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Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Mid-life crisis (page 1 of 3)

Not a psychodrama, more of a moral discussion…

Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad, translated by Agnes Scott Langeland

professor-andersens-nightI read this book on Christmas Eve for reasons which will soon become clear.

Norwegian author Dag Solstad’s third work to be translated into English is a short novel that can be read in a single sitting. From the blurb on the back cover, you immediately expect a Scandicrime story reminiscent of Hitchcock’s film Rear Window, a psychodrama if you will.

It was Christmas Eve and Professor Andersen had a Christmas tree in the living room. He stared at it. ‘Well, I must say,’ he thought. ‘Yes indeed, I must say.’ Then he turned and ambled round the living room, while he listened to the Christmas carols on TV. ‘Yes, I must say,’ he repeated.

The first few pages of scene-setting establish Professor Andersen as an educated man in his mid-fifties who lives alone. He’s a non-believer who enjoys Christmas, and as he’s letting himself be infused with Christmas spirit, he looks out of his window and sees a man strangle a woman in an apartment over the road.

This violent act shocks the Professor into stasis – he doesn’t report it immediately, he doesn’t report it later either, and his dilemma deepens. Then one day he finds himself sitting next to the murderer in a Sushi bar …

This, in a nutshell is the story – indeed, we’re told the entire plot in the blurb on the back cover, so I haven’t given anything away.  This short novel turns out not to be the Hitchcockian thriller I’d anticipated; instead it’s an exploration of fears and anxieties, the uncertainties of middle-age and emotional stasis.

The Professor agonises over his non-action. He plans to ask his best friend’s advice, but can’t. Used to living a quiet and controlled life, a good life, (he likes life’s little luxuries like good whisky and Italian suits), this man finds it impossible to let his self-restraint go.  Although appalled by what he had seen, he doesn’t believe it, he tries to rationalise it away, then internalise it, separating himself from the rest of the world. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that it triggers a mid-life crisis of self-doubt.

Solstad is hailed as one of Norway’s leading writers. This is the first work of his that I have read, and it has a distinct style. It is written in very long paragraphs, the shortest is typically one page, but generally they are several pages long, and don’t necessarily seem to begin and end where you’d expect either.  There are no concessions to indents for speech, it all flows into the long paragraphs; unlike Saramago though, he does use speech marks.

This style rather matched the Professor; but, although I could sympathise with his predicament whatever the moral outcome, I never really warmed to him, and I found this philosophical novel just too dry and navel-gazing for me. (6/10)

For another review, see Winston’s Dad.

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I bought my copy. To find out more on Amazon UK, please click below:
Professor Andersen’s Nightby Dag Solstad. Vintage paperback, 2012, 154 pages.

“I would walk 500 miles” – well 627 actually…

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

This is a road novel, but with a difference.  Harold Fry used to rep for the brewery, but he’s now retired.  He has nothing to do but get in his wife Maureen’s way.  He’s in a rut, they’re in a rut, basically ever since their son David left, they’ve been in a rut – that’s a lot of rut.

Then one morning a letter arrives for Harold  from Queenie who used to work in accounts at the brewery. It says she is dying of cancer and in a hospice at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold writes a short letter back, sets off to post it, and as he walks he gets a bit teary thinking about Maureen and David while watching a mother with her son…

Office workers were laughing with lunchtime pints outside the Old Creek Inn, but Harold barely noticed. As he began the steep climb up Fore Street, he thought about the mother who was so absorbed in her son she saw no one else. It occurred to him it was Maureen who spoke to David and told him their news. It was Maureen who had always written Harold’s name (‘Dad’) in the letters and cards. It was even Maureen who had found the nursing home for his father. And it begged the question – as he pushed the button at the pelican crossing – that if she was, in effect, Harold, ‘Then who am I?’ He strode past the post office without even stopping.

It’s the girl in the garage who confirms to him what he should do. He stops for a snack, and she tells him about her aunt who had cancer and they all prayed for her to get better. Harold doesn’t turn back, he’s decided to walk all the way to Berwick.

The only problem is that he’s in the South Hams in Devon – it’s 627 miles. A life-changing decision for Harold is indeed an unlikely pilgrim. He’s totally under-equipped, wearing the wrong shoes, the wrong clothes and with no supplies or first-aid kit; it’s not long before he gets bad blisters.

He plods along, blisters allowing, inching towards his destination by six, seven, or maybe eight miles a day. He begins to delight in the nature he sees along the way, and he always manages to find a bed for the night. He keeps in touch with Maureen and Queenie, with postcards and brief phone-calls. Poor Maureen is in a quandary, half wanting to leap in the car and either stop him, half hoping he’ll give up on his own, but incapable of actually doing anything herself.

The thing that keeps Harold going though is the people he meets. From a lovely Slovakian doctor who can only find work in the UK as a cleaner, to a silver-haired gentleman who needs to talk about his rent-boy lover…

He (Harold) understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.

Not all his encounters are so benign, and for a while Harold becomes the centre of attention as his cause is picked up by the press. As you might hope and expect however, as Harold continues on his journey, the details of his story are teased out: How he met Maureen and their early days; how he met Queenie, and how she became a special friend to him; and about his son David. What started out as an entertaining and altruistic journey, (which reminded me slightly of Hector and the search for happiness initially), becomes something much deeper, darker and better as Harold explores himself, and is surprised at what he finds.

This is a novel that never descends into mawkishness or sentimentality, although it could have so easily. From the outset, you care about Harold – and Maureen and Queenie for that matter. I needed to hear their stories, and to hear how they ended. I chuckled, I welled up with tears, and I kept turning the pages, needing to read on. (9/10)

Despite being a debut novel, Rachel Joyce is not a novice at writing, having honed her art on Radio 4 plays and the like.  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of  Harold Fry is an accomplished story and justifies its selection as one of the 2012 Waterstones 11 pick of the best debut novels coming out this spring.

Read also: Fleur Fisher‘s thoughts on this fine novel.

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I received an ARC of this novel via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, pub 15 March by Doubleday. Hardback, 304 pages.
Hector & the Search for Happiness (Hector’s Journeys) by Francis Lelord

The life artistic …

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

I do enjoy quirky novels. I also enjoy stories about dysfunctional families. The Family Fang is both, and just let me tell you that despite the title suggesting blood and bites in suburbia, c.f. The Radleys by Matt Haig, there are no vampires in sight. Indeed it is much closer to the crazy academics of the Casper family in Joe Meno’s novel The Great Maybe  and the films of Wes Anderson like The Royal Tenenbaums(all of which I hugely enjoyed by the way).

Camille and Caleb Fang are renowned performance artists. They specialise in staging events at shopping malls at which the public get drawn into their meticulous planning.  Things get a bit quiet when their two children are born, but as soon as Annie and Buster are old enough, they become part of the act, known to all as Child A and Child B.

Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief. “You make a mess and then you walk away from it,” their daughter, Annie, told them. “It’s a lot more complicated than that, honey,” Mrs. Fang said as she handed detailed breakdowns of the event to each member of the family. “But there’s a simplicity in what we do as well,” Mr. Fang said. “Yes, there is that, too,” his wife replied. Annie and her younger brother, Buster, said nothing. They were driving to Huntsville, two hours away, because they did not want to be recognized. Anonymity was a key element of the performances; it allowed them to set up the scenes without interruption from people who would be expecting mayhem.

Naturally, having grown up being used in the name of art, Annie and Buster become seriously f**ked up adults.  They are both initially successful in their chosen career paths; Annie acting in Hollywood, Buster as a budding novelist and journalist. Life catches up with them however, and they both have crises, returning home to lick their wounds and regroup, only to discover out that their parents have had crises of their own (or is it art?), and that they must not only find their own ways back, but sort their parents out too.

The stories of the adult Annie and Buster alternate with episodes detailing the performance art events they were part of in their youth. Caleb and Camille’s performance art is excruciatingly awful; engineering and manipulating situations that involve not just them and their kids, but aim to get reactions and participation from the unwitting observers too.  Do you remember the scene in the Michael Douglas film Falling Down where he wants a fast food breakfast a few minutes after they stop serving them, but without the gun… that’s the sort of thing they do, and it usually ends up with them being led away by the police who can usually be persuaded to let them go once it is explained that they are the famous Fangs and that it was ‘art’.  You have to laugh, but it’s not comfortable.

Camille and Caleb are like big children; Annie and Buster are more like parents to them than the right way around. This role reversal, and the parents’ refusal to live life normally was endlessly fascinating.  I kept hoping that, like Homer and Marge in The Simpsons, or the equally dysfunctional Hoover family in Little Miss Sunshine, that they’d all hug, make up and become a proper family again … or did I?

If you want to find out what happens, you’ll have to read it yourself, but I hope I’ve given you a flavour of this entertaining and bittersweet debut novel.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope to read Wilson’s next whenever that comes.  (9/10)

For another view, see what Teresa made of it at Lovely Treez Reads

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My copy was supplied courtesy of Amazon Vine. To explore further at Amazon UK, click below:
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
For further exploration:
The Great Maybe by Joe Meno
The Radleys by Matt Haig
The Royal Tenenbaums – DVD written and directed by Wes Anderson
Falling Down – DVD starring Michael Douglas.
Little Miss Sunshine – DVD with Greg Kinnear, Toni Colette, Alan Arkin (brilliant!!!) etc.

Man, lost, needs space.

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin

Written in 2005 in Norwegian and newly available in translation, this novel had an irresistible title for me being a bit of fan of all things space related.  However, it’s not really about the Apollo space program, it concerns one man’s view on what happened next to the second man to walk on the moon.  It is well documented in Aldrin’s autobiography (link below), that he suffered terribly in two directions – always being in Armstrong’s shadow, but also wanting to melt into the background and not being allowed to. This led to a battle with the bottle and some bad years for him.

Mattias is thirty and works in a garden centre – a nice quiet job where he can quietly do what he’s good at, and have a nice quiet life, as he explains …

Some people like being the secretary who’s left outside when the doors close on the meeting room, some people want to drive the garbage truck, event during Easter, some people want to perform the autopsy on the fifteen-year-old who committed suicide early one January morning, and who’s found a week later in the lake, some people don’t want to be on TV, or the radio, or in the newspapers. Some people want to watch movies, not perform in them.
Some people want to be in the audience.
Some people want to be cogs. Not because they have to, but because they want to be.
Simple mathematics.
So here I was. Here. Here in the garden, and I wanted to be nowhere else in the world.

Mattias lives his quiet life, always managing to keep out of the spotlight.  He does have a long-term girlfriend though but their relationship is getting very rickety. Helle’s career is developing, and she feels held back by Mattias’s passivity.

I’d been together with Helle for twelve and a half years. Four thousand and fifty-nine days,. 109,416 hours. Six and a half million minutes. 6,564,960 in figures. A long time. A very long time. In half a year we would enter the third decade in which I’d loved her. But she still didn’t want to get married. Didn’t believe it would work.

Mattias needs bringing out of his shell. Helle decides she’s not the girl to do it, and dumps him.  His job goes down the spout too due to the recession, so Mattias agrees to go to the Faroe Islands as the sound engineer to his friend Jørn’s band who have a gig there.  Jørn had at one time hoped to recruit Mattias as lead singer – he has a wonderful voice, but only sings in private (or when drunk), he’s that shy.

The next thing we know, Mattias wakes up soaked through in a bus shelter well outside the island’s main town and he’s in some mental distress.  A driver stops, and that is Mattias’s lucky day, for Havstein is a psychiatrist who runs a halfway house for patients who aren’t quite ready to make a go of it on their own in the world yet after institutionalisation.  The house is a converted factory in Gjógv, a small and increasingly isolated hamlet over an hour’s drive from the Faroese capital Tórshavn.

Havstein makes him welcome and Mattias feels strangely at home at the factory.  He is given time to sleep and calm down before meeting the others – Palli, Anna and Ennen.  Mattias is delighted to see himself fitting in, becoming a valued member of the group, the isolated position of the little community suits him just fine. Havstein is outwardly so laid back he’s practically horizontal but behind the scenes he works hard behind the scenes to make everything tick. When Mattias manages to miss his plane back to Norway for Christmas, left on his own, he starts reading Havstein’s files…

I’d read enough psychiatric files to last me a year or a lifetime now, but I stood there wondering for a moment if I should get on the bandwagon and write a book myself. Survival Strategies: Basic Model For a Long and Happy Life. A three-step program.

Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Repeat as required.

Mattias will bond with his new friends for life and go through many experiences with them, especially Ennen whom he becomes very close to. Ennen is obsessed by the Swedish band The Cardigans, and their songs pervade the pages once Mattias is in the Faroes; their album also form the section titles of the book. In fact, the whole book is infused with the spirit of grown-up rock – these are all guys and girls who like their music.

A lot more actually happens in this book than I’ve described, but really it’s about Mattias’s unconventional voyage back to full health from his crisis, and coming to terms with his life.  All the characters came to life well – from Mattias’s parents who were full of middle-aged restraint, to his co-patients full of little insecurities; only Havstein remains a real enigma, but eventually his layers get peeled away too.

It’s thoughtful and laid back in that cool Scandinavian way, but I always wanted to read more despite it being a bit long.  Rather good! (8.5/10)

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My copy was supplied from a review list sent by Amazon Vine.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin, pub Seven Stories Press, Sept 2011, Hardback, 471 pages.
Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon by Buzz Aldrin
Best Of by the Cardigans (CD)

A nanny state of affairs …

Everything and Nothing by Araminta Hall

I needed a quick read in between two chunky novels, and when this popped through the door the other day it was just the ticket. This debut novel has been picked up by Richard & Judy for their autumn list, and is billed as a Nanny chiller – shades of Sophie Hannah perhaps I thought?

It’s about a family trying to have it all but failing. Ruth & Christian have baggage – him from an affair that went very wrong, and not understanding his wife at all; her from not being able to totally forgive him, plus shedloads of guilt at being a working, i.e. bad in her books, mother – both are in the middle of deep mid-life crises. Their young kids are suffering too. Betty can’t sleep, and Hal won’t eat, and their parents just can’t work out what to do with them, so they get a Nanny.

Agatha comes ‘recommended’- she’s young, doesn’t mind doing some light housework and instantly gets on with both the children.  In fact she gets on so well with them, that Ruth and Christian could just let her do everything – except that does make them uneasy (phew!). Aggie also turns out to be an obsessive cleaner, the house has never looked so spick and span – she’s too perfect!

But of course she’s no Mary Poppins – Aggie has a dark side. We get little hints at the start, and as the story builds up, we find out the true and perhaps inevitable truth.  Parallel to this is the decay of Ruth and Christian’s ever more creaky marriage.  Christian’s old lover comes back on the scene, and he manages to get himself in big trouble again…

Although Aggie’s story is sad and tragic, this novel is ‘chiller-lite’. Ruth and Christian were particularly irritating and I found it hard to care about them at all, although I could sympathise with their children, especially Hal.  An assured debut, it was a quick and enjoyable read, but compared to the aforementioned Sophie Hannah, was rather predictable. I’d like to see her next novel develop some real twists if she goes the chiller route. (6.5/10)

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My copy was sent by the publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Everything and Nothing by Araminta Hall
Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Class wars in the suburbs – just ‘champion’ …

The Champion by Tim Binding

Tim Binding is one of those authors of whom I’ve been aware for a while, and I’ve even got a couple of his books in my TBR piles, but never read any of them.  The publicity blurb for his latest published earlier this year, said ‘The Champion pulsates with black humour and wit, and will find appeal amongst fans of Jonathan Coe.‘ Well, I am one of those, so I hoped for a great read – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Champion is a tale of class war, greed and ambition, and what happens when small town life gets disturbed.

The main characters are two men, and a girl.  Charles Pemberton is the product of a posh middle class family. His father is a local bigwig, they have a big house, and Charles went to the top school. His parents always hoped he’d marry someone like Sophie Marchand, but Charles is rather quiet and a bit introverted, and Sophie is a bit of a live wire.  Still they can hope. One day a new pupil arrives.

We knew he’d make it, and when he did, we drank to our own success as much as his. He’d done it all in our names, and though we understood he would be leaving, as leave he must, we bathed in the certain knowledge that he’d be carrying something of ourselves with him, just as there would be a trace of himself left behind. Like the scene of any crime.

Clark Rossiter is known as ‘Large’, his family aren’t old money, he’s a working class boy with big ambition and a huge personality.  He builds a crew around him, and Charlie is roped in on the outside. Naturally Sophie gravitates to Large, and Charles is left watching. School ends. Large goes off to work in the City. Charles starts to study law, but realises it’s not for him, and he becomes a chartered accountant, much to his father’s disgust, and settles down for a quiet single life.

Some time later, Large returns.  He’s made his money in the City. He has plans to revolutionise the Care Home industry, and he’s going to start it in the town of his alma mater, and Charles is to be his accountant.  Large, or Clark as he now wishes to be known, has everyone eating from the palm of his hand, his magnetic personality charms them all, but underneath he’s ruthless, and greedy, and wants to get one-up on the middle classes, including all his former friends.  Charles, initially gets sucked in by all his bravado, but he realises that sooner or later, Large will fall – and he is not going to be treated like a faithful dog any more.

I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help liking the larger than life Clark either. He was such an elemental force of life in this novel and breathed life into the town. I couldn’t help but picture him as Philip Seymour Hoffman in full charm mode by the way.  However, as Sophie was to find, a little of such a personality goes a long way, and he was rather overpowering on full-time exposure. Charles, meanwhile is so repressed, that even while I could feel a lot of sympathy for his mother, who had many trials to overcome in this story, that didn’t transfer to her son.  He was set up as the boring, introverted accountant, whose veneer finally cracks and he gets his own back.  The roles of hero and villain got flipped between Clark and Charles and you wondered who would come out on top in the end.

Large rather reminded me of Dougal Douglas in Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, in which a young man arrives in a slightly posh bit of South London, stirs things up rather devilishly bringing this staid bit of town to life, and then disappears.  A similar black comedy, but Binding’s style is more expansive than Spark’s sparseness.  The Champion is not without sad moments and tragedy which widen the dramatic depth. The entire story is recounted by Charles, who looks back wistfully on this period of his life – one senses that he wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but is rather relieved that it’s over.

If you like contemporary English black comedies, this could be a novel for you. I really enjoyed it and want to read more Tim Binding. (9/10)

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I got my copy through the Amazon Vine programme.  To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Champion by Tim Binding
The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe
The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark

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