The Great Gatsby

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

There were two reasons why I read The Great Gatsby. I like to read a Classic from time to time (to see what the fuss is about) and I really liked the trailer of the film Baz Luhrmann is making, based on the story. And -maybe subconsciously for a third reason-  it is quite a thin book, so even if it would be utterly shit, it wouldn’t be a big waste of time.

It wasn’t utterly shit. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald creates an attractive, vibrant world without drowning the reader in detail and pointers. I managed to not have been ‘spoiled’ about the story and therefore could enjoy it without already knowing how it would end. To let other people enjoy the story without any knowledge about it as well, I’ll just say that -in the beginning and for me- it’s a love story. A love story with life and the world intervening.

As it is a little story, there is not much more to say. Even though the story is written over eighty years ago, the age doesn’t show in language. The characters are sketched with just a few lines and words, but aren’t card board characters. I would recommend it, not only so you know what The Great Gatsby (and its fuss) is about, but for the small, bitter sweet experience you get from hanging out in those 156 pages.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scot Fitzgerald, 1926

1Q84

The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast.

1Q84 was one of those books that has been on my To Read list for a while. I was curious about the premise, curious about Murakami’s writing and hopeful that hundreds of positive reviews couldn’t be wrong. I was disappointed.

There is no easy, straight-forward way to say what the book exactly is about. It’s a boy-meets-girl story with a dollop of loneliness, a cult and so many fantasy details that -into the second book- you could simply call it ‘fantasy’. Except a lot more pretentious. And that started to chafe after a couple of hundred pages.

I could appreciate Murakami’s world building, helping the reader understand what the main characters experience. But when -as a reader- you start to wonder when the story will start and how many times you need to hear about a random crow or spinach-eating dog ..I think you wrote too much while communicating too little.
Maybe I’m simply an impatient reader because I have read so many books and therefore might pick up hints and foreshadowing faster than anyone else. Maybe ‘ordinary’ readers wouldn’t feel as talked down to as I did on several pages.

And that’s a shame, because there is a lot of potential in this book. I am curious about what was going on and why, but 1Q84 is fine with telling you very little about it. Maybe I’m just a reader who prefers her books with answers, instead of only questions.

1Q84, Haruki Murakami, Knopf 2011

Jamrach’s Menagerie

I was born twice.

Jamrach’s Menagerie tells the story of Jaffy Brown, a street urchin living at the end of the nineteenth century. His life turns into an adventure when he is eaten by a tiger, meets the people and animals of Jamrach’s Menagerie but most importantly: when he goes to sea to catch a dragon in the far south.

I didn’t get this from the Children/Young Adult division, but it could easily fit there along other ‘boy adventures’. The reader follows Jaffy from nine years old to adulthood, but his view on the world, adventures and misadventures, never changes. He’s good with animals, so he can hang out with every one of them in the Menagerie. He’s allowed to come along with the quest for a dragon (because that would make the Menagerie even better) and only doubts the danger of it for a moment.

It takes Jamrach’s Menagerie a while to get up to speed. I really felt like I needed to push myself through the first eighty pages, but after that it’s situation after accident after adventure and there isn’t even time left to breathe or doze off.  It’s a colourful story with extensive descriptions on the countries they visit, animals they see and people they meet. It shows how dangerous travel by ship can be and how resilient humankind. From time to time it reminded me of Pirates of the Caribbean, and it’s up there in unpretentious fun (but with more blood and gore).

 Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch, Canongate 2011

The Illuminator

John Wycliff put down his pen and rubbed his tired eyes.

The Illuminator tells the story of several characters living in the fourteenth century in (South) England. It is the time of two popes, the Church keeping their knowledge close to their hearts (because no way that a simple farmer can understand God’s Word) while others protest more and more loudly that everyone could and should be their own priest.
The main character is Kathryn, who as a widow and noble is pushed from every side to show her alliance and -if it isn’t too much of a bother- get married again soon because a woman being the owner of a manor and lands? Na-ah.

Sometimes the characters are placed a bit aside to tell the story about 14th century England and the huge gap between ordinary people and the Church and the country’s government. But never in an annoying way, instead reminding me of my elementary school History books that always started with a fictional story in a historical background.
Which is exactly what this is.

It is an easy to read story that half way in turns into more and more drama. I thought I was pretty good in predicting where plot lines would go, but The Illuminator threw me off for ninety percent of the time. For fans of Philippa Gregory: not in a happy ending way.
For everyone else who can handle death, illnesses, inequality and The Church taking everything without returning anything, I’d recommend this book. You might even learn from it.

The Illuminator, Brenda Rickman Vantrease, St. Martin’s Press 2005

The Lonely Polygamist

To put it as simply as possible: this is the story of a polygamist who has an affair.

Oh, but this is anything but a simple story.  I finished it a little less than two days ago and I still feel something ache when I think about it. This book didn’t leave me behind happy at all. I don’t agree with its happy ending. I pitied but couldn’t sympathize with (barely) any of the characters .. it took a bit of a toll on me, I suppose.

As the first sentence hints: this is a story about a polygamist, a man with four wives and twenty-eight children. But it’s not only about Golden Richards, it’s about his whole sorry family and sorry they are. One of his sons, one of his wives and -in a way- the house itself bleed their feelings of loss, frustration and loneliness into the main story. They can’t belong because there are simply too many others and too little of the father to give everyone equal opportunity. And Golden himself feels like an outsider in his own family. His back story shows that he has never made a decision about anything, there were and are always others to do that for him. Until he falls in love with an other woman and: lets himself. Even cherishes the thought of acting on it.

‘Wry’ would be my word for The Lonely Polygamist. There is no relief from the maelstrom that is the family Richards and I gobbled up the small pieces of joy that sparsely feature. It made me angry with polygamist families and the named religion they follow, but in the end there was only pity for so many unhappy people. Especially because they were unhappy by my standards (never share a man, don’t put yourself in second place, be loved unconditionally).

I fully recommend this book, if you read books to experience thoughts and feelings outside your own spectrum. Don’t read it for a laugh or a How To on polygamy.  It’s a very human story, of humans and their (self-)inflicted boundaries.

The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall, Cape 2010

The history of history: a novel of Berlin

The oceans rose and the clouds washed over the sky; the tide of humanity came revolving in love and betrayal, in sky scrapers and ruins, through walls breached and children conjured, and soon it was the year 2002.

Oh.  This book starts with a woman who misses from her memory  a recent period of her life . Next thing that happens is that -to her eyes- every building in Berlin has turned to flesh. After that, it gets steadily more weird.

At first, that frustrated me. I plodded through the hallucinations, dialogues with Magda Goebbels and visits to a blind Nazi doctor.  Until I realized that this insanity is her reality and I decided that I would simply piggyback along. This brought me to the bodyguard of Hitler, a ghost of a Jewish woman that killed her children in prevention of the camps and a hawk-woman.

The parts about World War II are the most interesting, but like the parts about main character Margaret, don’t satisfy any question. Towards the end of the book, the author poses a question: ‘Would it tax the imagination to propose that Margaret was sane?’. Yes, it would, very much so and I don’t have any urge or sympathy to do so. I sighed a frustrated breath of release when I finished this book.

The history of history: a novel of Berlin,  Ida Hattemer-Higgins, Faber and Faber 2011

The secrets of Jin-Shei

It had been the hottest summer in living memory.

The secrets of Jin-Shei takes place in a colorful world (fictional medieval Asian country) and has several equally colorful characters. And yet I felt obliged to read this book, instead of diving into it and wallowing into its details and colors like Scrooge Duck in his money.

Jin-Shei binds a couple of women on a deep level, with friendship, love and responsibilities. The first couple of hundred pages tell the reader about these Jin-Shei sisters and their lives before the bad guy shows up. But the bad guy is more of an idea than a person, and therefore several of the characters are ‘bad’ from time to time as well. After this introduction the story speeds up, throws life and death at the reader and I simply couldn’t care about any thing. Even while writing this review, I find it tough to keep focus and remember what it was about this book.

So what’s wrong about The secrets of Jin-Shei? The book isn’t tough to read, there’s diversity but not too much to make it puzzling and hard to follow and it gives the reader pretty pictures in detail and ‘historical’ facts. Jin-Shei and me simply didn’t click. It can happen with books as well as with people. This makes it harder to decide on recommending it of course, but I’ll say: go on, read it. This book has a lot to offer.

 The secrets of Jin-Shei, Alma Alexander, Harper Collins 2004