Truman Capote – Summer Crossing

“He left soon afterwards, leaving her alone in the dark room, illuminated time to time by shocking leaps of heat-lightening, and she thought, now it will rain, and it never did, and she thought, now he will come, and he never did. She lighted cigarettes, letting them die between her lips, and the hours, thorned, crucifying, waited with her, and listened, as she listened: but he was not coming.”

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Hanya Yanagihara – The People in the Trees

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It took me a while to finish The people in the trees by Hanya Yanagihara. It is without a doubt a very intelligent, brilliant and complex book but at the same time it deals with a lot of difficult subjects and the main character Norton Perina is far from likable. We are being told the story of Perina’s life through letters he sends from prison to his assistant. From the beginning it is questionable how reliable a source Norton really is, as he seems to be crafting a version of the truth, focusing on certain things, while leaving others out. The story that he does tell is as much a confession as a defence. He describes his time as a medical researcher when he travelled to the secret Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu. There he discovers a turtle that allows people to live a far longer life. The price to pay for this extended life span is however, madness. The description of the life on the island and his time there is told in an almost meditative way, the attention given to little details is immense. I never thought rainforests could be this claustrophobic.
The book opens with the reason that Perina is imprisoned; he is being accused of sexually abusing some of his adopted children. Perina is based on the scientist Carleton Gajdusek, a fact that makes the novel all the more harrowing.

Is a brilliant man still brilliant man if he is also a monster? How far are we willing to go for science and what are we willing to sacrifice in its name? But maybe most interestingly how much is it our responsibility to question someone’s version of the truth? I think it is obvious that this novel is not one that you read and feel good about after. It is so disturbing at times that it was hard to continue. I also felt that certain issues within the novel like the destruction of nature, colonialism and moral relativism all had a current relevance. Hanya Yanagihara challenges the idea that characters must be likeable, Perina as a misogynistic sociopath. Also the novel doesn’t offer neat resolutions at the end but challenges us to question our own beliefs and moral point of view. Which is, quite frankly, far more important.

Jean Rhys – Voyage in the Dark

“That was when it was sad, when you lay awake at night and remembered things. That was when it was sad, when you stood by the end of the bed and undressed, thinking ‘When he kisses me, shivers run up my back. I am hopeless, resigned, utterly happy. Is that me? I am bad, not good any longer, bad. That has no meaning, absolutely none. Just words. But something about the darkness of the streets has meaning.'”

Doris Lessing – To Room Nineteen

To Room Nineteen is a very dark tale of a woman breaking down under the pressure of her sensible marriage. To an outsider it would seem that she has everything one could hope for, a loving husband, a beautiful house and four happy and healthy children. But she finds herself spiralling further and further out of control as she searches for her personal identity and a meaningful life beyond what society has thought out for her, beyond the prison her life and marriage has become. And as she is distancing herself from the world that she had so willingly and sensibly constructed we enter with her a shabby hotel room, where she is finally herself again. But at the same time she enters a dark place in her mind, maybe she is descending into madness or maybe she is finally waking up, but realising that what she is hoping to find might be too far out of reach. Maybe approaching life sensibly was the biggest mistake of all. As Susan said:

“A high price has to be paid for the happy marriage.”

Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven

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Station Eleven was a very ambitious novel depicting the collapse of society as we know it. A deadly flu virus breaks out and nothing will ever be the same again. The novel spans several decades and is told from different perspectives. We get to meet an actor who dies on stage, a comic book writer and a Traveling Symphony. What I found most intriguing was the immediate reaction of the characters as the crisis enfolds. We stay mostly with one character at that time and his experience is quite harrowing. His state of disbelief and panic but we also see him springing into action, still unsure if it’s an overreaction. What follows is a very minute drama; we see the world collapsing, and his world with it. Especially this part was written so well, that I could feel the fear and doubt, the apprehension. Part of the novel is a meditation on what remains of yourself once everything else is stripped away. No friends, no family, no partner, no more of my house, my job, my profession. As this character walks through the snow in a world forever changed, the mantra of his existence changes from:

“My name is Jeevan… I was a photographer”

to simply

“Keep walking”.

Even though some parts were not perfect, I still enjoyed the novel. This last quote to me really sums up the feeling (realization?) that I had while reading the novel:

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Elizabeth insisted. “Are we supposed to believe that civilization has just come to an end?” “Well,” Clark offered, “it was always a little fragile, wouldn’t you say?”

Joe Meno – The Great Perhaps

This is a quirky and wonderful novel about family life and all the craziness that comes with it. The father, Jonathan, a palaeontologist who passes out when he sees clouds, is struggling to find a giant deep-sea squid and with it his place in the scientific community. His wife Madeline, a behaviourist, who is studying pigeons, is following a man-shaped cloud in her car. Also, Jonathan and Madeline might possibly be separating. Their teenage daughters, the revolutionary Amelia and the obsessively religious Thisbe (who’s is trying to keep everyone alive by praying), are meanwhile busy building pipe bombs, baptising stray animals, falling in love and fighting capitalism. Lastly, their grandfather, Henry, is trying to disappear, from his retirement home and possibly this earth and:

“…what follows is both astonishing and quite ordinary.”

What’s linking these isolated characters is, that they all are dealing with different forms of fear. And so all the uncertainty, the pains of growing up, of making an impact and finally growing old and saying goodbye, each of these phases entails demons but also beauty. “It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s complicated. Because there is not one thing. There’s not one thing that makes sense of everything.” This was suggested to me by Aidan.

Haruki Murakami – Kafka on the Shore

I did not like this. It started off really great and I actually really liked the dark atmosphere of the first half of the book. The mystery of the children passing out was quite intriguing and the story of a boy who runs away from home was catchy and well written. But then things quickly got ugly. A 50 year old women has sex with a teenager, the same teenager later rapes the same women and it is all ok because hey, it’s a dream in a novel where people can talk with cats. Things like that are not ok just because it’s magical realism. So it definitely left a weird aftertaste. Even though the mood might be intriguing, there were just too many passages about his penis and weird sexual thoughts about (potential) family members. I wouldn’t mind the depiction of rape as such, but here the characters didn’t really agonize over it, it was just something „they had to do“. there was no depth to it. Also, nothing added up in the end, so i think I need a break from Murakami.