Genre: Contemporary

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

Posted April 10, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David GrossmanTitle: A Horse Walks into a Bar (Goodreads)
Author: David Grossman
Translator: Jessica Cohen
Published: Jonathan Cape, 2016
Pages: 208
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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When the Man Booker International longlist was announced for the year, I logged into my library and searched to see which books I could reserve. Sadly they only had five of the longlist, which included one I had already read, War and Turpentine. David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar was one of the books available. Having now read this novel, I do not think any book has left me as emotionally perplexed as Horse Walks into a Bar.

The novel is set in a small Israeli town comedy club where the audience gather for a night of laughter. Instead they witness a comedian coming apart on stage. This is such an emotionally charged novel and one that must have been difficult to write. I went into the book interested in the techniques used to write a stand up show into a novel and I wanted to see how Grossman would handle this meltdown. Humour is so subjective and I felt myself groaning at the attempts made by this comedian. Obviously this is not the type of comedian I would go see perform.

I do wish I knew more about Israeli culture than I do, because I think there was so much I could have gotten from the novel and I feel like some of it just went over my head. There was so much to be gained and having never read David Grossman before I do not think this was the right starting point. The breakdown was such a tough piece of writing to pull off and I often felt like it was not being handled correctly. Having said that, writing a novel around one stand-up performance would have given the novel many restrictions.

This was such a difficult book to read, mainly because I felt so emotionally drained from reading it. I could not read more than twenty or thirty pages before I need a break from the experience. I think David Grossman is a brilliant writer even if this is not a book for me. I am curious to read more Grossman, I have often heard great things but never sure where to start. While I did not enjoy the experience of reading A Horse Walks into a Bar, I cannot stop thinking about it. This is the type of novel that would make for a great stage performance.


Back to Moscow by Guillermo Erades

Posted January 25, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Back to Moscow by Guillermo EradesTitle: Back to Moscow (Goodreads)
Author: Guillermo Erades
Published: Scribner, 2016
Pages: 371
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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Martin has just arrived in Moscow, on the advice of an old girlfriend (she thought it would be easier to score a scholarship from a Russian university). He plans to finish his studies and write a thesis on the Russian heroine, exploring the difference between Russian literature and the western world. However, it is the early 2000s and Moscow is changing rapidly, and the appeal of nightclubs, woman and cheap alcohol is distracting him from his study. Guillermo Erades’ debut novel Back to Moscow is a booze soaked exploration of an aspiring writer in a new setting.

Do not get me wrong, I love those novels that are set in New York that follow to wannabe writers that are often difficult men. I cannot get enough of those types of stories but this is so much better, for starters this is about Russian literature. Back to Moscow thrilled me from start to finish because of the setting and the exploration into Russian classics that appeared at the start of every part.

I am normally am hesitant in picking up a book set in Russia by a western author, but I seem to have decent luck with Spanish authors. Granted I have only read Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto and now Back to Moscow but both have impressed me greatly. Maybe my hesitancy should be directed towards American authors rather than the entire western society. I find the lack of knowledge of Russia often reflects poorly on the author.

With Back to Moscow, the whole novel was structured around understanding Russia and its literature and this is a quest that I am personally on as well, so my gushing review is inevitable. I also enjoy reading about terrible people and Martin fits into that category but I never thought of him as an anti-hero. I had some empathy for him, partly because I have made so many of those stupid mistakes. I have put my desire for pleasure over the feelings of others and as result hurt myself and the people I love.

This does not mean I sympathise with Martin; I did get frustrated with every selfish action but I could relate (as much as I hate to admit it). Add that to the mix of an antisocial writer with a passion for Russian literature, and you have someone that closely resembles me (although the bad life choices are over for me, thankfully). I do wonder if Back to Moscow is at all autobiographical, because the way he writes makes me think this is the case.

I like the focus on exploring the differences between Russia and western society. This becomes the focus of the novel. It is this exploration that allows people to try and gain a better understanding of the differences. One of Martin’s friends even said. “You Westerners are always angry because you want to change everything in life. We Russians are always sad because we know that most things cannot be changed.” This quote really stuck with me in really understanding the differences. There is so much more to understand, but I am working on an essay on Russian literature (stay tuned).

“Russia is lost” she continued. “First we had God. Then we had Lenin. Now we have nothing.”

Without giving away much about the plot, I will say that this debut novel impressed me greatly. There is a definite affection for Russia and the classics coming from the author and I think that is the appeal. The novel ends with the perfect metaphor for the entire story and Russia literature itself.

“In Metro systems around the world, a screen about the platform shows the time left until the arrival of the next train. Five minutes. Four minutes. Three minute. Two minutes. One minute. Then the countdown stops and you feel the breeze and you hear the rattle of a new train approaching through the tunnel.

Not in Moscow.

In Moscow’s metro, the electronic counter about the platform shows the time that has passed since the departure of the last train. With unnecessary precision, the seconds keep adding up one by one, informing you not about the train to come, but the one you’ve missed, the train that would be carrying you, if only you arrived earlier. But that train is for ever gone. You don’t know when the next one will arrive.”

The back of the novel compares Guillermo Erades to Ben Lerner and Bret Easton Ellis, while I can see the comparison with Larner, I debate the other. I think the only thing Erades and Ellis have in common is their ability to write a difficult men. Back to Moscow is one of those books that I wanted to turn back to page one and re-read straight away. I cannot say this is a novel that will appeal to everyone, it appealed to me for the reasons I have mentioned. I do not think there is anything profound to get from this book, but the quotes I have added to this review are lines that stuck with me. I find it hard to review this critically because I got so much out of it personally. If you have a love of Russia and its literature then maybe you need to give this book a go as well.


In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Posted January 16, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick ModianoTitle: In the Café of Lost Youth (Goodreads)
Author: Patrick Modiano
Translator: Euan Cameron
Published: MacLehose Press, 2007
Pages: 160
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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Recently I read my first Patrick Modiano novel, Missing Person which I enjoyed immensely. So much so, that I picked up In the Café of Lost Youth soon after. This book follows three different narrators talking about their memories of a woman named Louki. The four different perspectives (one being Louki herself) paints a detailed portrait of this one woman, Jacqueline ‘Louki’ Delanque. A woman that grew up in poverty, the daughter of a single mother working in the Moulin Rouge, and someone that comes across as well liked and popular.

In the Café of Lost Youth is a wonderful character portrayal, exploring someone that has had a hard life but appears to have it together. However, this novel explores the idea of loneliness while also looking at that perception we put to others. I think Patrick Modiano has this unique ability to capture the feeling of loneliness, especially while surrounded by people. The aggrieved husband, a private investigator hired by said husband and a student in a café all show different sides of this woman and piecing it all together allows you to see the complete picture (or is it?).

I said this in my review of Missing Person as well, Patrick Madiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014. The committee awarded him this prestigious prize “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable of human destinies”. This is also used as a blurb (or a stripped-down version of this quote) for this novel, and with good reason. The way that In the Café of Lost Youth explores the idea of memory is what drew me to Missing Person as well and one of the reasons Modiano is worth exploring.

One major concern I have about reading In the Café of Lost Youth so close to Missing Person is the fact that they do draw on similar themes. While the plot is very different it still felt the same. I am not saying I did not enjoy In the Café of Lost Youth, rather that I will need to allow some time to elapse before dipping into Modiano again. I still think he is an excellent writer and one worth exploring. The way he explores loneliness and memory are worth checking out.


Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan

Posted December 7, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy ZhadanTitle: Voroshilovgrad (Goodreads)
Author: Serhiy Zhadan
Translator: Reilly Costigan-Humes, Isaac Wheeler
Published: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2010
Pages: 445
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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The novel Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan was dubbed “Trainspotting set against a grim post-Soviet backdrop” by Newsweek. Having read this tag and with a recommendations from Agnese from Beyond the Epilogue, I knew I had to read this one. It revolves around Herman, who finds himself managing his brother’s gas station, after he mysteriously disappeared. Though it is a story of a bleak industrial city as it is a story of Herman.

Voroshilovgrad is a fascinating exploration into a post-soviet Ukraine. Not only does it explore the effects of communism to an industrial city, but also the power vacuum left behind when the Soviet Union collapsed. The mystery of what happened to Yuri takes a backseat as the novel explores the lives of Herman and his employees Kocha and Injured as they go head to head with a gangster who wants to control the gas station.

This is an interesting novel that appears to blend elements of post-modernism with the writers of the Beat generation, with a splash of Hunter S. Thompson. Serhiy Zhadan himself is a novelist, a poet and a translator. He mainly translates poetry from German, English, Belarusian and Russian but has translated Charles Bukowski into Ukrainian. This knowledge helps understand his influences, and while I still maintain that Voroshilovgrad reminds me of the Beats, I can see some Bukowski coming through.

While Voroshilovgrad was an entertaining insight into a post-Soviet city, I do not think there is many more themes to pull from this novel. I think it explored this idea really well and while I would have loved something deeper, I cannot fault the novel at all. I typically read books in translation to understand a different time and place, and Voroshilovgrad was able to do this perfectly. I love the dark and gritty nature of this novel, and I plan to re-read Voroshilovgrad in the future.


The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Posted June 2, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

The Gap of Time by Jeanette WintersonTitle: The Gap of Time (Goodreads)
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare
Published: Hogarth, 2015
Pages: 320
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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I have not read many of Shakespeare’s plays. I remember in high school I did do Romeo and Juliet and all I remember is watching the movie. Since starting my reading journey, I have now read Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. Hogarth have announced that they will be releasing modern retellings (they are calling them cover versions) of Shakespeare plays in celebration of the 400th anniversary of his passing. This will be including books by Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson. The first novel in this series is Jeanette Winterson’s interpretation of The Winter’s Tale called The Gap of Time.

I had to read The Gap of Time for book club and I will admit I was nervous, having never read the original play, but was happy to finally check out something by Jeanette Winterson. I am not sure if not reading The Winter’s Tale, put me at a disadvantage but I approached this book as a new story, not knowing what parts are influenced directly from the original text. I noticed many themes of identity, jealousy, forgiveness, parenting, power, race and sexuality but unsure if this was the work of Winterson. I know Jeanette Winterson often explores sexual identity in her novels but that does not mean William Shakespeare did not have an interest in the topic.

I read this book more like a coming of age story, exploring the idea of family in a modern day setting. There are elements of romance but for the most part it was a story of discovery and identity. It was playful (with quotes from Shakespeare in the text) and at times tragic. I think this is a balance that Shakespeare does really well in the plays I have read and Jeanette Winterson seemed to capture this really well in The Gap of Time.

I found this to be an enjoyable novel even if I could not compare it to the original text. I am impressed with Jeanette Winterson but I would be more interested in checking out what she can do without being constrained to a pre-set plot. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry are both books I would love to read in the near future. As for the Hogarth cover versions, I am not sure how many I will read. There are some great authors being selected but I think reading the original text beforehand would be a huge advantage. Only problem is, I have a huge reading list already and not sure when I will get a chance to read more Shakespeare.


Submission by Michel Houellebecq

Posted May 18, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Submission by Michel HouellebecqTitle: Submission (Goodreads)
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Translator: Lorin Stein
Published: William Heinemann, 2015
Pages: 256
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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Have you ever picked up a book and then wanted to cancel all your plans just so you can spend time reading? It is a nice feeling and one that I experienced with Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission. I know this not an experience you would want to have all the time, but I am sure my wife was happy to spend more time playing Dragon Age. However, I think it is a rare treat to be so captivated by a book that everything else needs to be placed on hold. I have been wanting to read Houellebecq for a very long time and now that I have experienced his writing, I am upset that I waited so long.

Submission takes place in the near future, 2022 to be exact. France is about to hold their presidential election and two candidates are looking to be the favourites. The next leader could be Marine Le Pen of the Front National party or Muhammed Ben Abbes of the emerging Muslim Fraternity. Turning the political debate into one of Nationalism or the embrace of a new party with religious ties. The nationalist believe France should be for the French, while the Muslim Fraternity would be a big shift in France’s culture. For starters, it would be the first non-Catholic religious party to gain power, not to mention the impact this will have on the country, both religious and culturally speaking.

At the heart of this novel is François, a middle-aged academic who feels like his life is slowly disintegrating into nothing. His lifelong obsession with the ideas and works of nineteenth-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (best known for his novel À rebours, published in English as Against Nature or Against the Grain) has gotten him nowhere. He is alone and even more concerning to him; his sex drive has diminished completely. While the political backdrop makes for a very interesting novel, Submission looks at the ideas of isolation, love, change and faith.

Michel Houellebecq has been the centre of a bit of controversy, he has a tendency to say things that offend and comes across as vulgar; he’s been accused of being a nihilist, misogynist, cynical and Islamophobic. This is often the persona Houellebecq puts forward in interviews, but it is worth remembering he is a satirist and the persona they put on is not necessarily a true reflection of their actual personality. Michel Houellebecq often writes about controversial topics in order to get people to think about the topic. Atomised (known as The Elementary Particles in America) in 1998 took on cloning and Platform (2001) was on sexual tourism as well as having Islamic themes. In fact, if you look at all his novels, he often explores sex (cloning), tourism (or art) and religion. Even went as far as to have Houellebecq charged in 2002 with racial hatred towards Islam but he was later acquitted by the court.

The novel Submission was published on the 7th January 2015, that day Michel Houellebecq was on the front of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. On this day brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo with assault rifles and sadly killed 11 people and injuring a further 11. This sad event was not a result of Houellebecq being on the cover but rather a macabre coincidence.

I never felt that Michel Houellebecq’s Submission was anti-Islamic, or hate filled in anyway. I did think this was dangerous writing, I suspect the author is an arsehole, but still think this novel is exploring an important topic. Houellebecq has a great ability to make the reader think about life, religion, and philosophy. I had such an enjoyable experience with this book I went and picked up another one of his novels right away.


Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Posted April 21, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander EssbaumTitle: Hausfrau (Goodreads)
Author: Jill Alexander Essbaum
Published: Pan Macmillan, 2015
Pages: 336
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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Lisa Benz is a thirty-something American living in Switzerland with her new husband. While he is off working as a banker, she is alone to look after the kids; she cannot do much else because she has yet to learn German. Lisa wants to be the perfect mother and wife but she is unhappy and alone. Hausfrau is the punchy debut novel from poet Jill Alexander Essbaum.

If you look at Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Goodreads profile, you will see that she is obsessed with many things, including puns, sex, God and words. These kind of obsessions lead her to become a poet; her collections of poetry often feature religious and erotic imagery within them. I have heard mixed reviews of Hausfrau in the past, but when I heard her on the Literary Disco podcast, I knew I had to check it out. I think Essbaum’s love for putting words in the right way helped to release a strong debut novel.

The novel follows the life of Lisa Benz, who is unhappy and alone, which leads her to make some bad decisions. Hausfrau is a typical domestic novel exploring one person’s unhappiness in their marriage. However this book still feels fresh and different to the others, not just because it is the wife who is making terrible choices. I found Jill Alexander Essbaum took an interesting take on the importance of communication and the idea that a marriage should be a partnership. She explores the breakdown of the marriage and makes it obvious the root causes.

I really enjoyed Hausfrau and it was nice to see a destructive female character for a change; it always feels like the husband is the one that ruins everything. Jill Alexander Essbaum really knows how to write and I am very interested in trying her poetry, especially her erotic religious poetry. I think Essbaum will be an author to take notice of in the future and I eagerly await her next novel.


Tom Houghton by Todd Alexander

Posted January 19, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Tom Houghton by Todd AlexanderTitle: Tom Houghton (Goodreads)
Author: Todd Alexander
Published: Simon & Schuster, 2015
Pages: 295
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: ARC

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As a child growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney, Tom Houghton was an innocent boy with an obsession with classic cinema; an obsession that he inherited from his grandmother. His favourite actor was Katherine Hepburn. As a man who just turned 40 years old, Tom Houghton is a completely different person, bitter and jaded with the world. Tom Houghton is an exciting new coming of age story from Todd Alexander.

Told from the two different stages of life (twelve and forty) Tom Houghton offers an interesting look into this character’s life. I suspect that the book is semi-autobiographical but I found this a well-developed characterisation. I was particularly interested to see just how much Tom has changed over the years. In fact, this often felt like two different people.

As this novel progresses, events start to hint at what makes Tom the person he is today. I am always fascinated by the way the world shapes people. Particularly if society turns people evil (ever since reading Frankenstein), or in this case, making people jaded. There is so much that could be pulled out if I had a psychology background but as a novice, I just enjoyed the direction this novel took.

I was sent this book by the publisher with a note saying that they thought I would enjoy it. I am glad I listened and picked this book up because it was right up my alley. Tom Houghton reminds me a bit of the writing of Christos Tsiolkas, albeit a much tamer novel. I do hope that Todd Alexander writers more novels like this, I will be eager to pick up another.


The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

Posted December 8, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

The Lake by Banana YoshimotoTitle: The Lake (Goodreads)
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Published: Melville House, 2005
Pages: 188
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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After the death of her mother, Chihiro moved to Tokyo in an attempt to run away from her grief and start a new life. Tokyo also offered the opportunity to try and kick start her dream career as a graphic artist. It was here, she met and befriended Nakajima, and their friendship quickly blossomed into a relationship. The Lake is a beautiful and mysterious novel about a blossoming relationship and the baggage that comes with it.

I have often heard great things about the writing of Banana Yoshimoto and one day I just thought it was time to find out for myself. I checked my local library and eventually decided to start with The Lake. I decided to read this one for multiple reasons and I was pleasantly surprised with this novel. The best way to describe reading this book is like floating on a lake. It was relaxing and I felt myself drifting through the book. Soon I realised I drifted so far out and into a dangerous situation.

I will not go into the plot in detail; experiencing this novel without any knowledge is highly recommended. Yoshimoto knows how to write a wonderful story that sweeps you away, but not only that, her characters have so much depth to them. The baggage brought into the relationship becomes a prime focus of the psychological elements within The Lake.

While Chihiro was dealing with grief, Nakajima was dealing with something more complex and damaging. What I liked about this novel is the way Nakajima sometimes wanted to try to rise above his issues and other times it was leading him into depression. I think Banana Yoshimoto created a very real depiction of depression, exploring the ups and downs flawlessly.

After one Banana Yoshimoto novel, I can say I am a fan and want to read everything she has written. Well, everything translated from Japanese into English (The Lake being translated by Michael Emmerich).  I have heard many people rave about Kitchen and it might be the next Yoshimoto novel I pick up; it will depend on my library. Do yourself a favour; pick up a Banana Yoshimoto novel, and experience her writing for yourself.


Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

Posted December 2, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Choke by Chuck PalahniukTitle: Choke (Goodreads)
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Published: Anchor, 2001
Pages: 293
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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Choke is the story of Victor Mancini and his friend Danny, over the course of a few months of their lives. However, there are frequent flashbacks to their childhood. As a med-student dropout, Victor devised an ingenious scam to help make money. He likes to pretend to choke, while dining in fancy restaurants. When he is not pulling off this scam, Victor likes to attend Sexaholics Anonymous meetings, looking for action.

I have read one Chuck Palahniuk novel before, Fight Club and I did not think much of it. I originally thought maybe it was the fact that I have already seen the movie and knew what to expect. I picked up Choke because it was on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list and thought it was a good excuse to try another of Palahniuk’s books. I know for certain that Chuck Palahniuk is not an author for me.

I found that Choke and Fight Club just had too many of the same elements in common. I expected psychological elements, I expected twists and I knew that Palahniuk would try to write something for shock value. Everything was expected and this made the novel feel boring and generic. There was nothing I really enjoyed about Choke at all, and I was looking forward to it ending.

I know there are a lot of Chuck Palahniuk fans out there, and I can see why he would appeal. For me it was the same book as Fight Club, and reading Choke offered nothing new to my reading experience. I am sure people might offer suggestions of other Chuck Palahniuk novels to try that are better, but in all honesty, I think I am done. I have so much to read, I do not have time to give this author another chance. Having said that, who knows what the future will bring, I might find myself reading my Palahniuk, but I will not be in any hurry to pick one up.