2014-08-17

The Shining

I have just finished reading Stephen King´s "The Shining". The only other thing I have read by King apart from "Cujo" in the 80´s, is his excellent book "On Writing" which I have read twice, with a few years of experience in the meantime. Ok, everyone´s process is different, but King seems to be fairly accurate about how I function, at least - although I didn´t know it the first time I read him. He has some good advice, if you are bent on writing a book yourself. (And why shouldn´t you? Everyone has a story.)

In the mountains, no one can hear you scream...
I decided on "The Shining" in particular because I had read rave reviews about the sequel, "Doctor Sleep", and because Priya seems to think it´s one of the best books ever. I have not seen Stanley Kubrik´s film with Jack Nicholson and I understand it differs quite a bit from the book. 

It took me more than two months to finish "The Shining", which must be some kind of record with a novel, for me. It wasn´t that I didn´t like it. It wasn´t that it was badly written - gosh no, King knows his stuff and he has a lesson for you on every page if you are a student of his. It was partly because I had a pretty busy summer, and partly that the main character, Jack Torrance, was a bit predictable. Crap childhood, history of abuse, mood swings, temper control issues - perhaps characters like these were not regulars of crime and other fiction in the 70´s, but Torrance has certainly had many, many followers in books, on film, and television. The chemistry between Torrance and his wife Wendy and their psychic son Danny, is also pretty familiar. Fear and love is a bitter brew; many of us can relate, and not just through fiction either. These character feels real because they are, there are versions of Jack Torrance in every village, on every block, in every extended family - I hope you are lucky enough not to have one in yours. 
...his father´s attitude was strange. It was a feeling that he had done something that was very hard and had done it right. But Danny could not seem to see exactly what the something was. His father was guarding that carefully, even in his own mind. Was it possible, Danny wondered, to be glad you had done something and still be so ashamed of that something that you tried not to think of it? The quesiton was a disturbing one. He didn´t think such a thing was possible... in a normal mind. His hardest probings at his father had only brought him a dim picture of something like an octopus, whirling up into the hard blue sky.
In short, what happens is that Jack takes a job as a winter caretaker of the summer mountain resort The Overlook. The family gets snowed in for months in the Colorado mountains, in a house brimming with tragic history and the dangerous shadows these events are casting. As they settle in, King tells the background story in flashbacks. Like I said: well written and realistic, but familiar. Then the spooky stuff starts, and that cheered me up a bit; I finished the last half of the novel within a week. King is really good at making the most improbable things absolutely believable. Also, I fell head over heals for the wonderful Mr Hallorann, who comes to the rescue in the end. 
Jack wasn´t out there anymore. She was hearing the lunatic, raving voice of the Overlook itself.
For me, this is a story about rage, and by rage I mean anger that grows bigger than what you were initially angry about, until it is out of control or even controls you. Wendy and Danny keep repeating that it wasn´t Jack doing those things he did, it was the house, the Overlook, the ghosts that made him do it. But I keep thinking that Jack had all that rage in him when he came. The Overlook didn´t make Jack Torrance any different, it just worked with what was already there. And of course, that is King´s point (or so I imagine): that the people who love us are capable of infinite indulgence, forgiveness, and hold hope for us even when we are hopeless. To the point of self-sacrifice; Wendy and Danny see what´s coming, and yet choose to stay.  

I kind of wish I had read this when I was a bit younger. Perhaps it would have taught me something that could have been useful to me. But that´s easy to say in retrospect. Now, I am much eager to go on with "Doctor Sleep", which, I imagine is about the grown-up Danny and how he (hopefully) breaks his father´s curse. 

2014-07-16

Coolest Library Ever!

Some people (particularly British ones), when you say you are going to Birmingham on vacation (or Milton Keynes, or Coventry), they ask "Why?". Ok, so Birmingham isn´t quaint in a Midsomer-ish or Downton Abbey-ish way, but it has its charm and a lot to offer. These industrial cities took quite a beating during the war, and were perhaps again victims at the hands of some less classy architectural fashions during the mid- to late 20th Century. There are fine examples of brutalist architecture, but there are too many that hasn´t done humanity any favours at all and some are being pulled down. Birmingham is really pushing the envelope when it comes to innovative architecture and I was so curious to see how the new library had turned out. Yes, we went to Birmingham just to see a library. We saw a lot of other fine things too, but it would have been totally worth it to come all the way from Sweden just to see that library.

We had to pass the old library on our way to the new one, and it looked as dull as every. When I was there in 2009, the site of the new library was just a demolition site - I don´t know what stood there before, but I expect it must have been something ugly. Now, I was just awestruck at what appeared. I imagine they must be very pleased with how it turned out.

When you come inside, it feels a bit like looking up into that spaceship in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". If the old library was a Tomb of Dead Books, this is the Temple of Learning. Very fittingly indeed, it was Malala Yousafzai who opened it in September last year. And it is full of people! Reading, working, talking, eating lunch on the terrace or in the café by the entrance, kissing! and some walking around in wonder, as we were. The building is a magnet.

They have two terraces, and the library even extends underneath the square in front of it. There is a "sunken" stage with a stand built into the pavement above it. When we were there, they had a steel pan orchestra playing old Beatles´ tunes. Everywhere the circle theme is used to give it a coherent aesthetic look. What a great place! If you want to know more, check out their website.




Neighbours: The Hyatt Hotel, The Symphony Hall, The ICC, The Rep.

The view overlooking the town centre.




To the captain´s bridge....

The captain´s bridge The Shakespeare Memorial Room, a reading room
built in 1882 for an earlier, now demolished, city library.


The Secret Garden





2014-06-22

Packing Books

I am so looking forward to vacation and doing a bit of travelling. I find that there is hardly any fretting these days about what book or books to bring, since the e-book reader came along, particularly the Kindle, with which I can restock without even using the computer - in case I only brought boring books or finish them faster than anticipated. To me, who is a bit of a minimalist flashpacker (the drawing is pretty accurate), not having to lug around heavy and space-eating volumes is wonderful.

Earlier years I haven´t read as much in hotels as I thought I would, since I have been fiddling much with the photos taken during the day. This year, however, I am only shooting in RAW (because once you get the hang of it, you can´t go back), and the travel computer doesn´t have the software to deal with that format (only for backing up the files), so I will have to wait to see or do anything with photos until I get home. Which to me sounds like: more reading time. Not a bad thing, then. Excellent, in fact!

I have stocked up with Stephen King, as Priya has been going on so much about his greatness and has made me really curious about "The Shining" and "Dr Sleep". I haven´t read King since the 80´s, "Cujo" I think it was, and can remember very little about it. Also, I have short stories by Alice Munro that I meant to read this earlier this year, but didn´t get to for some reason. It was my resolution this year to read one Munro a week, but that didn´t work out at all (isn´t that the fate of most new years resolutions?). And, I have the first volume of "The Complete Short Stories" by J G Ballard. That should be enough for a few weeks. Oh yeah, there are the two last novels of Nancy Mitford as well.

(I just went to fetch the link to Priya´s blog and was reminded of Stephen Booth´s "Black dog", so I got that one, too...)

We are doing some book related things during this trip, like visiting Birmingham with the sole purpose of seeing their new library, as I decided to do when I was there in 2009. I am really happy to return there. Hope you all have a good summer - with lots of reading time.

2014-06-17

Love in a Cold Climate

Yesterday I finished "Love in a Cold Climate" by Nancy Mitford. I enjoyed it very much, I really like the way she writes, without frills, much dialogue, great characters, good action. It ended a bit abruptly, but I suppose she felt the story was over, so she finished it.

Castle Howard, 2009.
This story is again narrated by Fanny, the Bolter´s daughter, raised by her aunt Emily and uncle Davey, cousin of the Radlett children, among them Linda, who was the protagonist of "The Pursuit of Love". Linda does not appear here at all, though the story takes place at about the same time as Linda´s story did. This time Fanny becomes involved with the Radlett´s neighbours, the Montdores, and particularly the mother, lady Montdore, and her daughter Polly, who is the same age as Fanny and Linda (though not on friendly terms with Linda, which is why their stories do not intersect).

Lady Montdore and Polly is at odds over marriage. Polly is "out", and is almost twenty, but shows absolutely no interest in men at all (or in anything else, for that matter), which frustrates her mother. Fanny, recently married to a junior Oxford don and staying with the Radletts at Alconleigh while her new house is being done up, is brought in by both of them to act as a kind of buffer between them. Lady Montdore is bossy and overbearing, but can also be very charming and Fanny likes her a lot. Polly, also loved by Fanny, is a rather vapid, boring and unattractive personality - even though she is the most beautiful debutante in London society, a fact that is repeated over and over. Perhaps it is hard for a reader to like her, since we can not see her - beauty seems to be her only asset and she has such an abundance of it that it makes up for her lack of character. It´s hard to get particularly upset when she, upon her aunt´s death, confesses that she has been in love with her uncle-in-law Boy, a middle-aged historian, since the age of fourteen and is now intending to marry him. The matter is made even worse by the fact that this uncle has been her mother´s lover for years, is bisexual, and has paedophile tendencies (the Radletts call him "the lecherous lecturer").

So, things go spectacularly bad, but in the end everything turns out all right, in a rather amusing way, as one would expect from a story like this. My favourite passage in this book is about Uncle Matthew, who is aging and softening (and Fanny is also maturing, which perhaps mellows her view of him), and this is what happens when his younger daughter Jassy insists on being buried at a particular spot in the churchyard:
"'Write it down,' said Uncle Matthew, producing a piece of paper and a fountain-pen, 'if these things don´t get written down they are forgotten. And I´d like a deposit of ten bob please.' 'You can take it out of my birthday present,' said Jassy, who was scribbling away with great concentration, ' I´ve made a map like in Treasure Island,' she said. 'See?' 'Yes, thank you, that´s quite clear,' said Uncle Matthew. He went to the wall, took his master-key from his pocket, opened a safe, and put in the piece of paper. Every room at Alconleigh had one of these wall-safes, whose contents would have amazed and discomfited the burglar who managed to open them. Aunt Sadie´s jewels, which had some very good stones, were never kept in them, but lay glittering about all over the house and garden, in any place where she might have taken them off and forgotten to put them on again, on the downstairs wash-basin, by the flower-bed she had been weeding, sent to the laundry pinning up a suspender. Her big party pieces were kept in the bank. Uncle Matthew himself possessed no jewels and despised all men who did. (Boy´s signet ring and platinum and pearl evening watch-chain were great causes for tooth-grinding.) His own watch was a large loudly ticking object in gun-metal, tested twice a day by Greenwich mean time on a chronometer in the business-room, and said to gain three seconds a week. This was attached to his key-ring across his moleskin waistcoat by an ordinary leather bootlace, in which Aunt Sadie often tied knots to remind herself of things. The safes, nevertheless, were full of treasures, if not of valuables, for Uncle Matthew´s treasures were objects of esoteric worth, such as a stone quarried on the estate and said to have imprisoned for two thousand years a living toad; Linda´s first shoe; the skeleton of a mouse regurgitated by an owl; a tiny gun for shooting bluebottles; the hair of all his children made into a bracelet; a silhouette of Aunt Sadie done at a fair; a carved nut; a ship in a bottle; altogether a strange mixture of sentiment, natural history, and little objects which from time to time had taken his fancy."
This is probably the most endearing description of a man´s character I have ever read (don´t you love how the wife ties knots in her husband´s key"chain" to remind herself of things?). And it is a good example of Nancy Mitford´s skill. If you like Austen-style stories with British excentric aristocracy in great houses, this is for you.

2014-06-09

The Pursuit of Love

After I failed Proust and then finished three Klas Östergren novels in a row, I really felt that I had been reading much too seriously for far too long. Reading should be more joyful than this. So I decided to go on with the Nancy Mitford series, and started with "Pigeon Pie" from 1940, which began with an apology from the author, calling it "an early and unimportant casualty of the real war which was then beginning". I only lasted a few pages into it, and I can see why she would have been reluctant to re-publish it. So I just moved on to "The Pursuit of Love", which is, along with "Love in a Cold Climate" her best known work.

Compared with her early comedies, "Highland Fling", "Christmas Pudding", and "Whigs on the Green", there is more depth in this novel, and even though she is very funny, as usual, it is a tragedy, really. It revolves around an aristocratic family, the Radletts, who live at the Cotswold estate Alconleigh. The narrator, Fanny, is raised by her aunt Emily after her mother, called "the Bolter" (we never learn her real name), has left her baby on her sisters´ doorstep and gone on to an adventurous life abroad with a string of husbands. Her other aunt, Sadie Radlett, wants to raise Fanny with her cousin Linda, who is the same age, but her uncle Matthew refuses, as Fanny´s father is one of his old enemies. In spite of this, Fanny spends most of her holidays at Alconleigh with her cousins and the rest of the time lives with her aunt Emily and her husband Davey, which is probably lucky for Fanny, as uncle Matthew must be one of the most irascible characters in fiction and Davey the dad everyone would want. Uncle Matthew´s idea of fun is arranging an annual Christmas hunt - with the children as prey - mounting the horses and setting the dogs after them. Aunt Sadie is a rather distant and cold mother, and it is no secret that this eccentric couple, this family, was moulded on Mitford´s own, childhunt and all. It is funny, for sure, but horrible as well. One of the sisters starts saving her pennies for a runaway fund aged seven, and eventually also runs away to America. Which is more or less exactly what Decca Mitford did.

As they grow up the story focuses on Linda, who marries after her first season "out", and has a child  with a man who turns out to be a bore. She goes in the footsteps, to some extent, of Fanny´s mother, and the rest of the novel is all about what becomes of her. Mitford pushes her writing style and I jumped a bit at these lines about what it was like to attend one´s first ball:
"This then is a ball. This is life, what we have been waiting for all these years, here we are and here it is, a ball, actually going on now, actually in progress around us. How extraordinary it feels, such unreality, like a dream. But, alas, so utterly different from what one had imagined and expected; it must be admitted, not a good dream. The men so small and ugly, the women so frowsty, their clothes so messy and their faces so red, the oil-stoves so smelly, and not really very warm, but, above all, the men, either so old or so ugly. And when they ask one to dance (pushed to it, one cannot but suspect, by kind Davey, who is trying to see that we have a good time at our first party), it is not at all like floating away into a delicious cloud, pressed by a manly arm to a manly bosom, but stumble, stumble, kick, kick. They balance, like King Stork, on one leg, while, with the other, they come down, like King Log, on one´s toe. As for witty conversation, it is wonderful if any conversation, even of the most banal and jerky description, lasts through a whole dance and the sitting out. It is mostly: 'Oh, sorry - oh, my fault,' though Linda did get as far as taking one of her partners to see the diseased stones."
Not unlike going to one´s first disco dance, as I recall...

The garden feature at which Churchill proposed to his Clementine.
I like Mitford´s style, she is unapologetically unsentimental, and even though some modern readers may find some of the family relationships a bit exaggerated, particularly between parents and children, I think she is spot on; even though she turns it into good comedy, there is a complex double edge here, and quite a bit of real pain - but also a good deal of love - poured into it.

I think Linda in this story has some likeness to Diana Mitford, the beautiful sister who ran away from her Guinness husband to marry the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, but most of all, I think she is modeled on Nancy herself, who dedicated the novel to her French lover Gaston Palewski. 

With this fifth novel Mitford really matures into a good storyteller, and the BBC made an adaptation for television in 2001 with Rosamund Pike as Fanny. There was another adaptation in 1980 with Judi Dench as Aunt Sadie. Both adaptations are titled "Love in a Cold Climate", which is the name of Mitford´s next novel, another tale of Fanny´s which takes place during the same time frame. I am reading that one now, so that will be the topic of the next post.

2014-06-01

The Hurricane Party

After "Gangsters" I was so curious about how Klas Östergren the Author, Östergren the Narrator, Östergren the Character related to each other that I had to read something else by him, just to explore his literary style a bit more. I chose "Orkanpartyt" from 2007 ("The Hurricane Party"). I realize now that this novel is part of a worldwide project called "Myths retold" by publisher Canongate to which writers from 35 countries were invited. Perhaps I would have chosen differently if I had known this.

The story is set in a dystopian future city (Stockholm, I suppose), after the world has been destroyed by climate collapse, plagues, and wars. There is no proper government, but some areas are governed to some extent by clans, as is this one. Lacking any objective media channels, the citizens have a rather vague idea of who or what is ruling them and how the government really works. For most people, it´s a struggle to stay alive, and for entertainment they have a kind of game/reality show on television with gigant woman TomBola (bola is an old Swedish world for fornication, and some of the game is about surviving a night with the gigant woman...), and for culture they have a slow, never-ending concert from a church organ which must be inspired by John Cage´s concert "As Slow As Possible" which is being performed in Halberstadt, Germany, right now, scheduled to play for more than 600 years.

The protagonist is Hanck Orn, an ex-insurance investigator turned typewriter repairman. He has a son, Toby, who is twenty years old and one of the best chefs in the country, cooking for the upper classes at a stylish inn located in the archipelago. Toby is the result of a casual liaison with a woman belonging to a sect called "the sneezers" who believe that God enters them in the moment of sneezing. She dies giving birth, the son is brought to Hanck and becomes the sole purpose of his life. It is an unexpected shock when he is told that the son has died, from a heart attack.

Hanck goes into a mad state of grief. After the initial shock he starts investigating, wanting to know the circumstances surrounding his son´s death, finding the body, and if possible, get his revenge. This is when the story completely changes - it is as if Hanck is entering a mythological universe, and we meet familiar characters from the Norse mythology. He finds out that his son has been cooking for a Clan party that got so out of hand it turned into "a hurricane party" which forever redefines the power balance among the Clan members. Toby has simply gotten in the way of the scuffle, been at the wrong place at the wrong time. His death has been completely pointless and unnecessary.

As the story goes on, it gets more and more confusing, more and more fantastical, and in the end, I can only think that this is all Hanck´s madness from beginning to end, perhaps a period of mad dreams that help him come to terms with his overwhelming loss and give him some new direction. All his wishes come true, in a way, he goes through a magical metamorposis of sort, and comes out a changed man, with a new mission in life. Saying more would be giving too much away.

Other books I have read that come to mind during this read are J M Coetzee´s "Waiting for the Barbarians" and Neil Gaiman´s "American Gods". I think Coetzee´s story had a similar dreamlike, timeless quality, and Gaiman´s has all the gods, but instead of retelling, Gaiman reinvents. The theme is grief, of course, but also art: what art can mean to people who are suffering, from what kind of soil (or soul) great art is born, and what kind of courage and madness it takes to attempt it. It seems to me Östergren is hinting at a parallell to the courage it takes to try raise a child in a world that seems doomed (and when doesn´t it?); his dystopian world seems uncomfortably familiar, after all.

I picked up two quotes from the Swedish text, and I have made a translation myself (which might differ from Tina Nunnally´s official translation):
"När hon såg sig i spegeln såg hon bara smycket. Ett märkvärdigt smycke, alltså. Ett mindre märkvärdigt smycke får betraktaren att tänka på priset. Stor konst står över sådant." 
"When she looked in the mirror she only saw the necklace. A remarkable necklace, then. A less remarkable piece of jewellery makes the observer think about the price. Great art stands above that."
"Skulle han äventyra sin värdiga sorg och minnet av den döde med ord och påståenden som vem som helst kunde missförstå, av ren elakhet förvanska, missbruka och dra i smutsen? Han hade ju sett de mest renhjärtade chikaneras, bidragit själv med sin grundmurade misstro. Vad sa att just han skulle lyckas? Ingenting. Absolut ingenting."
"Would he risk his dignified grief and the reminiscence of the dead one with words and statements that anyone could misunderstand, out of spite distort, abuse, and drag through the mud? He had seen the most pure of heart disgraced, contributed to it himself with his firmly rooted mistrust. What guaranteed that he of all people would succeed? Nothing. Absolutely nothing."
I think this novel is a very ambitious one, but not entirely successful. If "Gentlemen" had vitality and flavour, if "Gangsters" had flavour and depth, then "The Hurricane Party" has much depth but little flavour and no vitality. I think I´m done with Östergren, for now at least.

2014-05-28

Gangsters

I eagerly threw myself over Klas Östergren´s follow-up to "Gentlemen", "Gangsters", which was published in 2005, 25 years after the first novel. Mostly, I wanted to know what had really happened to Henry and Leo Morgan. Did I find out? Well, not exactly.

We meet a much more mature Klas in this novel, and Klas the Narrator from Gentlemen is now one step closer to Klas the Author of both novels. What he does, actually, is betray the fiction: only a few pages into this story, he reveals that the brothers, Henry and Leo, are actually one and the same person. Maud the Mistress - who is pregnant with Henry´s child and has dumped the mysterious financier W.S. - reads Klas´s manuscript and then tells him her story, a corrective of which the details remain hidden to us readers. When the second manuscript is finished, suddenly there is a message from Henry, for Maud to meet him in Vienna. She, heavily pregnant and unable to go anywhere, sends Klas instead. He does not, however, find Henry there, but a man they call The Envoy, who is described as a kind of state-employed cleaning man, who plugs leaks, gets rid of awkward and inconvenient people, and what not. You could say he is the mobster henchman of the Swedish Welfare State. I see before me the equivalent of Harvey Keitel´s cleaner in "Pulp Fiction", powerful, dangerous, but much more beige.

Klas spends a night in the company of The Envoy, and only towards the end of the story do we find out some of what he learned in those hours. We do get some idea of what happened to Henry Morgan, but much remains foggy. Klas stays in touch with, but not close to, Maud and her son Gustaf, and years later is drawn back into the plot involving Henry´s disappearance, through his son. We also learn that the second draft of "Gentlemen" was completely re-written after the meeting with The Envoy, and that Maud was very put off when the book was finally published. What was left out, we never find out.

The style of writing is so much more mature and a real joy to read. You can really see how much better an author Östergren has become in the years that have passed: he is a master at character study and absolutely nails those awkward scenes with family and people that used to be our friends, situations that we all can relate to. He lets the characters be both complex and paradoxal at times, and all of them are as mysterious when the novel is finished as they were to start with. He also flavours the text with small nuggets of wisdom, of lessons learned, without ever touching a cliché. I loved these lines (in my own quick and dirty translation):
"...real pride is an evening-feeling, something that comes when the machines are cooling down, tools and equipment has been put away for the night, when one´s daywork is done and has been done well, just like all other days, weeks, months, and years."
The moral of this story is, I suppose, that we never can know, and for the most part don´t want to know, the truth about our friends or our country, those we love and trust. Klas is offered more insight than he is willing to recieve, and as a reader, I am all with him, not at all eager to open those doors to which he has a key that he prefers not to use, which is extremely skilfully done by Östergren the Author.

There is a gangster in every gentleman, and every gangster has a gentle side to him; this is certainly true of Henry Morgan, but also of W.S., of The Envoy, and even of Klas Östergren himself.