Sunday, August 11, 2013

The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared

This book by Jonas Jonasson and translated from the original Swedish is oftentimes silly and clearly intended to be fantastical, but extremely funny.

The title character, Allan Karlsson, does just as the title suggests in the book's first chapter.  Immediately prior to the hundredth birthday party planned for him at his nursing home, he decides he's had enough of the place's strict rules (particularly the one prohibiting vodka), climbs out the window and runs away.  The remainder of the book alternates between telling the story of the 6 weeks following his escape and his earlier life adventures.  Both parts are equally entertaining.

When he first escapes he shuffles to the bus station and buys a ticket on the first bus out - he didn't care where it was going.  Before he leaves he manages to steal a suitcase full of cash from a petty drug dealer which leads to endless comical encounters with that dealer and his accomplices as they try to recover the cash.  And no matter what happens Allan comes out ahead.

This is after a life of globe trotting meeting world leaders from Truman, Johnson and Nixon to Franco, Stalin, Mao, Kim Jung Il and de Gaulle.  Though he spends time in an asylum in Sweden, a prison in Iran, the Gulag and traversing the Himalayas by foot, he's always happy if he's offered a good meal and plenty of vodka.  Fervently disinterested in politics he manages to get on the inside of almost all major political events of his lifetime - and to provide his explosives expertise to whichever side offers him the best meals and drinks at the time.

It's really worth suspending your disbelief for the sheer entertainment value of this book.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

This novel by the young writer, Anthony Marra, is an incredibly beautifully written story about a part of the world I knew little about.  Set in a small village in Chechnya, the story revolves around eight year old Havaa who, following the death of her mother, watches her father get abducted by Russian soldiers who accuse him of aiding Chechen rebels.  She is found by Akhmed, a friend of her father's who lives across the street with his invalid wife.  Akhmed takes her to a nearby town and leaves her with Sonja, the only remaining doctor at an abandoned hospital.  Akhmed, who is the self-professed worst doctor in Chechnya, has heard of her work from refugees passing through his village.

The story moves back and forth from the present day (2004) to the first Chechen war approximately 10 years before and many points in between.  We learn the sad tale of Sonja who was a medical student in London but returns following the first war to help her sister Natasha.  Natasha tried to reach London but was abducted by a prostitution ring and controlled by heroin until she manages to escape and return home to Sonja.  She looks like she will rebound until further tragedy strikes and she disappears.  But not before she delivers Havaa, forever joining her to Havaa's family, which Sonja eventually learns from an elderly neighbour, Khassan, who is fighting his own demons, primarily in the form of his son who is an informant for the Russian army responsible for turning in his neighbours, including Havaa's father and eventually Akhmed.

I liked the little device of starting every chapter with a timeline so we always knew whether we were reading about past or current events.  The descriptions of the complex history of Chechnya are fascinating.  And the characters are so well developed I could sympathize with all of them at one point or another - I could even understand the horrible events that lead the informant to turn against his friends.

I definitely recommend this book - though you have to be in the right frame of mind.  Though the flow of the language is amazing, emotionally it's not an easy read.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon

The first adult novel by Gideon was light and entertaining.  Parts were very funny, the ending was a surprise and the characters were really likeable.  "Wife 22" is a middle aged mother of two who is about to turn 45 - a turning point for her as it is the age her mother was when she died.  She finds herself no longer connected to her husband of 20 years - she feels they're more like roommates.  She's barely tolerated by her teenaged daughter and feels she's losing her 12 year old son too.  So she joins a survey studying marriages and uses her long ago abandoned writing skills to answer questions about her relationship, present and past.  She finds herself strangely attracted to the researcher posing the questions and reading her answers - and for the first time contemplates cheating on her husband.  But as she delves into her marriage she remembers why she married in the first place which brings her closer to her husband - particularly when the truth behind the researcher is revealed.  I recommend this for a relaxing day by the pool or at the beach.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Lost Daughter by Mary Williams

This is a memoir by a middle aged woman from a troubled family in Oakland who, as a teenager, was taken in by Jane Fonda and her family.  The story was interesting, and Jane Fonda and Ted Turner came off looking surprisingly down to earth, but the problem was, hard as I tried, I couldn't like Williams.  I know she had a terrible start in life - she was born into a broken, abusive, neglectful, dirt poor family.  Her father was in prison for Black Panther activities, her mother tried hard to keep things afloat working as a welder but after a knee injury loses her job and turns to alcohol to numb the pain.  One older sister is a crack addicted prostitute, another is a teenage mother who disappears just as Mary is starting to bond with the child.  She also discovers her father has more than the 5 children with her mother - but a string of them with other women - many of the boys bearing the same name.
As a teenager she gets sent to a summer camp run by Jane Fonda and her  then husband.  She bonds with the other, richer, campers, the staff and Fonda herself.  But at summer's end she must return to Oakland.  Until one year, she is brutally attacked and only admits to what happens to her counsellor and Fonda when she returns to camp.  There Fonda agrees to take her in if she first returns home and improves her grades and tells her family.  She does tell her family - an uncle is sympathetic, her mother barely listens - and they let her go live with Fonda.
We then hear of her life in LA, her college years, her wanderlust as she cannot stick to any job, relationship or plan.  Eventually she reconnects with her birth family and it looks like things may improve but given her track record it was hard to be sure.
I sympathize with Mary, and her story is fascinating, I'm just not sure I really like her.