Lanny by Max Porter

Lanny by Max Porter Title: Lanny
Author: Max Porter
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571340286
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I remember reading Grief is the Thing with Feathers a couple of years ago and being blown away by the writing, and of course with good enough and more reasons. At that time, it took me a reread to sink into the novel a little more, and rightly so. The layers of grief and loss and to add to that a crow made perfect sense.

The prose of Max Porter is unique, the plot is all over the place (as it is in Lanny as well), but once you succumb to the world he creates, nothing else matters. His latest offering and Booker Prize 2019 long-listed nomination Lanny is all of the above and more.

I picked Lanny with great trepidation. I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectation. More than anything else in my experience, Booker Longlist titles have more often than not proven to be disappointing. This wasn’t the case with Lanny.

Lanny literally drips with lyrical language, almost poetic, and some great writing. This is then backed with a plot that is steeped in reality and yet magical, combined with writing that takes you out of your comfort zone. It is the story of a missing boy on the surface of it – a boy from a rural space lost on the commuter belt to London. But there is so much more to Lanny than just this.

Lanny lives with his parents – mum, a retired actress now author and dad, a city worker. They live in the village that is riddled with mystery, superstition, and folklore. This then is added with everyone’s supposition and assumption of what happened to Lanny. At the same time, there are two very central characters to the book – Mad Pete and Dead Papa Toothwort, who not only add to the strangeness but also most certainly move the plot forward. You need to understand and know these characters for yourself.

This book isn’t easy to get into. It will take some time but persist is what I have to say. Give it that time and to the writing prowess of Porter. Read it at leisure. Deliberate and go back and forth the way you are supposed to. Argue with it. Read it for the beautiful empathetic prose and what it means to be a child and an adult in our world.

Porter’s creativity is at its peak and this is only his second book. I for one cannot wait to see what he has in store next for all of us. Fingers crossed; I am rooting for this to make it to the shortlist.

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Elastic by Johanne Bille. Translated from the Danish by Sherilyn Hellberg

Elastic by Johanne Bille Title: Elastic
Author: Johanne Bille
Translated from the Danish by Sherilyn Hellberg
Publisher: Lolli Editions
ISBN: 978-1-9999928-0-4
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 161
Source: Publisher/Marketing Agency
Rating: 4 stars

Elastic by Johanne Bille is a book that just made its way to me at the right time. Women in Translation was coming up and a marketing agency offered me a chance to read it as a part of the Blog/Instagram tour and I jumped on it. I jumped on the opportunity because it seemed liked a read that I would most certainly enjoy, and I am so glad that it surpassed every single expectation.

Elastic is literally a book for the times we live in. Mathilde is the core of Alice’s existence. Mathilde’s force is so strong that everything changes. It is the kind of love and lust that is self-destructive and redemptive at the same time. A love that perhaps you encounter once in a lifetime. Mathilde on the other hand is also quite mercurial and happily married to Alexander. Alice is moving into a bigger flat with Simon who is back in her life. And thus, starts a relationship of four people – of love, sex, intimacy, jealousy, and the workings of the human heart.

Bille’s writing sets the tone from the very beginning. The open love affairs, the choices one makes in love, and also the satisfaction and loneliness arising from it are beautifully explored. The entire book is told through fragments and it works brilliantly for a novel of this theme and magnitude.

Elastic is the kind of book that must be read in one go and perhaps that’s the only way to read it. It defines the current emotional state of people so well that you might just identify yourself with one of the characters. It felt like I was reading the movie Closer – the same intensity but less brutal. Bille’s writing and Hellberg’s translation were a match waiting to happen. Read Elastic. Be taken in by what happens when love washes over you and doesn’t let go.

 

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead Title: The Nickel Boys
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Fleet Books, Hachette
ISBN: 9780708899434
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 2.5 stars

There are some books you wish you love when you read them. You want to love them with all your heart and soul. The Nickel Boys was one such book for me. I quite enjoyed and liked The Underground Railroad and I wanted more out of The Nickel Boys. I did. I was expecting a lot – to be emotionally turned inside-out by the end of the read, which sadly did not happen to me at all.

When any book is such a struggle to read and get through, you know you will never revisit it or recommend it. The Nickel Boys sadly is that book for me this year.

The book starts off with great promise. The first part of the book is written with great insight, sensitivity, and empathy throughout. It is about Elwood Curtis and his life out of the juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy and inside of it. For a black teenager in the early 60s, all it takes is one mistake to destroy his future. The Nickel Academy is a hellish reform school, who has the outer façade of creating moral and upright citizens of delinquents who have lost their way. Beneath all of this, is a world of torture, discrimination, and instances that end in death.

Elwood’s grandmother Harriet, his dreams, his ambitions, and his idea of a free world are all left behind when he enters The Nickel Academy by no fault of his. Whitehead’s inspiration of the Nickel Academy came from the infamous Dozier school that made headlines as fake graveyards were discovered on the closed school’s grounds.

The Nickel Boys is mainly set outside of the school – part one and part three at that. While a lot is also set in it, as you can read in part two, as a reader I was left underwhelmed and wanting more. Also, Elwood suddenly is thrown in a world where he meets several characters (but naturally) and yet I could feel nothing for them. I wanted to. I so wanted to be immersed in this book, but I just couldn’t. For instance, Turner (one of the boys Elwood befriends) was one such character that wasn’t explored enough in my opinion. The constant battle of his pessimism and Elwood’s optimism is the only thing that stayed (beautifully done at that).

I understood the book – the nuances, the being an accomplice to what was going on inside the house for every boy once you walked into its doors to even the question of loyalty in a place like The Nickel Academy. Yet, with all its nuances and sometimes brilliant prose, I was left wanting more. The threads somehow didn’t connect and by the time I reached Part Three, I was drained of any comprehension to move on with the read. There is also no iota of character development. The book could’ve been longer and perhaps more time spent in letting us know about the characters and their lives, which sadly did not happen.

And yes, the dignity of human life, the assertion of black lives mattering, the understanding of injustices, and more than anything else persistence of the human spirit comes across in the book in bits and pieces, but I wish it was held together strongly. The book falters and stumbles, without any direction. The Nickel Boys was one book I was waiting to read with great anticipation. I wish I had enjoyed it with similar enthusiasm.

 

 

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata Title: Convenience Store Woman
Author: Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802128256
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 176
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The comfort in the constant. That’s how I have preferred to live life, to be honest. It never happens this way. Not all the time. Not ever, come to think of it. Yet, I have also learned how to turn the change into being constant over a period of time. Isn’t that what it is really? The humdrum of the sameness. The monotony of the constant. The familiar is utmost reassuring if nothing else. But that’s just for me, and rereading “Convenience Store Woman” got all those feelings to the fore, emerging one by one from the shadows, overwhelming me to the point of tears.

I shall try not to get the personal involved in this review. I try, but I do not guarantee. Anyway, back to the book. Sayaka Murata has written close to ten novels (I think) and this is the first time one of her books is translated to English. I read this book for the first time last year. There were too many emotions I was dealing with after finishing it. Most of them were a product of the read. The loneliness, the making peace with it, the awareness of using the familiar as a crutch, the times I had ideas or thoughts I shouldn’t have had – all of these were in sync with the protagonist Keiko Furukura’s way of being. I related so strongly with her (most of her, not all) that I was almost scared of reviewing this book.

August is the month of women in translation. This is my first read of the month and a reread that I enjoyed and loved. So here goes: As the title suggests, the book is about a Convenience Store and a person who works there. Keiko considered herself reborn once she joined the store. Her life is divided almost into two parts – before and after joining the store. She is awkward, she is clueless about how to fit in the world, and she struggles with day-to-day interactions. Yet, beneath the surface there is the Keiko that wants to blend in, wants to feel included, and live life according to the manual – get married, have kids, and get people off your back. Keiko has been made to feel like “damaged goods” throughout her life – by her parents, friends, baby sister, and colleagues. The idea of “change” or “cure” oneself runs deep in the book. It is in a way the plot-point through which Murata mocks the society we inhabit.

The book deals with so many broad questions that people face every single day. I will get to that in a bit. Though the book is set in Japan, it is universal in its approach. Murata touches on loneliness, middle-age, the way we see ourselves against the parameters set by society (marriage, child-birth, job satisfaction, what job you do, whether you fit in or not, and the gender stereotypes set for us from the time we are born), and above all of this the need to belong at a very basic level – that of acceptance.

Keiko and Shiraha (A part-time worker at the store. That’s all I can reveal about him) are so different and of course similar on all counts. Murata’s characters are constantly on the edge, on the brink of falling apart or coming together to save what they can of themselves, and more than anything they are about life being lived in the mundane with pragmatism and ironically hope at the same time.

The translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori is nuanced in every single way, and like I said would appeal to every single reader, in any part of the world. Ginny transports us to the store, and Keiko’s world with a sudden rush as it should be and before you know it, as a reader you don’t want to leave the world created by Murata. For every translation, it must be so difficult to get the exact phrase, the nature of the dream, aspirations, and thoughts of characters down to pat the way the author intended it. The translator also then is nothing but a co-writer of the book in the truest sense of the word.

Convenience Store Woman’s title when read in Japanese is Convenience Store Human or Person and that to me makes more sense. It somehow adds that layer of making it common – of the tonality it deserves even if it is also in the title. But that is something that can be overlooked in a jiffy only because the book is par excellence. It touches all the notes – the awkward ones, the peculiar, the bitingly familiar, the hauntingly real, the one that sets you apart, and achingly wants to be a part of the world at large. This August, it being Women in Translation, please do read this book. You must.

 

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls Title: City of Girls
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526615237
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I am just going to go on record and say that I absolutely love Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing. I remember the time Eat, Pray, Love had released in India and had become an overnight sensation. The literary snobs (as they are called) were pretty hesitant to even read it, often dismissing it as “chick-lit” (hate this term by the way). And then “The Signature of all Things” was published a couple of years later and it was a literary sensation. More than anything else, just the way it was written – the characters, the setting, the prose – all of it. But this review is about City of Girls.

 City of Girls is a novel that seeps you into its timeline, makes you feel for the characters, and makes you aware of the fact that you are under a spell as long as you’re reading it. City of Girls may not also be everyone’s cup of tea. It is slow and takes time to build up, but I loved every bit of it because it is atmospheric and lures the reader in – with every turn of the page.

 The book is set in New York of the 1940s – the world of theatre at that. Vivian Morris is eighty-nine years old, looking back on her life in the 40s – freshly kicked out of Vassar College, arriving at Manhattan to live with her aunt Peg who owns the crumbling theatre called the Lily Playhouse. This is where the story begins with oddball characters, and a mistake committed by Vivian that sends her world twirling headlong upside down and more.

 This is the plot of the book to put quite simply. The book is about growing-up at a time when the world was changing at a neck-breaking speed and to keep up with all of it. Of course, the book is also about war and what it does to people. Gilbert writes about it realistically and yet not losing her touch of empathy and emotional quotient.

City of Girls may seem extremely slow in bits and parts (especially in the middle), however, just like any other book it works for some and doesn’t for the other. Gilbert’s writing prowess is the same or even better when it comes to this read, and please don’t compare The Signature of All Things to this one, because they are vastly different. What most certainly worked for me was the transition from the 1940s to the current time and Gilbert has done a stunning job of bringing it all together, in one book. Read it if historical fiction interests you, or if you are comfortable with a book taking its own time.