Tag Archives: Hogarth

The Room by Jonas Karlsson (transl. Neil Smith): Kafka in the office

The RoomThis is my second review of a Scandi book this year and we’re only half-way through January. Both prove that it’s not all crime and angst in the chilly north. Jonas Karlsson’s short fable manages to be wacky, funny and thought-provoking all within a very few pages. Set in an open plan Swedish office, it’s about Björn and his conviction that somewhere between the toilets and the recycling bin at his new workplace there’s a small room in which he’s his best self and does his best work. Unfortunately, where he sees a door his new colleagues see a blank wall.

Björn’s two weeks into his job with the shadowy Authority (eliciting the inevitable comparison with Kafka) when he stumbles upon the room. Standing in front of its mirror he notices that he looks considerably smarter, better turned out and somehow more alert. Over the course of the next few weeks he visits it regularly, taking a colleague aside for a confidential chat and even having an erotic encounter in there at the Christmas party. Everyone else insists that he’s spending increasing amounts of time standing next to the wall and they’re not happy. Over the very short course of Karlsson’s novella, Björn goes from office outcast to rising star, but will it last?

Reading Karlsson’s novella will take a couple of hours at most but that feels quite some time to be inside Björn’s head. Arrogant and superior, he’s devoid of all social skills ignoring the friendly overtures of his new colleagues in a manner worthy of The Bridge’s Saga but without the endearing habit of at least trying to understand other people. Despite the menial tasks he’s asked to perform, he’s convinced that his brilliance will be recognised and eventually it is which may well have you grinding your teeth in annoyance along with his colleagues. It’s very funny at times, bringing back cringe-making memories of working in open plan offices with its petty skirmishes about territory and mind-numbing meetings spent crammed in to the senior manager’s goldfish bowl, but it’s also about how those who are different are perceived by the rest of us. Björn’s colleagues are all too keen to have him kicked out for his bizarre behaviour. It’s quite an uncomfortable read at times, but often very amusing one and thought-provoking with it. Quite a feat in a mere 176 pages.

Books to Look Out for in January 2015

I know you’ve all get your minds on Christmas but I thought it might be time for a little taster of what 2015 has to offer before we get overdosed on carols and all that malarkey. It’s a good month, too. No huge names leap out for me but there are several interesting looking treats nevertheless.

Cover imageI’ll start with the appropriately named debut, The Winter War,  by Finland’s answer to Jonathan Franzen according to its publishers but I’m not letting that put me off. Middle class Helsinki couple Max and Katriina appear to have a perfect life but as we all know that can’t be true. Katriina no longer loves Max, their adult daughters both have problems and as he nears his sixtieth birthday, Max strides off into dangerous territory. It’s compared to ‘a big, contemporary, humane American novel, but with a distinctly Scandinavian edge’ which sounds just the ticket to me.

Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is about Bjorn (bit of a Scandi theme going on here, I know) a discontented bureaucrat who finds a secret room in his office in which he feels wonderfully empowered, performing to the exacting standards demanded by the Authority with ease. Everyone else, however, denies its existence. It’s an intriguing idea which could easily backfire but it sounds worth a try.

I remember reading Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty, and not getting on with it very well but I like the sound of The Lightning Tree enough to give her another try. Set in Newcastle in the mid-1980s it’s about Ursula, raised on big ideas and keen to start the adventure of adult life, and Jerry, a class warrior with an altogether different sort of upbringing, who fall in love with each other. She heads off to India while he goes to Oxford – will their relationship survive? Recommended for fans of both The Line of Beauty and The Marriage Plot, – two very different novels, make of that what you will – it’s described as ‘lyrical and funny’.

Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is another title that could go either way. Jonathan Franzen describes it as ‘hilarious…cracklingly intelligent…and original in every sentence’, apparently, but as you may have noticed I’m not a fan of Mr Franzen. It sounds a little like an early Paul Auster which is where the attractions lies for me. Narrated by Ben, a writer who has just secured a big advance after the ecstatic reception of his first novel and is now writing his second narrated by ‘Ben’, 10:04 ‘charts an exhilarating course through the contemporary landscape of sex, friendship, memory, art and politics’, apparently. Not lacking in ambition, then.

Let’s end with what I hope will be a highly entertaining nineteenth-century romp, the wonderfully named LucyThe Hourglass Factory Ribchester’s debut  The Hourglass Factory, which takes us to the circus with the equally wonderfully named Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist, tiger tamer and suffragette, who’s stage getup includes the tightest laced corset you’ve ever seen and certainly wouldn’t want to experience. When Ebony disappears mid-performance, intrepid girl reporter Frankie George – fascinated with all things circus-related – is determined to find out what’s happened to her. Sounds like a rip-roaring tale, just the thing for fireside reading.

That’s it for January books. As ever a click on a title will reveal more information at Waterstones website and if you want to know what I’m hoping for in my Christmas stocking just click here.

Morocco bound

Cover imageHaving enjoyed a couple of holidays in Morocco, I was drawn to Lawrence Osborne’s new novel, The Forgiven, although its synopsis – bickering couple get lost and knock down a young Moroccan on their way to a hedonistic party thrown by two gay men in their lavishly restored desert retreat – seemed unlikely to bring back many memories for me. At first everything seemed disappointingly black and white, complete with cultural stereotypes, but a few chapters in it became clear that Osborne’s approach is more subtle than simply rich white Europeans versus poor exploited Moroccans. Apparently unsympathetic characters reveal themselves as not quite as abhorrent as they first appear and vice versa. This is Osborne’s second novel – he’s written several non-fiction books – and I noticed in his biographical notes that he lives in Bangkok. It seems that he has a bit of a reputation as a nomad which made me wonder if his experiences as an ex-pat had influenced the writing of The Forgiven. I’ll be posting a longer review on Nudge for those who want a bit more detail.

I’m also enjoying Polly Morland’s The Society of Timid Souls. Like many of us, Morland is a bit of Society of Timid Soulscoward but found herself intrigued by the eponymous society set up to combat stage fright by concert pianist Bernard Gabriel in 1942. It was a huge success although it didn’t last long. A documentary maker, Morland, had begun to feel that the Western world was in the grips of a post-9/11 anxiety pandemic and decided to attack some of her own fears by investigating the bravery of others. Each of the chapters concentrates on a particular a theme. I’m only two chapters in but so far she has interviewed and reflected upon many brave souls, from soldiers just before they are deployed in Afghanistan to one of Spain’s renowned bullfighters and a woman who unthinkingly threw herself between a particularly savage Rottweiler and a baby. The latter is convinced that fearlessness is inherent: you either have it or you don’t. I can confidently say I don’t but I do share Morland’s belief that it’s worth trying to face up to your fears and be a bit braver.

Following on from Friday’s post about women dominating literary prize lists I see that it’s not confined to the UK: Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award has just announced its 2013 shortlist and it’s made Birmingham Libraryup entirely of women writers. But the best piece of news has to be the completion of the new Birmingham library. It’s an astonishing looking building and not one that appeals to me but its contents sound fabulous – miles of bookshelves housing 2.3 million books plus the Shakespeare Memorial Room not to mention roof gardens in which to read and drink coffee. It opens in September and I can’t wait to visit it.