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Many book lovers have fond childhood memories of going to the library and discovering there the wondrous breadth and power of great storytelling. Early in “The Library Book”, author Susan Orlean gives a moving personal account of her burgeoning passion for literature found in the library and also the quality time spent there with her mother as they’d take regular trips to borrow new books. It’s her memories and ardour for the institution which prompts Orlean to explore the bizarre mystery surrounding the horrific fire in Los Angeles’ historic Central Library which occurred on April 29, 1986 and destroyed approximately 400,000 volumes or 20 percent of the library’s holdings. She gives a vivid account of the incident and the case surrounding it - especially the investigation of Harry Peak who was suspected of starting the fire. Moreover, Orlean meditates on the LA library system’s history as well as how libraries are institutions central to many communities. Although it recounts a very bleak incident, this book is ultimately hopeful in describing the resiliency of libraries and books because people’s desire for them keep them alive: “The Library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

Some of my favourite sections of the book are her descriptions of the endearingly quirky people who have organized and run the library system in Los Angeles since its inception in 1872 and the diverse librarians who run it today. It’s bracing discovering how the management of the library was at times wrestled out of the hands of more capable female librarians because the library board believed it was a job for men. There were also bizarrely prescriptive rules in place early on for patrons who were discouraged from reading too many novels or they were labelled as “fiction fiends.” Naturally, as society became more progressive, so did the rules of the library and the ways in which it served the community from the city’s homeless to being more accessible to children, immigrants and the disabled. It was also compelling reading about how libraries have embraced the arrival of the information age and the challenges of updating how information is stored and disseminated to the public. It made me feel for librarians who get asked some of the most bizarre questions imaginable by the public every day.

Orlean spent a lot of time conversing with people who work in many different functions within the library: not just librarians who check books in and out, but people who organize the stock, transport books, guard the library and run community programmes. In this way reading this book felt like getting a tour of the institution itself. Seeing so many levels to its running and management felt similar to watching Frederick Wiseman’s 2017 documentary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Orlean’s book is also a great conversation starter about what libraries mean to us personally. In this way, it’d be a wonderful companion to reading Ali Smith’s “Public Library” which is a book of short stories as well as a series of testimonies by authors and publishers who’ve found libraries springboards in fostering their passion for literature.

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I also found it fascinating reading about some of the LA Central Library’s most famous patrons including Ray Bradbury who frequented the library in his youth. It’s ironic that the institution which fostered a love of reading for the author of “Fahrenheit 451” would eventually lose so many of its books due to fire decades after this classic novel’s publication. While the mystery surrounding the cause and reason for the destructive fire of 1986 is at the centre of this book, its heart is a celebration of libraries and the people who are devoted to them. “The Library Book” feels like the most wonderfully intimate conversation for book lovers. But it also meaningfully grapples with the struggles that libraries face. Like many places in the world, libraries in the UK are facing increasing budget cuts despite the number of patrons increasing (according to a recent BBC report). I loved using and borrowing from my local library when I first moved to the UK. In recent years I’ve frequented places like The British Library and the London Library for special exhibits like a celebration of Jean Rhys or book prizes such as The Young Writer of the Year Award. But I’d like to return to libraries more frequently for the objects they’re founded upon: books!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSusan Orlean
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When the Costa Book Awards shortlists were announced recently I was surprised to discover I hadn’t read any of the books listed for the first novel category. So I quickly sought to rectify that and picked up “Pieces of Me” by Natalie Hart without knowing anything about it (which is the most delightful way to approach books sometimes.) It’s an engrossing story of a British civilian named Emma who works in Iraq where she meets an American military man named Adam who she marries. Emma’s dual narrative alternately describes the formation of their relationship in this high-pressured foreign environment and their subsequent time living in Colorado dealing with the many-sided repercussions of war. Hart describes with great power the psychological trauma of war and the complicated grief of losing people in combat. She also dynamically explores how this can lead some people to hastily and tragically stigmatize people from different nationalities and religions. Overall, the story explores Emma’s struggle to overcome her sense of dislocation and understand how examining the many parts of her experiences can help her determine the best way forward. I got fully caught up in the heartrending dilemmas of this novel – especially as it reached its thrilling and surprising conclusion. 

I’ve read so few novels that deal with the impact of modern warfare upon the military and their families. The only other book I can recall is Lea Carpenter’s excellent “Eleven Days” which explores the relationship between a mother and son. “Pieces of Me” is divided into three parts which frame the stages of Emma and Adam’s relationship before, during and after his re-deployment to Iraq while she tries to make a life for herself in America. Each stage comes with its own anxieties and issues showing how the pressures of active duty certainly aren’t restricted to the times when people in the military are in combat. It’s alarming how the repercussions of war can so insidiously intrude upon the relationship between people who love each other. Emma describes how “Iraq has invaded. The space between us has been occupied.” The story explores how difficult it often is for people who’ve experienced combat to express the emotions which arise from their trauma. Instead they become locked in a pernicious silence which leads to misplaced anger and self-destruction.

The story gives a balanced view of the hardships of servicemen in the American military and their families as well as Middle Eastern refugees who've been granted asylum in the US. But it also beautifully shows the sense of community and bonds that arise between people in these groups as they endeavour to deal with how war has impacted their families and friends. Emma tries to be a link between disparate groups and do her best to help people, but the friction this sometimes causes makes her question “do we end up helping at all, or just make things worse – for others and ourselves?” The novel soberly acknowledges the insurmountable challenges for an individual when trying to solve the world's problems, but that there are small contributions that can be made to help individuals. It's a resonant and heartfelt novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNatalie Hart
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When I put out a call for what 2018 books I should read before the end of the year, one of the most popular suggestions people made was “Educated” by Tara Westover. This was listed on many people’s books of the year lists – not only book bloggers and booktubers, but everyone from Michelle Obama to Bill Gates. So expectations were high, but I wasn’t let down. This is an extraordinary story and an artfully composed memoir. Westover relates her tale of growing up in an extremely religious Mormon fundamentalist family with a domineering survivalist father in rural Idaho. Her childhood is so removed from the larger world she doesn’t go to school and her birth was never even registered. But in her teenage years she takes her first steps to starting formal education and integrating into society. The conflict of this break from her family and establishing her individuality is so heartrending, but it’s also inspiring in the way it shows how a person’s innate intelligence and resiliency can help them grow into the person they are meant to be.

I’ve previously read some impactful novels (notably Claire Fuller’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” and Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling”) about unstable fathers who try to live in a self sufficient way because they are convinced society is coming to an end and they force their daughters to live in a sheltered way with them. But reading a real account of someone who really grew up in an atmosphere of paranoia and fear was so striking. It really shows the danger both physically and mentally of tearing people away from larger society. For most of Tara’s childhood, her father scrapes a living together collecting and selling metal from a junkyard and he forces his children to work alongside him. He often actively dissuades his children from wearing protective gear which leads to many gruesome injuries. Just as shocking is her mother’s work as a midwife where she uses only natural, home-brewed medicine and faith practices.

Reading about the real physical danger that children born in these situations are exposed to is terrifying enough, but what’s worse is how badly Tara and other children are prepared for dealing with the outside world. It’s a form of abuse that can’t be measured because the debilitating effects aren’t always immediately apparent. Only when Tara goes to college does she understand how sheltered her life has been. Her father believes “College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around” but Tara quickly understands how having no schooling gives her no frame of reference for things which are obvious to other people. For instance, she naively asks in class what the Holocaust was when it comes up in a discussion.

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Tara and some of her siblings are naturally drawn to escaping the circumstances of their childhood to connect with the larger world while others stay in place. The defectors of the family not only discover more about society, but about how harmful some of the practices they lived under were. Tara and some of her siblings learned to live with the frequent physical abuse they suffered from an older brother. Consciously or not, her family built a narrative about his pattern of violent behaviour to normalise it and it’s only when Tara gets outside of it that she can see how abhorrent it really is. It’s harrowing reading about her journey towards being able to tell her own story: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” But this memoir is ultimately hopeful in testifying how individuals can rise above their circumstances and learn to speak for themselves – even if it means they must leave everything they’ve known and believed behind.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTara Westover
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Reading Edmund White’s books is always a pleasurable experience whether he’s chronicling the contemporary, sashaying back to the distant past in his two excellent historical novels or examining the riveting details of his own experiences. His most recent book “The Unpunished Vice” gives us the rare opportunity to consider his life as a reader and how this naturally coincides with his life as a writer. This account is a natural development for White who has written many book reviews in his life and biographies of a few notable writers including a beautifully voluminous account of Jean Genet and purposefully brief but insightful looks at Proust and Rimbaud. He’s both an avid fan and brilliant participant in the culture of world literature. So it’s absolutely fascinating to read this chronicle of how his experiences have drawn him to certain books and how they've influenced his writing. He gives absorbing commentary on several books as well as the community of authors he knows and interacts with. As a quintessential reader he understands that “Reading is a hobby that never grows stale - and an unpunished vice.”

White may wryly comment on his disorganized approach to reading, but his range of references and the amount of books he alludes to is impressive. He expounds upon classics such as “The Tale of Genji”, “The Sound of the Mountain”, “The Charterhouse of Parma”, “Pale Fire”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Moby Dick”, “In Search of Lost Time” and “Anna Karenina”. These are all books he illuminates with fresh insight and his favourite choices aren’t just due to their critical stature. There’s an ever-mutating canon of literature which slowly changes due to academic reading lists, literary prizes and ardent cheerleading critics. So he easily brushes off some writers who don’t jell with his sensibility like when he observes “I found Thomas Mann rough sledding”. White also comments upon the careers and reputations of writers such as Colette, Cocteau, Jean Giono, Henry Green, Rebecca West, Curzio Malaparte, Emmanuel Carrere, Ronald Firbank, Penelope Fitzgerald and Neel Mukherjee. He expounds upon the social and political influence writers’ ideologies and reputations have had upon their careers and how this sometimes determines whether they remain in print. His perspective on contemporaries and friends such as Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Carey and Yiyun Li also come with tantalizing details of his personal relationships to them – as well as his deep admiration for his husband, the writer Michael Carroll.

Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures for readers is to discover complementary or wildly different opinions on books we personally hold in high or low regard. So it gave me a sly smile reading how White writes “I disliked Yukio Mishima, whom everyone praised” because the only Mishima novel I’ve read left me a little puzzled and nonplussed. But my hackles were raised when White curtly observes how the characters in Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” speak in a way which is indistinguishable from each other. Certainly the style of their sub-conscious speech is of a single poetic tone, but their personalities and perspectives vary dramatically. This is my favourite novel so naturally I’d be touchy about it. But I enjoyed how White’s readings and commentary hits this kind of sweet spotof bookish debate which is somewhere between literary analysis and a book club. Not only did it make me think more dynamically about what I've read, but the idiosyncratic ways we approach books. Against the prevailing tide of readers who look for themselves in literature White quips “People assume that we read to see our reflection, but this reader, at least, prizes difference, strangeness.” 

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It's moving reading about White's motives for wanting to write and engage with literary culture. In addition to his reflections on the craft “For me writing is a performance art”, there's an emotional vulnerability in his analysis of himself and what literature has meant to him. But some of the most powerful parts of this chronicle are in White's pithy summations about the nature of reading and our relationship with books. He remarks how “We live in a world of accidents, contingency, constant change; fiction prepares us for that. It is the only art form that places us in the mind of a perceiver. That is its greatest gift.” Reading is both a way of escaping ourselves and better understanding each other - desires which White vividly describes amidst laying out his lifelong ambitions for literary recognition. In this book he charts the way literature lives with us observing how “We never read the same book twice. But each time it is our book, locked in our innermost heart as we move and change through time.” Just as there have always been communities of authors, there have always been communities of readers. White clearly knows and understands the inherent greediness of bookworms who endlessly desire to read more and more.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEdmund White
4 CommentsPost a comment
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It's time to start making reading plans for 2019 and it's always exciting perusing UK publishers' upcoming lists to see what enticing reads are coming up! So here are some of my most anticipated books that will be published soon. 

As soon as I got an advance copy of Marlon James' new novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” I couldn't wait to read it and plunged right in! It's an epic adventure like none other and I loved this stunning literary fantasy. 

There are exciting new books by established authors I've never read before such as “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean and “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones (whose novel has received praise by everyone from Oprah to Obama.) I had no idea that legendary beat writer & publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was still alive but he turns 100 in 2019 and has a new novel out called “Little Boy”. I've been wanting to start reading popular travel writer Robert Macfarlane for ages and his new book “Underland” sounds like a great place to begin. 

There are several debuts which sound so good including Irish novel “When All is Said” by Anne Griffin, dystopian novel “Wolf Country” by Tunde Farrand, experimental novel “Stubborn Archivist” by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, a novel about books and memory “The Binding” by Bridget Collins, Elizabeth MacNeal's hotly anticipated debut historical novel “The Doll Factory”, a novel about a young woman's life in modern day Kuwait “The Pact We Made” by Layla AlAmmar and poet Katie Hale makes her fictional debut with an incredibly inventive sounding novel “My Name is Monster”. I loved the anthologies of Irish women's writing edited by Sinead Gleeson so I'm thrilled she has a debut collection of essays out “Constellations”. Then there is debut memoir “Out of the Woods” by Luke Turner about confronting uncomfortable emotions after a bad break up. But one of the most anticipated debut novels of the year is “You Will Be Safe Here” by memoirist, journalist and literary-salon extraordinaire Damian Barr. 

Some beloved authors I follow closely and it's always exciting to hear they have new books coming out. Having read French author Leila Slimani's breakout last year I'm really excited to read her new novel “Adele”. Yiyun Li's memoir was one of my favourite books of 2017 so I'm really eager to read her new novel “Where Reason Ends”. I was equally mesmerised by Samanta Schweblin's debut novel and hear her new book of short stories “Mouthful of Birds” is equally eerie and compelling. Max Porter is one of the most exciting writers today having been crowned The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 2016 for his debut and his new novel “Lanny” sounds riveting. Another seriously innovative writer is Swedish Lina Wolff whose new novel is called “The Polyglot Lovers”. I'm hooked on Siri Hustvedt's intelligently powerful writing so her inventive new novel “Memories of the Future” is a must. One of the most challenging and rewarding novels I read in 2015 was by Sandra Newman and her new novel “The Heavens” sounds incredible!

There will also be new novels by Joyce Carol Oates with “My Life as a Rat”, Helen Oyeyemi with “Gingerbread” and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan with “Starling Days”. As I already discussed in my video about the announcement of a sequel to “The Handmaid's Tale” Margaret Atwood will be publishing “The Testaments” and with Elizabeth Strout revisiting her ornery heroine Olive Kitteridge in “Olive, Again” it looks like 2019 will be the year of literary sequels! 

You can also watch me discussing all these books here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZJnfnt8rAU

What books are you most looking forward to in the new year? 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
5 CommentsPost a comment

It’s been a fantastic reading year as I discovered some excellent new debut authors, new books from great authors I’ve read before and several classic novels which I read for the first time. I’ve especially enjoyed following a number of book prizes this year including The Women’s Prize, The Dylan Thomas Prize, The Windham-Campbell Prize, The Booker Prize, The Books Are My Bag Awards and The Young Writer of the Year Award. Of course, what I enjoy most is all the debate and discussion these prizes encourage.

Reading isn’t a race and numbers aren’t important, but in total I read 96 books this year. I enjoyed the experience of reading so many of these but here are ten of my favourites. Click on the book titles to see my full reviews of each book.

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Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This novel based on real life recent events presents a dialogue between women who’ve been egregiously abused and raped by men within their own isolated religious community for years. But without the knowledge or even a common language to connect with the larger world they face the terrifying question: what should they do next? It’s an arresting conversation.

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Truman Capote sought to immortalize his high society female friends in a great work of literature. But, having divulged their most closely-guarded secrets in public, he made himself into a social pariah. This novel imaginatively relates the perspectives of these betrayed women on one of the 20th century’s most infamous writers and how these ladies contributed to shaping the culture of their time. It’s a richly layered delicious feast.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Most individuals born into slavery never have the opportunity to realize their intellectual abilities and artistic talents. But Edugyan’s fantastical adventure novel imagines a rare space where a boy with a passion for science and skills at drawing can travel the world experimenting with different ways of being. This is a compulsively readable wondrous novel.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

One of the most difficult challenges of adulthood is navigating our desires as we change and grow as individuals. Quatro takes a very common story about an individual who enters into an affair and draws out of it a discussion so intimate and transformative it gave me a whole new perspective on my relationships to those closest to me and how I inhabit my own mind, body and soul.  

Problems by Jade Sharma

The wilful, outrageously outspoken and deeply troubled young woman at the centre of this novel should have everything going for her, but finds she can’t get herself together. This story is a frank and darkly hilarious account of her arduous struggle with addiction and deeply-felt struggle to find the will to carry on.  

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Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

This year included the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth and the 40th anniversary of Virago, a publisher renowned for honouring and republishing great female authors. This beautiful new edition of Memento Mori is a synthesis of these celebrations and I loved discovering this outrageous and witty black comedy first published in 1959. It includes relentlessly entertaining characters while also conveying a profound meditation on life and death.

Circe by Madeline Miller

What would motivate an outcast nymph who resides on a remote island to turn sailors into pigs? Miller brilliantly answers this question while relating the life story of this spurned enchantress from Greek mythology. It’s a surprisingly emotional journey as Circe learns how to best harness her considerable powers and find contentment amidst immortality. This novel is so imaginative and gripping.

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

This new novel from America’s greatest writer is wonderfully surprising in how it presents a haunting dystopian tale while simultaneously relating a very autobiographical tale. It dynamically considers difficult questions about personal responsibility while living under questionable government and addresses some of the most pressing issues we face today. It’s a mesmerising story.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

Greengrass’ first novel might not have won the Booker Prize this year, but it demonstrated the considerable talent of this young writer for creating a story which is deeply thoughtful, emotionally gripping and beautifully told. It inventively reaches into the past for answers to questions we hardly dare to speak aloud and reflects on potential ways of seeing.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I’m amazed how a book so compact can contain such a moving and haunting tale. This novel about a unique archaeological weekend follows the journey of a young woman trapped under the influence of her wilful reactionary father. They embark on a dangerous experiment which raises pressing questions about what being English means. It’s an incredibly timely and original tale.

 

What have been some of your favourite books this year? Let me know your top picks or your thoughts about any of the above books in the comments below.

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In 2011, news broke worldwide about eight men belonging to a Mennonite Colony in Bolivia being convicted of a series of sexual assaults committed over several years. Over 130 girls and women had been knocked unconscious using an animal tranquilizer and raped by these men. The horror of these facts were amplified by the knowledge that these women were part of a tight knit isolated community and they were made to believe the attacks were the result of ghosts or demons punishing them for their sins. It’s difficult to imagine the challenges these women faced in such a perilous position, especially because this strictly religious and remote community was all they’d ever known. But Miriam Toews has written an “imagined response” to these incidents in a novel that records several women of three different generations secretly meeting in a hayloft to decide how they will proceed. The options are to do nothing, stay and fight or leave. They only have a couple nights to come to a consensus before the men return with the perpetrators who’ve been let out of jail on bail. It’s an urgent, impassioned conversation that considers issues of faith and the meaning of community/family. I found it so bracing how this novel asks what you’d do when the only world you’ve known has betrayed you so egregiously and robbed you of your humanity.

It’s clear from reading this Guardian interview how personal this novel is for Miriam Towes. Having lived in a Mennonite community herself, she feels “I’m related to them. I could easily have been one of them.” It’s impossible to know how anyone would react to an extreme situation like this and the many women portrayed all have very different reactions. At one point a particularly strong-willed character named Salome comments “our responses are varied and one is not more or less appropriate than the other.” They range from violent anger to pious acceptance to self-destructive despair. It becomes clear over the course of their discussions that these conversations are as much with themselves as with each other for the way they desperately seek to understand and respond to the position they’re in. To create such a multi-layered sense of inner dialogue within such a large cast of characters in such a short novel is truly impressive.

I felt I could understand all the women’s arguments at different points as they plotted out the positive and negatives to their potential course of action. Of course, instinctively I felt the women should leave or physically overcome this male-dominated community. But reading the women’s accounts I was forced to be confronted by the fact of what an extremely isolated existence they’ve lived. They’ve been raised to only know a way of life where they are completely dependent on the men in the village. They aren’t allowed money or an education. They can’t read or write. They’ve never seen a map of the outside world or seen the ocean. They can only even speak a derivative form of Germanic which isn’t spoken by anyone any longer except for Mennonites. So this village is literally their entire world and to leave it would take unimaginable depths of bravery. I was completely captivated by their dilemma and on edge throughout the novel wondering what they’d decide. I also warmed to them as a diverse group of individuals who argue, joke and care for each other in the course of their discussions.

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It’s interesting the way Toews handles the dilemma of how to record these women’s conversations when they can’t read or write. She solves this by narrating the novel from the point of view of a man named August, a Mennonite who lived for many years in England after his parents were excommunicated from the community but he re-joined it as a teacher. He conspires with the women recording their dialogue and assisting them in their plans. His presence adds another dimension to their conversations and another plotline as he has an especially close relationship with one of the women named Ona. It also reinforces the fact that the world has no access to these women’s voices and stories without being filtered through the perspective of a man. To hear these women conversing and have their stories recorded feels like the first step towards achieving a true form of independence and asserting their right to exist apart from the men who have always dominated and controlled their lives. Ona states at one point that “We are aware of many things, instinctively… but to have them articulated in a certain narrative way is pleasing and fun.”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMiriam Toews
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There’s perhaps no greater challenge to one’s sense of self than travelling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. This experience is so instantly disorientating and isolating that you’re forced back into a state of infantilism struggling to communicate what you mean with those around you. It also provokes self-reflection making you consider assumptions about the meaning of culture and language. Whenever I’ve spent time in a foreign country I’ve felt simultaneously energised with curiosity and very vulnerable as I pondered these issues. This experience is powerfully conveyed in Iwaki Kei’s novella “Farewell, My Orange”. The story primarily focuses on the experience of two women who move to Australia: Salimah from Nigeria and Sayuri from Japan. They meet in an English language class. Gradually they form a bond amidst their different feelings of estrangement and establish a more robust sense of independence. It’s a poignant tale of friendship that considers the ways in which meaning is filtered through language.

Having left Nigeria with her family under strained circumstances, Salimah’s husband abruptly leaves her. Suddenly she’s the sole provider for her two sons so finds work in the meat department of a grocery store. Along with this enormous responsibility, she takes steps to learn English. Accounts of her experience are interspersed with letters that Sayuri writes to a teacher back in her native Japan. She moved to Australia because of her husband’s work and although she was an advanced student in her native country, she’s forced to enrol in a basic English class to learn the language. When tragedy strikes she must reckon with the direction she wants her life to take. Fascinatingly, the beginning of Salimah and Sayuri’s friendship starts before they can even communicate with each other. Their connection is formed not so much through speaking to each other but an awareness of each other – through gestures and presence. I think this is so interesting because it highlights how our sense of other people is mostly formed from observation rather than what people directly say to us.  

Sayuri’s accounts written in letter form are more naturally self-reflective as she ponders the various ways living somewhere that she doesn’t speak the language is disorientating and sharpens her senses. She observes how “While one lives in a foreign country, language's main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one's fight with the world. You can't fight without a weapon.” It’s curious how language is something that feels second-nature to us most of the time but when we don’t have the right words we’re left defenceless and unable to express our needs. This applies to both basic physical needs and emotions whose subtlety can become completely lost when we can only gesture or speak in broad terms. Therefore, the connection between Salimah, Sayuri and other individuals in their class is formed more from an intuitive understanding of each other’s needs as women and mothers in a country that is foreign to all of them.

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Although so many things about the environment and culture are different for Salimah, the one consistency she clings to is the colour of the setting sun which was the same in Nigeria. It’s really poignant how Kei describes Salimah’s story as the meaning of home slowly shifts for her and this change allows a more expansive potential to grow in ways she never considered before. It’s also shown how expression through language is both communal and highly individual: “the cultivation of the written word, the language that sustains thought, is an individual matter, a thing that endlessly changes as it's propagated inside each person's head.” We instinctively revise what we want to say and write in our minds before putting it out into the world. This is done as we reach for the right words which will better express our feelings and ideas. These women’s stories capture this sense in an absolutely fascinating way and I was greatly moved by their journeys.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesIwaki Kei
2 CommentsPost a comment
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There’s been a notably high number of dystopian novels being published in recent years and it feels like this reflects a widespread anxiety. Novels such as “Station Eleven”, “The Country of Ice Cream Star”, “The Power” and “Hazards of Time Travel” have all taken very different approaches to creating scarily convincing counter-realities to our present landscape, especially in regards to misogynistic attitudes towards women. It’s always interesting to see how new dystopian fiction tries to create an urgent, radical dialogue with society today. The presumption being: if we don’t pay attention to what’s happening around us this nightmarish landscape might come sooner than we think. In the case of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Atwood has famously said the novel contains nothing which hasn’t already happened in the world.

Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel “Leila” deals directly with issues of the caste system in India which has such a far-reaching, complex history and continues to incite horrific instances of violence. The novel takes the divisions between castes to the extreme where physical walls are erected to separate communities from each other, shore in resources for members of “elite” castes and strive towards a “purity” of race and social status. This is filtered through the perspective of Shalini who mourns the disappearance of her daughter Leila when she was suddenly lost after Shalini was seized and taken to a government-sanctioned reform camp. For years she’s secretly schemed how to find her daughter again amidst an aggressively conservative and strict system. Finally her plans might be carried out. We follow her journey as she puts her plot into action and recalls the horrific events which led to this dire situation.

I feel like some of the references in the novel were definitely lost on me because I have such a slim understanding of how the caste system works in India. There’s such a profusion of subcastes and subtleties to the way religion and social status play into how classifications of caste dictate the position of individuals in society that I sometimes felt disorientated and confused. I don’t think that mattered though because what carried me through the story was Shalini’s plight, the urgent concerns of motherhood and the egregious violence inflicted upon her mind and body. I felt the impact of her struggle and Akbar renders scenes of trauma with skilled clarity. Shalini was living quite a comfortable existence in a liberal lifestyle though she was aware that regressive attitudes and mob-like violence inflicted by a puritanical group called the Repeaters were increasing. But all this felt quite removed from her life until it reaches her doorstep and when it does it’s really effective.

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What’s particularly interesting about Akbar’s narrative is that, though Shalini is a very sympathetic character, it gradually becomes apparent that she has her own prejudices and ignorance about the suffering of members of different castes. At the same time, she’s just an ordinary woman whose primary concern is for the welfare of her daughter. But, when the political landscape changes and a woman named Sapna who used to be Shalini’s nanny has acquired a very different social position, Shalini is forced to consider what mental walls she maintained against others. While this shift might feel overstated at points, it’s nonetheless effective in creating a multifaceted story which is as riveting in its mystery as it is in prompting readers to consider how we might all possess forms of  blindness to the suffering of people who are different from us. Akbar’s writing also has a beautiful fluidity which is a pleasure to read. He formerly worked as a journalist and it’s striking how his concern for investigating social issues has now translated into fiction.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPrayaag Akbar
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It may have one of the longest prize names around, but it’s always exciting to follow The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, in association with Warwick University to see what exciting new writing talent is highlighted and celebrated. Past winners include great authors such as Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Naomi Alderman, Adam Foulds, Sarah Howe, Sally Rooney and Max Porter (who won the main prize in 2016 when I was on the official shadow panel.) It’s quite unique how eligibility is open to authors whose first book is fiction, non-fiction or poetry so there’s always a diversity of disciplines included in the shortlist.

This year’s prize is particularly exciting since one of the judges is Kamila Shamsie (who has had a very busy year around book awards winning the Women’s Prize and also judging The Golden Man Booker Prize). The 2018 shortlist includes two novels and two books of non-fiction. Unsurprisingly (since I mostly read fiction) I’ve read the novels but not the other two. I was entranced by the rich, imaginative journey of Imogen Hermes Gowar’s “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock” and captivated by the intimate familial and social struggles at the heart of Fiona Mozley’s “Elmet”. Both authors are very different in their choice of style and subject matter but equally talented and I hope they’ll have long careers as novelists. Having listened to the authors speak at a special event for the prize, I’m very intrigued to read Laura Freeman’s memoir about overcoming an eating disorder and Adam Weymouth’s book about an Alaskan river journey. 

The 2018 shortlisted authors & judge Andrew Holgate

The 2018 shortlisted authors & judge Andrew Holgate

The Shadow Panel this year has written really engaging reactions to all the books and it’s exciting to see their winner is Imogen Hermes Gowar. However, The Shadow Panel decision doesn’t always sync with the actual judges’ decision. When I participated in this we chose Jessie Greengrass’ story collection as our winner. Although I’d be delighted to see Gowar or Mozley win the prize, I wonder if one of the non-fiction books might take the prize this year since it’s been some time since a non-fiction book has won. The winner will be announced this evening, but whatever author the judges select as the winner I’m glad that this award continues to encourage some of our best modern writers.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Sometimes I feel like fiction that falls somewhere between short stories and a novel is my favourite kind of writing. This sort of book probably occurs for practical reasons when the author initially started writing short stories and then groups them together with some connecting characters (since novels traditionally sell better than collections of short stories.) But I think this form allows an opportunity for the author to explore many different perspectives or themes using different narrative styles and points of view. The effect can be really powerful in how it shows a multifaceted view of a story.  Some examples of books like this are “Send Me” by Patrick Ryan, “Anything is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout, “All That Man Is” by David Szalay, “Vertigo” by Joanna Walsh, “Sour Heart” by Jenny Zhang and “The Shore” by Sara Taylor. Adding to this style of storytelling is the debut book by JM Holmes “How Are You Going to Save Yourself?” which follows the stories of four black men living in Rhode Island as they progress through the tricky stages of young adulthood.

Holmes often uses dialogue with great precision to evoke character and create dramatic tension in different stages of these men’s lives. The book begins with a conversation between friends Gio, Dub, Rye and Rolls as they share stories about sex and relationships with white girls. Discussions about sex as power play, economic disparity and institutionalised racism feature throughout the book making for some edgy exchanges that reveal a deeper kind of truth. Holmes is unflinchingly honest in presenting the boys’ vulnerability such as a scene where a black man feels self-conscious about being naked in front of a white woman “I told myself I wasn’t on an auction block in front of her.” But some of the most unsettling stories focus more on the perspective of female teenagers or young women that these boys are dating. He sharply portrays egregious instances of misogyny and violence towards women such as when a girl is coerced into having sex with multiple boys: “He stared Tayla straight in the eye and she felt her body tense. They were all focused on her, but not really her, some imagined girl. Their eyes were buried in her body.” These descriptions of sex strikingly show the interplay between the gaze and the imagination, as well as how prejudice and fear can be deeply internalised. The stories expose how girls and women are unfortunately often the recipients of abuse because of these issues and the power dynamics involved. They also describe how when people are totally stripped down (both physically and mentally) unconscious concerns about skin colour suddenly fill the minds of the parties involved.

Gio’s father Lonnie is a former footballer whose star has faded. References to his complicated life are threaded throughout several of the stories so that he is like a mythological figure in the boys’ minds, but I found it especially powerful when it’s described how the sport had a long-lasting physical impact upon him: “His body was riddled with scars thick as butter knives.” Equally, changes to the boys’ bodies as they work in various different jobs are presented in a striking way such as when Rye becomes a fireman. Others pursue more cerebral jobs such as teaching or abstract art. Their choices take them upon divergent paths and it’s poignant how they grow apart in different ways while still maintaining a common bond. In this way the book functions as a coming of age tale, but it’s so creatively presented as these boys variously make different compromises and struggle to figure out where they fit in society.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJM Holmes
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The bold premise of Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel is that it’s primarily narrated – not by Ada, the girl whose coming-of-age tale is at this novel’s centre - but from the perspective of multiple deities and cosmic forces that inhabit her. Ada’s parents are Saul, a Nigerian Catholic doctor, and Saachi, a Malaysian nurse, but Ada is also an ogbanje (child spirit destined to be born and die multiple times) and a child of Ala, an Igbo deity. As such, she doesn’t exist as a singular individual but a plurality of selves encased within one being. Ada’s life is plotted out to us from birth to young adulthood, but rather than following the nuanced emotion of her development we’re given details from the many spirits who inhabit her. The narrative alternates between a collective “we” and others who appear over the course of her life, especially a spirit named Asughara who crucially appears around the time of Ada’s puberty. These entities plot and scheme from within her, influence her actions, strategize to protect her and act as bemused witnesses to Ada’s human concerns. This radical choice in perspective demands that the reader accept their presence as a reality rather than imaginary manifestations of a troubled girl. In doing so, this courageous and inventive novel challenges Western assumptions about identity.

Being so ensconced in the perspectives of these spirits does create a curious distance from the central character. This is exacerbated by frequent references to her as “The Ada” rather than just Ada because they see her as a physical vessel who will only temporarily house them before they move on. Curiously, Ada is both central and secondary within the story as she herself describes: “In many ways, I am not even real. I am not even here.” Ada experiences many issues which other novels would expand upon in great detail such as self-harm, sexual abuse, an eating disorder, suicidal tendencies, bisexuality and being transgendered. However, rather than view these as conditions which need counselling or treatment, the narrative lists them as effects that arise out of Ada’s being inhabited by multiple spirits. This may frustrate readers who aren’t accustomed to considering issues in this way or having them treated so glancingly. Ada’s development is centred more on her being able to accept and coexist with these entities rather than seeking to suppress, ignore or dismiss them. The novel traces how she names these spirits which inhabit her and adopts different identity labels which best suit her because “When you name something, it comes into existence-did you know that? There is strength there, bone-white power injected in a rush, like a trembling drug.”

It’s refreshing how the novel approaches a story of fractured national and racial identity quite differently from novels that deal with similar themes. Where great novels such as “We Need New Names” or “Americanah” focus on the struggle of girls caught between two cultures, Emezi’s novel charts the way in which Ada comes to trust her inner reality rather than adjusting to what the external world wants to impose upon her. The supernatural state of being portrayed in “Freshwater” might be classified as an offspring of magical realism if this were not a term that has become so politically complicated and fraught. In his novel “Augustown”, Kei Miller wrote powerfully about the way this genre has become linked to Western views about supernatural stories that come from cultures deemed by some to be “primitive”. Emezi is forthright and unambiguous about the way she posits Ada’s story. It’s not a question of believing in the supernatural parts of her story, but in respecting the integrity of someone who comes from another culture.

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Less convincing is that fact that the novel doesn’t deal with morally complicated aspects of the Nigerian culture that Ada eventually identifies and reconnects with. Given the fact that Nigeria actively legislates against LGBT rights and by the end Ada identifies as transgendered, it feels troublesome that discussions of potential clashes don’t ever arise. Nor is it addressed how female circumcision was sometimes practiced to correct individuals who were thought to be ogbanje. Certainly these laws and practices don’t encompass the beliefs of the entire country and Igbo culture has a distinct tradition of same-sex couples. But nevertheless, it feels like the belief systems that Ada adopts after returning to Nigeria are somewhat idealized without allowing any room to question how they are sometimes practiced. I also took issue with the way Ada’s brief forays with same sex desire are only expressed through the creation of another entity that inhabits her who she names Saint Vincent. When Ada tries to kiss a girl it’s not with her own lips, but this man within her who uses her lips. That same-sex desire can only be realized through the mediation of gendered identities feels oddly regressive for a novel that in many other ways respects the integrity of the individual.  

Despite these reservations, the impassioned point of view and inventive writing in “Freshwater” is something very worth celebrating.

This post also appeared on Open Letters Review: https://openlettersreview.com/open-letters-review/freshwater-by-akwaeke-emezi

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAkwaeke Emezi
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It’s a common trope in Young Adult novels to feature a teenage protagonist in a dystopian future who is penalized for fighting against an oppressive system. That’s exactly the story Joyce Carol Oates writes in her new novel HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL. However, this is not a Young Adult novel. Oates is certainly familiar with the form and nature of YA fiction having written several books in this genre. It’d be natural to assume that she’s utilizing her expertise in this form and is also making a departure from her typically realistic fiction to branch into feminist dystopian fiction. There is a cycle of novels in this form particularly prevalent in literature today (as described by Alexandra Alter in a recent New York Times article ‘How Feminist Dystopian Fiction is Channeling Women’s Anger and Anxiety’ in which she cites Oates’s novel.) But the journey and outcome of Oates’s highly unusual new novel is much more startling and darkly subversive than any tale that could be categorized as Young Adult. Instead, HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL engages with ideas of behavioural psychology and Cold War politics to form an utterly unique commentary on society today. It also incorporates many autobiographical elements which surprisingly might make it one of Oates’s most personal and reflective novels yet.

The year is NAS-23 in the 16th Federal District, Eastern-Atlantic States. To put this in perspective, this novel actually takes place only a few years in the future. History proceeding the 9/11 attacks has been erased and dates in the North American States (NAS) begin from this point. In this newly reconstituted country which has absorbed the territories of Mexico and Canada, free speech and private thoughts are tightly controlled by the government. People are segmented into official racial categories determined by skin colour. Adriane Strohl is a curious and intelligent high school student who has been recognized as the class valedictorian and she’s invited to give a speech to the student body. She takes this opportunity to ask general questions which the government doesn’t like to be asked. As a consequence she’s punished by being designated an EI (Exiled Individual) and transported back through time to Zone 9. Here it is the year 1959 and she’s required to attend a university in Wisconsin “to train yourself in a socially useful profession.” She is equipped only with a new name (Mary Ellen Enright) and a list of instructions which prohibit her from leaving the area, developing intimate relationships or speaking about the future. Adriane knows that any deviation will result in her being “Deleted” – an example of what being deleted entails is vividly and terrifyingly portrayed in an opening section. From this point, she sets out to navigate this tricky and unfamiliar landscape of the past.

According to Greg Johnson’s biography of Oates, INVISIBLE WRITER, the author was also a valedictorian given the dubious honour of making a speech to the student body. Like Adriane, Oates was terrified about making this speech. It’s interesting how Oates’ own apparent fears and preoccupations manifest throughout the entire novel. In effect, Adriane is transported back in time to live through Joyce Carol Oates’ own university years in a region analogous to Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison where the author earned her graduate and post-graduate degrees. Like Oates, Adriane/Mary Ellen finds it necessary to earn her keep while she’s a student by working gruelling hours in a part time job in a library for a pitiful amount of money. Some of Oates’s fiction, most notably MARYA: A LIFE and I’LL TAKE YOU THERE, revolve around periods of adolescent experience which are very similar to Oates’ own. HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL is a novel that seems to borrow more freely from her autobiographical experience. As such, I believe the author uses her own past as a metafictional device to creatively explore issues concerning memory, guilt, free will, psychology and history.

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At university Adriane is plagued by feelings of loneliness and she becomes fixated with an assistant professor of psychology named Ira Wolfman. Not only does she feel a romantic desire towards him, but he is also revealed to be an Exiled Individual from the future serving out a punishment. At one point, Wolfman calls into question the validity of their surroundings: “’Exile’? ‘Teletransportation’? ‘Zone Nine’? None of this is real, Adriane. It’s a construct.” This introduces dilemmas poised somewhere between the metaphysical issues raised in the films Blade Runner and The Matrix. Are these characters only imagining that they’re from the future? If they’ve been exiled to the past are they really being monitored? Is their “rehabilitation” really a part of a larger design? Adding to these sinister questions are those raised by Adriane’s classes on B.F. Skinner and his morally dubious behaviouralist experiments. The novel begins with the epigram from Skinner “A self is simply a device for representing a functionally unified system of responses.” Are Adriane’s choices and decisions ultimately the result of her environment and the government she lives under? How much agency does she have to enact change in her surroundings and determine her own future? These questions pile on top of each other over the course of the story and build into a fever of paranoia and uncertainty so that the novel’s conclusion (which would be considered positive in any other circumstance) feels incredibly sinister and horrific.

The many issues this novel raises over the course of the story powerfully coalesce to reflect anxieties and fears about the current political climate in America today. It also allows Oates opportunities for more playful commentary about the direction our culture is taking. In NAS-23 there are no democrats or republicans; there is just the Patriot Party. Voting is performed by placing a smiling emoji next to the candidate of choice. But Oates also pokes fun of some antiquated aspects of culture from the 50s and 60s. Adriane observes how agonizing it is wearing hair curlers to bed. Paper feels horribly inadequate to her as a reading device. Adriane’s unique point of view also casts new light on the Red Scare and threat of nuclear war which coloured this time period. By considering a period of personal and political upheaval in US history through this form of speculative fiction, Oates prompts us to question what are the real threats to the country as well as deeper anxieties about how our society is evolving. At one point Adriane/Mary Ellen states “time turns back upon itself. You believe that you are making progress, but it is an illusion. Yet, this is progress of a kind.” Given our proximity in time to NAS-23, Oates appears to be postulating how we need to step back before leaping forward.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
4 CommentsPost a comment
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If I hadn’t read some articles in the past (such as ‘Bridging the gap: the east-west divide in art’), I’d have entirely believed the central story of Mathias Enard’s new novel. It’s true that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were invited by Turkish rulers in Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn, but neither ever journeyed to this Eastern superpower. However, “Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants” imagines Michelangelo travelling to work for the sultan in the summer of 1506. He’s embittered by Pope Julius II failing to deliver timely payments for commissions and enlivened by the thought of surpassing the talent of his rival Leonardo da Vinci whose design was rejected. During this stolen season, Michelangelo comes into contact with Muslim culture and people outside of his staunch Christian beliefs. An encounter with a mesmerising androgynous dancer also prompts him to adopt a more fluid attitude towards sexuality and gender. It’s a brilliantly told fantastical tale that plays on ideas concerning history and the power of story-telling.

Enard does a lot to support the seeming validity of his novel including letters, lists of ship cargo and sketches of Michelangelo’s proposed bridge. Like Damien Hirst’s famous ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ exhibit/documentary which assemble rare art objects he claims to have retrieved from the bottom of the ocean, Enard’s novel is an elaborate joke and entirely serious in its quest to reconstruct an imagined period of Michelangelo’s life. Art and literature not only reflect the culture they emerge from but fashion versions of how that civilization wants to be remembered. We can also retrospectively read into these artefacts myths around their creation and how we’re positioned within their lineage. So part of why Enard’s novel feels so believable is because we want to believe in this great exchange between the Renaissance and the Orient (or the European fantasy of the East.) However, it never really happened and the fact of Enard’s construct says as much as the content of his intricate fable. With this novel he forms a radical confrontation with lost corners of history and the marginalized invisible people whose stories aren’t often reflected in art.

Interspersed with descriptions of Michelangelo’s time working for The Grand Vizier are accounts by the nameless androgynous dancer that mesmerised him. This performer speaks to the artist while he sleeps in an ingenious kind of counter-narrative to “One Thousand and One Nights”. Instead of trying to lull him to sleep the dancer urgently wants to open Michelangelo’s eyes to the people he doesn’t see, what is left out of his art and the consequences of the legacy he leaves. The dancer is a slave stolen from another place entirely as are several people the artist encounters in Constantinople. Most of their stories have vanished from history just as they have lost their countries of origin. I kept thinking back to the recent novel “The Sealwoman’s Gift” which describes a mass kidnapping and enslavement of Icelandic people by Barbary pirates.

The dancer is aware how being slighted in story-telling amounts to an erasure of being. Imperialism functions through myth-making as much as it does through brute force. The dancer observes how “You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings and elephants and marvellous beings… But you will know, since you are here pressed against me, you ill-smelling Frank whom chance has brought to my hands, you will know that all this is nothing but a perfumed veil hiding the eternal suffering of night.” Through constructing Michelangelo’s imagined journey, Enard enables this voice from the past to cut through time with the power of a knife.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMathias Enard
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The third part of Sattouf's graphic memoir begins when Riad is seven years old and living in a small village in Syria. While reading Parts 1 & 2 in this series, I've grown increasingly distressed about the uncomfortable position his mother's been cornered into living in a crumbling home with two small children far from her native France and in a culture very different from her own. Added to this is the father’s increasing stubbornness, reactionary views and snobbishness. It’s not surprising to find his parents locked into a battle which grows increasingly hostile as further developments are revealed over the course of this book. One of the most alarming changes in the book is Riad’s own domineering attitude directed at his younger brother Yahya. It shows how the violence he witnesses and (at times) experiences is shaping his character in a disturbing way. However, as with the previous books, these darker issues are presented in a way that allow you to feel the comic absurdity of the characters’ egotism and insecurities. It’s heartening to see as the series progresses that Riad isn’t a saint either. Nevertheless, I deeply feel for the precariousness of his position as a child in difficult circumstances who feels caught between Eastern and Western cultures.

It’s interesting how Riad’s role models have changed throughout the series. Where he first saw Georges Brassens as a God-like figure under his mother’s influence in Part 1, Riad is now drawn to Conan the Barbarian. It inspires him to the point of reproducing scenes from the film in drawings of his own and it’s poignant to see glimpses of the author’s artistic talent at its inception. The boy also is starting to test out different belief systems under his own initiative. Although he’s not asked to, he chooses to participate in Ramadan (albeit very briefly.) More subtly, there are dynamic conflicts portrayed in his parents’ lives. His father prides himself on establishing connections with an influential figure but it’s evident that he’s only being used for a specific purpose. The father also shows signs that he feels oppressed by his own past as he violently and spontaneously bursts out in anger against his own elderly mother at one point shouting “You ruined my life you stupid ignorant peasant!” It dismaying how his own evident conflicts between Eastern and Western cultures are being similarly imparted on his son.

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Like in the previous books, the children Riad encounters frighteningly mimic the attitudes and prejudices of the adults. Riad’s cousins tease him for being Jewish when they notice he’s uncircumcised which betrays their fundamental misunderstanding about the way the religion is practiced and how their prejudice is truly rooted in pure naivety. This unfortunately leads to one of the most disturbing scenes in this volume when Riad’s father decides to “correct” his son’s physically to fit with the other boys in Syria. The author has a special talent for portraying some truly squeamish imagery. But casual violence isn’t limited to instances in Syria because when Riad returns to France for a brief period there is also a disturbing scene involving kittens. But, no less unsettling, is the portrayal of the erosive effect of living in stultifying circumstances for a long period of time. This affects Riad’s mother the worst. Her desultory days are spent piecing together an elaborate jigsaw puzzle of a scene from her family’s French port town as if meditating on the heritage and counter life she’s lost. It’s a welcome relief when she makes a fleeting connection with Riad’s aunt Khadija who shows herself to be both an ally and someone with innate hidden intelligence.

I find it touching how imagery of the toy bull which first made an appearance at the start of the series still continues to haunt Riad. This menacing beast continues to plague him in vividly depicted nightmares but, as Riad adopts figures who inspire him to establish his own individuality separate from the values of his parents and society, we can see him finding tools to combat his inner demons/fears. My concerns for Riad and other characters in the book haven’t been allayed by the developments in this volume (in fact, they’ve been heightened by the suspenseful ending to volume 3!) But it’s made me all the more curious to see how the series will continue. I was delighted to discover recently that a fourth volume has been published in French, but it hasn’t been translated yet. I eagerly await to discover what happens next in this cleverly wrought graphic memoir!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRiad Sattouf