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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 2016-03-31 02:26
THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF JERUSALEM by Sarit Yishai-Levi, Anthony Berris (translation)
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem: A Novel - Sarit Yishai-Levi , שרית ישי-לוי,Anthony Berris
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem
by Sarit Yishai-Levi, Anthony Berris (translation)
Hardcover, 384 pages
Expected publication: April 5th 2016 by Thomas Dunne (first published 2013)
isbn: 1250078164 (ISBN13: 9781250078162)

I definitely loved this book. The "blurb" got me interested and the book did not let down for me. The translation was well done (original was written in Hebrew). The copy I received was an uncorrected proof, but there was nothing that stood out other than the word the tilde was not over the n in the word Senor.  The story follows several generations of women, their husbands, and the trials they dealt with in the 1940's and later in Jerusalem. I loved the characters, the neighborhoods the different members of the family lived in, and cultures that were represented. A beautiful read and I would definitely recommend it to others.

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review 2014-12-21 04:49
Fantastic!!!!!
Sebastian - Christoph Fischer

This is another powerful book written by Christoph Fischer. It takes place in Vienna during the horrid days of WWII and the despicable atrocities that were thrust upon the Jewish people by the German Empire.

The main character of the book is a Sebastian, a young man just sixteen who had part of his leg amputated. He is a very strong individual filled with determination at such a young age that it leaves you utterly stunned. He is dealing with many complications from that amputation, but he does not let any of that become an abstraction to his goal. He suffers set-backs and wretched poignant incidents, but he does goes on. He is a very likable character and one of my favorites in this book.

He lives with his father Franz, who runs a grocery store under the same dueling they occupy, and his mother Vera who is quite ill. His best friend Oscar and his wife Rebecca live with them as well. The plot becomes very complicated when several other characters inter the seen. I found all the characters to be fascinating as they are so different and yet so involved in every aspect of the story. First is the young beautiful Ingeborg, then Eva, Sebastian’s first crush, Margit and her mother, Peroska.

Fischer introduces very cleverly amazing twists and turns to the plot blended with the right amount of transcendent facets, and séances. All that creates a large amount of chaos in characters’ lives, while the war is blasting in full force. I was absolutely glued to the pages. I could not put the book down. This is exactly what happened to me with the other two books in the trilogy “The Luck of the Weissensteiners” and “The Black Eagle Inn”.

Christoph Fischer has done a lot of research and provides a rich understanding of the events in Eastern Europe during that era.
This is again an amazing book that is brilliantly written and I am a fan.

I wish there was another book that I could pick up and continue this amazing journey. I will recommend this book to everyone I know. These books are filled with information, that has been greatly researched, memorable characters that we will love, and it will provide a blend of emotions that will leave you astonished.
Sebastian is a book that has to be read, but so are the other two books in the trilogy. I love them all and could not tell you which one is better than the other because they are equally great!!!!
Christoph Fischer is a wonderful gifted writer and one of my most favorite authors.

Source: www.amazon.com/review/R6013YEIGHX9G/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm
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review 2014-11-10 20:30
The Magic Barrel - Bernard Malamud,Jhumpa Lahiri

This collection of short stories won the National Book Award in 1958. I don't think as many people read Malamud now as they once did, and indeed I have several students who've never heard of his, which is a great pity.  These are beautiful stories of the Jewish immigrant experience, haunted by the Holocaust, poignant and full of struggle.  I know of few writers who capture the feeling of wanting what we cannot have, of wanting to be what we cannot be, which is at the heart of all dramatic fiction, better than Malamud.

 

There is a universality to these stories, although they are peopled almost exclusively with Jews, that I find lacking in contemporary fiction, which in comparison often seems clever but lacking heart. 

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