Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #7: It’s Fine By Me by Per Petterson

its-fine-by-me-pettersonIt’s Fine By Me

by Per Petterson

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

(This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.)

Although this is Per Petterson’s first novel, it was only published in the US last year. It’s Fine By Me is the slim story of teenage Audun Sletten and his complicated relationships with his absent father, his mother, and his best friend, Arvid. He and Arvid are growing up in working class Oslo, and both aspire to some form of greatness, even though they are unsure by what means to get there.

One afternoon, Audun thinks he spots his father walking down the street, and the idea of his presence both unnerves and angers him. He is the ghost of a difficult past, one that makes a teenager cultivate a hardened exterior. However much Audun wants to believe in something, like his friend with his steadfast politics, it bothers him that he has nothing but the desire to move on.

I am tired. I still have homework to do and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach tells me something at school is not going the right way. What I do, I do well enough. What I hear, I remember and understand, I am not an idiot, but it’s as if the rest of my class has taken off on some journey they forgot to tell me about, as if there is a secret pact between teachers and students that does not include me. They know something I do not, and that’s how it’s been for a long time now.

Like Petterson’s later novel, I Curse The River of Time, Audun’s story is one of loneliness, while also making the larger point that so many of everyone‘s stories are about loneliness. Inarticulate sadness. Audun’s mother mourns for her lost eldest child, Egil. Audun’s older sister, Kari, has already moved away and lives with a possibly abusive boyfriend. With half a year of school left, Audun doesn’t want to be like everyone else, but he thinks he wants to be a writer, maybe like Jack London, who he and Arvid like to read.

Petterson’s writing has a difficult beauty. He can describe both scenery and mental turmoil in true ways that do not necessarily romanticize the details — even if the characters believe they are giving us the rose-tinted view.

I have not forgotten the cornfields in autumn, or Lake Aurtjern in July or the apple tree outside my window, and all I had to do was reach out and pick an apple, or the long gravel road where Siri Skirt used to walk and show her bottom for two ten øre coins, and she wasn’t wearing anything underneath, and once I was allowed to walk round twice while she held her skirt up under her chin; or the rafting holiday on Lake Hurdal. My father forced me to come with him, and made me pull up a pike that scared me witless, and when I refused, he hit me in the face, and then I hammered a nail into my foot, and we were forced to go home.

Petterson also appears quite fond of exploring memory and the act of becoming consumed by it. These characters do not succumb to memory; they make the active decision to let their thoughts take hold. They want to figure out what these memories mean, and how their past has made them who they are. At times, Audun realizes he’s been living mainly in his own head at the expense of his personal relationships, but he’s unsure if he cares.

Both It’s Fine By Me and I Curse the River of Time are light on plot, but they are wholly interesting as character pieces. I’ve really enjoyed both, and they make me want to read Petterson’s other (perhaps more famous) novel, Out Stealing Horses. When it comes to exploring melancholy, he’s one of the best.

Full Disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them, and will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #6: A Winter’s Night by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

A Winter’s Night

by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

Translated from the Italian by Christine Feddersen Manfredi

(This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.)

“Told in the tradition of country folktales,” A Winter’s Night‘s jacket copy reads. For some readers, I imagine that might be a deterrent, and if it is, resist your resistance. This expansive, multi-generational novel set in the first half of twentieth century Italy is as enjoyable as it is lovely. Manfredi gathers a lot of history into 400 pages, and while it’s not exactly a quick read, Night never feels like a slog either — even if the characters themselves wonder when they might escape certain slog-like points in their lives.

The Bruni family work a farm in the Padan Plain, and their barn has long been a place where travelers can stay for a night or several, where the kitchen can always scrounge up a little bit extra, and the stories have always been free-flowing. There are nine Bruni children born to Clerice and Callisto — seven boys, two girls — Gaetano, Armando, Raffaele (aka “Floti”), Checco, Savino, Dante, Fredo, Maria, and Rosina. For the most part, the women are not expected to work the wheat fields as they are on other villages’ farms, but come harvest time, everyone helps out in all the ways that they can. It also during this time that the Bruni’s hospitality shines.

As the men ate, the gleaners went to work, each one with a sack in hand, picking up the ears left behind by the thresher or fallen from the wagons carrying the sheaves.

Clerice always took care that the permission to glean was only given to those who really needed it: the wives of men who were unemployed, or of drunkards who were only good at getting them pregnant. Clerice would always think of the women and, more than to Almighty God, she’d pray to the Madonna, because Our Lady had worried and suffered and she had lost a son and she knew what it meant. Clerice knew what a hard lot women had in life and — as honest and religious as she was — when she heard talk about this woman or that one on the bottom of some dry canal wrapped around some worker or day laborer, she’d say: good for her, at least she’s enjoying something.

That worry at the idea of losing a son soon becomes more realistic as World War I gets underway and all sons but the youngest are soon called up to serve. As the war drags on, even the youngest son is drafted. News of each other is intermittent and often late enough to be possibly inaccurate. The difficult time between the two world wars sees Floti becoming frustrated with the burgeoning fascist movement in Italy, and soon he is running for local elections and running into trouble with the political opposition. This, and the notification of inheritance from one of Clerice’s relatives, is where the usually ironclad family unit begins to weaken. When each child begins to marry and have (and lose) children, there are too many opinions to consider, and each loss makes it more difficult to carry on as usual.

Floti himself had slowly become convinced that he could not stand and watch as the rights of men who worked from morning till night were systematically trampled upon. The loss of his wife had pushed him even further into politics, in no small part because it took his mind off her. He decided to run for councilor in the local elections, even though Clerice begged him not to, not to get mixed up in things, because only trouble could come from it.

By World War II, we are thrust more so in the lives of Clerice’s grandchildren, mostly the boys who go on to fight. The conflicting feelings of sympathizing with those fighting Hitler, all while their Italian land is being pummeled by those forces, is an interesting perspective not often seen in WWII literature. At least, outside of Italy, I reckon, which is why publishing translations of this sort is so important.

Manfredi does an excellent job of corralling all these different family members’ stories, although because there are so many people to keep in mind and so many decades pass, I sometimes had difficulty remembering who belonged to who. His ability to set the scene — the tranquility of a warm fire, the brutality of war — is outstanding and immersing. The folktale nature of the story works because it is like the familial stories handed down generation after generation, as though they are being told right now in a barn much like the Bruni’s. It’s a great way to frame these periods of history, and if one has even a passing interest in these moments, I do recommend reading A Winter’s Night.

Full Disclosure: Europa Editions sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #5: Seeds by Richard Horan

Seeds by Richard Horan (cover)I’m with Horan on the interesting nature of his project, and the potential it has for reforesting the descendants of old trees, as well as reminding us that some moments cannot be contained to a “sterile” museum. However, I wish Seeds were a better book. He needed to either go the straight history route, or — as I suspect straight history would be difficult for him to write — he needed to be more complete with the memoir side of his project. Though he says that these people were important to him, we don’t know a lot about why. Bits and pieces, sure, but like I said, it’s all very on the surface. I know what it’s like to be engrossed in a fun, personal project, and so I want to know all that very personal stuff. So it’s not that Seeds is a bad concept for a book; it’s that I wished the approach and execution were different. As it stands, it is a decent library check-out, but likely a disappointing purchase.

(My full review appears on Glorified Love Letters)

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #4: Sexy Sailors edited by Neil Plakcy

Sexy Sailors: Gay Erotic Stories edited by Neil PlakcyOh, lovely men of the water! Not that I have anything against the Navy, but what a relief to see that this collection did not solely focus on gay men who were involved in military service. Military-themed erotica is a whole other people-in-uniform subset that one often sees in collections, but this one branches out to include men who know their way around shipping vessels, yachts, basic sailboats, and more. Not every story takes places on an actual boat, but all are tied to the sailing profession in some way. Though the book is a scant 200 pages, most of the stories are quite good and full of fun, hot scenes that should satisfy anyone who likes reading about men who are attracted to each other.

(My full review appears on Glorified Love Letters. Might be NSFW.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #3: Losing Clementine by Ashley Ream

Losing Clementine by Ashley Ream (cover)What a nice surprise this book is. When I began reading it, I wasn’t so sure about it. The narrator, Clementine Pritchard, seemed to speak as though she were trying to show off how clever she is, and at times, it comes off a bit strained. However, that strained cleverness does have an underlying point — Clementine is very, very sad and tired of life, and making jokes keeps her functional. She’s decided to spend a month getting her affairs in order, and then she’s going to kill herself. Each chapter is titled with how many days she has left to go. Eventually, I settled into her voice and her situation, and the interesting thing about the book is that I found myself not necessarily rooting for her life one way or the other. When it comes to a subject as touchy as suicide, that’s an interesting mental space in which to be.

(My full review appears on Glorified Love Letters.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #2: 100 Love Sonnets/Cien Sonetos de Amor by Pablo Neruda

100 Love Sonnets/Cien Sonetos de Amor
by Pablo Neruda
(translated from the Spanish by Stephen Tapscott)

I don’t remember how I stumbled across it, but Pablo Neruda’s soneto XVII is what made me want to read him. I’d heard of the Chilean poet, of course, but he was yet another gap in my literary reading history. Perhaps it’s more suiting for my personality to first approach him from a place of love, rather than his political work. I don’t know. What I do know is that soneto XVII is the one for me:

No te amo como si fueras rosa de sal, topacio
o flecha de clavelas que propagan el fuego:
te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras,
secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.

Te amo como la planta que no florece y lleva
dentro de sí, escondida, la luz de aquellas flores,
y gracias a tu amor vive oscuro en mi cuerpo
el apretado aroma que ascendió de la tierra.

Te amo sin saber cómo, ni cuándo, ni de dónde,
te amo directamente sin problemas ni orgullo:
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,

sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres,
tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía,
tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño.

In English:

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off,
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Each poem is laid out en face, Spanish and English. My rusty Spanish skills suddenly became more functional from being able to read both versions and by training my mind to once again get the gist of what I read en español before reading the translation. These poems, dedicated to his wife Maltilde, are often meditative and lovely, but also quite grounded. He is in love with all of her, especially her skin and her demeanor. “No one can reckon what I owe you, Love,” he writes in LXIV.

I like that this is a very simple collection. Very little attempt is made at dissecting the meaning behind each poem, apart from a few notes at the back that have mainly to do with geography. We are left to interpret for ourselves.

The only strange thing about this edition is that each sonnet has a drop cap letter of a different font, as though whoever was responsible for the layout wanted one example of each type of lettering. Drop caps that are a different font from the main piece are fine, but they should be consistent. If nothing else, Futura has no business being involved with a Neruda soneto.

Reading the whole book at once, I started to notice Neruda’s pet expressions. References to earth and bread and wood appear frequently, and while they are effective images in the poems themselves, seeing them repeated one after the other can start to feel stale. Maybe that’s unfair, but sometimes I found myself studying the Spanish-to-English translation less intently as the book went on. I didn’t slow down, which perhaps I would have done more completely had I dipped in and out of the book over time.

Though there are many great lines and a handful of true favorites I could continue to quote, instead I’ll leave you with XCVII en inglés. It reminds me of a certain madman in a blue box.

These days, one must fly — but where to?
Without wings, without an airplane, fly — without a doubt:
the footsteps have passed on, to no avail;
they didn’t move the feet of the traveler along.
At every instant, one must fly — like
eagles, like houseflies, like days:
must conquer the rings of Saturn
and build new carillons there.
Shoes and pathways are no longer enough,
the earth is no use anymore to the wanderer:
the roots have already crossed through the night,
and you will appear on another planet,
stubbornly transient,
transformed in the end into poppies.

(This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Review #1: Papercraft 2: Design and Art with Paper edited by Robert Klanten and B. Meyer

Papercraft 2 (cover)Papercraft 2 is certainly a book I would recommend to anyone with an appreciation for the visual arts, no matter the discipline. The artists featured explore what is possible with the material in such wide-ranging ways, and it almost makes a non-crafty person like myself want to pick up an x-acto knife and fool around with some cardstock. This is expert, beautiful work, and I will often revisit it.

(My full review appears on Persephone Magazine.)