Karo’s #CBR5 Review #6: How To Get Into The Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak

Sara reviewed this last year and sent it on to me after I expressed an interest. Given that we live on different continents, that was quite a sweet gesture! Her review is probably a bit more focussed on the literary bit, whereas for me, this hits somewhat closer to home, and I’ll try to make sense of it in this review.
How To Get Into The Twin Palms is the story of Anya, a young woman born in Poland, but raised in America. After a childhood spent furiously trying to be, or at least be perceived as, American, she is now bored with both the restrictive culture of her parents’ home and life in L.A., where she lives in a Russian neighbourhood and struggles to survive on unemployment benefits. Trying to fit in somewhere, she is drawn to the Twin Palms, a club for the better-off Russians of L.A.. In an attempt to gain access to this exclusive club, she starts an affair with Lev, who might or might not be involved in criminal activities.
The story itself is quite depressing in that Anya seems deeply unhappy and barely objects to Lev treating her as a commodity. There isn’t much that excites her (she picks Lev only because he’s Russian and reacts to her attempts at flirtation), and soon it becomes clear that the Twin Palms won’t be the fulfillment she dreams of. It’s a short novel, so Anya doesn’t get much chance to grow or even just be portrayed in a sympathetic way. We never get to know her name, having been told in the beginning that she chooses “Anya” for its Russian vibe. What we get is a short glimpse of the life of a woman unsure of her place in the world, and this is what makes this novel interesting and very touching.
There are many things in this novel that are familiar to me. My husband is from Poland, and from a few visits to the country alone I can relate to Anya’s thoughts about family traditions, local food and – the uncomfortable highlight of any Polish road trip – the sight of prostitutes and grannies selling mushrooms in the forests. But the thing that immediately got me was the start of an early chapter: “What I am is always the first question”. It is. I’m German, I’ve lived in Britain for 8 years, and I’ve made my peace with this question now. It’s almost never a sign of resentment or distrust, it might even be genuine excitement about meeting someone even the tiniest bit exotic, but it still stings. It’s never “What do you do?” or “Do you like [insert topic of discussion]?” Sometimes it’s not even “And what’s your name?” It’s the fact that in some way, I don’t belong. Like Anya, I’m not completely comfortable with my cultural heritage, and I’d gladly masquerade as something else for a while, but like Anya, I lack the language skills. (I will never pass as Polish, even though I’m halfway there by virtue of my marriage, because that language is IMPOSSIBLE! Erhem.) But most days I’m fine. I have become many things; I’ve been made welcome by a lot of people, and I will always rock in quizzes that ask questions about obscure German traditions. My children, I am told again and again, will benefit from their many backgrounds and language skills. But even that worries me. Will my daughter feel like Anya, never truly at home in any of her cultures? She’s only 4, but I’ve heard people comment on her (very slight) German accent more than once. Her German sounds British. Her Polish is that of a toddler. For me, she’s a genius, and these are the things that make her special. Will it still be a positive thing when she’s grown up? At some point in the book, Lev tells Anya she speaks Polish like a child. I felt her pain jumping off the page. These are the things that ocassionally keep me up at night…
There is a lot more going on in How To Get Into The Twin Palms than what actually happens in 190 pages. And while some might argue that the plot is a bit slight, I read a lot more between the lines than I thought I would. And now I need a good Polish vodka.

Karo’s #CBR5 Review #5: The Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh

Yeah! More Amitav Ghosh! I bought this new, in a bookshop, and paid FULL PRICE! That’s how much I love the man.

As with his other novels, there is a lot going on here, too, and not just geographically. On the surface, this is about the flight from India of a young man who is falsely accused of smuggling weapons and causing his aunt, uncle and neighbours to die in an explosion. Alu, who really only wants to be a weaver and be left in peace, hides with friends’ friends and random aquaintances, but is tracked down each time and leaves the country on a rickety smuggling boat. Hot on his heels is a young policeman looking for a promotion, although he is really only interested in birdwatching, sketching and being left alone. Again, on the surface, this doesn’t make for the most exciting novel, because if it were for those two characters alone, we might as well just look at a picture of India in the 1970s, and there would be more excitement in that.
BUT. If I had to sum up Ghosh’s writing in one phrase, it would be “There’s so much more to it”. There is. This novel is full of complex characters, ideas and stories. You could criticize the fact that characters that have dozens of pages of backstory are suddenly left behind once Alu is on the move, but that’s life. People come, people go, and knowing their story is never a bad thing. The Circle of Reason is a bit of a patchwork story, and the way is comes full circle in the end seems a bit unlikely, but the stories it tells are little masterpieces.
On the whole, the novel deals with the big idea of rationalism and the struggle to apply reason to human life. I know next to nothing about the theoretical framework, and I’m sure I could have read a lot more into the stories, but it still served as a nudge towards a few deeper thoughts and questions on my part. For me, it was the recurring theme of all of Ghosh’s novels that pulled me in: displacement. Although my life is a neverending party compared to the struggles of the characters in this novel, the story resonated strongly with me. Wherever Alu, himself an orphan, goes, he meets people who have left their homes in search of a better life. This continues all through the novel. From Bangladeshi refugees and immigrants living on the fringes of a wealthy Arab city state, to Indian doctors living in the midst of the Sahara, marvelling at the dunes, everyone has a far-away home that makes them who they are. They get on with it, and each one contributes to society in their own way. It’s not a story of persecution, racism or any of the big subjects that go hand in hand with migration. It’s really just the many stories of the many people living in Asia and Africa at a certain point in time. And as such, it’s much more powerful than any pamphlet.
Ghosh is a born storyteller, with a rich cultural background, and it’s hard to pick out individual paragraphs that sum up the feeling of his novels. But here is one that made me choke back a tear or two:

“As the plane came in to land, blinded by the glare of the sun, he forgot the Barbary falcon and the Saker falcon and the other birds he hoped to see, for he knew suddenly that al-Ghazira wasn’t a real place at all, but a question: are foreign countries merely not-home, or are they all that home is not?
He was already older.”

You should all go and read Amitav Ghosh now.

Karo’s #CBR5 Review #4: The Man In The Queue by Josephine Tey

I first heard of Josephine Tey last year, just before the whole real-life mystery of Richard III was getting the media treatment. Reading The Daughter of Time had a double effect: I knew my Richard III when his bones were presented to the world (cue smug grin), and I immediately put everything Tey had ever written on my Christmas wish list. I now have a neat little collection on my shelf (are we allowed to use the words “box set”?)
The Man in the Queue is Tey’s first novel, written when the world was young – in 1929. It’s a good old-fashioned crime novel. A man gets stabbed and dies while waiting in line for the last performance of a long-running and very successful play in London’s West End. It takes a while to identify the victim, and the people who were standing close to him just before he died are not helping the investigation much. Inspector Grant does a lot of old-fashioned policing and finally runs a suspect down, only to then seriously doubt his involvement. As far as crime novels go, it’s nothing new, and it’s not all that difficult to guess who the perpetrator is, but that’s not the point – and the plot not being the point is generally a good indication of a good book.
Firstly, Inspector Grant is a good egg. He’s charming, and just all-round nice, even though Tey doesn’t spend a lot of time describing his inner life. Her writing simply makes everything work, and Grant’s investigation, while not exactly thrilling, seems traceable and logical. I liked the man because he made a lot of sense.
Secondly, it’s all so charmingly old-fashioned and outdated. The thought of an Inspector of Scotland Yard running after a suspect and then running straight on to find a public phone box to report back to HQ made me squeal with delight. At one point, he turns up unexpectedly at a witness’ door and pretends he just needs to use the telephone, and nobody finds that at all strange. There are even false beards, and I bet false beards were all the rage in the Twenties. I loved it. The fact that the author never meant for any of this to be out of the ordinary makes it even more charming.
The majority of Tey’s works were written after 1945, and it’ll be interesting to see how her writing and the setting change. There are six more novels, and I’m saving them for cosy evenings.

Karo’s #CBR5 Review #3: The World According to Bumble by David Lloyd


This was meant to be an easy read, but turned into something bigger (and more annoying).

See, I’m a cricket fan. “Fan” seems such a lame word when it comes to cricket, which I found turns people into full-blown obsessives. When you’ve glimpsed enough of the logic behind it – and it’s the most logical game, despite what 80% of the world’s population might think – everything becomes important. You gladly stay up all night looking at an automatically updating scoreboard (like this) WITHOUT ANY PICTURES. You preach to the uninitiated. Your heart performs a little dance when you spot people dressed in white standing around in a field, even if they’re just pharmacists on a field trip. You live cricket. And I should know. I own a 490-page anthology of cricket verse.

So anything from Bumble Lloyd should be great fun. For me, having been of the initiated for only 8 years now, he’s this guy off the telly, commentating for Sky Sports. He was a player and (England) coach before that, but as I said, that was before my time, and I have a lot of catching up to do in that respect. As a commentator, he’s the one for the jokes and innuendo, not always to my taste, but he’s definitely the voice of cricket for many (you wouldn’t think cricket could be funny, eh? Well, it can be.)

Now, one thing I can say about this book is that there is no need for it. Bumble might be great as a commentator; as a writer, not so much. There’s a proper writer “helping”, of course, but the important bits are Lloyd’s, and that’s where the problems start. Turns out Bumble is that bloke off the telly, and no more. He makes no secret of the fact that there isn’t a deeper, more meaningful side to him than the jokes and the enthusiasm, which would be fine if that was your cup of tea, but it’s not mine. He undoubtedly knows a lot about cricket, and he loves it in the same obsessive way as all the cricket nerds I’ve met over the years. But the whole book just reinforces the unfortunate aspects of the cricket scene. It’s a laddish thing. Forget about the gentleman’s game – where Bumble is concerned, it’s a jolly good time with the boys, and what would that be without the thinly veiled misogyny and borderline racism… I’m sure Lloyd is a great guy, and the great lengths he goes to in order to show how much he appreciates pretty much every player he’s ever met is almost annoying. He’s being very, very careful not to discriminate against anyone, but as soon as he starts talking about his mates down the pub or team outings, there WILL be a casual remark about how his Chinese language skills don’t go beyond saying “Herro, isn’t this rubbery” or how his missus keeps him on a short leash (har har). I’m not even ashamed of being so nit-picky about it. It bloody annoys me. It shows the celebrated cricket guy as exactly what he is: a late-middle-aged bloke who’s proud to have never grown out of surroundings where jokes like the above are the only jokes anybody ever makes, and innuendo is the purest form of wit.

Towards the middle of the book, he makes some good points about the future of cricket and the importance of turning the English players into high-profile athletes with a rigorous fitness programme. He knows his stuff, and when it comes to cricket, his approach seems even visionary. Shame about the character.

I guess I’m not the target audience when it comes to this book, not being a typical Bumble follower (maybe because I’m foreign and female? Just a wild guess…). I was looking forward to the cricket talk, but most of the book is Bumble talk, and that might not be for everyone.

Karo’s #CBR5 Review #2: The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser

After reading a few books that were difficult to get through for various reasons, my return to Swedish crime fiction was a relief, and I finished the book in 2 days, prompting my neglected child to yell dramatically “You can NOT read tomorrow, you have to play!”

The thing that has always irritated me about Nesser is his refusal to place his stories in the Swedish countryside we all know from his fellow writers, although we’ve obviously never been there. Instead, his protagonists’ and places’ names sound Dutch, and sometimes not even that. The places don’t exist, and it is never explained why. Although it really doesn’t matter when it comes to the stories, it irks me. Apart from that, I have zero complaints.

Inspector Van Veeteren (see??) is a likeable, slightly flawed character, just like his fictional colleagues Wallander, Adamsberg or Martin Beck. In this, his fifth outing, he ponders early retirement, without wallowing too much in his despair about the world and the depravity of the killers he has dealt with over the years. He doesn’t need to say much, or even ponder much, but the reader gets him. This is one of Nesser’s great strengths. Although the subject of this novel, the murder of two young girls in a super-mad-Christian holiday camp, is decidedly bleak, Nesser manages to convey Van Veeteren’s slightly detached mental wanderings in at times ironic fashion. Like the best literary police inspectors, VV doesn’t have to say much to get the job done.

Rather than just banking on the audience’s disgust for the murderer of the girls, the story opens up an interesting subject for discussion: Does the modern atheist’s disgust in the face of religious indoctrination of children warrant police bias, rougher methods of questioning, or even physical assault of members of a sect? Even, and most importantly for this novel, when there is no clear indication that the sect’s guru is involved at all? It makes for interesting reading, and you might catch yourself questioning your own preconceptions after you finish the book, which doesn’t usually happen with a crime novel. Van Veeteren is a great detective, and I do hope he doesn’t retire after all.

Karo’s #CBR5 Review #1: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

This was an unexpected present from a good friend, which automatically makes me like the thing, although the description did not sound like my cup of tea at all: A new housekeeper is sent to work for an ageing Math professor, whose short-term memory only spans 80 minutes, while he remembers every math problem he’s ever solved. The housekeeper quickly adapts to the challenges of this particular job, and comes to enjoy spending time with the professor and the world of maths. All this in a book that’s quite short – it made it seem rather arty. It is the perfect book for a book club discussion, but it turned out to be a lovely little book (I’m afraid at least half of this sentence is meant to sound condescending…).
The story is quite straightforward, without much pondering and soul-searching, which, along with the detached narrative voice and the fact that the only names used are those of Baseball players, keeps it out of the arty/overdone camp that I can’t stand. It’s as much about the setting and the atmosphere as it is about the plot that could have easily been made into a much, much bigger book. As it is, neither the math parts nor the slightly irritating baseball connection is dwelled upon too much, and what remains is a melancholic story about unlikely friends and the importance of memory. And baseball. (Seriously! It should have been cricket. It’s the original mathematical game. I would have read a 600-page novel about THAT. Instead, I just sat there shaking my head, wishing they would get back to the mathematical formulas…)
In short: Don’t let the subject or the review blurbs put you off this book. ‘Tis lovely.