28-09-14

Dave Eggers: Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

One of the nicest things for a book-lover/reader is browsing through the offer at a bookstore, without a title or an author in mind, just picking up books, looking at front pages, admiring particularly well done layouts or covers, and reading snippets in order to make up your mind that it might be a book worth buying and reading.

And sometimes a mighty hand seems to sweep out of the pages and grip you by the collar to pull you into the story. A few pages later you come back, you suddenly realise again where you are, and you think: this one is for me.

It happened to me with this book. I didn't know the author and I rarely read American novel's, but I loved the artwork and the cover so much that I picked it up and started reading...

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BUILDING 57

- Wow, this is the greates week of my life.

-

- Sorry. You probably don't understand that.

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-Okay, comparitively, it's not such a good week for you. You've been, well, I guess you've been brought here. I just mean that bringing an astronaut here was hard, but getting an actual cop here...Jesus. Kev said I was invincible and now I know it's true. Shit, I forgot to tell him. I'll be back.

 

The book is about Thomas, a young man with questions, that abducts an astronaut. He used to know and admire him in school, and starts asking him questions, trying to make sense of the world around him. From one question comes another and soon a congresman, his math teacher, his mother, a cop and a lady are abducted and interrogated, each one shackled in a separate building. The layout of the book supports this very well and every chapter is named after the number of the building in which the victim sits.

The first time I read it I read it too fast, like a thriller, and it did not satisfy me. So i read it a second time, because I felt I did not do it right the first time, and now as a novel, and it opened up beautifully. It is a very special book, with a trip through the mind of the subject, and with some remarkable moves in the storyline. I loved it.

Though the book seems simple at first it isn't, and it should be read sober and concentrated. Every time I was too much distracted I had to start again.

 

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15-08-14

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Americanah.

They were living together anyway, and he was not unhappy, and he imagined that she would, with time, gain a certain heft. She had not after four years, except physically, in a way that he thought made her look even more beautiful, fresher, with fuller hips and breasts, like a well-watered houseplant.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 2013

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I am neither African nor American, and I am not Black, and so this book, about a Nigerian boy and girl falling in love, emigrating to the USA (she, succesfully, legal) and the UK (he, unsuccesfully, illegal) and later returning to Nigeria, demanded from me some imagination and attention. After all, I've never been to either of these countries and I don't really know what it is to be discrimated. But I never made it to Narnia either, and shouldn't every good book give you the feeling that you start to know and understand new places? I think so. The book also delivers some very interesting ideas about racism in the USA, mainly in the fictional blog Raceteenth or Curious Observations by a Non-American Black on the subject of Blackness in America. It's all written with enthusiasm and talent, and with great compassion and understanding. This alone makes the book for me a must-read because it lets us understand these things better. There is however also a second layer to it, maybe even more important in the eyes of the author and many readers, because it is also the story of a Great Love, between two teenagers, Ifemelu (the girl) and Obinze (the boy), who after a long separation and grave misunderstandings meet each other again. 

It is a very well written book, and I loved it, but I must admit, and this is purely personal, it left me also behind with a bitter feeling. I felt the greatest pity for the victims of this Great Love, the try-outs in between, the unlucky ones who had the poor judgment to fall in love with one of them, believing they had found the love of their lives, only to find out that they would allways come second and that sooner or later they would be dumped, for a lack of completeness and fulfillment they could never deliver. I admire the idea of a Great Romantic Love, but if you are one of its unlucky victims this Love ruins your life when you realise that you can never replace the Real One. A long, long time ago I found myself in this situation and it makes you angry, hurt, soiled and very sad. It is a very personal and deep feeling of rejection, being refused not because of what you are but because of who you are not. You are good to make love with but not good enough to love. You haven't done anything wrong, you don't understand but there is a finality in the other one's decision that leaves you defenseless and naked. I still carry the marks.

But as I said, a great novel, beautifully written, and I advise everyone to read it. I learned a lot about racism and about being black in America and in Nigeria, and how this is not the same. I looked into the soul of the girl that left me a long time ago and commiserated with her victims (most of them end up happy by the way, like me, but still remain scarred). A very good book, a fascinating read and bubbly with life in a quite special way.

I read it in Canada, mainly in National Parks in the evenings, in the company of the loves of my live, and one evening in the company of a bottle of Alive, a wonderful organic white wine by the Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Okanagan. This wine is honest, fruity, interesting and a pure joy to drink and it fitted the book extremely well.    

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11-01-14

Pat Barker: The Regeneration Trilogy

Burns. Rivers had become adept at finding bearable aspects to unbearable experiences, but Burns defeated him. What had happened to him was so vile, so disgusting, that Rivers could find no redeeming feature. He'd been thrown into the air by the explosion of a shell and had landed, head-first, on a German corpse, whose gas-filled belly had ruptured on impact. Before Burns lost consciousness, he'd had time to realize that what filled his nose and mouth was decomposing human flesh. Now, whenever he tried to eat, that taste and smell recurred. Nightly, he relived the experience, and from every nightmare he awoke vomiting. Burns on his knees, as Rivers had often seen him, retching up the last ounce of bile, hardly looked like a human being at all. His body seemed to have become merely the skin-and-bone casing for a tormented alimentary canal. His suffering was without purpose or dignity, and yes, Rivers knew exactly what Burns meant when he said that it was a joke.

PAT BARKER, Regeneration,

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I live in Leuven/Louvain. My grandfather was wounded in 1914 in the last Belgian counter-attack before the Yzer. One of the uncles of my mom is buried in Flanders as a soldier, having survived the fighting but not the Spanish flu. An American nurse that fell in love with him paid for his tombstone and my uncle said to me that you can still see it in a small village somewhere in West-Flanders. 100 years ago the Great War passed through Belgium and changed the face of the world.

One of the reasons why I became a historian was my granddad, a farmer and a local politician (responsable for agriculture in a small village, Oppuurs), who spend some time at our home recovering from an operation. He was fond of books and history and I can still picture him reading The Longest Day, and he told lots of stories about his past. Books about the first World War interest me still.

So when Pat Barker won the Booker Price in 1995 with The Ghost Road I deecided to buy all three volumes and start with the first one, Regeneration. It tells the story of an encounter that happened in 1917 in Craiglockhart between an army doctor/psychologist,W.H.R. Rivers, and Siegfried Sassoon, the famous anti-war poet. The stories of the things that happened to soldiers and officers that were so horrible that it drove them mad are described here by a medic, full of compassion, but who's job it was to make them fit to go back, and who believed in what he was doing. We meet several people that are historical, like Rivers himself, and the poets Owen and Sassoon, but also an intriguing fictional figure called Billy Prior.

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In the three books (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road) stories start mixing and building up: Rivers working as an antropologist on Eddystone Island amongst the headhunters, Billy Prior working for Intelligence and wrestling with his past, the difficult position of homosexuals (an eye-opener to me when I read it), Britisch society in 1917-1918, the anti-war movement and how society reacted to it... It's curious that where I remembered these books mainly for the stories about shell-shock and homofobia when I read them in 1995, I now seemed to like the parts about Billy Prior most. The books change when you are rereading them, and for me, a fast reader, this is the best giveaway for a really good book. I will probably continue reading it until I die.

2014 is a good year to start.

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