Archive for the Category ◊ Book Reviews ◊

• Friday, October 26th, 2018

Christina Baker Kline was born and raised in 1964 in Cambridge, England and later in the American south and Maine. Her father was born in Georgia, USA and gained a PhD from Cambridge to become a British labour historian (a sub-discipline of social history) while her mother came from a long lineage of educators in North Carolina.

Despite their different backgrounds, both her southerner parents shared a love of literature and both were professors at the University of Maine.

Kline graduated from Cambridge, Yale and the University of Virginia and taught fiction and non-fiction writing, poetry, English literature, literary theory and women’s studies at Yale, New York University and the University of Virginia. She has been a Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University for four years. Christina Baker Kline lives with her husband in Montclair, New Jersey and they have three sons. She also often goes to South West Harbor, Maine where she owns a house.

A Piece Of The World, published in 2017, is Kline’s sixth novel. It was awarded the 2018 New England Prize for Fiction, the 2018 Maine Literary Award and a Silver Nautilus Award.

A Piece Of The World is fiction based on a true story about Christina Olson (1893-1968), who suffered from an incurable neuromuscular disease, gradually losing the ability to walk and use her hands and about her relationship with Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), one of the most renowned United States painters of the twentieth century.

Wyeth’s favourite subject was painting landscapes, people and things around him. His style and subjects were mundane occurrences permeated with rhythm, beauty and intrigue.

Andrew Wyeth’s iconic 1948 painting named “Christina’s World”, which is beautifully described by Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth by the author in the last chapter of the book, depicts the back of a woman in a pink dress, dragging her body across a barren field of tawny grass wanting to return home. He substantially expanded the size of the field compared to his model size in order to intensify the dramatic scenic moment. Also illustrated is how it represents the entire world for Christina Olson. This artwork is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In his painting of Christina’s World, the painter wanted to evoke the positive rather than the negative – juxtaposing the vastness of the field to Christina’s admirable courage and determination to overcome – in order to reach her target, namely her remote farm representing her very own small piece of the world.

Talking about his famous painting, Christina’s World, the artist, says: “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless. If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out to do”.

The story begins in 1939 with forty-six-year-old Christina Olson who lives with her Brother Alvaro or Al in their family’s isolated farmhouse in the little coastal town of South Cushing, Maine. Christina, who is disabled with a gradually progressive neuromuscular disease, is sitting in the kitchen looking out of the window toward the cove when she sees young Betsy James – who later will become Andrew Wyeth’s wife – getting out of her station wagon.

Betsy is accompanied by a new acquaintance, the twenty-two-year-old Andrew, the son of the famous illustrator N. C. Wyeth, who is also an artist like his father. The relationship between Andrew Wyeth and Christina Olson starts on that day and continues until her death.

After this brief introduction, the author moves back to Christina’s childhood when she was three years old in 1896. We learn that Christina’s father is a Swedish immigrant and that her mother’s family moved from Salem, Massachusetts to Maine long ago. The author introduces the reader to Christina’s parents, brothers and Grandmother Mamey, followed by the first symptoms of Christina’s illness as well as her complicated relationship with her family.

We commiserate with Christina’s suffering when her only opportunity of happiness, love and “normal” life is shattered in her twenties by young Walton Hall, who abandons her never to be married.

A movingly sad story, depicting a woman’s exceptional perseverance in the face of adversity. She was disabled, taken out of school at the age of twelve despite being very bright, to look after her family and her unfulfilled love and only hope for happiness.

A Piece Of The World also recounts the story of a talented artist who is touchingly overwhelmed by the courage and perseverance of his muse. He is able, with compassionate brushstrokes, subtle shades and colours to reproduce and immortalise her tenacious spirit for wanting to challenge and conquer life, fighting her fate to the end.

In her story Kline brings the characters and the setting to life, illustrating Maine countryside lifestyle in the last few years of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. She has researched all the historical facts about Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth. She has read all the books she could find about them, visited the Olson House museum and interviewed tour guides of the museum, members of the Olson and Wyeth families and people who knew them. Kline wanted to engulf herself in Christina’s authentic world before writing her novel.

Christina Baker Kline, who cleverly manages to interlace fact with fiction, says about her book: “I liked the idea of taking a real historical moment of some significance and filling in the details, illuminating stories that have been unnoticed or obscured.” She says in one of her interviews: “I tried as much as possible to follow the true-life story of Andrew Wyeth, Christina Olson and their relationship — but also Christina’s life before he came into it”.

• Saturday, September 29th, 2018

Jonas Jonasson was born in 1961 and raised in the city of Växjö in southern Sweden. He studied Swedish and Spanish at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. After completing his studies, he worked as a journalist for numerous newspapers and later founded a media company, which he sold in 2003 for health reasons and then dedicated his time to writing.

To date, Jonasson has written three books. He has received several awards and his work has been translated into several languages. The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden, his second novel, was published in Swedish in 2013 and English in 2014. A feature film of the book is in the making by Icelandic producer, Joni Sighvatsson.

Since his divorce in 2010 Jonasson has been living with his son on Gotland island, a large Swedish island province in the Baltic Sea.

The story of The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden starts in South Africa during the apartheid era in nineteen sixty-one when the leading character, Nombeko Mayeki, is born in the Soweto slums, Africa’s largest shanty town, twenty kilometres away from Johannesburg. She is an illiterate, black South African girl, who is now fourteen-years-old but looks like twelve and who can add and subtract.

Nombeko has been a hard-working child since the tender age of five when she carried latrine barrels to earn a small amount of money to pay for her mother’s paint thinner addiction. The little girl becomes an orphan at the age of ten.

Nombeko’s father has been absent since impregnating her mother. Through unpredicted circumstances, Nombeko gets appointed as a manager’s assistant of latrine emptying by the twenty-three-year-old white, condescending new assistant, Piet du Toit. He is a university graduate, who comes to work with the bodyguard employed by his art-dealer father.

From this point on, the reader follows Nombeko through all her trials and tribulations. How she meets the smug Thabo, who teaches her to read. How she gets run over by Engelbrecht van der Westhuizen, a drunken engineer, while walking on the pavement in Johannesburg, yet survives. Nevertheless, the South African apartheid court, unfairly sentences her to work seven years for free as a cleaner for the faulty, drunken, fraudulent white engineer, Westhuizen. Engelbrecht Westhuizen, who happens to be in charge of the South African nuclear weapons facility, then regarded as the world’s most secret project.

The first chapter of the novel introduces the reader to young Nombeko’s miserable life in Soweto in South Africa. In the second chapter we are transported six thousand miles away to Sweden and introduced to Ingmar Qvist from Södertälje, his wife, Henrietta and in later chapters to his twin boys, Holger One and Holger Two.

The author alternates the unlinked chapters between South Africa and Sweden until Nombeko emigrates to Sweden and fortuitously finds herself sharing the life of the twin brothers, Holger One and Holger Two.

The twin brothers were raised by their father to eliminate the Swedish monarchy. Nombeko will also get acquainted with Holger One’s young, angry anarchist girlfriend, Celestine. That is when the two separate stories – in South Africa and Sweden – become one to be continued in Sweden.

Through her work behind the scenes as a chief advisor to the incompetent, drunken engineer, van der Westhuizen in Johannesburg, Nombeko gets involved with two agents of the Israeli “Mossad”, an Israeli intelligence agency. The two Mossad agents murder van der Westhuizen and endeavour, with the help of Nombeko, to steal the seventh atomic bomb that was never supposed to have existed and which was kept covertly hidden in a back office room.

The bright young girl circumvents the two Mossad agents and flees to Sweden, smuggling a stash of diamonds worth millions retrieved from Thabo’s shack after his untimely murder by two East African women thieves. It is thanks to Thabo’s tuition that Nombeko learned how to read and write.

In Sweden, Nombeko’s fate will change; but her nightmare continues because she is now unintentionally and therefore secretly in charge of an unaccounted-for seventh South African atomic bomb. This atomic bomb was shipped from South Africa by mistake to Sweden instead of to Israel.

Nombeko and her Swedish companion, Holger Two, struggle stealthily to dispose of this unwelcome burden. Through several difficult obstacles and with the help of the Chinese president, Nombeko and Holger Two send the atomic bomb to China and through different twists, save the life of the kidnapped king of Sweden and his prime minister.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden is a novel with a long title that gives away the dénouement of the story. It is a humorous, farcical, captivating, thrilling adventure, original in its imaginative events.

The author cleverly intertwines fiction with reality by using some specific political fact-based occurrences and names of politicians and monarchs, both of the time and earlier. For example, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, the prime minister of Sweden Fredrik Reinfeldt, the king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, the prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, the American president, Jimmy Carter and the late king Gustav III (1771- 1792), Gustav IV Adolf (1792-1809) and Gustaf V (1907-1950).

The author touches on many subjects such as the apartheid, ambition and hope, colonialism, racism, communism, the tension during the cold war involving the arms race of some countries to gain supremacy by obtaining nuclear weapons. The author addresses all these themes in the novel in a masterful way despite the coincidental, chaotic happenings.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden is an enjoyably entertaining book about an exceptional woman, whose life had been marked by close defeats and valiant rewarded efforts.