Archive for March, 2011

Kalooki Nights doesn’t suit all readers

It’s not often I honestly don’t know how to begin the Book Group blog, but this is one of those times. Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights was one of the most complicated and problematic books we’ve read for some time. Not only was it a novel that people loved or hated, it was also one that some individual readers (including me) couldn’t make up their minds about at all.
Let’s start by saying how we arrived at this choice. One of the criteria was to read a male author because the recent choices had been a bit female-heavy. Then there was interest in reading Jacobson’s Booker Prize winner, The Finkler Question, but that isn’t yet out in paperback. So we opted for this earlier work, which was longlisted for the Booker and certainly met with great critical acclaim when it was published in 2006.
It’s a novel that tackles some of the most serious subjects possible, from the Holocaust and the nature of being Jewish, through race and religion, to friendships and family relationships. But it does so with a deceptively light approach and Jacobson’s particular brand of highly-crafted humour.
Let’s start with Jacqui, because for her the book was one of the best the group has ever read. She found it “genuinely funny,” with good dialogue and great minor characters; what she most loved about it was its similarity to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and the way the novel was in fact an examination of the process of creativity.
Her praise wasn’t unequivocal, though: Jacqui noted how the voice of the author was very evident, the time period was not very vividly portrayed and that the attitude to women suggested throughout the book was offensive. This was a complaint that came up several times from a number of readers.
Margaret too found it a surprise hit, particularly the central story of a family torn apart by the murder of the parents, and found it very funny in places. Like a number of readers she was very moved by the death of the father.
Paula said that although it was problematic, she was glad she’d read the novel and loved the characters of the mother, the father and his friends. Once again it was Max’s women who she found too one-dimensional.
For Anne, it was a struggle to get past the first 40 pages but once she did she found the story “took off.” Anne particularly admired the richness of the language and its unusual usage, with examples such as “a building so ancient that only prayer held it together” and “a holy tramp with a broken heart.” But she too found the authorial voice too insistent and alienating and the cast too vast.
For Janet, the situation was almost the opposite as she enjoyed the beginning, finding it very funny and relishing the writing, but then it became hard to follow and she ran out of patience with it.
Helen was even less impressed, finding it “a string of anecdotes” in which the author himself was too thinly disguised and, although she found it eye-opening on the subject of Jewishness, she found no empathy towards the central character.
Mike too, who sent in his comments, had read the book before but found it tedious on a re-read and felt that other writers had dealt with similar subjects like the Holocaust in a much better way.
Ann admitted she was reluctant to read this work because it felt reminiscent of Philip Roth and even Woody Allen, but she ended up with complicated feelings towards it. She noted the writer’s pattern of “telling a family anecdote, saying something clever, then saying something about being Jewish” (for example, Pg. 17). There were very moving sections, such as the father boxing in the garden and his death. At times the novel was cynical and sour, but sometimes full of humanity – the parts that worked best were the universals. The author knowingly presents racial stereotypes and she was unsure of his purpose in this. She also found that it rather ducked current issues.
We were all troubled by the storyline about Isle Koch and why it was there.
Perhaps Anne summed it all up well when she said that although she feels she has discovered a new, interesting author, she needs “a recovery period” before she could pick up another Jacobson novel.
Maybe that recovery period will be helped by our next choice of book, the lighter nights and the promise of spring?
Next meeting: Tuesday April 5th, 6.30pm. This is How by M.J. Hyland.

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

March 2011
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