Books

28 January 2015

Testimony by Anita Shreve, USA, 2008


When I began reading this book, I felt that the author, very much like the characters in that first, awful chapter, was posturing before a camera, saying the 'right', shocking things, making all the 'right', unbelievable moves. I thought to myself: this is a book written for an audience - an audience that enjoys being titillated and shocked, and, at that point, I came very close to abandoning the book. However, I decided to give the author the benefit of the doubt. 
 
It is definitely not a book I would read a second time, even though, to give Anita Shreve her due, the idea behind the book - the ripple effect of a thoughtless action - is interesting. That said, I felt that the characterization is uneven and, in many cases, not sufficiently established to enable the reader to sympathize fully with any of the main characters.
 
The title, Testimony, (meaning: evidence in support of a fact or statement; proof) is somewhat misleading, unless, of course, Shreve is simply saying that alcohol and schools do not mix. Unfortunately, the 'why' behind the incident at the beginning of the book is buried under the confusion of all the people who are somehow connected, either directly or indirectly, with what happened. The story blunders along, swinging from one person to another, collecting various snippets of guilt and dissatisfaction, until, finally, at the very end of the novel, one of those involved gives us an extremely belated answer to the 'why'. 
 
It is made very clear that the headmaster mismanaged the situation, and it is possible that, in his eagerness to protect everyone involved, including the school, he makes a number of disastrous decisions; however, given the fact that the incident had already gone viral on the internet by the time he became involved, I really doubt that anything he did or did not do would have saved the situation. However, if the question 'why' had been answered at an early stage of the drama, which, to my way of thinking, would have been more realistic, then much heartache could have been avoided. Of course, the book would then have been very different; in fact, it may not even have been written.

Definitely not the best book I have ever read, and I would think twice before reading another book by the same author. Although it does have a number of redeeming factors, I feel that it is a book that has been written very much with a certain section of the book-buying public firmly and centrally in mind.

 A review of the book from the Los Angeles Times
Photo of Anita Shreve from www.newburyport-today.com

24 January 2015

Scandinavian Crime Fiction


Most people have heard of the type of crime fiction known as Scandinavian crime fiction or Nordic noir, and of which Åsa Larsson's writing (see last post) is an example
 
(Nordic noir: a type of Scandinavian crime fiction and television drama that typically features dark story-lines and bleak urban settings). 

In other words, it combines realism with a dark, often quite complex, mood. The success of the genre has been attributed to a direct, precise, uncluttered writing style. It is usually well-written The law-enforcers are generally ordinary human beings with their own problems and cares; none of them are in any way heroic - at least not on the surface. Some critics feel that the social equality and liberalism of Scandinavia hides dark secrets and even hatreds which, in turn, are often the motivating forces behind this particular genre.

Some of the authors, besides Åsa Larsson, are Stieg Larsson, Karin Fossum, Kerstin Ekman, Åke Edwardsson, Håkan Nesser, Peter Høeg, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbø. There are many more... 
Information in part: Wikipedia. Images: eurodrama.wordpress.com & lucidfrenzy.blogspot.com
 

21 January 2015

Till dess din vrede upphör by Åsa Larsson, Sweden, 2008


A detective story with slightly more depth than the normal run-of-the-mill detective story. The opening chapter establishes the suspense of the book, which the many quick turns and sub-plots manage to sustain. Several of the characters are well described and can be viewed on a number of different layers; they are more like real people and less like the cardboard caricatures that are often associated with this kind of novel.



I liked the way the author manages to tie everything together into a believable 'whole' without loose ends trailing behind. It is very obvious from the writing that Åsa Larsson is familiar with the north of Sweden, not only the landscape but also the people and their own special characteristics and turns of speech. The book is well written with a definite poetic awareness, not only for what she is describing but also for the language she is using.

I believe that the book is called Until Thy Wrath be Past in English (published 2011). I cannot comment on the translation, but the original, within the framework of what is expected from a detective story, is well worth reading. 

Read more (svenska) (English
Photo of Åsa Larsson from fkb.dk 

18 January 2015

Bushrangers

Bushrangers were part of the Australian scene during the second part of the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth century. Some of them were escaped convicts who had 'gone bush' to escape recapture; some saw bushranging as a way of getting back at colonial authorities, while others felt that the excitement of such a life had the edge on more mundane pursuits such as farming or gold mining.


Although they were lawless and often violent, many of them had a definite respect for the working classes and moved among such people without fear of disclosure. I remember my grandmother telling me that when she was a child living in country NSW beyond Orange, there were often occasions when bushrangers would stop by the family farm with absolutely no thought of doing any harm.

The most famous (or notorious, depending on one's  viewpoint) bushrangers were the Kelly Gang, Ben Hall, Captain Thunderbolt, Dan Morgan, Frank Gardiner...

Bushrangers have been depicted in art and film (for example: 'Ned Kelly', 'Captain Thunderbolt', 'Mad Dog Morgan', 'Robbery Under Arms'...)

The paintings shown here are 'Bailed Up' by Tom Roberts and 'Ned Kelly' by Sidney Nolan

14 January 2015

Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood, Australia, 1882



Rolf Boldrewood is the pseudonym for Thomas Alexander Browne who, if we are to believe the foreword to the book, was himself a victim of bushrangers. I first read this book when I was about twelve or thirteen, so it was interesting to re-acquaint myself with it after so many years. It is a great story and it gives a very good picture of the Australia of the 1800s (especially country Australia). At 528 pages, it can, at times, feel a 'little too long'; however, one must not forget that it was published as a serial by the Sydney Main and appeared in weekly instalments. 

The main characters, the Marsten brothers - Jim and Richard - and Starlight, are well described and, even though Richard Marsten (the narrator) often alludes to the fact that they had, unfortunately, chosen the wrong path, one cannot help but feel a certain amount of sympathy for them. The description of the bush is fantastic, and it is very obvious that the author spent a lot of time in the bush and a lot of time around horses. 

The book is well written and the use of the vernacular is well handled: it does not seem forced, and it definitely does not feel out of place. The structure of the book, beginning as it does with Richard in his cell waiting to be hanged in a month's time, and a brief allusion, halfway through the book, to Jim Marsten's demise, adds to the suspense. 

I was pleased to have reread the book after so many years - it is easy to see why it has become and still remains an Australian classic. 
Photo of Thomas Alexander Browne from en.wikipedia.org

11 January 2015

Thoughts

The following two quotes are from The Empty Room by Charles Morgan, 1941.

'... And the ghosts we fear are the familiar ones from which our own eyes look out at us.' (page 120)
 

'... "We didn't part," she said. "We spoke words to each other across the darkness, and when we stretched out our hands we missed; we couldn't find each other's hands again."... ' (Page 138)

07 January 2015

Röde Orm (The Long Ships) by Frans G. Bengtsson, Sweden, 1941/1945

Those of you who subscribe to my Newsletter should have received the fifth Newsletter yesterday. I hope that you are enjoying it, and if there is anyone else 'out there' who would like to subscribe, you are more than welcome.



Röde Orm, written and published in two parts, was a very popular book in Sweden for many years and has been translated into a large number of languages. Set in the late 10th century, it mixes Vikings, Muslims and Christians into an exciting and fast-moving tale which begins with the main character, Orm Tostesson, known as Röde Orm (Red Snake) - because of his hair colour and his temperament - being kidnapped by Vikings. During the journey south, he becomes friends with his captors but is later captured by Muslims. Covering many countries, Röde Orm, is a book that sheds a small light on what life might have been like more than one thousand years ago. 

When asked why he wrote Röde Orm, Frans G. Bengtsson said that he had no literary ambitions with the book, instead, he wanted to write something that was interesting. In 2016, the book is being adapted as a film by the Danish producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen. It will be filmed in Västra Götaland, Sweden.

The photo of Frans G Bengtsson is from sverigesradio.se

03 January 2015

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, USA, 1998


I read this book shortly after reading Cloud Atlas (which I reviewed a few weeks ago), and, although the two books are very different, there are a couple of surprising similarities. Cloud Atlas extends across continents and centuries and The Poisonwood Bible is confined both in place and time, but both books are told from the varying perspectives of the different characters in the books. Also, while Cloud Atlas leaves us with the understanding that life and death are intrinsically woven into the same process, The Poisonwood Bible reminds us that the Congolese word muntu does not just mean man or people '... it means more than that. (...) there is no special difference between living people, dead people, children not yet born, and gods - these are all muntu...' And it becomes apparent that, at least on that level, both books are saying much the same thing.

I believe that the book is about how we relate to the concept of God, but it is also about Western greed and the total destruction of a society that, prior to Western invasion functioned in its own unique fashion both politically and spiritually. Unfortunately, a propensity for greed has caused Western countries to destroy many communities and even countries around the world, and the practice is still alive and well.


Seen through the eyes of five woman - the wife and four daughters of the unbalanced, fictional, Baptist missionary, Nathan Price - the Congo takes on five different perspectives and different meanings. I listened to a very interesting BBC interview with Barbara Kingsolver where she explained that the five women actually illustrate five different ways of relating to the responsibility remaining after the traumatic and unnecessary colonialization of Africa. As she said: the West has profited, materially, through what happened in Africa, and, even though those living today were not responsible for what happened, the responsibility remains. In their responses to the situation, Rachel represents those who manage to remain completely loyal to themselves, Leah speaks for those who accept responsibility and try to make amends, Adah is aware of the necessity of breaking the whole situation down to its smallest common denominator, while May Ruth, unlike many others, understands the spirituality of the Congo. It is, I feel, through Ruth May, that the combined themes of religion and political greed are finally connected.

Based almost completely in the Congo, The Poisonwood Bible abounds with amazing descriptions that are vibrantly visual, auditory and even olfactory. I have never been to the Congo, but Kingsolver's writing allowed me to experience its lushness, its impenetrability and even its cruelness. By the time I had finished the book, I felt that part of me had actually been there.

A fantastic book, beautifully written and researched. Photo of Barbara Kingsolver from www.theguardian.com