Category Archives: Literature

…Donna Tartt is back in style with ”The Goldfinch”.

Donna TarttContemporary American author born in Mississippi in 1963 and educated at Bennington College together with amongst others Brett Easton Ellis. Her debut novel “The secret history” was published in 1992 and became an almost instant bestseller. Described as a murder story in reverse, it was in many ways an original debut that I, contrary to almost universal acclaim, found to be well written but not extremely engaging.

“The little friend” followed in 2002, and despite having its moments felt a bit unfocused. Again dealing with murder going unpunished, its storyline often felt unbelievable and unnecessarily sprawling. Although many years has passed since reading it, I seem to remember having a hard time shaking the feeling that the book had a little too much of teenage crime mystery in it for its own good.

If you´re interested in the development of her particular style and themes, this wonderful article from Harper´s Magazine might be a good place to start.

The GoldfinchAfter yet a decade of silence, “The Goldfinch” turned up in 2013, and despite Pulitzer Prize and all went largely unnoticed by me until I accidentally happened to see it at the book store at Stockholm Central Station, in search of entertainment for a boring train journey. Quite a hefty tome, with its 700+ pages, it´s Donna Tartt´s most voluminous work so far. The opening pages with the protagonist Theo Decker holed up in a hotel room in Amsterdam, anxiously scanning Dutch newspapers for mention of some for us yet unknown events involving bloody murder, sets the tone. A beginning not that unfamiliar to her two previous novels, managing to grab your attention and pique your curiosity of whatever could have led up to this.

The book rapidly leaps back in time to a 13 year old Theo living in New York with his mother, abandoned by the unreliable alcoholic father/husband. A series of coincidences leads them into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a terrorist bomb attack kills Theo´s mother along with several other people. Theo survives and experiences some life-changing moments when he before the explosion sees the girl Pippa, and after the blast shares the dying moments of her caretaker Welty, who gives him a ring and an address to a New York antique shop and asks him to take one of the museum paintings with him, which he does. This is the titular “The Goldfinch”, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654, and the fact that Fabritius himself died in an explosion of a gunpowder magazine in his hometown of Delft the same year sort of ties it to the events of the novel.

Fabritius GoldfinchGrief-stricken and alone in the world Theo ends up at the home of the Barbours, the socialite family of school friend Andy, in what seems to be a temporary arrangement. Following the dying words of Welty in the museum, Theo goes to the antique shop and presents the ring given to him to the proprietor – a furniture restoration expert called Hobie. The two become friends and Theo gets to meet the girl Pippa again, who apart from recovering from serious injuries from the blast also like Theo suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. This meeting sets off a life-long romantic obsession on Theo´s part, which infuses the story throughout its course.

The stay at the Barbours is swiftly brought to an end when Theo´s father comes along, sweeping the boy with him to his dreary Las Vegas home where his alcoholism has been traded for compulsive gambling and pills. Theo is more or less in limbo, with the painting as his only comfort, until he meets the energetic Boris, neglected son of a Russian mining engineer living a nomadic life with brief stops in remote places all around the globe. Sharing a camaraderie fuelled by vodka, drugs and shoplifting they become inseparable until unforeseen events makes Theo flee back to New York. Appearing at the doorstep of Hobie, Theo is taken under his wing and finds a place taking care of the business part of the antique store. Opiate addiction and ill-advised shady dealings together with a reunion with Boris eventually leads to the trip to Amsterdam, where we found him at the beginning of the novel. Much drama follows, of which I avoiding further spoilers will say nothing.

Let me be clear about this at once, I really like this book. Without a doubt this is Donna Tartt´s most accomplished and mature work. The vivid and exact prose filled with keen observations and careful characterization. The rich storyline with echoes of both “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations”. The individual pacing of the different acts of the novel. The philosophical monologue at the end. The perhaps useless but still engaging and interesting forays into the art of furniture restoration and Dutch 17th century painting. This is great writing.

Two of the book´s difficult parts are handled very well by the author. Firstly portraying the grief and dislocation felt by the orphaned Theo as he shuffles from the indifferent hands of Social Services to the slightly cold welcome of the Barbours, and secondly the adolescent maelstrom shared by Theo and Boris, growing up practically without any adult supervision and only saved by that special type of male closeness that you probably only experience in your teens. Definitely a book you should read and well worth the time spent. Let´s just hope we won´t have to wait another ten years for the next one.

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… about readme/reamde – Neal Stephenson seems to be in the grip of graphomania.

Neal Stephenson

My first contact with the fiction of Neal Stephenson was with his post-cyberpunk drama “Snow Crash”. In many ways a pleasant read for fans of William Gibson, while still adding a new distinctive voice to the genre. Despite somewhat hazy memories (after all I read it in the early nineties), I recall it exploring several interesting ideas, the pizza delivery guys gone crazy not being one of them. Earlier attempts “The big U” and “Zodiac” were unremarkable by today´s standards and not enjoyed by many except die-hard completists. For me personally, the feeling that Neal Stephenson mattered came with his next novel “The Diamond Age”. Even though published in 1995 it exhibited a visionary streak that could surprise you even today, with the depictions of nanotechnology, matter compilers and cybernetics combined with strange and hidden subcultures. I still remember this book as both entertaining and esoteric.

Cryptonomicon
“Cryptonomicon” published in 1999 dealt with cryptography, code breaking and Nazi gold by way of Alan Turing and modern day data havens. In essence an intellectual suspense story with a backdrop of Bletchley Park Military Intelligence. Spanning from WW II to the present, Western Europe to Asia and treatise on cryptography to modern day suspense story, it´s an interesting ride that never becomes boring. The story somehow manages to balance intellect and entertainment in a way that makes you rush forward through the many pages of this fairly thick volume.

Baroque cycle

His next work, “The Baroque Cycle”, was published in 2003/2004, and widened both the scope and the word-count of his oeuvre considerably. Actually presented as a series of 8 novels published in 3 volumes, Stephenson himself refused to call it a trilogy. The books are a wonderful mix of historical fiction and science fiction, with a blend of fictional and historical characters and events. The mix of styles (very often bordering on pastiche) could be off-putting to the serious reader, but might just as well be seen as enriching the work. Characters from 17th and 18th century Europe like scientists Newton, Leibniz, Hooke and Huygens rub shoulders with various Kings and Dukes of the time, in a sprawling story of political intrigue and the birth of both Natural Science and the Royal Mint. This is without a doubt the endeavor of a madman, trying to incorporate an impossible amount of real history, fictionalized period drama and philosophy of science into a few thousand pages. It´s not difficult to see how this work could be criticized for lack of focus and its mix of the high and the low, but I can´t help to admire the audacity of what it´s aspiring to do.

After dealing with “The Baroque Cycle”, which must have been a pretty extreme effort, it´s not hard to understand that the next book from Stephenson didn´t arrive until four years later. “Anathem” is again a science fiction story, concerned with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and different philosophical ideas of reality. While owning a copy of this book, I must confess to not having read it yet. Maybe it´s just me, but I found the beginning of “Anathem” so uninviting and just plain boring that I quickly put it away for later reading. Sorry to say, that later hasn´t yet arrived, even though I´m sure that I will sometime get around to it.

Reamde

This leads us to “Reamde”, his latest novel published in 2011. Here we have a 1000+ pages long suspense story, chronicling the adventures of multi-millionaire former marijuana smuggler gone online role-playing game tycoon Richard Forthrast, as he´s desperately trying to save his niece from the Russian mafia and Islamic terrorists. A real roller-coaster of a story taking us from continental North America to China and beyond, covering such topics as MMORPG´s, hacking and credit card theft, internet gaming gold mining and social networks, as well as organized crime, religious terrorism and the US Sovereign Citizen Movement. A lot could be said about Stephenson´s ability to tap into current concerns in an impressive way, but this is still more than anything an entertaining yarn probably destined for a future Hollywood makeover. Reading it is very often pleasurable, even though it´s impossible not to be irritated by its tendency towards longueurs. What should be a fast-paced suspense piece is often interrupted by page after page of detailed descriptions of milieu or events that could easily have been told in a few lines. This creates a weird effect of story-time either rushing forward or suddenly stopping in a bubble of suspended animation. If a character travels from point A to point B in a novel or a movie, you can choose to show the character departing and then arriving, or to show every turn of the wheel and every part of scenery passing through the window. It´s not like we don´t know where this is heading, but it takes us a long time getting there.

The part of the novel that deals with T´Rain, the online game created by Richard Forthrast, tells you about one of the persons creating the underlying story of the game-world. Producing huge amounts of text he is suggested to suffer from graphomania, the obsessive/compulsive impulse to write. Somehow you wonder if this is not Stephenson trying out a little introspection. So, as “Reamde” goes, read it but feel free to skip a few pages when you feel like it.

…Ian McEwans latest is not one of his best.

Finished reading ”Sweet Tooth” by Ian McEwan now. Although not one of his best, still a reasonably enjoyable read. Definitely well-written, as is usually the case with McEwan. This is a writer who knows his craft and whose prose flows pretty effortlessly through the pages.

Against a backdrop of the social change of the 1970´s, the oil crisis and the IRA´s terror campaign in mainland UK, we get to know Serena Frome – lowly MI5 clerk suddenly finding herself part of a programme devised to influence current culture by financing writers believed to hold the appropriate views. Of course, it all goes pear shaped when Serena and her protégé promptly falls in love, while at the same time trying to keep secrets secret. I think we should leave the stroryline at that, not to give away any spoilers which the first chapter hasn´t already served up.

This book gives you the same feeling about the intelligence community as the ”Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy” movie. Sort of trying to walk through a mental quagmire. Nothing solid seems to exist, and all that you think you´ve accomplished might eventually turn out to be pointless. It´s very much about projecting an illusion of control that is really an exercise in self-deception, something to camouflage the relentless complexity and chaotic aspects of actual reality. The best laid plans of mice and men, as the saying goes.

Serena, the female protagonist, is relating to the world and all the male characters in terms of romantic or sexual attraction, preferably the latter. The feeling of getting to know a determined personality is not that strong, and the characterization of Serena is effectively done by mirroring her through the eyes of the men in her life, be they actual lovers or prospective ones. I´m not a woman, and can´t really tell if this is a realistic stance or not. How it fits into contemporary feminist discourse is something you could probably discuss at length if you´re that way inclined. I´m not, so I´m going to let it suffice to say that it´s mildly irritating.

Being an at least entertaining read, the ending is a bit of a let down. McEwan uses a pretty cheap and not very imaginative trick to turn the story around. You see it coming from a mile off already at the beginning of the last chapter. I can understand how it might have seemed a good idea at the time, but really it isn´t. Without revealing too much, you might argue that the reversal of perspective could explain some of the flaws of characterization that was mentioned above. Regardless of that, I still didn´t like it that much, and the otherwise entirely open ending didn´t feel satisfactory.

Upon reading through the above, I realize that it sounds pretty negative and could be interpreted as a reason for not reading the book. That was not my intention. If you´ve liked his earlier works you should read this one too. It definitely has it´s moments, and is worth the relatively short time it takes to read it.

…a book and a cigar can be a nice way of spending an evening.

Still very warm summer weather. After dinner I sat down on the patio behind the house starting a new book. I´ve recently finished the Neil Young autobiography (if that´s really what it should be called) “Waging Heavy Peace”. As a biography it´s quite unusual, no real structure and absolutely no chronology, but still a very entertaining and strangely enlightening read. It consists of a number of chapters of more or less flow of consiousness writings, that when put together in the reader´s mind will still give you an endearing and close-up view of the man. The style is very disarming and often close to naive. It´s a real treat, those who haven´t already read it should give it a go.

Waging heavy peace

The new book I´ve started is the latest offering from British novelist Ian McEwan. Well known for a series of novels with themes ranging from the rather macabre in the beginning of his career, to fairly popular and movie adapted ones like “Atonement”. His masterpiece in my view is “Saturday”, which chronicles an unfortunate series of events involving a London neurosurgeon and a small-time criminal. However, under the surface there are many layers to this intriguing story.

Sweet Tooth

The new one is called “Sweet Tooth” and tells the story of a young Cambridge student in the 70´s being groomed for the MI5. I´ve only read a few chapters and so far it´s a pretty easy read. No real feeling for where this one is heading. My friend G. didn´t like it that much, too lightweight, neither did the wife. His last one before this, “Solar”, was also sort of colourless, come to think of it. Well, I guess we´ll see.

During reading I índulged in my latest vice, cigar-smoking. We´ll deal with the rationale of a medical professional like myself taking up such a habit at the age of 50 some other time. For now, let´s just say that it was a highly enjoyable combination. The cigar in question was an Aramits Grand Robusto from Navarre, the only cigar-maker using exclusively French tobacco. Those interested can read more about it here http://cigare-navarre.com/en/.
It´s only the third time that I try one of these, and I must confess I really like them. Fairly light in colour and with a smooth and fine-veined wrapper (more about the anatomy of a cigar some other time). Burns well and has an easy draw, with light and elegant taste. It has a mild earthy tone with an almost perfume-like sweetness to it. As you reach the final half, light coffee-notes start to appear. A really good introduction for a novice like me, and one that I believe even the wife could enjoy. As a disclaimer, I must state that I´m absolutely not encouraging anybody to smoke. However, if you choose to and remember not to inhale you should do just fine.

Navarre cigar