Monthly Archives: April 2012

Book Review: The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block

Title: The Storm at the Door
Author: Stefan Merrill Block
Publisher: Faber and Faber UK
ISBN: 978-0571269594
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Stefan Merrill Block’s, “The Storm at the Door” speaks of illness, mental illness at that. He combines his family facts and fiction to give readers a book that sometimes makes you stop in your tracks and think about it. The Storm at the Door is astonishingly original and quite compelling. Block has taken his maternal grandparents’ lives and blended fact with fiction – often reading as prose and then memoir and then fact. To be able to combine all elements in one book is not only a marvellous feat but also requires a lot of thinking and some good writing skills.

The Storm at the Door metaphorically speaks of a storm at a couple’s door – the one that isn’t easy to tackle – mental illness, which spreads across the family’s three generations. The book is about Frederick and Katharine, their love affair, their marriage and relationship over years that lasts, despite Frederick’s mental illness and infidelity. The book further speaks of Frederick’s stay at the Mayflower Institute, loosely based on the famous McClean Hospital in Boston which housed several celebrities and is known to be the highly innovative and one of the best asylums in America.

Block brings a chunk of his family, the missing page so to say to life in this book. It is not easy for a writer to recount his family’s history and document it – more so as a work of fiction. What I loved was the dense and quite often painful picture of the asylum Block paints as it was in the 60’s. To write about being mad and its effects on one’s wife and family is not an easy thing to do.

The pace is slow at times but the writing is lyrical and every word seems to be in its place. There is wonderful representation of a fragment of reality and to write an entire book on it is commendable. Stefan’s prose is sharp, at times biting, empathetic and realistic at most times. It does not become sentimental. It depicts both the sides of the story – that of Frederick’s and then of Katharine’s and then of course of the metaphorical storm. At times the novel is in-your-face and bitter and at others it is a depiction of a marriage gone wrong and what it takes to get it back on track. I enjoyed the book a lot. Of all the books I have read this month, this one is on top of the list.

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Book Review: The Resignation by Jainendra

Title: The Resignation (Tyagpatra)
Author: Jainendra
Translator: Rohini Chowdhury
Publisher: Penguin India
ISBN: 978-0-143-41524-4
Genre: Indian Literature, Translated Fiction, Literary Fiction
Pages: 178
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Indian Literature is under-rated. I have always believed that most Indian writers (great ones at that) are often not spoken about or mentioned at all. Some great books are never discussed. That’s a sad situation for a country that is so rich in literature – considering the number of languages stories are weaved in and then translated for the English reader’s (like me) benefit, only not to be praised.

One such Indian writer that needs to be spoken more about is Jainendra. Born in 1905, he was one of the first to join the Independence Movement in 1921. The interesting part is that most of his stories and novels are centered on the idea of freedom and the right to speech, which is what, pulls me to read his books. I have read his short stories in Hindi; however I must shamefully admit that it seemed like a mammoth task initially.

“The Resignation” or Tyagpatra is one of his most popular books published in 1937, and re-published in English (an amazing translation by Rohini Chowdhury) by Penguin India (God Bless them for that) very recently. The book though written in a time when every person was searching for an independent voice and way of life is still very relevant in our democratic society. The Resignation is a story of Mrinal, a young woman whose idealism is so strong that her family and the society around her rejects her completely and she is living on her own, facing situations as they come along.

That is the basic plot. On the other hand, Jainendra weaves the narration from the point of view of Mrinal’s nephew Pramod, who has adored and loved his aunt with deep passion. The themes of independence and family run deep in this book. Also hailed as a novel of psychological sensibility, The Resignation is an insight into life in those times and for a woman nonetheless as someone who is trying to live life on her terms.

What I found most interesting is that the novel is that Jainendra has taken many chances with its structure – from the plot to the way it has been narrated, which is quite refreshing. It almost reminded me of Tagore’s books and rightly so, considering that the themes of feminism (then I am sure not known as that) and individualism are clearly reflected in both their works.

The writing is fantastic. Every word is in its place and most credit goes to the translator (who often gets ignored) for the wonderful derivation of setting, meaning and the right words to add the much needed pace and communicative technique to the book.

The Resignation when it was first published; I am sure created a stir. It broke all rules of traditional sensibilities and that’s what makes it a great read. Indian literature is not what it seems most of the time till discovered and devoured. Great books such as these make it truly a niche genre.

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Book Review: The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

Title: The Lover’s Dictionary
Author: David Levithan
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-1250002358
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 211
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan is an ode to love – a subtle love letter to love and its nature. That is what the book means to me. Needless to say that the novel is written in the form of a dictionary – a dictionary of love and a relationship surrounding that love.

The idea is simple: How does one talk about love? Is there a way to talk about it? There are so many ways to talk about it. Love, which pulls us out of the ordinary and the mundane life and promises something so much more than what it can give. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. “The Lover’s Dictionary” is a song to those moments of love, almost every shade and colour, every emotion explored through a relationship and its definitions.

Love doesn’t unfold in bullet points. It needs definitions and conversations. It needs sharing and may be some looking back to see where it can go ahead, and if it should. David Levithan’s book is meant to be shared with people so they can be enthralled by its beauty.

The setting of the book is New York City – a relationship unravels through definitions (as mentioned earlier). The definitions in this dictionary are exhilarating and sometimes leave you breathless. Everyone who has ever been in a relationship or may be not also can connect with it. It speaks to all of us – straight, gay, men and women. The language is evocative. The words chosen to try to define love and its complexities are carefully chosen and unique. There is unapologetic romance on every page and that’s the sort of writer that David Levithan is. You can read the book from any page and may be try and make sense of your life in that instant with reference to that definition given. The writing is that powerful.

Sometimes the “dictionary” entries are only as much as a single sentence and yet so fulfilling. There are genuine insights to love and the possibility of it or not. Here are some gems from it: For example, “balk, v. I was the one who said we should live together. And even as I was doing it, I knew this would mean that I would be the one to blame if it all went wrong. Then I consoled myself with this: if it all went wrong, the last thing I’d care about was who was to blame for moving in together.” Or this: “reservation, n. There are times when I worry that I’ve already lost myself. That is, that myself is so inseparable from being with you that if we were to separate, I would no longer be. I save this thought for when I feel the darkest discontent. I never meant to depend so much on someone else.” Or this: love, n. I’m not even going to try.

The book talks of everything love is – first dates, the flirting, the wooing, the living-In, the break-ups and the coming back together to make it work. David Levithan’s writing is beyond superb. He has the capacity to string sentences like no other writer – that is his unique way to do so and that worked for me on all levels. For me, I could read and re-read this book – again and again and cherish it till I do not give enough of it. It is subtle, surreal, magical and takes you to a love – real, funny, heart-breaking and spectacular. You are missing out on something if you haven’t read it yet and I envy you if you would be reading it for the first time because it is so good.

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Book Review: The Red House by Mark Haddon

Title: The Red House
Author: Mark Haddon
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224096409
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

When Mark Haddon writes, you sit up and take notice. There are no two ways to that thought – at least not for me. I remember reading, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in 2003 and being taken in by the spectacular writing style and the first person narration. In the same way, I enjoyed reading, “A Spot of Bother” – very different from the first one and equally breath-taking.

I was then mailed an Advanced Reader’s Copy of, “The Red House” and my joy knew no bounds. The book is about middle-class angst and it works on so many levels, in terms of being able to relate to it. A great deal does not happen in the book. Do not expect twists and turns. Having said that, the book is a great read.

An adult brother and sister take their respective families on a holiday together in a cottage in Wales, following their mother’s death. The book is about the eight main characters’ thoughts, interactions with each other, and individual experiences. In my experience, when narratives shift in almost every chapter, the novel becomes boring and confusing to the reader. This does not happen with this book. Each character has a distinct voice (one of the clear talents of a good writer) and knows what to say and when.

The characters are: Angela, the sister and a working mom, on the verge of a breakdown, Dominic – Angela’s unemployed husband, their teenage son Alex, their religious daughter Daisy, their young son Benjy – living in his fantasy world, Richard – Angela’s estranged brother, Louisa – his wife and Melissa, his manipulative daughter.

Through these characters Haddon plays a week in the book, moving between each character – almost as swiftly as paragraph to the next. The book gave me the ever-changing, fascinating and the feeling that I was looking through a looking glass. The eight of them have their own secrets, longings and resentments which only make them as human as you and I. The writing zips in montages and sometimes it becomes difficult to figure who is carrying the baton, though once you get used to the writing, it isn’t difficult to figure.

The language and symbolism is weaved very well for a story of a dysfunctional family. In some parts, it almost reminded me of Faulkner’s, “The Sound and the Fury”, however those parts were rare. As a reader, you are left with many questions of the families’ future at the end of the book, but I guess that’s a great job done for the writer, if his/her readers are still thinking about the characters, way after the book has been devoured.

The Red House by Mark Haddon is a rollercoaster of emotions and all it works surprisingly well and all adds up at the end of the book. I would definitely and most certainly recommend this read for the long summer weekend that comes up.

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Book Review: Alice in Bed by Cathleen Schine

Title: Alice in Bed
Author: Cathleen Schine
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 9781250002402
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Alice in Bed by Cathleen Schine is the debut novel of the writer, and for that reason alone it shines, without getting too sentimental. I normally am petrified of reading a debut novel, for two reasons alone: I might end up loving it, which means that if the second novel disappoints, I would not read the author again or I might end up not liking it and then that is the end of it anyway. In both the cases, it is a loss-loss situation. Having said that, I am looking forward to reading all of Schine’s books (Alice in Bed was first published in 1983) – To the Birdhouse, The Love letter, The Evolution of Jane and The Three Weissmanns of Westport.

Alice in Bed, as the title suggests is about Alice in Bed. Her legs are stiff and she cannot walk, nor can she move them. Pain is a part and parcel of her life and she has somehow gotten used to it. She is prodded and poked in the hospital by doctors – engulfed by her ailments with no hope in sight. She is at the hospital and that is her life. The doctors do not know what is wrong with her and Alice is pissed. The transformation occurs when Alice gets around the hospital (in its hallways and outside) and gets to know more people and their lives and analyses her own with that funny wit and sardonic humour. She also falls in love (temporarily though) with a blond surfer before she returns home.

Hospitals are not the happiest places to be at. Schine knows how to portray “hospital life” with such clarity that the reader is sometimes taken aback. The book is morbid and funny at the same time. There was something odd and crazy at the same time about the characters in the hospital and yet there were times that I caught myself warming up to them.

The most interesting part about the book is that it is not narrated in the whiny tone which could have been possible. Instead it is refreshing (given the hospital in question) and hilarious. It takes a look at life with a “tongue-in-cheek” approach and “in-your-face” writing style. Cathleen Schine is such a good writer that even if there are parts you do not agree with (which was the case when I was reading it) or not like, it doesn’t really matter. My favourite characters were Alice’s distracted mother to Dr. Davis and Simchas Fresser. There is wit, pathos, and sometimes sex as well in the book. Alice in Bed sparkles on almost every level.

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