Sunday 25 March 2012

Jenseitsnovelle/Next World Novella

The premise seems familiar from the abundance of police thrillers on our screens: A man comes in to find his wife sitting at his desk, looking beautiful, but as he moves closer we all realise that the figure at the desk is in fact dead.  Here the similarities with all those TV dramas end.  Instead of collapsing with grief or calling some sort of official, the husband finds himself reading the last words she was writing.  Words of recrimination, words condemning him.  Notes in the margin of an old manuscript from the beginning of a novel of his.  The husband is compelled to read and he cannot ignore it or answer back:

„Es half nichts, er mußte lesen.  Gut, er hätte vielleicht erst einmal die Kinder benachrichtigen sollen.  Doch kam es auf ein paar Minuten jetzt noch an?  Gut, er hätte einen Arzt holen müssen, damit der den Totenschein ausstellte. (...)  Und dann wäre ja wirklich alles vorbeit gewesen (.)“
/  “It didn’t help, he had to read.  Yes, perhaps he should have called the children first.  But were a few minutes going to make a difference now?  Yes, he should have fetched a doctor to write the death certificate. (…)  But then everything would truly be over (.)”  (my translation)

It is a dark novella, full of Kleistian questions of the ability to communicate truly with another human being.  The couple both studied Ancient Chinese philosophy and so there are also questions about the afterlife and belief.  Images of an eternal lake we all have to cross once we go are used by the late wife.  Unfortunately one of the weaknesses of the English title is that it just cannot capture the beauty of the German word “Jenseits”, meaning the far side, the beyond.
It is a novella concerned with death as the end of a relationship.  The husband can no longer communicate, and feels his early novel has been misunderstood as relating to his own promiscuity.  He cannot convince his wife Doro of this though because she took the facts in her own interpretation and then passed away.
Not for the faint-hearted, but necessary reading.

Sunday 18 March 2012

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

This has to be one of the best books I read last month.  It does have tough competition what with Snow Crash and American Gods having made such an impression on me.  It centres on life in Sierra Leone after the civil war and it isn't for the faint-hearted.  The thing about its violence, in comparison with trashy thrillers or even Sci-Fi, is that it has all actually happened in Sierra Leone.  That's the heartbreaking part of it.

We follow an English psychologist who has volunteered overseas, despite having a wife and daughter back home.  He is that typical foreigner, invading a developing country after a war or flood or catastrophe with the idea of "helping" who is resented by the locals, and whose small amount of work can barely make a difference to the thousands suffering there.  He seems to be working through his own problems rather than truly helping.  But then what else can he do?

Adrian, the psychologist, connects with an old, dying man in the hospital who wishes to tell his life story.  You can see from the outset though that this is a story of his own devising, and there are gaping holes in his version of events.  In a somewhat cliche fashion, Adrian also falls in love with a local woman, who turns out to the be estranged daughter of the old man.  I'm not sure what I think about the twists of the plot.  It all fits so neatly, even when the most gruesome details are being discussed.  But maybe that makes it all the more effective, because we can anticipate what is going to happen - there is a limited cast of characters and they are all interconnected.  The one I haven't mentioned so far is Kai, a surgeon at the hospital and befriender of Adrian, who has his own past which he is trying to bury.

I read this on my trip to Germany a month ago, and given that I am still thinking about it, I think that means it really moved me.  I will definitely be looking out for more books by Aminatta Forna...

Sunday 11 March 2012

Happy Birthday 6 Music!

Am having a lovely Sunday enjoying the wonderful BBC Six Music and its celebrations for having been on air for 10 years.  I'll admit, I'm a fairly late convert to 6 Music, I only started listening in 2009/2010 when they were threatened with closure.  That basically coincided with the Christmas when I asked for a digital radio...  It's been such an eye opener to good music from all over the place.  I probably now listen to it just as often as Radio 3. 
So here's to another 10 years!

Wednesday 7 March 2012

OOohh :-) American Gods by Neil Gaimon

Now I’ve started with this book reviewing thing, the list of books I need to review is rapidly expanding, and yet I haven’t yet posted another review.  Well I guess, given that it’s the weekend and I have some spare time, I should remedy that.

So I discovered, or rather finally explored, the rather wonderfully shiny City Library in Newcastle a week or so ago.  It’s a new glass building with 3 floors, and as a friend of mine commented, on first glance you can’t see any books.  Well after further investigation, they definitely are there!  The fiction section seemed quite small to me, and so when I started searching for something specific (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, review imminent, following my trend of classic sci-fi), I first checked online whether they had it.  Turned up, couldn't find it, and asked a librarian, who went to a special backroom to find it.  Amazing!  I mean I can see why that copy wasn't on's rather old and battered and is a boring hardback without a decent cover.  I just got so excited by the idea that they had more books in storage somewhere...  It's like the University Library all over again - a secret chamber of hidden books, that only the librarians get to see, unless you are lucky enough to work out how to use the catalogue and request one.  Anyway, I picked up Fahrenheit 451 and The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht at the City Library just after I came back from my trip to Germany a few weeks ago, where I had devoured American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  So, review...

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

We meet and follow an ex-con as he tries to come to terms with the death of his wife.  He travels around the States, getting mixed up with a bunch of gods.  That is, the old gods, the ones that came over with all the different settlers from around the world.  Mainly the ones we focus on are the old European gods who are waging war on the new gods, the gods America itself has created.  But by the end we have also met Indian gods, gods of technology and communication, gods of the moon and the stars.

Crazy things happen.  Shadow (that's the main character, good name actually) learns to see the world in a different way, meets his dead wife, solves a murder that has been recurring for decades...  And I followed it.  The crazy suspension of disbelief, which practically starts from the first chapter, just keeps on going because I believed in Shadow.  He was real and those gods were real.  Can you imagine being dragged to a new country, adored, and then put aside?  Well, yes actually, that sounded exactly right for the consumerist culture of today.  And it's all interspersed with short chapters about the history of other gods, so that we're not trapped with Shadow the whole time.  I swallowed it whole, just like the female god does to a man in one of the chapters.


The first I'd heard of Neil Gaiman was a friend raving about Neverwhere, and then another friend claiming he just couldn't get anywhere with American Gods - had started it and floundered.  Well I guess this might not be a book for everyone.  But if you like journeys, epic books, thoughts that will stay with you long after the memory of the plot has gone (slightly true of me honestly, as my short review above will testify), then read this.  If you are completely plot driven, I can see how you might flounder...