Review: Flucht in den Norden by Klaus Mann

img_5474Klaus Mann, son of the famous German writer Thomas Mann, wrote this novel after he had to flee Germany and its ruling Nazi regime in 1933. It was the first novel to be written during the time of his exile.

The novel closely mirrors the events of the life of Klaus Mann. It is centered on Johanna, a young German woman who, just like Mann, had to escape the terror of her home country because of her involvement in the anti-Nazi resistance. So she flees to Finland, where she finds refuge at the family estate of her university friend Karin. The family, especially Karin and her brothers, hold conflicting views about the political issues of the time. Johanna’s presence then acts as a catalyst, setting off unforeseen changes in the family, which is battling with the political turmoil and crippling financial instability.

But it is not only the political tension that is changing the dynamics in the household. It’s also the complicated emotional bonds and romantic relations between the characters. Johanna falls for Karin’s brother Ragnar, she also has a brief affair with Karin herself.

The novel is as romantic as it is political and it seems that it’s only through the political forces that Ragnar and Johanna find together. Johanna struggles to choose between staying with Ragnar, whom she only has just met, and leaving Finland again to join the resistance in Paris, where her friends fight the Nazis. Ragnar fails to understand her struggle and wants her to stay, while Johanna, despite hating her home country, still feels responsibility and guilt about what’s happening in Germany.

I was extremely moved by this novel. The language very warm and emotional. Mann stays very close to his characters, Johanna especially. I felt like even though the subject matter is very dire and the decisions and troubles that the characters are facing are very extreme, Mann still manages to find beauty. Not only in the love story between Ragnar and Johanna, but also in his description of the Finish landscape. The novel concludes as a road trip, and through this trip, Mann finds a beautiful way to convey the essence of the characters. In the desolate north of Finland, were everything is stripped bare, emotions are also being purified. Mann uses similar language in describing the people and the landscape. Both are sublime but also rugged, unyielding and exposed to the elements.

Here is a short autobiographical chronicler of his time, which also features this quote of his:

“But this ill-fated, vexed, guilt-ridden people, do I not belong to them? I feel a share of the guilt.”

Review: Dietland by Sarai Walker

img_4524Dietland is a progressive, angry book about a feminist guerrilla group called “Jennifer”. Their plan is to change the sexist society we live in by taking pretty drastic measures. Rapists are being thrown off overpasses or out of airplanes. They want the public to wake up.

The novel however starts off at a very different place. It begins with 29-year-old Plum Kettle, a fat and lonely woman who works as a ghost-writer for a teen magazine. She spends her days in her friend’s café or at Waist Watcher [sic!] meetings, eating unappetizing and little meals while shopping for her soon to be thin self. She weighs 300 pounds but is scheduled for gastric bypass surgery so that she can begin the (thin) life she has always dreamed of. Dinner parties, dating, making friends, everything is postponed to her imaginary future as her thinner self. But things are about to change when she is being followed and recruited by “Jennifer”. Little by little she gets drawn into a different world and she ends up on quite a different quest to self-love. The women she encounters confront her with her ideas of beauty and perfection. They shatter the world she used to live in.

But the novel is not only focused on Plum, it’s also a very dark portrayal of today’s society. Half way through the book, the story switches from Plum to “Jennifer” and through her/their eyes we see a world that is shockingly hostile, sexist and violent. At this point the novel takes a completely different course: Gang raped teenagers are being avenged, media moguls are being kidnapped and stark naked men are replacing the infamous page 3 models.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you look, the description of Plum’s and Jennifer’s world does not read as a satire. The instances of everyday sexism and misogyny that are being described are not at all unrealistic. What I was reading was not a description of a dystopian world but ultimately the world you live in as a women. “Jennifer’s” reactions however, the violence, the anger and bloodshed is depicted as over top and absurd. It can be interpreted as a contrast to the powerlessness that most women feel.

Sarai Walker radically questions society’s double standards and obsessions with beauty and thinness. Plum, the book’s main character, realizes that there is a freedom in not caring about the judgement of others:

“We’re different in a way that everyone can see. We can’t hide it or fake it. We’ll never fit society’s idea for how women should look and behave, but why is that a tragedy? We’re free to live how we want. It’s liberating if you choose to see it that way.”

Throughout the novel Plum radically transforms herself. Her struggle with self-love, looks (and weight) and the expectations to be perfect are, what Dietland really focuses on. Yes it is also about a feminist terrorist group, but it is mainly about how the mere existence of such a group affects the women who come in contact with them. In that way Dietland is a call to arms:

“The police and the “justice” system don’t take violence against women and girls seriously. If you’ve been assaulted or harassed, take the law into your own hands. Form vigilante groups with other girls. Sign up for self-defense classes, but don’t just use the skills defensively. Go on the offensive!”

The novel has a lot of different influences, ranging from Foucault to Fight Club. Women in the novel are exercising extreme control over themselves and their bodies; they have created strict regiments to fit a social norm, which was only created to keep them down in the first place. When Plum breaks free, starts to eat, enjoy her life and be herself, she sheds this self-imposed regimen of rules and deprivation:

“[…] Dietland, which meant control, constriction—paralysis, even—but above all it meant obedience. I was tired of being obedient.”

As it mocks the less violent and certainly less angry chic lit that preceded it, Dietland transcends the genre itself. It will also be turned in to a TV show by no other than the genius Marti Noxon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV show that was also well known for it’s feminist and empowering approach.

Also, here’s a little snippet from npr about Sarai Walker and Dietland including an article she wrote for the New York Times. And finally the blog post that made me aware of Walker and her book.

Review: Bluets by Maggie Nelson

IMG_4098Bluets was given to me as a birthday present. I had heard of Maggie Nelson before but haven’t read anything by her. The Argonauts has been on my to read list, as friends keep recommending it but like I said, I haven’t read it yet. I am actually glad that I got to read Bluets first. It is such an extremely wonderful and unexpected little book, that surprised me in many ways, all the way till the end.

Bluets, part poetry, part memoir, is a book about the authors love for the colour blue, but it is also so much more than that. Each new page is a meditation, not only on colours but on life and emotions and how we live with them:

“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in it’s focus. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what it’s hue, can be deadly.”

The book is structured into 239 very short pieces, each one dealing with a different aspect of blue. Some are historical or scientific facts, connections to religion, art and literature and others are biographical snippets of the author’s life. There is no order, neither chronological nor topical, the pieces could each stand for their own and yet in the end they shape a clear and concise picture. The connections between the short pieces are only evident in the end. The two main ‘story lines’ are a love that Nelson lost and a close friend who had an accident and is now unable to walk. Her feeling of coming to terms with these things infuses almost every page of the book.

Bluets is a brave book. Nelson opens up a great deal about her feelings in some of the pieces, describing a variety of feeling of which not all are pretty. Her journey to getting to the essence of what blue is, is therefore also a journey to her most inner thoughts. She writes about love, sex and friendship, sadness and loss and she manages to do that in a very heart-breaking way:

“I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.”

Nelson definitely managed to make me see the world in a different light. She has sharpened my awareness for all colors, not just the blue. It is wonderful when a write is able to influence their readers in a way like this. Even after I had finished the book, something definitely stayed with me, influenced my way of seeing the world and made me question my perception of things. I think this is the biggest strength of the book. I am glad I read it. And I would definitely read it again, which I don’t say about a lot of books.

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.

Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

IMG_3353In this novel Arundhati Roy takes the reader all the way back to the 1960s, where a dark event in the state of Kerala in South India changed the lives of the twins Rahel and Esthappen. Having recently returned home after their mothers divorce, the twins find themselves having to settle into a new environment. Soon old conflicts within the family erupt again, affecting not only their mother Ammu but also Rahel and Esthappen.

The God of Small Things is a very clever novel about love, envy, fear and hatred. It is a story of a family as much as it is a story of a country:

“He explained to them that history was like an old house at night. With all the lamps lit and ancestors whispering inside.”

The novel reveals its story not in chronological order but through jumping back and forth, not only between the different characters but also between the 1960s and 1990s.

We see the family before “the terror” and we see what has become of them years later. Roy reveals the repercussions of what has happened early in the novel, showing its aftermath before explaining what caused it. To me this technique heightened the emotionality und immediacy of the story, as I felt that something horrible was always just a page away and the innocence of the characters always seemed threatened. This feeling of dread continues throughout the whole novel and it is only on the last few pages that the reader can piece together the whole puzzle. It was surprising that Roy left the last key piece, which allows the reader an entry point to the full scope of emotions, to be revealed only at the very end. Despite her overuse of metaphors and sometimes too flowery language, Roy left a few things to the imagination of the reader, which I liked. She let all characters speak without judgement or preference.

The themes of this novel, like sexual assault, extreme violence, graphic descriptions of abuse and incest, are sometimes difficult to think about and to be with as a reader. To me the characters that were going through these ordeals were also representing struggles on a much larger scale. The story of people who are in love but are not allowed to be also came across as a social comment on the society in which this novel is set. As close as she sometimes stays with the characters, she also ventures out into both contemporary Indian society and historic events. I liked this two-sidedness. It seemed both emotionally involved and analytically detached:

“’We’re prisoners of war, Chacko said. ‘Our dreams have been doctored. We belong nowhere. We sail unanchored on troubled seas. We may never be allowed on ashore. Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys never happy enough. Our dreams never big enough. Our lives never important enough. To matter.’”

Even though the novel deals with so many important issues, I personally did not feel as involved with the story as I imagined I would. I was shocked by the violence and saddened by the loss, but in the end I still felt quite removed from the characters. The emotions I felt were more dutiful than honest. The essence of the characters was not easily accessible but hidden behind a highly structured plot and the calculated use of language. Despite the authors’ efforts, I felt there was something missing. Everything was too perfect, too thought through and too polished.