Category Archives: Contemporary

Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky

Suite FrancaiseSuite Francaise - Irène Némirovsky
Translated from the French by Sandra Smith
Chatto & Windus 2006 (French: 2004)
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

I started reading Suite Francaise right about the time when the end of reading War and Peace was in sight. Moreover, I started it right after finishing that month’s  section. Hopefully this will explain why I chose to write about this novel for the War and Peace Carnival, besides the obvious, of course — the fact that it is consistently called Némirovsky’s War and Peace-like epos on the cover and the appendices.

Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise consists of two parts. The first, called Storm in June, follows a number of families and persons as they flee Paris on the eve of the German invasion. The second, ‘Dolce’, depicts live in a small village while it is occupied by Germans. Meant to be a novel of more parts, Némirovsky never got to finish it before she was transferred to a concentration camp by the Nazis. In published form, these two parts are followed by appendices containing her notes about the war and her ideas about Suite Francaise as well as her correspondence from 1936 until her deportation.

There is a certain feel to the novel that struck me as justifying the idea that Némirovsky was aiming to write a War and Peace of her time. I felt there were similarities in how Tolstoy and Némirovsky chose to depict the chaos and yet the familiarity of everyday life during war. How human natures will remain what they are, even if they are undergoing drastic changes at the same time. How people will make choices, one or the other, without knowing the outcome, but mostly trying to maintain a sense of normality. And how some might struggle to hold on to class and all that, even if that should hardly matter any more. (Btw, it certainly seemed that Némirovsky had more sympathy for the working classes than the richer persons she depicts, or was that just me?)

The difference perhaps being that whereas Tolstoy included a lot of battle scenes from the point of view of the army/soldiers, most of the fighting that we see in Suite Francaise is through regular characters. (with one scene with a boy who wants to join the army as an exception, perhaps?) I wonder if this is why I felt more instantly attached to the story and its characters in Suite Francaise compared to War and Peace. Or perhaps it was the length of the –unfinished– novel? Or maybe even the fact that the historical setting is more familiar to me? I do not mean to detract from either novel, it is simply that Suite Francaise was somehow easier to read for me.

There is one thing that frankly surprised me while reading Suite Francaise: the constant feeling that it was written as if the war was already over, as if the author already knew what things were going to happen. There was such a, I guess I could call it knowingness?, about the war. A familiarity combined with reflection that had me wondering repeatedly if perhaps I hadn’t gotten my facts straight, if perhaps Némirovsky did live until the end of the war and revised the novel afterwards. But alas, that was not the case, or we might have had a complete novel instead of a story in two parts. Either way, I think it was that tone that was part of the magic in Suite Francaise for me.

There is a lot more to say about Suite Francaise, but I am afraid that it has been a while since I read it, and that while I knew I was going to write about it in December — close to that time when I would have finished War and Peace – I forgot to make notes of all the other things I wished to say. This will have to do, until, perhaps, I reread it someday?

War and Peace CarnivalI read Suite Francaise as part of my Classics Club list. This post is part of the War and Peace Carnival

Other opinions on Suite Francaise may be found here.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets - Eva RiceThe Lost Art of Keeping Secrets – Eva Rice
Review, 2005
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Last weekend I was on a quest to find the best comfort book, due to being confined to the couch unable to do much besides sit wrapped up in a comfy blanket in the company of tea. I progressed fairly well through a number of books, but The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets — although I only started it at the very end of that weekend — definitely won the title.

Last year while I was visiting Ana in the UK, she pushed this book on me with the assurance that I would love it. Now, I have come to trust Ana’s recommendations blindly over the years – and she was definitely right.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is set in the 1950′s and begins with Penelope Wallace meeting her best friend Charlotte quite by accident when Charlotte insists she takes a cab with her and joins her at her aunt’s for tea. From there on out, the story follows Penelope in her developing friendship with Charlotte, her navigation of the complicated scheme set up by Charlotte’s cousin Harry, her helplessness as she watches her unhappy mother struggling to overcome her father’s death in the war leaving her with a crumbling and large ancestral home, and her relationship with her brother Inigo who only has ears for Elvis Presley.

There is something about Penelope’s story that is utterly charming. Perhaps it is to do with the fact that there is a love story, but it never becomes front and centre. Instead, this is a book about all sorts of relationships, with family and definitely friendship taking centre stage over any crush or love Penelope has or feels. Moreover, as Ana explains in her review, it is interesting that the manic pixie dream girl theme is explored through a different dynamic, namely in a setting of friendship between two girls instead of a romantic relationship between boy and girl. Furthermore there is the prose that is utterly captivating. Plus, there is the description of a love for music that is so utterly true in exploring both its evocation of devotion to persons and to music’s meaning. And last but not least, there is the fact that this compares so wonderfully to I Capture the Castle. I was constantly reminded of my love for that book, which I only read in recent years,while reading The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. At the same time, this reminder of another book never took away from the joy of loving this book on its very ow., for it is most definitely its own novel with its own story.

In conclusion: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a wonderful, wonderful book. It felt like coming home and it made me want to only read books like this from here on out. If only I could find them. I am now debating whether or not I should move on to The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp right away, or if I should keep it on my shelves a little longer to make sure I have the perfect comfort read waiting for me when I need it. Meanwhile, I have Amanda Applewood’s I Love Boys album on repeat, for as Ana told me, Amanda Applewood and Eva Rice are one and the same. Just imagine: being able to combine writing wonderful books and make lovely music

Other Opinions: Write Meg, Things Mean a Lot,  The Indextrious Reader, A Work in Progress, Stuck in a Book, Chachic’s Book Nook, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Heaven and Hell - Jon Kalman StefanssonHeaven and Hell – Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated from the Icelandic Himnaríki og helvíti by Philip Roughton
Maclehose Press, 2011
Review copy from the publisher
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

As I sit here staring at a blank screen of a post to be written, I think the only thing I can fairly say about Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Heaven and Hell is that it puzzled me. More than any book has done this year, perhaps even in the past few years, I am left a little speechless. You see, I am not sure what I think about this book. It is a very accomplished book. I can see that it is very good and has a lot of literary qualities. All the same, it left me feeling completely apathetic.

*sigh* I know this is an admission on my part that means I probably fail to understand very significant parts of this novel. So many of the bloggers I respect and look up to loved this book. But blogging is about honesty and I cannot pretend I liked something, let alone felt something very particular, about a novel that just did not seem to evoke much at all in me. Again, this is not to say that this is not a good novel. Perhaps the failing is solely mine or maybe even the particular time at which I chose to read it. I don’t know.

In its most basic form, Heaven and Hell is a story about the following, which I have copied from GoodReads because I could not try to summarise it more concisely myself:

In a remote part of Iceland, a boy and his friend Bárður join a boat to fish for cod. A winter storm surprises them out at sea and Bárður, who has forgotten his waterproof as he was too absorbed in ‘Paradise Lost’, succumbs to the ferocious cold and dies. Appalled by the death and by the fishermen’s callous ability to set about gutting the fatal catch, the boy leaves the village, intending to return the book to its owner. The extreme hardship and danger of the journey is of little consequence to him – he has already resolved to join his friend in death. But once in the town he immerses himself in the stories and lives of its inhabitants, and decides that he cannot be with his friend just yet.

The setting of the story, then, sets the novel apart from other stories about loss and grief and personal journeys. The remote Icelandic setting, the indistinct but definitely historic time period (I do not think a year is ever actually mentioned?) all contribute to the feel of the novel that is quite “other”, somehow, and a little forlorn as well.

But what really sets this book apart is the writing style and particularly the narrator. Or narrators really; for this story is told by the dead of the community it is set in. Thus, the whole story is captured by a plural voice, which is all-knowing about both the individual and the communal & about the present, the past, and the future. It often juxtaposes and bundles individual thought, feeling, or acts with seemingly universal truths in one sentence, or one paragraph.

This plural narratorship combined with its poetic language is definitely what gives Stefánsson’s book its distinct feel.  I fear it is also what made me unable to engage with the story fully. For through the communal and the plural, through the universal truths that almost seem too obvious (I hesitantly add: bordering on trite), as a reader I was constantly held at a distance. This was compounded by the long sentences interspersed with commas, that I constantly felt deserved my attention but however much I tried I ended up skimming them instead.

There are interesting themes pinpointed in this novel. There are questions to be discussed. For example, how do the different stories we are told about a large range of characters relate to each other? What exactly are the major themes of this novel except for the question of meaning in life (and in death)? What to say about the changes from communal to individual stories and perspectives, where in the latter half of the novel the individual is given just a little more room than in the first half? What does it say about me as a reader that it was exactly that second half that I could engage with a little bit more, was it the fact that there was a glimpse of individuality there – does the communal feel too stifling to me, really?

But really, I feel I cannot do this book justice because I couldn’t appreciate it as I feel it probably deserves to be appreciated. I couldn’t give it my full attention, however much I tried not to drift to other thoughts. I almost feel I should apologise to the book. But then again, I try to remind myself that there should be no shame in “not getting” a book sometimes, that reading “is what it is” at a particular moment in time, that there is always the possibility of giving it another try when the mood might be right. Or that perhaps the book just was not for me.

Other Opinions: Book Atlas, Farm Lane Books Blog, Book Monkey, Reading Matters, Tony’s Reading List, Winterlief (in Dutch, but she writes so lovely and I first heard about the book from her), Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
Pandora Press, 1985

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Jeanette is brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Jeanette loves her mother and her God, even if she never quite seems to fit in with children her age because her habits are considered strange. Nevertheless, she seems content. That is, until Jeanette falls in love with a girl..

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is one of those books that I had been meaning to read forever. So when I came across it in a charity shop while on holiday in Devon this summer, I couldn’t not pick it up, right? Now that I have finally read it, I am glad I did. Even if I did not all-out love it.

Jeanette Winterson’s writing is quite captivating. I was pulled into the book almost immediately.  Moreover, after taking some time to get used to it I found the switch-over between Jeanette’s story and the intermixing of elements of other stories, such as a legend about King Arthur and the Holy Grail, to be beautifully done. Moreover, there are some piercing observations on classicism in the UK and there is a strangely funny sense of humour throughout the book – strange because you know these are real and painful situations being described.

In evoking the highly religious setting Winterson manages to do two things at once. On the one hand, the setting will be somewhat strange to most people who have not been raised as strictly religious as Jeanette is. Her descriptions of it somehow border the strange-funny-creepy divide in an interesting manner. At the same time, in having Jeanette take her own situation for granted as she does, in a way that is difficult to imagine as an outsider but probably very true to experience from the inside, she also makes Jeanette’s world seem immediately familiar. I found this strange-yet-familiar divide that both draws the reader in and makes Jeanette’s world somewhat distant very intriguing.

There is one thing that left me puzzled though, and I am not quite sure how to articulate it as it seems unfair to raise the subject? Winterson’s story radiates anger, in a very raw manner. Anger, that I think is justified given the subject manner – even more so when you know that Winterson herself probably lived through most of this herself. It feels unfair to feel even a glimmer of disappointment in this anger, this anger almost bordering on revenge – because it is a story of unfairness, of deep frustrations and social repression. And yet.. I felt the story was somehow held captive by it? Like there might have been more  that did not have a chance to be captured somehow?

In some ways, the end builds and hints towards a transcending of at least the anger towards Jeanette’s mother, but to me, it still felt as if we were held in the middle of it.  Probably this reflects the reality of the situation for Jeanette’s character, the impossibility to let go. And possibly this is exactly what gives the story its immediacy that has you reading  without a thought to anything else. But I couldn’t help and put the book down feeling a little drained, as if I had left some of what drew me in in the beginning behind, as if there was and still is something gnawing at me that I cannot quite articulate but won’t let me go. This *something* that has me unable to really love this book, while at the same time, it might be the very thing that makes this such a courageous and intriguing book? Help! Sometimes I wonder why I am even trying to articulate my thoughts on novels :P

classicsclub1I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for my The Classics Club reading list. And despite my vague inability to love love love the book, I am very happy to have read it since I did think it a convincing novel. It is with joy that I mark this as the first book read on the list.

Other Opinions: Tales from the Reading Room, The Reading Life, Fifty Books Project,  Sam Still Reading, Novel Insights,  Savidge Reads, Reading Matters, Yours? 

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila

This is Paradise - Kristiana KahakauwilaThis is Paradise: Stories – Kristiana Kahakauwila
Hogarth, July 2013

Review copy from the publisher
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

The six stories in This is Paradise all take place in Hawai’i and give a view of the place outside of the idyllic islands tourists visit.

All stories explore themes such as identity, belonging, and family. And all stories are extremely well-rounded. Something I often miss in short story collections is the feeling that all the stories are truly finished, but that was certainly not the case here. Kahakauwila sets the scene perfectly each time, allows you to look in on her characters for long enough to understand their motivations, background, longings and emotions.

Three stories particularly stood out to me. First, there is the title story, “This is Paradise”, that is narrated by different groups of women on the island and their interactions with one tourist girl. The title is ironic and yet captures the juxtaposition between tourist impressions and everyday life. The story itself definitely touches upon the darker sides of life, and some of the scenes towards the end of the story poignantly ask questions about responsibility and care for others besides your own acknowledged group of friends.

Second, “Wanle”  is the story of a woman who will do anything to avenge her father’s death. She hopes to do so through the shared passion of her father and her, cock fighting, but learns some uncomfortable truths in the process.

Finally, the last story of the collection, “The Old Paniolo Way”, is about Pili, a Hawaian man who lives in San Francisco but returns to his father’s ranch now that his father is dying. There, he wants to offer support as best he can to his sister and the nurse attending his father, and hopes to regain the former closeness between his father and himself. Questions of identity expression and family ties are broached as Pili struggles with the question whether he should come out to his family.

And yet. You see, here is the thing about This is Paradise. It is the kind of collection that I was very happy to read comfortably at my own pace. I was never bored or distracted from the stories. And contemplating them afterwards as I am forced to do in order to post about them, I recognise their accomplishment much as I did while reading, perhaps even more. But I also feel forced to admit that I rarely felt much immediate emotional attachment or a compulsion that had me impatient o read on. Sadly, I wonder how memorable this collection turns out to be. I might put this back on the shelves and never stop to think about it again. Or it could be that these stories will linger, somehow, having me acknowledge their impression months later while I feel very little right now. It could go either way, but I fear that it might be the former for me in this case. It is a shame, for at the same time, I feel this collection deserves much better.

Other Opinions: Books Speak Volumes, BookNAround, Caribousmom, Too Fond, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.