Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Naughty, but nice!

The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

Imagine if you will that you are one of group of elderly people stuck living in a facility that is bleeding you dry while providing less and less in return (except for the medication to keep you quiet). Imagine you've just discovered that your conditions are worse than what prisoners in jail have. What would you do, if you found yourself in this situation? Well, some people would try to figure out how to make yourself and your friends into criminals to improve your living situation. That's exactly what Martha does when she dreams up the perfect crime for her "League of Pensioners."

You have to admit that just the idea of this novel is enough to make you chuckle. A bunch of old people, hobbling around with their Zimmer frames, pulling off a major crime is just hysterical. What's more, it isn't actually impossible for a bunch of smart septuagenarians and octogenarians to try something like this. Think about it - we're all living longer, doing things that keep us physically stronger and more mentally agile these days. Who's to say that 80 isn't the new 60 or even 50? If so, they could easily be capable of all kinds of mischief, as improbable as this may sound.

Furthermore, what's wrong with a little fictional criminal activity where no one gets hurt these days? We've certainly had our share of blood and gore mixed with intrigue and cheats who prey on the innocent and weak in society. For this, I have to say that Ingelman-Sundberg's book is truly a blessing. What she gives us is a group of adorable people you'd want to have in your life. There's not a mean bone in any of their fragile bodies, and here they are, trying to live out the last days of their lives in dignity and peace. When refused that little thing, of course you want them to find a way to extract at least a tiny bit of revenge.

Of course, as we read this story, we see the pitfalls that Martha and her gang don't see coming. This is just Ingelman-Sundberg's way of making us hope that they'll ultimately succeed - at least partially, if not completely. As they attempt to cope with these problems and falter along their way, we can laugh and keep on rooting for them. In short, Martha's gang is charming, and we should praise Ingelman-Sundberg for giving them to us in such a delightful story. (Also, let's not forget to give kudos to Rod Bradbury for the enchanting translation of this book into English from the Swedish.)

This doesn't mean this book is perfect, because in fact, it isn't. Several bits and pieces either don't add up or are left hanging when we finish this novel. Even so, to expand on this would sound petty and finicky (not to mention give away spoilers that I refuse to reveal). Instead, I will say that this book comes pretty close to being faultless, and even its flaws cannot detract all that much from the lovely romp that Ingelman-Sundberg takes us on. If you're looking for something fun to read, something to take your mind off all the other troubles in the world, you should read this book, which, I understand is the first in her series of "League of Pensioners" novels! For that, I'll give it a warm recommendation with four and a half stars out of five (and I'll probably look to get the next ones as well).

"The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules" by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg, released January 1st 2014 from Pan Macmillan, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Capturing the Fear

The Fox was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller

Every so often, you come across a reviewer who pans a novel by saying, "nothing happens" in the book. This is exactly one of those types of novels, and I'm sure we'll see many reviews to this effect. The problem is, this is deeply unfortunate because fewer people will be encouraged read it. In advance of these disparaging opinions, I would like to put forward my opposing side of this argument.

The first reason why people should read this book is the particularly stunning prose that Müller uses here. Müller shifts smoothly between simple language and lyrical imagery that brings to mind Ondaatje, when he was just beginning to combine poetry with writing fiction. I should admit that some of the credit due here is to the translator (Phillip Boehm) who did a fantastic job of conveying what I'm sure was the atmosphere that Müller infused into the original Romanian text.

Another reason to read this book is that Müller's use of language is not only beautiful, but also perfectly atmospheric. Life under the dictator Ceausescu was unbelievably difficult. On the one hand, he and his wife built a world famous palace; a building so large (second only to the Pentagon), they say you can see it from space. This monument to their "greatness" was diametrically opposed to the hardships they imposed on their nation. The amount of money they put into that structure could have fed every citizen, but instead people stood in line at shops that had nothing on their shelves to sell.

Furthermore, Müller also adds touches of fantasy, that border on magical realism to her story. These include the things her protagonists see in reality, but which take on qualities that we normally do not witness in real life. In this way, she helps the reader understand just surreal it felt to live in Romania at this time, especially when it came to not knowing who your friends were, and who his undercover informants, known as the Securitate, were. Together this makes gives this novel a softly dreamlike, yet sinister quality that makes for an ultimately compelling read.

However, Müller's unique style does have its drawbacks. For example, the ethereal feeling throughout the book also makes it somewhat difficult to distinguish between her characters. This is partially because there are no real conversations, since the dialogue is unpunctuated, and allowed to flow along with the rest of the narrative. This confused me in several parts of the book, which I found to be frustrating because I was enjoying the writing so much. For those readers who don't care for books where "nothing happens," I'm thinking that the combination of these two things will probably keep this book from ever appearing on their reading lists. For me, however, I'm still glad I read this book, even when it confused me. For anyone who remembers watching the country-by-country overthrow of communism during the late 80s and early 90s, this is a stunning rendition of the on-the-street feelings prevalent in Romania at the time. For this, I can warmly recommend it with a solid four out of five stars.

The English translation of "The Fox was Ever the Hunter" by Herta Müller, published by Granta Books, released May 5, 2016, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Books on the Waters

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Jean Perdu has a bookshop in Paris, but it isn't on one of their charming streets. No, his bookshop is on a barge on the Seine. That isn't the only thing about it that's extraordinary; Jean has a penchant for finding just the right book for each of his customers, and he won't sell them a book that he thinks isn't right for them. In fact, Jean Perdu named his bookshop the Literary Apothecary, prescribing books to heal peoples' souls. However, Jean only realizes that he hasn't known how to give himself the same advice, after a new tenant moves into the flat across from him. That's when he lifts anchor to navigate the rivers (and some roads) of France from Paris to Provence, to follow his own plot-line, to see if there's an ending to it that's different from the one he's been resigned to reaching for over 20 years.

Putting Jean Perdu on this boating trip was certainly an interesting twist on your usual coming-of-age novel, and yes, I do consider this book to be in that genre, despite the fact that Jean Perdu is in his 50s when this trip takes place. What George has done here is give us a gently flowing story, which bobs along with the current towards ever-clearer waters, steering us between, and sometime over some choppy the waves, along the way (yes, I know, but you probably should expect this from me by now).

Several of the blurbs about this book compared it to such novels as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which makes sense, probably because they're both set in France and translations from the French. While I often dislike such comparisons, I have to admit that overall, they do work in this case. For example, both stories are about self-discovery and love that comes only after an emotional journey. Another parallel is the slew of strange and unusual people that both Renée of Hedgehog and Jean Perdu of this novel encounter along the way. In both cases, the authors build the minor characters into the story in a way that reveals as much about each of them, without detracting from the protagonists. However, those around Renée nudge her towards this path, but in George's novel, Jean Perdu leads the charge. Finally, both of the titles of these novels are deceiving.

I have to admit, however, that of these two books, I think I liked Hedgehog a little bit better. The main difference for me was that George's novel investigated Jean Perdu's past in order for him to find his future; in Hedgehog, there is mostly the present and the possibilities for the future. I also felt that George's novel had a slightly clichéd ending, but Hedgehog avoided that completely. As for the writing (or should I say, translations) I also found Hedgehog to be more poetic and lyrical than this book - but that's a personal preference, which I realize not everyone will share.

All told, this is a very sweet book. The characters engage us, the writing is clear and the story captures our attention and imagination. If you're looking for another Hedgehog, this is probably as close as you'll come. Of course, if you haven't read Hedgehog (and you really should do), you might find less to criticize this book about than I did. However, the publishers might have made a small mistake in comparing the two, because once that's in your head, you can't help looking for how they measure up against each other. This is why I will give four out of five stars to this novel, and yet still recommend it.

"The Little Paris Bookshop" by Nina George, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

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