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)

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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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Book Review: “House of Names” by Colm Toibin

House of Names

By Colm Tόibίn

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I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley and Viking.

First things first: how do you say his name? I looked it up: CULL-um Toe-BEAN.

Tόibίn has been around for a good while and written several notable titles, including Man Booker Shortlisted titles and a film adaptation of Brooklyn in 2015. But I have yet to sample his work. Thankfully, I have now broken that trend, with his newest release: House of Names.

King Agamemnon makes a horrific choice: the day she was to be married, Agamemnon has his daughter sacrificed. It is brutal and shocking. It is the will of the Gods. It is only this act that will bring him favour in the Trojan War. Or so he believes. This brutal act leaves a legacy of grief and treachery for his wife, Clytemnestra and they’re surviving children, Orestes and Electra.

As a student and lover of the classics, I found it fascinating. House of Names is based on Greek myths that I am not particularly familiar with, so I don’t know how true it is to historical sources, but given Tόibίn’s calibre, I think we can safely assume that a fair amount of research went into it. Something I really appreciated and enjoyed while reading this novel, was the considered effort to create an ancient – and therefore timeless – narrative. The writing style reminded me of that which we find in existing ancient texts, such as Livy.

It is a style that shuns embellishment and uses very little description. Yes, landscapes have their dimensions and facets – be they open fields or cold stone prison cells. And yes, characters have their thoughts and actions – be they private and murderous or steadfast and brave. But Tόibίn finds more than that unnecessary. The result is an action driven narrative, governed by its restrained descriptive style. My imagination thrived on this starvation of description, and when I think back to some of the action scenes in the book, vivid images instantly appear inside my mind.

While this is a story driven by soul-consuming emotion, Tόibίn’s decision to heavily restrain his character’s voices compresses and represses these violent emotions, emulating the experience of his characters. Unfortunately, while I found the style overall to be effective, it was the restraint that prevented me from truly connecting with the characters. I felt removed from them. Therefore, even when a first person narrative was being used, I could only observe and not empathise with them.

Perhaps that was intentional on the part of Tόibίn; a decision made as part of his endeavour to recall this ancient myth of murder, betrayal and power.


Book Title: House of Names

Author: Colm Toibin

ISBN: 9780241257685 (HB)

Buy it here.


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Book Review: “The Sellout” By Paul Beatty

The Sellout

Man Booker Prize Winner 2016

By Paul Beatty

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Sometimes you know a book is good when you can’t stop thinking about it because you were so drawn into its world. Sometimes you know a book is good because it made you feel empowered. Sometimes you know a book is good because you really have very little notion what’s going on half the time. That’s how I felt when I was reading The Sellout by Paul Beatty. But in the best way possible.

There are ideas at work in this novel that are constantly clashing and rehashing the world it is creating and the world it is ripping off. This is an attack on American culture and racism and the page is his battlefield and the words are his foot soldiers. And the ideas are packed together so densely as to make resistance futile.

There were times when the sheer ridiculous made me laugh out loud. Other passages would glide over the surface of my consciousness, looking for in but finding none. Most of the time, I felt like I wasn’t, couldn’t “get” the joke. There is so much represented here that is completely alien to me. I have no idea what life is like in the poverty stricken regions of American ghetto towns. (I don’t think watching The Wire counts.) I’m a privileged white women living just down the road from Windsor Castle, for goodness sake. And reading this book doesn’t exactly make me feel ashamed of my ignorance, more curious about what I have unconsciously accepted about race perception in my own culture. The ingrained racism that is everywhere and that most millennials fail to see or understand is both evidence of society trying to move forward by “not seeing colour” and also a complete lack of real world understanding – of course we’re different colours. Equality: a pure idea; really fucking difficult to implement.

“In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precepts, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed unconstitutionality and nonexistence of these concepts, he’s pointed out  a fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality. ‘I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, yellow, red, green or purple.’ We’ve all said it. Posited as proof of our nonprejudicial ways, but if you painted any of us purple or green, we’d be mad as hell.”

I honestly feel like I have neither the life experience nor the intelligence to understand the incredibly complex and challenging ideas playing out in this novel. I feel like a 5-year-old trying to read To Kill a Mockingbird without the aid of a secondary school teacher to explain what an extended metaphor or a microcosm is. But this is so much more than microcosm and far more complicated.

I know that this book deserves at least your first reading … and my second reading.

“Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It’s the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is coming to the realization that as fucked up and meaningless as it all is, sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.”

And if Beatty wrote this before Trump came to power, just think what he’ll have in the tank next.

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Review: “The Tobacconist” by Robert Seethaler

The Tobacconist

By Robert Seethaler

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The Tobacconist is Robert Seethaler’s new release, following his Man Booker Shortlisted novel, A Whole Life (2016) (click here for my review of A Whole Life). I adored A Whole Life and was very eager to get going with Seethaler’s new novel when I got wind of its publication.

Vienna is on the brink of World War II. The city and its people are still recovering from the previous war, but Hitler’s influence is spreading and a restless populace is growing evermore so. Franz Huchel, a naive teenager from the salt mines, has been sent to work as an apprentice in a tobacconist’s. Franz’s employer, Otto Trysnyek, is a veteran, having lost a leg back in the war. He lives a simple and honest life and finds an unexpected ally in his dedicated apprentice. The tobacconist shop is the social equaliser: cigarettes and cigars, newspapers and pinup girls in a private drawer; everyone has their usual order, even a certain Jewish psychologist by the name of Freud.

As “Heil Hilter!” becomes a more regular greeting around the city, the lives of Otto, Franz and Freud grow ever more challenging. By the time his apprenticeship ends, Franz will be a boy no longer. He’ll learn about friendship, love and respect in a city about to be overrun by hate and fear.

“Maybe that’s it, he thought: just stop and stand here like this and never move again. Then time would drift past you, you wouldn’t have to swim with it or struggle against it.”

Now, I’ll be honest, it’s nowhere near as good as A Whole Life. But then I have put that book on something of a pedestal, so I had a lot of expectations going in. Seethaler’s stoic yet emotive description that so captured me before makes sporadic appearances but not nearly enough, in The Tobacconist. However, the characterisation and the plot development are more reminiscent of the writing I remember. Seethaler’s success is in taking everyday people with extraordinary struggles and infusing them with quiet strength. It is the noble example his characters set that I hope will continue to make his novels worth seeking out.

Alphabetty Spaghetty Review for A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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