Fredrik Backman – The Scandal/Beartown

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Fredrik Backman – The Scandal

A small town in northern Sweden. There is not much that connects the people in Beartown, it is too small and too insignificant to be known beyond the town’s limits. Yet, when the junior hockey boys win the semi-finals, for the first time in history, something big can happen. Beartown has always been a hockey town, if you don’t play, you are nobody. If you are not connected somehow with the local club, you are an outsider. Peter is the manager of the club and of course his wife Kira and their kids Maya and Leo also have to live for the club. Coach David has raised a generation of winners and with this junior team, they can finally pick the fruits of many years of hard work. But one evening will change everything, old friendships and loyalties will be tested, values will be questioned. The town will never be the same when the scandal comes to light.

I have read novels by Fredrik Backman before and really like his style and his eye for the detail in creating singular characters. However, “The Scandal” is so much more than interesting characters at a crucial moment of their life, it is the portrait of a community, the study of an average small town and the way these places work and how the individual is just a small cog in the machine. Admittedly, I also wouldn’t ever have imagined that a novel about ice hockey could be interesting, but it is.

First of all, the structure of the novel is full of suspense. You get to know the small town, all the important people, logically connected to the club, yet, the narrator warns you quite early that something is about to change everything, that things are not going to stay the way they are.

We have the kids, the boys playing hockey, friendships based on doing sports together, on being in a team, on standing in for one another. We have the girls who only play a minor role in the public opinion since they do not play hockey, there is no girls team, they are just a reward for the successful player, an accessory to decorate oneself with. We have the functional and the dysfunctional families, the rich and the poor, the local heroes and prestigious and the outsiders whom everybody ignores. Beartown is just like any small town anywhere in the world.

When the scandal finally becomes known, people have to take sides and have to admit to their values: is winning with the club more important than the individual’s fate? Whose side do you take, whom do you believe? What are you willing to give up and risk for a hockey team? Many are ready to forget long-time friendships, to forget their ideals, to place success before justice. It is impressive how Backman traces the development of the mood in town, how the machine finally starts and how opinions are formed.

Actually, it is not a novel about hockey. It is a novel about you and me and the question what is important in life and what you are willing to do to defend your principles or to be successful.

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Richard Flanagan – First Person

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Richard Flanagan – First Person

Kif Kehlmann is dreaming of being a writer. With his wife pregnant with twins and their financial situation rather critical, the offer of writing a book is welcomed. Yet, the frame conditions are hard: he will receive 10 000 dollars if he writes the autobiography of Australia’s most wanted fraudster within 6 weeks. Money is money and writing is writing, so Kif accepts the deal not knowing what lies ahead of him. His friend Ray warns him, as Siegfried Heidl’s bodyguard, he knows him quite well and he knows what Heidl is capable of. What sounded like an easy tasks reveals itself a mission impossible. First, Heidl varies the story of his life again and again, Kif does not even know the basic facts and the more he listens to him, the more confused he gets. Second, Siegfried Heidl seems to get into his head, he cannot let go of him anymore and slowly, Kif starts to question his whole life.

If have read other books by Richard Flanagan which could really thrill me, unfortunately, “First Person” does not belong to those. It took almost a third of the book to really get into the novel. Admittedly, it is getting better and better in the course of the time, but I am sure many readers will never reach this point.

Flanagan presents two strong protagonists who are quite appealing and interesting. Kif with his dream of writing a novel sold thousands of times and at the same time struggling with his private life. His head is full with other things, diving into a task such as the ghostwriter’s job seems rather impossible at this moment of his life. And both, his life and the writing, turn out to be incompatible.

Siegfried on the other hand is fascinating because we can never really make up a picture of him. Is he a con man or is he actually super-clever? Which pieces of the story he tells are true (in as much as fiction can be true), which are just narrative? Or as Kif puts it:

“For Heidl wasn’t so much a self-made man as a man ceaselessly self-making.” (pos. 3055)

It is his strange charisma that makes him enthralling and captivating. Kif, too, in his description is oscillating between adoration and disdain:

“I couldn’t decide whether I hated Heidl or admired him, if I was his friend or his enemy, if I wanted to save him or kill him.” (pos. 2877) and yet, “He was the closest thing to a man of genius I ever met.” (Po. 3747)

The dance they do is shows that Flanagan is one of the best writers of our time, but nevertheless, this story just was not one that could capture me completely.

Tomoka Shibasaki – Spring Garden

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Tomoka Shibasaki – Spring Garden

Taro lives alone in one of Tokyo’s anonymous block of flats. His family is far away and they are hardly in contact, his father died already ten years ago, yet the memories of him are still alive. His neighbours, he only knows the names that were given to the flats they inhabit, but not who is living close to him. Since the flats are going to be destroyed soon, they will have to leave anyway.  One day, he observes a woman walking around the sky-blue house neighbouring their block. She seems to try to look into it through the window. When she realises that she is spotted, they make contact and Nishi explains Taro why she is behaving this strangely: the house is actually quite famous, she even possesses a book about its interior and her greatest wish is to enter and have a look herself. A singular friendship forms between the two neighbours, centred around a building close but far away for them.

Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel “Spring Garden” has many typical features of what I expect from Japanese literature. First of all, the characters. We have two protagonists who seem to live a life without close connection to other people, loneliness and isolation are reoccurring themes in Japan’s novels and from the news I read about the country this really seems to be a major topic. Yet, it is not the suffering from being alone that is central, they seem to have accepted that this is just how it is for them. When they finally bond with somebody – even if it is just a weak connection like the one of neighbours – there are many societal rules which prevent an honest friendship in my opinion. E.g. when Taro is given a present he does not like, it is not easy for him and he nevertheless feels obliged to behave in a certain manner. Even to eat things he doesn’t like in order not to appear impolite.

Some aspects I found really strange and I do not know if this is the case because the character of Taro is a bit bizarre or if this is just a cultural matter which is quite far from the world I life in. Taro keeps the mortar and pestle in his kitchen cupboard with which he turned the remains of his father’s bones into powder to distribute them. They remind him of the father and he frequently thinks about him when he comes across the two utensils. Both, first the idea of working on a deceased’s bones and keeping the utensils close to pots and pans is very astonishing to me to put it politely.

The most interesting part of the novel for me was the house that Taro and Nishi go to explore, first through the book and the outside, later also from the inside. It is not only the poetical language, especially about the lighting of the colourful windows, which makes it quite impressive, but also how human boing have an impact on the outer world. Even though the walls and windows are the same, with the change of the inhabitants, the whole ambiance can change and everybody leaves his mark on his surroundings.

William Boyd – The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth

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William Boyd – The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth

William Boyd’s collection of stories “The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth“ is not easy to review. As it often with such an assembly of very various texts, differing in length and topic, not connected in any way, you cannot pay them all the due respect in a review. The opening is great, I absolutely liked the the story about the art dealer and womanizer Ludo who immediately after having married one is looking for the next wife. The story about the thief did not really appeal to me, it was a mere enumeration without a real story, whereas the story of the freeing of the monkey had some deeper message. The longest and title providing story was the one about Bethany Mellmoth. Actually, I think it would have also made a good novel if extended a bit. Bethany is an interesting character and I think her make-up could have provided more to fill the pages of a whole book. In the last story, we even get a kind of short thriller which I also liked a lot. You sense that there is something odd about the woman and job for Dunbar, but it is hard to say what is wrong about it. William Boyd knows how to tell a story and he definitely is best in longer narrations such as the one about Bethany’s dreams.

One reoccurring topic in several stories is love, or rather: unfulfilled love. The characters are looking for the one person with whom they can spend the rest of their life, but they only encounter the ones who do not really match or who have mischievous plans. Or they themselves are actually unable to love and to be faithful. Loneliness can be found in many of them which gives the whole collection a kind of underlying melancholy.

All in all, there is something in every single story and a lot of wit in Boyd’s writing make reading the stories a great pleasure. In the narration of Bethany’s dreams he somehow sums at a point what life and the core of his stories are about, what he not only tries but masterly manages to portray:

Bethany is suspicious – this is not normal: everything seems to be going well and this is not how the world works – no. Life is a dysfunctioning system, she knows: failure, breakdown, disappointment, frustration – where are you hiding?

Caron Freeborn – Presenting… the Fabulous O’Learys

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Caron Freeborn – Presenting…the Fabulous O’Learys

1984, after 40 years in the show business, Kenneth O’Leary decides to retire from the stage. His daughters Delia and Raquel simply accept this, then they realise that this will also affect their lives since they both live on their father’s money even though they are both grown up. But this is not their only problem. Delia’s boyfriend Eddie suddenly falls for the older sister – and she for him. And there are people looking out for the family money – life is everything but easy for the O’Learys.

The description of the novel really made me curious about what to await. Caren Freeborn definitely created outstanding characters whom you will not easily forget. Ken, the father, who can only speak though all the lines he used on stage and constantly quotes Shakespeare. Raquel who is stuck somehow between wanting to be a successful nightclub singer and having a real career and caring for her sister. Delia who not only shows clear signs of eating disorders and at least some hints of autism. The minor characters aren’t less intriguing.

Those characters obviously lead to many funny situations and hilarious dialogues, nevertheless, the novel was lacking something on the plot level. Even though I had a lot of fun reading it and admittedly, the characters’ make-up has absolutely succeeded, it could not absolutely convince me.

“Can none of you see it? Not one of you? We can’t do it. We can’t be like other people, not any of us. The trying’s over. Finished.”

I couldn’t agree more with Ken’s conclusion that the family is quite unique and far from being average. They oscillate between being fabulous/fascinating and scary/frightening at the other end. This makes the novel outstanding in the masses of books, yet, I wold have expected a bit more.

Salman Rushdie – The Golden House

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Salman Rusdie – The Golden House

When the new neighbours move in, René immediately declares them his object of study and protagonists of the film he is going to make. The Golden family are simply fascinating, the father Nero and his three sons Petya, Apu and D. Interestingly, all carry ancient Roman names even though they obviously come from India. There must be more they are hiding. Their male idyll is threatened when Vasilisa shows up, the father’s new Russian lover. When René’s parents die in an accident, the Goldens become his replacement family and he moves in with them which gives him the opportunity to study them from much closer. The more time he spends with them, the more secrets are revealed and finally, he himself becomes a part of the family secret. Yet, the past the Goldens wanted to flee from catches up and they have to pay for what they thought they could leave behind them.

Salman Rushdie is well known for his politically loaded novels which never go unnoticed. Again, his latest novel puts the finger in a wound, this time the American and the question which played a major role in the 2016 presidential election: who is a true American and what makes you and American? Apart from this, in “The Golden House” the supervillain The Joker wins the election which is not very promising for the nation.

Even though there is an obvious political message, this hides behind the family story of the Goldens. Here, unfortunately, I had expected much more. Admittedly, the four men are drawn with noteworthy features and fates and to follow their struggles after settling in the USA is far from uninteresting, but it also is not as fascinating and remarkable as I had expected. It is the chronicles of an immigration family, not less, but also not more. Their numerous secrets can create some suspense, however, much of it is too obvious to really excite.

Where Salman Rushdie can definitely score is in the side notes:

True is such a twentieth-century concept. The question is, can I get you to believe it, can I get it repeated enough times to make it as good as true. The question is, can I lie better than the truth.“ (Pos. 3380) and

“You need to become post-factual. – Is that the same as fictional? – Fiction is élite. Nobody believes it. Post-factual is mass market, information-age, troll generated. It’s what people want. “(Pos. 3390)

These are the times we are living in. Truth is created by the ruling classes and repeated as often as necessary until the people believe it. It is even better than fiction. This should definitely make us think about our consumption of media and question the producers of the news.

I appreciate Rushdie’s capacity of formulating to the point, the masses of references to novels and films are also quite enticing, at least they show that Rushdie himself in fully immersed in the western culture, but, nevertheless, I missed something really captivating in the novel. It was somehow pleasant to read, but not as remarkable as expected.

Rodrigo Hasbún – Affections

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Rodrigo Habún – Affections

A German family emigrating to South America shortly after Worl War II. Hans, a famous film-maker and alpinist who had worked with Leni Riefenstahl, his wife and the three girls Monika, Heidi and Trixi. The father wants to explore the new world, Monika and Heidi accompany him, but they cannot find the lost Inca city. Soon after, the life of the family falls apart. The father is travelling the world, Monika gets married and Heidi is returning to Europe. Only Trixi remains with the mother who is already suffering from cancer and finds her death in the 1950s. The girls’ lives and interests couldn’t hardly differ more. Heidi leads a traditional life in Germany, Trixi is somehow forlorn in Bolivia and Monika has become a fierce supporter of Che Guevara and the guerrillas in South America.

Rodrigo Hasbún, one of the major Spanish-speaking voices in contemporary literature, has based his novel on the true story of the Ertl family. It is supposed that Monika Ertl was to avenger of Che Guevara’s death: in 1971, Bolivia’s ambassador Roberto Quintanilla Pereira was killed in his office in Hamburg by a woman who is supposed to have been her. Off all things, Monika was her father’s beloved child of in whom he saw his only true heiress.

Monika’s life a most intriguing considering the close connection to the Nazi regime, then her fight with and for the guerrilla, the assassination ascribed to her and her death in the Bolivian jungle. Yet, the novel could not really catch me. The characters remain too distant, too vague to really become fascinating and captivating.  I would have liked to get in Monika’s head, to learn how she develops her ideals and her conviction for the fight. But also the others are too distant for me to really get interested in their life and emotions and thoughts.

Apart from the rather shallow characters, the story is centred around the family life. Yet, there are too many leaps in time, too many gaps unfilled to create a complete picture. When Heidi leaves for Germany, her story is lost. Why Trixi is so much detached from the world, remains unclear to me. And the father’s end of career is explained in just one or two sentences.

All in all, an interesting historical figure who could have translated into a great story, but the novel is a bit too superficial in many respects to really convince me.

Jesmyn Ward – Sing, Unburied, Sing

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Jesmyn Ward – Sing, Unburied, Sing

Leonie would like to be a good mother, but she just is not able to. Luckily her two kids Jojo and the toddler Kayla are mainly raised by her parents, Mam and Pop. But now, Mam is in the stadium of cancer and her days are numbered. Additionally, Michael, the kid’s father, is going to be released from prison after three years behind the bars. Leonie is still in love with he, even though Michael’s family hates her, especially his father does not want the black woman in a white man’s house. And not to forget, it was Michael’s family who is responsible for Leonie’s brother’s death. Nevertheless, Leonie takes her kids and her best friend to make a trip to collect Michael. Jojo would prefer to stay with his Mam and Pop, but he is too young to defy his mother. And he has a task to accomplish which can only be done by someone who can listen.

Jesmyn Ward, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction, portrays in “Sing, Unburied, Sing” a family at the point of collapsing. Her description of Leonie, the mother who just isn’t a mother, is heart-breaking and upsetting. At times, you just want to slap her and shout at her to take care of her children and of herself. To forget about the good-for-nothing father of her children and his racist family. Her twelve-year-old son not only has to parent the toddler, but also throughout the story seems to be much more mature than his mother and remarkably more reasonable and wiser. The only solace when it comes to the kids is the fact that their grand-parents are fond of them and raise them with tenderness and affection. It is hard to read about such a mother, but, on the other hand, it seems to be very realistic. These women who always dream of a better life with the man they love and ignore the painful reality do exist, if we like it or not.

Apart from the outstanding character-painting, Ward’ novel plays with the supernatural. Yet, it is not that unbelievable fictitious creation of fantasy, much more does she derive her idea from some kind of pagan or religious belief in forces beyond our recognition that only the specially gifted can see or hear. Within the family, the blood of the super sensitive seems to run since Mam, Leonie and the kids can obviously communicate with those in the world between the living and the dead. Narrated like this, this seems to be a bit strange and unrealistic, the author, however, integrates this idea in a remarkable way which makes you accept it as a normal part of life and genuine fact.

All in all, a novel which can persuade with the strong characters and a poetic style of writing which affects you deeply.

Nathan Englander – Dinner at the Center of the Earth

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Nathan Englander – Dinner at the Center of the Earth

Berlin 2002. A young Palestinian helps out a Canadian businessman to sail on one of the lakes. The more often they meet, the more intimate they get. Paris, the same year. Prisoner Z falls in love with a waitress. A young woman who turns out to be a super-rich daughter with unlimited opportunities. Israel 2014. The General is in hospital, dying, it is just a question of time until he passes away. The same year, the same country, but in a secret prison cell. Prisoner Z sets all his hopes on the General unsuspecting of the latter’s poor state of health. Slowly, all pieces fit together to narrate a story of spying and love in one of the most conflict-laden regions of the earth.

The short description of the novel was really appealing and promising. I was expecting a suspenseful and tedious story which brings the characters to their limit and in which they oscillate between ethical values and commitment to their country and personal interests and emotions. Yet, the plot is slowly flowing without any remarkable peaks in suspense. It took me quite some time to get an idea of the characters and their connection, how they relate isn’t obvious at all.

The narrative style is quite enticing, the dialogues are vivid, also the presentation of the single characters is effective and thriving. However, due to the various places and side plots, the red thread got lost a bit. We have just fractions of the Israel history of which I really would have liked to read much more. Yet, as it is, there are a lot of narrative paths lain out which, unfortunately, nobody ever walked.

Danya Kukafka – Girl in Snow

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Danya Kukafka – Girl in Snow

No morning routine for janitor Ivan: on his tour around the high school premises he finds the body of Lucinda Hayes, golden girl and now dead. It does not take long to identify possible murders: Ivan first of all, it hasn’t been long since he’s out of prison. Cameron Whitley, the boy from next door who has been stalking Lucinda for quite some time. Jade Dixon-Burns, a slightly overweight outsider who openly hated Lucinda. Mr O. the art teacher who was seen with Lucinda’s diary. Officer Russ Fletcher’s first murder case comes to a very bad moment, his wedding is all but ok and additionally, Ivan is his wife’s brother and Cameron his former partner’s son. How can he objectively investigate this case?

Danya Kukafka has chosen a well-known topic for her debut novel: the murder of the popular teenage girl. Even though many have written about this, she manages to create something new and singular. She provides us with the narrators who tell the story from their point of view and thus slowly unfolds the tragedy of all the three of them – it is not that much the victim herself whom we feel sorry for in the end but much more those three. The author succeeds in creating outstanding characters who really have to tell a story which I found actually from one point on much more interesting than the question who committed the deed.

Let’s start with Jade. From the outside she seems to be the hateful reclusive teenager who is difficult to love due to her negative attitude. Yet, behind this surface, we find a thoughtful girl who has experienced domestic violence, who has to work several jobs in her free time and who lost her best friend Zap to Lucinda. They were really really close, almost could read each other’s thoughts but when they get older and the interest in the opposite sex arises, Zap rejects her mercilessly and in a most offending way which leaves scars forever. Jade has never been popular, often was the victim of bullying, but this rejection breaks something in her. And makes her especially sensitive for other people’s emotions.

Russ, on the other hand, is caught in a conflict. He has a bad conscience for what he has done years before – he always backed his partner, even when he knew that this was not right and when in doing so he was hurting others, especially Cameron and his mother. Is this the point to correct a mistake? However, his mind is also dancing around his wife Inés and how he never really understood her. Do they actually know each other? He doesn’t have a clue about her past in Mexico and doesn’t know how she spends her days. He wanted to make her happy and give her the chance to stay in the USA, but can this, what they have, still be called love? Was it ever love?

Last comes Cameron. He is strange and odd. He is talented in drawing but his obsession with Lucinda is not only weird but morbid. He observes her, spends hours in the evening and night outside her house looking into her window. He even breaks into the Hayes’ house one night and watches her sleeping. He is a bit creepy, but he is also the boy whose police officer father was accused of murder a couple of years back and who has been living only with his mother. As soon as the suspicion falls on him, everybody remembers what his father was suspected of. Cameron does not know what his father has done or hasn’t, but he strongly fears that there is something bad running in his veins. This keeps him from thinking clearly in this situation. And the fact that he has seen the body, doesn’t help to rescue him from being the prime suspect for the reader, too.

The development of those three narrators who tell the story alternatingly gives the novel much more depth than I had expected. Apart from the big question of who is the murder, there are many smaller questions circling around the characters which keep the suspense constantly high. It is not a typical murder novel you cannot put aside due to the high pace and high suspense, no, it rather slowly unfolds and provides you with a complex psychological network of emotions and memories.