Month: April 2017

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

Posted April 10, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 2 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

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

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.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Posted April 6, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Magical Realism / 0 Comments

Exit West by Mohsin HamidTitle: Exit West (Goodreads)
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Published: Hamish Hamilton, 2017
Pages: 240
Genres: Magical Realism
My Copy: Hardcover

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Every so often a book comes along that gets you thinking about an important social issue in a whole new light. These are the books I actively seek out, I am always looking for literature that is going to challenge my thinking or even teach me something new. Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West was a recent example of a book doing this with the topic of refugees. This is such an important issue and Hamid got me thinking about it in a different way with the simple introduction of magical doors.

The premise of Exit West is straightforward following the budding relationship between Saeed and Nadia in an unnamed country. As the novel tracks their developing relationship, it soon becomes apparent that they will need to escape. As the city they grew up in becomes increasingly unsafe, they are soon planning to leave everything behind. Through a door and into another country.

While the concept of these doors might be inspired by Nanina, Mohsin Hamid has stated he used this idea as a way to not get bogged down with the refugee journey. He wanted to explore the story as the events that lead these characters to flee and how it felt to be a refugee in Western culture. While I understand his reasoning, the idea seemed to work differently for me as the reader. The magical journey to another country gave off this idea that Western media do not care about the journey they only care about asylum seekers in their country. It worked to symbolise that missing piece that is often left out of the news when reporting on the refugee crisis.

In an interview with the author, he said the doors also where a symbol of globalisation. In today’s world we are able to talk to someone on the other side of the world face to face with video calling programs like Skype. The world seems smaller thanks to the advances of technology and while the idea of walking through a door into another country sound wonderful, it works as a motif for the complex issue of border control. Some doors are heavily guarded and other doors, like the one to their home country, are left accessible as if to invite them to ‘go back to where they came from’.

What I think Mohsin Hamid did really well in this novel was use the character focus to challenge the perceptions people might have of the refugee stereotype. Nadia wore an all concealing black robe in public not for religious reasons but to make her feel safe. Nadia is not religious and lives alone, she had to lie and said she was a widow to get her apartment. Nadia’s story is one of protecting herself from judgement while trying to explore her own sexuality. She longs for the freedom and individuality of the Western world. While Saeed is not overly religious he is the one that wants to wait to they are married. When fleeing the country he wishes to be part of the community of fellow countrymen, he does not want to give up on his traditions.

The two different points of view allows the reader to explore the idea of refugees from their perspective. Rather than focusing on the journey and the conflict with the Western world. Exit West focuses on their personal identity, as the characters try to understand their place in the world. For Nadia this is a chance for a new beginning, to reinvent herself but for Saeed this is the story of missing what he left, the nostalgic idea he had of his homeland.

Mohsin Hamid intentionally left the country and city unnamed because this could be the story of anyone. He did model it after a city in Pakistan but worried that mentioning any names might have been viewed as a political statement rather than the story he wanted to tell. I am so glad that I picked up Exit West and I know I will be dipping into more of Hamid’s works. This novel was so accessible, I feel like everyone should pick it up, in the hopes that it will get more people thinking about refugees.

An Ode to Books about Books

Posted April 4, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 2 Comments

As a passionate book lover, I am constantly thinking about books and finding ways to share my love with the world. When it comes to social media, Goodreads serves as a preferable substitution for Facebook and I have my blog as a platform to talk more about literature persistently. I even created a BookTube channel as another way to share my passion and meet like-minded people. While creating videos is not my preferred method of communication, it has been a beneficial tool in my personal development. I have even dabbled with the idea of creating a podcast. Suffice to say, I am passionate about literature and I am always looking for other ways to feed this addiction.

Other bibliophiles might also share my love for books about books. There is something so satisfying about reading a book about reading books. I first discovered this joy with The Shadow of the Wind, a wildly popular piece of translated fiction that had me wanting to adopt my own book. Not to mention the desire to gain access to something like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. A positive for reading popular books is that it allows us the joys of finding other fans with ease but there is something deliciously delightful with finding a piece of literature that friends do not know about. For me, one of the biggest compliments I receive on my blog or BookTube channel is ‘I have never heard of this book before’. While it can be a source of frustration, it is thrilling to know I may have introduced someone to a new book. My frustration comes from those occasions when someone has not heard of a book that I would consider classics but that is a different essay topic.

Take, for example, the wildly entertaining satire, Books by Charlie Hill. The premise is based around a best-selling author whose book is so mediocre that when you read it your brain stops working. A neurologist recruits a grumpy indie bookseller to help her solve the mystery in this Dan Brown-esque dig at popular fiction. This hilarious book sadly never got any real attention, with under a hundred ratings on Goodreads. This is a little sad, especially since it described my idea of a perfect bookstore; “A bookshop full of long-forgotten noir fiction, modernist classics, chapbooks, transgressive experimentation, translated erotica, minimalism, short stories, satires, samizdat, surrealist poetry and smut.”

My love for books about books is not rooted in fiction, I am always on the lookout for a bibliomemoir – a memoir about someone’s reading life. I find the reading journey to be a captivating topic and exploring the way other people approach their own reading is like peeking into their personal book journals. I have read about all the books being read by journalist and politicians. I have read about people setting outlandish reading challenges and others that just challenge themselves to be better people. I am particularly fond of the unknown person (like a struggling author or blogger) who decides that their reading journey is interesting enough to get published.

Ramona Koval’s By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life was one of my first tastes into the bibliomemoir, and it was a charming account of growing up with books. It served as a literary account of her childhood, in which she shared memories like borrowing Franz Kafka from a library at a very young age and asking her mother to buy her a copy of the Kama Sutra. I keep a spreadsheet of all the books I have read but this does not hold the memories of the books. I have been writing essays about my reading life and literature as a way to preserve those memories. Not to mention I harbor a desire to write like Anne Fadiman; her bibliomemoir/collection of essays has been a constant source of inspiration.

The best bibliomemoirs are the ones that have a theme and that also cover books that interest the reader. I thought The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman would become a favourite of mine but it lacked the personal touch. While the book did cover Batuman’s life and interest in Russian literature, it was missing something. There are two sides of the bibliomemoir scale, a personal reading journey or literary criticism. I like both styles but if a book is lacking one or the other, I find it difficult to enjoy.

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller is an example of a bibliomemoir that really hit the mark. In this memoir, Miller sets himself a challenge; to read all the books he had lied about reading. He created a list, The List of Betterment, which consisted of books he has once lied about reading or felt he should read. The book documents the rekindling of his former reading passion and hits both key factors I look for in a bibliomemoir, the personal journey and criticism. Andy Miller has since gone on to co-host a wonderful bookish podcast, Backlisted which I am currently obsessed with. I have even contemplated the idea of trying to read every book they have covered on the show, but first I should really re-read Andy Miller’s memoir.

I try to read as many bibliomemoirs as I can get my hands on because I often entertain the idea of writing my own. I think I have had an interesting journey and would love to share it with the world. I read the bibliomemoirs to find elements that work, so I can avoid the common slip-ups. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading is a popular bibliomemoir but the idea of reading a book a day sounds dreadful. Quality over quantity is always a good rule to live by and I can pick the exact moment when I gave up on that book. It was when she refused to read her son’s favourite book, Watership Down because it was almost 500 pages.

The bibliomemoir does not have to follow the same format to be enjoyable, Alberto Manguel wrote a collection of essays about building a personal library called The Library at Night, which I adore. Susan Hill spent an entire book talking about the random books on her bookshelves in Howards End is on the Landing. I mentioned Anne Fadiman before but her collection of essays in Ex Libris is my definition of the perfect bibliomemoir. It gives glimpses into her life of reading but also talks about those common reader issues. Like the time her and her husband decided, after a few years of marriage, it was time to merge their books. Of course, I object to the idea of only keeping one copy of a book but the essay was enchanting. I am not saying keep all the pretty covers but a book contains memories, not to mention the different introductions or translations.

My most recent bibliomemoir was Books for Living by Will Schwalbe, which I am not particularly fond of but I did like that he dedicated each chapter to a book. For example, the chapter on What I Talk about When I Talk about Running was on the topic of napping. If you have read Haruki Murakami’s running memoir you would know that he shares his fondness for napping as well. When I read Murakiami’s memoir I did it to explore his passion but a passion for napping is something I can get behind. I will continue to dive into the world of the bookish memoir and hope to share some new favourites in the future. I would love to have some recommendations. One day I may have my own bibliomemoir; but in the meantime, I will practice my craft with more essays. Although my wife did suggest I should write a book about books about books, because that would be wonderfully meta.