Category Archives: Authors I Love

Book Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman Title: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN:
Genre: Fantasy, Coming of Age, Young Adult
Pages:
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

It was a pity that I had not read, “The Graveyard Book” yet. I had it with me for years and never got around to reading it. Like I always keep saying and believing in it: The time was not right. I was not prepared or right enough to read that book. Books choose you when they want to; otherwise reading them will just be another futile attempt. I guess it would have been that way with “The Graveyard Book” had I read it that time.

“The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman has it all – the elements of fantasy, which most of his other books also do possess. For me though, the storytelling of this one was beyond his other books. Nobody Owens is at the centre of this book, when his entire family (parents and sister) are brutally murdered one night in their own home, by a man, simply known as Jack. Nobody is but an infant and somehow manages to escape and find refuge in a nearby graveyard, where the spirits roam at night, with not a care for the world. Mister and Mistress Owens (a spirit couple) decide to adopt the infant and that is how he gets his name – Nobody Owens, Bod for short. There is something known as the “Freedom of the Graveyard” which not only gives Bod access to the graveyard and all its ways and passages, but also protects him as long as he is in the graveyard.

Jack obviously will not be satiated till he kills Bod. He comes back after years to finish the unfinished job and that is where the crux of the story lies. Actually, I take that back. The crux of the story lies in the spirits in the graveyard, in the mysteries of the graveyard and how a living boy is actually adopted not just by two spirits but by the entire graveyard and Silas – his Godfather – who neither belongs to the living or to the dead. I found the descriptions in the book (which were also funny at most times) of great interest. Gaiman has a knack for details – as a reader, you will imagine each and every line written. This I guess comes from him being a graphic novel writer as well. He can just somehow visualize to the hilt and transfer the power to the reader.

The plot is extremely tight and the read is a fast one for sure. The book I guess has no age barrier – it can be read by anyone, of any age and that is where the beauty of the writing actually is. You will fall in love with Bod and the other characters. In fact, Liza Hempstock, the witch was my personal favourite. I am most happy that I read this as a part of my “The Novel Cure Reading Challenge” and will definitely reread it sometime later. “The Graveyard Book” is a book which will warm your heart and also make you instantly want more of it – a sequel for sure, I hope.

Next Read in the Challenge: The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie

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Book Review: The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam

The Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam Title: The Blind Man’s Garden
Author: Nadeem Aslam
Publisher: Random House India
ISBN: 978-81-8400-109-9
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

When you read a Nadeem Aslam novel, you mull over it. You take in his words and breathe what he has to say. You are aware of the political undertones in his books. At times, you also may not like what you read. You might also detest some parts. You will yell in happiness when something good happens to one of his characters. You want to keep the book aside and you will not be able to, because that is the power of his books. You will ignore everything else and read on, because Aslam has a story to tell and his characters will talk to you. They will make you believe and sometimes make you cry and live as well.

“The Blind Man’s Garden” according to me is one of the best books that Aslam has written. I have read all his books and while all his books have the much needed political angle; this one to me is most emotional and heart-wrenching in a lot of places. I interviewed Nadeem Aslam at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year (which will be a different post) and he was so passionate about the book and the way he spoke with me. The book almost came alive through him. All his characters and the situations he put them through almost seemed surreal and believable. For me that is the craft of a great storyteller. “The Blind Man’s Garden” makes you feel and think about humans and what does war do to them. He gets into the heart of his characters and makes them speak for themselves. He makes them tell their stories, their lives spread across the canvas of his landscape, of time unknown and sometimes time is of great essence. This is precisely why I cannot help myself but mark almost every other line on every other page of an Aslam novel.

Jeo and his foster-brother Mikal leave their home in a small Pakistani city not to fight with the Taliban but to help care for the wounded victims. The Western Armies have invaded Afghanistan and the brothers only want to help the wounded, whether Afghani or the Americans. They only want to help and yet they get embroiled deep into the war as its unwilling soldiers. At the same time left behind is Jeo’s wife and her superstitious mother, and their father Rohan, who is slowly but surely turning blind. The war is seen through from all perspectives and that is the crux of the story.

For me everything worked in the book. The writing is sharp and hits in places that you would not expect it to. The past and the present situations merge beautifully throughout the entire narrative. In fact, what I loved the most about the book was the way the structure was built and at the same time the prose seemed very fluid, as though it was waiting to flow through the reader’s mind and heart. The heart of the book is about everything surrounding the war – lost children, grieving parents, hopeful wives and children who are left behind wondering when their fathers will return. Despite all this, what strings the book together is hope, which is unending and everlasting.

There are a lot of sub-elements and plots to the book (which I will not spoil for you) that add to the beauty of this wonderfully written novel. There is beauty and at the same time there is this sharp ache and a prayer that all should go well for the characters that you have come to known while reading the book. As a reader, I found myself hoping that all went well. Such is the power of this magnificent read. It is for sure one of the best I will read this year.

Here are some quotes from the book:

“History is a third parent.”

“The logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation.”

“No,” he said, “but before they lose, they harm the good people. That is what I am afraid of.”

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Interview with Manil Suri

So I got the opportunity to interview Manil Suri, the writer who I have admired since some time now and it felt amazing speaking with him and interacting with him and talking about books that he has written, their plots and his thoughts. It is always a surreal experience speaking with a writer. When you want to uncover some questions and know something more about the writer and what led him or her to write the books he or she has written. Here is another interaction with another writer of great quality and who has many more books to write.

Manil Suri

1. I read somewhere that you took a workshop with Michael Cunningham when Death of Vishnu was just in its initial stages. How has that affected your writing style, if it did?

It did not affect my writing style at all. What I got out of it was that it was he was so encouraging. He made me see where I wanted to go with my writing. I had barely written two to three chapters when I met him. He was able to anticipate the problems I would have, from the allegorical plot to the number of characters, whether too much had been written or spoken about them.

He gave me the confidence I needed. I was not a full time writer then. Someone who is not published needs the encouragement and Cunningham gave me that.

2. The trilogy is distorted in its approach, which I loved and yet it connects so effortlessly. How much of a task was this? Also, how come earlier it was supposed to be a trinity of Gods that ends with Devi?

Well it was like when I was doing The Death of Vishnu, I had no idea that it was a trilogy. The original idea was Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. Shiva is supposed to destroy things and Brahma is the one who creates. The way it turned out was the first book was more of a contemporary times novel and the second one was more of a book in the past and the third book is about the future, maybe it occurs, maybe it does not.

It was a very organic and unplanned process. It was one book after the other. I was still trying to keep them separate. Some connections are to be made and they are sort of in there, in all the three books.

The shift to Devi from Brahma: Just before I published the first book, I met Devdutt Pattanaik, and I told him about my idea about writing these three novels, with these varied themes of trinity. He told me that that is one way of looking at it, but some people look at it from Vishnu, Shiva and Devi’s perspective.

That’s where the Devi idea came about. Academically also it does make sense. I knew that the city would play a major role for sure. Until I was half-way through, I did not know whether it was Brahma or Devi. There had to be someone to save the city. The saviour then had to be Devi.

3. A mathematician and a writer. I am sure you must have been asked this several times, however how does it all add up? Does any influence the other?

Yes I think it does but not as much as one might suspect. But not something that I can easily put my finger on and say, “I had this followed because I am a mathematician”. For instance at times, I did try and follow the decision tree making process to writing. A character makes one move and then different moves which affects the narrative as well.
The danger in that is that it rarely provides the complete picture. With this book, I did all the plotting, and realized that the ends were not working. I finally decided that more or less I experimented writing it in a mathematical manner and then gave it up. I was relieved that I did not have to work on it. But later, I looked beyond the mathematics. I saw something more to fiction, than cold reasoning that numbers provided. I actually started seeing the main characters and then started connecting those, to give form to this novel.

4. “The City of Devi” reads so fast and yet there were so many times, I had to put down the book and mull over the intricate parts. Was this intentional to your writing?

Yeah it was. On one hand, looking deeper, other structures and metaphors, and dig deeper, try to put more in there was always the concern. It did finally work out the way I wanted it to.

5. The book of yours that touched me the most and which I ended up reading on a Sunday afternoon was The Death of Vishnu. How did the idea come to you? How did it all work out?

There was really named someone Vishnu. I was a kid in Bombay, growing up at that time. He used to wave at me. I guess he lived around our area. It was around 1994 or in 1995 that he died on the steps. The municipality came and took his body away – that was kind of a springboard, from where I wanted to start my story. At first I thought I will write a story about the neighbours. I then slowly began to think that there was more to it than a short story. The scary part was that people started saying it was novella, and it ultimately took the form of a novel.

The Death of Vishnu

6. Your novels are all about faith – sometimes the lack of it and sometimes the point when it becomes a little too much to handle. Does this affect you as a person?

Well, it certainly is something that is deeply invested in various parts of my life. Different terms of my own faith, you would call it – it can be seen very deeply in the first book, my own faith and lack of it. From one perspective as a mathematician, I brought about the rational, cold and unrelenting attributes in Mr. Jalal. He had to discover his faith and I had to voice through him all the questions I had in my mind.

Faith in a person – that’s what plays out more visibly in the last book. Faith in someone you think you know and someone you trust and what does that mean. I tried to work on a spectrum. I guess for myself, it’s always a question of faith, which is the opposite of rationality. I don’t care about the evidence but I believe in it. For a mathematician it is bad news, because you need evidence and proof.

7. Your love for the city by the sea. How would you explain that? Though you live far from it, does Bombay continue to enter your dreams?

Oh yes it does and you would think that I spend 20 years here, and 32 in US, that I should be able to write more about where I live now. However that did not happen. It is almost that I transferred the obsession of Mumbai to the US. I could not imagine writing anything deep – with reference to any other city. It had to be about the city I grew up in. It is definitely a very deep-rooted connection; I guess I was not aware of, however it definitely is there. I renew it each time I come here. On the other hand, capturing Washington DC in my books would not have the same effect. It would be flat. I don’t have the same kind of connection with the city.

8. Your literary influences.

When I was growing up, I was reading a lot of bestseller fiction, from Harold Robbins to Arthur Hailey to James Hadley Chase. It was the “rites of passage” almost for people growing up in the 70′s.

I read all of that and after that serious fiction – R.K. Narayan to the others. I think the first kind of real kind of lit fiction that I remember reading was Shame by Salman Rushdie. This was in the late 80′s. I did not have much of lit fiction education till later. I slowly started reading more lit fiction like some of the Indian authors in the last couple of decades. The big thing was Salman Rushdie – huge larger than life. I always end up comparing my writing to his at some point or the other.

The City of Devi by Manil Suri

9. Dystopian fiction has always intrigued me, and yet going by what you have written earlier, I would not imagine something on those lines to come from you. How did that process develop?

With dystopia, there is more futuristic and speculative writing involved, about what might happen, 70 years from now and 100 years from now, nuclear war has come and gone and that is lot easier to write and you can arrange the landscape. People have to accept the landscape. The difference in my book is that it is set in near future, which is harder to relate to and you have to give it more depth and angles.

The near future was definitely harder to write about. The near future has the uncomfortable characteristic of being near. How am I going to make this believable if someone reads it two years down the road? That was the question. I had to cancel the dates and make it believable. It is also after all a love story too.

10. The dual-narrative structure in the book is what kept me going last night, up and about to finish the book. Did the narrative at any point drain you as a writer?

The City of Devi was a very complicated book to write. I had to almost structure it like a thriller. Hold back bits of information and give some. The hardest thing was to write about India and what happens in the world at the same time – apportion between the two narratives.

The right narrator had to be on stage when certain actions demanded that. If something has happened and say it was Jaz’s turn to narrate things, he better be talking.

It was actually a lot of technical stuff like that. Towards the end, the cutting back and forth, happened more frequently. At the same time, it had me picking up the pace alternatively, which helped the book.

11. Now that the trilogy is over, what is next on the cards?

There’s this thing that I am working on which is completely different. A combination of sorts – a math novel infused with fiction. I hope it works best for me. It will for sure be a different experience for the reader.

This was the end of a great interview. I had so much to learn from the man – his insights were amazing and the way he communicates is stupendous. I had a great time for sure.

Book Review: Runaway by Alice Munro

Runaway by Alice Munro Title: Runaway
Author: Alice Munro
Publisher: Vintage Books
ISBN: 978-0-099-47225-4
Genre: Short Story
Pages: 335
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

When you read a collection of stories by Alice Munro, you need to give yourself a lot of time to intake what you have read. To so to say, “soak in” the experience. Her stories speak to you, they communicate in a manner you never thought they would. They astound you, they leave you speechless and sometimes they also wrench your heart – that is the power of Alice Munro’s short stories.

“Runaway” by Alice Munro is the first read of the year for me and I could not be happier for choosing this one. Her characters are lost and sometimes miserable. They are regular people, spread across the terrain she knows best – Canada. Having said that, the emotions and situations almost remain the same. It could happen to anyone, what happens to her characters – they fall in love, they experience the disappearance of a loved one, they are unsure and above all they are just human.

Alice Munro’s writing is of a quiet kind. Nothing monumental happens at the start of the story. It is just a build-up to what takes you by surprise or sometimes shock at the end of the story or in the middle. There are layers to her short stories, which sometimes cannot be found in a novel.

“Runaway” is a collection of stories about men and women who while appear sane and normal on the surface (so to say), there is a lot of emotional burden seething under. At the same time, they flow with the tide and give in to situations. Be it a housewife who wants to run away from her husband and life in the title story to a collection of three inter-linked stories about a woman Juliet and her life as it spans across time and relationships. Or it could also be of a girl grown up with her hippie and care-free parents, and waits as life unfolds in front of her, in an unexpected manner.

There is no other short-story writer I have loved more in recent times than Munro. Maybe Lydia Davis but that’s that I guess. A short story according to me anyway is more difficult to write a novel. As Jonathan Franzen, says in his introduction to the book, “I like stories because they leave the writer no place to hide”. This is so true. Short stories demand a lot from writers and sometimes only a master at her craft like Munro can deliver almost every single time. I would also highly recommend Franzen’s introduction to the book, which is a superb insight to the art of short-story telling and available only as a part of the UK edition.

I am very happy that I have read only two of her collections, because there is so much more to read of hers, so much to take in – the charm and lives of small cities, of how life goes on, of how it unfolds, little by little and does not stop there. Munro’s characters take a shape and form of their own. Her words get formed, slowly and steadily, till they become solid structures, which readers can go back to time and again. Here is one writer, who I hope continues writing, a lot more.

Also by Munro which I read and reviewed:

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro

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The Novels of Anita Desai

One needs a lot of patience and time on hand to read Anita Desai’s books. Not because they are difficult reads, but because they make you ponder, mull, stop in between and reflect on your state of mind and heart, and just make you come back to the book/s in bits and parts.

I started reading Anita Desai while I was in college and the only thing that got me going with her books was the trailer of the movie, “In Custody”, which was based on her book. That was the first Anita Desai which I read and I haven’t looked back since. The movie was conceptualized by the duo Ismail-Merchant, which also led me to watching all their films and be in awe of their direction and production values.

Anita Desai writes with candour – the feelings are stark and need no explanation. Her characters are often cocooned, living in their own selves, comfortable in their skin and at times restless like any other character/s would be.

I have had various arguments with friends or acquaintances about her writing prowess and how she should be given more credit than that. Her novels are bleak but sometimes that is the truth about human nature – there is also the unknown kindness that makes itself visible in her works – from the relationship of the poet and his fan in “In Custody” to the delicate balance between a great–grandmother and her great-granddaughter in “Fire on the Mountain”, which gets maintained over the course of the book.

Desai’s characters are but human. They are awkward, shy, boisterous and often just want to live their lives cocooned without any interference from the world. Maybe that is the reason why her novels most of the time seem out of place in today’s times. That is the reason I read them. They somehow provide the necessary calm and quiet which is needed.

I remember reading, “Clear Light of Day” with great trepidation. The same applied to “Fasting Feasting”. That was due to the underlying themes of loneliness, despair and life not giving too many choices to the protagonists. Both the novels have the same undercurrents – of being there and yet wanting to have a life of their own. This is written without much sentiment, so though you feel sorry for the characters (to some extent), you do not feel the choke in the throat. For me that is the understated beauty of her books. They make you feel and that is more than enough.

My favourite Desai has to be, “In Custody” for sure. The subtlety of a poet’s last days and lost grandeur is depicted with such pathos, that even I could not help but cry in some parts (I am not being contradictory. Just stating the truth). The relationship between the poet and his long time admirer is so delicate and so factual, that one begins to wonder and introspect about all relationships in that manner.

“Fire on the Mountain” begins with an intrusion. Nanda Kaul is living her last years peacefully in the small town of Kasauli. Her great-granddaughter Raka is then dispatched to live with her. They think they are different from each other, till their similarities come to the surface along with the hurt, pain, kindness, only ending in tragedy.

The above-mentioned book is probably Desai’s most poetic work according to me. The descriptions and scenes are what are not present in her other books. The book has less dialogue and more beauty in the way the characters behave and silently ponder over the events unfolding around them. That is the true mark of Anita Desai’s books according to me – the slowness, the quiet and then suddenly a series of events occur that change the course of the characters’ lives.

Anita Desai’s books probably are set in different times and worlds, and yet they ring so true for present times. The pathos of “In Custody” to the grimness of life in “Fasting, Feasting”, her novels are not for the weak-hearted. Every book of hers is a gem to be cherished and kept and to go back to and admire as the years pass by. Anita Desai is truly one of India’s prolific and erudite writers. A must read for all literary lovers.

(Anita Desai’s 4 Titles Courtesy: Random House India)

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