Indyana Schneider – 28 Questions

Indyana Schneider – 28 Questions

Amalia leaves her Australian home to study music in Oxford. She has only just arrived when she meets Alex, another Australia in her third year already. They befriend immediately and spend more and more time together philosophing, questioning life and sharing everything. It is an intense but perfect friendship. Yet, things become complicated when their friendship turns into love. What was easy and carefree suddenly becomes complicated, misunderstanding after misunderstanding, unexpressed and unfulfilled expectations turn the perfect friends into the worst lovers.

“(…) every so often, I come across a new piece of music and getting to know the music kind of feels like falling in love. And the idea of spending my life falling in love over and over again… who wouldn’t want that?”

The title refers to a study by psychologist Arthur Aron which postulates that a certain set of questions can lead to more intimacy and a deeper relationship between people. The protagonist of Indyana Schneider’s novel asks “28 Questions” which actually bring her closer to her first friend, then lover but they cannot help untangle the complications they have to face. It is a kind of college novel about becoming an adult, about love and about identity in an ever more complex world.

“I just don’t get how it’s possible to be such wonderful, compatible friends and so ill suited as lover.”

This is the central question. How can two people being that close, sharing the same ideas and attitudes simply be so incompatible as lovers. They are fond of each other, there are butterflies and they even match physically – but the relationship doesn’t work out. Over years, they have an on/off relationship because they can neither live with nor without each other.

Yet, the novel is not a classic heart-breaking love story. What binds Amalia and Alex is an intellectual love, they get closer over the questions which address core human topics, from social interaction over social categories of identity and the definition of themselves. They grow with each other, reflect upon their convictions and finally enter the real world of adulthood for which they are still not quite prepared.

A wonderfully written, intense novel about love which goes far beyond just being attracted by someone.

Kerri Maher – The Paris Bookseller

Kerri Maher – The Paris Bookseller

Young Sylvia Beach has always dreamt of writing books, but soon she must recognise that writing isn’t hers. When in Paris, the American meets Susanne and Adrienne who run a bookshop and she is immediately fascinated by them. She decides to open a bookshop herself to provide Paris and its masses of expatriates with English books. A risky adventure in 1919, but her small store „Shakespeare and Company“ is going to make history. Not only do the Roaring Twenties make Paris the centre of the literary world, the bookshop and Sylvia become its very own epicentre and when she comes across an extraordinary novel nobody wants to publish, she decides to do it herself thus making James Joyce and his „Ulysses“ one of the greatest novels of the century.

Kerri Maher tells the story of a young and adventurous woman who follows her instincts and is willing to risk a lot to make her dreams come true. “The Paris Bookseller” portrays an outstanding personality whose strong character can be felt in every line of the novel. On the other hand, the novel is a remarkable depiction of misogynist behaviour in the literary world and, on the other, also of strong women who can accomplish a lot when working together.

I totally adored following Sylvia’s way from naive American tourist to one of the most important characters in the literary world between the wars. Surely Paris was the place to be and she was there at the right time, but also her endeavour and spirit were decisive to make it the best known bookstore in the world.

I wasn’t aware of how hostile towards women the time and publishing industry was, quite interestingly, it wasn’t people like Hemingway of whom I could have easily expected such a behaviour, quite the opposite, the educated and seemingly decent people were the most abominable.

A great read which gives insight in a time already a century ago and most certainly a must read for all booklovers of classics and the great time a century ago.

Dana Spiotta – Wayward

Dana Spiotta – Wayward

Samantha Raymond cannot say what it was exactly that lead her to buy a house and to move out of the suburban comfort zone with her husband Matt and their teenage daughter Ally. Maybe Trump’s election, maybe the feeling of menopause hitting her or just the fact that she spends her nights awake pondering about her life and all that is connected to it: motherhood, mortality and the country she lives in. Via the Internet, she connects with some radical women whose notions are new to her. But sorting out her new life also means getting more and more away from her old life and her daughter. Has she ever been a good mom? Didn’t she do all that was necessary to bring Ally up? And what did she use her one life for actually?

In her novel “Wayward”, Dana Spiotta portrays a woman at a crucial point of her life. She made some decisions that now come under scrutiny. It is not only the outer, visible elements of her life but much more her inner convictions that have to stand the test. Her first move sets in motion a chain of events that bring her further away from all she has known for so many years and it remains to be seen where this will lead her.

What I liked most was the combination of metaphors the author uses. The old house that Sam finds and is attracted to immediately mirrors her body. Just like the cosy new home, life also has left traces on her body. Just like she renovates the house, she starts to train to get stronger. However, all the renovation cannot hide that the years have left their marks on it and some things simply cannot be redone.

Just as she analyses her complicated relationship with her own mother and also with her daughter, she analyses the state the country is in. The opposing parts become obvious through the segregation between the white and better-off parts of town and her new place which is quite the opposite. Coming from a protected life, she is now confronted with crime which has always been a reality for other parts of society, but not the suburban housewives she has known for so long.

The novel has a clear feminist perspective. Sam volunteers at a small museum that was the home of a 19th century feminist who ignored societal constraints and followed her ideals, also Sam’s mother is an independent woman, whereas she herself had given in to a life that she now is running from. Her daughter also tries to rebel against Sam’s life choices and wants to free herself –  in her very own way. All women make choices that have consequences, all woman have to decide between conformity and rebellion, they want their life to be meaningful – but what does that mean and what is the price for it?

An interesting read from a point of view that is slowly expanded to show the bigger picture.

Louise Erdrich – The Sentence

Louise Erdrich – The Sentence

It is just a favour that Tookie wants to do for her grieving friend, admittedly, a well-paid favour since stealing the body of the lately deceased boyfriend can solve all of Tookie’s financial problems. Of course, things turn out as they always do and the young woman is sentenced to sixty years of prison. A good lawyer can bring her out after only a couple of them and as she spent most of her time reading, she starts to work in a bookshop. With her partner Pollox, she seems to be back on the good track of life, but sorting out her personal life does not sort out the world around her. And when simultaneously the pandemic hits, when police violence against people of colour escalates and becomes a public issue and, additionally, when the bookshop is haunted by the ghost of a former customer, Tookie has to handle a lot which threatens to bring back the angry young woman she once was.

Louise Erdrich has written maybe THE novel of the moment. „The Sentence“ not only integrates several current events such as the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and America’s fragile state before the 2020 election, or questions of identity, but also mythological aspects, old stories told over generations and over continents, stories which have been around as long a mankind itself. It is also the account of one woman, a woman who made mistakes, who has not always been fair since she is strong-minded, but a woman who has the heart on the right side.

It is not easy to determine where to put the focus on when talking about the novel. It seems to be eclectic, yet, this is just like life itself. It feels overwhelming at times with all the things happening at the same time, conflicting narratives which make it hard to make sense of all around you.

What I liked best was how the pandemic was integrated into the story. The author well incorporated everyday questions – why are people bulk buying? how dangerous will the virus be? what will happen to the bookstore? – into the plot, not giving it too much room but authentically showing how it affected life. This is also where we see Tookie’s good heart when she worries about her customers and tries to find ways of providing them with further reading material.

The side line of the ghost was first a kind of gothic element but it ultimately triggers the question of identity. Tookie belongs to the indigenous population, which is simply a fact, yet, one that has a huge impact on the way her life went. With it comes the big question of racial appropriation which seems so easy to answer but actually isn’t always.

The protagonist craves normal in a time when nothing is normal. It is a year of a chain of nightmares that finally closes. “The Sentence” is also a book about how literature can provide an escape and possibly also answers when reality does not anymore.

Towards the end of a year, an absolute literary gem with a wonderful annexe.

Dave Eggers – The Every

Dave Eggers – The Every

After the company “The Circle” took over the Internet, it bought an online retailer named after a south American jungle to also operate online buying and selling. With the new name “The Every”, Mae Holland can now control large parts of the people’s every-day life. Delaney Wells has done a lot to become a part of The Every, yet not out of fascination for the company but because she is seeking revenge. The company is too strong to be attacked from the outside, she needs to get inside to destroy it. Together with her roommate Wes, she develops a strategy: making more and more absurd suggestions for apps so that people see what the company is really after. However, their idea does not work, instead of being repelled, people eagerly embrace the new ideas which limit their lives increasingly.

I was fascinated by Dave Egger’s novel “The Circle” a couple of years ago. “The Every”, the second instalment, shows the mission to destroy what he has created. Delaney Wells is a clever and courageous protagonist who consistently follows her goal. Yet, the novel could not fully meet my expectations, it was a bit lengthy at times and the developments were quite foreseeable.

Delaney’s strategy of proposing ever more absurd apps to control people – which words they use, rating their interaction with others and their capacity of being a “friend” – push the development further and further. The line of argumentation that The Every uses is quite convincing: who wouldn’t prefer to live in a safe place where people use words which do not create bad feelings in others, who wouldn’t like to be a better person and most of all, who wouldn’t be willing to abstain from harming behaviour to protect nature?

Eggers just goes one step further and shows how the characters fall prey to the traps which actually are quite obvious. However, this is what they want since it makes life easier. They do not have to make decisions anymore, everything is foreseeable and in good order. Thinking for yourself is exhausting, so why not hand it over do the company? Even though this aspect is well established, I could have done with less apps, the twentieth invention does not add any new aspect to the plot.

A small group of anarchists tries to resist, yet they are too weak and the intellectuals are not heard. Wes’ development throughout the plot, unfortunately, is also very predictable, I would have preferred some surprises here. Eggers certainly can to better than just use well-known set pieces.

The idea is great and the protagonist is well-created but the author could have made more out of it. Some scenes – Delaney’s trip to the ocean and the aftermaths – are brilliant as is the line of argumentation that the company uses to manipulate. Yet, it is a bit lengthy and unoriginal in its progress.

Cassandra Parkin – The Leftovers

Cassandra Parkin – The Leftovers

Nurse Callie is giving up her job to be better able to care for her brother. For years now, Noah has been suffering from mental illness and apart from their father, Callie is the only one he trusts and who is able to calm him when he gets in a state of emergency. To have more time, she leaves the hospital and becomes a carer for Frey, a young man who does not talk and needs strict daily routines to cope with life. Thus, Callie spends two weeks with her father and brother and the other two together with a colleague with Frey. When she returns one night from work, she receives an awful message: both her beloved ones have died in an accident and now she has to face her mother again. The woman who left them, who always hated Callie and the single person she does not want to see. It is a confrontation which is not only hurtful but which also lets lose monsters which have been kept locked up for many years.

Cassandra Parkin’s novel is a dark tale which play with the big question if the narrator is reliable or not and if what we remember is actually how things really happened or if our brain might play tricks on us. “The Leftovers” is great in making you high alert for the half-sentences, the things implied, all that is not said and questions all characters. Whom can you trust? Who is willingly misleading? Who is misled by their brains? From a point where all is clear, you enter an abyss where everything is possible.

Callie appears to be a selfless young woman who has destined her life to care for others. She is great with Frey as she has a long history of living with her brother and noticing nuances, slight changes which might be signs for dramatic events. She can well adapt to Frey’s needs and sync herself with his life which makes her perfect for the job. Yet, after some time, things slightly change and it takes some time for the reader to figure out why that is.

In the confrontation with her cool and repellent mother, childhood memories come up. Not only did her mother not show any affection towards her and clearly preferred her brother, she definitely neglected the girl. In Callie’s recollections, it all makes sense and fits together perfectly, yet, the more you get to know, the more you start to wonder if she, too, might see things that are not there just like her brother. Even though from what she tells, it all seems right and yet, doesn’t the understanding from the world of somebody suffering from paranoia normally form a consistent picture?

A great read I can only recommend but you should be aware that some contents might feel like triggers for a highly sensitive reader.

Bethany Ball – The Pessimists

Bethany Ball – The Pessimists

A small community in Connecticut. Three couples of middle age all have their respective struggles: Margot has never gotten over the loss of her baby girl, their three sons can only make up so much for this; while she is grieving, her husband Richard is having extramarital affairs to forget about his homely negative mood. Gunter and Rachel are new to the small place, the Swede has serious problems of adaptation and can only wonder about the small town Americans, whereas his wife Rachel tries to be supermom and get her children into the prestigious Petra school. Virginia’s daughter already attends this institution but the mother is starting to wonder if the place is actually a good choice while her husband Trip has developed an end of time fear and wants his family to be prepared for the worst case which is sure to come soon. While the parents are occupied with themselves, their kids are educated in a quite unique institution with very special educational views.

Bethany Ball paints a rather gloomy picture of three middle-aged families. The love at first sight and life on cloud number nine is only a faint memory, if they are still interested in their partner, this is more out of convenience than out of love. Their children are strange creatures with which they have rather complicated relationships and whom they do not seem to understand at all. Life does not have much to offer outside the big city and so, consequently, the turn into “The Pessimists”.

It is upper class white suburbia life that the novel ridicules: the invite the “right” people to dibber parties even though they hate barbecuing and do not even like their guests. The women are reduced to being housewives even though they had successful careers in the city, yet, these are not compatible with life in a small town. They are not even aware of how privileged they are, they feel depressed and deceived by life, seemingly none of them got what they expected from life. Apart from being miserable, they pretend that all is best in their life to keep up the picture they want the others to see. Only brief glances behind the facade allow the truth to show.

This rather dark atmosphere is broken up repeatedly by episodes of Petra school. It is the absolutely exaggerated picture of an alternative institution which actually does not take education too seriously, but is highly occupied with spiritual well-being and a lifestyle nobody can ever stick too. The information mails they send out to the parents are simply hilarious and made me laugh out loud more than once – however, I don’t doubt that such places might actually exist.

A satire of small town America which is funny on the one hand but quite serious regarding the message behind the superficial storyline.

Sara Stridsberg – The Antarctica of Love

Sara Stridsberg – The Antarctica of Love

Kristina is waiting to die, finally. She does not live anymore, she has been murdered and dismembered in the woods outside Stockholm, but she only really dies forever when her name will be spoken for the last time. So she floats in between the world and eternity, sees how her parents bury what has been found of her. She also visits her kids in their dreams, kids for whom she so hard wanted to be a good mother but unfortunately couldn’t be. Her life with Shane has always been a struggle and she somehow has always known that growing old wasn’t meant for her.

Sara Stridsberg’s novel is – despite the cruelty of the topic – wonderfully written and a poetic masterpiece. It opens with a description of what Kristina feels last, how she perceives nature during her last minutes when she is to become a part of the lake and the earth. It is also the story of a drug addict, a young woman who comes from a struggling family and does not find herself a place in the world and quickly relies on diverse substances to help her forget the darkness she finds outside and inside herself. It is a life lost, a life which could have become so much but didn’t.

It is heart-breaking to read the young woman’s account. How casually she tells the reader that at first, nobody misses her, neither her mother, nor her father who hasn’t seen her for years, nor her children. Yet, the later live a new life and her daughter might hardly remember her, too early in her life was she taken away and put into a foster family. Yet, this was the best Kristina could do for her, at least once in her life she did something right despite the feeling of loss.

When she was pregnant, she wanted to get clean, to be a good mother, to care for Valle and Solveig. However, the craving was always too strong, harshness of life always brought her back to the drugs. She feels ashamed for not having been able to care for the kids. But she has always lived in the darkness and the rare rays of light couldn’t lead her to another life.

A life not lived and yet, as humans, we are just a blink in eternity. In 2019, “The Antarctica of Love” was awarded Sveriges Radios Romanpris, a Swedish literary prize for the best novel of the year. It wasn’t the first time Stridsberg’s work was highly appreciated. She uses language in a unique way which does not only touch you profoundly but goes deep down into you and reaches you at your core having the novel make a deep impression that stings.

Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

It’s the anniversary the siblings spend together like every year. Kate has neatly prepared everything in her small apartment for her oldest brother Peter and the younger one Ray with his wife Liz. 16 years were not enough to get over the loss of her twin sister Elaine whom she remembers like yesterday. The atmosphere is tense and soon after dinner the guests leave, but Ray returns with a special present which sends Kate back in the time when she and Elaine were just kids, then teenagers and the fateful day of her death. Yet, it was not just this tragic event that made the family unhappy, even long time before, none of them did real lead the life they wanted and, seemingly, neither do they in the present.

I was a bit astonished about the novel, even though the title is “Dinner Party”, Sarah Gilmartin grants this only a brief chapter in the novel, however, it is the event that triggers the memories in Kate and explains how she became the lonely, highly obsessive woman we meet at the beginning. The author added a subtitle, “A Tragedy”, which is totally adequate in terms of the suffering and the sorrowful event the protagonist has to go through. Yet, I am not sure if the reader can feel something like a catharsis while reading. For me, it was a very sad novel showing the impact parents and the family constitution can have on a child and the adult he or she becomes.

Quite naturally, the young twin sisters have a strong bond and can understand each other without words. On their farm, they are far away from other kids and exposed to their mother’s moods. She comes from one of the best families and expects her kids to excel in their ascribed fields, Kate play the piano, for Elaine it is horse-riding. The older brothers have long been a disappointment for the mother, especially Peter with his plans to emigrate to the US. Becoming teenagers does not help the situation and the tensions between mother and father, but also between the two sisters become more and more obvious.

The protagonist is naturally the most striking character. Even as kids, she and Elaine have never been really equal. Elaine was to more extrovert and outgoing twin, she dictated for both of them what to do. From fear of her mother’s frequent outbursts, Kate quickly tries to become the diligent and obedient girl who does everything right. Also as a teenager, she does not rebel but she cannot get over the feeling of being the less loved daughter, the one who does not achieve what is expected from her, the one who can never do anything right. Controlling her feelings and emotions ultimately leads to an obsessive behaviour and when she has found something that is totally controllable, she quite naturally develops an eating disorder.

Dysfunctional relationships, a lack of love and positive support – the best ingredients to hinder a girl from becoming an emotionally stable and self-confident adult. The experiences of the young Kate reflect the problems she shows as an adult. She isn’t able to have a good relationship, she is much too insecure and, on the other hand, she never could get free of her mother and her impact on her feelings. A great character development which gives you also a lot of food for thought.

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead – Harlem Shuffle

Ray Carney just wants to lead decent life as a black furniture salesman at the beginning of the 1960s in Harlem. His wife Elizabeth is expecting their second child and even if his in-laws are not happy with him, his life is quite ok. His cousin Freddie shows up from time to time with some bargains and Ray does not ask too many questions about the origins of the odd sofa or necklace. But when Freddie and a bunch of crooks plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – something like Harlem’s Waldorf – and as for his help to get rid of the loot, his life becomes a lot more complicated especially since Ray quickly understands that there is not much room for negotiation.  

With “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” Colson Whitehead has catapulted himself at the top of the list of contemporary writers. Just as in his former works, “Harlem Shuffle” brilliantly captures the mood and the atmosphere of the time it is set in. It only takes a couple of pages to get a feeling of 125th street of the time and first and foremost, how people experienced the riots after the shooting of an unarmed black boy by a policeman. Thus, even though the plot is set sixty years in the past, he succeeds in connecting it to present day events and issues.

“The way he saw it, living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live- You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.”

Ray has decided for a decent life with his furniture store, he keeps to himself and his family and does not want to get involved too much in any criminal doings. He has grown up with broken glass on the playground, killings where just a side note of everyday life. Yet, Freddie is his cousin and blood ultimately is thicker than water. They have grown up like brothers and the bond cannot easily be cut even though this time, it means serious consequences.

The novel develops slowly but it is those seemingly unrelated marginalia that provide the depth of the story and create the atmosphere on which the story lives. A great novel vividly written and definitely worth reading, however, I am not as enthusiastic as I was after reading his former novels.