It’s 9ºC this morning in my little corner of the world but I’m turning the thermostat down a few pegs for the first #6Degrees of 2017! Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best has chosen a mega blockbuster as the trigger for this month: The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson.
I bought this book in Detroit airport (back when the airport still had a bookshop and not the few measly news outlets that exist today). I was en route to Brazil for a business meeting, a trip that was both exciting and daunting. Exciting because I’d never been to South America before but daunting because it was my first week in a new assignment and I felt very wet behind the ears. I didn’t have much time to browse so just scanned the ‘hot titles’ shelf and recognised the book from a recent lunch conversation. Although rather unbelievable at times, it kept me amused on what proved to be a very long journey over two days.
It’s a tricky business choosing books for long journeys – make the wrong choice and you could end up with little to occupy you beyond the in flight magazine (assuming of course that you don’t have a fully loaded e-reader at your disposal). I’ve fortunately not had a disaster (yet) but I’ve had a few really good experiences, most memorably Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky -it was my first encounter with this author and it was so gripping I almost wanted the queue for immigration to go a bit slower (OK, that’s a joke but you get the point). As I stood there a guy in the parallel line to mine caught my eye and started one of those conversations that always start with ‘that’s a great book’ and meander into a list of recommendations. Unfortunately it was too much to juggle a big fat novel, my documentation, laptop bag, handbag and pen/notebook so I couldn’t jot down his recommendations. Who knows what delights I’ve missed out on as a result?
I fared rather better last summer while waiting for a medical appointment. A young Indian girl sat alongside me, noticed I was using a Kindle and started asking for my thoughts on it because she was thinking of buying one. As we chatted, talk invariably drifted into what kinds of books we both enjoyed reading – when I mentioned I’d enjoyed a few authors from her country she started rattling off a whole list of names I’d never heard of before. One of them I’m reading right now – Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. It’s set in 1970s Bombay (before the city was rebranded as Mumbai) and takes us into the darker depths of the city, into a world of opium dens and brothels. It’s rather a hallucinatory tale of prostitutes, opium ‘cookers’, pimps, alcoholic bad boy artists and addicts. Compelling if rather baffling at the moment.
I’ve never seen any of these characters on my trips to Mumbai though I recognised descriptions of how the city attracts the desperately poor who leave their barren villages in the hope of a new life only to end up sleeping on the pavements or under a road bridge. It’s a fascinating city brought superbly to life in one of my favourite non fiction books – Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta. It’s a series of essays written when Mehta returned to the city of his youth after an absence of 21 years and finds a place of contradictions. Bombay, ‘the biggest, fastest, richest city in India’, is the country’s commercial, financial and entertainment hub attracting those with vast wealth and those without even enough to buy a meal a day. Mehta interviews a cross section of the population from murderous gangsters and the police who hunt them down, film stars who are feted for their roles in Bollywood productions, dancers who dream of escaping from their work in seedy bars to people who live on the streets. At times it makes very sobering reading but Mehta can also laugh at the ridiculous side of the city – he nicknames it ‘the city of no’ because no matter what you want, the first answer will always be a no.
I wish there were similar books written about some other megacities , particularly those in Japan and China, both countries which fascinate me. Historical China I’ve got a glimpse of through Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang which traces three generations through some of the most momentous decades in the country’s history during the twentieth century. If you’ve ever wanted to understand the human impact of Mao’s cultural revolution, this is an excellent starting point.
For more up to date insights I’ve relied on the detective series written by Qiu Xiaolong which I came across by accident while browsing my local library a few years ago. The books are set in Shanghai in the 1990s – the decade when the country began its momentous change into a world class economic powerhouse. All nine titles feature Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a poetry-quoting cop who has high levels of integrity which often bring him into conflict with the Party machinery and his bosses. Well worth reading for the insights these novels give into Chinese cuisine, architecture, history and politics.
As remarkable as Wild Swans undoubtedly is, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the Chen Cao crime series, they don’t satisfy an itch I have to read something equally engaging about China in the twenty-first century. I can find lots of learned tomes but a well written, accessible non- fiction book about modern day China has so far eluded me. If anyone has some suggestions please do send them my way….
The criminal in this novel is Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in the Russian capital of Saint Petersburg. Raskolnikov sets out to kill a pawnbroker with an axe but is disturbed in the act by her sister so ends up also killing her. His rationale for his action is ambiguous but the effect on his mental state is dramatic.
He descends into a cycle of anxiety-fuelled periods of delirium alternating with periods in which he is hyperactively lucid, much to the alarm of his closest friend and his mother and sister. His mental anguish is intensified by a psychological cat and mouse game with the magistrate in charge of the investigation, Porfiry Petrovich. Petrovich’s penetrating questions force Raskolnikov to at last give shape to the ideas that led him to kill the women.
He believes there are a few “extrordinary people” who may have the right to commit crimes in certain circumstances. It’s a theory (known as the Superman Theory) closely connected with the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, which according to Raskolnikov means that an extraordinary person may act without fear of consequence.
…. if it necessary for one of them, for the fulfillment of his ideas, to march over corpses, or wade through blood, then in my opinion he may in all conscience authorise himself to wade through blood — in proportion however to his idea and the degree of its importance.
In essence Raskolnikov argues that he murders the pawnbrokers to prove that he is himself one of the members of this elite group, a man of genius like Napolean Bonaparte, absolved of legally mandated punishment as long as he acts in pursuit of his great ideas. But what he cannot escape is the feeling of torment, ‘the darkness and confusion in his soul’ which is more of a self-inflicted punishment that will not diminish unless he can acknowledge and atone for his actions.
On the surface Crime and Punishment belongs to the crime fiction genre where a crime is committed within the first few pages and the rest of the novel is devoted to the question of whether the police will catch the person responsible and bring him to justice. But since we already know the identity of the killer the reader’s interest is much more closely directed to the psychological dimensions of crime. It’s a novel based on a deep and relentless examination of the murderer’s psyche as he tries to reconcile his anguish over the deaths and his fear of arrest with his belief that he was justified in his actions.
Dostoevsky gives us a double voiced perspective, switching from omniscient narrator to interior monologues so that reading the novel, I felt I was both an observer of the effects of Raskolnikov’s actions but also part of his own consciousness as he borders on derangement.
It’s a novel that grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go at any point. Dostoevsky demonstrates a superb grasp of the reality of human nature in its most dire and bleakest form. As depressing as much of it undoubtedly is, the darkness is counterbalanced by the pure goodness that Dostoevsky suggests can be found in the most humble and desperate of circumstances. The self -sacrificing young prostitute, Sonia, embodies hope for Raskolnikov, showing him that there is a chance for his salvation if he can follow her example of a life lived with compassion for others. As the novel ends on a note which indicates the possibility of redemption, forgiveness and regeneration.
A five star read!
Milestone 1: On Wednesday I led my first book club discussion. I’d never even been to a book club meeting until December and was completely thrown when asked to choose the February book. Of all the scores of books I want to read, it should have been a cinch to name something. But all that came into my head was Possession by A.S. Byatt from my Booker prize list; which wasn’t even on my radar screen for this year. Afterwards I kept thinking I’d made a terrible mistake when one member said they’d tried it and hated it so wouldn’t read again and a few others wrinkled their noses when I described it. So I approached Wednesday with a considerable degree of nervousness, imagining that most people wouldn’t even turn up or if they did, would say they couldn’t finish the book and they hated it.
How wrong I was. Three people said instantly that they loved it (not just liked, but loved). When the scores were tallied at the end, the average put it at the second highest score for any book they’ve read in the last 3 years. Crumbs!
What was fascinating was how people enjoyed the book for different reasons – some were keen on the dual love story aspect, some enjoyed the mystery angle. Some enjoyed the poetry. All agreed that it was a highly technically accomplished book and wondered why we hadn’t read more by Byatt.
Milestone 2: Thursday saw the first anniversary of this blog. A time to reflect on how my original ideas have changed over the last 12 months and will likely change again. Here’s my post on the topic.
Milestone 3: Joined my first virtual group read. The people behind the Unputdownables blog have selected Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky for the Feb/April read. I’ve not done one of these because the reading schedule is usually faster than I can manage. But since this novel is on my Classics Club list and I’m a tad daunted by it and their reading schedule seems very manageable I thought I’d give it a go.
So three reasons to celebrate. All of which have been great antidotes to the doom and gloom of the books I’m currently reading. Crime and Punishment is a surprisingly approachable book so far but it’s topic doesn’t exactly lend much cheer. Little Dorrit is a super yarn but the shades of the prison house that surround the central character of Amy Dorrit are so deep that I’m downhearted on her behalf every time I pick up the book. I know there will be a happy ending since Dickens does so like those but there is a lot to get through before that. And the last book I read The Armies by the Colombian author Evelio Rosero (a book I read as part of my world literature challenge) was rather bleak too. (my review is here)
I must make sure the next book I pick has more light than shade……