Monthly Archives: August 2011

Book Review: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch

Title: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading
Author: Nina Sankovitch
Publisher: Harper
ISBN: 978-0061999840
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 256 pages
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

I would never be able to forget the day I lost my father. He died in his sleep, so I was thankful for that. That he did not feel pain, though I would never know. And after he died, I felt something snap in me. The loss of a parent is irreplaceable. No one can take the space. No one can fill the void. Not the surviving parent, even. It is something you need to deal with. Something you need to grieve about for the rest of your life and that doesn’t change anything. You know that he will not return. To fill the void, I read. I read and I read and I read. I ordered books, I bought, I borrowed and I read, till the gaping hole had narrowed a little.

The reason I am mentioning this on my review is as I am reviewing a book called “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: A Year of Magical Reading” by Nina Sankovitch. I picked up this book as it came heavily recommended through various online book clubs and mine as well. I settled in bed with the quilt draped over me and started reading.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, besides being a love letter to Books and Reading, is a personal account of the authors’ attempt to make sense of why she was alive and why she lost her sister to Cancer. She chose to find answers in books, in reading one book a day for 365 days and posting a review every single day. The book travels back and forth in time – full of memories – from Nina’s childhood to her teenage and adult years and to the bond she shared with her sisters. And with each memory and each time the healing is taking place, there is a book that Nina is reading – one every day. With four children and a life that was constantly lived amidst chaos and tasks, Nina worked for a year – a work of a different nature – she read.

When she began what she dubbed “The 365 Project” and launched its corresponding website (readallday.org), Sankovitch chose to read books that were an inch in width, assuring her that she would be reading no more than 250-300 pages total and could finish it in just a matter of a few hours (she can read 70 pages per hour), leaving her plenty of time to write a review of what she’d just read and attend to other matters (housework, children, etc.). She read many places but one of her favorite spots was an old chair in her living room that had been reupholstered over the years with a dark purple fabric, a chair that always carried the faint smell of cat urine from a beloved pet having repeatedly marked it as its own in years past.

Coincidentally, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” is a pat 222 pages, making it easy for someone who can match Sankovitch’s reading velocity to finish it in just over three hours’ time. Though I don’t read as expeditiously as she does, I was enraptured by her journey and found myself glued to her memoir all throughout the day, finishing it in two days time between meeting the demands of two small children and a house in constant need of cleaning. My “purple chair” ended up being my bed, my couch, a sofa at the library, and a park bench.

I was amazed at how deep in the heart the book reaches to one who is hurting. There are good, solid examples of ways to handle your grief, not be crushed forever by it. I am still thinking about the idea of actively remembering and keeping memories close at heart because allowing those memories to take you back also allows you to move forward. I liked using quotes from books as inspiration – “always within never” from “Elegance of the Hedgehog” is one of my favorites. “The weird world rolls on” is another. My favorite chapter includes author Bernhard Schlink’s quote, “I realized it was my decision whether I would interpret the ending as unjust and unsatisfactory and suffer because of it or decided that this, and only this, was the fitting ending.” The chapter includes mesmerizing stuff about mysteries, questions, answers, endings and some great things to think about (you can’t control what life throws at you, but you can control your response).

Sankovitch provides her reading list in its entirety in the back of her book (all 365 of them!), putting into action her stance on the importance of sharing books with others. She says: “My book-a-day project affected not only my life but those of everyone with whom I shared my reading. I spread the gratification of reading through discussing books, much as authors create bliss by writing them. What a gift, to share the joy and the comfort and the wisdom! Everything I shared, I found first through the simple act of sitting down in my purple chair and reading a book.” (pg. 211) As a result, I have now added several titles to my “to be read” list (which grows larger by the day – ack!) due to the loving and often moving explications she gives on the stories’ central themes (“The Assault” by Harry Mulisch is an example that immediately comes to mind).

Bottom line: Poignant and meditative, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” is an exquisite homage to a beloved woman, encouraging healing and cogitation through one’s passions. Sankovitch is bound to inspire many who read this work, whether it is the motivation to find their own bliss, or simply the recommendation and subsequent power and enjoyment of a great book. I am grateful to this book. I cried. I laughed. I cried some more. Most of it were tears for my father. To books and to the healing power of books.

Reading is an Anti-Dote to almost everything. Yes, everything. – The Hungry Reader.

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Book Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

Title: The Cat’s Table
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, Random House UK
ISBN: 978-0224093613
Pages: 304
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Ondaatje’s latest novel is, perhaps, his most “approachable” yet. It lacks the (somewhat) “foreign-ness” of Anil’s Ghost and the “intellectual-ness” of Divisadero. (It’s been too long since I read The English Patient to adequately come up with a comparison.) But most importantly, it has the same almost lyrically beautiful prose of other novels. It also reads faster. It is a page turner – not so much because the story is riveting, but because the prose flows so easily.

The Cat’s Table takes place, mostly, on a ship as an 11-year-old boy sails from Sri Lanka to England. (Approximately 100 pp into the novel, we learn the boy – who narrates – is named Michael, but an author’s note at the end tells us, explicitly, that this is a novel and not a memoir.) The novel itself, in some ways, is a series of vignettes, more than a narrative with a full arc.

On the ship, Michael meets two other boys his age, and they proceed to cause mischief of various kinds – stealing food from first class and hiding in life boats to eat; tossing deck chairs into the pool; creating a fort in the turbine room. They also cross paths with a diverse cast of characters at the table where they dine – The Cat’s Table: a botanist who is transporting a garden in the ship’s cargo hold; a pianist who plays with the ship band; a tailor who doesn’t speak; and a woman whose demeanor is able to arise the budding sexual fantasies of the boys.

The Cat’s Table is not a “coming of age” story in the traditional sense. In my opinion, it takes place over too short a period of time to be that; the bulk of the action takes place only over the three week journey from East to West. But the story on the ship does include brief “pauses” that take us into Michael’s future (the general present/recent past) and show the way in which the short period of time really did inform and shape his life. In some ways, these realizations for him seem to happen only as a result of writing about and reliving his time on the ship. Thus, we are sharing in his self-discovery; he is not telling us about it after the fact.

Some readers may feel frustrated as recollections and anecdotes jump back and forth, but this is what happens in life – there rarely a complete picture but only fragments that increase understanding and appreciation.

Portrayed here is an education indeed – growing sexual awareness, first-hand experience of the power of the elements (not to mention tragedy), realization that outward appearances do not tell the whole story. There was far more to the people encountered than at the time ever thought possible.

I found this finely crafted, multi-faceted novel a richly rewarding read – crammed with insight, humour and memorable images. It’s a yearning tribute with an almost fairytale-like aura to the memories of awe that pervade our dreams (and nightmares and fears), and the memories of sometimes unlikely affiliation and love and what we mistake as love that pervade and haunt our hearts, guide us or sometimes lead us astray.

Book Review: Gopallapuram by Ki Rajanarayanan

Title: Gopallapuram
Author: Ki Rajanarayanan
Publisher: Penguin India
ISBN: 9780143067757
Genre: Indian Literature
Pages: 144 pages
Price: Rs. 199
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Gopallapuram takes you places you never imagined you could go to. The short vignettes in this wondrous book teach you about humans – the experience through a few characters living in a village, like most villages, unknown to civilization. I had not heard of Gopallapuram, the book before stumbling on to it at the Penguin India website and come to think of it, it is a contemporary classic. I am very glad that Penguin is taking the step to publish translated works and make readers aware of what gems do we have in our trove of Indian Literature.

Gopallapuram is a tough one to write a review of and not because of anything else, but because of the way the stories are layered. The people and their pathos can be felt through the pages of this book. The stories while holding your attention also make you think a lot. For instance, what about the highway robber who murders the pregnant woman for her jewellery? Does he have a family somewhere as well?

Or the fact that a group of people can come together to transform a barren land to a blooming village – I mean who can even think of writing something like this. It is then no wonder that he won the Sahitya Akademi Award as well.
To me Gopallapuram was a revelation. Almost something that was unexpected and hit me from the blue. I love that when books do that you. The ability to take you to lands and times forgotten.

Ki Rajanarayanan has the unique ability to make the reader feel emotive even towards his so-called anti-heroes. There are only shades of grey to his writing, which in effect is brilliant as it gives the reader the opportunity to think and ponder.

Book Review: Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

Title: Damned
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, Random House UK
ISBN: 978-0224091152
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256 pages
Price: £12.99
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I have always loved Chuck Palahniuk’s books. Yes they are dysfunctional and yes sometimes they can only get weird, however most of the time, there are lines in his books that take my breath away and only make me realize that what he says is most often just a reflection of the times we live in – Drastic, On-the-Edge, Ever-Changing and most of all Confused. A world that doesn’t know what it is all about and why is it here in the first place.

Chuck Palahniuk’s characters are weak. They know they are weak and most of the time they only want a better life – much like Richard Yates’s characters. Be it the Messiah in Survivor (or so he thinks of himself to be) or be it the Trans-gendered beauty queen of Invisible Monsters – they are running away to find themselves. For all these reasons and more, Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favourite writers. So I was very pleased to have received a copy of “Damned” for early review. The book will be out only in October 2011.

Damned is said to be a Young Adult book, however it isn’t like that at all. It is a book for adults, which I am sure adults will take to very easily, since the language is not complicated like his recent books.

Damned begins with Madison Spencer, a chunky silver-tongued thirteen-year-old who is the daughter of a way-into-herself film actress and billionaire daddy. After a marijuana over-dose (why I am not surprised?), she wakes up in the wrong side of the afterlife within the confines a scummy jail cell in Hell. She compares this experience to The Breakfast Club, a sort of permanent detention in which you’re stuck with people who are nothing like you in a place you don’t want to be. Madison, of course, plays the basket case a la Ally Sheedy while others fill the role of The Jock, The Nerd, The Cheerleader, and The Burn Out. And true to Breakfast Club form, a particular amount of emphasis is put on the question “Why are you here?”

It’s when these five characters start their tour of Hell and learning the ropes that Damned becomes a real joyride. Palahniuk truly has no rules to play by in this one, so rather than the reader having to suspend their disbelief in regards to the porn industry or special agent foreign exchange students—his version of Hell, and all the sights and sounds he provides us—they’ll hit just as hard as his infamous Guts short story while taking regular cracks at your funny bone with its satire.

The ebb of flow of Damned follows the group tour of Hell while going back to Madison’s time on earth, examining her home life and the circumstances leading up to her untimely demise. We’ve seen this move before: Chuck giving you past and present events in a steady rotation, and the move still works.

Damned has a sense of urgency about it, almost forcing the reader to tear through it in order to get that next titbit of Madison’s back-story or another Hell-related factoid, i.e. – the role of demons and which celebrities reside in the flaming deep. I easily tore through this one within the day.

Book Review: Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi

Title: Chicken with Plums
Author: Marjane Satrapi
Publisher: Pantheon Books
ISBN: 9780375714757
Genre: Graphic Novel
Pages: 85
Price: $12.95
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

In Chicken With Plums, Satrapi writes a biography of her great-uncle, the famous Iranian musician Nassar Ali Khan. When Khan’s tar breaks, he falls into a depression and lays in bed wishing for death for a week. At the end of that week, he dies (this isn’t a spoiler, it says so right at the beginning). Satrapi presents each day of his final week, with flashbacks to earlier parts of his life that lead up to his current predicament. Through these memories, we come to understand Khan’s heartbreak and his loss of will to live.

This is the third book by Satrapi I’ve read, after Persepolis and Embroideries, and it has earned its place at the top of the list. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the book, but as the narration twisted and I came to understand more about a lifetime of frustrations, cyclical depression, and the outpouring of soul into music, I really empathized with Khan. Then, the end twisted around in a direction that I didn’t foresee at all, and I cried. It was beautiful. The love! The passion! The pain! Oh…and the artwork…so beautiful. The second to last panel, with the Angel of Death at the funeral, staring intently at a specific mourner – oh, it made me cry so much. It was such a lovely and heartwrenching book!

I really, really love Marjane Satrapi’s work. Each new book I read, I love more. She has such a sense of character. She can take a person and strip them down to their essentials in order to splash out a portrait of them on paper. By the end of each of these books, though they aren’t long and don’t take long to read, you really feel like you know the people she discusses. You know them as individuals and you recognize in them the people you know personally. It’s brilliant. If you haven’t read any of her work yet, I highly recommend that you do. It doesn’t really matter where you start – they’re all wonderful.