David Millar: Racing Through The Dark. The Fall and Rise of David Millar (review)

Reading Jørgen Leth’s book about professional cycling Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge and Lance Armstrong’s book about the beginning of his career, his battle with cancer and his way back to the sport, made me even more appreciative of cycling and the Tour de France. However, Millar’s book is exactly the opposite. It makes me even more aware of the dark side of cycling.

Coincidentally, I began reading this book on July 13th, 2012. I had timed my reading of books about Tour de France and cycling to coincide with this year’s Tour de France – but I hadn’t expected that I would start reading this book on the same day as David Millar won yet another stage in the Tour.

Source: The Telegraph

Millar is racing again. As everyone who follows cycling knows, he’s back in the peloton after his fall from grace – he is one of the contenders. But how did this young Scott fall so deep?

What Millar describes, is a sport where doping is the rule more than anything else. From describing his childhood and how he got started with professional cycling, doping is something he’s quickly aware of – but staying away from. He doesn’t want anything to do with it but eventually he succumbs to the pressure and starts injecting, first just with various supplements, later with the real stuff.

Millar’s story is a typical example of how ‘what’s normal’ changes. When you’re constantly living in a world where it is normal to dope and to have various tactics to avoid the doping controls, you are gradually changing your perception of normality. Slowly, Millar’s aversion towards doping lessens until his defenses against it, is completely gone.

Still, throughout it all he claims that he never viewed the victories won when doped, as real. ‘If I won doped then it meant nothing, I was very clear on that.’ (p. 174). But his changed perception of normality as well as his curiosity get the better of him: ‘I’d proved what I could do clean – how much more could I do if I was doped?’ (p. 177). With all his struggle against it, you would have thought his first time doing EPO would have been a huge deal – instead it turned out to be something of an anticlimax. He describes it as the easiest injection he ever had and the whole procedure as very tiny process, over in a couple of minutes. Of course, he had been slowly conditioned to this through a long period and was completely used to self-injections of various supplements.

Millar comes out of it all as a crusader against doping. He wants to save his sports, he wants to make it clean and show that you are actually able to win even if you’re racing clean. And this is how he comes across in his book. As a very honest Scot who loves to race and ride his bike clean and who wants everyone else to do the same. However, I did check out a few things online while reading this book and apparently Millar has changed his story from he testified till he wrote this book. So he might be a bit of an unreliable author, there are names he doesn’t share and there might be things he doesn’t tell us. It’s hard do tell. But he does come across as very honest and the book is very interesting to read.

One of the dominating riders in this period, has of course been Lance Armstrong. Millar does say that the riders winning the big races like the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta, were the ones using doping. However, he doesn’t say Lance doped: ‘I can’t say definitively if Lance doped or not. Yes, there are all the stories and rumours, but I never saw him dope with my own eyes. If he did dope, then, after all that he has said and done, it would be unforgivable. Certainly, his performances in the Tour were extraordinary, unprecedented, but then he’s unlike anybody I have ever met, a force of nature. /…/ He is a phenomenal human being – I would never argue against that. He lives life on a different level, controlling his world in omnipotent manner, leading by example but also be fear. His ability to motivate, based on his absolute self-belief and complete fearlessness of failure, is legendary. His own lack of fear brainwashes those around him to believe in everything he does.’ (p. 297-298). He also says that the riders riding alongside Lance, were for the most part taken for doping when no longer riding with Lance – and several of these are the ones now accusing Lance of doping. I guess we’ll know eventually if he did dope or not what with the current investigation going on – although I rather doubt that anti-doping will ever get this period of professional cycling completely under control.

Still, this is not a book about Lance. It’s a book about one man’s love of the sport of cycling, and luckily, this shines through throughout the book – except for these instances where doping has cast such a dark shadow over the sport that Millar plans on never riding again.

For a lover of professional cycling and the Tour de France, there’s plenty of good stuff in this book. In fact, it’s a really interesting book and definitely worth reading to get an inside look on the doped years of professional cycling as well as David Millar’s career and the portraits he gives of other riders. I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote about wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France: ‘I wasn’t wearing the yellow jersey; the yellow jersey was gracing me.’ (p. 127).

  • Title: Racing Through The Dark. The Fall and Rise of David Millar
  • Author: David Millar
  • Publisher: Orion Books
  • Year: 2011
  • Pages: 354 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

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Lance Armstrong: It’s Not About the Bike (review)

Lance Armstrong. Probably one of the most well-known athletes in the world. A 7 times Tour de France champion. Founder of Livestrong. A dedicated fighter against cancer and for cancer treatment. This is his story – from childhood to cancer survivor.

First of, I have to say that I am a fan of Lance Armstrong. I enjoyed watching him win his many Tour de France victories and these days, I follow him on Twitter. Still, while reading this book I definitely didn’t like the young Lance. There’s no doubt that he had a troubled childhood in some ways but still, boys setting balls on fire and then playing catch are just not my cup of tea. Anyway, this is not what this is about.

Lance details how he started biking and shows how he was very focused, even as a young boy and how huge an influence his mother has been on both his life but also 0n the way he views his career, teaching him to never give up and always fight. Two abilities, that was hugely important to him when he was diagnosed with cancer.

There’s no doubt that he was lucky to survive. As a professional cyclist, Lance was used to dealing with pain and ignoring it and so he did too with the fact that his testicles changed both color and size. This meant that his cancer was discovered very late, it meant that it had spread to both his lungs and his brain and it meant that he had to endure some very tough treatments to be able to beat it.

I really like how candid he was about the toughness of the disease, how hard he had to fight to just endure the treatment and how far out he was before it turned and he started getting better. This is definitely a book that shows how tough cancer is. I also liked how he seemed to have changed as a human being, becoming much more sensitive and having more empathy after the disease and being able to see clearly, that he had not always behaved very nice before he was ill. I know that some will say that he still don’t behave very well and that he’s arrogant – I don’t know if I would like him if I actually met him but I think that to win Tour de France and to do well in (almost) all professional sports, you have to be arrogant.

I also liked how he is very open and candid about his and his wife’s trouble with having children. Of course, he had to freeze his sperm before being treated for cancer and this means, that his wife have to go through a lot to get pregnant – as all women/couples have to if having trouble getting pregnant. I know several couples who have had these issues and I know that it is a struggle for all, and therefore, I am glad that Lance addresses this and shares his and his wife’s story.

Of course, it’s a bit bittersweet to read about his relationship with his wife and how perfect she is, when you know that they are no longer together and that Lance has been having a bit of trouble finding the right partner since.

There are a few things I don’t want to discuss – or even talk about. It’s kind of a joke, but still – just don’t go there. One is that Sir Cliff Richard has never had any plastic surgeries – the other is that Miquel Indurain and Lance Armstrong never used doping. My boyfriend challenges all these three – but I don’t care. I just don’t want to discuss them. Being that as it may, you can’t really mention Lance Armstrong without talking doping – even though that’s really not what this book is about.

Lance mentions doping a couple of times. As with other professional cyclists writing biographies and talking about doping, you really have to hope he is telling the truth – with the claims he makes, he will loose all credibility otherwise and with the current doping investigation against him, doping is once again rearing it’s ugly head in Lance’s life (for what it’s worth, in my opinion, they should just stop investigating the doping in professional cycling in the 90s and early 00s. If Lance is found guilty, well, then they can start investigating the rider who finished second – and so on and so on. Just stop and focus on keeping cycling clean now!).

Anyway, back to what Lance himself says: ‘Doping is an unfortunate fact of life in cycling, or in any other endurance sport for that matter. Inevitably, some teams and riders feel it’s like nuclear weapons – that they have to do it to stay competitive within the peloton. I never felt that way, and certainly after chemo the idea of putting anything foreign in my body was especially repulsive.’ (p. 205) This of course sounds like Lance could never even dream of doping – the only thing is that this argument is not the best one since a lot of the drugs riders are using to enhance their performance, are the same drugs being used by doctors to battle cancer – which means that these drugs are not foreign to Lance.

Still, he has never been tested positive. The newest tests that have been made public, does not necessarily mean that he was doped – according to doping experts. I hope he will never be found guilty in doping because I cling to my belief that Lance won because he could fuel his body with anger – and Lance was a very angry man!

This is not a book about cycling per se – as the title also says. This is about one man’s battle with cancer and it is a very fascinating account. The writing is rather plain as it is in all sports biographies but the book is worth reading if you’re interested in Lance, cancer or – to a lesser extent – professional cycling and Tour de France.

  • Title: It’s Not About the Bike. My Journey Back to Life
  • Author: Lance Armstrong
  • Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press – Random House
  • Year: 2001
  • Pages: 294 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

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Jørgen Leth: Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge (English title: The Yellow Jersey in the High Mountains) (review)

Do you love the Tour de France?  If not, this book is not for you.

With that said, let’s talk about it anyway. In this book, he covers specifically the Tour de France but also other events in professional cycling. The book is originally published in 1995 so the amazing year (1996) where the Dane Bjarne Riis won the Tour is not covered, neither is the victories of Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich, Alberto Contador – or Lance Armstrong. Well, except in a brief foreword to the 2009 edition for some of them. And this is my main problem with the book – I started following the Tour in the early 90s so I don’t know that much about the years before and while it is interesting and Leth writes it well, I would have loved to have read more about the riders I knew and know and the races I’ve watched. This is flashbacks to Leth’s personal highlights of the Tour, his thoughts on professional cycling, doping, food in France, working as a film director and a commentator and more. And it’s fascinating.

As I’ve written earlier, Jørgen Leth has a way with words. And even though this is a non-fiction book about a bike race, it’s wonderfully written. And I don’t think the beauty of it’s writing is only because Leth is a poet and has a way with words. It’s also because he writes about what he loves.

Jørgen Leth loves bike racing and he writes about this love, specifically about his love for the Tour de France. He writes about his heroes, how he in particular love the tormented riders, the ones who has a bit more to fight against than just the stages and the mountains. He is drawn to the underdog, the rider who has weak knees, who doesn’t believe in himself, who struggles against inner demons. He loves the riders who can attack and shake everything up. And maybe that is because of his poetic eyes which see the beauty in the struggle, the beauty in the lone rider struggling across the highest mountains pursued by a chasing peloton, the beauty in an attacker cheating the sprinters of their finish.

As he puts it: ‘Bike riders ride bicycles. They ride from one place to another. They ride up, and they ride down. The first to arrive at the finish, has won. Along the way, things happen. It’s as simple as that.’ (p. 303 – my translation). And it is as simple as that. But what he then goes on to point out, is, that out of this, people emerge, looking directly out of the pictures, trying to create something extraordinary. And when that happens, Leth is ready to see it and frame it. To spot the moment which steps out of itself to become something durable. Something to remember and look back on.

And that’s exactly what he does – both as a commentator and as a writer. He spots the extraordinary in the ordinary. He sees the beauty in the struggle, he praises the courageous and cheers the fighters. His sharp eyes separates the contenders from the pretenders – but praises the pretenders when they dare, even if they fail. As long as they fail in an epic way. And he frames it all in beautiful words for the rest of us – along with commentating on the landscape, the weather, the geography, all of which add that extra dimension to both the race and extraordinariness of it all.

Such a pity that this book hasn’t been translated.

  • Title: Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge
  • Author: Jørgen Leth
  • Publisher: Gyldendal
  • Year: 2009 (1995)
  • Pages: 330 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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Salman Rushdie: Shalimar the Clown (review)

Several years ago, I read The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie and felt very overwhelmed and outsmarted. I did enjoy the beautiful language but I think that I had problems with understanding the book because I didn’t know enough about Islam and maybe also, because I didn’t have a lot of experience with reading magical realism. Glimpses of that book has stayed with me, yet it still intimidated me enough to stay away from Rushdie’s novels ever since. So just like when I read Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, this was a test to see if Rushdie’s works are for me.

And it turns out, they are. I really enjoyed reading Shalimar the Clown. First of, it’s beautifully written – Rushdie has a magnificent grasp of the language and really uses it to make his points. There are sections where he breaks it up and changes it completely to underline what’s happening in the story. It’s so skillfully done. He’s truly a master of his arts.

Secondly, it’s a both fascinating and interesting story. On a background of the conflict in Kashmihr between hindus and muslims, between India and Palestine, the lives of Boonyi, Shalimar and Max unfold. But this is not where we start. It begins in Los Angeles where India Ophuls’ father Max, is killed on her door step by his chauffeur, Shalimar the Clown. Rushdie then takes us back in time to explain why Shalimar killed Max. Shalimar was once a young happy muslim boy, completely in love with Boonyi, a young hindu girl. They loved each other very much and was therefore allowed to marry, but for Boonyi, life in the tiny village in Kashmir is not enough so when she gets a chance to get out, she takes it. Even when it means that she becomes the American ambassador’s mistress. She leaves Shalimar and deeply crushed, he vows to kill her and any child she might get and he joins various terrorist groups in order to learn how to kill – and to wait for the right time to kill Boonyi. When Boonyi gets pregnant, a huge scandal erupts, and ultimately, Max’s wife leaves him – and leaves India with his and Boonyi’s child, a girl she names India.

The way Rushdie manages to tell the story of these people, is superb. He makes them all believable, they change and grow and you believe that they could – and would – evolve in the ways, they do. There are quite a few supporting characters, all with their own identity and voice. Even though the book has a political message about the destruction of Kashmir and about how little it takes to destroy relations between various groups, when tragedy and disaster strikes, Rushdie still manages to keep the story well-paced and the sections discussion more political issues, feel integrated in the novel. There are some elements of magical realism in the story and they work to emphasize the rest of the story, as well as how the people of Kashmir think and see the world.

In some ways, this can be seen as a retelling of the story of Paradise. Kashmir as the Garden of Eden, Shalimar and Boonyi as Adam and Eva, and Max, the first TV in the valley and other things as the snake who tricks Boonyi away from Eden and into a modern world filled with possibilities for temptation and sin. Due to a huge sacrifice, she’s allowed to return – but Paradise has changed too, just like she has.

It’s also a book investigating terrorism and how peaceful tolerant countries can suddenly be caught up in violence and conflict, it’s an attempt to understand what makes people become terrorists and how sometimes, it only takes a small incitement or a personal crisis to turn people. It investigates how people react when they are suddenly told how to dress and act and the length people are willing to go to to make other people act as they see fit. Rushdie also looks at how the decisions on nation level influence the ordinary people and the role of the military.

When reading this, I kept feeling it was a 4 stars book. Even though I really loved it, it still felt like 4 stars. And I think the main reason for that is, that I’m sure Salman Rushdie has written better books, even better books. Books, I want to rate 5 stars. I’m really looking forward to reading another Rushdie novel – and he has made it to the list of my potential favorite authors. I just need to read a few more books by him to see if he can make it onto the list of favorites.

When reading Shalimar the Clown in bed late at night, you’re not able to just put the characters away as you do the book when you’re done reading. Instead they stay with you and you think about their life and fates as you drift closer and closer to sleep. And as you slowly starts sleeping, not quite though, and as you loose your hold on reality and starts to enter the realms of dreams, you get closer to Boonyi in her small hut with her goats, struggling with addiction, trying to live while being dead, fighting to grasp reality again. Luckily, she has her dead mother to help her. And luckily, I have Rushdie’s beautiful words to let me know the story of these amazing characters.

  • Title: Shalimar the Clown
  • Author: Salman Rushdie
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape
  • Year: 2005
  • Pages: 398 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

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Daniel Defoe: Moll Flanders (review)

When I was a teenager, I read Robinson Crusoe several times and I really liked it. So when I was in Brighton in 1994 to study English, I picked up several books in a cheap Wordsworth edition. One of these was Moll Flanders, and although it sounded good, I mostly picked it up because of Defoe being the author. And let me just say, right off the bat, this is nothing like Robinson Crusoe. And not just because of the obvious differences in the stories. No, I thought Crusoe was a really great story – and well, I’m just not quite sure how I feel about Moll Flanders. (Sidenote to myself: I need to reread Robinson Crusoe soon!)

From the get-go I want to make it perfectly clear that, when reading this book, you never doubt that you are reading the work of a very skillful writer. You can feel the talent on every page and even though I at times felt that things ought to feel repetitive (page after page after page about Moll’s criminal career), they just never did. This material in the hands of a less skilled writer would have been a complete disaster. As it is now, I’m basing most of my 3-stars rating on the skills of the writer and thereby the inherent quality of the book, not the story itself – although one could have hoped that he could have made a better novel out of his material.

The story itself is rather simple. In the shape of an autobiographical memoir of the main protagonist Moll Flanders, we follow her life from childhood to she is in her 70s. The entire book is actually summarized perfectly in it’s subtitle: ‘Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continued Variety for Threescores Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother) Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent.’ And yes – that’s exactly what this book’s about. And doesn’t it sound exciting and thrilling? Why yes, it does. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite read that way.

I think the main reason for my lack of enthusiasm for this book, is it’s main character. Moll Flanders, as she calls herself, is all in all not very likable. I lost count of how many children she had through the book but in the end, she only seemed to remember having one. She leaves several children on several occasions – never to speak of or think about them again, it seems. Even though I know she’s forced into a lot of the mischief, she freely admits that she a lot of the time only repents if she gets caught – and then she only repents of the fact that she got caught. I do get that all her bad luck comes in part from making one bad decision when very young and then having some bad circumstances thrown upon her and because she lives in a time where women didn’t have a lot of options – but still, she does come across as a woman so focused on securing her own hide that she tramples whatever gets in her way. It may be that that was the only way for her – but when reading her story, you don’t get a lot of sympathy for her character and since this novel is completely focused on her, she needs to be interesting enough to carry this. And she’s not.

I’m not sure if I’m damaged by reading John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748) and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (also 1748) but I’m a bit tired of reading these 18th century books about ‘fallen women’, roughly put. It may be a bit unfair towards Moll Flanders since this is the first published of these three, but the best thing about Moll is that she is much more a get-goer than both Clarissa and Fanny. I rated Fanny 2 stars back when I read it in 2009 and even though I’m not done reading Clarissa yet, I’m so far planning on rating it 3 stars. So these are definitely not books I really love. Both Fanny Hill and Clarissa are rather repetitive and I think the only reason Moll Flanders doesn’t feel the same way is that Defoe is the better writer.

If you choose to see these three books in the context of the emancipation of women and see these books as showing the situation of women and how their dependence on men sometimes placed them in bad situations, forcing them to make choices like prostitution and theft, they do become more interesting. I have only a very cursory knowledge of the suffragette movement and feminism or the roots of each of these but I think books like this paved the way for the equality between men and women – and of course, that owns them a lot of favor. And in that line of thought, it’s interesting that all three books are told from the point of view of a woman – but written by men. Even more so because I think the female voice feels true in all three.

I do feel that there’s an interesting field of study here – the role of women in these 18th century novels as well as the portrayal of women as whores – and not whores as immoral beings who get punished but rather as women down on their luck who end up better than they started, and often better off because of their immorality. I think it could be interesting to read Daniel Defoe’s other novel Roxana (which seem rather similar to Moll Flanders) as well as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (although I need to finish Clarissa first and have a long breather before committing to another of Richardson’s works) and also Justine (1740) by Marquis de Sade which, however, doesn’t seem to be in favor of women’s right in spite of it having the same seemingly morale as the Defoe, Cleland and Richardson novels – immorality pays and the moral ones suffer, again roughly put.

Without having much literary scholarship to base it on, I feel that Charles Dickens is carrying the social indignation’s torch, lit by Defoe, into the 19th century. He too focused on those down on their luck and just like Defoe, his huge knowledge of the world he was living in and, especially, how the lower classes lived, is the main inspiration for the novels.

Now all these three books are on the 1001 books you must read before you die list – and my feeling about all three of them is that they are included because of their context and social importance, more than their literary merits even though the editors of the book argue otherwise …! They must find some worth in them since all three have survived all three editions of the list – and they are worth reading, definitely. I just don’t think I will read either of them again.

So after writing a review mostly focusing on the social context and literary history, I have to come out and state plainly that although I somewhat enjoyed Moll Flanders, it’s not a novel I see myself returning to and it’s more the context it was written in and the implications it might have had, that interests me, not so much the novel itself.

(And finally – don’t you just love when the books you read, compliment each other so you can have talks and discussions with them and yourself about their meaning, value, importance and so much more???)

  • Title: Moll Flanders
  • Author: Daniel Defoe
  • Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
  • Year: 1993 (original 1722)
  • Pages:  339 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  3 stars out of 5

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Mark Helprin: Winter’s Tale (review)

When I buy books nowadays, it’s always books where I either know the book or the author. If I’m at a bookstore and find a book I don’t know, I always check it out at goodreads before I buy it. But still, it’s very rarely that I walk into a bookstore and find a book where I’ve never heard of either author or book. In the town where I live, we have a small book cafe where they sell used books. I rarely visit there – in fact, I have only been there about five times. One of these times, I saw a book that looked interesting. I didn’t buy it but I went home and looked it up. What I found out, intrigued me so much that I went back, walked straight up to it, took it and paid the very small amount it costed. 50 Dkr – about 8,5 USD. I have never heard of the title or the author before but I’m so happy that I visited that book store and bought that book. Trying not to sound corny, but it was just the perfect book for me.

The book was Winter’s Tale. The author was Mark Helprin. And the book is beautiful, lyrical, poetic, almost like a fairy tale – just amazing. It’s one of those books where you don’t feel like any words you write will or can do it justice but where you just want to shout out to people ‘read this!’.

The story is set in a mythic and fictionalized New York City at both the beginning and the end of the twentieth century. It centers around Peter Lake and the Penn family, especially his love, Beverly Penn. Peter Lake is a burglar from when burglars were still honorable. While breaking into a house, he meets Beverly Penn, an heiress. They fall in love even though she’s dying from consumption. Their love is the thing giving meaning to all of Peter Lake’s life, a life so fantastic and amazing that … well, you just have to read this book yourself.

And we must not forget Athansor, the huge white horse. Every scene featuring Athansor is heartbreaking, beautiful, touching. Athansor is a sort of protector for Peter Lake, a horse with incredible powers. He can run and jump faster and longer than any other horse and, oh yeah, he can fly. There are some harsh scenes that will be nasty to read for any horse lover but the beauty of Athansor is well worth the heartbreaking scenes.

This is one of those books where after you’ve read it, you read other reviews because the plot is so complex and enchanting that you’re looking for a way to summarize it without giving too much away but also, without just writing some nonsense which tells nothing about the book at all but makes it sound boring and uninteresting. I’m really not sure how to sum up the novel because there’s so much content in it and the complexity of the storyline is incredible. So that’s why I went looking for someone who could sum up this novel – without finding it. It’s something that must be felt, I think.

The writing in this novel is part of it’s attractiveness. Overall, it’s just beautiful. I could post any number of quotes, attesting to the gorgeousness that is Helprin’s writing. But since I always write very long reviews, I thought I’d tackle two things at once and show how he writes and choose a quote that talks about something else I want to address. Since this novel involves people sort of traveling in time – at least existing across quite a lot of time, Helprin of course has to address the matter of time.

‘If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer to that is simple. Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given – so we track it, in linear fashion, piece by piece. Time, however, can be easily overcome; not by chasing the light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once. The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is – and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite  astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or, rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others.’ (p. 401-402)

So all time exists at the same time, if you can even say that. We are only to see one part of the time but people like Peter Lake, Beverly Penn and others are capable of more. They have a completely other vision of the universe than ordinary humans, they are larger than life characters and they live in a novel where time, life and death, love and divine beings are making humans capable of more than they thought. It’s about the limits of human experience and unlimited love. It’s an amazing metaphysical novel that has been put on my favorite shelf immediately after finishing.

There is so much more in this novel that I haven’t touched upon. Characters that will make you love them or break your heart. Peter Lake, Beverly Penn and Athansor will stay with any reader for a long time. Whenever you look up at a starry sky, you’ll try to see what  Beverly Penn saw – and ultimately, you’ll just return to the novel again to read about her visions, about Athansor, about Peter Lake, about love and the building of bridges.

  • Title: Winter’s Tale
  • Author: Mark Helprin
  • Publisher: Harcourt Books
  • Year: 1983
  • Pages: 748 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

Haruki Murakami: Underground (review)

‘The date is Monday 20 March, 1995. It is a beautiful clear spring morning. There is still a brisk breeze and people are bundled up in coats. Yesterday was Sunday, tomorrow is the Spring Equinox, a national holiday. Sandwiched right in the middle of what should have been a long weekend, you’re probably thinking “I wish I didn’t have to go to work today.” No such luck. You get up at the normal time, wash, dress, breakfast, and head for the subway station. You board the train, crowded as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. It promises to be a perfectly run-of-the-mill day. Until five men in disguise poke at the floor of the carriage with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas, puncturing some plastic bags filled with a strange liquid…’ (p. 7)

This is a strange book. I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t quite this. Most of the book consists of interviews with victims from the gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995. Then, the second part, is interviews with members of Aum, the group responsible for the gas attacks. There’s an introduction where Murakami explains why he wrote the book as well as the process with gathering the interviews and writing the book and there’s an essay, ‘Blind Nightmare: Where are we Japanese going?’ which finishes the first part.

There were 5 members of the Aum group who released Sarin gas in various subway trains. Murakami has collected the interviews so each of the 5 trains has it’s sections so what you read, are several eye witness accounts from the same event, one after another, before moving on to another train, another attack and the eye witness accounts from that. This means, that it does get a bit repetitive and this was the first thing I noticed. There are small differences in the accounts, but the main story are the same, of course. Each eye witness account tells a part of the story – each account is equally important because when taken together, they give a picture of what happe: ‘Even if there are some details inconsistent with reality, the collective narrative of these personal has a powerful reality of its own. This is something novelists are actively aware of, which is why I regard this as fitting work for a novelist.’ (p. 214)

Murakami is on a mission with this book. He wants ‘/…/ to recognize that each person on the subway that morning had a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears, contradictions and dilemmas – and that all these factors had a place in the drama.’ (p. 6). Even it if was very difficult for Murakami to find people willing to participate in this book, he wanted to show how it really felt for the people suffering the effects of the gas.

As I said, it’s a strange book. Interview after interview with survivors. All telling somewhat the same stories about experiencing symptoms like darkened vision and coughing, being confused about why and hospitals not knowing how to help. A lot of the victims still suffers from the effects when Murakami talks to them. The attack hit all types of people – some were traveling on those trains everyday, some was there only by chance, some used the subway maybe once a year… – the attack truly hit randomly, and I guess thereby hurt the most.

One of the things I found most interesting in this book was the informations about how life is in Japan for normal citizens. The interviews reveal a lot about the Japanese psyche – about work ethics and how many meet in maybe an hour or more before the work day starts, how many of the victims got back to work very very soon, even if they were suffering serious symptoms. Also how many live with their parents and siblings well in to their 20s – or how it doesn’t surprise Murkami that a man gets up at 3 in the morning to clean his entire house before going to work.

I found the interviews with the Aum members very informative. These interviews were not with people who were actually participating in the gas attacks, just people who had joined a religious group in order to find peace and a higher state of mind. Most of these were just people searching for something to give meaning and purpose to their lives and while reading these interviews, I couldn’t help but think how similar all cults are – and how dangerous it is, when we give our own choices over to others and these others are led astray by their own corrupted visions. A lot of the members of the cult had no idea what was going on and didn’t believe it really was Aum that had performed the attack until members started confessing, after being arrested.

For Murakami, what is needed after the attack is for the Japanese to take a good long look at themselves and to realize that the people who were members of Aum, aren’t that different from everyone else: ‘Now of course a mirror image is always darker and distorted. Convex and concave swap places, falsehood wins out over reality, light and shadow play tricks. But take away these dark flaws and the two images are uncannily similar; some details almost seem to conspire together. Which is why we avoid looking directly at the image, why, consciously or not, we keep eliminating these dark elements from the face we want to see. These subconscious shadows are an “underground” that we carry around within us, and the bitter aftertaste that continues to plague us long after the Tokyo gas attack comes seeping out from below.’ (p. 199).

This was a fascinating read. A bit repetitive at times, but the repetitiveness is important since it’s Murakami’s way of showing the importance of each individual victim. I thought Murakami succeeds in exploring the gas attack and the Japanese psyche and how each influence the other.

This is definitely not a book for everyone. It’s repetitiveness might put some readers off, for starters, but so might the subject. If you are interested in Japan or in terrorist actions, Murakami created an excellent testimony which is very much to the honor of the victims.

  • Title: Underground. The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
  • Author: Haruki Murakami
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Year: 2002 (original 1997)
  • Pages: 309 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

Peter Høeg: De måske egnede (Title in English: Borderliners) (review)

When you have children, you find out that you have so much to learn. Not all of it makes sense at first. One of the things I’ve had to learn, was how to praise my child. That if your child has climbed high up on top of something and she says ‘look at me’, you’re not supposed to say ‘oh how good you are’ but rather, ‘oh look how high you’ve climbed!’ You do this to praise the action, not the child itself, so the child doesn’t think it has to do such things to have value. I think.

In part, this novel is about this. About how we value each others, how we evaluate children and students. It’s about three children, Peter, Katarina and August. Peter was orphaned at a very early age. Katarine has lived through her parents’ suicides. And August has been the offer of so much abuse that he finally snapped and killed his parents. They all attend Biehl’s Academy, an elite private school in Copenhagen, but something’s not quite right. All three have lost their parents and especially August are a troubled child. A troubled child that doesn’t belong in this particular school. So why is he there?

Peter and Katarina quickly discovers that there’s a plan with the school, there’s a plan with the students accepted to the school, with how the school is run. Trouble is, they don’t know what the plan is and they are not really allowed to talk with each other so they can figure it out. It’s pretty clear that it’s some kind of social experiment, some kind of attempt to prevent what you can call social darwinism. The school wants to take all the children, including the troubled ones, and bring them up and into the light, so to speak, by enforcing a very strict discipline. But if you choose a strict principle and stick to it no matter what, the result can be devastating even though your intention was noble in the first place. Especially in the school system if you forget that students are individuals and should be treated as such – and hitting children never do any good.

One of the things Peter and Katarina focuses on, is the question of time. How time changes depending on the situation you’re in. The importance of pauses. What lies between the lines. How there’s never been made a watch that’s precise, and what it does to you to have your entire life completely structured – and to be punished if you’re just a bit late.

This novel is slowly paced but then, all of a sudden, things happen. Crazy, painful, jarring things that makes you stop and go back and read it again to see if you really read what you think you read. And you did and your jaw drops – and then, the novel resumes it’s slow even pace and things proceed nicely and quietly. The chronology is also jumping from various points in the past to the present, making you have to stay focused all the time. I think that’s one of the reasons the slow pace works in this novel. In it’s pacing, I think it shows some of the points the narrator, Peter, makes about time. How suddenly events happen that change the way we live in time, the way we experience time. When these violent events happens in the book, you too are violently dragged into it and have to feel the immediacy of the action. Just for a few sentences. And then things slow down again and you can relax into the text once more. One of the things Peter wants to examine is if time moves faster when you’re not paying attention and I think the way Høeg wrote his book, is an example of this. When the jarring events occur, time stops for a little while – you are forced to focus and pay attention, and then, you read one and time starts flowing by again.

One thing I really love about this novel is the relationship between the grown Peter and his small daughter. How he has a hard time relating to her because of the abuse he has suffered throughout his life, the way the system failed him and he was too old before he had proper role models. But together, they find a common ground and she, perhaps, helps him most of all by just being a child, being pure feeling and reaction. She tries to bring order to her universe by listing all words she knows. She doesn’t get time at first – no children do – so she tries to understand it through other subjects that she does know. I think this relationship between father and daughter are beautifully rendered in it’s fragility.

The narrator in this book is named Peter Høeg, the same as the author. Every school and institution the narrator Peter Høeg talks about in his novel excluding Biehl’s Academy, are real and Peter Høeg has stated that the novel was the most autobiographical of his works (at that point). When it was published, it was taken as an attack on the Danish school system from a man who had experienced the worst of it himself. But later, Peter Høeg reveals that the adoptive parents in the novel are in fact his real parents, that the only autobiographical elements in the book are his first and last name, his year of birth and his parents. Which means that the novel is about him – but at the same time, that it’s not necessarily about him at all. Peter Høeg has never lived anywhere else than with his biological parents. Even though he claimed in interviews that where the institutions were real, the events taking place were also real. But with the case of the fictive Peter Høeg getting punished by having his head stuck down in a toilet, that did happen – just not to him – and so on.

The things that did happen, are instead the things that take place on the fictive school. Biehl’s Academy is called Bordings Friskole in the real world and here the author went to school for nine years – and how the teachers hit the students on a regular basis and that Peter was kicked out of school at age 16, is true – among other things.

This means, that this book is a blur between fiction and reality. There used to be a sort of agreement between readers and authors that either everything in a novel was true or else, it was false, fiction. This agreement is no longer in existence. Now authors take parts of their life or others’ lives, and use it as they see fit. In Denmark, we have seen several examples of this. And it seem to make some people angry – on the point of law suits and of people being persecuted in the medias, loosing their jobs etc. Peter Høeg does it in this novel – other examples are Knud Romer’s novel Den som blinker er bange for døden and Jørgen Leth Det uperfekte menneske (apparently, neither of these has been translated to English).

For me, I love this play on reality. I think that this challenges the novel and explores the possibilities of combining fiction and reality in ways that we have never seen before. It doesn’t diminish the worth of the novel in any way. Rather, it’s the authors’s attempt to express themselves and their creativity and vision in ways they see fit. And Peter Høeg does this so very well in De måske egnede (which by the way is a much more appropriate title than the English Borderliners since the Danish title plays on Darwin’s expression of ‘survival of the fittest’.

  • Title: De måske egnede (Title in English: Borderliners)
  • Author: Peter Høeg
  • Publisher: Gyldendals Bogklubber
  • Year: 1993
  • Pages: 277
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

Lisa Shearin: Armed & Magic (Raine Benares #2) (review – audiobook)

So no rest for the wicked. This book has barely begun before the action starts. And not just some nice and easy action, no this is full-blown all-out action. Raine Benares, our main protagonist, has arrived to the Island of Mid to get help to deal with the Saghred but also to be protected from the Goblins, she made so very angry in the first book in the series. Since she has bonded with the Saghred, the most powerful artifact, she can’t just give it up but need magical help for that so of course she turns to the Conclave and it’s Guardians to get the help she need. But she hasn’t been long on the island before an assassination attempt is made on the Paladin Mychael Eiliosior and the Archmagus Justinius Valerian, Raine saves the day – but in doing so, she shows the world what she is now capable of, after being in contact with the Saghred. And that was exactly what the notorious elven assassin, leader of the Nightshades, was counting on. He manages to escape – taking with him a young blonde woman.

But this young woman is not the only one who is kidnapped. Young spellsingers start disappearing. Luckily, Raine is able to connect with them by using her seeker powers, enhanced by the Saghred (which reminds me – whatever happened to Quentin, the thief who officially stole the Saghred? We haven’t heard of him since early in the first book.). Trouble is, no one really believes her except Paladin Mychael Eiliesor and some of his men. She has powerful adversaries on the Council of Twelve. the council in control of sorcerers and sorcery. And of course, they’re not the only ones interested in Raine – and the Saghred. She attracts trouble wherever she is – and on top of the Elven assassinators, the Elven ambassador, the Goblin lawyers and (at least some of) the Council of Twelve, well, there’s of course the main villain from the first book, Nukpana who even though he is caught in the Saghred is able to talk to her – and manifest himself in front of her, enjoying himself rather too much when he does so while she’s taking a bath. And if that’s not enough trouble, there’s also the Saghred’s best friend…

I’m listening to these as audiobooks and I enjoy them a lot. They’re perfect for this medium. But the worst thing with listening to fantasy novels as audiobooks is, that you have no idea how to spell anything. All the names of people and places and things are of course spelled in certain ways – and since I don’t read the actual pages of the book, I have no idea how to do this. So to be able to write this review, I’ve had to google a lot to find the correct ways of spelling…

I also got a bit confused at one point. Shearin has pointed out over and over that to avoid being affected by spellsingers, you have to have some kind of shield to protect you. Either your own person shield or, if a spellsinger performs at a restaurant or a bar, the stage is shielded so the audience doesn’t get affected. The music rooms where the student spellsingers practice are also shielded – and when a vent isn’t covered probably, Piaras almost put the entire citadel to sleep, including the Saghred. Everyone who didn’t put up shields, were affected. But suddenly, Piaras can intend it for some present and not necessarily target all who hear it – how? And even in a battle situation, can’t people put up personal shields? Is this a consistency issue or did I miss something? Is he just that talented?

One thing that is a bit annoying in these book, is the repetitiveness. I can’t count the number of times Raine talks about her family and their bad reputation. She does so over and over and over again – both in the first and in this second volume. Yes, yes, yes, we know the Benares family are pirates, robbers and kidnappers – we know.  Yes, we get that that means they don’t like paying for things and they like their weapons. Now let’s move on with the story. Also, Shearin has a tendency to repeat herself by using the exact same phrases to describe the same thing. When you describe something in a very particular way, don’t repeat it.

I also think Raine lacks a bit of introspection – at least when it comes to the men in her life. She’s pretty much ready to be swept off her feet whenever Tam or Mychael offer. She is yet to have any thoughts about preferring the one to the other – she just seem to prefer the one who’s there. And while that is a valid choice, of course, and all this might just be me being prudish, I would like her to choose one. I don’t know if I prefer Mychael or Tam – but actually, we don’t know much about either one, except one is goblin, one is human, both are extremely good-looking, one is a bad boy, the other is one of the really good guys… All pretty standard for such books.

Still, in conclusion – despite the minor grievances listed above, I really have fun listening to these books. Even though the banter between Raine and her friends can be a bit too much, especially in battle situations, it’s still entertaining banter and if you enjoy light fantasy with non-stop action, humor and very fast pacing, these books are definitely recommendable.

  • Title: Armed & Magic (Raine Benares #2)
  • Author: Lisa Shearin
  • Publisher: Ace/Audible Frontiers
  • Year: 2008
  • Pages: 293 pages
  • Narrated by: Eileen Stevens
  • Source: Own Collection (Audible)
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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Clarissa in May

So Clarissa and I are still getting along. Somewhat. Or at least I’m still eaves-dropping on all her letters as well as those from her friends and others. I decided to try a different approach this month. Instead of trying to read the letters on the appropriate days, utterly failing and then playing catch-up for the last few days of the month or maybe in the first days of the next month, I  instead spent some days towards the middle of the month, reading nothing but Clarissa.

I’m still not quite sure about Clarissa. I mean, I like it when I read it (for the most part, that is) but when I put it down, I don’t particularly want to pick it up again. So that’s why I just wanted to read it in a few days and get into it instead of reading some pages every day but not really wanting to. And I must say it worked. I really enjoyed the few days I spent reading nothing but Clarissa.

Even though it’s not like Clarissa been up to a whole lot this month – she’s still living in the same house, still trying to figure out what to do.

In May, we got to read letters 161-219, so quite a few letters. We start of right after the disastrous dinner party where Lovelace lost a lot of the respect Clarissa had got for him. However, the dinner party has made all of Lovelace’s friends love her and they think it would be a shame and a pity to to ruin a lady liked this, a lady in whose fall none but devils can rejoice. Lovelace, however, still thinks she has to pay for her behavior at the dinner party and since he thinks that a woman of education will not yield before she is attacked: ‘There may possibly be some cruelty necessary. But there may be consent in struggle; there may be yielding in resistance.’ (16401-6) Oh, he’s so not a nice guy.

Clarissa tries again to patch things up with her family – she has Anna Howe try and reach out to them. Anna writes Mrs. Norton to have her talk to Clarissa’s mother but the answer is not positive: ‘we are stripped of our ornament, and are but a common family! Can the willful lapse of such a child be forgiven?’ (17255-60). Both the attempt to establish a better standing with Clarissa’s mother and favorite uncle fail.

Clarissa now knows that there’s nothing to do besides patch things up with Lovelace since marrying him is her only option. Yet she still argues with him. I do understand why he is annoyed with her at times. Especially since his pride can’t stand that she’s not equally in love with him and therefore, he wants revenge. I also think that Clarissa could solve the entire situation if she knew more about the world and of men, she could fix it all and make Lovelace love her for ever if she just showed him a little kindness.

Lovelace’s friends keep urging him to do the right thing and not do her brother’s work for him by ruining her. Lovelace’s uncle, Lord M,  also writes to Lovelace’s friend Belford because he and his family worry about her safety and Belford really tries to get Lovelace to stop all his tricks and just marry her.

After Lovelace has staged a conversation between the women of the house (the brothel) and himself, making sure that Clarissa overhears it, things are better between them than ever. But Lovelace still schemes, he steals her letters – and he gets so angry when he reads what Anna writes about him, so angry that he would love to break Anna’s spirit. Things go a bit downhill from here and the women in the house urge him to try greater familiarities with Clarissa, since things can’t possibly get worse between them. He tries but can’t bring himself to do it – even though she says she hates him. Still, his thoughts are not exactly kind:  ‘/…/ I can marry her when I will. And if I do, after prevailing (whether by surprise or reluctant consent), whom but myself shall I have injured?’ But even against his will, he is impressed with her when she stands her ground and talk about how matters shouldn’t go further between them if she hates him.

However, they patch things up and he does seem in earnest about wanting to make her happy. But it mortifies his pride that he would still rather live single than with him. Especially since he wants a wife who worships him and do his every bidding with a smile – including sending him her maid if she thinks he will like her…!

So he wants to try a few more tricks and see if he can have her before making her legally his. He makes himself sick to draw her to his bed. If she shows compassion, he will too. And it worked – she was concerned and cared. However, what he doesn’t know is that Clarissa feels very uneasy and feels like she exposed herself to him. She’s still unsure about whether she should leave him – especially since Anna Howe may have a contact that can give her a safe place to stay.

But now, something happens. A captain comes to their house and he scares Clarissa a lot. However, it turns out that he comes with a message from Clarissa’s uncle Harlowe. He wants to patch things up between them and later with the rest of her family. Clarissa is extremely happy – she talks about how wonderful it will be to be welcome back at Harlowe place and be able to bring Lovelace with her. But – it turns out that this is another trick: The captain is not real. I was so shocked by this! I thought he was real and that there maybe was a chance of reconciliation. So instead of things looking better than ever for Clarissa, they actually look worse. And that’s where we leave her in May, convinced of her future happiness but instead, things look darker for her than ever before.

There have been a few really good letters this month. I so enjoyed reading Uncle Anthony’s courtship letter to Mrs. Howe – and almost just as much reading the letter from Anna Howe to Clarissa, telling about the conversation she and her mother had had about it. This side story is a nice and humorous detour from the main plot that can be a bit same-same.

Still, I actually really enjoyed spending time with Clarissa this month. Even though I really liked the idea of reading each letter on it’s corresponding date, I don’t think the history really works being read that way. It need to be read more closely together than that so in June, I’ll try to read to it all together as well.

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