Review-ish: Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi

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‘My father pounded his cane against the walls of my void as he laughed. My paper heart crinkled in response. The sound of his laughter was a balm to my wounds’

I entirely judged the book by its cover on this one, Team. It was alone on a ‘featured books’ shelf at Splott Library and it’s called to me with its name and its colourful cover. I picked it up because it looked beautiful, I read it because it felt beautiful. I’m a sucker for good quality paper. I felt like I was the first person to borrow this book. It was box-fresh.

Call Me Zebra is pretty indescribable so apologies, this will just be a gushy review about how much I loved it, with very little content. The whole book speaks of an experience I know nothing about; the idea of being rootless and exiled. But its told in such a way that your lack of knowledge of this experience doesn’t matter. They way she describes the fathomlessness of loss and grief was exceptional. And I just loved the way her ancestors guided her and spoke to her. Like grown-up Lion King.

It could so easily be pretentious, with all of its literary focus but it really isn’t. I know that people have found it to be entirely pretentious, but I think you have to accept early on that you won’t know every single literary reference and just need to go with it. I haven’t read half of the books that are quoted but the human experience that she discusses are universal and easy to relate to.

I shouldn’t have looked at Goodreads as I feel fiercely protective of Zebra and love her like a slightly unhinged but kind-hearted sister. I get it, Zebra can be quite out-there but I never thought that it goes too far off the rails. I’ve definitely read books that are far more up their own arse than this one (ahem, Twilight of the Eastern Gods). I just loved Zebra’s spirit and chutzpah and all that. She’s fab and I want to be her friend, even though she’s the sort of friend that you would have to apologise for a lot, and keep away from the good wine.

I’ll shut up now because I’m so clearly biased on this one and have nothing to criticise it for. Read it. But contrary to all of my pleas for comments, please don’t tell me if you don’t like Zebra. It will hurt my feelings and I’ll never get over it.

Kelly

 

Review-ish: Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare

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‘Artashez Pogosian, nicknamed ‘The Masses in Their Tens of Millions’ because he identified with them all at the drop of a hat, apparently delighted to have dumped his wife, swept in with the other students from the Caucasus. They were all drunk, except Shogentsukov, who had come on his own on a later train, and turned up looking slightly drained, his face exhibiting what Pogosian jokingly called his post-prime-ministerial melancholy.’

Not a favourite quote by any means. More of an example. This paragraph makes no more sense if you’ve read the book than it does on its own.

I feel so ‘meh’ about this book, I very nearly didn’t do a review. Or even finish it. But I was away for work this week and knew it would help me to sleep.

I was so up for it, based on the blurb, but it turns out that I can’t relate in any way to a young Albanian writer living in Russia in the late 50’s. He’s terribly angsty. I was also interested just because it translated from French into English from its original language (Russian/Albanian?) and I thought it would be so very worldly of me. Nah.

There’s a lot of Russian names thrown around haphazardly, but I’m sure that if I was more into it, I could have made more of an effort to follow then. But nah. Even with a genuinely interesting Introduction, written by the translator, David Bellos, it still lost me more often than not. The narrative just wasn’t engaging enough to encourage me to struggle through the Russia names, places and assumed prior knowledge.

I would recommend if you have a very specific interest in mid-century, Soviet Union authors. I mean, its not a long book, like, under 200 pages, so if you fancy it, why not give it a crack. It helped to put me to sleep regularly over the last week. Even At 4pm on a Sunday.

Kelly

Review-ish: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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‘Identity problem? I dinnae have an identity problem – I dinnae have an identity, just reflex reactions and a disappearing veil between this world and the next.’

To start this post, I have to say, major big up’s to Splott Library, part of Cardiff Libraries. All three books reviewed so far were picked up on a whim whilst browsing the shelves at my local-to-work library, with one eye on trying to avoid the authors I usually go for. They don’t have the largest range in the world, but I am enjoying the new-ness of it all. The message here is that even if you CAN afford to buy books new, please go out and use your local library so those who can’t access these amazing books, have the chance. Check your book-privilege.

Last night, my adult boyfriend (co-habiting life-partner, I dunno) asked me if I liked this book. I found that really hard to answer. I think part of it is because I really hate to dislike a book. I’m ok with absolutely hating something (looking at you, American Psycho), but if there’s a redeeming feature, I will find it, and there’s much about this that I liked; the hard Scottish dialect (flashbacks of Trainspotting), the message of the book, the well-developed central character. But there’s a lot I struggled with as well.

Like a few others who reviewed this book on Goodreads, I found the name of the institution The Panopticon, and the fact that Anais actually finds good friends and support systems there to be quite dissonant. Someone else mentioned that its beyond implausible that a social services institution would house children in a building designed for cruelty but I could look past that.

I always struggle with books that rely on shocking the reader to make a point. I think that there are very clever authors out there who manage to raise very important issues and/or discuss terrible subjects without needing to be explicit. I think it just felt like quite an onslaught of misery and tragedy; a microcosm of a larger, very broken system. BUT this is a very personal response. I think other readers may have a better tolerance for this than me so don’t be put off. I have to watch the Care Bears after each episode of The Wire.

All in all, it’s a good read that I smashed through very quickly (skim-reading the hard bits, again. Naughty) that you would enjoy if you like Irvine Welsh or Melvin Burgess, with the caveat that this is in no way Young Adult fiction, even if it reads like it at first. After a quick browse of her other books, I would definitely try others. Anyone have any thoughts on shock tactics in fiction? Anyone had a good sandwich today? Comments below please.

Kelly

Review-ish: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

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‘Hell is eternal apartness. What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party.’

There must be a whole slew of people who read To Kill A Mockingbird in school as children, and then read Go Set A Watchman as adults. So I know my experience can’t be unique with these books. I have been meaning to read this since it came out in 2015 but had all intentions of re-reading TKAM again first. That didn’t happen. But I don’t think it mattered in the end.

I don’t know whether I have perhaps over-simplified TKAM in my mind but it felt so clear in its depictions of right and wrong, perhaps from Scout’s childish innocence and the pedestal that Atticus is put on. So GSAW feels more grown up, more nuanced.  The characters have developed into 3D and flawed human beings and Scout’s idealism and fervour resonated with me so much (who here wasn’t an angry, blinkered 20-something, determined that they were right??)

According to some accountsGSAW was a rough manuscript, written in the 1950’s, before TKAM, dug out of obscurity by a Ms. Carter who acted as Harper Lee’s personal representative. To me, when the book was written is important, as I found a lot of the vernacular quite hard to read. If this was written in the 1950’s and represented attitudes at that time, then I would understand Lee’s use of language more, even if it didn’t make it more palatable to me. Did anyone else have a similar response?

I am a delicate flower when it comes to books and tend to skim past things that upset me, although I am trying to break that habit. So obviously, some of the views portrayed by the main characters in this book cut me to the core, but I’m sure that was Lee’s intention. What better way to show Scouts development into adulthood than the fall of her hero?

This book is short and powerful, and I think it should be compulsory reading (alongside TKAM) in schools. There, I said it.

It’s taken me a week to write this; I felt so conflicted by the language and how divisive it has been (check out the Goodreads comments here) but I think that it’s an important lesson in the hurt and fear in the South and that well-meaning liberal-minded people can be as narrow-minded as those they oppose.

Thanks, Dr Finch, for reminding me of what a dick I was in my teens and 20’s. An important lesson learnt.

Review-ish: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

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“Are you still there, Axl?”

“Still here, princess.”

 

Oh my gosh, that quote gets me right in the feels.

This is only the second Ishiguro novel I have ever read, the first being Never Let Me Go, and this couldn’t be more different. Its a beautifully woven tale of love and loss, that sucked me in from the very beginning. I feel slightly distraught now that its over and I felt the need to hold my loved ones just a little bit closer. This feels like a distinctly British novel, because of the setting and the Arthurian legend throughout, but Ishiguro’s distinct style turns it into something so special that I am struggling to explain it.

Kazuo Ishiguro, has spent the majority of his life in the UK, but was originally from Nagasaki in Japan. When talking about his identity, he said…

‘People are not two-thirds one thing and the remainder something else. Temperament, personality, or outlook don’t divide quite like that. The bits don’t separate clearly. You end up a funny homogeneous mixture. This is something that will become more common in the latter part of the century—people with mixed cultural backgrounds, and mixed racial backgrounds. That’s the way the world is going’ Swift, Graham (Fall 1989). “Kazuo Ishiguro”BOMB. Retrieved 12 January 2012, via Wikipedia.

And he quotes Japanese writers as a significant influence on his own writing. When talking to friends and colleagues about Ishiguro, many confused him with Haruki Murakami, until I reminded them of Never Let Me Go. Both offer that mythical, magical and very human journey, sometimes without resolution, so I can see where the confusion comes from.

So that’s my first review-ish on this little adventure. I can’t promise a ‘proper, literary review’ I’m afraid because that is not my bag and I have forgotten everything from A Level English Lit. So yes, I loved this book. It’s haunting and has invaded my dreams for the last few days. Has anyone else read this? Please talk to me about it! What did you think of the ending?

Kelly