Books

19 September 2017

Independent People by Halldor Laxness, Iceland, 1934



Covering almost 600 pages, Independent People is not a book to be read in one sitting, and, even if it were possible, to read the book in such a way is not to be recommended. This is a book that has to be digested slowly. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century it is not a happy read: the abject poverty of the lower classes compared with the relative comfort of the ruling classes was definitely not isolated to Iceland, but in Laxness' book the hunger and the misery is played out against a harsh, cold, unrelenting landscape.

Born in 1902, Laxness is writing about a period he actually experienced, in the environment where he grew up, and the book exudes a definite feeling of authenticity. I would even go so far as to guess that parts of the book are autobiographical or, at least, semi-autobiographical. In other words, Laxness has obviously referred to his own experiences and to those of people he has known when writing the book. For example, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1955, he mentioned his grandmother in his acceptance speech and commented on how close she had been to him. He went on to say that she had always stressed upon him the importance of respecting those who hold a lowly position in the world and that he should never ill-treat animals. In the book Bjartur's mother-in-law says practically the same thing to her grandson Nonni.

Revolving around Gudbjartur of Summerhouses, the book delves into the concept of independence versus the dependence that is the lot of the lower classes. Gudbjartur, or Bjartur as he is called throughout the book, spends eighteen years slaving for the landed gentry so that he might be able to buy his own piece of land and become independent. After an introduction that gives some historical aspects to the story the actual novel begins with Gudbjartur, newly married with Rosa, on his way to take up ownership of his plot of land in an isolated part of northern Iceland.

Life is not only grim, it is unbelievably awful, and Bjartur's fixation with being independent means that he cannot, and will not, accept any kind of help from anyone. This attitude did not endear him to me, in fact I found him extremely irritating, and as the story proceeds it is frustrating to see how he hurts those closest to him. Until the very last pages of the book, he seems to be completely devoid of any kind of emotional connection with his fellow man; though perhaps it is to his merit that he does finally let go of his stubbornness and his fixation on independence to be able to experience a deep emotional connection with another human being.

This is an amazing novel, beautifully written and wonderfully orchestrated. The descriptions of the landscape and the climate are so magnificent that I froze through most of the book. A subdued kind of humour acts as a foil to the serious theme of the book while historically it gives a very good picture of the social situation in Iceland in the early part of the twentieth century.

Definitely not a book to be missed.

Photo of Halldor Laxness from Encyclopaedia Britannica

05 September 2017

The Secret River by Kate Grenville, Australia, 2005





This is a beautiful book, intelligently written. Grenville’s wonderful attention to detail results in a myriad of small word paintings, each of which add yet another layer to our understanding of both early nineteenth-century London and Sydney. Not only can we see the sights, we can also smell the smells and feel the textures. We become immersed in the places; we become part of Grenville’s narrative.


The book centres around William Thornhill, who, after winning a reprieve from hanging for a minor thieving offence, is sent to Sydney town with his wife, Sal, and their small child. It is obvious that the family feels that it has landed at the end of the earth, but William, relieved that he is still alive, sets about to turn the situation to his own advantage. For William, his entire focus is set on owning a place of his own. For Sal, her focus is set on returning Home.


Photo of Kate Grenville from The Age


When Thornhill lays claim to one hundred acres on the shores of the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, he can see his dream taking shape. But there are others who were obviously there before him - people who do not worry about farming the soil but who seem to manage anyway. Thornhill and the other settlers along the banks of the Hawkesbury want the others gone.

ABC Splash
While it is obvious that Grenville’s sympathy is with the indigenous people, she is simply the fact presenter, and the reader is left to make up his/her mind. It is somewhat thought-provoking that while Thornhill and the others suffered inhumane treatment when living in England, once emancipated they gradually assume similar characteristics to their earlier tormentors. Their eagerness to finally be able to own something and, thereby, to achieve some degree of social status, put them in direct conflict with a people where the idea of personally owning anything, especially land, is completely incomprehensible. With hindsight we can wonder if things might have worked out differently had there had been less painful baggage on the part of the ex-convicts and a more understanding, less ignorant, attitude on the part of the people in charge. Unfortunately, we will never know.




15 August 2017

Provenance by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, USA, 2009



This is a true story about one of the twentieth century's biggest and boldest art frauds. Although factual, it reads like a thriller, is well written and is definitely to be recommended.

John Drewe, with a number of aliases from John Cockett to Mr Carnall, is debonair, intelligent and well-spoken; he is also a formidable confidence man. While amazed by his ability not only to keep several steps ahead of the art establishment but also to keep so many balls in the air at the same time, I often found myself regretting that he did not turn his skills towards something positive and constructive, something on the right side of the law. His much greater-than-average intellectual capacity, his intimidating memory, his verbal aptitude and his magnetic personality propel him into a line of activity where he is motivated not so much by the prospect of monitory gain but more by the personal satisfaction of having set out to fool people and having succeeded.

Along the way, his activities impact extremely negatively on many people, both friends and strangers. For him, people are simply a means to an end, and he does not seem to mind losing friends or ruining people's lives. He is completely focused on himself.

Among those impacted are his art forger, John Myatt (who initially is not aware of what Drewe is doing with the paintings), his wife, Batsheva Goudsmid (who probably loses more than any one else) and his childhood friend Daniel Stoakes. Art dealers, art galleries, even a Roman Catholic monastic order, are all caught up in Drewe's web before, thanks to a couple of sceptics and a couple of persistent detectives, it begins to unravel.

Towards the end of the book the following question is posed: what is it that makes an artwork a valuable work of art? Should the forger's impeccable paintings be regarded as 'works of art' or does the fact that they are copies negate that possibility? When we read of Michelangelo forging several artworks and Picasso signing a work painted by someone else, we probably have to admit that, like most things today, the value of a work of art is dictated purely and simply by commercial interests.
 

It would be nice to think that Drewe was snubbing his nose at an art world where money has taken precedence over motive and inspiration; however, I doubt very much that Drewe was motivated by such high aspirations. For him it was just a game.

Informative, thrilling, sad and, at times, frustrating, Provenance leaves us with many disparate thoughts and ideas.

Photos of the authors are from Laney Salisbury


01 August 2017

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, USA, 2009





The very first chapter makes it obvious that this is going to be a confronting book. It is the twenty-first century, and we learn that three people were brutally murdered twenty-five years previously in a small farmhouse in Kansas in the 1980s and that the fifteen-year-old son, Ben, was charged with their murders. The only other survivor of the massacre, Libby, becomes the main narrator.


Libby’s narration is a combination of her thoughts and, bit by bit, her attempts to find out what actually happened that night when she was only seven. She has always believed that Ben was guilty, but there are people who believe he is innocent and would do anything at all to have him released from prison.

Is Ben innocent or is he guilty?


 Photo of Gillian Flynn from The Telegraph

The story that unravels in chapters alternating between 1985 and the present day is full of leads all seemingly pointing in different directions. Possible scenarios are built up and then destroyed as more information becomes available; at all times the depressing gloom emanating from the small impoverished town and more particularly from the family itself drips from the pages. This is definitely not a happy book.

It is, however, particularly well written, and the way Flynn divides the story between the past and the present is cleverly managed. At no time is there any confusion between the two time periods.

In the end, the reader is most probably left with a sense of despair regarding present-day society. It is definitely a book that makes you think about many different issues (not just murder), and a story that will remain with you even after you have turned the last page and closed the book. 

18 July 2017

The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum, USA, 1986


 
This is the second of the three books in the Bourne series, and like the first book, The Bourne Identity, it is gripping for all of its almost 700 pages.



David Webb alias Jason Bourne alias Delta alias Cain is unwillingly pulled into a complicated and deadly fight against a Chinese megalomaniac whose eyes are firmly focused on controlling not only China and its supposed territories but even the entire world. Whereas the setting for The Bourne Identity was Europe and America, the setting for this second book is, after a brief opening in America, Hong Kong and China. As with the first book, where French phrases are cleverly scattered throughout, language plays an important role in creating atmosphere. In this case it is Mandarin, and although I do not speak a word of Mandarin the snippets of that language did not cause any confusion; on the contrary, it cements the story in the Far East.

http://www.famousauthors.org/robert-ludlum
The story is fast paced and suspenseful with a mixture of characters from the first book together with a number of new characters. At all times, the book is intelligent and extremely well researched and well planned. Numerous twists and turns can challenge the reader’s mental powers in the same way a big dipper might challenge a person’s physical and emotional stability, but when one has fastened one’s seat belt there is really no way of jumping off the ride.

Ludlum’s understanding and interpretation of the political situation in China (1980s) sheds light on the situation today, thirty years on. This is a book not to be missed, but to avoid confusion it should definitely be read after The Bourne Identity.


04 July 2017

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K.Rowling, UK, 2008



This short work, comprising five tales for children, assumes some acquaintance with the Harry Potter books by the same author. Characters from these books are referred to in the tales, and it is assumed that the reader has already made their acquaintance. Moreover, each tale includes a critique by Professor Albus Dumbledore, who was the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Mention of Professor Dumbledore’s prowess is made in the short preface to the book; however, for anyone unacquainted with the Harry Potter books this would probably not mean very much.


The book is actually referred to in one of the later Harry Potter Books, and the references and links between the tales and the actual Harry Potter books are very cleverly managed.


I have heard that the original book (The Tales of Beedle the Bard) – a limited edition of seven copies - was exquisitely handwritten and hand illustrated by Rowling. Each copy was beautifully bound in leather with silver embellishments and semiprecious stones. Six of these copies were given to people involved with the production of the Harry Potter series; the seventh was auctioned for charity (The Children’s Voice) and raised US$ 3.98 million.


Written primarily for children, this is an easily read book but still enjoyable, especially for those who are well acquainted with the Harry Potter books.


The photo of J.K.Rowling is from Daily Mail,  and the photo of the limited-edition book is from BBC

20 June 2017

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, Australia, 1988


An unusual and beautiful book about life and love and the things that spur us on to do the things we do; it is also a book about the part that chance plays in our lives.


In mid-nineteenth century England, Oscar, acting on his own interpretation of signs, presents himself at the cold, inhospitable home of the Anglican minister, seeking a new life, which he feels is the life God has ordained for him. Later, as a minister, he travels to Australia in spite of his paralysing fear of water. By this time, however, he has been caught up in other games of chance – horses and cards – and fate throws him together with Lucinda, a young Australian heiress, who loves a game of cards and who is on her way back to Australia after unsuccessfully looking for a husband in England.

Their paths in the new, bustling, rough, dirty, loud colony keep crossing, neither of them fully aware of their attraction one for the other. Certain misfortunes befall Oscar, which inadvertently push him closer to Lucinda, and he becomes enamoured of the glassworks she bought with part of her fortune. He also becomes complicit in a wonderful scheme to build a church – not just any church but a church that will surpass all others in the colony. A scheme that leads to the climax of the story and to its inevitable and tragic end.

Photo of Peter Carey from The Guardian

Like the main characters, the writing is colourful and it moves along at such a breakneck pace that the reader needs occasionally to rest up before the next onslaught. Grey, cold paintings of England and vibrant, hot paintings from Sydney and NSW form the backdrop against which Oscar and Lucinda become more and more entangled with each other and with their own obsessions.

A story about the different doors that open when nothing is said or when too much is relegated to chance. Definitely a book worth reading.

Oscar and Lucinda was made into a film in 1997, and you can watch the trailer here.

06 June 2017

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, USA, 2002



Set against a background of America’s south in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees is a wonderful piece of feminist literature. The strongest characters in the book are women, and it is the women who remain with us long after we have turned the last page.


The main character is Lily, a fourteen-year-old white girl; her mother is dead and her father is abusive and cruel. When the housekeeper Rosaleen, a black woman, attempts to register for the vote, she is accosted, thrown into gaol and beaten up. Lily manages to sneak her out of the hospital, terrified that if she is to be left there the men who beat her up will come back and kill her. The two women then hitchhike to a town, the name of which Lily has seen on the back of a card belonging to her mother. Eventually they reach the home of a bee keeper.


Bees are an important part of the story, which is basically about finding oneself and being able to accept that which one finds. There are many references to the healing qualities of honey and how understanding and ‘letting go’ leads to personal freedom.


The queen bee, the Black Madonna, the Negro women and, of course, Lily herself all combine to create a force that shows that although they might be living in a man’s world, it is in fact women who have the last word. 



Photo of Sue Monk Kidd from Scholastic 

15 May 2017

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Korea, 2007




When I began this short and beautifully written novel, where strange blood-thirsty dreams are intertwined with mundane, domestic interactions, I thought that it may have been about the central character’s, Yeong-hye, attempts to free herself from the male-dominated society in which she lives. Her decision to stop eating meat was, for me, a sign of a new independence and an awareness of the soul-destroying relationships – husband, family – all of which are threatening to destroy her.


However, as I read on, I realized that Han Kang’s book delves much deeper than male dominance and female acquiescence. It may be about the restrictions imposed by a male-dominated society, but I feel that it is also about the many other restrictions that limit both men and women. Most people are unaware of the limitations, because they are not interested in pushing boundaries: they spend mundane, unfulfilled lives somewhere in a safe middle zone. Han Kang herself has said that the book is an allegory for present-day Korea, and, as such, it is probably a description of Korea’s attempt to find herself and realize her potential.


Yeong-hye knows that there is something else, but to reach this something else she also knows that she has to extricate herself from everything that is holding her back – first meat and eventually any kind of food: she needs to become as one with the natural environment around her. Her brother-in-law, the artist, is subconsciously aware of the beauty that exists beyond that point of letting-go, but he is unable to let go, fettered, as it were, by his animal desires. At the end of the book, Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, begins to understand that Yeong-hye is not mad, and she finally understands what it is that her sister has been trying to communicate.


Like a painting, this is a beautiful but disturbing book with many different levels and, no doubt, many individual interpretations.


Photo of Han Kang above from Barnes & Noble

02 May 2017

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, USA, 1980



A man washed up on the coast of the Mediterranean is not only frightfully wounded but is also suffering from amnesia. He cannot remember why he is where he is, and he cannot remember who he is.


Over the next 500-plus pages, the man slowly remembers snippets of his past while all around him it is obvious that professional killers are intent on eradicating him. Like a blindfolded man with one hand tied behind his back he must still try to remain one step in front of these killers, using each small piece of information gleaned to complete the jigsaw. Who is he? Why is where he is? Why do people want to kill him?


The book is very well written. The pace is fast; the content is intelligent and obviously researched. It is the type of book that wants to be read in one long reading: in other words, it is a book that is extremely difficult to put down. Although there are many characters, both major and minor, and a multitude of plot twists and turns, many provoked by the intricacies of politics and high finance, the reader remains captivated, wanting more.


Set mainly in Europe (Paris, Switzerland, the Mediterranean… ) it also extends across the Atlantic to New York. The occasional use of French phrases is handled particularly well, and at no point does it feel forced or out of place; it helps to emphasize the European atmosphere that is such an important part of the story.


The ending hints at a possible continuation (The Bourne Supremacy), and although I was disappointed that the roller coaster ride had come to an end, I knew that there was another book, and another ride, just around the corner. A great book; I would recommend it to anyone.


Those of you who have seen the film by the same name (released in 2002) should not believe that you do not have to read the book: the film and the book are two completely different realities. The film has grown out of several ideas in the book, but in no way does it replicate the book, even though it has retained the name. Watching it after I had read the book was a great disappointment, because had it kept to the book it could have been ever so much more intelligent, exciting and believable.

Photo of Robert Ludlum from Goodreads

18 April 2017

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark, UK, 1971



Witty and intelligently written, this novella is set in a upper-class home outside Geneva on a particularly stormy and inclement night. The Baron and the Baroness have withdrawn to the library with their secretary and have impressed upon the staff that they are not to be disturbed.


With the three central characters off-stage in the library, the butler, Lister, orchestrates the entire evening as though it is a play; reality and the absurd are expertly woven together; and it is difficult to know where the one begins and the other ends. The butler and the other members of the staff prepare for a three-way tragedy, although why or how this should be happening remains a partial mystery. With great flair, Lister organizes everything for the expected onslaught by police, the media and outsiders at daybreak; he has even given taken care of things like the Baron’s mad brother cloistered in the attic and the inheritance of the estate. Everyone practises the lines he or she will later repeat for the police and others, and, like the director of a play, Lister adds a word here, removes a sentence there, makes suggestions...



Not to Disturb needs to be read several times in order to appreciate the satire and the very clever twists and turns of language. The ending leaves the reader with many questions: how much did the staff actually know in advance? Were they complicit in the tragedy? What happened afterwards? . . . Perhaps one of the strengths of the novella is that there are no definite answers to these many questions.


The photo of Muriel Spark in 1960 is from Wikipedia

04 April 2017

The Good People by Hannah Kent, Australia, 2016


Hannah Kent’s second book follows in the footsteps of her first book, Burial Rites, where the story plays out against a background that is harsh, grey, cold and unforgiving. While Burial Rites is set in Iceland, The Good People has the Irish winter of 1825/1826 as its background. Kent’s ability to capture a physical sensation of cold and deprivation in her writing is to be admired.

This is a book about the complexity of myth and superstition and the way in which it merges with traditional religious belief. The story, situated in an Irish rural village of the early nineteenth century, centres on three women: Nόra, newly widowed and the guardian of her deceased daughter’s four-year-old child, Micheál; Nance, the village wise woman; and Mary, a fourteen-year-old girl hired by Nόra to help her with Micheál.


Micheál is disabled, though, if we are to believe Nόra, he began life as well and healthy as any other child. Although she fears that her daughter and son-in-law may have failed to care for him and feed him properly, Nance strongly believes that he is a changeling: the real Micheál has been taken by the fairies or the good people.

The story unwinds against a background where a depressing Irish winter competes only with ignorance, herbal remedies and an unbelievable array of concoctions to ward off harm and/or bring luck. Traditional religious practices may be part of every-day life for these people, but as the new priest soon realizes (much to his chagrin) his flock is not only Christian but also pagan.

The Good People should appeal to most readers but especially to those who have experienced Irish superstitions and folk lore at first hand. It is a book that once commenced cannot be put down.

Photo of Hannah Kent from The Australian