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review 2017-04-30 17:49
The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst
The Misfortunates - Dimitri Verhulst,David Colmer

Based on the protagonist’s sharing the author’s full name, and the little information about Verhulst available in English, this short, episodic novel appears to be autobiographical. Somewhat more than half of it focuses on Dimitri’s boyhood, surrounded by the raging drunks that are his father and three uncles. In these chapters Dimitri himself almost disappears, but one gets the sense of a narrator struggling with the tension between his affection and nostalgia for these incorrigible relatives, and his ultimate rejection of their lifestyle after they fail him in ways that are largely left to the reader’s imagination. In later chapters Dimitri appears as a not-particularly-endearing adult, and the book becomes even more episodic – it’s almost more of a short story collection than a novel – as major events are referenced only in passing. It makes sense thematically but leaves a great deal untold.

The book is set in Belgium and originally written in Dutch, but the translation is skillful and flows well. Early on some of the descriptions wallow in the muck to a fairly repulsive degree (generally related to bodily fluids), but this is less a feature of the entire book than of the early chapters. And they do speak to an eye for detail. The individual characters are not especially distinguishable, but the culture of Dimitri’s family and his community come to life (the encounters between the men of the family and Dimitri’s refined, well-off aunt and cousin, and later a cultured immigrant family, throw their mostly well-intentioned boorishness into particularly sharp relief). There’s an adept balancing of entertainment value and the narrator’s darker view of the world, sprinkled with brief, pointed references to the meaninglessness of life.

There’s certainly something to this book, and some readers will connect strongly to this ode to a dysfunctional family. But the narrator’s emotional distance combined with his often poor treatment of others once reaching adulthood, the episodic nature of a story without any unifying plot, the gross-out factor, and the rather limited, child’s-eye view of the primary characters made it difficult for me to become engrossed in the story. We’ll call this one a neutral reference.

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review 2016-07-17 19:43
War and Turpentine
War and Turpentine: A novel - Stefan Hertmans,David H. McKay

War and Turpentine is separated into three parts: the first about Urbain's childhood and family; the second recounts his experiences during World War I; the third focuses on his life after the war.

 

The writing is elegant, if a bit too alliterative at times, but quite beautiful are the author's descriptions of his great-grandparents' love and the tenderness with which great-grandmother Celine treats her husband, Franciscus, despite their poverty, cramped quarters, five children, and Franciscus's fragile health. Hertmans presents his grandfather's impoverished childhood in terms that show how the beautiful, the ugly, and the mundane intertwined to create the man Urbain would grow to be. Hertmans captures the great love Urbain had for his mother, Celine, and the tenderness of her love toward both her husband and her son.

 

Before he was even old enough to shave, Urbain had already seen a great deal of the painful side of life. He was barely a teenager when he witnessed a horrific accident at an iron smith/mechanic's shop, and, as was the custom at the time, nobody talked about what happened; everyone kept to himself while things and people fell apart. Urbain also spent time working in a foundry at the age of thirteen, and the reader can feel the intense heat of liquid metal and see young Urbain's muscles tremble as he struggles to steady the basin of molten iron.

 

I was also particularly moved by a scene from the Great War, describing animals swimming across a river in a flood during a lull between battles, "fleeing an unimaginable Armageddon . . . fleeing blindly like lemmings." One can only begin to imagine how tempting it must have been to want to flee with them, to swim away to a distant shore, to a place where one can look in any given direction and not see insurmountable death and destruction. Urbain describes war as being "like the wrath of God, minus God." Powerful and poignant.

 

My only real point of contention with the novel is that I felt the author's presence more than I wanted to. At times, images and sounds flowed over me in cascades; at other times, I was only too aware of the author's presence. Outside of that, I really enjoyed reading War and Turpentine and found the prose both fluid-like and soothing, even when describing some of the darkest moments of Urbain's difficult life.

 

I received access to the galley for free through the First to Read program, but all opinions are MY OWN.

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review 2015-02-10 01:28
On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe
On Black Sisters' Street - Chika Unigwe

This is one of those books that hides lazy writing and cardboard characters behind a topic you can’t criticize: in this case, it’s sex trafficking. Now, if you love every book you read with tragic subject matter you should probably skip my review, but if you are looking for literary merit, then read on.

 

On Black Sisters Street features four women – three from Nigeria and one from Sudan – working as prostitutes in Belgium. At the beginning of the book we learn that one of them, Sisi, will be murdered; from there the chapters alternate between Sisi and the other three women, tracing their backstories and documenting their lives as immigrant sex workers.

 

The story moves fairly quickly, and for the first half I had some respect for Unigwe’s avoidance of the expected stories. Most of these characters go into sex work with their eyes wide open, driven by a general lack of economic opportunity rather than grand melodramatic circumstances. And while they are sex workers, they aren’t defined by sex; the depiction of their lives is in no way exploitative. The backstories get more stereotypical as they go, however, until we reach the one full of mass killing and gang rape and with a character tricked into sex work. Unigwe’s writing isn’t up to such intense material, and it reads just like every other overly violent sequence in every other book that tried to force through tragedy an emotional connection that the author was unable to build with real character development.

 

And the writing style leaves plenty to be desired. Witness:

 

“The house itself was not much to look at. Truth be told, it was quite a disappointment, really. A ground-floor flat with a grubby front door and, as she would find out later, five bedrooms not much bigger than telephone booths. The sitting room was a cliché. An all-red affair except for the long sofa, which was black and against the wall right beside the door; a single thin mirror ran from the ceiling to the rug. Sisi often thought that had she been asked to draw the room, she would have drawn exactly that, down to the mirror. The only thing she would have left out would have been the incense, which Madam burned nonstop, believing totally in its ability to rid the world of all evil.”

 

I won’t nitpick the grammar or wordiness (you can judge for yourself), because the larger problem is that I don’t know what this means. If Sisi were to draw the room, she would, um, draw it, but without the smell? Scents tend to get left out of my drawings, too.

 

Then there are the passages that make clear that not only is the author not a native English speaker, but Random House evidently couldn’t be bothered to have someone copyedit her work:

 

“She hoped she would never have to cry like that again for as long as she lived. She was wrong.” This was only a hope, so she wasn’t wrong; she was disappointed.

 

“Sisi was shown into a sardonic room with a single bed dressed up in impossibly white sheets.” Try as I might, I cannot imagine how a room might be sardonic.

 

But okay, most of us can forgive some stylistic infelicities if we come to know and love the characters. Sadly, these portrayals are only skin deep. Ama is the angry one. Efe is the one who speaks in heavy dialect. That’s about all there is to differentiate these women from one another. And so, for me, the worst passage is found on the last page:

 

“Anyone who knew Sisi well might say that she [spoiler removed]. . . . For Sisi was not the sort to forgive.”

 

Clearly, this reader never knew Sisi, because despite having just read a book in which she is the main character, I had no reason to believe she was malicious or prone to grudges, nor would I have predicted the action she takes. And when a book’s characters don’t come alive, all I can recommend is that you look elsewhere.

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review 2014-02-07 05:00
Berlijn: Om En Rond De Muur
Berlijn om en rond de muur - Robert Declerck,Margrit Sarbogardi

Ik kreeg dit informatieve boek over Berlijn nadat ik er de eerste keer was geweest en er heel enthousiast over was. Berlijn is een prachtige stad, en ik kom er dan ook graag.

 

Het boek focust, zoals de titel al doet vermoeden, vooral op de geschiedenis van Berlijn van de afgelopen eeuw, en geeft inzichten in gebeurtenissen en tips om bepaalde plaatsen in Berlijn te bezoeken. Zodoende is het een interessante reisgids, maar ook leuk om te lezen als je niet op het punt staat om naar Berlijn te reizen.

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