Book Review: “A Horse Walks into a Bar” by David Grossman (MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE 2018)

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A Horse Walks into a Bar

By David Grossman (Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen)

man book internation 2

This book slaps you in the face with every page – sometimes quite literally – with its palpable tension and heartbreak. Powerful storytelling and jokes that make you snigger in spite of yourself, David Grossman is an artist of black humour and a well deserving winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2018.

In the city of Netanya, Israel, Dovaleh G is doing a stand-up routine. He’s been doing this a long time, but tonight is different. Dovaleh is going to tell some jokes, yes, but mostly, he will tell a story. And reveal a dark and painful truth. As the night wears on and the audience thins, his strange story intensifies and you can’t help but feel that you are part of his audience. I watched this man bare his soul on a lonely stage and I now know what it feels like to watch a man relive the most horrific moments of his life. In this theatre of (comic) cruelty, explosive self-abuse sees punchlines become punches to the face. This book, this performance, is cracked, fragmentary and broken – just like the man on stage.

Grossman takes the power of performance art and instils it in this novel. One man, a stage, a spotlight and a powerful story. The darkness, the loneliness, the commitment and the power. This performance, this one-man/stand-up/freak show, is painfully awkward but deeply engrossing. It speaks to that dark part of us that seeks out, will pay to watch, someone fall apart at the seams.

“The temptation to look into another man’s hell.”  (82)

Theatre, art, books, have the power to unite people. Whether that be in a moment of joy or despair, it is a comfort and a thrill to feel connected to those around us. Grossman whips the rug from under our feet repeatedly, in A Horse Walks into a Bar, by using his comedian to show us all the fetid nature of this desire we all feel. Dovaleh will make you laugh, but it’ll come with a price.

“It starts with an awkward hum, with sidelong glances, then something makes their necks swell, and within a second they’re up in the air, balloons of idiocy and liberty, released from gravity, rushing to join the one and only camp that can never be defeated: Hands together for death!” (69)

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Quicky Book Review: “Alice in Brexitland” by Lucien Young

Alice in Brexitland

by Leavis Carroll (aka Lucien Young)

 

alice in brexitland

(I received an ARC from NetGalley, in return for an honest review.)

A clever little satire that sums up Brexit in witty and not too pessimistic terms.

As a young voter, still developing a political opinion, there is a lot to be confused and frustrated by in this political climate. Reading a satirical take on Brexit just before bed could have been a really bad idea. It could’ve thrown me into a funk of existential, millennial depression. But thankfully, Young’s clever little satire is the perfect amount of cynicism and optimism. Often satire errs very hard on the side of pessimism, but I am grateful to Mr Young for avoiding that pitfall… or rabbit-hole. It succeeds in being entertaining and not just another series of clever traps and ruses designed to confuse or to lull you into a fall sense of security – as others are wont to do…

The illustrations are apt and really add to the entertainment value, giving a feel for the original Lewis Carroll. The playful use of verse was also very Carrollian, and by bookending the story with his poems, the piece feels rounded and satisfying. Thanks to the eponymous Alice, trademark bluntness and plain-faced frustration is a refreshing change in Brexitland. In the absence of sanity and honesty, it isn’t harsh attack that is needed but plain speaking and legitimate indignation. (I know how Alice feels!) Carroll’s Alice is just the ticket, and Young has done well to remind us that it doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom. You can read it in the hour before bedtime, and happily doze into your own wonderland.

Sharp-tongued but also sympathetic, I found Alice in Brexitland to be a highly enjoyable read. I hope Young is planning to write another for the approach of this snap election in June, so that he might continue to be the balm for this particular citizen of the world.

Nonetheless we can resist:
Though the liars tweet and twist
Light still penetrates the mist

(P101)

alice in brexitland cards

Title: Alice in Brexitland

Author: Lucien Young

ISBN: 9781785036965

Buy it here

Book Review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

gentleman in moscow

A book that soothes and warms you with its infectious geniality. A book filled with optimism, verve, self-belief and, incongruous though it seems, Communism. A gorgeous story, whose luxury comes not from the fine dining, orchestral music and room service of the best hotel in Moscow, but from its generosity of spirit.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a gentleman in every sense of the word: not just thanks his to family name, but to his undying optimism and good humour. He is a gentleman in the age of Bolshevism, he is a “Former Person,” he is a prisoner of the state. Once accustomed to all the finer things in life, a gentleman of distinction and leisure, he is now under house arrest till the end of his days. The Hotel Metropol must now become his world.

But there are worse places to be put under house arrest than the most glamorous hotel in Russia. And besides, one can never predict who might stroll through the elegant revolving doors and change your life forever: a forthright girl, a brooding poet, an elegant movie star, an American ambassador, a prissy hotel manager, a one-eyed cat, a cantankerous chicken…

Despite Rostov’s confinement, the story does not feel the slightest bit confined. Where better to accommodate important committees on commerce and industry than the grand halls of the Metropol, while a curious girl and a Count can quietly observe? Outside the hotel, queues of people line the streets to get a new pair of shoes, and city monuments are brought down to make way for something more utilitarian. We peer into the Kremlin offices and travel out to rural farms; we hear stories of a rich man’s past and a loving husband’s broken home.

A world of experience, sprawling outwards and curling back inwards; a spiralling map that leads back to the Hotel Metropol and the ever charismatic Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, “the luckiest man in all of Russia” (p313).

 “Our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity – a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.” (p441-2)

“The Count had restricted himself to two succinct pieces of parental advice. The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” (p417)

(I really tried to delete one of these quotes for the sake of brevity, but I just couldn’t.)


ISBN: 9780091944247

Publisher: Cornerstone

Title: A Gentleman in Moscow

Author: Amor Towles

Book Title: “Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde”

Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

By Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hyde

Thanks to over a century of interpretation, the story of Jekyll and Hyde has been retold over and over. Thanks to TV, film and generations of school teachers, this classic novella is part of our national and, indeed, global culture. Everyone knows the basics: a scientist, Dr Jekyll, creates a formula to separate his evil qualities from himself. But rather than purging his evil, he gives it a face and a body to call its own. As a result, Jekyll periodically transforms into his evil doppelganger, Mr Hyde. As Hyde gains more and more control over Jekyll, terrible consequences follow.

“Street after street, and all the folks asleep – street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a  church – till at least I got into that state of mind when a man listens and listens and beings to long for the sight of a policeman.” p.3

It is a classic for a reason: it keeps you turning the pages, it makes your heart beat faster. It makes you want to ask the questions you’re not sure you want answered. The gothic atmosphere is timeless and potently imagined. Seen through the eyes of Mr Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and solicitor, much is kept from us and more still is never truly revealed. We only catch glimpses through closing doors and hear footsteps down dark alleys. The rest is up to us.

Born of Gothic Romanticism, Stevenson’s novella focuses on themes of morality and human folly. Cloaked in the shadowy alleyways of Victorian London, deliciously grimy and decadent, Jekyll has embarked on a dangerous game. Despite the warnings of his fellows, he is wont to delve further into the mysterious existence of morality than is wise, upsetting the delicate coexistence of the soul and the human body.

I have read and studied a fair amount of Gothic literature, but “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” never featured on the reading list, so I have only just got around to reading it. I wish I had read it before, because it compounds huge amounts of that era’s nuances into such a small space: doppelgangers, shadows, mad scientists, tragedy, morality, suspense, murder, mysticism – all in fewer than 100 pages. Understanding the ideas and devices that define Gothic Romanticism is in no way necessary to read and enjoy this novella, but if you do have some understanding and have yet to read it, I would heartily recommend it.

ISBN: 9780141389509

Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd

Title: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

 

 

3 Reviews!

I failed to post a review during February, so have three to make up for it:

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

lucy barton

 My Name is Lucy Barton is an honest account of family and a true representation of how life and love can be so complicated and yet so simple. Strout’s tone is refreshing and unsentimental, and for me, that is both its strength and its weakness. I struggled to feel invested in what is essentially brief and largely uneventful. Strout’s strength, however, is creating an environment in which empathy is eminently possible.

“Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” p41-2

“I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.” p28

The charm of this novel is in its little glimpses of human tenderness. Lucy shares those feelings we all have but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Lucy and her mother do not have an easy relationship. They are real because they are normal and mundane but complicated, like all of us.

“Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

reunion

In the afterword to this novel, Rachel Seiffert’s phrase puts it perfectly: “His restraint is formidable”. Sometimes the most difficult thing for a writer to achieve is restraint, the tendency to embellish being too difficult to resist. Uhlman’s narrative is stripped back, leaving only what is essential. I found reading this very short novel to be an unusual challenge, simply because of its brevity. I had to deliberately slow my reading, so as not to skim past something important. It is imperative you pay attention to every word, or you’ll miss something delicate and urgent.

This book is about friendship, the essence of what it is to find another person with whom you can share, with whom you feel natural. And the fragile state of adolescence, on the brink of adulthood, but still so much the child.

“Just as I took it for granted that it was dulce et decorum pro Germania mori, so I would have agreed that to die pro amico was dulce et decorum too. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually only lasts a short time, but because of its intensity and uniqueness it remains one of life’s most precious experiences.” p13

This is the state in which we join two sixteen-year-old boys. Full of potential, minds to be readily moulded… or taken advantage of.

A thin, at times imperceptible veil floats above Hans and Konradin’s friendship. Konradin’s parents shake hands with Hitler in a photo. Herr Pompetzski delivers a lesson on the “dark powers” at work everywhere. A schoolboy tells Hans to “go back to Palestine”.

This book can be read in a matter of hours. Remarkably swift, delicate and poetic, Uhlman’s style reminds me an equally short novel: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. It is, like Ulhman, Seethaler’s ability to hold back that makes the narrative so powerful. They refuse to dress up a story that can and will speak for itself, with its humble words and noble human intention.

“A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton

little history philosophy

Does what it says on the tin. From Socrates through to Alan Turing and Peter Singer, bitesize chapters relate the history of philosophy from its birth to present day. You couldn’t call it a full history, since it focuses primarily on Western philosophy. Nevertheless, it is a lovely introduction to philosophy for students or for anyone with an interest in the subject. These philosophical episodes also coalesce with pivotal moments of political and scientific change: Rousseau in the French Revolution, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Karl Marx theorising Communism, Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code. Joining the philosophical dots through history helps to paint a picture of humanity and continued attempts to improve ourselves.

The tone of the chapters evolves as you read. Warburton is almost flippant and comedic at the start, when discussing Socrates. But this may well be a reflection of the ancient historical accounts we have access to. The erosion of time has made them into characters, rather than people. You cannot help but find Pyrrho to be an amusing character. Pyrrho was an early sceptic who believed we can know absolutely nothing. Our physical senses are likely to mislead us, so he therefore ignored them entirely.

“So, whereas most people would take the sight of a cliff edge with a sheer drop as strong evidence that it would be very foolish to keep walking forward, Pyrrho didn’t … Even the feeling of his toes curling over the cliff edge, or the senstation of tipping forward, wouldn’t have convinced him he was about to fall to the rocks below. It wasn’t even obvious to him that falling on to the rocks would be so bad for his health. How could he be absolutely sure of that?” p17

As the book moves further toward the present, the tone becomes more sincere and the questions more relevant for a modern reader. Will computers be able to achieve consciousness? Is abortion moral? Reading this book is like studying a unit called “Introduction to Philosophy,”  with lectures from a university professor (which of course they are). Warburton fulfils his role as teacher by introducing an increasingly provocative style that encourages the reader, or student, to explore and question.

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Book Review: “Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor

Ashes of London

By Andrew Taylor

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It’s 1666 and the Great Fire of London is raging, but bodies are being found that have nothing to do with the flames. The burnt landscape of 17th century London is wonderfully grimy and decadent. Through the eyes of young Whitehall clerk, James Marwood and Catherine Lovett, the disgraced daughter of a once rich Regicide, we see people from all walks of life.

The charred London landscape is made richer by plenty of well researched history into the political landscape. Charles II is still dealing with the aftermath of his father’s execution and the disaster of Oliver Cromwell’s rule. There are still those who think of Charles II as a usurper; those who still await the return of the true king – King Jesus. Such believers, known as Fifth Monarchists, were supporters of Charles I’s execution, and have all but disappeared since the fall of Cromwell. Though most were pardoned by the new King, those men considered to be instrumental in his father’s death, have been charged of treason and sentenced to death.

James Marwood’s father was lucky and escaped execution. Catherine Lovett’s father is still on the run. Now, more and more of Lovett’s friends are turning up dead. And Catherine and James’ lives are getting more and more complicated. Cat and Marwood are complete strangers to one another and their individual plots run parallel throughout the novel, almost crossing many times. By keeping them divided, their apprehension (and therefore ours) keeps mystery, confusion and foreknowledge at the edge of the frame. These sensations – like the characters – chase, run and hide from each other constantly. While Taylor’s imagery isn’t the best, his plot development is first-rate. This is a novel chock-full of action and plot twists. Together with a hearty dollop of political intrigue, you are compelled to keep turning the pages.

“Dear God, I thought, my life is haunted by these religious fools.”