Review: Elif Batuman – The Idiot

IMG_20171014_161405552.jpgThe novel is set in 1995. Selin the daughter of Turkish immigrants is attending her first year at Harvard. She studies Russian, Language and Art and falls in love with her Hungarian classmate Ivan. Somewhat accidentally they begin to write Emails to each other. When in the second half of the novel Ivan goes to Hungary for the summer, Selin follows him there to teach English and see the Europe.

The novel has a lot of smart observations on culture, language, art, gender and love but since most of them are voiced through Selin, an extremely naïve young woman, they also sometimes made me cringe. And it felt strange to me that someone who has read so much (she makes a point of discussing the works of Mann, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky) could be so clueless when coming face to face with the real world. It’s an interesting point I guess how a character can be smart and an idiot at the same time. While I was reading the novel I was hoping that some sort of change would take place and through having all these new experiences Selin would maybe get her act together and realize what an idiot Ivan is. Minor spoiler – this doesn’t happen.

Batuman sets a distinct tone for this novel. She wrote parts of it already 20 years ago, which to me made it feel all the more real. It is a detailed depiction of this very specific time when communication went through a phase of major change. Because she rewrote her writing from 20 years ago today, this makes it all the more interesting. Her nostalgia is informed by a contemporary mind-set.

To me I have difficulty voicing an opinion on this novel, I really liked the first part that was set in America depicting college life and love in the 90’s but I couldn’t really connect with the character that she encountered on her trip to Europe. This second part generally felt rushed (too many new character) and too long (didn’t care about the new characters) at the same time. I felt like a lot could and should have been edited out. This quote that I took from the book actually sums it up nicely:

“Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book.”

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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: 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: Xiaolu Guo – I am China

IMG_3423I actually finished this novel at the end of last year, so quite a long while ago. Back then, this book blog did not exist yet and I also didn’t take down notes for a review like I do now. But I recently came across a video of a talk the author gave and hearing her speak about her work and the politics and history of her country made me want to write a belated review of the novel I am China. I have thought about it often since I have finished it and Xiaolu Guo also introduced me to other great authors like Eileen Chang.

The novel is set both in China and in the West (England and USA). The young translator Iona is asked to translate the love letters and diary extracts of a young Chinese couple. The rebellious and political punk musician Jian and his girlfriend Mu, the poet, have exchanged letters for over 20 years. The letters depict tumultuous times, both for the couple and the country they come from. But now Jian is being held in an asylum centre:

“Dearest Mu, The sun is piercing, old bastard sky. I am feeling empty and bare. Nothing is in my soul, apart from the image of you. I am writing to you from a place I cannot tell you about yet…”

Xiaolu Guo shows snapshots of the Jasmine revolution, the Chinese punk scene, police riots and the realities of being exiled. While Jian is being held in a detention centre in Dover and Mu travels further and further away from him, both in pursuit of her own creative and political identity, Iona has only little time left to reunite the two lovers.

The style of the book is very creative. Diary entries, letters and flash backs are woven together to create a very personal story of the three main characters. Through telling the story this way, Guo is able to not only show where the different characters are coming from but also how they react to each other’s realities. When Iona the translator is confronted with Jian’s experiences of being held as an asylum seeker in Dover, she subsequently questions her own life and her experiences:

 “If you spend enough time reading someone else’s thoughts, after a while their thoughts infect you. You grasp on yourself becomes tenuous. Or you begin to see that you never were the essential you in the first place […]”

The issues that this novel deals with are oftentimes very bleak. Political exile, coming to terms with your identity and how this is connected to your nationality, revolution and responsibility are just some of the things these characters have to deal with.

 “Revolution happens when the water in which the citizens swim is frozen. The ice breaks and shatters and the fish are cast out onto the dry land, gasping for air.”

Guo herself has made quite a few of the experiences that the characters go through in the novel. She moved to England and was also confronted with having visa issues. Jian’s time in England therefore seems all the more real.

Guo also has had to come to terms with a new language, one in which she would start writing and by doing so redefine herself as a writer. The characters in her book reflect her struggle with political, national and artistic identity. They are stand-ins for different points on a spectrum. Where Jian wants to stay and fight and change the society that he grew up in, Mu is looking for a universal truth and therefore something bigger than the political struggle she encounters. Both are valid points but only one will turn out to be the slightly easier to endure.

Another interesting aspect was the entanglement of beat poetry, punk music and Chinese culture and history. Guo manages to tell a heart breaking love story, give insight into Chinese history and question an artist’s role in shaping politics:

“Now the artist must deal with politics. That’s why art is always a political thing. […] Art is the politics of perpetual revolution. Art is the purest revolution, and so the purest political form there is.”

The novel definitely touched me on many levels and even after all this time, I still think about it from time to time. Sometimes a novel doesn’t let you go that easily.

Review: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

IMG_3199When Cassandra Edwards, the gay heroine of this 1962 novel, returns to her bohemian family home, a lot of things turn out differently than both Cassandra and the reader might have expected.

The novel opens with a spotlight on Cassandra, who is currently writing a thesis on French female writers at her Berkeley apartment, which until recently she used to share with her twin sister Judith. They shared not only their apartment, their piano and their carefully collected antique furniture but also their life. Over years they had carefully constructed an identity, in which both of them were only half a person, could only be a whole if they were together. But now that Judith has moved away and is about to get married, this identity and life that Cassandra needs so desperately to function is being threatened.

The reader immediately gets a sense of the smart but erratic, lonely and nerve-wrecked Cassandra as she travels home to sabotage her sisters wedding. As she arrives on the farm, set in the foothills of the Sierra, everyone in the family has a part to play. Often quirky, sometimes comical, the interactions follow the well-rehearsed behaviour that the Edwards family has constructed over time. But this façade of interaction is only a thin veil, which covers a much darker truth. Cassandra hides behind a shower curtain, spies on her sister and lies to her grandmother. She also hides her true feelings about the wedding and her new life without her sister. This pain, felt only in secret, will lead to disastrous consequences. Through the possibility of losing Judith, Cassandra has to redefine her whole identity as well. She has to reset the goals in her life. While once plans and decisions were made together, she now has to come to terms with what she herself really wants in life. And this means facing the reality of wanting different things than Judith does:

“Same thing everywhere I’d looked. Large amounts of safety; very few risks. Let nothing endanger the proper the proper marriage, the fashionable career, the non-irritating thesis that says nothing new and nothing true.”

During the course of the novel Baker brilliantly shifts the perspective of one sister to the other to give the reader not only a deeper understanding of the situation but also the unique view of how both of the sisters perceive their bond and relationship. Where Cassandra perceives herself as part of a whole and has not found a way to live without her sister, Judith the emotionally stronger and much more mature of the two, understands that were they to stay together, their union would lead to their destrucion.

To me, reading this novel felt like watching a classic movie. Baker followed the characters, mostly in real time, through their emotional struggles without censoring their experience down to a few selected flashes. Sometimes however Bakers slow paced style requires some patience from the reader. Also the way Baker hinted at Cassandra’s sexuality reminded me of mid-century Hollywood movies. You sometimes had to read between the lines. But even though Cassandra’s sexuality was not as openly discussed as I imagined from the text on the jacket, it is nonetheless a book that features a lot of strong women characters.

I enjoyed reading this book and must say that certain scenes stayed with me long after I had finished it. I appreciated that she allowed the reader to make their own interpretations of the emotional states of the sisters by giving them both very distinct voices.

Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

image2Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life spans 60 years of friendship, love, suffering and hardship in the lives of four friends. There is the handsome actor Willem, the creative and sometimes selfish artist JB, the architect Malcom and finally Jude, the successful lawyer with a lot of dark secrets. They have met at University, when they weren’t successful or rich, but rather living in shitty apartments, going to parties and cheap restaurants. But then careers develop, friendships change and sometimes secrets are revealed. The focus of the novel definitely lies on the relationship between Willem and Jude and maybe even more so on Jude’s past. The descriptions of Jude’s ordeals in the past and his current struggle with it are probably the most horrific things I have ever read. I won’t say too much, as a lot of things are only revealed after many pages, but some of the themes of the novel are violent abuse, addiction, extreme self-harm and crippling illness.

Interestingly, even though this 720-page novel spans 60 years, it is stripped entirely of historical or technological landmarks. The story is focused exclusively on the personal histories of the characters and even though there are some slight references to art and politics it is never enough to link the events in the novel to a specific year. Even though it is mainly a New York novel, there is no mentioning of 9/11, or any political or social event of the city.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is Yanagihara’s treatment of friendship: The role that the four men play in each other’s lives, are often times more important then any other connection they have. They are not only friends but partners, confidants and family. Their friendships are the support system of choice, one that evolves and changes over time:

“They were inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn’t officially recognised by history or immortalised in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining.”

Before starting the novel I was wondering why Yanagihara had chosen to write a book almost exclusively about men. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to connect with the characters. I could not have been more wrong. It took the genius of a female writer to give four men an emotional portrait of their love (and friendship) for one another. And she has through her novel created positive role models (not only) for men.

Emotions run high in this novel, everything is enhanced: love, sadness, cruelty. I do wonder if this extreme way of telling a story is a comment that Yanagihara is making in regard to trends in our current society? Why do I crave such a story? What draws me to that much pain and suffering on the one hand and that much success and money on the other? It wasn’t that the characters did not feel three-dimensional; actually I have seldom felt that characters were actually real people and not mere characters in a book. And yet they were also caricatures of both themselves and people in real life. But is there something in this contradiction? I am not sure why the characters in this book can be over the top and believable at the same time. And I am not sure how emotions can be outrageously excessive and still be the only thing that ever made me feel such a connection at all. It was like Yanagihara opened a door to characters that not very many people have dared to even acknowledge.

This doesn’t mean that I was in any way able to distance myself from the story while I was reading it. The intense emotion I have felt, the tears of sadness, rage and compassion I have cried and the urge to physically hurt characters in the novel because of their wrongdoing was overwhelming. The emotionality in this story was so unusually strong that I couldn’t read the novel in public (I once did, cried a lot and got some odd looks), and sometimes I couldn’t even read it at all. At times I literally could not stop sobbing. I have never felt like this with any other book. Have never cried so much. Never felt so many emotions. Yanagihara never holds back; she drags you through the darkest memories, the scariest thoughts and the loneliest hours. The tragedy that is the life of Jude St. Francis probably transcends all tragedy you have encountered in contemporary literature. And just like the characters in the novel, I felt helpless, forced to deal with issues I usually wouldn’t:

“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”

Here are some selected on articles about A Little Life:

The Subversive Brilliance of A Little Life

‘I wanted everything turned up a little too high’

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara review – unusual, uneven, unrelenting

Quote: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“If I were a different kind of person, I might say that this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”