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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 2017-07-22 22:46
The Poacher's Son
The Poacher's Son - Paul Doiron

Mike Bowditch is a young game warden and also the son of a poacher. He hadn't seen his dad for two years when he got a message from him on his answering machine. Later that day he learns that two men, one a police officer, were gunned down after a heated public meeting in the same area where his dad lives. Then, he gets word that his dad has been arrested and may be charged for the crime. He decides to put his job on the line and go help his dad. His dad is a brawler and has known his fair share of trouble with the law but Mike doesn't believe he would kill someone, especially a police officer.

 

This story is different than the books I usually read in that it is set in the forests of Maine. I was interested in the story but it is definitely slower paced than what I am used to. At one point it almost lost me but I ended up getting hooked into the story. I couldn't be sure which way the story would end. Afterward, I found myself thinking about different details still. I enjoyed the descriptions of the area and can imagine how peaceful it would be even though I've never been there. I think it was a nice change from the usual crime mystery and I'm going to get the next book in this series and see what happens next.

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review 2017-06-24 13:51
Boring!
The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Child... The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood - Richard Blanco

Had this book for a few years now and finally got around to reading it. It seemed timely plus it has been popping up on a couple of LGBT reading lists recently. I don't know much about him (other than he's an inaugural poet and is the first Latino and openly gay one) but it seemed like reading about the childhood of a boy whose family left Cuba to move to Florida sounded like an intriguing story.

 

Basically it's a bunch of stories of his childhood. His family, what it's like in school, navigating things like Thanksgiving, wanting to participate in "American" culture, etc. Some of it is really funny (he drops the Thanksgiving turkey as he's trying to bring it home from the store and the family later suffers from food poisoning after the dinner) but most of it is...not really compelling. 

 

It just seems like a retelling of doing X, Y, Z. I wasn't necessarily looking for a compelling, moving saga about what it's like growing up in a place where you don't look like a lot of the other people or necessarily speak the language, etc. And while I don't have much in common with him I just didn't feel his story was really interesting in any way. I haven't read any of his other work so I don't know if that has anything to do with it but it just felt very blah.

 

Maybe it just wasn't for me. Other people seemed to think it got better in the latter parts of the book but it felt the same overall. I regret buying it (as I can see it's available at my library) but maybe it would work if you're a fan or have a similar background to his.

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review 2017-06-20 01:25
Christmas Wishes
Christmas Wishes - Debbie Macomber

I've had this book on my shelf because one of the stories, Christmas Letters, was part of the Blossom Street Series by Debbie Macomber. I've read it before but it had been so long I couldn't remember it and I am rereading the series starting from the beginning. I thought Christmas Letters was the better story of the two in this book and enjoyed the humor in it. The other story, Rainy Day Kisses was okay but I am not big on romance stories.

 

Mainly, I needed something light to read because I've been feeling bad and today I had another optical migraine so that made reading difficult.  I had to look up the audiobook so I could listen for a while until it passed.  I switched back and forth between reading and listening and actually realized I enjoyed the audiobooks.  This book consists of two stories and the audiobooks are separate.  I really enjoyed listening to the audiobook for Christmas Letters read by Renée Raudman.  She made it much more entertaining with her different voices.  I really felt like I was listening to different people speaking to each other.  The first time I read that book I remember that I didn't especially like it but I really couldn't remember it, which is why I was going to read it again.  I didn't want to skip anything as I reread the Blossom Street Series.  Well, the first time I only read to Hannah's List and never finished that book.  This time I plan to finish it and read the rest of the books in the series.  As I listened to the audiobook for Christmas Letters I started to remember some details but she made it so much funnier.  I will definitely look for more audiobooks read by her.  

 

Christmas Letters is about Kathleen O'Connor, usually called K.O. by her friends, who is currently working as a medical transcriptionist while looking for a job as a publicist. She also writes Christmas letters for people to make a little extra money on the side. She has recently been infuriated by her sister's decision to follow the parenting advice found in a book called The Free Child by Dr. Wynn Jeffries.  Her twin nieces have evolved into terrors and now, her sister has decided to follow his advice to "bury Santa under the sleigh" and isn't planning to have a Christmas tree or Santa this Christmas. K.O. is appalled and when she realizes he lives in her building decides to confront him. She also has an interesting older neighbor who has been taking classes at the community Center and recently took one on unleashing her psychic abilities.  While getting ready to scoop up her cats "business" in the kitty litter she saw the future for K.O.  Specifically, she saw love in her future and decided to set her up.  

 

The other story in this book, Rainy Day Kisses was, eh.  That's my review. for it  Eh.

 

 

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review 2017-06-15 23:48
Granpa, tell me about when you were little
Boy: Tales of Childhood - Roald Dahl,Quentin Blake

What a great biographic piece. Dahl is an excellent story teller, and puts that to use: he doesn't waste pages in the minutia, or get scared of leaving swathes of time undressed, but picks the bits he wants to tell about his early life, because they are important, interesting, colorful, defining. It turns into a very entertaining read.

It paints a picture of a time. I was impressed by his mother courage and strength (and humor, and mettle, and pragmatism... she comes across as one awesome lady), horrified by much of the sadism involved in his education, and somewhat enlightened on the reasons for his often irreverent characters.

I laughed a lot. There is humor inside every part, from the comfort of hindsight, fondness of remembrance, matter-of-fact way harrowing or ridiculous situations are described, or dry irony.

I plain loved it.

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