Posted in Book review

Book review: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened To You In All The Confusion? by Johan Harstad

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The person you love is 72.8 percent water and there’s been no rain for weeks.”

With that opening sentence to set the tone, Johan Harstad moves us gently into the world of Mattias, age 29, a gardener, a resident of Stavanger, Norway, a man who wants nothing out of life than to be unnoticed and unnoticeable.

I was the kid in your class in elementary school, in high school, in college, whose name you can’t remember when you take out the class photo ten years later…the one you didn’t miss when I left your class and started at another school, or when I didn’t come to your party…the one you thought didn’t have a life….I was practically invisible, wasn’t I? And I was perhaps the happiest person you could have known.

Mattias lives with his girlfriend Helle and works at a nursery. He idolizes Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, because he was second. One fine day, he loses both job and girlfriend and decides to accompany his friends’ band to a gig in the Faroe Islands as their sound tech. But something happens….and the next thing both we and Mattias know, he’s in a residential psychiatric facility in Torshavn.

Mattias spends the next year navigating his new surroundings and coming to terms with his illness. During that time, he integrates himself into a community, making a human connection, with his psychiatrist Havstein, with the other residents, for perhaps the first time.

Havstein runs the facility with a loose rein and dreams of moving to the Caribbean. Ennen listens to The Cardigans and rides buses obsessively and believes she isn’t real.

Ennen gets it into her head that she is, in fact, that person, that person from nowhere, the person who looks at you that way, on a bus, on a train, or catching a plane, the woman you never see again, she’s convinced that anyone who mentions such an experience has in fact seen her, which is why she doesn’t exist.

Palli, a welder and sailor, barely speaks. Anna is the mother hen, the domestic goddess, the quiet center who keeps the household running. Together with Mattias, a family of sorts forms…or, more accurately, Mattias is adopted into the family already formed, each member with a weakness, a fragile hold on reality, each strengthened and perfected by the solidarity of the group.

Mattias’s thoughts tell the story, streaming in clear, spare prose and paragraphs punctuated almost solely by commas. This run-on running train-of-thought style provoked the occasional “Oh, come on, give me a period already!” response, but for the most part was unobtrusive and served the story well. The bleak far northern European locale — unfamiliar enough to this untraveled American that I had to find it on a map — is so fundamental to the psyche and behavior of Mattias and the others that it can be considered a character of the novel itself. And the story is bleak, gray, cold, like its locale, locked in a perpetual winter, but in the end, spring comes round again, and there’s warmth and sweetness and just the merest hint of sunshine for Mattias.

View all my reviews

Posted in Book review

Book review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the HedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Madame Renée Michel is the widowed concierge of an apartment building in Paris. On the surface, and to the casual observer, she is the epitome of such an individual: cranky, dim, and interested only in her soap operas and her cat, Leo. In private, and apparent only to those who know how to see, she feeds her amazing intellect by devouring art, music, and literature while secretly looking down upon the less intelligent but vastly more wealthy social elite who inhabit her building. Since her husband’s death several years ago, Renée shares this side of herself only with her friend Manuela, a housekeeper in the building, and thus her social equal, although not her intellectual equal. Renée wants desperately to maintain her disguise of dull mediocrity. She is petrified of being found out; she cloaks the fear with pungent disdain to hide it even from herself.

Paloma Josse is the the youngest daughter of one of the families in Madame Michel’s building. Behind her disguise as a typical vacuous ‘tween, she is full of herself as only a 12-year-old can be, especially one who is vastly smarter than the rest of her family. She cannot see the point in life. She intends to commit suicide by burning down the building on her 13th birthday, but she keeps a journal in which she writes her observations and thoughts in case she finds some reason to continue living.

Renée and Paloma have much in common — their intelligence and the disguising thereof chief among them — but it takes a new resident to bring them out of their protective shells and, eventually, together.

When wealthy Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu buys one of the apartments, the whole building is abuzz with gossip and speculation. Monsieur Ozu is polite but distant. A shared involuntary flinch at the misuse of language during a conversation with a fellow tenant brings Renée to Kakuro’s attention, and Paloma endears herself to him when she addresses him in schoolgirl Japanese while they are stuck in the elevator.

Alternately told by Renée’s inner dialogues and Paloma’s journal entries, the story of how these three disparate individuals become friends and confidantes is a marvel to discover. Renée begins to blossom, Paloma becomes open to possibilities: even the abrupt and unexpected tragedy that ends the story does nothing to diminish the hope and joy Kakuro brings to these two lives.

A beautiful story, beautifully told. And more than occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. I loved it.

View all my reviews

Posted in Book review

Book review: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

The Map of TimeThe Map of Time by Félix J. Palma
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ah, where to begin…

Perhaps with Jack the Ripper, whose murder of Mary Kelly sparks the suicidal despair of young Jack Harrington which opens the novel. Perhaps with H.G. Wells, whose novel The Time Machine plays a pivotal role not only in saving Jack Harrington’s life, but in saving literary history. Perhaps with Gilliam Murray, who was inspired by Wells to market his own method of time travel to the London public. Perhaps with John Merrick, or Bram Stoker, or Colin Garrett of Scotland Yard, or any number of other players, both historical and fictional, that populate this sweeping steampunk portrait of Victorian England.

It’s virtually impossible to synopsize this story without giving away its twists. So let me just say this: between the covers of this book you will find two love stories, a murder mystery, a fabulously complex swindle, clanking steam-driven automatons, a tale of African adventure, a discussion of the contradictions and paradoxes of time travel, and much bouncing about through time to witness future events or set past events right.

I began reading this book late one Friday evening. I stayed in bed reading it the following Saturday morning…in fact, it was nearly 12:30 PM when I finally looked up after consuming nearly 400 pages. Yes, it’s that good. The remaining 200+ pages were sped through the following Saturday morning, and left me wanting more more more.

So go! Buy it. Read it. Love it.

Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to read this book.

View all my reviews