Monthly Archives: July 2010

City of Glass

So, I started reading Auster’s New York Trilogy. I committed myself to enjoying his words as I had been so buoyed by Hustvedt and was desperate to love husband’s work as I loved that of the wife. I have 2 pages left to read of the first book in the trilogy and I am so disturbed by the novel that I don’t think I can read any more.

Am I alone is this … ? I can’t even work out what it is that has disturbed me so: is it the style of prose, the story itself, the strangeness of the protagonist … or is it everything.

Do I keep reading or do I just surrender?

Cutting for Stone

I was half way through this book in its digital e-version before I realised that it was 540 pages… and I felt every single one of those 540 odd pages. This book was magnificent. From its opening – “After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother’s womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into the world” – right through to the end I was gripped in the author’s passionate narrative, the complex relationship between identical twin brothers, their adoptive parents, and their connection to the place to which they belonged and didn’t belong. Although the book is fiction, it read like non-fiction and I desperately wanted it to be true. These characters were all so alive, so legitimate, so honest that it was at times difficult to tear oneself away from their crises. There were simply so many poignant moments in this novel and even when I thought that the story was winding down I was again thrown into turmoil by tragedy.

This book bought so many revelations: “the tragedy of death had to do entirely with what was left unfulfilled,” “Children were the foot wedged in the closing door, the glimmer of hope that in reincarnation there would be some house to go to, even if one came back as a dog, or a mouse, or a flea that lived on the bodies of men”, “her skills were so rare, so needed for the poorest of the poor, and even at time in the royal palace, that she felt valued. Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but were you are wanted?”

The book rotates on these themes, the fleeting nature of life, the bonds that bind people together and the meaning of home and belonging. The book talks about the value of creating one’s own mythology and the impact of that mythology on others. “The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.

Although this author has been criticised for over doing the medical descriptions in his narrative, I found his language magnificent:

“I came down my steps. I reached my hand out and tilted her face up. Her eyeballs and lids rolled down just like the dolls she used to play with. Her skin was cold to my touch. The vertical scars at the outer edges of her eyes were now seasoned lines, though I recalled the day Rosina’s blade gave birth to them, and how they had been raw and choked with dark blood. I jerked her chin farther up. Still she wouldn’t meet my gaze. I wanted her to see the scars on my body, one from her betrayal of me with Shiva and another from her becoming more Eritrean than any Eritrean, resulting in the hijacking that drove me out of my country. I wanted her to see my rage through my outer calm. I wanted her to feel the blood surge in my muscles, to see the way my fingers curled and coiled and itched for her windpipe. It was good she didn’t look because if she so much as blinked, I would have bit into her jugular, I would have consumed her, bones, teeth and hair, leaving nothing of her on the street.”

There are vivid descriptions of the places that the characters inhabit and visit, of the political backdrop to the action in Ethiopia and of the intense love which the characters feel for one another. The text is filled with wonderful moments of awe, from the descriptions of the poverty and struggle in Ethiopia, through to the protagonist’s awe at arriving in America:

“What human language captures the dislocation, the acute insufficiency of being in the presence of the superorganism, the sinking, shrinking feeling at this display of industrial steel and light and might? It was as if nothing I’d ever done in my life prior to this counted. As if my past life was revealed to be a waste, a gesture in slow motion, because what I considered scarce and precious was in fact plentiful and cheap, and what I counted as rapid progress turned out to be glacially slow.”

I have since discovered that this book has been made into a movie and I can see how this would work. I don’t think I’d bother watching the film though, I have such solid visions in my imagination of each of the characters and of the action that dominates the text that I would hate for that to be destroyed or compromised by someone else’s imagined interpretation!

In case you haven’t gathered, I loved this book. I loved every aspect of it. It reminded me so of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children that I am now moved to reread that monumental tome!

New York Times Review.

Buy the paper version.

Buy the digital version: Cutting for Stone

Persepolis

I read this for a student, not expecting it to be anything more than a chore. The story recounts the author’s early childhood growing up in Iran. Her parents are politically aware, and she is raised to be reflective, open minded and with a resoundingly enquiring mind. I have studied a bit of Iranian modern history, with a particular focus on the position of women and the impact of fundamentalist religious ideas on a liberal thinking society. Thus, I was taken from the minute I read the first page:

The opening of the text is entitled “The Veil” and the first page raised all sorts of confronting issues for me. The black and white comic strip presentation, although reminiscent of Maus, took me to a totally different place where I was forced to re-evaluate my perceptions and expectations about Islamic society and Iranian history. The absurdity of the narration and the depiction of the rhetoric regarding the wearing of the veil was riveting and I was thrilled to note that the author has presented both a comic and satirical view. The book unfolds in this manner, exploring the life of the protagonist, a girl born in 1970. We, as readers, are taking on a monumental journey through the eyes of this young girl, witnessing the brutality of the new regime and the complexity of explaining the new reality to a young child.

In short, I loved this book. I devoured it in the space of a few hours. I was mystified by the message, enthralled by the text and riveted by the flow of the story.
There is a sequel and I will certainly be reading this as well.

Buy it NOW

Some interesting links about this book and its author:
Pantheon Graphic Novels
Author Interview
Another author interview
And another author interview

The Listener

There was definitely a lot to listen to in this book and in some ways this made it a challenging read. From the outset I was intrigued by the positioning of the reader as a voyeur to a psychiatrist’s private interviews with patients. This clearly made the reader uncomfortable with the insight and knowledge acquired during the sessions and I think that this, in part, is what made this book so fascinating.

The novel is set two years after the end of World War II, in a psychiatric hospital in America where a Dr Harrison is the director. The prose fluctuated between meetings between the Dr and his patients and other passages where the reader is privy to the good doctor’s own neuroses and most interestingly, his complicated relationship with his first and then second wife.

Slowly, as the novel unfolds, the reader comes to understand that in many ways, Dr Harrison is himself as disturbed as his patients. It is the meetings with an illusive character called Bertram Reiner which prove to undo him finally.

There are many ironies in this text and the contextual insight is riveting. Possibly the most intriguing aspect of this context is the far reaching impact that the war had on people in active service as well as those who stayed to watch the home front. The book is filled with references to necessary developments in the field of psychiatry which needed to take into account the consequences of the impact of war on morality as well as the challenges of reconciling the past with the present.

Nayman does a superb job of meeting the reader’ expectations in this novel and if you have the patience to persevere I have no doubt that you find the book rewarding.

<a href=”The Listener: A Novel“>Buy the kindle version.

Buy the paper version.

Read the author’s webpage.

What I Loved

What I Loved was this book. No question, it’s one of my favourite for 2010. It was intense, emotional, exhausting, sublime and depressing. The writing – magnificent. The characters – realistic and resonating. The grief was so realistic and draining that at times I could only read a few pages before having to put the book down and digest the raw turmoil that the characters were enduring. Rather than giving anything more away, I thought that I would just leave you with a few of quotes from the novel which have stayed with me.

For me, I was taken in by this novel from its opening:
“Yesterday I found Violet’s letters to Bill. They were hidden between the pages of one of his books and came tumbling out and fell to the floor. I had known about the letters for years, but neither Bill nor Violet had ever told me what was in them. What they did tell me was that minutes after reading the fifth and last letter, Bill changed his mind about his marriage to Lucille, walked out the door of the building on Greene Street, and headed straight for Violet’s apartment in the East Village … When I put the letters down, I knew that I would start writing this book today.”
It is this paradigm that cloaks the novel and through its telling the background to this moment becomes painfully clear.

I won’t spoil the story, but a quote from later in the book sums up the intensity of the themes:
“equating horror with the inhuman has always struck me as convenient but fallacious, if only because I was born into a century that should have ended such talk for good. For me, the lamp became the sign not of the inhuman but of the all-too-human, the lapse or break that occurs in people when empathy is gone, when others aren’t a part of us anymore but are turned into things. There is genuine irony in the fact that my empathy for Mark vanished at the moment when I understood that he had not a shred of that quality in himself.”

This book gave me goosebumps. I am in awe of the magnificence of this prose and impressed by the fact that this author clearly expects her readers to savour every word of the text, to mull over each sentence and to revel in the grace of this novel… “what was unwritten then is inscribed into what I call myself. The longer I live, the more convinced I am that when I say ‘I’, I am really saying ‘we’…”

I will definitely be reading more of this author’s work!

Buy this book.

Read something fascinating about the author.

Brooklyn

There is no doubt that Toibin is a solid writer. The book is finely crafted and there are no loose ends. The reader is taken on a journey – both physical and emotional – from Ireland to Brooklyn, New York, with the protagonist Eilis Lacey. The backdrop to this narrative is what makes it so interesting. 1950s Brooklyn, immigrant communities, the travails of travel across oceans by sea and the subtle climate of race relations. This aspect of the book, along with mention of fashions and trends is quite riveting. Eilis’ introduction to the trendy world of NY is presented in a comic and sad way – she discovers nylons and is in awe of their various colours. However, while this aspect of the text is convincing, there were many parts of Eilis’ character which were questionable. For example, how is she so easily led to Brooklyn, left out of the decision entirely. If this is simply a facet of the position of women during the 1950s then why is Rose, her sister, not a victim of the same fate? I was undecided and found the as a character Eilis was in part enchanting for the wonder she saw in the world and part irritating for her inability to make her own decisions and follow her instincts. Even the book’s end leaves the readers unsure of whether or not Eilis’ final decision to return to Brooklyn is a consequence of her own desire or merely a reaction to the words of another.

Unfortunately, I think that I was expecting greater things from this novel. I was therefore marginally disappointed. Did I enjoy it? Yes, it was a pleasant enough read, not at all taxing and certainly not time consuming. If you are looking for this type of book then I would definitely recommend it to you! If you are after something that resonates more then I suggest you look elsewhere.

Buy the book on kindle here: Brooklyn: A Novel

Buy the paper version of this book here.

Yehuda Amichai z”l (1924-2000)

In 1997 I was one of several hundred international students in an auditorium in the Truman Centre at Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus Campus, listening to an array of speakers opening the celebrations of Israel’s Yovel – 50th anniversary. There were the usual rambling introductions by heads of schools, university vice presidents and other dignitaries. And, then, as though from another place, a quiet man walked up the podium, opened a book and began to read. I say quiet because everything about him oozed quietude and contemplation. His face was the face of the land with rivers and hills criss-crossing its plains, his hands worked slowly at the pages, his eyes following the lines, occasionally looking up to indulge in his audience’s capture. Even his voice soared somehow with the history of the place, weaving its way into our hearts and our imaginations.

He was Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and it was through him that we came to truly appreciate the magic of Israel. At the time we were not to know that Amichai was battling cancer, to which he would succumb just three short years later, dying at the age of 76 and leaving Israel bereft and in a state of national mourning.

I cannot imagine another state or people revolving so closely around a heart of poetry. And I cannot imagine another place where the death of a poet brings with it a pause in time. But in Jerusalem, people paused for Amichai’s funeral. Prime Minister Barak spoke of “One of the greatest poets of the Hebrew language, whose words gave meaning to our existence in this land,” the streets filled with an out pouring of sorrow.

This one quiet man came to symbolise the entire history of the modern State of Israel, its struggles and successes, its battles and its peace. As he himself said: “… summing up Israel’s 50 years is like summing up my life, with its joys and its sorrows, its hopes and its disappointments.”

But what was it that drew people to his poetry? Perhaps it was because unlike the complex tongues of other Israeli poets like Chaim Gouri, Bialik or Rachel, Amichai’s poetry was, and still is, for every man, its simple language and plain images constructing worlds that reflect those in which his audience live. Perhaps it is the startling economy – both of language and image – with which he creates these worlds? Perhaps it is the hidden complexity of Amichai’s mastery, a complexity that unravels as one delves deeper into the multi-layered fabric of his poetry. Perhaps it was just his quietude.

As Avraham Burg said at his funeral: “We loved your simple, but piercing words. We loved you because we understood you, because you understood us.”

Whatever it was, people are still drawn to him and probably will continue to be drawn to his verses for years to come.

As a poet, Amichai is internationally recognised, translated into over 22 languages, including Arabic, French, Albanian and Japanese. He was said to be up for a Nobel Prize before his death. When Yitzhak Rabin accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, it was Amichai he read –

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Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man: What has stayed with me …

The power of this novel lies in three distinct parts. Firstly, the author’s tragic relationship with his father which he describes so lucidly, and the subsequent sadness which describes his relationship with his mother:

“When we get to the part about my father, he asks what my mother said at the dinner table when things got rough. I describe how cruel he was to her, how poor she was growing up in Youngstown, how much younger she is than my father, how her own father died when she was a teenager. He says, Fine fine fine, but what did she say? Where was she?

Amazing, the power of three words. These will open up such a can of worms. I will sit there and think about all the sessions with Dr Dave, when I went through, blow by blow, how my father was during that time – how he sounded, what he said – and realise that we never talked about her. Not once. She was one of, I think, and maybe even say. He was awful to her. Criticised her cooking, her clothes, her intelligence, her interests, her friends. Just as he did with me and with Kim and, to a lesser extent, Lisa and Sean. But I can’t remember my mother beyond this shared circumstance. Can’t remember her saying anything to me about my problem. Acknowledging it, even. Can’t remember a word of comfort or concern about any of it. Broken legs, yes. Mean teachers, you bet. But this, never. Nor can I even see her at those dinner tables when guests were over, when my father would get tipsy and begin his taunting and threatening. It’s as if that whole corridor of my growing up held only me and my father, and while it happened in the same rooms, with everyone else, no one else saw or heard what was going on. I suddenly feel very tired.”

The second element which makes this a stellar memoir is the manner in which Clegg provides such a vivid account of the decline into drug addiction:

“Out on Mercer Street I’m terrified. I have somehow, without seeing it happen, tripped over some boundary, from the place where one can’t tell that I’m a crack addict to the place where it is sufficiently obvious to turn me away. I look at my hands to see if they are shaking. Suddenly, for the first time, I feel as if I might look and act and sound in a way that I am not able to see… Though I have been doing drugs, drinking litres of vodka a day, not sleeping, and running from hotel to hotel for a month, it dawns on me like a great shock that I might actually look like a junkie. I feel that whatever capacity I’d once had to move through the world undetected has vanished, that CRACK ADDICT is written on my forehead in ash, and everyone can see.

I am nowhere and belong nowhere. I can now see how it all happens – the gradual slide down, the arrival at each new unthinkable place – the crack den, the rehab, the jail, the street, the homeless shelter, a quick shock and then a new reality that one adjusts to. Am I now in the purgatory between citizen and nobody, between fine young man and bum?”

And finally, the third and weightiest aspect of the text is the author’s sense of emptiness, his lack of self esteem, his sorrow which he can’t seem to evade, what he describes as “life slamming into” him: “I am almost nothing. I am finally, about to be nothing.”

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Kindle Version

 

Now They Call Me Infidel, Nonie Darwish

I decided to read this book based in the fact that I was impressed by the author when I saw her interviewed. Generally speaking, this book and its message are somewhat right wing for my liking and beliefs. However, I was taken by the fact that Darwish is the daughter of an Egyptian military man who was killed by the Israelis while serving in Gaza and despite this she has the courage to speak out against her country and her religion. It was this that drove me to read her story.

On one level, this is an outstanding book for anyone in the west who is not well educated about Islam and the position of women in Islamic countries. The book is lucid, clearly written and very accessible. The writer is western educated and therefore has a good understanding of her audience and their expectations of this type of text.

However, while Darwish presents a fantastic overview of Islam and its fundamentalist elements, for me it seemed that often her message was being too severely rammed down the reader’s throat, too overtly pushed. I resented this intrusion into what was otherwise a fascinating book. Her message is far too clear and unnecessarily repeated or over emphasized. While I realize that this might simply be a consequence of Darwish’s emotional conviction, I found that it was not only distracting, but was quite simply irritating.

Of more interest to me was Darwish’s own personal narrative and journey. She uses this as a vehicle to present her message that Islam is bad, too extreme and that Islamists are out to conquer the world. It is unfortunate that her story is used as a weapon in this context, that it is disguised in this way, for it is fascinating and well worth exploring further. Certainly, one can agree with her message and indeed, many of the facts that she presents about life in America are alarming; however, this does not detract from the very essence of Darwish’s intense sadness at her father’s death, her mother’s isolation and the descent of her homeland into fundamentalist Islamic fervour. I wanted to read more about these latter elements, rather than be further bashed over the head with the notion that Islam is evil and that Muslims are terrorists.

As an aside, I do have a relatively strong background in Islam and the position of women in that religion so it’s highly likely that this is behind my sentiment of feeling irritated by this text. Perhaps others with a lesser exposure to these issues will feel less harangued?

I do, nonetheless, recommend the read and further, I encourage you all to support Darwish in her quest to stand up and speak out against the clear injustices perpetuated by certain interpretations of Islamic Sharia law. In this regard, Darwish is an incredibly brave women and it is unfortunate that there are not more people out there just like her.

Click to purchase Darwish’s book.

Click the following link to buy the Kindle version of this book:
Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror

Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man

I have read quite a few books about addictions and have found each of them to fascinating for different reasons. However, Bill Clegg’s memoir is by far the clearest and most intriguing of all of the books of this genre that I have encountered.
Clegg’s account of his spiral into the abyss of crack cocaine is so vivid, told with such clarity, so intense that it is difficult to describe. I read the book in a state of awe. Although, not sure if “read” is the right verb … It was more like “gulping down”, imbibing, drowning. Clegg’s writing is a pleasure to read. The book is well structured and flows easily back and forth through time as Clegg tries to explain his fall from grace and the challenge of trying to convince himself that everything was ok, that he was not – as he calls it – “a junkie”.
There are numerous references to mirrors, inferences to what we choose to see and what we choose to ignore. The underlying idea is pretense, fakery, poor attempts at illusion and finally, desperation.
There are some stellar moments in this book, moments which take the readers’ breath away. There are also some shocking transgressions. But, even these become points of empathy for readers who find themselves inevitably relating, on some level, to Clegg’s battle with drugs, with himself.
This book is definitely one of my top books of the year. A must read for everyone.

Click to purchase this outstanding book.