Category Archives: Fiction

Inspired by fiction

Midnight’s Children – a remarkable story about synchronicity

According to the Man Booker prize judges, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie might be the best book of all times. That’s what made me decide to read it. I don’t feel like I’ve read enough to have an opinion on what might be the best book of all times, but it’s a marvelous story.
The protagonist and narrator of the story is Saleem Sinai, who tells the story of his extraordinary life and how it’s fused to India’s political turmoil. Saleem is born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact moment of India’s independence from the United Kingdom. Because of this synchronicity, Saleem’s life is linked to that of the newborn country.

I must (to my shame) admit that I knew close to nothing about the history of India and the rest of the region. This book taught me a lot and also motivated me to read up on it a little bit more. If you have visited the region or are planning to this book is worth a read just for a very entertaining way to get yourself educated a bit. Do note that the book is fiction, so not everything should be taken literally. The book also gives the reader a glimpse at some cultural phenomena. One that I got to experience myself and that comes back many times in the book is eating (and chewing on) paan. It must have been about 5 years ago now and I still can’t read or write about it without my insides making a double backflip. (I know some of the people who were there read the blog and I’m sure they’ll be smiling while reading and remembering it.)

The life-changing events and absurdities in Saleem’s life keep coming and make sure that even though Midnight’s Children is a long read, it never gets boring. There is always a remarkable twist in the story just around the corner. The book is also full of brilliant one-liners and potential internet meme’s.
One that stood out for me is “Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.”. It’s easy to spend a few hours reminiscing about the truth in that.

The book constantly hovers between a retelling of history and wildly imaginative fictional story. A bit like Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time does too. Although it’s about a different time and place. Rushdie (or Saleem) addresses this on several occasions without specifying what is true and what is make-believe.
Saleem says “Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.”. We don’t have to stretch our imagination to strongly feel this statement. I don’t think there are many people who don’t feel that the time in which we live is incredible, for better or for worse. I wonder how people will look back at today in let’s say 100 years’ time. Perhaps there will be a writer that can write a story as imaginative and as delicately linked to history as Rushdie did about the 31 years after India’s independence.

There’s even a statement from Midnight’s Children that might help to explain some of what we see happening today. “Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.” Who is a sane human and who isn’t remains up for debate of course…

More beautiful sentences and the interesting statements can be found throughout the book, but there is no way for me to weave them into a semi-coherent blog post. If you are curious about them, or about Saleem’s story I propose you just dive into Midnights Children and get fascinated by Rushdie’s beautiful writing and his incredible imagination and storytelling.

Rip Tide – more to it than meets the eye

After all the seriousness from the last few weeks, I read Rip Tide by Dame Stella Rimington this week. I love the idea of – and reading about – badass women. Both Stella and Liz Carlyle, the protagonist, fall into that category. Stella Rimington was the head of MI5 before she became a writer. I can’t begin to imagine the obstacles she must have faced to become the head of MI5. I’m sure not everyone was happy to see a woman climb the ranks like that. It must have taken a lot of hard work and perseverance to get there. And she must have been very very good at her job.

I have no idea how good Stella really was as an agent and the head of MI5, but I love her writing. She has written what is so far a 10 part series about Liz Carlyle, who is also an MI5 agent. Rip Tide is the 6th book in the series.
Even though the protagonist is a woman, the books are not just for women. After all, women also read books with male protagonists. If we didn’t it would limit our choice of books to read significantly and we would miss out on many beautiful stories.

Liz comes across as a real woman. There is no over the top drama, she’s not worried about the size of her breasts or the way they might be moving (or not). She does sometimes regret wearing heels, or worries about what to wear to not stand out and feel uncomfortable at particular events or places.
I love Liz’s empathy and her concern for other people’s wellbeing and the way in which we see her struggle when her values clash with the responsibilities that are part of her job.

In Rip Tide, a charity’s ship is being attacked by pirates of the coast of Somalia. It’s the third time pirates try to take one of their ships and its crew hostage. Is it a coincidence or is there more to it? One of the pirates is not like the others. He doesn’t communicate with the other pirates. What’s his story?

All the Liz Carlyle novels are enjoyable and exciting from start to finish. They are easy to read and there is enough tension to not want to put the book down, but it’s not so tense that you are afraid of what you’ll discover if you read on.
I highly recommend all Liz Carlyle books, including Rip Tide. For those new to the series, the first book is At Risk.

Stella Rimington

Stella Rimington was the chair of judges of the Man Booker prize in 2011 and her speech describes some of the interesting dynamics around that role.
It’s almost impossible to just pick one snippet from it, so I’ll just share the start. You can find the full speech at the Man Booker Prize web site.

“Well – I thought the intelligence world was the place for intrigue – but that was before I met the publishing world.
Since our shortlist was announced we’ve seen black propaganda, de-stabilisation operations, plots and double agents – worthy of the KGB at its height.”

The Secret River – how a lack of understanding can lead to a disaster

The Secret River is loosely based on the story of Kate Grenville’s ancestor Solomon Wiseman, but it’s a work of fiction.
It’s incredibly well written. The book tells the story of William and Sal and it feels heavy from start to finish.
William and Sal meet as kids in London. William has a big family with a lot of brothers and sisters. There isn’t enough food for everyone and he’s often cold. Sal’s an only child and her family is a bit better off. William and Sal end up being some of Australia’s early settlers.

Usually, when reading I try to identify with one of the main characters. In this book, I’m on the outside looking in. None of the characters are very likable. I felt sorry for them, but at the same time, they don’t seem to handle their circumstances very well. It’s easy to say that while being sat on a comfortable sofa with tea and a biscuit of course.

In a way, the book shows the worst sides of humans. There is a total lack of empathy for other classes and people with a different background and culture. Those in a position of power treat the people that need their kindness and support the most with contempt. As they gain power people behave like their former oppressors, even though they are aware of how that behavior hurt them in the past. They take the full force of their self-loathing out on others.
Throughout the book decisions and actions lead to crashes in slow motion. With horrible consequences. While it’s easy to see it happening from a distance it does make me wonder if I would be able to see it happening if this was my life and these were my decisions and actions.

The Secret River is a strong reminder of how important it is to be open to other people and to try and understand what’s driving them. The characters in the book are unable to truly connect and reach each other and shame and entitlement is stopping them from really trying. It’s painful to watch.
The more different people seem to be at first glance, the harder it can be to connect. We should look for ways to communicate and not give up because it’s hard. We shouldn’t feel embarrassed because we are trying and not succeeding the first time.
This is a reminder for myself as much as anyone. Especially being prepared to try to connect, fail and try again. It’s ok to be uncomfortable and as today’s world is becoming smaller and more diverse it might be more important than ever.

The Secret River made me feel some of the painful history of Australia. It also made me realize while I learned about the facts of Dutch colonization, I have little awareness of the feelings and the emotions that must have been part of it. The violence, pain, and injustice.
I want to find a book like The Secret River that can teach me about the pain and injustice that are part of my own past.

I learned about The Secret River through this Youtube video.
If you are lucky enough to have an Australian iTunes account I think the Secret River mini-series will be well worth a watch.

The Secret River

Macbeth – A tale of ruthless ambition

Macbeth is the second Shakespeare play that I read. Before I tried, I didn’t think I’d be able to understand, let alone enjoy Shakespeare. Last year I visited Shakespeare’s Globe during a weekend trip to London. I found these cute little books from the Macmillan Collector’s Library that didn’t seem too daunting, so I decided to try one. Some of the words look a bit different, but often reading out loud will make it easier to understand.

The books in this series start with an extensive introduction, which explains the outline of the story. There’s also an overview of the names and roles of the most important characters in the play. With names like Macbeth, Macduff, and Malcolm this is helpful.

Macbeth is a story about how ambition and greed can make ordinary people become violent and ruthless. It’s called the Scottish play, as most of it is set in Scotland and focuses on the fight for the Scottish crown.
Macbeth is a general in King Duncan’s army. When three witches tell him that he will one day be king Macbeth’s ambition gets the best of him. He decides not to wait for “one day” and takes matters into his own hand. At first, Macbeth is hesitant about killing, but Lady Macbeth is ruthless and even asks the spirits to fill her with cruelty.
After having killed the roles are reversed. Macbeth develops a taste for it while his wife is being consumed by guilt and slowly loses her mind.

There is a lot of violence and death in the book, but the most heartbreaking part is when one of the noblemen has to deliver the news of the death of Macduff’s wife and children to him in England.
“Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard”

Needless to say that the writing is beautiful. It’s easy to be so focused on the story that you forget to pay attention to the beautiful sentences. There are several parts of the book that I read multiple times because I wanted to focus on the beauty of the prose rather than just read and understand the story. I know that I’m a couple of centuries late to this party, but I feel it’s worth noting as there might be more non-native English speakers who shun away from Shakespeare, thinking it will be too difficult to read. It’s doable and worth the effort!

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes

Good Omens – The end of the world as we know it

Good Omens was written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s smart and funny and unusual. The book had been on my reading wishlist for a while, but I must admit that what got me to pick it up was the trailer of the series that will premiere at the end of May on Amazon Prime. It will come to the BBC 6 months after that.

Good Omens is about the end of the world. There’s a demon who likes to annoy people, but who also has a soft spot for them. And an angel who wants people to be kind, but who also likes to tease them. And who loves books. A lot.
They have both lived on earth since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of it. While their respective bosses are anxiously waiting for Armageddon (or the great war between heaven and hell and good and evil), they would like things to stay as they are. It’s hard to hide things from God and the Devil, which means that both get in trouble for trying to avoid Armageddon.

The book is a great work of fiction and you can read it as just that and enjoy it immensely.
There is another layer in it though, that mocks the concept of witch hunts and that exposes false dichotomies. In Good Omens, heaven and hell do equal amounts of damage by the absolutism of the ideas that they promote. Both are pushing towards the ultimate battle between good and evil, which they know will destroy the world, regardless of who will be victorious.

You might expect that a book based on the premise of the clever plotting of the end of the world would feel dark, but it doesn’t. The story is always light and funny and it keeps moving fairly quickly. The characters feel very real, and everyone is subtly mocked in equal measures.

While the “about the authors” part in most books is informative at best, in this book it’s almost as entertaining as the rest of the book. Reading about the friendship between Terry and Neil is heartwarming. The way in which they both describe the process of how they wrote Good Omens together is a joy. It even makes writing fiction sound more like fun than just like a lot of hard work in solitude. Perhaps writing together will be the key for me to one day write fiction after all.
I will definitely read Good Omens again and I can’t wait for the series to come to the BBC.

Good Omens Series

Seeing through time

I just finished reading Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I never read it before and I picked it because several people that I admire talk very highly of both the book and its author. It’s remarkably easy to read.

The most fascinating thing about the book though is the use of time in it. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, travels through time. He has no control over it, he just keeps jumping back and forth. As a reader, you only experience a moment once, but Billy himself can live through the same moment multiple times. He doesn’t change what happens, nor is there the suggestion that he would want to. He simply experiences it.

He meets many colorful characters, of which the Trafalmadorians are the most remarkable ones. They kidnap Billy and explain that they can see six dimensions. This means that they can see all times simultaneously. They see time in the same way that we see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. Past, present and future just “are”. Because of this concept of time, they don’t see death as the end of something. It just means that the person who died will not be around in a particular part of time. But he or she will still around during other times.

Although I can’t see six dimensions, I like the idea of thinking about time like this. Someone might be here today, and they were around in the past. You spent time together. At a certain moment, the person might die. They won’t be around to experience new things together in the future. But the moments that you shared and the time that you spent together will always be there. We might not be able to experience all time simultaneously, but we can go back to those moments in the past and still enjoy them by remembering.

This is not only true for time spent with people who are no longer there, it’s also true for other moments in your life. Some of these moments might be crisp and beautiful, like the view of a mountain lake on a sunny day. Other moments might be more like a dark cave with spiders and bats flying around in them. Going back to those isn’t very appealing. You might as well avoid thinking about them too much, as you can’t change what already happened. It can be very soothing and inspiring to go back to enjoy the happy memories every now and then though. But don’t get stuck. Remember to experience today.