of whales and men.

the North Water by Ian McGuire (2016)
 Behold the man is the opening sentence, and that we really must do. The man in question, Drax, is a brute, a lover of rum and young boys. He is about to ship out with a whale boat named the Volunteer. The year is 1857, and the traditional whale ships are met with hard competitions from the steamers. The captain on the ship is deemed unlucky as he has lost ships and men before, so the atmosphere aboard the ship is nervous.

There is another man we must observe, Patrick Sumner, who has signed up to be the ship’s doctor. He has come back from India where he witnessed the siege of Delhi and the horrors of war. And because of that he is not able to sleep and function without laudanum. But as the ship’s doctor he will witness things equally as bad or even worse; venereal diseases, clubbing of baby seals, conspiracies, frost bites, rape and even murders. One thing that is for certain is that both the ship and its crew are beyond hope.

When I read the book’s description, I knew that this would be right up my alley and I’m glad it didn’t disappoint. Although it is dark, violent and gory, sometimes bordering the grotesque, I loved every word of the book. The language is crucial in order to make such a wild tale work, and it flows perfectly while being entertaining and salty. The only fault I see is that it was simply too short, I wish the author would give more details of the returns at the end.

I have a sneaking feeling that the North Water might end up as one of my 2016-favourites.

trust me, I’m telling you stories.

the Passion by Jeanette Winterson (1987)
 Henri is the man who prepares chickens for Napoleon. And because of that he gets to see the battlefields of Europe, all the way to Moscow. Meanwhile, in Venice, a web-footed girl named Villanelle works at a casino. At work she cross dresses to flirt with the customers and she falls in love with a married woman. Years later, Henri and Villanelle meet on the outskirts of a burning Moscow and they decide to desert together, making their way to Venice where Henri has to find Villanelle’s heart.

I’m amazed by the fact that this book is a mere 180 pages long, but has so many stories within the story. I loved the setting, and if I could time travel, Venice would be one of the places I’d visit (but not now, as it is a tourist trap). I also learnt more about Napoleon. All in all, it’s a great read and that was a pleasant surprise as I didn’t enjoy Orange is the Only Fruit when I read it years ago.

(Why is it always so hard to write a lot about the books you have come to love?)

This was my choice for Hedda’s off-the-shelf 2016 reading challenge; a book with a red cover. I’m months behind in blogging.

the dragon’s mist.

the Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)
 “Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”
“It may be for some, father, but not for us. Axl and I wish to have again the happy moments we shared together. To be robbed of them is as if a thief came in the night and took what’s most precious from us.”
“Yet the mist covers all memories, the bad as well as the good. Isn’t that so, mistress?”
“We’ll have the bad ones come back too, even if they make us weep or shake with anger. For isn’t it the life we’ve shared?” 

Beatrice and Axl set out to visit their son in a neighbouring village.  The way to the village is dangerous as it is filled with ogres, bandits and other foul creatures. They spend a night in a Saxon village which is on guard as some villagers have just been attacked by ogres. When they are leaving, they’re asked to take a young boy, Edwin, with them as he has been bitten by a strange creature and the villagers banish him. A warrior, Wistan, also follows them to ensure that they will be safe.

Axl has lately been concerned about that they seem to have forgotten most of their lives. Whilst they are travelling he learns that the memory losses are caused by the shedragon’s breath which is also the reason for the misty valleys. He also learns that both Wistan and Lord Gawain, who they also meet, have been given the roles as dragonslayers. And after a lot of twists and turns, Beatrice and Axl find themselves at the dragon’s lair.

The book is certainly different from what I have been reading lately, and it’s refreshing. It has the perfect amount of fantasy for me, which means just a dash, and I love books about travelling. It was certainly an unexpected book from Ishiguro. I’m also curious about whether it will be nominated to any prizes this year. I certainly hope so, but I know that there are many books coming out this year by excellent authors like Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Louis de Bernières and more, so it will be a tough competition.   

murderess?

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996)
Grace Marks was just 16 in 1843 when she was first sentenced to death, then life for the murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear and a housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. James McDermott, who also worked on the estate, was hanged for the murders. Grace is placed in an asylum, where she does work for the family who runs it. There she is having conversations with a young doctor, Simon Jordan, who wants to examine her psyche.  Did Grace really partake in the murders?

Based on real events, Atwood has given life to Grace and painted a picture of her life before and in the asylum. And it is definitely interesting, I enjoyed the story and all the details. There are so many fascinating minor characters like Jeremiah the Peddler, Jordan’s landlady and her servant. I also got really interested in Susanna Moodie, so I need to read her account of migrating to Canada.

Despite being so good, it took two months to read this one. I have no idea why. Maybe it was because the book is so rich in details and prose. Atwood is still my favourite to win the Nobel prize and I’m glad I still have many books yet to read by her.

I’m left with some questions after finishing the book. Was she really guilty or not? If you have read it, what do you think?  And what really happened after she finally was released from the asylum? There’s a historic mystery waiting to be solved.

This was December’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading circle. 

Germany between the wars.

the Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck (2007)
The Würsich sisters, Helene and Martha, have a Jewish mother and a father who is fatally wounded in World War I. While their father is away, their mother becomes the mad woman in the attic. The girls have to take care of themselves, and both of them become nurses. When Martha’s lover, Leontine, goes to study medicine in Berlin and also ends up marrying a man, Martha is heartbroken and starts doing drugs. The economy is bad after WWI, and the girls are struggling to find work that pay well. They end up going to Berlin to live with their aunt.

Their aunt, Fanny, is rich, has a string of lovers and throws many parties. Helene is too young for the parties, but Martha fits right in and Helene must often help her sister to bed. And once in Berlin, Martha and Leontine revived their relationship. Years pass, and then Helene meets the love in her life, Carl. But danger and tragedy loom in the horizon.

A book that starts with a woman being raped by Soviet soldiers and then goes back in time and continues with incest, is a heavy read. And especially when you know because of the setting and characters that something is bound to go wrong. But thankfully, this book has its cheerful sides as well. I especially enjoyed the part  from where the sisters lived with their aunt in Berlin and until the epilogue.

It is one of those books which are entwined with history, and I learnt a lot about Germany between the wars. And especially how they executed the race laws. The only thing that really irked me with the book, was the epilogue. I get the main idea behind it and the symbolism, but it just left too many questions unanswered. And the biggest question of all, was the simple why.  But the book is really well-written, sad, beautiful and dark. I have already put the rest of Franck’s books on my wish list.

the German Enlightenment

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (2005)
“That was the moment when he grasped that nobody wanted to use their minds. People wanted peace. They wanted to eat and sleep and have other people be nice to them. What they didn’t want to do was think.”
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a German scientist and adventurer who mapped Latin-America. He also collaborated and corresponded with another great German scientist, Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855). Gauss was nicknamed the Prince of Mathematics and he also did great things for physics. 
Kehlmann has written an exciting and accessible account of their friendship and Humboldt’s travels. Yet I felt that it should be something more to this book, because it felt too light and easy. I think it is because I never got mesmerised and involved with the story as I usually do, but this time I never really connected with the story. And three days later I don’t remember much of the book. Which is weird, because it should be right up my alley.

And now it sounds like the book is awful, but it’s definitely not! I enjoyed it there and then and I definitely learnt a lot about Germany at that time in history. I just wish it was more to it.

I picked this up after reading Rose-Marie‘s glowing review, and I read it for Ingalill’s biography reading circle where this round’s theme was crossovers.

eight.

Harvest by Jim Crace (2013)

“Any hawk looking down on the orchard’s cloistered square, hoping for the titbit of a beetle or a mouse, would see a patterned canopy of trees, line on line, the orchard’s melancholy solitude, the jewellery of leaves. It would see the backs of horses, the russet, apple-dotted grass, the saltire of two crossing paths worn smooth by centuries of feet, and two grey heads, swirling in a lover’s dance, like blown seed husks caught up in an impish and exacting wind and with no telling when or where they’ll come to ground again.” 

The Village is just a few houses inhabited by the families who work at the estate owned by Master Kent. When three strangers arrive, Walter Thirsk sees it as an ominous sign. The same night, a barn burns down, and the strangers are accused of the fire. The week following the fire sees dramatic and unforgivable changes in the Village.

A dark tale with the beautiful and rhythmic language. You get pulled right in and you are just waiting for disaster to strike. I learnt so many new words while reading this. I could probably have quoted the entire book. And as with every good book I read, I have trouble praising it. You just have to take my words for its greatness. Needless to say that Jim Crace is an author I will read more of.  

“I am excused, I think, for wondering if I am the only one alive this afternoon with no other living soul who wants to cling to me, no other soul who’ll let me dampen her. The day has ended and the light has snuffed. I’m left to trudge into the final evening with nobody to loop their soaking hands through mine.” 

two.

Cain by José Saramago (2009)
 “The history of mankind is the history of our misunderstandings with god, for he doesn’t understand us, and we don’t understand him.”
After killing his brother, Cain, is condemned to walk on the earth for eternity. He is lead from one major event in the Old Testament to an other, while witnessing the wickedness of God.

Cain is the last novel the Nobel Prize winner wrote before his death, and it is hard to not read it as a personal argument with God. That doesn’t mean that this isn’t an interesting or good book. I really enjoyed reading it, probably because I always teach the kids about God’s bad side in the Old Testament.

Another thing which stuck with me after reading the book, was the style. The first letter in the sentences were written with capital letters, the rest not. And the chapters didn’t have any paragraphs. At first it was hard to get used to, but it totally fits with the story and makes it more intriguing.

I kept comparing the book to the Testament of Mary because of the obvious Bible retelling, and I definitely liked Cain better. I think it is because Saramago dared to be personal and controversial and went a long way with the interpretation and retelling of the famous Bible stories. And the ending is brilliant.

This is the third book by Saramago that I have read, and my favourite. I definitely must read the Gospel According to Jesus Christ one day.

fifty-five.

the Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (2012)
 Mary, the mother of the man who died on the cross and then resurrected, is interviewed by two men about the event. As Mary tells them her version, her mind wanders, and she lets us in on her secret.

When her son starts to gather a band of misfits, as Mary calls them, she is concerned about her son’s safety. She knows that the Romans aren’t fans of rebels. Her son is performing miracles, like waking Lazarus up from the dead. She is at the same party as her son, and she tries to warn him, but he won’t listen to her. And then he is seized and the rest is history. But which version is the correct one?

How do you picture Mary, the most famous mother of them all? Colm Tóibín makes her a mother of a rebellious child who then gets killed. She’s angry all right, but she is also sad. And it seems like she’s angry at her son for not listening to her.

It’s a good book, and it certainly makes you think. It’s certainly well-written, but yet I feel that it’s missing something, but I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe I want more memories from his childhood, or what happens later in her life. Read it if you are interested in religion, pass on it if you’re not interested.

fifty-three.

the Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
“We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so…” 

In 1923, Virginia Woolf is working on a new novel, later to be named Mrs Dalloway, while trying to pull herself together. In 1949 in Los Angeles, Mrs Brown is pregnant with her second child and it’s her husband’s birthday, but all she wants to do is lay in bed and read Mrs Dalloway. In present day New York, Clarissa, who is called Mrs Dalloway by her former lover, Richard, is holding a party for him as he’s dying from AIDS.

The book starts with the suicide of Virginia Woolf, and that really sets the mood for the rest of the book. I kept wondering whether both Clarissa and Mrs Brown would kill themselves as well. It is beautifully written, and I really like how Cunningham has included passages from Mrs Dalloway. It was a perfect read for my current mood, and it really hit home. Save it for your blue periods.

Another thing I discovered while reading this, is that I totally didn’t understand Mrs Dalloway at all. I definitely need to read it again, but it needs to mature for a couple of years first. I also need to watch the film again.

This was November’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading circle.