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3.4 out of 5 stars
Open City
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on 8 February 2011
Open City is an exceptional novel.

Its intense, detailed and specific narrative, unravelling inside the mind of one man, Julius - a young Nigerian-German doctor completing his residency in psychiatry in a New York hospital - brings the city of new York hauntingly to life in a different, slower, deeper way from anything I've ever read. From this detail and specificity, it reaches out widely to the global flows of our fluxing, ungraspable world, personified by the various immigrants and asylum seekers he encounters. It reaches in, too, to touch the reader's mind and senses and emotions. For this restrained, intellectual voice, you realise, is piercingly sensitive - it gets to you!

This is not one for the fan of plot-heavy pageturners, perhaps. Julius spends much time alone, walks a lot and thinks a lot, about art and memory and history. He sees a lot, as loners sometimes do, and has strange, surprising, significant encounters, often with other immigrants, as loners sometimes do.

His story, perhaps, goes nowhere much. And yet, in his actual journey to Brussels, his journeys of memory back to Nigeria, and in the mouths and memories of those he meets from far-flung places, it goes to Africa, to Europe... and to places in the heart.

It travels too, through his observations and reflections, in time, political and cultural history. Full of seeming digressions, it digresses in fact not at all, but is a seamless deepening through detail of the whole picture and atmosphere of today's global city.

And it goes to a sharp inner twist that you will not forget.

It's a book to love, and to reread many times.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
A young doctor takes breaks from his busy psychiatric residency and, later, private practice by walking the streets of New York and traveling briefly to Brussels. Julius's rich, diary-like account of his interactions with the cities' people and structures, salted with his incomplete self-knowledge and unresolved past, amounts to Open City, an engrossing meditation and celebration of language.

I'd rather share my experience with Open City than review it. After reading the novel, I began (a bit like Julius, who settles into a flâneur's perspective during his walks) running into lengthy, insightful, and deservedly positive reviews of it in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The New Statesman. Not much I can add to what they say.

Observation and language worked like plot to carry me along, mind and spirit, though Julius's wanderings. Julius often feels reflective and associative, much like anyone reading, and subject to crosscurrents of art, music, literature, his own fine-tuned senses and city life. Consider the synchronicity in this paragraph after Julius describes a performance of Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall:

"In the glow of the final movement, but well before the music ended, an elderly woman in the front row stood, and began to walk up the aisle. She walked slowly, and all eyes were on her, though all ears remained on the music. It was a though she had been summoned, and was leaving into death, drawn by a force invisible to us. The old woman was frail, with a think crown of white hair that, backlit by the stage, became a halo, and she moved so slowly that she was like a mote suspended inside the slow-moving music. One of her arms was slightly raised, as though she were being led forward by a helper - as though I was down there with my [grandmother], and the sweep of the music was pushing us gently forward as I escorted her out into the darkness. As she drifted to the entrance and out of sight, in her gracefulness she resembled nothing so much as a boat departing on a country lake early in the morning, which to those still standing on the shore, appears not to sail but to dissolve into the substance of the fog."

Blends and juxtapositions like these, and the love of seeing a good mind observe like a good lens and absorb like good film, caused Miguel Syjuco in his NY Times review to call the novel "a symphonic experience". Experiencing this kind of joy and honesty book-wide has been the literary (and maybe the musical!) high point of my year. What critic George Steiner said about Lawrence Durrell fifty years ago applies at least as well to Teju Cole: "He stands in the tradition of the fullness of prose. He is attempting to make language once again commensurate with the manifold truths of the experienced world."
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2012
"Open City" is an astonishingly mature literary debut from New York City-based art historian and photographer Teju Cole and one well deserving of its ample critical acclaim for being amongst 2011's best novels. It's one of the finest stream-of-consciousness novels I have read, told vividly via crisp, descriptive prose worthy of comparison to Thomas Bernhard's; indeed, "Open City" seems more like a modern European novel written by the likes of Bernhard than any contemporary work of American fiction that I've read recently. Moreover Cole has rendered via his almost photographic-like prose -which isn't surprising since he is a fine New York City street photographer in his own right - a fictional portrait of contemporary post-9/11 New York City worthy of comparison with Pete Hamill's. In the young Nigerian-born, American-educated psychiatry resident Julius, Cole has given readers a compelling protagonist who spends much of the novel lost in thought, thinking not only about recent - as well as long ago past (in his Nigerian youth) - missteps in his personal life, his relationship with a favorite college professor, and of New York City's history, primarily within the context of its African-American community. Through separate journeys within his mind and a brief holiday trek to Brussels in search of his identity, Julius wrestles with issues as complex as his own biracial identity and America's - and especially New York City's - response to the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. "Open City" marks the debut of an important new voice writing in the English language; a voice whose career will be worth noting in succeeding years.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 23 July 2012
I was so excited about this book - W.G. Sebald written by a disaffected NY immigrant, the premise is fantastic, and the clouds of literary hype it trailed had me almost salivating.

And yet...it was one of the most disappointing books I have read in years. A seriously poorly put-together work of fiction.

I don't mind that 'nothing happens' - I am a lover of digressive works of fiction or non-fiction or semi-fiction, but here it wasn't digressive so much as utterly aimless. In such a work, the narrator or his/her stories have to engage us in some way, but Julius is simply so utterly unlikeable that, as a reader, I cared nothing for him or the fairly dull tales he has to tell.

Cole attempts bathos, or perhaps some sort of humour in his meditation on the passing of Tower Records (for example) - but it ends up being nothing but faintly ridiculous. He seems to pride himself on the fact that he is so utterly unlikeable, yet has nothing of other unlikeable narrators (be they Humbert Humbert, Tarquin Winot, Freddie Montgomery or any number of Banville's queasy raconteurs).

The later revelation of some of Julius' possible earlier misdeeds toward the end of the book creates no drama, no interest, no nothing - especially as Julius himself seems to be so unbothered by it (is he an unreliable narrator? I don't care, and neither does he. Did I miss something? If I did, again, I just don't care).

The disappointment, vague frustration and - mostly -utter boredom - I felt while reading this book were compounded by having recently seen Cole read from it: never have I seen a writer so palpably bored by his own writing. I don't blame him.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 26 December 2011
'Open City' is Teju Cole's first novel, and it sets a standard that will be hard to keep up. Critics have been scrabbling for superlatives and reaching for comparisons with authors of real weight: Sebald and Coetzee are only the most stellar.

For me, much of the interest here lies in the fact that Cole's narrator 'Julian' both is and is not American, is and is not Nigerian, is and is not German; his view of the world is correspondingly oblique and detached. In the city he is a flâneur, an observer, a connoisseur of chance encounters, a devotee of hidden histories. This makes him at home, and an oddity, everywhere: in New York, where he is performing his psychiatric residency; in Brussels, where he spends the winter of 2006-7; and in Nigeria, from which he is partially estranged by his mixed parentage.

But his estrangement goes further. As Cole tells us, an 'open city' is a city that has declared that no resistance will be offered to an invader, in the hope of avoiding unnecessary bloodshed. As we read on, it becomes apparent that the real 'open city' is not New York - or even Brussels, which was 'opened' for real during the early stages of the Second World War - but the city of history and memory, both personal and communal. There is a price to be paid for detachment.

Cole explores serious issues with a light touch. This book is almost the opposite of the drum-banging 'novel of identity' that British readers have come to expect from American writers. The writer's prose is cool and careful - though not perhaps as extraordinary as some critics have suggested - and achieves its effects cumulatively, without straining for significance. The book is diary-like in its form, devoted to leisurely description, and always leaves something to inference. Cole knows his literary theory - the ghost of Walter Benjamin among others is present - and Julian's frequent artistic references are mainly to the greats of the European tradition; but this material is woven in for the most part unobtrusively.

The result is a complex portrait of an individual that seems to have more in common with the European existentialist tradition than with the mainstream of American prose fiction. I greatly enjoyed reading 'Open City'. If the comparisons with Sebald and Coetzee seem in the end a little overdone, that is forgiveable; the fact that the comparison could be made at all tells us something. Teju Cole has achieved a novel of real quality here.
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on 30 October 2012
This debut has been showered with praise and prizes. I find it hard to judge it away from NYC, Brussels and Nigeria, its main venues. It is written in the I-form, its narrator makes lengthy walkabouts in Manhattan, pondering about his patients (he is a Nigerian MD, about to become a psychiatrist), commenting on little-known aspects of buildings he visits or passes by, bird migrations, etc., etc.
His history is complicated and he is brilliant when describing dead matter: buildings, paintings by known and unknown masters, works of little-known experimental composers and -philosophers, the life and works of Gustav Mahler. He visits Brussels looking for his beloved German grandma, but quickly gives up his search and starts walking again, criticizing the town's many statues of false heroes. His dislike of his German mother is not explored, he does not want to see her again. He is a grown man holding on to shreds of early memories, with a powerful one about his grandmother squeezing his shoulder while his parents climb some shrine or mountain in Nigeria, overruling any feeling he has for his white mother.
In Brussels he lends his ear to a pair of Moroccans who feel persecuted for their mindsets before they even expressed them in public. The account of his talks with his dying, former English professor Saito shows a warm side of him. He has one or two other such friends, and meets other "brothers", blacks whose friendly overtures he does not reciprocate. And a small band of "brothers" assails and robs him.
Rich book in terms of symbols such as light vs. darkness and the many meanings of white vs. black. And about the uses and limits of psychiatry. Rich also in its sudden associations and flashbacks, and his description of the NY bedbug epidemic as a metaphor for worse to come. But what? Real epidemics, the world is ill-prepared for? The narrator shows worrying memory-lapses, e.g. forgetting his ATM four-digit code and a rape he committed long ago and whose victim, as well as the act, he has erased from his memory.
The author never reaches out to his readers to convince them of his vision and worldview. His book is a curled-up porcupine, protecting a few insightful truths, but unwilling or unable to chart a future perspective... Confused, I did something I never do: I read Amazon reviews by other readers after penning this review. And no two reviews are alike. Readers seized on different aspects of Cole's book as if filling a dinner plate at a stand-up banquet with many dishes.
Wonder if he has a second novel in him.
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on 8 November 2013
I looked forward to this book as I had read several favourable reviews but I must confess that the book left me a bit lukewarm. I found some sections a bit contrived - as if the author was seeking to impress with his intelligence. a good read which could have been better if the author just 'spoke' instead of trying to 'compose' all the time.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The critics went ape over this - my, didn't they just! Exquisitely written - or slick New Yorkerese? 'The tall girl who brought my coffee had a Parisian rather than Bruxelloise affect.' Cole makes even Brussels feel like New York. Farouq: 'There is a spiritual energy in the topography' - he then goes on to cite Paul de Man. Write what you know - but here life and fiction mesh uncomfortably. 'She had not touched her waterzooi.' Cole, who has no doubt lived in Belgium, knows what this is; we, who haven't, don't. 'I noticed a copy of Simone Weil's essays. I picked it up. My friend turned from the window. She's wonderful on the Iliad, he said.' Godard did this sort of thing with wit and, above all, fire. Colourless, bloodless (even the obligatory sex scene halfway through is perfunctory), pointless and ABOVE ALL humourless (they don't half take themselves seriously, these Manhattanite masters of the universe - unless they're Jewish, with black humour wired in). I liked the fact our hero didn't drive (the one true luxury in NYC is you don't have to) but confess I didn't get past the mugging scene (standard default plot device #2) so I'll never get to what another reviewer called 'the sharp inner twist that you will not forget' - I had already lost the will to live

PS Having read Adam Mars-Jones's measured LRB review (3/7/14) I now know about the 'inner twist' and am glad of the spoiler; Mars-Jones expresses his profound discomfort with/distaste for this particular novel better than I ever could
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on 10 April 2015
thanks great book and service delivery
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 28 February 2012
I feel odd not giving this book a fantastic review like others.

It started off a bit slow then Cole managed to capture my interest along the way with some wonderful anecdotes that resonated with me. The story line lost focus after that as I failed to understand the plot, there was an opportunity to regain some of my enthusiasm and interest towards the end, but it fell flat.

Very well written and good description of NYC, and I particularly enjoyed the encounter in Brussels with Farouq, fantastic! Wish it had gone somewhere from then.

Well done to Cole - first book, so far so good. I will look forward to reading another.
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