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review 2017-08-27 11:21
A novel not for everybody that perhaps everybody should read
Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is another one of the books longlisted for the Man-Booker Prize (now I only have one left of the ones I discovered sitting on my list. I might even finish reading it before the short-list is announced, I believe on the 13th of September). In this case, like in a few of the previous ones, although the author, Mohsin Hamid, is fairly well-known, this is the first of his books I read. Some of the reviews compare it to his previous books, especially to The Reluctant Fundamentalist (I don’t know about the book, but I love the title, for sure), but I can’t comment on that. I can tell you that having read this book, I am curious to read more of his works.

This is another fairly peculiar book. Let me tell you beforehand that I really enjoyed it. Like many of the other books selected, the author seems to go out of his way to ignore most of the rules that those of us who read articles and books on writing are so familiar with. He tells a fair bit more than he shows (although there are some bits of showing that make up for it), he uses run-on sentences and paragraphs that sometimes go on and on (if you read it as an e-book, full pages). The punctuation of the said paragraphs is ‘alternative’ at best (quite a few reviewers have taken issue with the use of commas). And the genre is not well-defined.

The novel seemingly starts as a love story between two young characters, Nadia and Saeed, who live in an undetermined Middle-Eastern country. He is shyer, more serious, and has certain religious beliefs (although he is not obsessed or particularly orthodox). She wears a long, black robe, possibly as a protection (although her explanation of it varies throughout the story) but never prays. He comes from a happy and learned family; hers was well-off but not particularly supportive. They meet at a time when the political situation of their country is getting complicated, they almost lose each other and eventually, due to a tragedy, end up together, but never formally so. At some point, life becomes so precarious and dangerous that they decide they must leave.

The story, told in the third-person, that most of the time shares the point of view of one of the two protagonists (and briefly that of Saeed’s father), at times becomes omniscient, interspersing short interludes, which sometimes are full stories and sometimes merely vignettes, of characters that appear extraneous to the story. (And they are, although perhaps not).

The story up to that point, apart from these strange interludes, appears fairly realistic, if somewhat general (no specifics are shared about the country, and the narration is mostly circumscribed to the everyday experiences of the characters). Then, the characters start to hear rumours about some ‘doors’ that allow those who cross them to arrive at a different country. There is no explanation for this. It simply is. Is this fantasy, science-fiction (but as I said, there is no scientific explanation or otherwise, although the setting appears to be an alternative future, but very similar to our present. Extremely similar), or perhaps, in my opinion, a touch of magic realism?

People start migrating en masse, using the doors, most to remove themselves from dangerous situations, and despite attempts from the richest nations to control it, more and more doors are appearing and more and more people are going through them, and that changes everything. Many of the western nations end up full of people from other places, squatting in empty houses (like the protagonists do in London, Chelsea and Kensington to be precise), setting up camps, and the political situation worsens, with confrontations between the natives and the new arrivals, before a sort of equilibrium is reached. The two main characters move several times, and their relationship develops and changes too. (I am not sure I could share true spoilers, but I’d leave it to you to decide if you want to read it or not, rather than tell you the whole story).  

The book deals with a subject that is very relevant, although it has been criticised for using the allegory of the doors to avoid discussing and describing one of the most harrowing (sometimes lethal) aspects of the experience of illegal immigrants, the passage. Nonetheless, this novel sets up a fascinating hypothetical situation, where there are no true barriers to the movement of people between countries and where all frontiers have effectively disappeared. What would actually happen if people were not waiting outside to come in, waiting for governments to decide what to do with them, but suddenly found a back door, and were here, there, and everywhere? What if they refused to leave? What would happen then?

I enjoyed some of the interspersed stories, some magical, some of discovering amazing possibilities, some nostalgic. I also loved the language and some of the more generalised reflections about life, people, and identity (like the different groups of people who claimed to being ‘native’ in the USA, for example). We observe the characters from a certain distance at times, but we are also allowed to peek into their inner thoughts and experiences at other times. Although we might not have much in common with either of them, we can easily relate to them and put ourselves in their shoes. We don’t get to know much about some of the other characters, but there is enough for the readers to imagine the rest and fill in the gaps.

The book meanders and at times seems to stay still, just observing the new normality, as if it was trying to tell us that life, even in the most extreme circumstances, is made of the small everyday things. A few quotations from the book:

Nadia had taken one look at Saeed’s father and felt him like a father, for he was so gentle, and evoked in her a protective caring, as if for one’s own child, or for a puppy, or for a beautiful memory one knows has already commenced to fade.

Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable colour, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.

…and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.

…the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.

 

This is a book that questions notions of identity, beliefs, nationhood, family, community, race… It is dark at times, full of light at others, sad sometimes, and sometimes funny, and it is hopeful and perhaps even utopic (not something very common these days). I am not sure everybody would define the ending as happy (definitely is not the HEA romance novels have us accustomed to) but perhaps we need to challenge our imagination a bit more than traditional storytelling allows.

 This is another novel that is not for everybody but perhaps everybody should read. If you are prepared to cross the door of possibility you might be amazed by what you find on the other side.

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review 2017-08-16 00:10
Daredevil: Back in Black vol. 4: Identity by Charles Soule
Daredevil: Back in Black Vol. 4: Identity - Charles Soule,Dan Panosian,Goran Sudžuka,Ron Garney

I seem to be in the minority here, but this is what I was waiting for, the greatness that I saw in this comic from the beginning, the characterization of Matt that I knew Soule was capable of.

 

Focusing finally solely on Matt this time 'round, Soule takes him back to the character that I've always loved, takes him back to darkness and religion, and his complicated relationship with both. Also, kinda pointing out what an asshole he'd become in the Waid comics, which... I honestly gotta love.

 

This is also the reveal of how and why the world forgot his identity, and his role in it. What happened between him and Kirsten, him and Foggy. And, again, in the minority, but I thought it was wonderfully handled (though, I gotta admit, I'm gonna disagree with the priest here that he protected Kirsten by not revealing himself to her; he protected his own self, as he tends to do, and that's in-character, but the comic telling me it was something noble or justified made me side-eye it just a bit.)

 

There's a two page panel that I adored, that I think perfectly sums Matt's struggles in one image without words: Matt is being carried on his back, a Christ-like figure, with the worst, most evil influences in his life at the front, Kingpin right beside him with Foggy trying to reach over Fisk's shoulder to get to Matt, and Milla behind him with her hand on his shoulder. Elektra at the bottom of the panel, reaching for him, his father and mother at his head, Jack muscling past Bullseye, Karen behind him. The edges fade into darkness, with every character that's crossed his path, for good or for evil, crowding around him. This was modern Daredevil at its finest.

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review 2017-08-08 23:18
Book Review: Mistaken Identity By M.C. Jackson
Mistaken Identity - M.C. Jackson

 

I've been waiting for so long to have a book pull this twist and have me blind to it all. This is one of few books in the suspense genre that kept me intrigued throughout the story. This cover is kind of perfect for this novel for some reason.

 

Lena was a very confused character. When you consider her childhood it becomes painfully believable. Though I didn't understand why she kept up her "farce" for so long and why she didn't rush to read the journal she found. Other than that I liked her as a character. She kept the reader just as confused and pensive as she was. Though I did start getting angry at her for how far she was taking her farce with Jake before everything fell into place.

 

After getting the whole story I came to the conclusion that I like Jake. I don't agree with his methods and I think he could have handled everything a tad bit better. Overall he's a good guy who's doing everything in his power to "save" Anna.

 

I enjoyed this novel and the ending was sweet. I liked how she finally got the help she needed after everything she had gone through during her life. I also appreciated that she admitted that she wanted and needed help without being forced into it.

 

My Favorite Quotes:

 

"My issues ran so deep that all the therapy in the world wasn't going to help me.

 

"If there is one sure thing I've learned in my life, it's that people will never fail to disappoint you."

 

"It just proves that you never really know what people are capable of. Even when you think you know them."

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review 2017-08-01 22:02
For discerning readers who enjoy books about the human condition
A Horse Walks into a Bar: A novel - David Grossman,Jessica Cohen

Thanks to NetGalley and to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Jonathan Cape for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is the first book I’ve read by David Grossman. I hope it won’t be the last.

The description probably gives a fair idea of the plot. Yes, we are in Netanya, Israel, and we are spectators of the act of a stand-up comedian, Dovelah Greenstein (or Dov G.). He is 57 years old (as he repeatedly reminds us through the evening), skinny (almost emaciated), and seems to become increasingly desperate as the night goes. He tells jokes, anecdotes, makes comments about the city, the spectators, Jews (yes, the self-deprecation readers of Philip Roth, for example, will be familiar with), says some politically incorrect things, tells a number of jokes (some really funny, some odd, some quite old), and insists on telling us a story about his childhood, despite the audience’s resistance to listening to it.

The beauty (or one of them) of the novel, is the narrator. Yes, I’m back to my obsession with narrators. The story is told in the first-person by Avishai Lazar, a judge who was unceremoniously removed from his post when he started becoming a bit too vocal and opinionated in his verdicts. The two characters were friends as children, and Dov calls Avishai asking him to attend his performance. His request does not only come completely out of the blue (they hadn’t seen each other since they were in their teens), but it is also quite weird. He does not want a chat, or to catch up on old times. He wants the judge to tell him what he sees when he looks at him. He wants him to tell him what other people see, what essence they perceive when they watch him. Avishai, who is a widower and still grieving, is put-off by this and reacts quite rudely, but eventually, agrees.

Although the novel is about Dov’s performance and his story (his need to let it all hang out, to explain his abuse but also his feeling of guilt about a personal tragedy), that is at times light and funny, but mostly sad and even tragic, he is not the character who changes and grows the most during the performance (his is an act of exorcism, a way of getting rid of his demons). For me, the story, sad and depressing as it can be at times (this is not a book for everybody, and I suspect many readers will empathise with quite a few of the spectators who leave the performance before it ends), is ultimately about redemption. Many narrators have told us in the past (The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness) that in telling somebody else’s story, they are also telling their own. This is indeed the case here. The judge (at first we don’t know who is narrating the story, but we get more and more details as the performance advances) is very hostile at first and keeps wondering why he is there, and wanting to leave. But at some point, the rawness, the determination, and the sheer courage of the comedian, who keeps going no matter how difficult it gets, break through his protective shell and he starts to question his own actions and his life. If this might be Dev’s last performance, in a way it is a beginning of sorts, especially for the judge.

Readers become the ersatz club audience, and it is very difficult to stop watching something that is so extreme and desperate, but it is also difficult to keep watching (or reading) as it becomes more and more painful. It is as if we were spectators in a therapy session where somebody is baring his soul. We feel as if we are intruding on an intimate moment, but also that perhaps we are providing him with some comfort and support to help him go through the process. Although other than the two main characters we do not get to know the rest in detail, there are familiar types we might recognise, and there is also a woman who knew the comedian when he was a child and, perhaps, plays the part of the therapist (a straight faced one, but the one he needs).

The book is beautifully written and observed. Grossman shows a great understanding of psychology and also of group interactions. Although I am not an expert on stand-up comedy, the dynamics of the performance rang true to me. I cannot compare it to the original, but the translation is impressive (I find it difficult to imagine anybody could do a better job, and if the original is even better, well…).

As I said before, this is not a book for everybody. Although it is quite short, it is also slow and intense (its rhythm is that of the performance, which ebbs and flows). None of the characters (except, perhaps, the woman) are immediately sympathetic, and they are flawed, not confident enough or too confident and dismissive, over-emotional or frozen and unable to feel, and they might not seem to have much in common with the reader, at first sight. This is not a genre book (literary fiction would be the right label, if we had to try and give it one), there is no romance (or not conventional romance), no action, no heroes or heroines, and not much happens (a whole life happens, but not in the usual sense). If you are interested in characters that are real in their humanity (for better and for worse), don’t mind a challenge, and want to explore something beyond the usual, I recommend you this book.

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review 2017-07-25 21:25
This didn't change my mind but I appreciated the insight.
Sistah Vegan: Food, Identity, Health, and Society: Black Female Vegans Speak - A. Breeze Harper

Although I personally do not have any interest in going vegan or even vegetarian, I was intrigued by this book. I don't know many vegetarians or vegans very well and none who are black. I understand that this can be a topic fraught with issues regarding class, environmental concerns, racism, accessibility, personal identity, relationships and more. So it seemed interesting to read a book from the viewpoint of black female vegans on their thoughts.

 

The book does match the description (mostly). It's a series of essays, recollections, poems, thoughts, etc. on what it means to be vegan, how they came to their decision, how it affected their lives, their relationships (romantic or otherwise), what are issues they perceive (good and bad) surrounding being vegan and black women, etc. As others note, some pieces are quite good and I was disappointed there wasn't more from particular writers.

 

But, as a collection of writings it is understandably a mixed bag. Some really needed a better editor, some needed to talk less about themselves (as in, there was too much life story/personal anecdotes that were off topic for a work like this). You'll find some great writings and thoughts on the practicality (or not) of being vegan but you'll also find some of the perhaps "stereotypical" tropes. Some authors were far too spiritual or "New Age-y" for me. Like another reviewer I side-eyed the refusal to vaccinate. However, there's a good chance you'll find something that speaks to you among the stuff that does not.

 

And some of the criticisms I think are on target. The uneven quality of writing has already been mentioned but some were just downright odd: I thought it was strange the Afterword was written by a white woman (who herself acknowledges the potential problems) but that was my own person quirk. I also somewhat disagree with the back cover description that calls the book a "handbook for our time." It's an interesting collection but I wouldn't call it a handbook to learn or to see as a "how to" guide.

 

It did not change my mind (but I wasn't looking to have it changed or somehow have an eye-opening experience). However, I did feel I did get quite a bit out of it and I appreciated being able to read a collection like this all in one place rather than piecing it together from social media, books, etc. I was happy to pay for it but I had a coupon and if it had been at the library I would have very likely borrowed it if I could have. 

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