Pulse : Julian Barnes

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One of the first books I read when I had just moved to the UK was Arthur & George by Julian Barnes. I liked it a lot, but found parts of it a bit dull. Unfortunately the same applies to this his latest book, a collection of short stories where the last one has lent the book its title.

Pulse is uneven. It is divided into two parts, where Part I and the nine short stories are wittier, anchored in faster dialogue, more fun and therefore more enjoyable. Part II with its five stories, each dedicated to one of our five senses, is more reflective, the short stories are longer and some of them placed in a different time. The ones set during the 18th and 19th century seemingly try imitating “contemporary” writing of their time but fails, and the result is slow moving without the actual authors, Barnes, signature. It is as if he has tried writing as someone else, and the result is questionable. It is as if his prose diverges the focus from the real subjects. The stories per se might be worth pondering upon, their themes not seldom unhappy destinies and unfavorable situations with people struggling with the perception of their surrounding environments due to their lack of, or problems with, one of their senses, but I still finish them thinking “why did he write like that?” In this case I’m afraid that it is not a positive verdict.

Part I though is quicker, as I wrote above, and some of the short stories are extraordinary samples of a writer at his best. At Phil & Joanna’s: part 1-4 must be my favorites, if I should single some out, and the book is worth buying if just to get the grace of reading them. These four short stories, whereof the two first where originally published in The Guardian UK and The Sunday Times, are extremely to the point and perfect examples of what friendship can be like if you have spent decades together, the stories almost like snap-shot photographs thanks to the clear cut dialogue, regardless of the hosts and guests intoxication getting worse and worse for every page the reader turn. With humor and love do they share stories about quirky friends and marital sex escapades, fun travels and intelligent subjects are talked about and laughed at like they never did anything else. These four stories are simply divine and of highest feel-good quality in their haven of well-fed, jocular midle-classness.

It is a shame I put the book down feeling a bit robbed of the reading experience. A little, I felt “what now?” Maybe my expectations were simply too high, but an author of Julian Barnes’ caliber should not let you feel stranded and unfulfilled.

Sunset Park : Paul Auster

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Paul Auster’s take on the economic plunge in 2008 is, like always with Auster, well written and intelligent. Perhaps though a bit too happy-clappy for actually being serious enough to be considered a novel on the dark months of late 2008 as opposed to being a novel simply set in late 2008 when a serious economic decline has just started and which result we still don’t know the full extent of.

As well as the main character Miles Heller, we follow the divorced parents and their new partners, friends and a girlfriend of Miles, the only son of a famous and highly successful publisher with his own publishing house and a movie star actress just about to make her comeback on Broadway. After having overheard a row between his father and his stepmother, where, she in particular, they air their worry over him and his reckless actions in the aftermath of the death of his half brother. Miles has sent them a letter in which he writes that he is leaving university, Ivy league Brown, for going to California to be with his mother for a few months to “figure things out”. Then, more than seven years passes before he is in touch again. If this is a nod towards Pushkin and his anti-hero Jevgeni Onegin who does the same after having killed his best friend against his wish (his friend’s second didn’t show so they had to duel themselves) I’m not sure, but there are similarities in their destinies. And in a way I think Miles Heller can be seen as an anti-hero in his own right too, fighting against his better senses at times and going against the normal flow of what many would call a good life. But, just like Jevgeni Onegin, he has to face the music in the end.

The title of the book comes from a poor area in Brooklyn, New York, where Miles Heller ends up as a squatter in an old abandoned wooden house after having been threatened by his seventeen year old girlfriends older sister that if he doesn’t bring her certain things (like a new flat screen TV, a new stereo, all the things he can steal or “get for free” at his job as a trash-out worker in Florida, searching through houses that has been left by evicted families unable to pay their mortgages. A job he does legally for banks and insurance companies looking to get their money back one way or another.) she will call the police and tell that he is in a relationship with a minor.  That the minor happens to be her sister and that she has given her blessing earlier is not relevant any more. So when Miles gets on the bus to New York to live in Sunset Park with his old friend Bing, an obese wannabe drummer who runs a shop fixing old things that can’t be fixed anywhere else anymore, like type-writers, and Bing’s friends he has no idea that his life is slowly catching up with him. That living in New York where his father lives and runs his company won’t be easy when you want to tell your self that you want to have no contact. It eats him up from the inside, and the fact that he hasn’t told his girlfriend about his earlier life does not make it any easier.

Having finished this book I feel a bit like Miles Heller. I feel a bit like I have experienced all these great lines, finished all these well crafted sentences, and still haven’t gotten any wiser about the world.

For some reason Paul Auster has a tendency to do that to me. I feel I want to know more about the characters, I feel they are a bit pastiche like, a bit cliché. The suffering artist girl who’s unhappy with her body and therefore paints nudes, the rich boy who brakes with the expectations from his elders to go away because he can’t face the pressure and responsibility of him having to make his own decisions, the clever seventeen year old high school student who reads intelligent books and gets good grades and also happens to be an immigrant’s youngest daughter, the struggling but successful publisher, the famous female actress who drinks a bit too much and abandons her husband and son when he is just six months old and so on and so on. I miss something new and provoking.

If you don’t expect your world to be rocked, this is a very good read for the summer hammock. No pun intended. Clever and easy on the brain. But as a critique on the state of the nation of today in the United States it does not weigh very heavily, regardless of phrases dripping with irony like “…because this is America, and in America everything always works out.”

Heart of Darkness : Joseph Conrad

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Though only about 110 pages long, this novella published in 1902 takes time to digest. When I put it down a few hours ago, my first feeling of “was that it?” really bugged me. But the more I think about it, the more I read about the text and its context, a feeling that I have just finished an incredibly important work of literature is growing on me.


Joseph Conrad’s own 1889-1890 experiences along the Congo River was probably not as taxing as the ones described in his book, though his time serving as captain on the steamboat “Roi des Belges” along the river is said to have been an eye-opening experience regarding the human nature and what it can be capable of. The sheer cruelty of some of the ivory hunters, the menacing and direct brutality depicted in the book is unsettling. About the fact that the colonial powers were ruthless, at times more or less so, there has never been any doubt, but that some of the human beings in their service were capable of cold-blooded hate and viciousness against natives has always been a questionable conclusion. How could that happen? What drove some colonists to their actions? Conrad has no answer to that, but he illustrate the situation perfectly. At times it is almost overly direct.

The story in Heart of Darkness sets off at the Thames estuary, Gravesend, just outside London. Waiting for the tide to turn, the narrator tells the story of a fellow passenger, Charlie Marlow, and his adventurous travels along the Congo River. After having compared the sensation the Romans must have had when they conquered Britain to the colonial powers conquering Africa, we’re transported to the Dark Continent, the Victorians popular and many-faceted name for Africa.
When Marlow arrives at the Central Station to pick up his vessel, he learnes that it has suffered damage (it has sunk due to bad handling by the previous captain, a reckless Swede. Whom else?) and needs to be repaired. The wait, three months, is spent doing not much at all and he is trying to get to know the new environment he finds himself in. This is also where he hears a lot about the mysterious Kurtz, an almost mythical creature one would suspect by the way he is talked about. Finally off on his journey Marlow encounters troubles along the way. Howling savages (yes, these are the bits that have earned the book its infamous racist reputation) chucking spears at him and his crew of pilgrims and cannibals. His fellow shipmate is killed by a spear in his side. When the body is dumped over board by Marlow both the pilgrims and cannibals onboard get upset, but for different reasons entirely. The cannibals have run out of their rotting hippo meat, so they’re starving and finds the action a waste. The pilgrims want there to be a Christian burial. To both groups needs, captain Marlow is heedless.
In the end they get to Kurtz, by now an ailing man once grandiose, now frail and thin. Marlow learns that Kurtz has treated the natives appallingly during his time in the wilderness, having had them crawling on all four up to his hut, treating him like the deity he thinks he is. He has led brutal raids on nearby communities in search for the precious ivory. Outside his hut there are natives heads on poles, showing his contempt for humanity and his claim to power. Still, on the way back to Central Station Marlow gets to know Kurtz quite well, having him rest in his pilothouse, and fathom that regardless of his actions Kurtz was once a great man. Now though, he is just a shadow of his former self. A shadow of the man who went out to the Heart of the Darkness, and got lost on the way.
Before Kurtz dies he hands over some papers and a photograph to Marlow. The photograph is of Kurtz fiancée, or like Marlow calls her, “his Intended”. A year after Kurtz death Marlow meets up with the now widow, who’s still in mourning, and hands over the photograph. He can not bare to tell her the truth of Kurtz having called out “the horror! the horror!” as his last words, but instead assures her that her name was the last to pass the dying mans lips. He doesn’t want to be the kind of Caucasian savage as the ones he met in the wilderness along the Congo River.


The book certainly is full of contradictions and differing ways of interpreting the place and the role of the natives. In 1975, the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe held the lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at University of Massachusetts which kicked off the real dialogue of different readings of Conrad’s book. He got people both with him and against him. In particular lecturers and professors who’d spent their entire lives teaching in a certain way about the book felt they were tread upon, since now there was a new way of looking at its content. Achebe’s main argument was never to say that the books was not good, but that we needed to look at it not just in the context of high colonialism, discarding a sensitive subject matter by saying things like “well, you know, that’s how they looked at it then”, but also what the content does to readers of today and how it possibly still portrays the African community as underlings to their European brothers. Achebe said:

I never said at any point that you should stop attaching artistic merit to Heart of Darkness, if you want to you can. There are all kinds of sophisticated readings of Heart of Darkness, and there are some people who will not be persuaded there is anything wrong with it. But all that I’m really demanding, I’m not simply putting it, I’m demanding that my reading stand beside these other readings… Although he’s writing good sentences, he’s also writing about a people, and their life. And he says about these people that they are rudimentary souls… The Africans are the rudimentaries, and then on top are the good whites. Now I don’t accept that, as a basis for… As a basis for anything

I would say that Achebe achieved more than he was expecting. Today it is virtually impossible to read Heart of Darkness without having the possible racist undertones making themselves constant in the readers mind. However, I think it is important to also read it as it might have been intended by Conrad; as a journey through the human hearts capability of evil if not guarded upon carefully. The Evil, in Conrad’s book represented by the Darkness, and all it’s different layers is what he wants us to watch  out for and beware. Anyone could turn out like Kurtz. We’re all full of darkness, and when we let it reign and play tricks with us, that’s when the real danger begin.
If you haven’t grown tired of all this reasoning above, go and read Heart of Darkness now.

The Twenty-Seventh City : Jonathan Franzen

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Having long been an admirer of Jonathan Franzen, I have finally found time to read his debut novel from 1988, The Twenty-Seventh City. I had a copy once, but it must have disappeared in a moving box somewhere, so I bought myself a worn, somewhat tiredlooking first edition hardback the other week.
That it’s a novel by Franzen there is no doubt. The prose, the short sentences, the handling of the sometimes brief encounters, quick jumps between the parallel lives of the different characters, explicit text. Everything is there already. A budding writer that would go further than anyone, apart from maybe Franzen himself, would expect.

The story is set in the authors home town of St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis was around the turn of the last century the fourth city in the United States, but by the early 1980s it had slowly but inevitably declined and crept further and further down the list. By now it is, you guessed it, the twenty-seventh city in the US. With no particular claime to fame, apart from maybe the Gateway Arch (the tallest man-made monument in the United States with its 192 meter), St. Louis has now out of nowhere elected a female Chief of Police, straight from the Bombay Police Force. She, S. Jammu, is just thirty-five years old but has already a fierce reputation from India for governing with a firm hand and a no-bollocks policy. Still, why she was elected is a mystery to most.

Martin Probst, a hugely successful contractor who among other things built The Gateway Arch (entirely fictional character, according to Franzen) and rose to fame in his late twenties because of this project, is now a tired fifty-something man having lost track in life. He is running an underground like business group, apart from his hugely successful contracting business, where the big shots in St. Louis meet. Called Municipal Growth, they work as a highly dubious “advisory board” to the county. They have dinner together and discuss the future of the city how they would want it, and then try making it happen. They are strongly opposed to a merger between the city and the county of St. Louis, while police chief Jammu is a supporter of this. The success of this merger is part of a grander scheme hatched by chief Jammu, her mother back in India and some other murky business associates on another continent.

To make this business scheme happen, chief Jammu has pulled out all stops imaginable by bringing with her, without the Americans knowing; bomb specialists, a cocaine addicted prostitute to seduce men from Municipal Growth and lure them away from their wives (works like a clock that one), specialists in planting surveilance devices in the most important mens homes, cars and offices, and numerous other strange existances. When they have done their job they’re put on a jetliner back to India where they disappear with their large sallary, no questions asked. Jammu and her mother, or rather a cover for them in the shape of an old man in a wheelchair who’s wheeled around town,  has bought up enormous plots of land in St. Louis. This is the main part of their little scheme, buying land and property that will later be part of inner St. Louis when the merger has gone through.

Inevitably Martin Probst and chief Jammu gets involved in a destructive relationship based on sex and power, but not until Probst wife of more than twenty years have “left him” for a journalist/photographer from an interior design magazine. That she has actually been kidnapped is something Probst finds so utterly implausible that he just waves the thought away. After all, she calls him from New York. Which kidnapper would let their victim do that? The answer: someone on Jammu’s payroll. Probst’s involvment with Jammu makes him leave Municipal Growth and the Vote No movement he has started, and he joins the support of the merger between county and city, but in usuall Franzen style the vote is lost and there is to be no merger, all down to low turnout to the polling stations due to bad weather on election day.
Probst house is burnt down to the ground due to the cocaine addicted prostitute Devi who’s braken in to his house, forgotten a burning cigarette in the basement and fallen asleep on the second floor. Barbara Probst is let go by the kidnapper, Nissing. Jammu wanted her dead, but since Nissing has fallen in love with Mrs. Probst that is not happening. However, Barbara Probst is accidentally shot in the face by a police officer in a car shoot-out. Everything is slowly falling apart. Jammu’s scheme  has not been exposed though there has been some serious attempts to do so. She still feels everything crumble and shake under her, and she shoots herself immediately before a press conference at the St. Louis precinct. Once again, or rather for the first time, has Franzen put a bullet in the American soul.

The Twenty-Seventh City is a first novel. For that it is a master piece. You immediately recognize Franzen’s voice, his very special way of telling a story. Not until you have finished the book do you fully realize how damning it is, how full of critisism toward our society. What Franzen of today is sometimes critisized for, is in this his first novel very fresh. Not until the later novels like The Corrections or Freedom, published just over eight months ago, can you see that there is a pattern which might be a bit tiresome. In The Twenty-Seventh City we already have the bird watcher theme; the man in his late forties or early fifties lost in his own life; the talented wife that should have made something of herself but decided to get married and have kids just after college and that was that. They are all there, and the critique of the American Dream, or the downside of the American Dream perhaps, is rubbed in our face like never before. What Franzen leaves up to the reader is how to deal with it. How to solve this perpetual dilemma. This novel does what all his later novels does too, it forces you to confront your own values and your own way of life. It might not be as subtle in its handling of the plot nor as skilled in its way of putting forward the society critique as Freedom, but The Twenty-Seventh City is a darn good read.
Just like expected.

E-book versus Hardback

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When Amazon.com a few weeks back released a statement saying that the e-book sales had passed their hardback sales, I felt a slight unease. Looking into it more thoroughly though it was just a small part of their statement that had been picked up, slightly modified and broadcast all over the news by overly eager journalists. Nothing wrong with that, but I couldn’t help but wonder how that could be. Having grown up with so many books around me that it was probably more forest inside the house than outside,  and that says a lot when you spend most of your childhood in Sweden, this is a subject that have constantly been occupying my mind for the last few years. Will the atrocities called e-books outrun the traditional hardback? Surely not.

Looking closer at the data, Amazon.com used the example of James Patterson and his e-books having sold astonishing 1.14 million electronic copies worldwide, and Amazon’s version for their Kindle reading tablet standing for more than 860.000 of these sales alone. That the printsales for James Patterson totals around 205 million, therefore making the e-book sales represent somewhere around 0.4% of the total sales, wasn’t mentioned in the press release from Amazon. What was mentioned though was that they  have data showing that the hardback sales also are rising, according to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon. That part most journalists forgot to mention.

But what is all the fuss really about? Is the e-book getting ahead of the hardback sales? And if they are, what does it mean for the future of the private family library and the book reading habits of the general public? Hopefully it won’t mean too much  of a change, and if it does it will most likely be for the better. Still I can’t help but wonder, won’t the smell of the books, the smell of a library and the feeling of turning pages in a new book be missed? Or the feeling of a secondhand hardback, leatherbound, in good condition with thick paper and heavy spine with perfect binding, can that really be replaced by pixels and sterile plastic? For me that really can’t be an option. And I would be the ideal buyer of this device, a person who should love its advantage of carrying hundreds of books in a flimsy plastic gadget. Constantly travelling, constantly in need of heaps of literature to keep me going during tedious shorthaul flights and boring train travels. But I don’t want it. I don’t want a Kindle or an iPad. At least not for reading books and newsapers. It’s taken me years to get used to reading newspapers online, but, though I’m now used to it, I still don’t like it. At all. It can’t compare with the tactile escape to the world of words and experiences from far away, a tryst with people and mesmerizing, sometimes provocative, thoughts. It can’t compare with the overview of news and interesting articles you get when opening a newspaper in the morning, the big and broad beauty of print ink and cheap paper in perfect marriage.

The computerized reading experience is an escape alright, but in the wrong direction. A reading experience is not just the words and their meaning, it is a way of living. Literature is a way of life of which the e-book will never be a part, I’m sorry to say. A book is a book which is a book, and it can never be a computer or an electronic device.
And by God let us all pray for it to stay that way.

The elegance of the Hedgehog : Muriel Barbery

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With The Elegance of the Hedgehog I could make it very easy for myself and simply write: brilliant. Leave it at that and do something else with my day. However, I guess that’s cheating and not really in the style of this blog. Because for once, this was one of these books which, when you read it, for every page you turn you think “how did she come up with this mesmerising story?” For every chapter you read, and they’re very short chapters come to that, you simply have to go on to the next. And the next. And the next. You get the picture.

The book has been lying in the infamous pile of books to be read for some time. My better half tried reading it a few months ago, and, though it’s set in Paris, the city we both love the most out of all European cities, she couldn’t cope with Barbery’s writing. She dismissed it as “philosophical tosh”, or something similar, then put it down for good. Me though, I cried when I had finished it. Not just because of how it ends, but for the fact that it had ended. For the fact that I had to leave the world of Madame Michel, twelve-year old Paloma Josse and Mr. Ozu and their quirky neighbours.

The elegance of the Hedgehog is set in a posh parisian neighbourhood, more exactly No. 7 Rue de Grenelle, in the 7th Arrondissement. Madame Renée Michel is the janitor, a highly intelligent on the border to autistic lady who have spent her entire life not showing her intelligence to anybody. For her it has been a way of surviving. Showing whom she really is would be detrimental to her entire existence. Or so she believes.

In consecutive chapters we follow Madame Michel’s thoughts on life in general and the ins and outs of the tenements, and the pondering of Paloma Josse. Hers, Josses’, is not too different from Madame Michel’s in many ways, but seen from a twelve-year olds perspective it gives another depth to the story, and this is one of the things which creates the magic in the book. Not that telling a story from two different sides is particularly inventive per se, but the sensitive way Barbery handles the prose and the attentive way of moving the story forward is what gives the book an extra dimension. The Elegance of the Hedgehog also has a semi-romantic shimmer over it since Madame Michel, widow since over a decade, finally gets to have an adult love affair with Mr. Ozu, whom immediately sees through her fake persona when he moves in to No. 7 Rue de Grenelle. There is nothing seedy, nothing cheap about the affair; just pure understanding of each other and each other’s quirks and shortcomings. Acceptance and shared interests. Beautiful.

Then there is the curious case of the twelve-year old. Paloma Josse, daughter of a bureaucrat high up in the French political hierarchy and a neurotic stay-at-home mother. Paloma is also the sister of an almost twenty-year old hysterical, boho-chiq final year Lycée student who drives Paloma mad with her high-pitched cackle about her boyfriend and with a dress sense more suitable to an impoverished communard in the 1968 revolts rather than a spoilt, wealthy upperclass girl with a trust fund. All this, the general stupidity of the modern society and in particular the teachers and politicians of France, has forced Paloma to a radical decision she will not change: on her thirteenth birthday she will commit suicide and set fire to the family’s apartment. There is no other way to change her destiny. To achieve this, she has taken a pill or two from her mothers stock of “anti-hysterics” from the medicine cabinet every week for the last year. Her mother takes so many anyway, so she will never notice, Paloma thinks. But when Mr. Ozu moves in to the house the order of things changes. The world is rocked under the feet of not only Madame Michel, but Paloma too. Finally there is a calmness and understanding in the house. Finally Paloma have met someone that understands her. Someone that talks to her like she deserves and not just treats her like another annoying, clueless kid. But will this meeting change her final decision?

This is the second novel by Barbery set in the house on No. 7 Rue de Grenelle. The first, Gourmet Rhapsody, circles around the famous food critic Monsieur Arthens lying on his death bed. It is by his death the flat Mr. Kakuro Ozu buys is put on the market, and the winds of change starts to blow in the hearts of the two very loveable characters Madame Michel and Paloma Josse. With this her second novel Barbery has managed to create a very French, self-contained universe full of intellectual teasing, big emotions and intelligent stirrings in the pot called the French Novel. The elegance of the Hedgehog is one of the best books I have come across in a very long time. I can’t put it more straightforward than that.

A place called Here : Cecelia Ahern

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For once I must write that my latest read was a bit of a flat fall. It never got going properly. Just lulled on in a gentle, Irish kind of way that I found sweet and cosy at times, but never terribly exciting. And that’s not great news for a book which is supposed to send you into paroxysms of excitement for wanting to know what’s going to happen next. It’s not even the genre I don’t get, cause I do. More often than I dare to admit do I end up with my nose in one of the chick-flicks lying around the house. So there I’ve said it. But this one just didn’t get its tail of the runway.

A place called Here has got a fascinating storyline, and that’s probably why I feel a bit let down by Cecelia Ahern’s fourth novel. Sandy Shortt, a lanky girl of six-foot-something and in her early thirties, is a likable main character who’ve spent the last ten years of her life looking for missing people. First as an employee of the Irish Gardaí, now she runs her own missing peoples agency being hired by families where the Gardaí have given up hope of ever finding their loved ones. Her asperger like behaviour and manic need to find things or people missing comes from the unsettling experience of her best friend disapearing when both girls were ten years old. Since then she has had a need to find everything  that goes missing and an unreasonable mind, not being able to grasp the concept of things going missing. For most of us the missing sock from the laundry is something which might make us irritated, a bit of an everyday mystery, but Sandy Shortt can not accept the fact that anything can disapear and go nowhere. It must all end up somewhere. Or so she believes.

She has been hired by a Jack Ruttle to look for his brother who disapeared over a year ago. After having had many long conversations over the phone they have decided to meet in a little town early one morning, and without knowing whom they are they  bump in to eachother at a gas station a few hours before the meeting is to take place. They strike up a quick conversation and then disapear (pardon the pun) in different directions to collect their minds before they’re off to their respective meetings. Though, that meeting never happens. Sandy goes missing herself, whilst jogging along the water in a woodland area while preparing for the day ahead. And this is where the fairytale like story begins. When Sandy wakes up after a blackout caused by no-one really knows what she finds herself in a paralell world where, you’ve guessed it already I’m sure, all things missing go. People as well as items. When Sandy meet some of the people she’s been looking for in this newfound place called Here, she can’t believe her luck. Not until she realises she can’t just go back to where she came from.

The ins and outs of what happens next would be too boring for you to read here; you might well find out if you feel like reading it yourself. But if you’re looking for a book to pass a few hours with, I’d choose another one. Perhaps PS, I love you, Ahern’s debut novel written when she was just 21, is a better choice. I will give that one a go when I have time. She can’t be famous for nothing, so I’m sure it’s better than A Place called Here. However, I did find one sentence on one of the first pages which I found quite remarkable and kept me thinking for some time:

…from the age of ten, I was convinced that you couldn’t replace what was lost.

I find it an incredibly comforting thought, that a ten year old girl had a thought like that. If more of us kept that in mind, young adults as well as grown-ups, I am sure we would live in a better world. Unfortunately, these thoughts wasn’t provoked by the book and its content, simply by a setence litteraly wrenched out of its context.

Salman Rushdie as a US TV writer?

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Salman Rushdie, as one of the most important novelists and intellectuals of the last thirty or so years, is going to start writing for American TV. Reading the first few lines of an article by Vanessa Thorpe in today’s Guardian UK headed Salman Rushdie says TV drama series have taken the place of novels I thought “here we go again, one of the Intellectuals lashing out at the TV world and saying it’s bad and dumbing entertainment for simpletons with less cerebral activity than an amoeba.” Not so. For once, someone like Rushdie seems to have embraced the TV medium fully and consider it more or less an equal to novel writing. Or at least he says so. He’s known to have used lies before to gain his purpose. Last time it was to save his life though, claiming he had renewed his Muslim faith (later saying it was just pretend, since it didn’t take away the fatwā anyway) so I guess we shouldn’t be too harsh and judgmental.

Believing that script writing for film has “gone down the plughole”, at least in America, his agent suggested to him that he ought to look into writing for television. Now Rushdie is to give us a sci-fi creation to be called The Next People, described by the author to have a plot that “will be based in factual science, but will contain elements of the supernatural or extra-terrestrial.” Regardless of the fact that he lauds screen writers like Mad Men’s Matthew Wiener and West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin, this gives us an entire new dimension to the intellectual novelist of today. Would Ernest Hemingway have written for TV if he’d could? Most likely. So why the raised eyebrows when Rushdie joins the screenwriters guild?

I assume all this goes against the traditional picture of the Intellectual Novelist. The man, generally, sitting on his high horse being judgemental about anyone and anything that can’t be traced back to medieval or renaissance tradition, trying to find the connection to the Arabic tradition of storytelling with a bit of sufism somewhere well hidden in the argument. The Intellectual Novelist is not supposed to watch TV, and certainly not writing for it.
And, yes, TV can be the most dumbing and stupid entertainment there is. Still, it doesn’t have to be. What Rushdie, in my view rightly, says, is that today the TV dramas have become vital for a good writer since it has become one of the most rewarding ways to get your ideas, views, ethical and intellectual principles out to the masses. It is as simple as that. Good TV dramas today are dependent on good script writers, so it is not surprising Rushdie throws himself into the lions den. If he will succeed can only be judged by the viewers sometime in 2012. With a bit of luck Rushdie will bring another dimension to the TV drama. If sci-fi is the right way I’m not sure, but let’s wait and see.

Ghostwalk : Rebecca Stott

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I am not normally a person who reads a lot of ghost stories. When they get into the realm of fantasy and sci-fi I’m just not interested any more.When it all gets too unbelievable and hurdy-gurdy and Grim Reaper like, I loose interest. Rebecca Stott’s Ghostwalk is something quite different though. It’s scholarly and takes turns where you didn’t expect it to. It’s clever and interesting. It’s set in Cambridge, UK, and the ghost part of the story is lurking under the surface, it doesn’t hit you in the face though it’s always there. That, the believable characters and well researched plot, makes Ghostwalk a brilliant summer read. One you don’t want to put down until you’ve finished it.

Isaac Newton is one of the main players in the book, though it is set in early 21st century Cambridge. His alchemical interest and the alchemical networks he was involved in during the mid to late seventeenth century is at the core of the story. So is an animal rights group attacking labs in Cambridge. And a historian who is found dead in the opening of the book. She was writing a book on Newton’s alchemy and five murders that happened in and around Trinity College in the 1660s. Were they connected to Newton’s quick rise to fame and scholarly glory? No one knows. At least not at first.

When Elisabeth Vogelsang is found drowned in a river close to her house on the outskirts of Cambridge, it looks like a normal drowning. Nothing suspect. But in her hand she has a glass prism identical to one having belonged to Isaac Newton which was stolen from a museum not long ago. Her son, Cameron Brown, found her when he was paying her a visit.
Lydia Brooke, now a writer  and earlier a scholar at Cambridge, is contacted by Cameron Brown to finish his mothers book. Lydia agrees, though she just came back to Cambridge for Elisabeth’s funeral. Cameron and her had broken off an affair five years earlier and she has no intention of starting all over again. But the offer to finish Elisabeth’s book is too tempting to turn down, in particular since there is only the two final chapters to finish. They are in draft form and with plenty of notes left behind by Elisabeth, so why not? It can’t be too hard, she thinks, and she will be out of Cambridge within a few months. She also agrees to the offer to stay in The Studio, Elisabeth’s house full of research material on Alchemy, the seventeenth century and Isaac Newton. Handy to have it all within reach for the work she needs to do.

And then everything starts to go wrong.

Lydia Brook has never been a person to believe in ghosts or the afterlife. When she finds out one of Elisabeth Vogelsang’s main theories about Newton and the alchemical brotherhood spreading over Europe and North America in the late seventeenth century is possibly connected to murders in 21st century Cambridge, more than three hundred years after Newton, she gets a bit suspicious. Elisabeth who had been one of the most  respected scholars in Cambridge and famous for her thorough research would not have based her book on ghost stories and connections to “the other side”, surely. Or would she? That she refers many of her conclusions to “the Vogelsang Papers”, which is a record of her meetings with the medium Dillys Kite where she allegedly has been talking to Fellows of Trinity College from the 1660s and 1670s to gather information about the suspicious deaths of five Cambridge men who fell down stairs in the middle of the night supposedly drunk, it all just seems too implausible. Not like Elisabeth Vogelsang at all. But when she sees for herself that there are connections earlier scholars have only passed over or neglected, connections that shouldn’t be ignored. She also sees why Elisabeth had been so captivated in her own, last piece of work. The five murders in Cambridge in the late seventeenth century had made way for the young, overly ambitious and talented Isaac Newton. But someone is adamant that this story is never told. Someone tries to stop anyone getting to close to the truth.

The side story with the affair between Lydia Brooke and Cameron Brown is equally exciting. Where will it go? Will he leave his wife this time around? He says he will. But so he did five years ago. It also surfaces that Cameron Brown, who is a leading Neuroscientist and successful researcher running his own lab heavily financed by some big London based medical corporations, is deeply involved in something he didn’t intend to. The new drug him and his team has been working on have more uses than just battling depression. It has some much more lucrative sides to it, for some businesses in particular. How these two stories are connected, via the animal rights group and their actions, is very clever and jaw-dropping at times.

If you want a book with ghost story qualities, crime and some love thrown in to the mixture, this is a read for you. That you also learn about Isaac Newton and his for me until now unknown dabbling in alchemy is just a huge plus. Entertainment and knowledge in one book, how great is that?

V. S. Naipaul and the Female Writer Feud

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That V. S. Naipaul is a controversial author and intellectual is nothing new. Sometimes, though, I wonder what he thinks it will accomplish making everyone upset as if just for the sake of it. Has he honestly never enjoyed a line of what Derek Walcott has written? And Jane Austen, is it really so that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”, like he said in the talk at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday? Well, that would be a shame.
Still, I am a big enthusiast of him as a writer, and I strongly recommend you all to read these articles from The Guardian (by Amy Fallon and Alison Flood respectively) on the topic of his latest dispute:

V. S. Naipaul finds no woman his literally match – not even Jane Austen

V. S. Naipaul’s attack ‘just made me laugh’ says Diana Athill

I particularly enjoyed Diana Athill’s remark (she had her entire writing dismissed as “feminist tosh” by Naipaul) that when she needed cheering up, she used to say to herself “at least I’m not married to Vidia”. Not kind, perhaps, but Naipaul isn’t the only one with a sharp tongue.

Regardless of these latest remarks, perhaps forced out of Naipaul by a journalist asking a writer famous for his strong views and stubbornness something as simple as “So, Sir Vidiadhar, do you think Jane Austen is your equal among female writers?”, I think it is pivotal that we remember what he is actually famous for; being one of the best handlers of English prose today. That, no reporter can take away.

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