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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Review: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“A short story, she thought, would be just long enough.”

After seeing the author’s name almost daily on my copy of The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui – which he blurbed  – I finally decided to give his writing a go with this collection of short stories.

From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration.

I went into this not knowing what to expect, but the first tale hooked me from the start.  “Black-Eyed Women” is set around a ghostwriter telling ghost stories after seeing the ghost of her late brother. The otherworldliness of this short story was  exactly what I’d been looking for.

“Now you know,” my mother said. “Never turn your back on a ghost.”

It was such a phenomenal introduction with exceptional writing that really set the tone for the following tales to follow. And I especially loved it because I read “Black-Eyed Women” at nighttime, so I felt right there with the narrator’s dark and gloomy descriptions.

However, the tales, folklore, and rumors that followed afterwards didn’t really live up to that peculiar first one. The other character driven stories paled in comparison for me, particularly because a lot of them were set around cheaters and liars.

But I’m more than intrigued to give Viet Thanh Nguyen’s writing another shot in his novel, The Sympathizer.

3.5/5 stars 

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Review: What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

In these twelve powerful stories that embrace magical-realist elements while deploying a powerfully empathetic understanding of character and circumstance, Lesley Nneka Arimah explores how parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends, navigate conflicting cultures and struggle to reconcile conflicting desires, wants, and needs.

“There was only so much a mother could ask a daughter to bear before that bond became bondage.”

Going into to this I had no idea what to expect, but the author quickly garnered my attention with her on-point writing style and her ability to capture quietly specific moments that left me head spinning in awe.

My favorite short story remains to be the second tale (“War Stories”) because it’s the one that made me initially fall in love with the storytelling. In it a father sits down with his daughter to share his war stories in order to educate and “discipline” her after an unfortunate incident at school. What fascinated and pulled me in so much with this short story in particular was the father, “whose personality and humor are of a quieter sort. ” Also, the feminist undertones in it were guaranteed to leave me satisfied.

Which leads me to the next story (“Wild”), revolved around a teenager on a visit back to Nigeria and the tenuous sisterhood she and her cousin attain after a disastrous night out shifts them onto uneasy new ground. It’s it this story that I came to love the writing style, which I noticed to be my favorite kind of eerily specific. Especially in this next paragraph with the main character holding her cousin’s baby boy:

“He likes you.” She didn’t sound like she liked that. Or me.
“What can I say, I have a way with handsome young men. And aren’t you handsome? Aren’t you deliciously handsome?” The boy squealed and giggled as I picked him up and pretended to snack on his arms and belly. When I stopped, he settled his head into my neck.
“He must be tired,” Chinyere said. “Let me take him.”
She got up, pulled him out of my arms, and settled him in the hollow of the mattress she’d just vacated. A week ago you couldn’t have told me I would enjoy the weight of a child or feel intense satisfaction when he gripped my shirt as his mother removed him. ”

The detailed last line, capturing that shared moment with a child, is one I truly forgot I loved until I reread it in the above.

And not only was the writing great, but we also had some magical-realism elements thrown in different tales and fables. Like in “Second Chances,” when a daughter greets her mother’s return from the dead with disbelief and anger because she appears to have stepped out of a family snapshot. Also, this story started out with an incredible paragraph:

“Ignore for a moment that two years out of grad school I’m old enough to buy my own bed and shouldn’t ask my father to chip in on a mattress, so that he shows up with my mother, who looks like she’s stepped out of a photograph, and she tries to charm the salesman, something she was never good at, but it somehow works this time and he takes off 20 percent. Ignore for a moment that she is wearing an outfit I haven’t seen in eighteen years, not since Nigeria, when she was pregnant with my younger sister, though not yet showing, and fell down the concrete steps to our house, ripping the dress from hem to thigh. Ignore that she flits from bed to bed, bouncing on each one like she hasn’t sat on a mattress in a while, and the salesman follows her around like he’d like to crawl in with her. Ignore all this because my mother has been dead for eight years.”

It had everything you’d expected (and also not expect) out of a tale like this: sadness, melancholiness, and pensiveness. Also, when the mother finally interacts with her eldest daughter, I was a goner:

“Nnwam, what do you want from me?”
I want you to boil the chicken with onions and salt. I want you to melt the palm oil on medium heat and sizzle ogbono till it dissolves. I want you to cough when the pepper tickles your throat. I want you to sprinkle in crayfish so tiny I believed, at age four, they’d been harvested half-formed from their mother’s womb. I want you to watch the ogbono thicken the water and add the stockfish and the okra and the spinach and the boiled meat and the salt you never put enough of and call us when it’s ready and say grace and be gracious and forgive me.
The answer I give: the lopsided shrug I manage when I can’t find words.”

It was sad and specific and tragic. I loved it.

Speaking of which, Light” is just as harrowing as the aforementioned tale. In it Enebeli Okwara struggles to protect and empower the daughter he loves. And what most struck a chord with me was the ending of the story and all that led up to it. Because of the straining mother-daughter relationship, and in an effort to grow closer to her daughter, the mother, who’s living in America for her education and career, requests her to move in. And so the closing paragraph from the father’s pov really struck me:

“But before all this, before the elders are called in, before even his own father sides with his wife, and his only unexpected ally is his wife’s sister. Before he bows to the pressure of three generations on his back. Before he sobs publicly in the Murtala Muhammed airport, cries that shake his body and draw concern and offers of water from passersby. Before he spends his evenings in the girl’s room, sitting with the other things she left behind, counting down the time difference till they can Skype. Before she returns from school and appears on his screen more subdued than he’s ever seen her. Before he tries to animate her with stories of the lovelorn boy who keeps asking after her. Before she looks offscreen as though for coaching and responds, Please, Daddy, don’t talk to me like that. Before she grows cautious under the mothering of a woman who loves but cannot comprehend her. Before she quiets in a country that rewards her brand of boldness, in her black of body, with an incredulous fascination that makes her put it away. Before all that, she is eleven and Enebeli and the girl sit on the steps to the house watching people walk by their ramshackle gate. They are playing azigo and whenever the girl makes a good move she crows in a very unladylike way and yells, In your face! and he laughs every time. He does not yet wonder where she gets this, this streak of fire. He only knows that it keeps the wolves of the world at bay and he must never let it die out.”

Some stories, however, were a bit harder to digest for me because of that specificness that managed to physically sting me. Like in “Windfalls,” when a mother drops her kid in public places – multiple times throughout the years – for settlement money in court. Or in “Who Will Greet You at Home,” when a woman exhausted by childlessness, resorts to fashioning a charmed infant out of human hair.

But just like with Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, the short stories in here are characterised by their vividness, immediacy and the author’s seemingly endless ability to conjure worlds at once familiar and unsettlingly different. I cannot wait for what Lesley Nneka Arimah will bring out next.

4.5/5 stars

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