of the Guards. They come in to clean up the mess, and uses more violent terms to do it. His Lady is the head of a luxurious casino. When the corrupt chief of police is killed a new era is to begin. Duncan, the new head is honest and wants to fight the corruption that holds the city in a grip.

Macbeth is a popular guy, maybe because he has stayed where he is. He had a complicated and difficult youth with drug abuse. Clean since several years he prefers to stay where he is. There are two big drug gangs in the city, fighting for survival. Especially one of them, called 'The Hand', is fighting to take control of the city in his own way. He knows how to manipulate people, as does Lady, and when he lets someone whisper in Macbeth's ears that he could become the next chief of police if he gets rid of the present one, Macbeth's mind starts working. With the help of Lady.

“Women understand hearts and how to speak to them. Because the heart is the woman in us. Even if the brain is bigger, talks more and believes that the husband rules the house, it’s the heart that silently makes the decisions. The speech touched your heart and the brain gladly follows.”
                                                                                                      Jo Nesbø, Macbeth

One murder leads to the next. Power corrupts they say, and this story clearly shows it. It becomes a rat race to plan the murders and then to cover them up. The more murders, the more cover ups. In the end you are stuck in a corner and there seems to be no way out.

The adaption of this story into modern times works very well. It shows us an angle that we understand. The 11th century is far away, times were different and we might not really be able to put ourselves in those times. But, when we read about our own time, the story becomes more sinister. An excellent thriller, well written and difficult to put down.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

What a gorgeous cover!

This is Christine Mangan's debut novel. And what a debut! A psychological thriller that makes it hard to read sometimes. It is like a nightmare. Alice and Lucy are the two protagonists who became friends during their studies at Bennington College. They shared a room and they stuck to themselves. The story starts in 1956 in Tangier, where Alice and her husband John live. Every other chapter is narrated by Alice and Lucy. We get hints that something happened back there in college, which destroyed their friendship, but it is only later that we learn what it was all about.

It is difficult to tell the story without spoilers, so just a few thoughts about it. Most of the story takes place in Tanger where Alice is living with her husband. One day out of the blue Lucy shows up. Alice lives with a trauma from her parents' death, and her life is always affected by it. While Lucy takes in Tangier and its atmosphere from the beginning, Alice is spending her days at home, dreading to venture outside. Lucy manages to help Alice to regain a little bit of her confidence and they discover Tangier together.

This is a story about a friendship during the college years. However, there comes a day when it is not enough for one of them, and this is when a problem arise. It is a story that captures you. All seems fine until you realise that all is not what it seems. One have the same claustrophobic feeling as when reading Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca or is watching Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the end you do not know who is telling the truth. Who is sane and who is not?

I found it difficult to read once I realised what it was all about. Nightmarish! Manipulation can take you a long way it seems, and it is difficult to discover if the person is very good at it. Wherever you turn, you loose!
“....I knew there was no such thing as an absolute. Everything changes, sooner or later. Time moves along, without constraints - no matter how hard one may attempt to pause, to alter, to rewrite it.....Quite simply, there is nothing to stop it, nothing at all.”                                                                                              Christine Mangan, Tangerine
A marvellous debut book by Christine Mangan. From Harper Collins Publishers' website I read that she has a PhD in English from University College Dublin. Her thesis focused on 18th-century Gothic literature, and she has an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Southern Maine. Although you can not say that Tangerine is a Gothic novel, it has some of the gothic feelings. Something which is just a feeling and not always visible. Lingering in the air, and by the time you realise what is going on, it is too late.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

2 x Julian Barnes

As always a pleasure to read Julian Barnes. His books are different but have so much to say. He writes a 'biography' which is not an ordinary biography. He mixes the biographic element with some fiction and some literary critics. It does become very fulfilling and thought worthy to read his books. Lately, I have read two of his books: The Noise of Time, a book about the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and Flaubert's Parrot about Gustave Flaubert.

The Noise of Time

A wonderful book about a very talented man, who, all his life, had to fight to compose his own music. Living in the Soviet Union under Stalin, everyone was controlled, dissected and judged. He had his own times of not being a favourite, although he managed to compose the 'right' kind of music in order to be able to compose his own music.

The way in which Barnes approaches his subjects gives us a close up of the person. You are there with Shostakovich, can feel his every anxiety, fear and pleasure. It becomes very personal. Barnes do make a lot of research and on top of the facts he manages to put the story of his subjects alive. In this special case it shows how small people are in the face of a totalitarian regime. In spite of everything Shostakovich's music is still alive.

Flaubert's parrot

Geoffrey Braithwaite is an amateur expert on Gustave Flaubert in this story. He follows in the author's footsteps, especially trying to find out which one of the two stuffed parrots that actually was Flaubert's. This novel is different from The Noise of Time. It tells the story of Flaubert from the outside, from a fan of his. Doing so, Barnes takes the opportunity to use a kind of literature critic on his subject. At the same time, Flauberts actions as he follows in his footsteps, coincide also with Braithwaite's.

The story is rather slow, and sometimes a little bit dull. That is to compare to The Noise of Time where the story runs like a small waterfall, unable to stop you from reading. Here, it is easier to put the book down.

However, in the end of the book there are a few chapters which lifts the whole book. A talk the expert has with Louise Colet (Flaubert's mistress) and her point of view of their relationship. The writing becomes lighter as Louise is a more positive and open personality than Flaubert. She relates to the difference between men and women:
“Women scheme when they are weak, they lie out of fear. Men scheme when they are strong, they lie out of arrogance.” 
She was a strong woman in her own accord, married at the time she had the affair with Flaubert. Her salon in Paris was well visited and she lived a rather unconventional life, but still wanted to marry Flaubert. In the background was the ghost of Madame Bovary. 
"Do you know what Nabokov said about adultery in his lecture on Madame Bovary? He said it was 'a most conventional way to rise above the conventional'.” 
Barnes uses "George Braithwaite's Lexikon" to reflect on life in general and the life of Flaubert in particular. The question is; can wet really know other people? There will always be a part that is not understood from the outside. Nevertheless, we are eager to try to understand and get to know the people we admire. Is Braithwaite, the expert, more wiser in the end? Maybe, as he can look at his own life in perspective.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Edward Burne-Jones exhibition in London

Recently, I visited London for a weekend. Always a treat and lots of things to do and see. I had a special aim for this visit, namely, the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition in Tate Britain. Some years ago I fell in love with the Pre-Raphaelites, and Burne-Jones is one of them. Maybe more diverse in his talents than any of them.
"Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was one of the key figures in Victorian art, achieving world-wide fame and recognition during his life-time. As the last major figure associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, he led the movement into new symbolist directions where the expression of a mood or idea replaced the earlier focus on providing a realistic description of the natural world. Using myths and legends from the past he created dream-worlds of unparalleled beauty, balancing clarity of observation with dramatically original composition."
Also recognised as a designer, he was one of the founding members of the design collective Morris & Co, for which he designed furniture and stained glass, but he also made designs for tapestry, embroidery, and book illustration. A man of many talents. His paintings are fantastic and cover so many different motives and themes. The exhibitions was well put together in themes and with the audio guide you enter into the world of Edward Burne-Jones. A world difficult to part from.

The Doom Fulfilled, 1888 by
Edward Burne-Jones

A visit to the museum shop, always a treat in England, is a must. I came out with a book and two post cards that I will use as bookmarks. Unfortunately, no specific bookmarks from this exhibition. The book is Penelope Fitzgerald's Edward Burne-Jones, A Life. He was married to Georgina, one of the MacDonald sisters. Four of the five of them married into the history of the Victorian cultural age. Juliet Flanders tells their story in A Circle of Sisters. It is such an interesting part of British history. I am happy I managed to see this exhibition, the very last weekend it was on.

The Wheel of Fortune, 1833 by
Edward Burne-Jones
After the exhibition I ventured up to the 1840s gallery to have a look at the other Pre-Raphaelites, and especially one of my favourite paintings; Sir John Everett Millais's Ophelia. Unfortunately, it was not there. Asking one of the guards I learned that it is on tour for an exhibition in Australia! Lucky you guys, down under! Don't miss it if you have the opportunity to see it.

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais
The background to this painting, where Millais used Lizzie Siddal, the girlfriend/wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is quite dramatic. You can read all about it and much more in the very interesting Desperate Romantics, The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelies by Franny Moyle. It has also been made into a TV-series.  Further interesting reading about this group of artists and their muses are: Effie by Suzanne Fagence Cooper about Millais's wife Effie, who first married the art critic John Ruskin and was stuck in an unhappy marriage. Also made into a movie. I can also recommend a book about the model above,  Lizzie Siddal - The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

The Third Man by Graham Greene

Photo from Amazon

A favourite author + a favourite film = The Third Man. A classic story that I finally got to read, or listen too. I have seen the film of course, one of my favourite.  Graham Greene seldom disappoints you, and I think that this might be one of his very best stories. I think most of us think of the film when we hear the title. Green actually wrote first a novella on which the screenplay was based.

The story is set in post-World War II Vienna. American writer Holly Martins arrives to meet his old school friend Harry Lime. Upon arrival he receives the news that Harry Lime died in a car accident a few days earlier. He attends the funeral, visited only by a few friends and what turns out to be Lime's girlfriend. Martins is contacted by the British military who ask him questions about Lime's business in Vienna. Martins, quite innocent on the behaviour of his old friend, is surprised by what he is hearing.

There is a mystery surrounding the car accident and Martins sets out to try to find out what really happened. That is how he gets to know that there was a third man present when the accident happened. In search of this man he moves around a grey and gloomy Vienna, where he cannot trust anyone. It is very atmospheric, which might be because you have the film in mind, but the novella also conveys the spooky, foggy and mysterious surroundings. Greene manages as always to characterise very well the ordinary man (it is mostly a man in his novels) falling into circumstances, quite out of the extra ordinary, often related to a world of spies. Martins does find out in the end what is wrong with Harry Lime and it comes as a chock. Has he lost his innocence in his fight to clear Harry Lime's name?

From Wikipedia I learn that "in 1999, the British Film Institute voted The Third Man the greatest British film of all time. In 2017 a poll of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers and critics for Time Out magazine saw it ranked the second best British film ever." The film is something special. Don't we all know the wonderful theme by Anton Karaswrote, the good actors and Carol Reed, directing this film noir. The audio book is very well narrated by Martin Jarvis, with a wonderful English accent à la Colin Firth.