In Appreciation of Saunders

george-saunders

Ever since I have read George Saunders I have been in awe of his writing. I may not have enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo the way I thought I would, but that’s hardly of concern when it comes to appreciating Saunders’ works. I think the beauty of Saunders beside the writing, is his capacity to create characters that are regular – they are flawed, broken, and perhaps have no capacity to be extraordinary and yet strangely enough they are.

Also, might I add the skill with which he writes or rather crafts a story. After Munro, if there is any other short-story writer I truly admire, it is him. Whether it is the idea of the fantastical merging with everyday living, or just the irony of getting through the day, Saunders literally saves a reading-slump-kind-of-day. You just have to read any short story written by him and it is worth it – every single word and every sentence.

Pastoralia was introduced to me by a friend and I cannot thank the friend enough. This collection of short-stories embodies the twisted, the lonely, and the post-modern version of American – served hot and ready to be slaughtered. Whether he talks about a couple living in a theme-park, where speaking is an offence (rings a bell given the times we live in?), or whether he is speaking of a male exotic dancer and his family, Saunders shows us a world that is funny and yet so scary, so familiar and strange, but above-all, so authentic and graceful in its prose.

Pastoralia

I must speak of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil here. This slim book is literally a tour-de-force (I know this word is way overused, however, I can’t help but use it for this one). This is the book about power-hungry, and demagogic Phil (again can’t help but relate it to the times we live in) and how his reign begins as people from one nation run into another for asylum.

Phil

Saunders has always sort of been prophetic when it comes to his stories, and whatever he chooses to write about really. Whether it is Tenth of December or In Persuasion Nation, both fantastic short-story collections, Saunders is on the top of his game, never missing a beat. His people are lost, maybe not even seeking redemption – all they want is their stories to be told, voices to be heard, and sometimes remain in the shadows battling their demons.

Tenth of December

The Brain-Dead Megaphone is perhaps one of the best collection of essays I have read in a long time. It is his first collection of essays and has trained himself to look at the real – ridden with a strangeness – in the political and cultural milieu. I loved the literary pieces in this book – Saunders’ view on Mark Twain, Vonnegut, and Barthelme – every essay is on point and showcases all the skewed characters chosen by the author.

Megaphone

This, I think in a very brief manner encapsulates his body of work that I have enjoyed and loved over the years. He is one writer that never disappoints and constantly delivers, no matter what. Read him and allow yourself to be taken in by his eccentric, mad, most illuminating prose.

Advertisements

Dark Circles by Udayan Mukherjee

Dark Circles by Udayan MukherjeeTitle: Dark Circles
Author: Udayan Mukherjee
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN: 9789388134910
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 215
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I got to know very recently that Udayan Mukherjee is the brother of Neel Mukherjee. Not that it matters to the writing of this review, however, I just thought I should let this information be out there. Alright, now to the book. Dark Circles by Udayan Mukherjee is the story of a family, torn apart by a secret, at two points in the family’s history. There is a lot happening in this novel. Ronojoy and Sujoy’s mother dies alone in the Ashram she retreated to quite suddenly twenty-eight years ago, after the death of her husband. She has left a letter behind for her sons, in which contains a secret that has the power to wreak havoc in their lives. Though this might seem to be the plot, there is a lot more taking place in this novel.

The book is also about family (but of course), it is about depression, about how to live in the face of tragedy, and how decisions made once can never be undone. It is about forgiveness, and more than anything else, about redemption and the human heart. The writing is sparse, to the point and extremely moving in most places. What I wanted from the book was more. I wanted to know more about the bond between the brothers, what their father Subir was like (though Mukherjee has said a lot about him, there is so much more to know), what were the relationship dynamics, and why was their mother Mala the way she was.

I am also aware and agree that the writer isn’t supposed to spoon-feed the reader all the time, but all the same, I thought a little more could’ve been added. The characters are wonderful, there is this sense of darkness hanging over each of them, that lends beautifully to the telling of the story and to the title as well. Udayan Mukherjee for sure knows how to tell a story, to keep the reader gripped from page one. More than anything else, it is about relationships and ties that bind us and sometimes tear us apart.

 

Interview with Sikeena Karmali

If you have to perhaps read historic fiction, and as we all know there are only two months left in the year, then you should read Sikeena Karmali’s, The Mulberry Courtesan. I read it earlier this year and absolutely loved it. It is a story of a courtesan in the last court of the Mughal Empire, that of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Karmali has written the book with great skill, passion, and accuracy. In my opinion, everyone must read this book because of the language and the plot. I got a chance to interview her via mail, and here goes:

What inspired you to write a historical fiction novel, that too set in 1857? What drew you toward that time? 

The novel was actually very much inspired by a visit to the Humayun’s Tomb and Gardens complex in 2003 – before it was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. At that time I was living in Uzbekistan, directing a human rights project. I had just visited Ferghana – the birthplace of Babur and Samarqand and Bukhara are both also in Uzbekistan so the Central Asian/Timurid/Mughal civilization was already playing in my imagination but for some reason I was not really expecting to find that in India so when I visited Humayun’s Tomb I was kind of blown away at how beautifully this heritage had married with the civilization of the Indian subcontinent to create this breath-taking architecture. So I wanted to try to capture some of that.

I’ve also always been fascinated by the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 – Ghadr. It was actually the first serious challenge that the British East India company faced by the people it had colonized.

Bahadur Shah Zafar thankfully isn’t made a caricature of in the book. What kind of research went into ensuring that more facets of his personality came to light? How did you manage to translate that or incorporate it in the book?

I did a lot of research and I read his poetry. I visited the National Archives in Delhi where I also found a lot of information. He impressed me and I tried to understand him as a poet and a mystic rather than a ruler.

Laale is headstrong, independent, and yet has to adhere to the societal constructs of that time and age. What were the courtesans like in that period?

It is certainly true that there were societal constructs for women at that time, as there are today – however they are not always what we imagine them to be. Courtesans were often quite empowered as women. They were educated and erudite, they moved and circled in public spaces, often in male domains where they would have to hold their own among Nawabs and Mirzas. They were also not merely sexual slaves – many courtesans were respected women who came to wield a fair amount of power at court. Beghum Samru for example was a nautch girl who ended up becoming the head of a professionally trained army. Or Mah Laqa Chanda who became the first Urdu poetess and whose Divan is currently at the British Library in London.

How is Laale different and how was it like to place her in around 160 years ago, though she could very well fit in today’s time and age? 

It is funny you should ask that because The Mulberry Courtesan was originally about two women Laale and a contemporary women who is like her mirror or soul mate. So that contemporary story is now going to be The Mulberry Courtesan Book Two.

Image result for sikeena karmali

The book moves between multiple nations and times. How easy or difficult was it to write about that? 

That is actually how the book unfolded so it’s how I wrote it. At the time that much of the book was written, I used to travel quite a lot so it didn’t feel unusual for me.

How is it to bring the interactions to life in a historical novel, given the context and plot? How does that work? Is it any different from say setting the novel in the 21st century?

I’m an avid student of history so it’s quite normal for me to be inhabiting another century in my imagination while I go about my daily existence in the 21st century. I think with historical fiction writing you really have to take the time to set the scene, to illustrate the details that will really transport your reader to another time and place.

Your top 5 historical fiction novels 

In no particular order:

The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
Bel Canto – Ann Patchett
Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Song of the Assassin – M.G. Vasanji
My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

What are you currently reading? 

I have just finished Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhtoy and I am in the middle of Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien which is really lyrical and beautifully written.

You can buy the book here: 

https://amzn.to/2PCXUIt

 

 

And The Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness. Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

PN

Title: And The Ocean Was Our Sky
Author: Patrick Ness
Illustrated by Rovina Cai
Publisher: Walker Books
ISBN: 978-1406385403
Genre: Children’s Fiction, Literary
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I am a sucker for retellings or adaptations. A real-time sucker. Love the way some authors take a jab at it, make the classic their own, and then there are some who just cannot communicate what they want to. Thankfully, Patrick Ness belongs to the former category. And The Ocean Was Our Sky doesn’t read like a retelling. It doesn’t read like anything I have read before (yes you have heard this a lot, but this time it is really true). Alright, to cut the long story short: I absolutely loved And the Ocean Was Our Sky – loved the minimalist prose and the breathtaking illustrations. On a side note, let me also say that I loved how it veered away from the plot of Moby Dick soon into the book and I thought it was very refreshing.

I1

Now to the plot: The whales of Bathsheba’s pod live for the hunt. They hunt men. Men who hunt them get hunted. Men who don’t hunt also get hunted. They are led by Captain Alexandra, fighting a war against men. Till they attack a man ship and from it emerges a man who will lead them to the myth of the very devil – the most evil of all men. The one that will change their lives forever. That in short is the plot of the book. It is a story of whales and men and how when we take over their world, what happens in the end.

I2.jpg

What makes it different or interesting you ask? Patrick Ness is at the top of his game. This book may be sparse in terms of the writing, but every word lends gravitas. Every word that perhaps is not there in the story, is accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Rovina Cai. The story comes alive through another dimension as you read and experience the illustrations at the same time.

I3

The morality play of the book is strong and is much-needed in times such as these. It is a book for both children and adults. I would say more for adults, just to get the point across that every life matters. The twist in the tale will take you by surprise for sure, but that’s hardly the point of the story. And The Ocean Was Our Sky is so heartwarming (I found it to be) and heartbreaking in so many places – the kind of book that will make you question so many things about life, death, and the in-between.

Interview with Amy B. Scher

I had reviewed the book, “This is How I Save My Life” by Amy B. Scher, way back in August 2018 and enjoyed it a lot. I got the opportunity to interview her, and here are some excerpts from the interview. Thank you, Amy for the interview.

Amy

What were the differences you saw and faced between the Western and Eastern paradigm of healing? 

Western medicine creates a focus on physical symptoms, while Eastern focuses on the whole system — including mind, body, and spirit. I was a little resistant to this at first because it felt like looking at my thoughts and emotions might place blame on me for illness. But in the end, addressing those aspects were necessary for my healing.

How did you include humor in your narrative? A narrative that is staggeringly terrifying. How and where did wit come about? 

I tend to look at everything with humor. It’s how I was raised, thank goodness. My family tried to laugh as much as we cried about difficult things. And I think that just naturally comes through in my writing. No one wants to read a depressing book; and I surely didn’t want to write one. Humor is the element that can keep us going even in the worst of times…and I really wanted that to come through in my story.

Amy 2

Could you please tell me something about your writing process? Where and how did you start writing This Is How I Save My Life? 

During my time in India, I kept an online blog about my experiences. This “record” was used later as part of my writing process. I ended up including my “before” and “after” India experiences and expanded and rewrote what happened while I was there. But it did help to have notes on what happened. There is so much that we forget, even when it feels huge and important at the time. Because I wrote the book years after I got back from India, I was able to add in reflection that I couldn’t have incorporated if I was still too close to the experience. Time and space always allow for a clearer picture to emerge.

How difficult or easy was it to get out of the exotic mode of India and weave your story right into it? I am sure it was extremely cathartic for you to write this book. How did you deal with that? 

It was very cathartic to write the book. I had my own relationship with India — and so I weaved it into my story as a character. I allowed it to be my teacher; and I felt that going back there in my mind really helped me to write it with more ease.

Did being a Jewish girl in India affect you in any manner at all? 

It didn’t! I actually went to a Jewish temple while in India. I saw the play Fiddler On The Roof in Hindi, too. I’ve always been interested in all religions so visited many different kinds of temples while I was there.

What memoirs inspired you to write your own? 

Of course Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I also really loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Both books inspired me so much and kept me writing even when it was hard.

Thanks again, Amy and Simon and Schuster India for this opportunity.