Review – Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole.

9bef1dbf-81db-43ab-94df-139bc6aa6779.jpegTeju Cole travels back to visit his hometown Lagos in Nigeria after living in the States for fifteen years. He gets off the plane, faces dirt, poverty and corruption but also memories from his past.

Through short vignettes, the author creates a vibrant portrait of the city’s culture, its infrastructure, customs and traditions. The first night he arrives, the power goes out and he lies in the dark, the noise of generators filling the neighbourhood. It sets the tone for this book, which is an account of what he experiences during his stay. These accounts are like searchlights illuminating different and sometimes violent aspects of the city. Ranging from corruption and economic realities to the treatment of the history of slavery, Cole looks at many fragments that make up this city. He visits his first girlfriend, goes to museums, bookshops and concerts. As he travels through the city we also get a sense of how he sees his home after a long absence. America has changed him and therefore his perception of Nigeria. As a reader I found this very interesting, not only does it touch on themes of national identity, immigration and belonging but it also gave me a self-reflected insight view into Lagos life.

Even though I have read novels by Nigerian authors before, this particular book helped me understand and see some of the issues the inhabitants of this city face much clearer. The reality of being an artist in Lagos is something that I haven’t read about before. The struggles that people face on a daily basis, the violence and noise, the sheer amount of people takes a toll on everyone and it becomes a difficult setting in which to create art. This made me see other Nigerian books in a very different light. I could appreciate their accomplishments even more.

I lie in bed, on my back, wearing only boxer shorts, enduring the late afternoon’s damp heat. I have headphones on, and I am listening to “Giant Steps” […]. It is at high volume , but the generators say, No, you will not enjoy this. I have no right to Coltrane here, not with everything else going on. This is Lagos. I disagree, turn the volume up, listen to both the music and the noise. Neither gives way. No sense emerges of the combat between art and messy reality.

Review: Der Mantel der Erde ist heiß und teilweise geschmolzen von Nina Bußmann

Nelly, eine Seismologin, verschwindet in der Karibik. Beim Rundflug mit einer Propellermaschine, den sie mit einem Freund unternimmt, verschwindet das Flugzeug plötzlich vom Radar. Das Wetter war gut, die Maschine war vollgetankt, ein Absturz erscheint unwahrscheinlich. Als nach einigen Monaten Trümmerteile geborgen werden, scheint der Beweis gefunden zu sein. Doch von den beiden Passagieren fehlt jede Spur. Verfolgt wird die Suche nicht nur von Nellys Partner, der in der weiteren Handlung keine große mehr spielt, sondern vor allem auch von ihrer langjährigen Freundin, die namenlos bleibt und aus deren Sicht die Geschichte erzählt wird. Als diese der verschwunden Nelly in die Karibik nachreist, begibt sie sich nicht nur auf die Suche nach Antworten bezüglich des Absturzes, sondern auch nach der Antwort auf die Frage, wer Nelly eigentlich war. Durch Erinnerungen, Gespräche mit Bekannten, gefundene Dokumente und Vermutungen versucht sie ein ‚objektives’ Bild von Nelly zu schaffen. Gefärbt ist diese vermeintliche Objektivität jedoch durch die Erinnerung der jeweiligen Personen auf die sie sich bezieht – Nellys Kollegen auf einem Forschungsschiff, ihre Mitbewohnerinnen in der Karibik, ihre Affären und Partner.

Der Roman ist atmosphärisch sehr stimmig. Ob Studentenwohnheime in Deutschland, Forschungsschiffe auf hoher See oder Wohngemeinschaften in der Karibik, ich befand mich gefühlt sofort an den Orten, die Nina Bußmann beschreibt. Die Freundschaft der beiden Frauen wird als eher unterkühlt, kalkuliert und von Missverständnissen geprägt beschrieben. Keine der beiden kann die andere ‚richtig’ wahrnehmen. Beide lebten in ihrer eigenen Blase, gefangen nicht nur an ihrem jeweiligen Ort, sondern auch in ihren Gedanken.

Die beiden Frauen zeigen außerdem Anzeichen mentaler Instabilität, sie sind beeinflusst von Depressionen, Ängsten, Antriebslosigkeit oder selbstzerstörerischem Verhalten. Vielleicht sind es genau diese Ängste die es den beiden unmöglich macht, auf die jeweils andere empathisch zu reagieren. Denn beide isolieren sich, können nicht aus ihren eigenen Zwängen ausbrechen. Die Reise der Freundin ist somit sowohl als ein Versuch der Flucht aus ihren realen und mentalen Zwängen, als auch als Schritt in die beklemmende Situation Nellys zu verstehen, in der sie sich kurz vor ihrem Tod, der im Buch auch als möglicher Freitod dargestellt wird, befand. Die Verschmelzung der beiden Frauen an Nellys letztem Ort führt gleichzeitig zu einer Art Auflösung der klar umrandeten Identität der Freundin. Als Nellys Freundin in die Karibik reist, zieht sie nicht nur in Nellys altes Zimmer, sie befreundet auch ihre Mitbewohner, besucht dieselben Orte, es ist fast so, als versuchte sie Nellys Leben zu leben. Immer tiefer dringt sie in Nellys Vergangenheit ein und konfrontiert sich mit ihren Emotionen. Sie imaginiert Ordnung und Klarheit im Ende Nellys, doch möglicherweise konstruiert sie damit nur ein gedankliches Gegenstück zu ihrem persönlichen Chaos:

“Im Moment des Aufpralls, vor dem Genickbruch, bevor die Wellen über ihnen zusammenschlagen, heißt es, zieht den Sterbenden ihr Leben vor den Augen vorbei. In aller Ruhe, wie im Film. Das ganze echte Leben: auf einmal eine lückenlose Linie, alle Tage, nicht die Alpträume, nur die Tage, in schönen kadrierten Bildern. Das ganze Flickwerk, sie hat es selbst so genannt, das Nellys Leben gewesen sein sollte, endlich in eine Reihenfolge gebracht.”

Das Buch ging mir anfangs sehr nahe, die mentalen Gefängnisse in denen sich beide Frauen offensichtlich befinden löste bei mir eine sehr große Beklemmung aus. Ich konnte zwar die Rastlosigkeit der beiden Charaktere nachempfinden, je mehr sie sich jedoch in der Karibik (oder in ihren Vorstellungen) verloren umso mehr löste sich für mich die Struktur des Buches auf. Dies mag einerseits ein Stilmittel der Autorin sein, andererseits war es so schwieriger, der Geschichte zu folgen und den Sinn des Ganzen zu verstehen. Die emotionale Nähe, die ich anfangs für Nelly und ihre Freundin empfunden rückte mehr und mehr in den Hintergrund. Vielleicht war dies jedoch genau das Gefühl, dass die beiden Freundinnen füreinander empfanden. Die Erinnerung an eine Nähe, welche sich jetzt im Chaos aufzulösen scheint?

Review: Flucht in den Norden by Klaus Mann

img_5474Klaus Mann, son of the famous German writer Thomas Mann, wrote this novel after he had to flee Germany and its ruling Nazi regime in 1933. It was the first novel to be written during the time of his exile.

The novel closely mirrors the events of the life of Klaus Mann. It is centered on Johanna, a young German woman who, just like Mann, had to escape the terror of her home country because of her involvement in the anti-Nazi resistance. So she flees to Finland, where she finds refuge at the family estate of her university friend Karin. The family, especially Karin and her brothers, hold conflicting views about the political issues of the time. Johanna’s presence then acts as a catalyst, setting off unforeseen changes in the family, which is battling with the political turmoil and crippling financial instability.

But it is not only the political tension that is changing the dynamics in the household. It’s also the complicated emotional bonds and romantic relations between the characters. Johanna falls for Karin’s brother Ragnar, she also has a brief affair with Karin herself.

The novel is as romantic as it is political and it seems that it’s only through the political forces that Ragnar and Johanna find together. Johanna struggles to choose between staying with Ragnar, whom she only has just met, and leaving Finland again to join the resistance in Paris, where her friends fight the Nazis. Ragnar fails to understand her struggle and wants her to stay, while Johanna, despite hating her home country, still feels responsibility and guilt about what’s happening in Germany.

I was extremely moved by this novel. The language very warm and emotional. Mann stays very close to his characters, Johanna especially. I felt like even though the subject matter is very dire and the decisions and troubles that the characters are facing are very extreme, Mann still manages to find beauty. Not only in the love story between Ragnar and Johanna, but also in his description of the Finish landscape. The novel concludes as a road trip, and through this trip, Mann finds a beautiful way to convey the essence of the characters. In the desolate north of Finland, were everything is stripped bare, emotions are also being purified. Mann uses similar language in describing the people and the landscape. Both are sublime but also rugged, unyielding and exposed to the elements.

Here is a short autobiographical chronicler of his time, which also features this quote of his:

“But this ill-fated, vexed, guilt-ridden people, do I not belong to them? I feel a share of the guilt.”

Review: Dietland by Sarai Walker

img_4524Dietland is a progressive, angry book about a feminist guerrilla group called “Jennifer”. Their plan is to change the sexist society we live in by taking pretty drastic measures. Rapists are being thrown off overpasses or out of airplanes. They want the public to wake up.

The novel however starts off at a very different place. It begins with 29-year-old Plum Kettle, a fat and lonely woman who works as a ghost-writer for a teen magazine. She spends her days in her friend’s café or at Waist Watcher [sic!] meetings, eating unappetizing and little meals while shopping for her soon to be thin self. She weighs 300 pounds but is scheduled for gastric bypass surgery so that she can begin the (thin) life she has always dreamed of. Dinner parties, dating, making friends, everything is postponed to her imaginary future as her thinner self. But things are about to change when she is being followed and recruited by “Jennifer”. Little by little she gets drawn into a different world and she ends up on quite a different quest to self-love. The women she encounters confront her with her ideas of beauty and perfection. They shatter the world she used to live in.

But the novel is not only focused on Plum, it’s also a very dark portrayal of today’s society. Half way through the book, the story switches from Plum to “Jennifer” and through her/their eyes we see a world that is shockingly hostile, sexist and violent. At this point the novel takes a completely different course: Gang raped teenagers are being avenged, media moguls are being kidnapped and stark naked men are replacing the infamous page 3 models.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you look, the description of Plum’s and Jennifer’s world does not read as a satire. The instances of everyday sexism and misogyny that are being described are not at all unrealistic. What I was reading was not a description of a dystopian world but ultimately the world you live in as a women. “Jennifer’s” reactions however, the violence, the anger and bloodshed is depicted as over top and absurd. It can be interpreted as a contrast to the powerlessness that most women feel.

Sarai Walker radically questions society’s double standards and obsessions with beauty and thinness. Plum, the book’s main character, realizes that there is a freedom in not caring about the judgement of others:

“We’re different in a way that everyone can see. We can’t hide it or fake it. We’ll never fit society’s idea for how women should look and behave, but why is that a tragedy? We’re free to live how we want. It’s liberating if you choose to see it that way.”

Throughout the novel Plum radically transforms herself. Her struggle with self-love, looks (and weight) and the expectations to be perfect are, what Dietland really focuses on. Yes it is also about a feminist terrorist group, but it is mainly about how the mere existence of such a group affects the women who come in contact with them. In that way Dietland is a call to arms:

“The police and the “justice” system don’t take violence against women and girls seriously. If you’ve been assaulted or harassed, take the law into your own hands. Form vigilante groups with other girls. Sign up for self-defense classes, but don’t just use the skills defensively. Go on the offensive!”

The novel has a lot of different influences, ranging from Foucault to Fight Club. Women in the novel are exercising extreme control over themselves and their bodies; they have created strict regiments to fit a social norm, which was only created to keep them down in the first place. When Plum breaks free, starts to eat, enjoy her life and be herself, she sheds this self-imposed regimen of rules and deprivation:

“[…] Dietland, which meant control, constriction—paralysis, even—but above all it meant obedience. I was tired of being obedient.”

As it mocks the less violent and certainly less angry chic lit that preceded it, Dietland transcends the genre itself. It will also be turned in to a TV show by no other than the genius Marti Noxon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV show that was also well known for it’s feminist and empowering approach.

Also, here’s a little snippet from npr about Sarai Walker and Dietland including an article she wrote for the New York Times. And finally the blog post that made me aware of Walker and her book.

Review: The Nazi and the Barber

IMG_4307The Nazi and the Barber is the novel about Max Schulz, barber, SS man, mass murderer and later a fighter for the Jewish state of Israel. If you think this sounds pretty bizarre you are not mistaken, it really is.

The novel describes the course of Max Schulz’s life: his childhood friendship with his Jewish friend Itzig Finkelstein, the beginning of the Second World War and his active involvement in the SS and how he assumes his dead friends identity to avoid punishment. The plot of the novel is definitely very absurd, moving from hair salons to concentration camps and later to a new life in Israel.

The German author Edgar Hilsenrath, who wrote the novel, was a Holocaust survivor. Even though the book was originally written in German, it was first published in many different countries. In Germany, publishing houses had a hard time with the content and were worried how the German readers would react to the novel. It did get published eventually and it is of great importance that it did. The book forces the reader to look at the Second World War through the eyes of an active participant in the holocaust and a committed National Socialist. The story often takes very extreme turns, Schulz does not seem to have a sense of how absolutely horrific his crimes are, especially at the times when he is still in the middle of committing them. I felt that this, in its absurdity and unparalleled cruelty was actually a very accurate picture of the mindset of many people during the Second World War.

Max Schulz is continually trying to blame other people for his behaviour. It was the state, his mother, his stepfather, whoever it is, he never truly claims responsibility but continues to hide behind other people. So when Schulz talks about his horrific crimes, he hides behind orders without showing any feelings of remorse, isn’t that exactly what happened far too many times?

I thought this novel was difficult to read. It was unpleasant to be with this opportunistic and spineless, yet absolutely devoted Nazi who is also “just a normal guy”. Also I was questioning the reactions I had to the content and the book’s often satirical form. Is this funny? What is it, he is really saying? A lot of times it was not easy to see clearly. I felt that because of the form of the novel, I, as the reader. was asked to engage with it even more. Somehow a satire often requires more reflective thinking because it makes you question the relationship of fiction and reality. Hilsenrath presented a scale of moral and amoral decisions the protagonist is taking and through those actions he speaks to the reader. Where should Schulz have stopped? Where is Schulz crossing the line? The novel in that sense can be seen as a meditation on the banality of evil (to quote Hannah Arendt), the “normality” of the perpetrators and the cold rationality and bureaucratic thought they put into building a machine of repression and death. It is an important piece of literature that should be read and reread as an effort to contribute to some form of understanding of the crimes that happened during the Second World War.

I was also very fortunate to see the novel adopted into a theatre play in Cologne. The whole play was performed by only two actors, which set a strong focus on the theme of identity. Both actors performed both the role of Schulz and Finkelstein, taking turns being the oppressor and the victim, the Nazi and the Jewish friend. On stage the moral issues that the book raises came to life in a very uncomfortable way. It was a very small theatre and everyone in the audience was very moved by the play. In one scene the two actors debate what punishment Schulz should hypothetically get. He killed thousands of people after all. The two actors debate what form of death would be just. Schulz replies something like, “No matter how I die I can only die once. And even if I were to die ten thousand times this would not help either. I can not take their deaths, can not take their fear and can not bring back the lives they could not live.” The other actor replies: “In that case: you are acquitted.” They laugh.

Review: Bluets by Maggie Nelson

IMG_4098Bluets was given to me as a birthday present. I had heard of Maggie Nelson before but haven’t read anything by her. The Argonauts has been on my to read list, as friends keep recommending it but like I said, I haven’t read it yet. I am actually glad that I got to read Bluets first. It is such an extremely wonderful and unexpected little book, that surprised me in many ways, all the way till the end.

Bluets, part poetry, part memoir, is a book about the authors love for the colour blue, but it is also so much more than that. Each new page is a meditation, not only on colours but on life and emotions and how we live with them:

“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in it’s focus. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what it’s hue, can be deadly.”

The book is structured into 239 very short pieces, each one dealing with a different aspect of blue. Some are historical or scientific facts, connections to religion, art and literature and others are biographical snippets of the author’s life. There is no order, neither chronological nor topical, the pieces could each stand for their own and yet in the end they shape a clear and concise picture. The connections between the short pieces are only evident in the end. The two main ‘story lines’ are a love that Nelson lost and a close friend who had an accident and is now unable to walk. Her feeling of coming to terms with these things infuses almost every page of the book.

Bluets is a brave book. Nelson opens up a great deal about her feelings in some of the pieces, describing a variety of feeling of which not all are pretty. Her journey to getting to the essence of what blue is, is therefore also a journey to her most inner thoughts. She writes about love, sex and friendship, sadness and loss and she manages to do that in a very heart-breaking way:

“I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.”

Nelson definitely managed to make me see the world in a different light. She has sharpened my awareness for all colors, not just the blue. It is wonderful when a write is able to influence their readers in a way like this. Even after I had finished the book, something definitely stayed with me, influenced my way of seeing the world and made me question my perception of things. I think this is the biggest strength of the book. I am glad I read it. And I would definitely read it again, which I don’t say about a lot of books.

Review: The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin

 

IMG_4122Many years ago, Anatoly Sukhanov made a choice. He abandoned his life as an underground artist for money and security. Now, he is being hunted by the ghosts of his past.

When we meet Anatoly Sukhanov in his Russia of the 1980’s, it is a wintery world, filled with memories. He is leading a warm and fuzzy life, has money and a family. But everything changes when he is confronted with an artist that used to be his best friend 20 years ago. Suddenly he is forced to challenge the reasoning behind the choices he has made all over again.

In the beginning Sukhanov states that he doesn’t remember much of his past. He keeps a few isolated memories and therefore creates a curated version of his life that has almost no connection to reality. But through the encounter with his friend from the past, memories keep suddenly overwhelming him. Memories from his childhood, memories from his time as a poor and rebellious artist:

“[…] this stray little thought released in him some echo of the past, a solitary trembling note whose sound rose higher and higher in his chest, awakening inarticulate longings and, inseparable from them, a piercing, unfamiliar sorrow.”

He feels overwhelmed by these memories and is unable to save himself from the emotions that come with each new recovered memory. Oftentimes the memories are triggered by places and the reader is transported to a different time in the life of Sukhanov without much warning. The memories, characters, places and emotions create an eerie and claustrophobic mixture, where sometimes it is not clear what is real and what is not. Could some of the people he encounters be himself at different times in his life?

What I thought was done rather brilliantly in this book was the way that Grushin did not paint a black and white picture of Sukhanov. In many ways his character is quite flawed, he is a proud and opportunistic man where we get to meet him, but nonetheless Grushin got me to really care for him. Also she never simplifies the choices that Sukhanov has and had to make. His struggles are real and valid. When she gives reasoning for his decision to turn down life as an artist, they do not seem like choices that were done without thought behind them. In a lot of ways the reasons Sukhanov gave, made me care more about the character and not less:

“…the only life worth living was a life without humiliation, a free life, a safe life – and the only sure way to avoid having one’s wings clipped was to grow no wings at all.”

Obviously art is an important part of the book. The characters talk about it, they judge it, they create it and different artists are mentioned again and again to show the characters’ changing relationships to art throughout their life. Dali and Chagall play the most important roles here. Grushin also describes how art was perceived in Russia at various times in the last century. To me this opened up a new view on the connection between the artist and the environment that he lives in:

“Our days flowed into nights, our nights were endless and every single windbag who talked about Russia, God and art was a brother, every artist a genius, every painting a miracle – and the world did not know us yet, but we were together, we were brilliant, we were destined to light up the skies […].”

What impressed me most about this novel is the way Grushin writes. Her descriptions are almost like the script for a film, she creates a very detailed (and this in no way meant in a bad way) picture of where the characters are at any given time. The opening of the book is one of the strongest I have read this year. Her writing, clear and precise at the beginning, follows the inner life of her main character. When he finds himself in a swirl of memories, the writing also becomes more surreal. It jumps between timelines without warning and gets experimental where you don’t expect it to be.

The novel is like a painting. The longer you look at it and think about it, the more ways of reading it you can find. On the surface it is a novel about a man and his choices, but it is so much more. It is also a meditation on art and why we create it, what it is that we strife for and how much we are willing to sacrifice for it:

“But you were also wrong, because in spite of all the injustices and horrors and stupidity, beauty always survives and there will never be a higher mission than by adding more beauty to it, by making one single person cry like a child at the age of fifty three.”