Midnight’s children

Pink and white rosesWhen I was younger a thick book was a good book. I am a fast reader and I wanted books that would last me awhile. In the library I therefore went directly towards the heavier tomes and longer series. But things have changed, these days I find myself drawn towards the shorter fiction, preferring books with less than 300 pages. If a book approaches 400 pages I get easily distracted and start to read other books in parallel. This was the case for Midnight’s children (538 pages) which I have been reading on and off for several months.

Midnight’s children by Salman Rushdie is an award-winning novel following the protagonist Saleem Sinai who is born on the stroke of midnight of the day India gained independence. His history thus runs parallel to the history of India and events in his own life are often mirrored in Indian history (at least that is how he prefers to tell it). It is a meandering story, moving from the mundane to the magical, from trivial occurrences in the life of Saleem Sinai to major historical events.

I struggled quite a bit with the novel in the beginning. It is very well-written but I got lost among all the names and historical references which I was only vaguely familiar with. I therefore repeatedly put it aside to read other books. Of course that meant that I had forgotten even more names by the time I came back to it. However, about halfway in, the book picked-up pace a bit and I decided to make a concentrated effort to read in it every day. From there on my my impression of it greatly improved, I started to know who (almost) everyone were, the story suddenly made sense and I actually enjoyed it. 

It’s not really like any other book I have read but the book I associated it closest with is another book from my Classic Club reading list, Gösta Berling’s Saga by Selma Lagerlöf. The settings couldn’t be more different, in Midnight’s children we follow the protagonist (and his ancestors) over several decades as he moves across India and Pakistan, whereas Gösta Berling’s Saga takes place in Värmland, a sparsely populated Swedish region during a single year. However, both books feature larger than life protagonists, a small touch of magic, and are narrated in a style that stays close to oral tradition. More importantly, they are both more a rich portrait of a country (or a county in Lagelöf’s case) than a linear story.

First published in 1981 Midnight’s children  is on of the youngest books in my Classics Club reading challenge.

This weekend there is also an Indian Literature Readathon arranged by Nandini, Shruti, Charvi and Aditi. Unfortunately I don’t have time to join but head over there if you are interested in Indian reading recommendations.

 

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East of the Great Glacier

Photo of a valley on Greenland

Helge Ingstad was a Norwegian explorer, lawyer, trapper and author of popular travel books, one of which I have recently finished. The book I read, East of the Great Glacier, takes place during an expedition to East Greenland in 1932-1933 which Helge Ingstad led.

As far as I understand it, the political background to the expedition was that Norway wanted to annex this uninhabited part of northeast Greenland and another part in the south. The contested regions had historically often been used by Norwegian fishers and hunters and Norway claimed that these parts were terra nullius and free for the taking. Denmark on the other hand argued that all of Greenland was under Danish jurisdiction. Ingstad and his expedition was on northeast Greenland to strengthen the Norwegian claim and to prepare for future use of the land by arranging infrastructure (hunting cabins). While they were on Greenland the case was taken to the Permanent Court of International Justice where Norway lost and subsequently withdrew its claim. (Why have no-one told me this story before!?!)

Anyway, the political situation may have been the reason for the expedition but it only plays a minor role in the book. Instead we follow the expedition through good times and bad. Ingstad is an excellent writer who mixes descriptions of the daily life of the expedition with intelligent comments on the landscape around him and all of it is filled with a contagious love for the Arctic. If you are interested in Arctic literature I recommend it.

Other Russias

Photo from a Siberian small town

I am quite interested in Russian literature and have reviewed a few Russian novels on this blog before. However, all of them have been classics, modern Russian literature has largely remained a blank spot in my reading. I was therefore intrigued when I stumbled upon Other Russias, Victoria Lomasko‘s graphic reportage from modern Russia.

In the book we follow Lomasko as she draws juvenile prisoners, modern slaves, prostitutes and village children. She also draws during the Pussy Riot trial, a LGBT film festival and various protest rallies. The book consists of her pen drawings of the people she meets combined with quotes from the people she’s drawn and her own commentary. Generally drawn on-site the drawings range vary from quick sketches to somewhat more elaborate designs.

Lomasko is an artist, not a journalist, and her book is thus not a pure journalistic reportage trying to find the truth on specific topics. Instead she lends us her eyes as she explores and portraits various parts of Russia. It is thus not trying to be anything but a story of modern Russia as seen by Lomasko herself. Such an approach may be more subjective and biased but it is so openly which I appreciate. The fact that she is interested in portraying “invisible” people and social activists ensures a broader relevance of her work.

I found the book most relevant when it covered less newsworthy topics. I can find plenty of descriptions of the Pussy Riot trial elsewhere but many of the people she portraits I could have met nowhere else. All in all I found it very interesting.

An interview with Victoria Lomasko can be found here.

 

 

On the dangers of impossible dreams

Extravagant_flowerThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a book I have long felt I know more or less what it is about despite never actually having opened it. In this case the omission was a bit embarrassing as the book in question has been quietly abandoned on my To Be Read shelf for years despite being neither long nor particularly heavy.

However, during a recent travel I decided only to bring books lingering on my TBR shelf and finally got started. (Well, the truth is that I first bought new books by Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Anne Fadiman, read those and then, when I was once more out of fresh reading material, started on my TBR books). Having once started on The Great Gatsby I found it a smooth, enjoyable read. I really don’t know why it took me so long.

The image I had of The Great Gatsby included a love story set against a backdrop of extravagant nightly garden parties during the 1920s. I wasn’t exactly wrong but after actually reading it the image I was left with was rather of the loneliness and futility hidden behind Gatsby’s shining dream. Perhaps not a new favourite but nevertheless a beautifully written novel which did not deserve to linger forgotten on my shelf.

The Great Gatsby was one of the novels on my Classics Club reading list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Classics Club Spin – Nights at the Circus

Photo of a St Petersburg canal

I finally finished my Classics Club spin book, Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter, on the very last day of the challenge. Not because it was a particularly hard read, it wasn’t, but because it was one of the few books I didn’t already own and when it arrived I suddenly had almost no reading time. Due to my lateness, and even more due to the fact that I’m currently somewhat overworked and completely uninspired, I won’t give this novel the proper review it really deserves.

Published in 1984 it is one of the youngest books on my classics list, one I added to my list after being stunned by her brilliant short story collection The Bloody Chamber and other stories. Most of the novels I have read lately have been sharp, restrained texts but Carter’s is neither. Indeed Angela Carter may be the least restrained author I have read anything by, she is constantly pushing the border between brilliance and nonsense. Her imagery is rich, disturbing and always on the brink of collapse but somehow it mostly works. I left the novel with a wide collection of imagery and ideas but the over-abundance of the text is such that I know that I probably missed half of it. As a break from the more focused texts I usually read I found it very refreshing but my recommendation if you want to explore Angela Carter’s works would be to start with The Bloody Chamber and other stories which remains my favourite.

Last year this book was discussed in a series of articles for The Guardian‘s reading group. I really recommend this article series if you are interested in in-depth discussions of the novel. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 (with some spoilers).

 

 

 

The Left Hand of Darkness

Kopia av DSC_0270

I was a bit unlucky in my first encounter with Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels. I devoured Fantasy novels as a young teenager and when I found her Earthsea novels which were both highly recommended and written by a woman I was eager to try them. Unfortunately I must have been a bit too young because much of it went above my head and I found them rather boring. Since then Le Guin has been on the list of authors I knew deserved another chance but which I kept avoiding. At least until now, tempted by a beautiful cover I finally read The Left Hand of Darkness and can now see for my self why she is such a well-respected author.

The Left Hand of Darkness is both a real SF classic and a feminist classic. It takes place on a planet where the population spend most of their time in an androgynous state. Only a few days a month do they switch into a men/women, male/female state, and not necessarily the same from one month to the next. The novel discuss how the lack of permanent genders influence the society and relations on the planet but the focus is on the outsider on the planet, the Earth man Genly Ai, who has come to planet to open up trade. Although the planet’s inhabitants obviously find their way of living completely normal  (and instead find Genly Ai weird) Genly Ai clearly struggles with the androgynous society. Instead of actually seeing the people he meets as individuals he keeps trying to fit them into into the gender roles he knows and keeps getting confused when they won’t fit nicely in them.

The androgynous society and Genly Ai’s struggles to understand it are two of the main themes of the novel but there is much more to it. Indeed the world building is impressive also in other aspects, the characters are interesting and the plot, especially in the later part, thrilling. For me personally the setting, on a planet deep in an ice-age, was also a great bonus but then I do love an Arctic setting.

Too often when I read Fantasy or SF I feel that the author hasn’t used the full power of the genre. There may be a few cool gimmicks but largely the worlds drawn mirror our own. Not so with The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin fully uses the SF genre’s capacity for what if-scenarios. What if the world had no fixed genders? How might the society work? How would such a world appear to us? What does our fixation with genders really say about us? Could things work differently?

A few concepts may be less controversial today, in Swedish the recent introduction of a gender-neutral pronoun would for example have solved at least one of the protagonist’s issues, but it remains a thought-provoking novel also today, almost 50 years after its first publication (in 1969).

A few other discussions of this novel which I found relevant can be found here, here and here.

 

 

 

 

 

The Boarding-School Girl by Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya

 

Photo of wild flowers by a river

I have been lucky with my reading lately. March was a slow reading month for me but since Easter I have had much more reading time and my last few reads have also all been really good. During April I have moved from WW2 France with Flight to Arras (by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) to Latvia during Soviet time with Soviet Milk (Nora Ikstena) and now, latest, to 19th century Russia with The Boarding-School Girl by Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya (translation Karen Rosneck).

I discovered The Boarding-School Girl when I, unsuccessfully, looked for other translated works by one of her sister, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, the writer of City Folk and Country Folk. The Boarding-School Girl is largely focused on the disillusioned and exiled Veretitsyn and his largely accidental influence on his young neighbour Lolenka. Exposed to Veretitsyn’s bitter musings Lolenka starts to question the shallow education she is getting and the confined life she is living. Partly a comedy of manner, partly a coming-of-age story the novel gives an interesting glimpse into the life and education of 19th century women from the lower gentry.

It is a very short novel, the actual story took only 137 pages in the edition I was reading, and the plot was relatively simple. The character’s on the other hand were well-developed and realistic. A sharp but subtle wit runs through the novel, it may even have a bit more edge than her sister’s novel. If you enjoy Jane Austen writing style you would probably like this one too although the stories told are very different.

Overall it had a surprisingly modern feel, also compared to City Folk and Country Folk. The edition I was reading also included an extensive introduction and a generous number of footnotes which helped me appreciate the novel even more.

I count The Boarding-School Girl as my Classic in translation for the Back to the classics reading challenge.