‘Knots’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug – Original Comical Takes on the Relations Between Men and Women

‘Knots’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug   (2012) – 164 pages             Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson

In ‘Knots’, there are 26 stories in the 164 pages which works out to an average of slightly over 6 pages per story.  I don’t need to tell you that reading ‘Knots’ is a vastly different experience from reading a 600 page novel. In ‘Knots’ we have 26 separate narratives, 26 groups of characters, and 26 different plots. And each story is quite different from the rest and by no means simple or easy to understand.  I had to read each story twice in order to fully comprehend each story, so ‘Knots’ is by no means an easy read.  However it is a fascinating read.

One must get into the spirit of each of these stories in order to get it.   A reader must expend a certain effort to fully appreciate each of these very short stories but in most cases it is well worth the effort.  One thing that stands out is the wide variety with each story vastly different from the others.  Apparently there is nothing that Øyehaug won’t try for a story.  These are not your standard issue stories by any means.  Many of the stories allude to literary figures, and they all have a distinctly Norwegian flavor.

Gunnhild Øyehaug puts her characters in comic risqué situations with a lot of humor and from a quirky woman’s point of view. The really short stories of one to four pages are cartoonish in the good sense of the word.  They are rude and sometimes crude. The longer stories are more fully developed.

In the story ‘Small Knots’, a mother gives birth to a son, a perfectly fine son.  There is just one problem.  The umbilical cord between mother and son cannot be cut by any means.  They lead as normal a life as possible, given this constraint.

In ‘Echo’ a young man Bjarte Bo idolizes another young guy Arild that he works with who is “a demon at selling encyclopedias” and thus a “success in its purest and rawest form”.  The one area where Bjarte Bo has the better of Arild is Bjarte’s girlfriend Tone.  Then Arild invites Bjarte and his girlfriend Tone to dinner at Arild’s apartment.  First Bjarte admires Arild’s Italian car which is sitting outside with an appreciative, “Damn”, and Tone responds by quoting Joyce.  This quote goes over Bjarte’s head as literary quotes are “something he didn’t know and didn’t care he didn’t know”.  Later during the dinner conversation Arild mentions that “Poetry was like the glow of a flame under glass”.  This remark resonates with Tone and soon Arild’s left hand “stole up the long split of her dress and she was more conscious of her body than she had been for a long time”.  There the story ends.

My favorite story is probably the last one, ‘Two by Two’, which is about a wife waiting for her husband to get back from a romantic tryst with his girlfriend on a snowy evening.  The wife’s attitude alternates depending on whether she is reflecting on Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes.

Gunnhild Øyehaug is an original force as a writer.

 

 

Grade :   A

 

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More Fiction Writers Who Were Too Good to be Forgotten

Last June I wrote an article about six less well-known fiction writers who wrote some mighty fine fiction.  However there are others who I would like to mention who were just too good to be forgotten, so here is a second list.

 

Sybille Bedford – She is considered an English writer, but she was originally from Germany and lived for a time in France and the United States.  With the help of Aldous Huxley and his wife and a sham marriage, she was able to escape France before Hitler got there.  She wrote non-fiction travel writings as well as four novels of which I have read all of them.  Perhaps she is most famous for ‘A Legacy’ and ‘Jigsaw – An Unsentimental Education’.   I have no doubts that Bedford will still be read a hundred years from now.

 

 

 

 

Nelson Algren – He wrote of the “drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums” mostly in his hometown of Chicago.  He still is a controversial figure. He was the first major American figure to speak out against Joe McCarthy.  Algren did have his sensitive side; he had a long relationship with famous feminist Simone de Beauvoir and is portrayed in Beauvoir’s novel ‘The Mandarins’.  He wrote of the wild gritty side of life with a tough honesty. The three novels of his that stand out for me are ‘Never Come Morning’, ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’, and ‘A Walk on the Wild Side’.

 

 

Maeve Brennan – She was the Long-Winded Lady at the New Yorker from 1954 to 1968 and made sardonic observations about New York City life.  After that she was in and out of institutions treating her for mental illness and alcoholism.  Thus she does not have a long bibliography.   Her book of short stories ‘The Springs of Affection’ and short novel ‘The Visitor’ are both fine works.

“Many men and women found Maeve charming, and she was a true friend, but there wasn’t much you could do to save her from herself.” – William Maxwell

 

 

 

 

Karin Boye –  I have only read one novel by Karin Boye, ‘Kallocain’ , but that one novel is good enough so that she still deserves to be on this list.  ‘Kallocain’  is a dystopian novel about a drug that detects individual acts and thoughts of rebellion.  A drab totalitarian state results from the wholesale use of the drug.  ‘Kallocain’ was one of the inspirations for Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.  Karin Boye committed suicide in 1941 at the age of 40.

 

 

 

 

 

Sandor Marai – He wrote in his native Hungarian, and he was not translated into English until the 1990s after he died. During his lifetime he managed to infuriate both the Nazis and the Communists, no small feat. ‘Embers’, his novel written in 1942, is his most justly famous.

“Elegiac, sombre, musical, and gripping, Embers is a brilliant disquisition on friendship, one of the most ambitious in literature.” – Anna Shapiro

 

 

 

 

Manuel Puig – He was born in Argentina in “a little town in the Pampas” but was exiled from Argentina for most of his life due to political reasons.  He was much influenced by old Hollywood movies of the 1930s and the 1940s, and one of his novels, ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’, was made into a successful movie as well as a play.  Other novels by Puig that I really like are ‘Betrayed by Rita Hayworth’ and ‘Heartbreak Tango’.

“I write novels because there is something I don’t understand in reality.” – Manuel Puig

 

 

 

 

 

‘Conversations with Friends’ by Sally Rooney – Modern Romance

 

‘Conversations with Friends’ by Sally Rooney   (2017) – 307 pages

In ‘Conversations With Friends’, Frances and Bobbi are two young women who perform together on the poetry recital scene in Dublin, Ireland.  Frances and Bobbi used to be hooked up romantically, but now they are just the best of friends.  Bobbi is a sharp-tongued radical while Frances is just as radical but not quite so outspoken. A writer and photographer, Melissa, attends one of their recitals and wants to take pictures of them for a local arts magazine.  Later Melissa invites the two gals for a nightcap at her house, and they meet her husband Nick who is a handsome not-so-successful actor.  Nick and Melissa are both in their thirties while Frances and Bobbi are both in their early twenties.

Melissa is more drawn toward the aggressive Bobbi of the two girls, leaving Frances with Nick.  Although her intentions may be otherwise, Frances is strongly attracted to Nick.  One night they kiss on the sly, and soon Frances is secretly sleeping with Nick. Usually today a guy like Nick would be portrayed in a novel as a hopeless and disgusting heel, but in ‘Conversations With Friends’ he comes off as quite the enlightened sensitive one.  It is Frances who is the real ardent pursuer in their affair.

“He was the first person I had met since Bobbi who made me enjoy conversation, in the same irrational and sensuous way I enjoyed coffee or loud music.”

So now we have the radical Frances playing that trite role of The Other Woman.  Nick and Frances hide their passionate trysts from everyone else as long as possible.

When I read novels now, I keep a few notes while reading which I can use later.  The first thing I wrote down for ‘Conversations With Friends’ very early was the word “methodical”.   What impressed me most about ‘Conversations With Friends’ was the systematic precision that Sally Rooney brings to this messy story of modern infidelity.   It is difficult for a writer to describe feelings and emotions with exactness, and Rooney achieves just that.

Then there is also the provocative and lively dialogue:

Frances:  “You’re really handsome, you know.”

Nick: “Is that all I get?  I thought you liked my personality.”

Frances:  “Do you have one?”

Overall I was mightily encouraged by ‘Conversations With Friends’ that this younger generation might for once be on the right track in pursuing their personal relationships.

 

Grade :   A-        

 

‘The Forensic Records Society’ by Magnus Mills – A Deadpan Delight

 

‘The Forensic Records Society’ by Magnus Mills  (2017) – 182 pages

 

First of all, I adore the deadpan style of Magnus Mills and his offbeat original tongue-in-cheek approach to novels.   The setup to ‘The Forensic Records Society’ is absurd and ridiculous, and that’s just fine.

Do young people even know what vinyl records or turntables are anymore?  Have they even heard of 45s, those records that had only two songs, an A side and a B side?  At this point, vinyl records are about as obsolete as typewriters and dial phones, although there are some experts who claim that these vinyl records capture the sound quality better than the more modern methods.

‘The Forensic Records Society’ harkens back to a time when people took their music much more seriously than today.  Of course there are plenty of us old dudes left, survivors of the 1960s and !970s, who still remember the importance that was placed on music and songs in our daily lives back then and probably even remember many of the songs Mills mentions in this novel.

The original Forensic Records Society meets in a back room of the Blue Moon pub.  Members bring three songs they wish to play for the group and they take turns playing them.  At most there are only about eight members.   The rules are strict, no comments or judgments on the records; the members are there solely to listen to the songs.

What this novel is really about is a somewhat comic analysis of the social group dynamics that spring up when any new group is formed.  Soon after the Forensic Records Society begins, a competing group, the Confessional Records Society, is formed which has a charismatic leader, a stronger appeal to women, and engenders an almost religious fervor.  Later as a reaction to the strict rules of the Forensic Records Society, the Perceptive Records Society is formed which allows long-playing records as well as singles and also allows members to quote or comment on the songs. Later the spinoff New Forensic Records Society starts.  As one might expect, there is much intrigue between the members of these various competing clubs.

What Magnus Mills does in ‘The Forensic Records Society’ is create a whole new world based on this mundane silly premise of competing record clubs.  However the reader gets so caught up in the doings and goings on of these various club members as though it were an intriguing espionage or science fiction story.  I see Magnus Mills as one of the most original, down-to-earth, and creative purveyors of fiction operating today.

 

Grade :   A      

 

‘So Much Blue’ by Percival Everett – More Than the Words

 

‘So Much Blue’ by Percival Everett    (2017)  – 256 pages

Perhaps the best measure as to how much I actually like a novel is how much I look forward to returning to it when I am not reading it.  If I view returning as a necessary chore, that probably means I don’t like the novel very much.  However if I get a smile on my face just contemplating returning to a book, that probably means I like it a lot.  By this measure, ‘So Much Blue’ is a total winner.

The narrator in ‘So Much Blue’ is a fifty-six year old artist who has been working on a giant painting for several years.  He keeps the painting in a outbuilding next to his house, but he won’t let his family or friends see the painting.

There are three main plot lines in ‘So Much Blue’, and the narration switches around between the three. The first is called ‘House’ which takes place in current time and is about the artist’s family in New England.  He is faced with a quandary that it is not too uncommon for a father to face.   In order to extract a secret out of his teenage daughter, the daughter makes him promise ahead of time that he won’t tell the secret to her mother.  However when he hears the secret, he realizes it is something that her mother really ought to know.  What does he do?

Another plot line is called ‘1979’  and takes place back then.  He and his college friend are off to El Salvador to rescue his friend’s brother who is mixed up with drugs and some “bad hombres”.  This story winds up being the most hilarious of the plot lines when they meet this shady American mercenary who they call the Bummer who bosses them around.

The third plot line is called ‘Paris’ and takes place seven years before the present and is about an affair the forty-something artist has with a 22 year old Parisian young woman named Victoire.  Despite the questionable circumstances of the age difference, this affair is handled tastefully.

This is an odd mix of plots, but each is handled in an ingratiating and good-natured manner.  The entire novel does have a unifying theme of “secrets”, but this theme is handled quite indirectly, and the author does not hit you over the head with it.

Although each of the three disparate plot lines of ‘So Much Blue’ is captivating, warm, and humorous, the sum of the entire novel is still much greater than the individual parts.  The novel as a whole is so well-written and subtle, that all of the reviewers including me seem to fall all over ourselves trying to describe it.

 

Grade :   A   

 

California Dreaming’ by Penelope Bagieu – A Pictorial Biography of Mama Cass Elliot

 

‘California Dreaming’, a graphic novel by Penelope Bagieu  (2017) – 266 pages

‘California Dreamin’ combines two of my interests, biographies of rock or pop stars and graphic or cartoon novels that are not about superheroes, fantasy, or outer space.  Since ‘California Dreamin’ is essentially a true story it isn’t a graphic novel, but I don’t know what else to call it.  It covers the life of Ellen Cohen who became famous as Mama Cass Elliot up until the time the song California Dreamin’ was released.

She was born to a Jewish couple in Alexandria, Virginia in 1941. The family of four stayed barely afloat by the deli her father ran.  Even from an early age, her excessive weight was a problem for her.  Everybody knew she could sing wonderfully, but could she ever make it as a professional singer with her size?

At age 19 she left home for the burgeoning folk scene in New York City.  Her father who was always sickly died soon after she left home.  She kicked around with various folkie groups, but didn’t really start to make it until she met Dennis Doherty, and they started a group called the Mugwumps.  Both Cass Elliot and Dennis Doherty were phenomenal vocal talents.  Dennis was the great love of her life, but her love for him was unrequited although he was a good friend.

John Phillips asked Dennis Doherty to join him and his wife Michelle in his folk group the New Journeymen.  Dennis said he knew this great woman singer named Cass Elliot, but after Cass auditioned John turned her down because she was too fat.  Cass hung around with the group, and it was quite obvious that Cass’s voice made the group sound much better, but John still refused to have her in the group.  One time the record producer Lou Adler visited the group, and Cass happened to be singing with them their new song California Dreamin’.  Adler wanted to sign the four of them immediately to a contract, but John wanted him to sign only the three.  Adler said that without Cass there would be no contract.  So that is how the Mamas and Papas were born.

‘California Dreamin’ is a fun sometimes poignant graphic, not novel, but perhaps graphic biography?

 

Grade :   B  

 

Six Reasons Why ‘Golden Hill’ is a Superior Historical Fiction

 

‘Golden Hill – a Novel of Old New York’ by Francis Spufford     (2017)  –  299 pages

‘Golden Hill’ is the most delightful historical fiction that I have read for a long, long time.  Here is my attempt to enumerate reasons as to why this novel is such a pleasure.

l.  It takes place in New York City in 1746, a time and place little dealt with in historical fiction or even in history books.  England still ruled their North American colonies, and New York City had only 7000 residents but was growing fast.  At that point New York City was still a small town.  We see this small town through the eyes of young Englishman Richard Smith who is quite familiar with the real metropolis London.

2.  ‘Golden Hill’ is written in the English language of its time instead of in modern English.  This makes the characters and scenes seem more authentic.

3.  None of its characters is famous or renowned, so the characterizations aren’t stilted by impersonating a famous stick figure.  Nothing brings a novel down faster than a wooden historical personage.  All the characters in ‘Golden Hill’ can and do act as outrageously as real people.

4.  The romance in ‘Golden Hill’ is not your typical lovey-dovey affair.  Perhaps the best romances both in fiction and in real life are those where the contestants – the man and the woman – are a match in their weapons and firepower.  The romance between Richard Smith and Tabitha Lovell is that of the best of enemies on the order of Beatrice and Benedick in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.   As Richard says to Tabitha of Shakespeare:

“I think you like him because his comedies are full of quick-tempered women with razor tongues.  I think you like to hear Beatrice and Benedick insulting upon each other.”

“Maybe,” she said, laughing.  “But you, sir, are not Benedick.”

“And you, madam, are not Beatrice.”

“True.”

5.  The guiding light for ‘Golden Hill’ is William Shakespeare.  After more than four centuries, Shakespeare is still the best model we have for comedy and drama.  I would classify ‘Golden Hill with its wicked humor as more of a comedy than a tragedy.   As in Shakespeare, there is a staged play within ‘Golden Hill’ which is great fun as it is rehearsed and performed.

6.  In ‘Golden Hill’, the reader can always expect the unexpected to occur.  Fortunes can change from hero to zero and back to hero in a matter of a few pages.   While the author keeps his story and characters true to their time, there are no other limits to what he imagines for his protagonists.  The vivid scenes range from the Popes Day bonfires to a card game of piquet.

If you are at all interested in historical fiction, ‘Golden Hill’ is one you will not want to miss.

 

 

Grade :   A+   

 

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