Book 972 Jhumpa Lahiri – The Namesake

I have been wanting to read something by Jhumpa Lahiri for ages but for some strange reason whenever I got the urge to read The Namesake another book would grab my attention and I’d put it off until the next time. Finally I’ve got an excuse to read it.

Gogol  is born and bred in U.S. of first generation Indian emigrants.  This already establishes the fact that Gogol (and eventually his sister Sonia) will experience a culture clash and eventually decide on whether to go along with U.S. culture or not abandon their Indian heritage.

Lahiri puts the main focus on Gogol and throughout the book he meets certain obstacles which challenge his predicament. Be it on changing his name (one important running theme of the whole book) or the three main relationships he embarks, the third one, with an indian girl in his same situation is the most crucial one here.

Beware the plot is not as simple as I make it. As with Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea, Lahiri also believes that despite the events that crop up in life, one has to accept them as they form part of own well being. Gogol throughout the 30 odd year span in the book learns a lot through his decisions.

I loved this book. Lahiri is an excellent writer and particularly excels when she is describing people falling in love. There are many passages of sheer beauty which I would stop and re-read every so often just to soak in the words.

Another factor was that I related to the book almost too much as I have lived in Canada and my parents were first generation emigrants. So the funny accents, Maltese food, strict traditions were part of my life. Then fourteen years later we returned to Malta and although I do know the mentality and fit in better, I can’t help feeling out of place now and then. I also had to go through some of the same rites of brimstone and fire Gogol goes through in the book.

Just one question to you readers out there – are Lahiri’s other books just as good as The Namesake?


Book 973 DBC Pierre – Vernon God Little

I first heard of DBC (Dirty but Clean) Pierre’s ‘Vernon God Little’ in Uncut. At the time Uncut would deal with gritty detective stories or novels which satirise the American way of life and Vernon God Little fell into the latter category, I had already read Johnathan Franzen’s  ‘The Corrections’ and Paul Auster’s ‘Timbuktu’, recommendations from the magazine which I enjoyed immensely so I gave this one a shot.

At first the slang bothered me a bit but after a couple of pages or so I got absorbed, It felt very relevant after all 2003 was the height of Big Brother and only four years passed after the Columbine Incident, two topics which the novel focuses on. Not to mention the whole book takes place in some fictional backwaters village in nowhere America. I loved it and eventually finished it in one sitting.

The book is about the title character, a fifteen year old boy who witnesses his classmates being slaughtered by his closest friend Jesus. Unfortunately as things go he gets blamed for the massacre and he decides to escape from his town of Martirio in order to lead a better life.

As it happens these escape attempts fail miserably (and they are genuinely funny) and Vernon eventually gets himself arrested by being framed.

The whole prison section is undoubtedly one of the most savage attacks on reality TV culture I have read so far. At first I thought that George Saunders was the king of that but DBC Pierre beats him. As the prisoners are put upon death row, viewers have to watch their antics from a 24 hour camera and then call the ward in order to vote off the prisioner who gets executed. It may sound grotesque, and it is. But in this authors hands you can’t help smirking a bit.

Vernon God Little (by the way his middle name is actually Gregory but it shifts into God by the end of the book) is definitely a modern Holden Caufield. Observant and wanting to see the purity of life and despite his sex crazed teenage mind, he does have a heart of gold with an odd sense of morality. Through Vernon we see what America is really like, consumerist , bent on self preservation and addicted to so called reality TV.Or not to be harsh maybe the whole world is like this.

DBC Pierre’s use of language is rich, unique similes abound on every page, Little’s slang and private language for his outer world is clever and the roughness of the book sometimes brings to mind Bukowski or Fante at times. He does evoke the gritty reality that these authors have represented in their novels.

I think the biggest accolade that ‘Vernon God Little’ has received is that it won the 2003 Man Booker Prize and I find that a triumph, considering that the majority of the winner’s have a ‘classic’ feel to them I find this one the black sheep of all the winners and I think that at some point or other the underdog occaisonally has it’s day and this is clear proof of that.

Book 974 Ismail Kadare – The Successor

After reading The Successor (as an off comment this is my first Kadare) I was wondering if this was some sort of political allegory but after some research the events in this book actually did happen, so I guess there’s a more historical aspect to the novel.

The premise is simple but at the same time complex. The successor to the Albanian government is found dead in his room with a gun next to him. This triggers (no pun intended) mass speculation on whether the Successor was murdered or committed suicide. A lot of the book focuses on the events leading to this action and the reader is in for a mighty plot twist towards the end of the novel.

But this is almost secondary.

The real emphasis here lies on how The Successor’s death affects certain people, namely his daughter Suzane who was engaged to a person that could have created a civil Albania, The Successor’s pathologist and the architect who built his house. All of these three people feel that they contributed to his death and wonder how the state would react when faced with the evidence that they indirectly killed The Successor.

The other focus is on Albania’s political history. As we all know politics is a dirty business and Kadare shows no prudence in revealing corruption and the workings behind certain decisions. This is exemplified through Suzane’s memory, which takes place early one in the book.

Despite all these happenings, I felt vaguely unsatisfied when reading the book. I cannot say I loved it or will embrace it as on of my top books. Mainly because I felt that something was missing, it felt like a novel that didn’t want to engross you, rather create a barrier (except in the Suzane chapters.Those are fully realised). People have said that Kadare is Kafkaesque, which in a way is right but whereas Kafka could engross you with his intricate webs, I felt that The Successor didn’t manage completely.

However it still is worth a shot (argh I promise the pun was not intended) Mainly because the information about Albania’s history interested me . Just a bit of a soul and this would have been the perfect novel

Book 975 Jose Carlos Somoza – Lady Number Thirteen

As yet this book has not been translated into English so I guess it’s a matter of waiting.

Speaking of English translations

Incidentally one book I did not review yet is Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones (Book 997) as the english translation was not published at the time of writing. I have secured a copy and I plan to read it by the end of  October. So watch that space!

Book 976 Siri Hustvedt – What I Loved

What I Loved is a peculiar novel to review for it’s written in such a way that if I were to write down  the plot I would give away three quarters of the book, however by skimping on description I will actually make the novel seem banal. I’m going to attempt to mix both in.

Leo Hertzberg is an art historian/critic who buys a painting by the unknown Bill Wechsler. After being enamoured by this painting he tracks down Bill and they strike up a very powerful relationship.

At this point you could say that Hustvedt is setting the scene. Leo and his wife Erica and getting to know Bill and his wife Lucille and they discover how art can mirror life. Later on both families give birth to boys. Although Bill splits up Lucille and goes for his model Violet things still look relatively bright and the lives of these two families are filled with happiness.

That is until both boys go through a death, which affects both families. Leo’s son Matt experiences one type of death while Bill’s son Mark experiences a death of character as he embarks on a semi love affair with  a Michael Alig/Marilyn Manson look alike called Teddy Giles, who exposes him to the shallower side of culture. In the end both families are wounded and they are very long healing ones.

I find that the tension here lies between old and new art. While Leo is obsessed with Goya’s more disturbing pictures of creatures and Bill tries to dramatise (for want of a better word) certain aspects of old and new culture,Teddy, on the other hand is a schlock artist who displays mutilated bodies. In other words he gets an instant horrific reaction with his works. He himself says towards the end of the book that he specialises in quick feelings of contemporary America. Although Leo does understand this he cannot accept it so he and Teddy clash constantly, until Teddy (like Alig) kills a boy as an artistic statement, which helps Leo and Mark break free from this type of existence.

Hustvedt also describes a changing New York, one from a bohemian mecca in the late 70’s/early 80’s to a city of illegal raves and costumed, drug addled freaks. Again the tension between deep and shallow culture prevail heavily.

As I was reading I couldn’t help thinking that What I Loved contained elements of Nanni Moretti’s ‘La Stanza del Figlio’ (The Son’s Room) where a well to do family experience a loss which both strengthens and weakens them and the film Party Monster, which focuses on the life of  club owner Michael Alig and the rave scene in New York.  Despite this the novel itself is an excellent read and has a complexity which draws you into the story as you progress. On reading other reviews I have heard complaints that the first part is dry while the other parts pick up pace. This is not true and it is a wholly consistent novel.

One thing I am enjoying about this challenge is how some novels inadvertantly cross reference each other. During one scene in the book, Bills second wife, Violet is writing a thesis on madness in women and she goes into the story of Balnche Whittman, The queen of hysterics, which I read about in Per Olov Enquist’s The Book about Blanche and Marie (book no. 985). The world is relative after all.

Book 977 Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

I came across this book entirely by accident. Back in 2003 I was browsing in my local bookstore and I came across Curious Incident…. The reason why I picked it up was mainly because I loved the opening paragraph and it was original, at least to me at the time.

The very minute I sat down and started reading I was hooked. Nowadays it’s very rare for me just to stay put in a chair for a few hours but it happened and I felt very satisfied when I finished the book. In fact I took it to work and lent it one of my colleagues, who in turn lent it to his friend and after two months my copy returned to me in a rather battered condition.

To sum up the plot, Christopher Boone discovers that his dog has been killed and he decides to investigate this murder. The thing is that Boone is has Asperger’s syndrome and so his worldview and way of reasoning is different to his peers. As his search continues Christopher starts to discover secrets about his family and in the process comes of age.

The main reason why this book manages to strike a chord with so many people (obviously i’ve had people say that they found the novel dull and slow paced – you can’t please everyone!) is that Haddon does manage to portray Christopher realistically. His hate for certain colours, his savant way of reasoning, his insistence of prime numbers. As I work with autistic children and teach them reading skills, I encounter quirks such as these on a near daily basis. Haddon is not exaggerating and yet tackles these topics in a non condescending way. Neither does he romanticise Christopher’s condition.

The other factor is the readability. As my friends told me, Christopher’s insistence on solving this mystery keeps you turning the pages anxiously and the drawings and pictures help keep the flow and fun of the novel intact . Haddon”s way of mashing genres is also deft, especially in the second half of the novel when things get darker and that adds to the cleverness of The Curious Incident…

Funnily enough when I finished reading the book I had a feeling that there would be a whole glut of novels featuring autistic children but the only one I cam across was Howard Buten’s ‘When I was Five I Killed Myself’ and that was published a good thirty years before Haddon’s book. I guess that this is a novel that cannot be imitated in any other way.

and yes it is one book you should read before you die!

Book 978 Amos Oz – A Tale of Love and Darkness

I first encountered Oz’s books back in 2003 when a friend of mine suggested I read ‘Fima’, mainly because of the derogatory way he portrays a Maltese woman. That aside I thought it was a very good novel and enjoyed reading it.

My second attempt (within the same year) was ‘Panther in the Basement’ and I didn’t like that one at all. After six years ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’  comes into my life and is the tiebreaker.

One aspect about my character is that I hate leaving a book half finished, no matter how dull, I feel that I have to read it till the very end or I won’t be able to give a full criticism and the first 200 pages of this book are a tough slog. After that the novel shifts it’s focus and it’s an easier ride.

Essentially this is an autobiography. As one can see Oz had a lot of demons to be exorcised and A Tale of Love and Darkness is, indeed a personal work.  Suicide, death and war all feature and we get Oz’s views and commentaries on each of these life happenings.

That is not to say that the reader feels shunned, in fact the book invites you to share  Oz’s life and take part in his trials and tribulations.  There a light moments as well.

Like all good autobiographies personal history is linked with world events and the period that Amos Oz focuses on is the Jewish migration of the 1930’s to the 1947 Israel/Arab war. A famous cast of characters from Ben-Gurion to Isiah Berlin all make an appearance at one point or another.

Despite all this the stress is on Oz’s mother’s suicide, in which changes his life completely. Though this is a cleverly written book and we don’t really get the method till the very last chapter. The remaining 61 deal with the events leading to and the repercussions of this act.

If you have patience then this can be a very rewarding book. Insightful , tender and sometimes harrowing this is one book that resonates in the memory long after it has been read.