Thirty-one. Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age.

the God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)
“As Estha stirred the thick jam he thought Two Thoughts and the Two Thoughts he thought were these:
a) Anything can happen to anyone.
and
b) It is best to be prepared.” 
Rahel and Estha are twins that have returned to their childhood home. Estha hasn’t been there since he was sent to his father after the terrible event of their cousin Sophie Mol’s death, while Rahel stayed with her grandparents as her mother was sent away as well for loving the wrong man.

The story moves between the now at the twins’ return and the then with the death of Sophie Mol as the main event with a couple of twists and turns. But what really makes this book is the beautiful prose. Sometimes a mere sentence could make me laugh out loud or just sigh. It’s definitely a slow-reading book. Although it’s beautifully written and I enjoyed the story, I felt that there was something missing, but I cannot put my finger on exactly what. It is also a hard book to write about. But it is definitely worth a read!

The book won the Man Booker Prize in 1997 and is also August’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading circle.

“And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside.”

Poets on the run.

the Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998)

“There is a time for reciting poems and a time for fists.” 
Juan Gárcia is a 17 year old, who through his diary tells the story about his meeting with the Visceral Realists, a gang of poets living in Mexico City. They usually hang around in bars, drinking and discussing books. He also falls in love with one of them, María Font, and stops attending classes at the university. Two of the most famous Visceral Realists, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, along with a prostitute, Lupe, and Juan Gárcia,  have to leave Mexico City on New Year’s Eve 1975 because Lupe’s pimp has found them.

The second part of the book are eyewitness accounts from around the world, spanning from 1976 to 1996. Here we learn what Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano are up to in Mexico, Europe, Israel, USA and Africa and all the interesting characters they meet on their way.  It took some time to get used to the jumping from one eyewitness to another and piecing together the story, but once I got used to it, it became addictive.

The story is interesting, but I think you have to be really into poetry, and especially Mexican, to get everything out of this book. I usually skimmed the very detailed poetry part of the book. The rest of the book was right up my alley. Arturo Belano is the alter ego of Roberto Bolaño, and most of the characters are based on real persons (Wikipedia has a nice who’s who).

I read the book as a part of a book originally written in Spanish in Bjørg’s off the shelf challenge, temporarily being supervised by Hedda. I’m about a month late for the challenge as I have been a super slow reader this summer. the Savage Detectives has been on my shelf since 2011, so about time.

“Everything that begins as a comedy ends as tragedy.”

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.

Oh, Alberta.

the Alberta Trilogy by Cora Sandel
(Alberta and Jacob 1926, Alberta and Freedom 1931 and Alberta Alone 1939)
 
“The truth was Alberta only knew what she did not want. She had no idea what she did want. And not knowing brought unrest and a giddy sensation under her heart. She existed like a negative of herself, and this flaw was added to all the others. To get away, out into the world! Beyond this all details were blurred. She imagined somewhere open, free, bathed in sunshine. And a throng of people, none of them her relatives, none of whom could criticize her appearance and character, and to whom she was not responsible for being other than herself.” 
 Alberta is a young woman living in Northern Norway with her brother, Jacob, and their parents. Alberta is unable to continue her education, and spends her days at home helping out, while her friends have either moved south or are busy getting hitched. She is constantly cold, both physically and emotionally.

In the second book, we find Alberte a few years later in Paris, where she sometimes works as a model for painters. She lives in the cheapest hotels and is constantly broke. She hangs with a crowd of international artists and their muses. She has changed a lot from the one she used to be in Norway, and she is independent and hates running into fellow countrymen, as she is worried about what they’d say behind her back. I’m not going to say anything about the third book, because then I’ll spoil the essentials of the second book. But it is set a few years later, just after World War I. 

Alberta definitely found a special place in my heart. She reminded me a lot of my younger self, especially in her insecurity and constant coldness. And the whole part about finding yourself. Cora Sandel also writes well, and I was surprised that there weren’t more quotes on Goodreads. I’d definitely have written some there myself if I had read it in English. I have a feeling that this book was controversial when it was published, and especially the second book where there are sex and even an abortion. I know that during World War II, the German regime in Norway banned the third book because they believed it to be anti-German.

I liked the second book best of all, and I believe that it should be on the 1001 books you should read list instead of Alberta and Jacob. And I would have loved to be in Paris in the that time period myself. Alberta and Jacob was April’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading circle, and although I read it then, I wanted to read the whole trilogy before writing about it.

And oh, does anyone know why the names have been changed from the Norwegian version (Alberte, Jakob) to the English one (Alberta, Jacob)? I have only seen that in children’s books before. 

“What use is it to him now that he was such a good mathematician at school?

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928)
 “I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.” 
Paul Bäumer is a young German soldier on the Western Front. He conscripted with many of his fellow class mates and some of them are in the same troop. As the years go by, he watches them die one by one, and ponders about the meaning of it all.

We follow Paul in the trenches, in the hospital and home on leave. And what do we learn? That war is awful and meaningless. The intensity in the book mixed with sudden prose hit me straight in the face and it was impossible to lay down.

While reading, I kept wondering if this book would have been so powerful if it had been written from the perspective of the winning side. Because once we know that Paul is German, we know he is doomed to lose. It is definitely a really important book, and as it is a century since the Great War began, you should read it.

This was May’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading circle. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise (at this time in life anyway), so I’m grateful.

twenty-two.

the Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)
 “But he was no longer in Tollygunge. He had stepped out of it as he had stepped so many mornings out of his dreams, its reality and its particular logic rendered meaningless in the light of day. The difference was so extreme that he could not accommodate the two places together in his mind. In this enormous new country, there seemed to be nowhere for the old to reside. There was nothing to link them; he was the sole link. Here life ceased to obstruct or assault him. Here was a place where humanity was not always pushing, rushing, running as if with a fire at its back.” 
Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers, growing up in Calcutta. While Subhash has an academic mind, Udayan is fascinated by the Naxalite movement, which wants Communist rule in India. Subhash moves to Rhode Island to continue his education, Udayan stays behind and gets more active in illegal activities, but also marries a girl without his parents consent.

The police are rounding up the members of the Naxalite movement, and one day they are coming to the Mitra household. After capturing Udayan, they murder him in front of his parents and wife. Returned for the funeral, Subhash learns that Udayan’s wife, Gauri, is pregnant. He decides to marry her and bring her back to Rhode Island.

The themes of the book are interesting, and I enjoyed reading it. But towards the end, the book felt too long and especially the last chapters seemed unnecessary. Jhumpa Lahiri has an interesting voice, and I will definitely read more by her.

Having read all the shortlisted works for Man Booker Prize 2013, I have to say that although I enjoyed the winner; the Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, my favourite is Harvest by Jim Crace.

twenty.

Forty Days Without Shadow by Olivier Truc (2012)
 An ancient Sami drum is stolen from a gallery in Kautokeino and a reindeer herder is found murdered out on the vidde. And with a UN conference on indigenous peoples coming up, the drum needs to be found as fast as possible. Kenneth Nango and Nina Nansen from the reindeer police are asked to help out on the cases. 
Kenneth, a local Sami, who has been in the police for decades has admirers and enemies, even within the police. He knows most of the people in Kautokeino. Nina Nansen has just started working in the reindeer police and as she is from the south of Norway, she is not used to the conditions and cultures of the north. And she is especially fascinated by the sun coming back on the horizon.

As the plot thickens, a Frenchman with a taste for young girls and metals, makes his presence known in Kautokeino. It also seems that corrupt politicians and police are involved in the case. And then there is an old map indicating a gold mine.

It is always interesting to read books about Norway written by foreign authors. Olivier Truc is a French journalist who has worked mainly in Sweden and he definitely has a lot of knowledge about the Northern Scandinavia. The atmosphere of Kautokeino is spot on at times, and I especially think he explained the political climate well.  As this is fiction, some things are made up, such as the transnational structure of the reindeer police, but I think that is necessary for the story. I found the beginning of the book slow, probably because of too much information which didn’t really fit in with the story. But as the story progressed, the information became more integrated. The end came too fast and I was confused when there were no pages left on the Kindle. I would really like to know how Kenneth and Nina reacted to what had happened.

A good read which made me homesick for the Arctic and longing for snow and darkness while being in sunny Edinburgh. 

nineteen.

the Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyrö (2011)
 In order to earn easy money and buy his son a pair of football boots, Vatanescu from Romania,  signs a contract with a Russian human trafficker, Yegor Kugar, who quickly puts him on the streets of Helsinki as a beggar. Vatanescu is crafty and discovers that a lot of edible food is thrown into dumpsters and is feasting on the food when Yegor discovers it. Yegor is furious and sacks Vatanescu, but Vatanescu fights back and runs away with a lot of money.

And then Vatanescu saves the rabbit from a group of angry men. Together they travel through Finland, wherever their luck takes them.

The story is entertaining and I really felt sorry for Vatanescu and really hoped that he finally could buy those football shoes for his son. And it was also interesting to read the narrative of Yegor. It became disappointing towards the end, and I think the part about the political party was a bit too much over the top. But I forgave everything when I came to the last page. Perfect ending.

I stumbled upon this book at Waterstones in Edinburgh and it was the perfect companion to three meals and many glasses of wine. The Beggar and the Hare is a modern rewrite of the Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna, where Vatanen injures a hare and then they go into the Finnish wilderness together. I read that book six years ago while living in Finland and I really enjoyed it. Read it before reading this.

seventeen.

Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez (1998)
 Pedro Juan is content as long as he has some money, rum and a woman. Rum and women are easy to find, money is harder as Cuba in the 90s is a rough place. Pedro Juan goes from woman to woman, job to job and also spends some time in jail. The book is more like a collection of many short stories, some with Pedro Juan as the main character and some are stories about others.

I’m guessing this isn’t the Cuba that tourists get to explore. It is the life within those crumbled buildings that they are taking pictures of. The life of whores, the unemployed, the crazies and poorest of the poor. It’s about the ups and downs and those random life altering events. And of course sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

Dirty is definitely the right word for this book. Not only because of the sexual content, but also because of the conditions Pedro Juan finds himself living and working in. A work that manages to combine both sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and state of the nation is easily one of my instant favourites. The genre is apparently called dirty realism and Charles Bukowski was of course the king of it. 

Read it for the social commentary, or the sex, or both. 

eleven, thirteen, sixteen: george smiley

by John le Carré (1961-1963)

 George Smiley was a British agent during the war. When a man he had interviewed for the agency is found murdered and the agency doesn’t do anything about it, he decides to leave. Before he leaves, he is determined to solve the case. The case is a tricky one and involves German agents on British solved, and one of them manages to run off to Germany.

After leaving the agency, he is asked to look into a murder at a religious private school. The wife of one of the professors was found murdered after she had written to a Christian newspaper’s advisory column about fearing for her life. The victim believes that her husband will kill her, but he has an alibi for the time of the murder.

A spy should always be out in the cold, because that means that no one takes notice of him.  When the circle of Leamas’ agents is killed one by one in East Germany, all signs lead to the leader of the East Germany’s secret agency. As it turns out, he is the one who ran the operation in Britain a few years earlier. Leamas decides to infiltrate the East German agency, but first he must make himself interesting enough for them to recruit him.

I have spent the previous month reading about George Smiley, one of the most famous character in crime and mystery novels. Even after three books, it is hard to paint a picture of George, except that he is peculiar looking and his wife left him. He is definitely a character that manages to go unnoticed. And in the Spy Who Came in from the Cold he is only mentioned, and it is hard to understand which role he played in the infiltration of the East German agency.

I have yet to discover why John le Carré is such a popular writer. I found the first book incredibly hard to read because of the language. I wanted to find my red pen and rewrite a lot of the sentences. The plot didn’t make the reading easier and in all three books it seems like too much is left out for us readers who haven’t spent time working as a secret agent. Luckily the language improved in the second book and I hardly had no complaints when I came to the third book, and I guess it will continue to improve in the rest of his work.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold must have been a great read when it was published in the height of the Cold War drama. It gives a good picture of the Cold War, and I really liked the British Communist Elizabeth Gold and how brainwashed the East German Communists were. I’m fortunate because I have just taught the kids about the Cold War and especially Berlin, so I had no problems with the setting and background. If you are interested in reading this, you should at least read about the Cold War on Wikipedia at some point so you understand the background of the book.

What I really cannot fathom is that not only one, but three of the George Smiley novels have made it onto the 1001 books you must read before you die list (insert some rant about male experts and male readers and their thirst for action here). Surely there must be better books to put on the list. Because I need to read books in a chronological order, I must endure all the George Smiley books in order to cross off Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. Let’s hope that Smiley grows on me.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was March’s read in Line’s 1001 books reading circle