Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

IMG_20171119_200942_211Emily Ruskovich’s genre defying debut Idaho is a gruesome crime novel, psychological character story, mystery novel, medical drama and love story all in one. I know, it sounds like a lot but in most of the categories, Ruskovich actually delivers. So what aspect of this novel should I focus on? Basic plotline: the parents, Jenny and Wade, and their two daughters June and May live a pretty normal live in the mountains of Idaho, until one day a horrific event changes everything. Jenny kills her youngest daughter with a machete while the family is on a trip to get wood for the winter. June, who witnesses the event, runs away out of fear and has not been seen since that day. Jenny is sentenced to life in prison. Wade marries again but his new wife Ann soon also has to take on the role as caretaker, as Wade is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. All these facts we learn pretty early on, so the book is not so much about the plot but about the rational behind it and the characters who are living it.

The story is told from varying perspectives; we get to hear from Jenny in prison, from Wade, his new wife Ann and a younger May. Despite this diversity of voices, we don’t get a proper explanation for why the murder happened nor do we hear from June after the day of the crime. This is where I am left unsure about how I feel about the novel. I do find parts of the way the story is told very unusual and I like how certain events are left open for interpretation but I was also infuriated at times about how little information we get. I know this is a bit of a paradox but I don’t know how to explain it better. What I found most captivating about the novel is also what disturbed me the most. Why would a mother just kill her child out of the blue without any reason? Where is June? Was it really Jenny who did this?

The longer I think about it, the more difficult it becomes for me to decide if I think this is a “good” novel. The writing is absolutely beautiful and Ruskovich creates a dense and imaginative literary version of Idaho that totally blew me away. At the same time though I felt like something was missing. Whether this was an intentional comment by Roskovich on how crimes like these always remain in some ways incomprehensible to those left behind, I don’t know. But I felt like I could read something of that sort in between the lines:

Jenny’s absence seems to describe her better than her presence does; she is a looming vessel of her own withholding.

Maybe she left things open so that we would get to make up our own theories and indeed, I developed a few of those. It was intriguing to keep imagining different reasoning for the actions of characters. So I’m still somehow unsure. Impressed but unsure.

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Review – Ways to Disappear

46772.jpegWays to Disappear by Idra Novey is an experimental noir novel set in Brazil. The plot is centered on the disappearance of the fictitious Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda. Coming to terms with her gambling problems and hunted by loan sharks she climbs up a tree in the middle of a town and is not seen again. Now it is up to her grown children and American translator Emma to find her. Using the literary work of Beatriz and their combined wit they are not only trying to solve her mysterious disappearance but also the puzzles of their own lives, lived in the shadow of a literary genius.

The novel has a classic pulp plot filled with fast paced action and gangsters waiting in dark alleys but it also gets a good dose of magic realism, Brazilian atmosphere and feminist romance. It is like a noir novel on LSD. Novey uses multiple perspectives, transcriptions from radio, personalized dictionary entries and interviews to add to her very personal style. Even the way the pages are set is very unique, sometimes there are just a few words on the page. All these unique stylistic features point to the fact that Idra Novey is actually a poet and Ways to Disappear is her debut novel. I really liked that I could see poetry in her work, it gave her a whole extra creative dimension to work with. She also had interesting themes that she explored through the novel like the art of translation, how places can change you and the strange relationship between those who create art and those who consume it. I thought it was a great novel that entertained and delivered a critical framework around that entertainment.

Review: Elif Batuman – The Idiot

IMG_20171014_161405552.jpgThe novel is set in 1995. Selin the daughter of Turkish immigrants is attending her first year at Harvard. She studies Russian, Language and Art and falls in love with her Hungarian classmate Ivan. Somewhat accidentally they begin to write Emails to each other. When in the second half of the novel Ivan goes to Hungary for the summer, Selin follows him there to teach English and see the Europe.

The novel has a lot of smart observations on culture, language, art, gender and love but since most of them are voiced through Selin, an extremely naïve young woman, they also sometimes made me cringe. And it felt strange to me that someone who has read so much (she makes a point of discussing the works of Mann, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky) could be so clueless when coming face to face with the real world. It’s an interesting point I guess how a character can be smart and an idiot at the same time. While I was reading the novel I was hoping that some sort of change would take place and through having all these new experiences Selin would maybe get her act together and realize what an idiot Ivan is. Minor spoiler – this doesn’t happen.

Batuman sets a distinct tone for this novel. She wrote parts of it already 20 years ago, which to me made it feel all the more real. It is a detailed depiction of this very specific time when communication went through a phase of major change. Because she rewrote her writing from 20 years ago today, this makes it all the more interesting. Her nostalgia is informed by a contemporary mind-set.

To me I have difficulty voicing an opinion on this novel, I really liked the first part that was set in America depicting college life and love in the 90’s but I couldn’t really connect with the character that she encountered on her trip to Europe. This second part generally felt rushed (too many new character) and too long (didn’t care about the new characters) at the same time. I felt like a lot could and should have been edited out. This quote that I took from the book actually sums it up nicely:

“Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book.”

Review – Homo Faber by Max Frisch

I had read this novel in school when I was about 17. Back then I didn’t really like it. Now, being a little older, it speaks to me more. The novel focuses on the engineer Walter Faber and how he gets to know a woman that he does not know is his daughter. Faber is hunted by many memories; he has lost the love of his life, as well as an old friend and seems to be wondering aimlessly through his life. To the outside world he has created a facade of a man without many struggles or feelings but inside he is confused, cynical and sometimes lonely. When he then meets his daughter, their life stories become irrevocably intertwined until a tragic accident shatters their momentary happiness. As you probably can tell already this novel deals with many heavy themes and is overall a rather uncomfortable read. It illustrates the messy lives of the characters, each one at the mercy of chance with no way to protect themselves or the ones they love. I would definitely recommend it though as it felt very “real” to me. The language Frisch uses is beautifully minimalistic and sometimes surprisingly creative (I read it in German) and the issues that Faber struggles with, like identity, loss and regret are issues we will all have to face at some point in our lives.

Review: The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin

 

IMG_4122Many years ago, Anatoly Sukhanov made a choice. He abandoned his life as an underground artist for money and security. Now, he is being hunted by the ghosts of his past.

When we meet Anatoly Sukhanov in his Russia of the 1980’s, it is a wintery world, filled with memories. He is leading a warm and fuzzy life, has money and a family. But everything changes when he is confronted with an artist that used to be his best friend 20 years ago. Suddenly he is forced to challenge the reasoning behind the choices he has made all over again.

In the beginning Sukhanov states that he doesn’t remember much of his past. He keeps a few isolated memories and therefore creates a curated version of his life that has almost no connection to reality. But through the encounter with his friend from the past, memories keep suddenly overwhelming him. Memories from his childhood, memories from his time as a poor and rebellious artist:

“[…] this stray little thought released in him some echo of the past, a solitary trembling note whose sound rose higher and higher in his chest, awakening inarticulate longings and, inseparable from them, a piercing, unfamiliar sorrow.”

He feels overwhelmed by these memories and is unable to save himself from the emotions that come with each new recovered memory. Oftentimes the memories are triggered by places and the reader is transported to a different time in the life of Sukhanov without much warning. The memories, characters, places and emotions create an eerie and claustrophobic mixture, where sometimes it is not clear what is real and what is not. Could some of the people he encounters be himself at different times in his life?

What I thought was done rather brilliantly in this book was the way that Grushin did not paint a black and white picture of Sukhanov. In many ways his character is quite flawed, he is a proud and opportunistic man where we get to meet him, but nonetheless Grushin got me to really care for him. Also she never simplifies the choices that Sukhanov has and had to make. His struggles are real and valid. When she gives reasoning for his decision to turn down life as an artist, they do not seem like choices that were done without thought behind them. In a lot of ways the reasons Sukhanov gave, made me care more about the character and not less:

“…the only life worth living was a life without humiliation, a free life, a safe life – and the only sure way to avoid having one’s wings clipped was to grow no wings at all.”

Obviously art is an important part of the book. The characters talk about it, they judge it, they create it and different artists are mentioned again and again to show the characters’ changing relationships to art throughout their life. Dali and Chagall play the most important roles here. Grushin also describes how art was perceived in Russia at various times in the last century. To me this opened up a new view on the connection between the artist and the environment that he lives in:

“Our days flowed into nights, our nights were endless and every single windbag who talked about Russia, God and art was a brother, every artist a genius, every painting a miracle – and the world did not know us yet, but we were together, we were brilliant, we were destined to light up the skies […].”

What impressed me most about this novel is the way Grushin writes. Her descriptions are almost like the script for a film, she creates a very detailed (and this in no way meant in a bad way) picture of where the characters are at any given time. The opening of the book is one of the strongest I have read this year. Her writing, clear and precise at the beginning, follows the inner life of her main character. When he finds himself in a swirl of memories, the writing also becomes more surreal. It jumps between timelines without warning and gets experimental where you don’t expect it to be.

The novel is like a painting. The longer you look at it and think about it, the more ways of reading it you can find. On the surface it is a novel about a man and his choices, but it is so much more. It is also a meditation on art and why we create it, what it is that we strife for and how much we are willing to sacrifice for it:

“But you were also wrong, because in spite of all the injustices and horrors and stupidity, beauty always survives and there will never be a higher mission than by adding more beauty to it, by making one single person cry like a child at the age of fifty three.”

Review: The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

IMG_3637The Guest Cat is a short Japanese Novel by the poet Takashi Hiraide. It tells the story of a 30 something married couple that lives in a little alley in a quieter part of Tokyo. One day in the early 1980s their neighbours across the street adopt a stray cat. Soon the cat also starts paying them regular visits in their little garden cottage. Over time, both husband and wife develop a friendship with the cat, which they name Chibi. But then, change happens in all of their lives and the bond they had might be lost forever.

Interestingly, it is only Chibi the cat that has been given a name. All the other characters have abbreviations or are simply called the friend, the husband or the old lady. I thought this was an interesting way of showing how important and special the cat really is. This is especially true for the the main character, the husband. He is going through major life changes almost the same time as the cat enters their lives. He has recently quit his job as a writer and is suddenly, through a series of events, forced to deal with his own mortality:

“Looking back on it now, I’d say one’s thirties are a cruel age. At this point, I think of them as a time I whiled away unaware of the tide that can suddenly pull you out, beyond the shallows, into the sea of hardship, and even death.”

Maybe these life changes have also altered his receptiveness to the world around him, therefore allowing the cat, this new and strange being, to enter his life. The significance of his recent life changes is overlapping with this almost mundane event of a visiting cat. It is like they are influencing each other, one giving meaning and importance to the other. Just as he sees his life in a new light he also sees this cat in a light that he might not have before. This could signify the fluidity of our emotions. How we feel about things, people, and cats is closely linked to our current situation and not only (as we sometimes believe) to the thing itself.

The author hints at the possibility that the novel is autobiographical and the way the story unfolds on the page is as though he was writing down the memories as they arose in his mind He is transporting the reader into one particular moment at one particular time, describing everything that made up this moment, his surrounding and feelings, his thoughts and intentions.

The story spans many years but is set mostly in one place, the cottage and the garden that surrounds it. This place functions as a backdrop to the story. Almost like a theatrical stage, each new memory has a new season, a new set. Hiraide goes to great length to describe in detail these different points of time.

To me what stood out the most was his depiction of the relationship between humans and animals. The wife forms a very close bond with the cat and even goes so far as to equate the relationship to an animal to that to a fellow human:

“For me, Chibi is a friend with whom I share an understanding, and who just happens to have taken on the form of a cat.”

The way that the cat makes the couple question if it ‘belongs’ to them and if it can be shared with the neighbours. The way they love the cat reflects deeper question about what it means to love someone or something. Does loving someone necessarily mean that you ‘belong’ to that other person? And what do you expect in return? The couple discusses these issues, giving way to a deeper interpretation of the meaning of the guest cat:

“Then she told me about a philosopher who said that observation is at its core an expression of love which doesn’t get caught up in sentiment.”

It would be very easy to disregard this novel as a short irrelevant piece with hardly any plot. And that is exactly what I did. But because there was hardly any plot, I was forced to look beyond the usual way of reading and interpreting; instead I had to in a way decode it. I wanted to write a review about how much I had disliked it, because it made me uneasy. But this is of course were I was forced to see the contradiction in my reception of this work. If there is no plot, what is it exactly that is making me feel uneasy? The longer I think about it the less it is a novel about a cat but about mortality, friendship and memory.

Review: Xiaolu Guo – I am China

IMG_3423I actually finished this novel at the end of last year, so quite a long while ago. Back then, this book blog did not exist yet and I also didn’t take down notes for a review like I do now. But I recently came across a video of a talk the author gave and hearing her speak about her work and the politics and history of her country made me want to write a belated review of the novel I am China. I have thought about it often since I have finished it and Xiaolu Guo also introduced me to other great authors like Eileen Chang.

The novel is set both in China and in the West (England and USA). The young translator Iona is asked to translate the love letters and diary extracts of a young Chinese couple. The rebellious and political punk musician Jian and his girlfriend Mu, the poet, have exchanged letters for over 20 years. The letters depict tumultuous times, both for the couple and the country they come from. But now Jian is being held in an asylum centre:

“Dearest Mu, The sun is piercing, old bastard sky. I am feeling empty and bare. Nothing is in my soul, apart from the image of you. I am writing to you from a place I cannot tell you about yet…”

Xiaolu Guo shows snapshots of the Jasmine revolution, the Chinese punk scene, police riots and the realities of being exiled. While Jian is being held in a detention centre in Dover and Mu travels further and further away from him, both in pursuit of her own creative and political identity, Iona has only little time left to reunite the two lovers.

The style of the book is very creative. Diary entries, letters and flash backs are woven together to create a very personal story of the three main characters. Through telling the story this way, Guo is able to not only show where the different characters are coming from but also how they react to each other’s realities. When Iona the translator is confronted with Jian’s experiences of being held as an asylum seeker in Dover, she subsequently questions her own life and her experiences:

 “If you spend enough time reading someone else’s thoughts, after a while their thoughts infect you. You grasp on yourself becomes tenuous. Or you begin to see that you never were the essential you in the first place […]”

The issues that this novel deals with are oftentimes very bleak. Political exile, coming to terms with your identity and how this is connected to your nationality, revolution and responsibility are just some of the things these characters have to deal with.

 “Revolution happens when the water in which the citizens swim is frozen. The ice breaks and shatters and the fish are cast out onto the dry land, gasping for air.”

Guo herself has made quite a few of the experiences that the characters go through in the novel. She moved to England and was also confronted with having visa issues. Jian’s time in England therefore seems all the more real.

Guo also has had to come to terms with a new language, one in which she would start writing and by doing so redefine herself as a writer. The characters in her book reflect her struggle with political, national and artistic identity. They are stand-ins for different points on a spectrum. Where Jian wants to stay and fight and change the society that he grew up in, Mu is looking for a universal truth and therefore something bigger than the political struggle she encounters. Both are valid points but only one will turn out to be the slightly easier to endure.

Another interesting aspect was the entanglement of beat poetry, punk music and Chinese culture and history. Guo manages to tell a heart breaking love story, give insight into Chinese history and question an artist’s role in shaping politics:

“Now the artist must deal with politics. That’s why art is always a political thing. […] Art is the politics of perpetual revolution. Art is the purest revolution, and so the purest political form there is.”

The novel definitely touched me on many levels and even after all this time, I still think about it from time to time. Sometimes a novel doesn’t let you go that easily.