Too much happiness

I read Too much happiness, a short story collection by Alice Munro.

The book comprises of about a dozen short stories, in which the author presents different aspects of life, and how people cope with dark situations, and the crude reality of the world, not without hope though.

The title is given by the last story, which also gives the book title, in which we see the life of Sofia Kovalevskaya, a Russian writer and mathematician during the 19th century. Sofia’s life is torn from love, marriage, and aversion towards female scientists, and in similar ways reminds me of Anna Karenina. We see the horror of the 19th century incurable diseases, which are now piece of cake, but end prematurely Sofia’s life at just 41. It’s the only story that ends with death. The other stories, which I will comment next, have a small glimpse of hope.

We see in one story a man who kills his own children, but still hopes for redemption from his wife and mother of his children. The shocking truth sometimes is too much to accept, and the awful desire of wanting to relive things makes people forget the reality.

Another story is about a woman who lost her husband, and in the shock of the event, almost falls victim to a wanted murderer, but somehow manages to escape and finds new hope in what life has left her.

In a story, a woman tells her childhood drama that she managed to forget for 50 years, about she and a friend murdering another child, a handicapped child, which only wanted to be friends with them, but always rejected by the community.

Another story is about a woman who finds herself dumped by her husband because of a maid which helped in their home, but manages to find a new life, and realizing that she was teacher to the daughter of the woman who took her place in her husband’s life.

Another story is about a dying man, sick of leukemia, who is nearly abused by a woman who has strange interests in him, but the girl in the house saves him and his dying marriage by not allowing his family and the succubus to intervene in his life.

A story is about a child who evolves into a completely different man, forgetting his family, abandoning and never wanting to see his parents again, going into a life of poverty and slum, only wanting his inheritance from his old mother for his own purpose in life.

The short stories are full of emotion, and present a single thing, in a good way, but all of them are pretty dark and depressing. The feeling when you finish this book is that life is worth living, but have to be careful what do you live for, and to enjoy every moment.

Cock and Bull

I read Cock and Bull by Will Self.

The novel is strong, dark, and without any remorse. Split in two parts, similar but quite opposite, the two small novels present the hermaphrodite theme, in both ways, first, a woman who experiences the male side, and the second, the man who experiences the female side.

The first novel is more realistic, a little bit more deep into feelings and character development. Carol is a fresh young wife, not very experienced, who gets into a marriage that is not very satisfying, with a man who is not into her happiness, but turns into drinking.

The novel circles around the idea of Carol growing over time a small penis, which represents a complete new plethora of feelings, sensations, which Carol experiments, and discovers a whole new sexuality.

This however turns Carol into a somewhat monster, as her fantasies with her new penis driver her into a sexual predator, her desires transforming her completely, into a rapist, and a murderer.

The novel presents also a present time story, where a first person character presents the facts from his own perspective, hearing Carol’s story, and being abused himself in the same fashion.

The second novel, Bull, is much more difficult to believe, as the hermaphrodite is taken to absurd, Bull, a typical alpha male protagonist, wakes up one day with a vagina beneath his knee. This is again a full pack of new sensations and feelings, the author presenting the womanhood for a man, including pre-menstrual syndrome and all the other stages which a woman has to live through, but never understandable by a man.

Bull is seduced by his physicist, who is a little bit sexual obsessive, and somehow manages to get pregnant, which takes the story to the ultimate level of ridiculous.

The two novels present the harsh reality of today, gender separation, missing understanding between men and women, and two perspective where the genres blend, and what can come out of it.

Will Self is very cynical, not having any remorse in showing the dark side of sexuality, with how this can change or affect us, or make us the man or the woman which we are.

The impressionist

I read The impressionist, by Hari Kunzru, a somewhat funny, somewhat ironical, somewhat depressing long novel about the life of a young boy, and later a young man, as he develops from a rich indian boy to a slave and then a respected Englishman.

The book starts very childish, with an intrigue which is totally unbelievable and very improbable: during a storm and a flood, an Englishman and an indian woman are near to death, and the Indian woman who was bound to get married by the wish of her family, seduces the Englishman, who immediately dies, and she gets immediately pregnant, and the result of this encounter is our main hero, known initially as Pran Nath, bastard son of a wealthy Indian man, known to everyone except to him that he is a half breed and not by any chance his son.

Except the satirical start of the novel, the rest of the book focuses on some very interesting and important aspects of the early 20th century, in several chapters, which I will comment below.

Initially, Pran Nath, at the age of 14, is cast away from his father’s home, as his mad hypochondriac father passes away as a cause of his imaginary illnesses. Pran is young, scared, not used with not having everything, and he ends up giving up everything for a warm place and food.

He becomes scavenged by the body sellers, and he becomes a child prostitute, for the craving desires of the wealthy people in Bombay. He is drugged, abused, and then used to frame the English governor who becomes infatuated with him, after being infatuated with young boys.

This part of his life is known as Rukhsana, as this is the girl name that the boy receives. In this chapter we see a lot about what happens to both men and women who are sent away from Great Britain, to India, to get responsibilities , a life here, things that most of them perhaps never desired, and how this life ends in destroying their marriage, their self-esteem and turning them into low life drunks and child abusers.

Rukhsana manages to run, to escape this life, and becomes Pretty Bobby, a young boy who is liked by everyone, taken into care by the English reverend and especially his wife, who turns her attention to him from her lost loved boys who died in the first world war.

Pretty Bobby has a very good life, has money, runs errands for people, enjoys life, finds girlfriends, and lives many incognito lives with the strangers arriving in Bombay, learning to lie, to pretend, to make small thievery, to fool people into doing what he wants. He starts acting like a city guide, especially to brothers, restaurants, hotels, and other fancy activities. He falls for a girl that hangs only with rich people, a type of escort girl, but she ignores him and breaks his heart, by not believing any of his feelings. This is the first adolescent love and disappointment in Bobby’s life, leaving him bitter.

Once the reverend’s home is burned and his wife taken into custody, Bobby finds a young Englishman bound to return to England, who was never there before, with no relatives whatsoever, and with a good inheritance from his dead father, once he becomes of age. The turn of events leave this Jonathan dead, with a half-destroyed passport, only for Bobby to take his place and embark on his new journey towards England.

In this chapter we see again the hard life of the missionaries and their families, once they get to another continent, to another country and climate, their mission to adapt and survive without the conditions of the English capital.

Jonathan goes to England, scared to not be discovered, but the English snobbery keeps him safe. He goes to a private school and becomes an intern, where he learns the English ways and tries to become really English. He learns to dress English, to act English, to talk English, to love the king, and soon, his new identity is his new skin.

Things change when he falls in love again for a girl at the University, Astarte Chapel, who is the model of the pure adolescent feminine mystery, the reckless girl, the undecided girl, the never ending story of the cat and mouse, similar character with Veronica in Julian Barnes’ The sense of an ending .

He follows Astarte (nickname Star) everywhere, waits for her months when she is leaving to Paris without notice, gets involved with her father who is a crazy anthropologist in love with the Fotse people in Africa. He even agrees to embark with him on a journey to visit the Fotse.

He starts a romantic relationship with Star, and he plans to propose to her, but he leaves him again, and next time they see each other, she is with another guy, an Afro-American, who is , as described by Star, something that Jonathan could never be: a person that lived on the street, that had a harsh life, that was abused, and that has a huge story to tell.

The irony in this is complete, even when Jonathan wants to tell her the truth, he is not even listened to.

He eventually goes to Africa to the Fotse people, being too depressed to act for himself, only to find there the poverty and the life he always ran away from, but he is the only one to survive, by getting closer to the Fotse people, who save him from illness, but let the other English people die.

Jonathan starts most likely a new life, having so many identities during his short young life, that he finds very hard to relate to, and to identify himself with something. Being cast away from everywhere and everyone he has been with, he embarks on a new journey, not knowing where future will lead him.

The impressionist is a long novel, that presents many aspects of life, many of them in irony or satire, but overall a good book, about outcasts and the return to roots, for all of us.

The forty rules of love

I read The forty rules of love, by Elif Shafak.

Beautifully written, The forty rules of love is both new and old, getting the best of the both worlds, in a complete modern view, trying to resuscitate an old philosophy and to bring the attention on the essence of the Islam, which should be love, and modern family, love, and the modern needs of society.

We have one world, in present time United States, represented by a normal family woman, Ella, who reaches a middle age crisis, having three children that need her full time attention, a husband that finds no more pleasure from her and finding love in other people’s arms, and on the other world, in 1250’s Asia, where Islam is at the beginning, or at least, still solid in the principles that it should and used to be.

In 1250, we find Shams of Tabriz, a dervish gifted with sightseeing, a little bit of unnatural powers, but this I would say, only to underline his marvelous capabilities of human understanding, empathy and kindness. Shams is teaching the Forty rules of love, which are the rules of loving God, but also loving everything and everyone on Earth. This is the base of the Sufi philosophy, which also is tightly connected with God and Islam.

The author clearly wants to emphasize on the fact that Islam is at roots a religion of love. And that by following the rules, and by understanding the human nature and the love of God and mankind, the human can evolve through the Sufi steps to a higher nature, one elevated, one spiritually accomplished, where the petty human things no longer impact life, and no longer have relevance.

We are guided through the story of Shams of Tabriz who meets the scholar Rumi of Konya, and mentors him through the Sufi philosophy for 4 years, to make out of Rumi the famous poet that the world has learned of, then, and many centuries after.

We see the bond between Shams and Rumi, and how the Sufi philosophy changes a man completely, breaking him from his family and school, turning him into a higher rank individual, who now understands the universe, life, and becomes a superior being.

In present day, we connect with Ella, a housewife that struggles to live, until she meets Aziz Zahara, a converted Scot, who discovered the Sufi and the life philosophy and creates a book about Shams and Rumi, which Ella will review as part of her job. She falls in love with Aziz, with his way of seeing life, with his way of living, of understanding. She learns again what it means to be alive, and what it means to not be alone anymore.

The book is all about how love changes everything, but not necessarily romantic love, but the love and care and attention for everything around us, for embracing the life as it is, and understanding and happiness and turning into something beyond petty imagination.

Elif Shafak wrote a wonderful story, which we should all meditate about, and try to be more tolerant, more understanding, and trying to do something better out of ourselves and our life on Earth.

In another life

I read In another life by Marc Levy.

The novel is a bit about psychology, a bit about painting, a bit about love, in an interesting mix, with a cinema allure.

We get to know Jonathan, a painting expert, who is about to get married, a man dedicated to his passion for Vladimir Radskin, a fictional Russian painter. Jonathan is the type of man who lost most of his love in the couple, but he will go on with a marriage in which he does not fit much. He dedicated most of his times in studying paintings, and finding the lost masterpiece of Radskin is one of the most wanted goals in his life.

Things change when his friend Peter finds an exposition in London for Radskin’s paintings, but with one more than all his known works. Exploring the possibility of finding the missing painting, Jonathan starts a lifetime adventure, meeting the woman of his life, and of his previous lives.

He meets Clara, who owns the paintings, and during a week in London, they fall in love together. They are both afraid to act on one another, especially Jonathan who is engaged to be married in short time.

The plot unfolds with the fact that everyone has lived the same love story again and again in previous lives, Jonathan meeting Clara in London where Radskin used to work, they unfold the last years in the painter’s life, including the fact that Radskin had a wife named Clara, a daugher named Clara, and his master piece, The woman in red dress.

Jonathan and Clara relive a love story that was done over and over in their previous lives, which most of the times failed, which started with Radskin, and his paintings, and the fact that Radskin’s protector failed in his quest for power and protecting his daughters.

We find out that Jonathan’s fiancee is also involved, in a great masterplan to break Jonathan for meeting Clara, their get-together, and trying to force him to marry her, by blackmailing him with ruining his career and Peter’s.

We find out that his fiancee’s mother is a reincarnation of Clara’s stepmother, the evil mastermind that wants to break the cycle of reliving the same story.

She manages to fatally poison Clara, and force Jonathan to marry her daughter, but Jonathan will take the poison and wait for another life to be with his lover.

In a dark Romeo and Juliet theme, their current life ends, but the end of the novel gives us hope, that they meet again, in front of Radskin’s painting, this time to fulfill their love.

In another life is an interesting cinema story, with a good start, but in my opinion, rushed and exaggerated towards the end. I was hoping to see more of a metaphor than of real fantasy, but, a good travel read with a bit of emotion.

The hunger games: Catching fire

I continued The hunger games with the second part, Catching fire. Unlike the first novel, this book is a little bit more deep into choices and consequences.

We see a more mature Katniss, who is back in her home town, but now facing the consequences of her actions to defy the Capitol. Her friends and family start to suffer, and the rest of the districts who take her as a role model of rebellion.

One one side she is torn by her hatred and rage at the capitol, and on other side her protectiveness of her family and friends is stopping her from doing what she would like to do.

She is forced to live a life of lies, preparing for a marriage she doesn’t want, make a victory tour she does not want, pretend to be someone she is not.

When the 75 years Hunger Games anniversary begins, she is faced again with the arenas, this time doing the ultimate challenge of the Capitol, escaping the Hunger Games before a victor could emerge. The rebellion she started is now full fledged, but she as a symbol, denies it, refuses to accept it, and it’s mostly because of the revenge the Capitol has taken upon her, as a punishment for her actions, the destruction of her home District 12.

Katniss is still a child, she plays her part in the rebellion, but things are way over her head: the other victors in the other districts want to do a great scale rebellion and need a leader. She and Peeta are pawns for this, to act as symbols, but at least stop to be the pawns for the Capitol, as it’s President want them to become a symbol of submission.

Although it presents a lot of dark themes, like pain, suffering, forced marriage, denial of human rights, The Hunger Games: Catching fire is a good adventure book, with a little bit more depth than the previous one, but quickly turning into a clone of Matrix (Matrix: Revolutions) where Katniss is a kind of Neo going to Zion to save the world.

Los ojos del tuareg

I read Los ojos del tuareg (Tuareg’s eyes) by Albert Vasquez-Figueroa.

The novel is a continuation of his previous novel, Tuareg, but it can be read independently, during the first pages we are introduced to the story. The characters are new and just slightly related. That being said, Tuareg’s eyes is about the life of a family who lives a simple life in the desert, about the rules in Tuaregs life, about honor and about tradition versus modernity.

We have a Tuareg family that has a very simple life in the desert, lonely, with barely enough water to survive. They even lose one of their family members in order to construct a well to get the water they need. They get stunned at the fact that when they offer someone hospitality, they are treated with hostility and they get their water reserves destroyed and face imminent death.

The find out that the western people decided to create a rally through the desert, a competition which they claim to be sportive, but in fact it’s done just for earning more money, creating advertising possibilities for companies willing to pay a lot of money, which they cannot do in a normal advertising slot.

Gacel , the main character and the leader of the Tuareg family, decides to follow the path of his ancestors, to seek justice for the injustice which was served to him, and to do that, he takes hostages, people who have no blame, and tries to force the owners of the Dakar rally to fix up his well, and surrender the criminal, so that his right hand is cut off, as it should be by the ancient law.

In here we can see the fact that Gacel wants to adapt to the new world, but he cannot give up his old ways, as he always claims that a Tuareg rather dies than loses his honor. He is being helped by a chopper pilot who understands him, and warns him that the rally owners would rather present history and facts using their own power: 6 innocent people killed by the Tuareg bandits, instead of telling the truth and trying to save the people’s life.

We can see the lack of moral interest from the owners, their interests, and the suffering which happens to everyone, including the people in the countries in which the rally takes place, the pilots themselves who may die or get hurt during the rally, and the people back home watching TV and spending their money and health buying more cigarettes as a consequence of commercials.

The action gets more cinema-like when a commando troop is sent in the desert to try to recover the 6 hostages, but only finding themselves at the mercy of the Tuaregs, after their water supply is being cut off, and facing extreme temperatures and sun.

Gacel manages to get justice done, and decides not to wound his criminal, but only by resorting to another big criminal, from Italian mafia, who helps him as thanks for letting his only son go, as he was part of the hostages.

However, life and the author does not let things unpunished, and sentences the criminal to a most likely death in the desert.

Los ojos del tuareg is an interesting novel, putting up some interesting ideas on the table, but very much a cinema-like story, which can be easily adapted to an action movie. I would have hoped to see more social aspects evolved, like the possibility of marriage for both boys and girls inside the Tuareg family, being alone in the desert is very unlikely; also with respect to the Tuareg traditions, except honor, I would have been interested to know more.

One interesting aspect is the effect of heat and desert on people’s life, which is very underrated in Europe, when looking at the nomads of Sahara.

The only story

My last read is The only story, by Julian Barnes.

Considering that The sense of an ending was a really good book, my expectations were much higher this time from Barnes. Considering this is his latest novel, and all critics highly appraised it, I jumped right into it.

The only story is not the usual story that may send a very strong emotion from start, a story that might make you shed some tears, or the story that might make you stop and start thinking for some time before you continue. This novel is mostly about pain, in different aspects, of loving, or rather, of not knowing how to love.

We two characters from different worlds, but very much alike: Susan and Paul.

Susan is a middle aged woman, wife and mother of two children, who mostly missed her whole life, being stuck in a marriage without fulfillment, and without any joy in her life. The daughters, old enough to purse their own life, and her husband, lonely and distant enough to allow her to do whatever she wants or likes with the time and money at her disposal.

She meets Paul, a young boy, of only 19, who has no idea about life, about love, about expectations or the reality that he lives in. He just started college, living with his parents, and imagining life and love in an absolute and idealistic way.

He finds in Susan a mature woman that does not treat him like a child, and the exact opposite of Veronica from The sense of an ending. He is very much attracted by her independence, her straightforwardness, her lack of “too much talking” or “undecided behavior” which characterizes most girls of that adolescence age.

Paul has the courage, the recklessness and the blindness to go inside the Macleod’s house, basically starts living with them, and begins to interact also with Mr. Macleod, who is too weak or too comfortable to really confront his wife and throw Paul out.

It is not long before this story comes to a natural , or expected resolution: Susan and Paul move together in another town, him abandoning his parents , she, abandoning her husband and her old life.

This should somehow bring happiness for everyone, but it’s not the case. Susan is a mother, an adulteress, a scarlet woman. The social and psychological pressure on her is too great for her to bare. She was a simple girl, did not have many relationships, did not know how to express her feelings, did not know where and how to go. Even at the mature age (50) she still is a little girl in many ways. She cannot find a solution, and perhaps in her way she realizes that her new lover, 30 years younger, cannot and will not be by her side as an old lady forever.

Susan starts drinking, first in a small matter, then reaching the stages of alcoholism. This leads to her brain damaging, dementia and later getting her committed in hospital care.

Paul never manages to get through after his relationship with Susan. He tries with different women, some more or less understanding of his past. All his remaining life he tries to understand what is love, what was wrong with his love, and why his feelings have died, and why Susan has abandoned him, them, and mostly herself.

The sad ending can only tell us that we should live the moment, enjoy while it lasts, and expectations of forever joy, forever happiness are futile.

As Paul finds out, every one has a story. And all stories have a bad ending.

The only story is Paul’s story, not necessarily Susan’s, it’s a sad and compelling story, in some ways similar with The sense of an ending, but with different emotions. Both novels focus on understanding past love, as seen from later age, one of them about the misunderstanding of love goals, and the other about not understanding the pure femininity.

Barnes proves once again that he is a great writer. I am looking forward for his next novels in my queue.

The autumn of the patriarch

I read The autumn of the patriarch, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Very originally written, in very long phrases that contain hundreds of words, hardly having any connection sentences, The autumn of the patriarch is an expression, much like poetry, of a nameless dictator from the Americas, who lives and rules for a very very long time, comparable to an eternity.

We are shown what it means for a country to have an absolute ruler, who can dictate everything, starting from TV shows, the weather, who lives or dies, free sexual favors from whoever he feels like, free hundreds of offspring, the feel of unquestionable and unchallenged ultimate power.

Even if the ruler is on one side much less than educated – we can see that he cannot read nor write – on the other side he gets to make country-wide decisions without being questioned, and is seen by his people as the patriarch, the one who can lead them to a better life, even if grinding through his calls makes a lot of people suffer and die.

The patriarch is old, very old, and even if we do not know his age, we get the feeling that he is forever in office, even though we are reminded about his coming to power, however nobody knows how long ago it happened, neither anyone is alive that witnessed the events. The patriarch has the same weird habits, like counting the cows at the imperial palace, having people suffering of leprosy in his palace, checking by himself that all doors are closed, hiding his bee honey, even though him being the supreme leader nobody would steal from him. He can have all the luxury in the world yet he sleeps in a cold dark room, on the floor. We can see a glimpse of treachery paranoia, as he always feels someone is beside him in the room, even if he spends a lot of time and effort to lock all his doors and windows, to make sure he can sleep in safety. Sometimes the fear is not about a specific enemy in person, but maybe death itself.

We can see the patriarch even finds a clone, a man which resembles him physically very well, who is assassinated after many years in which he took his place in public places. The real dictator makes his reappearance after the scam funeral, just to see who his enemies are, and eliminate them. Such things make people think he is immortal and nobody even knows whether he is still alive or dead – television shows older photos and videos, during the years in which he has no mood to appear publicly, but still being alive and leading.

A central point in the novel is his mother, Benedicion Alvarado, which this time has a name. A former prostitute, now a simple woman who lives in the country-side, raising chickens and tending to simple house activities, his mother never realizes what is happening with her son, his power and his position. She still awaits him at home as she would have with a young boy. I can see a bit of mockery from the author regarding the mother pathology, showing that even the dictator has a mother, someone who can dictate to him.

More events that we can see in the book is the patriarch falling in love for a mysterious woman, which is depicted as the complete opposite of modern beauty: hairy, not feminine, boyish even. We see the patriarch falling for this woman who manages to become de facto ruler because of him allowing it, and the same patriarch devastated of pain when Letitia Nazareno is killed among with their child.

Other themes we can understand: enemy killing, hanging, population starvation, turning the dead mother into a saint, foreign politics, selling the sea around the country to the foreigners, physical suffering of the patriarch: born and living with testicle hernia.

We can see in the end that the autumn is not just about an endless regime, but also its real end, when the freeing death finally approaches the patriarch, which gives us the idea that in the end, nobody escapes from it.

The autumn of the patriarch is a strong expression of autocracy, a poem of power and the suffering caused, but also a glimpse into the solitude and unhappiness of power.

Un soir au club

I read Un soir au club by Christian Gailly.

A cute short story, Un soir au club , translated to An evening at the club, presents a man that has been dulled by his late life coming back to his origin, to his youth and his long time hidden desires.

Simon was a famous jazz singer, a piano player, who retired, got married, quitted drinking, and living a life as an electrical engineer. Just that one evening, he finds himself close to the piano again, and his old wishes resurface.

We are presented with the situation where the real character of a man still comes back to the present, even if ten years or more has been dormant. Simon is attracted by the mirage, the power, the feeling of the piano, and starts living again. He drinks again, he feels again, he is alive again. He falls in love again, meets a new woman, who stirs up all his desires that he thought long time lost.

He postpones telling his wife, he wants to spend more time with his new and old life in the same time.

The price to pay however is that his wife dies. I found the fact very much symbolical, even though from my point of view this was unnecessary in the novel and the main point of my dislike. The author could have proved his points even without this futile death.

The price Simon pays is not very much paid by him. He finds a new love, a new hope, a new dream, but the price is paid by his wife who loses her life. I find the solution at least a bit disturbing.

To move further, we are changed from a third perspective, observation, at the start of the story, to a much more personal approach, the storytelling from a first perspective of a presumable good friend of everyone in the book.

Simon, even though he was to blame for the life he used to live, for his suicide attempts, for the drinking, he is given redemption by his wife,  who saves him, bears him a child, and gives him a much better life. And yet, even though this happens, Simon finds his way back to his old life, but still we see him as the good character, the innocent. He cheats on his wife and finds nothing wrong with it. He somehow even blames her for the dull life he is living, and thanks her when she passes away to give him his freedom.

Honestly I did not like Simon’s character too much. Egocentric, cheating, his only qualities are that he avoids lying, and that he is so good in what he does: piano playing.

His new life is starting with his new love, a woman which is much more suited for him: a singer, a bar owner, full of the American spirit.

Simon will live a better life, at the expense of the others.

Un soir au club is a short novel that presents a sometimes very true fact: we cannot change people, we can restrain them, but they will not be happy. Some people are ment to be in some way, and they need to follow their path, and hopefully not destroying other people’s lives.