Review: Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis

Wow! What a way to end my 2017 reading challenge on a complete high.

“What was the point of talking about it? You lived as you lived while you lived. Today he was drinking tea and watching checkers, why ruin a nice afternoon worrying about tomorrow?”

I was on the search to find a collection full of interlinked short stories to read, when I came across this recommendation video talking about Natasha. Suffice to say, I’m beyond thankful.

Told through Mark’s eyes, and spanning the last twenty-three years, Natasha brings the Bermans and the Russian-Jewish enclaves of Toronto to life in stories full of big, desperate, utterly believable consequence.

Natasha and Other Stories Everything is at once new and familiar, from the Russian-Jewish references to the nuances put on certain sayings and jokes. For example, Sergei being nicknamed ‘Seryozha’ is such a tiny detail but captures exactly the kind of things that have slipped my mind with time. I mean, if I ever feel the need to revisit my childhood, I can just open up this book to any story and feel the nostalgia surging in.

These two quotes get what I’m trying to convey: “He was energized by the proximity to his former life.” “…I watched a scene I recognized as familiar only once I saw it.”

It’s such an exhilarating experience to read the first page of a book and come to realize right off the bat that this one is something made especially for you. It’s a rare occurrence nowadays for me, so I’ve learned to cherish the reading experience as I go.

Frankly, I was really in my element with this read, and it was emphasised by combining my favorite aspects from coming-of-age tales to capturing the complexity of Jewish families to including subtle humor. I’ve never felt as heard and seen as when I read Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis.

My favorite stories include:

  • The Second Strongest Man which follows Mark’s childhood adoration for Sergei Federenko.

“There wasn’t much I remembered from Riga—isolated episode, little more than vignettes, mental artifacts—but many of these recollections involved Sergei.”

“When Sergei visited I was spastic with a compulsion to please him. I shadowed him around the apartment, I swung from his biceps like a monkey, I did somersaults on the carpet. The only way I could be convinced to go to sleep was if Sergei followed my mother into my bedroom. We developed a routine. Once I was under the covers Sergei said good night by lifting me and my little bed off the floor. He lifted the bed as if it weighed no more than a newspaper or a sandwich. He raised me to his chest and wouldn’t put me back down until I named the world’s strongest man.
          —Seryozha, Seryozha Federenko!”

  • An Animal to the Memory set around Mark’s Hebrew school with the focus being on his misbehaving on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It leads to a particular fascinating scene between him and his Rabbi that I can’t stop spinning around in my head.

“Now, Berman, he said, now maybe you understand what it is to be a Jew.”

  • The collection hit a bit of a rough patch for me with the titular story and the following one, but thankfully redeemed itself with this final story “Minyan,” set around Mark’s grandfather and the familiar old Jewish folks surrounding him in his subsidised apartment complex.

“The change of locale hadn’t done much to improve his social situation. For every reason to leave his apartment he could always find ten to stay where he was.”

I came to cherish more so the tales that delved into backstories and family lineage, rather than the stories that focused on whatever Natasha & Choynski tried to be.

But I think it goes without saying that I’m interested to go look into any and every book the author has to offer.

5/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Natasha and Other Stories, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

Advertisements

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

 Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.

I’m pleased with my decision to put a few weeks of distance between me starting this book and having finished Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. The latter left such a lasting and unwavering impression on me, as I mentioned in my raving review, that I was unsure whether I’d get to experience such emotions again in the near future. Thankfully, though, after two weeks of longing, I was more than ready to dive back into the author’s wonderful world of stories within stories. And upon having completed the second chapter of Everything I Never Told You, where we get a better sense of the ongoing character dynamics, I knew I was in for a treat.

My personal highlights from the book include:

✓ The smaller the details, the more swept up I am in the story.

“But Nath’s seen Lydia at school, how in the cafeteria she sits silent while the others chatter; how, when they’ve finished copying her homework, she quietly slides her notebook back into her bookbag. After school, she walks to the bus alone and settles into the seat beside him in silence. Once, he had stayed on the phone line after Lydia picked up and heard not gossip, but his sister’s voice duly rattling off assignments—read Act I of Othello, do the odd-numbered problems in Section 5—then quiet after the hang-up click. The next day, while Lydia was curled on the window seat, phone pressed to her ear, he’d picked up the extension in the kitchen and heard only the low drone of the dial tone. Lydia has never really had friends, but their parents have never known. If their father says, “Lydia, how’s Pam doing?” Lydia says, “Oh, she’s great, she just made the pep squad,” and Nath doesn’t contradict her. He’s amazed at the stillness in her face, the way she can lie without even a raised eyebrow to give her away.”

Sings like Jean-Ralphio SPECIFIC. tumblr_mza8vgbpad1rzbiguo5_r1_500

✓ The familiar atmosphere and making every family member more well-rounded by going back to their adolescence is something I always enjoy from the author.

“He spent twelve years at Lloyd and never felt at home. At Lloyd, everyone seemed to be descended from a Pilgrim or a senator or a Rockefeller, but when they did family tree projects in class, he pretended to forget the assignment rather than draw his own complicated diagram. Don’t ask any questions, he prayed silently as the teacher marked a small red zero beside his name. He set himself a curriculum of studying American culture—listening to the radio, reading comics, saving his pocket money for double features, learning the rules of the new board games—in case anyone ever said, Hey, didya hear Red Skelton yesterday? or Wanna play Monopoly? though no one ever did.”

The above passage really nails down his feeling out of place in a predominately white school.

“And James? What had he thought of her? He would never tell her this, would never admit it to himself: he had not noticed her at all, that first lecture. He had looked right at her, over and over, as he held forth on Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and John Wayne, but when she came to his office he had not even recognized her. Hers had been just one of the pale, pretty faces, indistinguishable from the next, and though he would never fully realize it, this was the first reason he came to love her: because she had blended in so perfectly, because she had seemed so completely and utterly at home.”

He got together with Marilyn to blend in, while she chose him to stand out, like the author pointed out before: “Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in.” And now bringing home the point by showing and not just telling… The Shadow of the Wind is shook.

While reading Everything I Never Told You I had only one repeating thought that cemented the fact that Celeste Ng’s knows how create stories within stories. There is such a somber mood that is perfectly captured throughout the book. The story slowly develops but is never boring. Like trying to piece together the missing pieces of a puzzle.

Inevitably, if I compare this read with Little Fires Everywhere, I’d say it was a bit subsided in its complexity because it didn’t feature as many perspectives. Our main focus throughout the book is the Lee family and the aftermath of their stricken tragedy. So I was missing that sprawling look at different characters and point of views that we had in LFE. Where that one was so loud and tumultuous in my head with trying to pierce together ever thread of detail, this one offered something more quiet and introspective.

But that’s not to say that Everything I Never Told You wasn’t a sharp, refreshing look at family-driven dramas. Celeste Ng excels once again at make everything fall into place, from the tiniest detail to the bigger plot twists. And not twists, really, because her books all start with the mystery uncovered in the first sentence: “Lydia is dead.” “…Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.” We instead follow the unfolding of their lives that brought the end results, which grew tremendously important to me.

“How had this all gone so wrong?”

The author also highlights the daring notion for these parents that their child might desire “something she wanted, not something they wanted for her.” Too many times did it feel like they weren’t seeing their daughter, “the reluctant center of their universe,” rather just a younger version of themselves; trying to fix all their past mistakes by having her avoid making her own set of choices. I was stunned watching this very pivotal moment unfold.

“The door creaks open, and Marilyn slowly raises her head, as if Lydia might somehow, impossibly, appear. For a second the impossible happens: a small blurred ghost of little-girl Lydia, dark-haired, big-eyed. Hesitating in the doorway, clinging to the jamb. Please, Marilyn thinks. In this word is all she cannot phrase, even to herself. Please come back, please let me start over, please stay. Please.”

The desperate “please” haunted me for hours.

All this and more shines so brightly with Ng’s rigorous writing style. And I personally cannot wait for all her future works.

4/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Everything I Never Told You, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day. ”

Just as I was thinking to myself how implausibly good it feels not having DNF’ed a book in a long while, The Shadow of the Wind comes into my life.

I went into this pretty open-minded expecting a book about loving books and reading, instead I receive a pretentious piece of confusing fiction, trying to appear smarter than it really is. Plus, having it use one of my most hated writing techniques of telling with little to no showing. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough we then have the dialogue whose sole job in this book is to convey information. There’s not even one point where the author tried to humanize the characters by making them appear more complex and dynamic, as one would expect. Or achieving that feeling of creating “characters who seemed as real to me as my surroundings.” Instead both the dialogue and the action grew extremely stilted the more I read on.

Take for example this next passage that had me saying enough is enough:

“Bea, wait.”
I cursed myself and ran after her. I stopped her halfway down the corridor, grabbing her by the arm. She threw me a burning look.
“I’m sorry. But you’re wrong: it’s not your fault, it’s mine. I’m the one who isn’t as good as your brother. And if I’ve insulted you, it’s because I’m jealous of that idiot boyfriend of yours and because I’m angry to think that someone like you would follow him to El Ferrol. It might as well be the Congo.”
“Daniel . . .”
“You’re wrong about me, because we can be friends if you let me try, now that you know how worthless I am. And you’re wrong about Barcelona, too, because you may think you’ve seen everything, but I can guarantee that’s not true. If you’ll allow me, I can prove it to you.”
I saw a smile light up and a slow, silent tear fall down her cheek.
“You’d better be right,” she said. “Because if you’re not, I’ll tell my brother, and he’ll pull your head off like a stopper.”

No one talks like that in real life… Also, this passage shows just how utterly lazy the author is with his writing by making two characters that were supposed enemies (literally) one page ago “bond” by appearing in the same location. It’s pretty obvious that instead of creating a new multifaceted character, Zafón opted to reuse a character we already know, who has a boyfriend, mind you, and have the main character be suddenly infatuated…

Also, this next passage illustrates my point perfectly of the dialogue being between detective and suspect.

“Are you a collector?”
“Something like that.”
“Do you have other books by Carax?”
“I’ve had them at some point. Julián Carax is my specialty, Daniel. I travel the world in search of his books.”
“And what do you do with them if you don’t read them?”
The stranger made a stifled, desperate sound. It took me a while to realize that he was laughing.
“The only thing that should be done with them, Daniel,” he answered.
He pulled a box of matches out of his pocket. He took one and struck it. The flame showed his face for the first time. My blood froze. He had no nose, lips, or eyelids. His face was nothing but a mask of black scarred skin, consumed by fire. It was the same dead skin that Clara had touched.
“Burn them,” he whispered, his voice and his eyes poisoned by hate.”

Please, don’t write dialogue just to convey information to the reader. I want to read and feel emotions from the characters, not like I’m reading a transcript from a court case.

It’s been too long since I’ve last been this heated over my lack of interest with a book. And I least of all expected it to be The Shadow of the Wind, which has such beautiful quotes here on Goodreads.

“As I walked in the dark through the tunnels and tunnels of books, I could not help being overcome by a sense of sadness. I couldn’t help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.”

And that’s exactly what rendered me the most dissatisfied. The fact that most of the well-known quotes are taken from the first 100 pages of the book left me feeling exasperated, so much so that I couldn’t come up with one reason to continue reading. I didn’t care at all for the cardboard characters with zero storyline, so I had to put The Shadow of the Wind down after just 115 pages. And frankly, I have no regrets.

I will say, though, that this book had magnificent moments at the start when I put in the effort to listen to instrumental music (like this playlist). It heightens the reading experience by a landslide. The book goes from an effort to read to feeling like you’re watching a movie, which is why I was eager to look into whether this had any adaptions in the works… But unfortunately the author “will not sell the rights to any studio” because “he says that the story was written in order to be a book and we don’t want to lose the magic in a movie.” Figures…

no rating

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying The Shadow of the Wind, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!