Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

I’ve seen this book quite a lot online since its release a couple of months back and finally decided to give it a shot yesterday… and I was transfixed almost instantly with that first chapter, especially once the dynamic Nadia was introduced into my life:

“When Saeed and Nadia finally had coffee together in the cafeteria, which happened the following week, after the very next session of their class, Saeed asked her about her conservative and virtually all-concealing black robe.
“If you don’t pray,” he said, lowering his voice, “why do you wear it?”
They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.
She smiled. Took a sip. And spoke, the lower half of her face obscured by her cup.
“So men don’t fuck with me,” she said.”

Reading her response was a surge of power.tumblr_ocnkae2ng01qh9nffo1_400

I continued on excitedly and became quickly invested in the narrative and the smooth switching point of views. I especially enjoyed how the story shifts from focusing on Saeed and Nadia to introducing swift tales of other character perspectives while stepping through a door that can whisk them far away from their homeland. The language in those stories was in particular eye-catching. And I cherished how it gave us a broader look on a vital topic such as migration.

But circling back to the main pair in this book, I was fascinated to follow the relationship and journey quiet and devout Saeed and fiercely independent Nadia undertook through their shifting positions in life after the imminent fall of their city. From students to lovers to migrants to survivors, and so much more… It was powerful and refreshing to witness.

And this quietly beautiful moment stands out most when I think of them:

“Her leg and arm touched Saeed’s leg and arm, and he was warm through his clothing, and he sat in a way that suggested exhaustion. But he also managed a tired smile, which was encouraging, and when she opened her fist to reveal what was inside, as she had once before done on her rooftop a brief lifetime ago, and he saw the weed, he started to laugh, almost soundlessly, a gentle rumble, and he said, his voice uncoiling like a slow, languid exhalation of marijuana-scented smoke, “Fantastic.”
Saeed rolled the joint for them both, Nadia barely containing her jubilation, and wanting to hug him but restraining herself. He lit it and they consumed it, lungs burning, and the first thing that struck her was that this weed was much stronger than the hash back home, and she was quite floored by its effects, and also well on her way to becoming a little paranoid, and finding it difficult to speak.
For a while they sat in silence, the temperature dropping outside. Saeed fetched a blanket and they bundled it around themselves. And then, not looking at each other, they started to laugh, and Nadia laughed until she cried.”

I was moved and strengthened by this passage.

However, their relationship hit a bit of a lull about halfway through the book for me when it was seemingly going nowhere in particular. And then also in terms of plot or character develemopent there wasn’t anything exciting on the table. But once the book managed to move from that rough spot, I was all the more enraptured.

All in all: Exit West was an impactful read about war and migrants and nativists while also veering into themes of love, desire, and religion.

4/5 stars

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Review: All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

“What would make this perfect?”

I read the description for this book and was instantly captivated by the premise of the magical blending in with the everyday:

All Tom’s friends really are superheroes.

There’s the Ear, the Spooner, the Impossible Man. Tom even married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But at their wedding, the Perfectionist was hypnotized (by ex-boyfriend Hypno, of course) to believe that Tom is invisible. Nothing he does can make her see him. Six months later, she’s sure that Tom has abandoned her.

So she’s moving to Vancouver. She’ll use her superpower to make Vancouver perfect and leave all the heartbreak in Toronto. With no idea Tom’s beside her, she boards an airplane in Toronto. Tom has until the wheels touch the ground in Vancouver to convince her he’s visible, or he loses her forever.

Honestly, I’m amazed with the author’s brain for coming up with each of the peculiarities in here. Superheroes include: the Couch Surfer (“Empowered with the ability to sustain life and limb without a job, steady companion or permanent place of residence”), the Falling Girl, the Shadowless Man, the Inverse (“Shake the Inverse’s hand and the exact opposite of your life will flash before your eyes”), The Projectionist, Hypno… and with the addition of an anxiety monster appearing at the door when, you guessed it, you’re feeling anxious (“There are two ways to get rid of an anxiety monster, my friend – you either have a bath or a nap.”).

This humorous love story between a normal man and a super-heroine, The Perfectionist, explores the power of ignoring someone and how it can drive them crazy or close to it… Which I found incredible because I had just recently talked about this exact premise and how nothing is quite as hurtful as ghosting someone out of the blue. All My Friends Are Superheroes is both silly and serious, which is quite a feat to concur in writing. Andrew Kaufman definitely succeeded, though, in my eyes.

Bonus points for making this feel like a short story, since it was a lot of fun to read I never noticed the page numbers changing while reading, and also because the book itself is on the slimmer side.

And the fact that there were stories inside of stories also enveloped me further into the book. I loved in particular this love story between two invisible people, who are painted in different colors (blue and orange) to remain visible to the outside world:

(It’s long but definitely worth the read.)

“Then one day, a Wednesday, the Blue Outcast worked late at the call centre. He waited for the 6:04 streetcar. Normally he got the 5:15. This is where he saw her. She was hard to miss. She was orange.

The Blue Outcast was in line for the front doors of the streetcar. The Orange Exile was exiting through the rear doors. They made brief eye contact, but nothing more.

The Blue Outcast changed his routine. He took that streetcar, the 504, at 6:04 every day. The Blue Outcast and the Orange Exile noticed each other more and more. They made eye contact for longer periods of time. The Blue Outcast made sure to be at the end of the line for the front doors of the streetcar. The Orange Exile made sure to be first out the back doors. They began waving to each other as they passed on the street. They still hadn’t chatted or exchanged names. That didn’t seem to be the point.

Six weeks after they’d become aware of each other, a thunderstorm rolled across the city. The rain backed up the storm drains. Lightning struck close to the Blue Outcast’s call centre. It was 7:30. He’d missed the 6:04. He was the only one in the office. The sound boomed through the room. He looked out the window to see if there was any damage.

At that exact moment, the Orange Exile was looking out the window of her apartment. The call centre and the Orange Exile’s apartment were directly across from each other, on the second floors of three-storey buildings.

The Blue Outcast looked at the Orange Exile. Lightning cracked again. She put her index finger in her mouth. She pulled it out. It wasn’t orange any more. It was invisible. She held it up for the Blue Outcast to see.

The Blue Outcast cried. His tears cut streaks of invisibility down his face. He stepped back from the window. He undressed. Naked, he left the call centre. He walked to the ground floor, stepped into the rain and looked across the street where orange feet and orange legs were standing in an orange puddle.

They stood in the rain. The Blue Outcast looked up at the sky and held out his arms. He let rain fall on his face. He looked down at his hands and didn’t see them. He looked back across the street and couldn’t see the Orange Exile.

Neither of them has been seen since.”

This was riveting.

With plenty of heart and more than a little humor, All My Friends Are Superheroes has  me intrigued to check out other works by Kaufman in the near future.

Oh, and I also listened to this next song on repeat while reading, thanks to the most recent Skam update:

4/5 stars

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Review: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret

I’ve been wanting to read more works by Etgar Keret ever since I finished The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that this particular collection had a lot more short stories that resonated with me than the aforementioned one.

Exuding a rare combination of depth and accessibility, Keret’s tales overflow with absurdity, humour, longing and compassion, and though their circumstances are often strange and surreal, his characters are defined by a familiar and fierce humanity.

My favorite stories and moments include:

1. Lieland:

“He made up these lies in a flash, never thinking he’d have to cross paths with them again.”

A pathological liar discovers one day that all the lies he tells come true. The sheer attention to details paid in here blew me away. Also, any story starting with a dream will have my utter and complete attention.

2. Simyon:

Follows our main character, Orit, going to a morgue to identify the dead body of her husband, whom she only married to get out of serving in the IDF. Her marriage was fictitious but nonetheless interesting to read about in this swift story.

3. A Good One:

I’m including this story in my list for the sheer fact that the clap-back Gershon gave this lowly New York security guard for mocking his Israeli accent was phenomenal. In case you’re interested here’s the full of it:

“Well, open it already,” Mustache continued. “You know what open means, sir?” And he quickly spelled the word. “I know what open means,” Gershon replied, clutching the attaché case to his chest with both hands. “I also know what closed means, and nominal yield, and oxymoron. I even know the second law of thermodynamics and what Wittgenstein’s tractatus is. I know lots of things you’ll never know, you arrogant little nothing. And one of those amazing secrets you’ll never get to host under the very thin skin of your brain is what I have in my attaché case. Do you even know who I am? Why I came here today? Do you even know anything about existence? The world? Anything beyond the number of the bus that takes you here and home every day, beyond the names of the neighbors in that dark, crummy building you live in? “Sir …” Jacket tried to stop the flow with pragmatic politeness, but it was too late. “I look at you,” Gershon went on, “and in a second I see your whole life story. Everything’s written right there, on that receding hairline of yours. Everything. The best day of your life will be when the basketball team you root for wins the championship. The worst day will be when your fat wife dies of cancer because your medical insurance doesn’t cover the treatment. And everything that comes between those two moments will pass like a weak fart so that at the end of your life, when you try to look back, you won’t even be able to remember what it smells like …”

This one’s not to be trifled with.

4. What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish?:

This following story is set around Yonatan’s idea for a brilliant documentary, where it’s him and his little camera, knocking on people’s doors to ask a single question: “If you found a talking goldfish that granted you three wishes, what would you wish for.”

And one particular response that he got really struck me to the core:

“A Holocaust survivor with a number on his arm asked very slowly, in a quiet voice—as if he’d been waiting for Yoni to come, as if it weren’t an exercise at all—he’d been wondering (if this fish didn’t mind), would it be possible for all the Nazis left living in the world to be held accountable for their crimes?”

My life goal is to see this go through.

And the story wrapped up quite unexpectedly after that, but that’s something I’ve come to expect with Etgar Keret. From stories without a concise ending to discussing parallel universes, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door left me with a lot of food for thought.

3.5/5 stars

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