“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers

Read in: October 2017
Edition and format: Penguin Classics 2000/Paperback
First published: 1940

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Because in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons–throw it to some human being or some human idea. They have to.

Definitely a book to be savoured at a leisurely pace, time and time again. A brilliant study of the pitfalls of interpersonal relationships, of words thrown into the void – hopeful, excited paper boats left to float downstream with the heavy, eternal uncertainty of whether they will ever reach anyone at all.
The theme of failed communication and misunderstanding that drives people who have more in common than they can imagine to loneliness and despair is developed admirably. People’s lives start converging on Singer, who becomes a symbol of different things to different people and is assigned as many meanings as there are things that people dream of and lack. The discrepancy between his own flawed humanity and the lofty ideals that he comes to represent is the driving force of the novel.
The transition between points of view is subtle and smooth, and each chapter is finely tailored to the character on which it is focused. Each story is moving and engrossing, and they are intricately connected as they can only be in a small town in the Deep South.
A fine, fine specimen of the Great American Novel, whether or not it is officially referred to as such.

“The Sandcastle” by Iris Murdoch

Read in: October 2017
Edition and format: Penguin Books 1964/Paperback
First published: 1957

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After all, he thought, I can be guided by this. Let me only make clear what I gain, and what I destroy.

My very first Murdoch exceeded all my expectations. I frankly hardly know where to start, or even what I want to say. Funny, suspenseful, a loud, relentless hymn of creation and destruction. Rarely does one see such brilliant harmony between plot, character development, and hard work on developing the underlying themes. (The word “themes”, naturally, said in Stephen Fry’s voice)

There are so many things, subtle and not so subtle, that contribute to the way the story is put together perfectly…it feels like an extremely human, emotional text and an arcane treatise on wishing impossible things, both at the same time. In this way the book is much like a painting itself.

I thought of the plot as a bit of a landslide – the worlds of adults, of children, the private and the public, rolling, sliding towards the point of no return, colliding, changing.

Perhaps it is rather that we feel our own face, as a three-dimensional mass, from within – and when we try in a painting to realize what another person’s face is, we come back to the experience of our own.

Art and its creation (the debate on how to paint a face) are juxtaposed with the forces that make and break the life of the individual (how to treat other people, love, religion, scruples). Rain is to leave after she finishes the portrait – so decisions are to be made on both counts. Just like the commissioned portrait must be finished, so must the protagonists decide how they are to leave the stage and how much they are prepared to leave behind.

Beautiful, descriptive, thrilling – a stroke of genius.

“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

Read in: November 2019
Edition and format: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2012/Kindle e-book
First published: 2012
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One important thing I learned during my frequent brushes with literature in the course of my formal education (and praise to the teacher who drilled it into my head!) is that characters don’t have to be likable for a piece of writing to be good. Much to the contrary – if the author manages to elicit strong emotions in the reader that go in the opposite direction of identifying with their creations, you most likely have a more than decent story on your hands.

Hardly any of the characters in this novel are likable, except maybe Go and Detective Boney to an extent. But that doesn’t make the narrative of this page-turner any less gripping. If you put no pressure on yourself to choose sides and just watch the craziness unfold, the rewards are plentiful.

Gone Girl is fast-paced, relentless, and vicious in just the right way.

Having given some other reviews of this book the once-over, I see that other works by Ms. Flynn have received much kinder words, which is very exciting, since apparently I have many pleasant reads to look forward to.

“On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 Years Old”

Read in: November 2017
Edition and format: Penguin 2018/digital advance review copy
First published: January 2016 by Meulenhoff

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Many thanks to Penguin for remembering to send me an ARC of the second installment of Hendrik Groen’s secret diary via NetGalley.

What a wonderful note on which to end 2017: Hendrik Groen is back, and so is the Old-But-Not-Dead Club! After a year’s pause, the eighty-five-year-old is back to delight us with the daily goings-on in Amsterdam’s most written about care home for the elderly.

Unforgettable characters emerge and re-emerge, whether it is the stern Stelwagen or Mrs Schadenfreude Slothouwer, both ever determined to put obstacles in the way of our heroes, the mouthy Mr Bakker, never lacking in things to rant about, or Mrs Schansleh and her fascinating homemade proverbs and idioms (“Time is slipping through my fingers like a ripe banana”). The gallery of memorable personages and their endearing or annoying quirks (depending on whom you ask) make for a swift page-turning experience, punctuated with the appropriate number of chuckles per page.

Mr Groen’s talent as a chronicler lies in the ability to excite both giggles and tears, often in the same breath:

“I used to wonder what the siren sounds like from inside the ambulance. I finally had a chance to find out, but I forgot to pay attention.”

The practically perfect English translation was well worth waiting for in order to join the lovely squad of lively seniors in another year of defying the system, consuming culinary delicacies and courageous amounts of alcohol to wash it all down. It really is a marvel to follow them in their attempts to keep up with the times, like when they try to order “the house wine” at McDonald’s.

When you and all your friends are older than seventy or eighty, it’s difficult to turn your back to the fact that the end might be just around the corner. The year 2015 brings its share of both laughter and loss for the closely-knit Club, and with that also a valuable lesson: time stops for no man or woman, and we can’t afford to spend a single day as sad sacks. Get up, buck up, get this show on the road. As long as there’s life.

 

“I Curse the River of Time” by Per Petterson

Read in: November 2017
Edition and format: Или-Или 2011/paperback
First published: 2008

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It was refreshing to read a book by a Scandinavian author that wasn’t a thriller, but maintains the same gloomy, chilly atmosphere throughout.

I had my usual qualms with a less than perfect translation. The story is engaging, the characters are very well-written. Would have gladly seen more of the mother’s back story unravel, but the very fact that we can only learn about her through the reminiscences and observances of her son is intriguing. The flashbacks are also intricately interwoven within the narrative and comprise a comprehensible unity with the present moment. It left me wanting for more, but unfortunately I didn’t feel I had the means to reconstruct the rest of the story myself. However, it’s so satisfyingly melancholy, that it’s worth a read even so.

“Autobiography” by Morrissey

Read in: October 2016
Edition and format: Penguin Classics 2013/Paperback
First published: 2013

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“I am no more unhappy than anyone else, and most humans are wretched creatures – cursed by the sadness of being. The world created me and I am here – never realizing that I am in love until it gets me into trouble.”

It took me an embarrassingly long time to finally dive into beloved Morrissey’s elegant, measured prose, yet here I am, humbled by the way he’s walked right up to the microphone and named all the things he loves and all the things he loathes.

In my eyes, he’s always been a sensitive soul struggling to keep his basic humanity intact in a world (a pigsty) where you can be stripped of it at every corner. Constantly in the public spotlight, crucified by the media countless times, lately dismissed as that washed out old singer who hates everybody, misquoted, misunderstood, maladjusted – but no attacks on his character seem to be able to extinguish his spirit, and boy, are we glad!

The book spans from his formative years, tortured youth, through the rise and fall of The Smiths, his going solo and all the way to the beyond, where we now stand. Some of the highlights it covers are his early musical influences, his friendships with kind and interesting people, the infamous court process that marked his life so and of which he speaks with lingering bitterness that can only be the bitterness of sincerity, the glory and gore of The Smiths years, and the passion and dedication which have transformed him into a living legend.

He speaks of his idols and influences with heartwarming admiration and familiarity , and this might be the moment to mention that if I were to draw up a similar list, his name would be at the very top. He had me at first with his lyrics and his voice, and later on with his wit, bluntness, love for Wilde, vegetarianism, unwillingness to interact with people who didn’t make him comfortable…a kindred soul, the gentle hand that rocks the cradle as you drift into sleep in the dead of yet another lonely night.

Far from putting him on a pedestal and unreservedly believing everything he’s said or sung, I appreciate how human and real he is, take it or leave it. If you don’t like me, then don’t look at me. Nobody asked you to buy that disc, get that tattoo,  scratch that name on your arm with a fountain pen, put up that poster, splash out on that concert ticket. Those who do, however, are a congregation, a community drawn together by love, connected through music, a mosaic of worshiping faces that brings Moz himself down on his knees with disbelief.

Don’t expect to skim the book for any juicy details or sudden revelations regarding his private life that have somehow slipped under your radar over the years. This is not that kind of book, nor was it written by that kind of man. Who Morrissey chooses to share his bed with has always been and will always be none of our business. And yet, there is a lesson to be learned from his words far, far more important than any simple-minded gossip: this book, just like his life, is about love: the search for it, the giving and receiving of it, and finding it in the most unexpected places, such as a particularly emotion-charged note or an audience member’s scream. It is also about having your face dragged in fifteen miles of shit, and triumphing nevertheless. And I’m not talking about slander here, or any of the smaller or larger scandals that have turned listening to Morrissey into a political act. I’m talking about facing the world and all its gloom and doom, the passing of time and all of its sickening crimes, not hanging yourself over every pale day, doing your best and not worrying.

This, to me, is this extraordinary man’s ultimate message: there is evil and stupidity and ignorance and intolerance and sorrow and misery all around us, there’s no denying it. But there’s also so much beauty and love and kindness and truth, if you can take them when offered and give them whenever you’re able to. Taking and giving. The ultimate beauty and love and truth? Music.

“It is the song of the unresolved heart, and is so disconnected with sorrow that the sorrow turns in on itself and becomes triumph.”

“Having Said Goodnight” by Pierre J. Mejlak

Read in: September 2016
Edition and format: Готен 2016/paperback
First published: 2015

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It’s a pity nobody can translate from Maltese in this country – I have many bones to pick with the translation, which leaves a lot to be wished for. They didn’t even have to specify it’d been translated from English, it’s that obvious. I suppose we should be grateful somebody bothered to translate it at all (how many Maltese authors can we name off the tops of our heads?).

The reason I’m wary of reviewing books I’ve only read translations of is that I inevitably end up writing about the quality of the translation instead of the quality of the story. However, I had to offer my two cents here, because Mejlark’s prose is strong and confident enough to shine across two languages and through layers of mistakes that even I, a pup in the world of literary translation, would have been embarrassed of.

What is refreshing in this collection is the author’s ability to present ordinary events from extraordinary points of view, casually deliver (mostly) unpredictable twists and turns, and delight in the ensuing reversal of expectations. His themes are universal and his characters easy to identify with and feel sympathy for, and his stories unfold as smoothly as a movie reel.

My personal favourites are:

  • the story about a man recovering from an emotional breakup by fabricating a journey to Malawi with unforeseeable consequences
  • the one about the kid whose only friends were burnt matches he collected in the street (the narrative of the outsider, the marginalized, disturbed protagonist will never go out of vogue and lose its appeal)
  • the one about the bird that gets stuck in a couple’s flat and tears their relationship to pieces
  • the one about the woman who finds a manuscript left behind by her late husband and publishes it as her own
  • the one about the woman who learns her husband had died in an accident and decides to reinvent herself entirely (that one was straight out of the Twilight Zone)

I’ll definitely keep an eye out for his other works, but this time I’ll do myself a favour and read them in English.