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Book Nook - 03-07-2017

Monday, July 03, 2017
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to

Tragedy of a Comedian
David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into A Bar (translated by Jessica Cohen) has won this year’s Man Booker International Prize. It is adisturbingly tragic novel about a comedian, set in the very contemporary world of stand-up, but wrapped up in the history and politics of Israel.

There are a few bad jokes in the book, but it is not remotely funny. The narrator is a retired judge, Avishai Lazar-- carrying his own burden of loneliness and rage--who is contacted outof the blue by Dovaleh Greenstein, who he knew in school.  Because of his own shameful cowardice in the past, Lazar has put Greenstein out of his mind. Still, he is unable to refuse when his old schoolmate invites him to a stand-up show in the small town of Netanya. He just wants his old friend to watch the performance and give him his opinion.

The book then, is set in a basement bar, and runs over the two hours of the excruciating confessional show. What Lazar sees is a painfully thin, oddly dressed (in ripped jeans, red braces and cowboy boots “adorned with silver sheriff stars”) man, who starts by insulting the audience, among them, Azulai, a tiny  midget ‘medium’ with a speech impediment. He pretends not to remember her, because she knew him when he was an eccentric kid who used to walk on his hands to get over the violence of his father, and peculiar silence of his mother (obviously traumatized by the Holocaust).

The audience does not know what to expect, Greenstein is intermittently funny and engaging, but also shocks them by hitting himself hard, or starting on his own story, which is not what people have paid to hear—they want jokes and they are getting waves and waves of a man’s angst.

The audience starts to leave, some grumbling loudly, some escaping under cover of darkness; but the ones who remain listen with morbid fascination to incidents from his troubled childhood. Lazar was part of a particularly horrible time in a military training camp, where he stood by and did nothing when Greenstein was cruelly ragged by the others.  Lazar sits squirming in his seat, fearing that Greenstein will give him away any time, but the comedian keeps up a non-verbal communication with the judge without giving any indication of the past friendship.

Greenstein is not a likeable person, his theatrics on stage are aggravating, but they are also the attention-grabbing antics of a man in physical and emotional pain. His marriages fail, his five kids are strangers to him, he finds wells of humour from his own arid life. His inspiration for becoming a comedian is right there in his rambling narration—a kindly joke-spewing truck driver taking the stricken teenager from the camp to a funeral, when nobody has even bothered to tell him which parent has died.

The reader, unable to put the book down, is like the audience in the dingy bar, that stays on even though they are not getting the promised comedy. Because Greenstein, nose bleeding, broken glasses askew, tired and aging, has taught them that humour does not necessarily grow out of happiness.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar
By David Grossman
Publisher: Johnathan Cape
Pages: 196

Excerpt of A Horse Walks Into A Bar
Good evening! good evening! Good evening to the majestic city of Ceasariyaaaaaah!”

The stage is empty. The thundering shout echoes from the wings. The audience slowly quiets down and grins expectantly. A short, slight, bespectacled man lurches onto the stage from a side door as if he’d been kicked through it. He takes a few faltering steps, trips, brakes himself on the wood floor with both hands, then sharply juts his rear end straight up. Scattered laughter and applause from the audience. People are still filing into the club, chatting loudly. “Ladies and gentlemen!” announces a tight--lipped man standing at the lighting console. “Put your hands together for Dovaleh G!” The man onstage still crouches like a monkey, his big glasses askew on his nose. He slowly turns to face the room and scans it with a long, unblinking look.

“Oh, wait a minute,” he grumbles, “this isn’t Caesarea, is it?” Sounds of laughter. He slowly straightens up and dusts his hands off. “Looks like my agent fucked me again.” A few audience members call out, and he stares at them in horror: “Say what? Come again? You, table seven, yeah, with the new lips—-they look great, by the way.” The woman giggles and covers her mouth with one hand. The performer stands at the edge of the stage, swaying back and forth slightly. “Get serious now, honey, did you really say Netanya?” His eyes widen, almost filling the lenses of his glasses: “Let me get this straight. Are you going to sit there and declare, so help you God, that I am actually for real in Netanya at this very minute, and I’m not even wearing a flak jacket?” He crosses his hands over his crotch in terror. The crowd roars with joy. A few people whistle. Some more couples amble in, followed by a rowdy group of young men who look like soldiers on furlough. The small club fills up. Acquaintances wave to one another. Three waitresses in short shorts and neon--purple tank tops emerge from the kitchen and scatter among the tables.

“Listen, Lips”—-he smiles at the woman at table seven—-“we’re not done yet. Let’s talk about it. I mean, you look like a pretty serious young lady, I gotta say, and you certainly have an original fashion sense, if I’m correctly reading the fascinating hairdo that must have been done by—-let me guess: the designer who gave us the Temple Mount mosque and the nuclear reactor in Dimona?” Laughter in the audience. “And if I’m not mistaken, I detect the faint whiff of a shitload of money emanating from your direction. Am I right or am I right? Heh? Eau de one percent? No? Not at all? I’m asking because I also note a magnificent dose of Botox, not to mention an out--of--control breast reduction. If you ask me, that surgeon should have his hands cut off.”

The woman crosses her arms over her body, hides her face, and lets out shrieks of delight through her fingers. As he talks, the man strides quickly from one side of the stage to the other, rubbing his hands together and scanning the crowd. He wears platform cowboy boots, and as he moves the heels make a dry tapping sound. “What I’m trying to understand, honey,” he yells without looking at her, “is how an intelligent lady like yourself doesn’t realize that this is the kind of thing you have to tell someone carefully, judiciously, considerately. You don’t just slam someone with ‘You’re in Netanya.’ Bam! What’s the matter with you? You gotta give a guy some preparation, especially when he’s so skinny.” He lifts up his faded T--shirt and a gasp passes through the room. “Ain’t it so?” He turns his bare chest to the people sitting on either side of the stage and flashes a big grin. “See this? Skin and bones. Mostly cartilage. I swear to God, if I was a horse I’d be glue by now, you know what I’m saying?” Embarrassed giggles and repulsed exhalations in response. “All I’m saying, sister,” he turns back to the woman, “is next time, when you give someone this kind of news, you need to do it carefully. Anesthetize him first. Numb him up, for God’s sake. You gently numb his earlobe, like this: Congratulations, Dovaleh, O handsomest of men, you’ve won! You’ve been chosen to take part in a special experiment on the coastal plain, nothing too long, ninety minutes, at most two hours, which has been determined to be the maximum permissible time for nonhazardous exposure to this location for the average person.”

The audience laughs and the man is surprised. “Why are you dumbasses laughing? That joke was about you!” They laugh even harder.

Wisdom For Our Age
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie followed her book, We Should All Be Feministsby a slim volume that every woman should read and gift to young women they know. She wrote Dear Ijeawele Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions--which is exactly what the title suggests—when a friend asked her how to raise her little daughter as a feminist.

She has distilled years of feminist wisdom into 61 pages, the essence of which that a girl should not be discouraged from doing anything ““because she’s a girl.”  Gender equality is always bandied about as a important goal for society, but not achievable if women still have to be “allowed” their freedom by men.

Through a letter to her friend, Adichie addresses all women, and her voice should be heard. She admits that in spite of her best efforts, the child might still turn out different from what her mother hopes, “because sometimes life just does its thing. What matters is that you try.”

Maybe what is needed is a similar guidebook on raising boys to be gender sensitive too.

Dear Ijeawele
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 66

Excerpt of Dear Ijeawele
Teach her about difference. Make difference ordinary. Make difference normal. Teach her not to attach value to difference. And the reason for this is not to be fair or to be nice, but merely to be human and practical. Because difference is the reality of our world. And by teaching her about difference, you are equipping her to survive in a diverse world.

She must know and understand that people walk different paths in the world, and that as long as those paths do no harm to others, they are valid paths that she must respect. Teach her that we do not know—we cannot know—everything about life. Both religion and science have spaces for the things we do not know, and it is enough to make peace with that.

Teach her never to universalize her own standards or experiences. Teach her that her standards are for her alone, and not for other people. This is the only necessary form of hu¬mility: the realization that difference is normal.

Tell her that some people are gay, and some are not. A little child has two daddies or two mommies because some people just do. Tell her that some people go to mosque and others go to church and others go to different places of worship and still others don’t worship at all, be¬cause that is just the way it is for some people.

You say to her: You like palm oil but some people don’t like palm oil.

She says to you: Why?

You say to her: I don’t know. It’s just the way the world is. Please note that I am not suggesting that you raise her to be “non-judgmental,” which is a commonly used expression these days, and which slightly worries me. The general senti¬ment behind the idea is a fine one, but “non-judgmental” can easily devolve into meaning “don’t have an opinion about anything” or “I keep my opinions to myself.” And so, instead of that, what I hope for Chizalum is this: that she will be full of opinions, and that her opin¬ions will come from an informed, humane, and broad-minded place.

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