Another productive month, even with a couple wrinkles thrown in.
I had my first abandoned book of the year in February. Leif G.W. Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End has been on my To Read list for a few years now. Occasionally I would breeze by it at the library and take a look. But between its size (550+ pages) and its place as the first in a trilogy, I always moved on. But I was very interested because A) I heard great things about it and B) it is a fictionalized take on a fascinating topic: the 1986 assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme.
I finally picked it up last month and struggled through the first 60 or so pages before I gave up. I just could not catch the rhythm of the book. There seemed to be an endless series of knowing looks and comments between characters, meals described in great detail without moving the story forward, and other elements that were driving me mad. I wondered if some of the issues were because this book was translated to English. But I’ve read books translated from Swedish before and enjoyed them just fine. And the next book I read was translated from Norwegian and it sucked me in. Oh well.
On to the books I finished.
Beatlebone – Kevin Barry. My February reading was dominated by books that were highly acclaimed last year. This one seemed right up my alley, a fictionalized tale of a trip John Lennon took to an island he owned in the Irish Sea during the late 1970s, just before he came out of his self-imposed isolation from public view. Sounds fascinating, right?
In practice, though, the book was waaaaaay too arty for me. I struggled to figure out what the point of the whole thing was. In the end, I chalk it up to a book that other people get that I simply could not.
Girl At War – Sara Novic. This, however, I got. It is a devastating book. It centers on Ana Juric, a young woman of Croatian birth. The book starts just as the Balkan Wars began in Yugoslavia in 1991. Juric, then 10, lives through the bombing of her hometown, sees neighbors go off to fight at the front, and ultimately is sucked into the war herself in about the worst way imaginable.
From that starting point, we pivot to her adolescent and young adult years in the United States, then back her Croatian war years, and finally to her return to Croatia to reconnect with family and her best friend over a decade after the war’s end.
Novic grew up in both Croatia and the US, but I’ve not been able to find out when she left her homeland, so I do not know how much of the war she experienced directly. Even if this is pure fiction and based on nothing in her own life, it is still a haunting tale of modern war, where people who one day got along fine are suddenly butchering each other for no real reason. Novic explores personal identity as well. Both in terms of national identity, and what it means to never feel at home in the two countries you have spent your life in, and how war strips away what is unique about the individual.
This is a very good book, even if it is difficult at times to read.
My Struggle, Book 1 – Karl Ove Knausgaard. I’ve heard of the My Struggle series for a few years now. Last year I tried to read Knausgaard’s lengthy accounting of his trip through the US for The New York Times Magazine but found it too navel-gazey and odd to complete. Based on that brief experience, I dashed any interest in his books. But I kept seeing them pop up on Must Read lists, along with lengthy, effusive articles and profiles of him and the series. So I finally took the plunge. I’m glad I did.
If you’re not familiar with the series, My Struggle is a six-book, fictionalized account of Knausgaard’s life, originally published in his native Norway. The series was immensely popular at home, and that popularity has spread as the series has been translated to other languages. The series is notorious for Knausgaard’s frank and unapologetic detailing of many personal aspects of his life. Family and friends have taken public issue with many of the things he’s shared in the series, which likely has only made it more popular.
In Book One, the first half focuses on his teenage years in Norway, the strained relationship with his father, his struggles to develop his identity, and all the usual troubles teens run into all over the world. In the second half, we jump ahead to his mid–20s, when he and his brother have to deal with his father’s death and its aftermath.
I was a bit surprised at how much I enjoyed the book. For starters, Knausgaard admits that he did not write the series particularly well. He said he was often just writing to get the memories out, thus they often tumble out in a stream-of-consciousness style that isn’t the most polished. It’s all very navel-gazey – like that travelogue of his I couldn’t finish last year – running through thousands of rather mundane details and thoughts and actions to get to the good bits. And since it is officially listed as fiction, there is always the question of how much of this is based on reality and how much is based on false memory, or Knausgaard’s desire to change uncomfortable moments in his past.
That last fear is probably misplaced, because he doesn’t exactly paint himself in the most positive light. He is selfish, immature, hurtful, and awkward. That may be what makes these books connect with so many people: complaints from his family aside, he comes across as an extremely flawed, and therefore very familiar and sympathetic, person.
After finishing Book One, I told a friend I really enjoyed it but, honestly, could not explain why. After a little more thought, I wonder if my enjoyment of it is because it is the kind of book I wish I could write: not some clever novel full of unexpected twists and unforgettable characters, but rather something based on the everyday basics of my life which seem important to me but I expect will come across as boring to others.
Knausgaard throws everything out at his reader. It can be overwhelming. It can be a slog at times. But I kept reading. And I am anxious to start book two.
Downtown Owl – Chuck Klosterman. Finally, a quick read. Klosterman is close to Knausgaard in the library stacks, and this novel caught my eye since I had just heard Klosterman on a music podcast.
The best way to sum it up: it’s the most Klosterman of Klosterman’s books. It’s clever, but you always feel like he’s letting you know how clever it is. There are tons of wonderful pop culture tidbits (the story takes place in 1983–84), but sometimes the way he shares them seems ham-handed. The characters aren’t terribly empathetic. And for a guy who is always searching for the greater meaning in music, movies, books, etc., this story seemed curiously empty at the end.
Not a terrible book, but not one that I’m going to recall all that well in a few months.