Monthly Archives: July 2012

Book Review: The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Title: The Free World
Author: David Bezmozgis
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-1250002518
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

When you write about the migrant experience, it becomes very difficult to encompass everything in one single book, keeping the trail of thought intact. The Free World by David Bezmozgis is a perfect example of this. A lot of books about the immigrant experience have been written and it isn’t to write so. A part of the author’s life also goes into the book or else you cannot write about the immigrant life.

David Bezmozgis’s book is a unique take on displaced people, of a family that is nowhere and yet the whole world seems to encompass in this book through their eyes. The Free World is a story of a family of Soviet Jews, who were released in the 1960s and 70s (the Russian Jews could finally leave and find their own way in the world) and could not travel directly to Israel or to the US. They had to often stop over at Vienna or Rome to enter the so-called “Free World”. The stop was undecided. It could take days, weeks or months. Till then, families had no clue as to what was going to happen. The limbo existed.

The book opens in 1978 with the arrival of the Krasnansky family in Rome. The family like any other family has its own eccentricities. Each character propels the story forward from his or her way of fitting into the novel. The patriarch, Samuil – an old Communist and Red Army Veteran, who reluctantly leaves home, misses his old life and mulls over it again and again. The mother, Emma is constantly devoted to her family and accepts all decisions without as much a mutter. She is yet central to the theme. The eldest son, Karl, arrives with his wife and two sons. He finds a new way in his life: The Roman Underworld. The younger son, Alec, the womanizer is accompanied with his new bride Polina, who is as scandalous as ever.

The family struggle with themselves – making sense of why they left and what it feels like to be in a strange country, in transit, waiting to get to the free world. The title of the book speaks to the reader on various levels – from freedom (which in this case is elusive as the characters speak for themselves) to the idea of freedom. Bezmozgis’s characters are as real as you and I. The story is beyond a story of a family’s stay in Rome. The political friction is sensitively handled throughout the novel. David Bezmozgis has successfully managed to show us how the family got to where they are when the novel opens.

The writing is accessible. At no point, did I get bogged down reading the book or turning the pages over and over again for references. The other Russian Jews in the book are as endearing as the central family. Each character has his or her story to tell and that is what makes this book unique. There is a lot of history in the book. I for one would have to read more books to understand that perspective a little better. The entire Anti-Semitism, restrictions, deep rooted fears of Stalin and his successors, the dangerous paths for Jews applying for visas, and the ones that literally got away – all this needs to be understood a little more. I could not stop thinking about the characters once I finished the book. Bezmozgis is able to capture the story of a family – lost within itself and in the outside world beautifully. A must read.

Here are some excerpts:

“So far I’ve been a citizen of two utopias. Now I have modest expectations. Basically, I want the country with the fewest parades.”

“What does it matter to them where they were?” muses Samuil. “How were they different from the birds who landed in one place or another, unmoored by allegiances or souls.” In this land of limbo, the only true connection is not to homeland – past or present – but to each other.

At one point, Alec says, “The same borders you crossed to get here, you can cross in reverse. It needn’t be hard. For all we know, it might even be easier in reverse.”

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Top 5 Graphic Memoirs

Comic books have become the brand new vehicle for autobiographies to be written. Readers also find it very easy to connect with them in the form of pictures and words, than just words. I have read them over the past couple of years and enjoyed this method of communication. Autobiographies can be quite heavy to read, so I guess this format works best, when you also want to lighten things and the writing.

So here are my top 5 comic autobiographies, so to say:

Maus by Art Spiegelman: Maus is the biography of Art’s father, Vladek and an autobiography of Art’s relationship with him. It is a book about his father’s account as a prisoner in Auschwitz during WWII. The book is beautifully designed and the graphics are brilliantly portrayed with the Nazis depicted as Cats and the Jews as Mice. Hence the title, Maus. Maus is a chilling and thought-provoking read. Something that will not leave you days after you have finished the book.

Maus is a two-part book. The complete edition can be purchased from HomeShop18 here

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: We have all watched the movie (most of us) and the so-called graphic novel is to die for. You should not go through life without reading this graphic memoir of identity, race, and one’s roots. The first volume of her autobiography is about when the Shah of Iran was deposed and the revolution was delivered, liberation at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, with severe implications for the normal folk. The second volume is of her return and the country from her point of view. Brilliantly told in sparse and simple black and white drawings, this one will sure get a lump in your throat.

You can purchase The Complete Persepolis on HomeShop18 here

Palestine by Joe Sacco: I remember reading Palestine for the first time and being blown by it in so many ways – this was probably the first one of its kind book. Journalism and reporting had found a new voice – Graphic Representation. Joe Sacco has managed to portray the lives of the Palestinians in the most amazing way with graphics, through interviews and laced with facts. The sense of place and feeling is surreally portrayed throughout the book. A book that you must not miss out on.

You can buy Palestine on HomeShop18 here

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel: This is everything a biography could be in the form of a Graphic Novel. A daughter getting to know her gay father better after his death. At the same time, she is trying to deal with her sexuality issues and all of this is taking place in rural Pennsylvania. The book is about her fraught relationship with her father, as she discovers herself in the process. A read that maybe is not for all, but a great one nonetheless.

You can buy the book from HomeShop18 here

Stitches by David Small: Stitches is bold, brazen, and heartbreaking. It is about Small’s growing up years where his household was ever tense and people spoke in another language: that of breaking stuff and banging doors. It also tells the story of David, who wakes up one morning from a supposedly harmless operation to find out that he, is virtually mute. His parents did not inform him about his vocal cord being removed and the implications – emotional and artistic on his growing-up years. This book stayed with me for a very long time. I could not forget the stark and raw visuals. Read it if you can stomach the truth.

Stitches by David Small can be bought from HomeShop18 here

So these are my top 5 graphic memoirs. A brilliant place sometimes to start reading graphic novels.

Book Review: The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

Title: The Dream of the Celt
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Publisher: Faber and Faber UK
ISBN: 978-0571275717
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Mario Vargas Llosa is pure genius when it comes to the writing business. His sentences, his words, the plot of his books are beyond stupendous. The reason I praise him the way I do is apparent in his writing and he proves it yet again with his new book, “The Dream of the Celt”.

The Dream of the Celt is the fictionalized biography of Roger Casement (a failed revolutionary) – who was instrumental in Ireland’s struggle for Independence (after he served the British Government and was rewarded by them in more than one way), which culminated in the Easter uprising in 1916. That is just the basic plot of the book, which appears only in the third part. The first two parts of the book are about Casement’s struggle to expose the exploitation of natives in the Congo and the Amazon by rubber barons.

“The Dream of the Celt” is spot on with reference to not only the Peruvian scenery (but obviously he would) but also Irish culture and history, which is evident not only from the story, but also in the manner in which it is narrated. The other angle that Llosa explores is that of Casement being homosexual (and involved with powerful people in the system) as seen through his letters and journals. This propels the story beside the revolution.

I have read Vargas in the past and immensely enjoyed what he has written. Most of his novels center on a political theme or so. The historical novels explore the human toll taken by political idealism. This novel however explores somewhat the lighter side of Casement, which is quite a relief. At the same time, there are a lot of political issues seething at the core of this novel, due to which I had to read up a lot on the side, not only about Casement, but also about his revolution, its cause and thereby the effects.

Edith Grossman has done a wonderful job of the translation, considering that all elements of the book (I am assuming from the authors’ point of view) have been tied eloquently. The story moves back and forth from prisons to Roger’s outside-of-prison experiences, his ideologies and values, giving us a glimpse of the man he was.

The only problem that I had while reading this novel, like I mentioned earlier, was the political scope. It left me confused in places (especially when it came to the dates and which ship did Casement ride) but then it was alright after a while. Vargas can write anything and some of us will love all that he writes. That’s the power of his words.

This book is not for everyone though. It is a challenging read and you might not want to make this your first Llosa read. Try starting with, “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” or “In Praise of the Stepmother”, which is ideal to an introduction to this fabulous writer.

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Book Review: I, Rama: Age of Seers: Book 1 by Ravi Venu

Title: I, Rama: Age of Seers: Book 1
Author: Ravi Venu
Publisher: Cratus Media
ISBN: 978-0615582504
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 264
Source: BlogAdda
Rating: 1/5

If there is one book I would recommend you guys not to read, then that would be, “I, Rama: Age of Seers: Book 1” by Ravi Venu. Normally I like books for at least one element or the other. I believe that the author has something to provide to the readers, however I could not say the same for this book. There was also one other fact: I could not finish the book. I read almost seventy-five percent of it and then gave up. I do not like not finishing books; however I could not finish this one.

I, Rama is the first book in a trilogy (I think) written from Rama’s perspective. While the basic plot is intriguing, the book does not live up to the mystery and drama. We all know the story of Rama – the exiled prince, of how he was exiled, of how his wife Sita was kidnapped by Ravana, the demon king.

We are aware of the trials and tribulations undertaken by Rama and the monkey army to save Sita. Kaikeyi has been shown in a different light (twist in the tale) – a warrior princess with immense strength of character. The story is told in flashback mode with Rama narrating it to Lava and Kusha. Rama is the crowned king and has been ruling the kingdom for some time now. This is his story, as experienced by him.

I could not find anything that held my attention in the book for long. The writing was predictable. The situations sometimes more so. The idea however is excellent. The story had a lot of potential. Having Rama to present his side of the story, but then again, for me the detailing is written in a manner that bored me. I could not connect with the book. Maybe the book was written, considering there are so many books based on mythological characters that are doing the rounds anyway. However, it doesn’t live up to them or in that genre. It just seems forced and not up to the mark.

The writing was fluid initially, but that also lost ground at some point in the book. It jumped too soon and I as a reader could not keep pace with it. The characters were well-etched and yet did not seem to have a voice of their own. Their thoughts and emotions seem forced and too clichéd at times. I think the book might do well in the mass market, considering it is a story of Rama, and that is interesting enough for readers to pick it up. This is also a trilogy, I think. I would not recommend this book for sure to anyone. In a long time, a book did not work for me. Not even as a fast read.

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An Interview with Azad Essa


So after reading, “The Moslems are Coming”, I was so intrigued by what must have gone on in the author’s head while writing this book, that I had to interview Azad Essa, the writer. Here is a short interview with him. Hope you enjoy it.

1. How did, “The Moslems are Coming” happen?

After being published in South Africa as ‘Zuma’s Bastard’ – I was keen to get the book into the South Asian market, especially the Indian market. So much of the book had India written all over it and crucially, it wasn’t a fluffy look at India so I thought it would be of interest to at least a couple of folks on the subcontinent – so to speak. Fortunately, the editors at HarperCollins India loved the idea and decided to bring it over.

2.Why such a title? It definitely results in some stares and discussions. Was it intended?

We were definitely looking for a punchy title. After all, it is not as though the book is about cookies and cream. We wanted the cover, the title to represent, and to be as much a part of the discussion as the material inside it. We wanted people to look, and look again, because it is also the nature of the content.

3.South Africa and India. The similarities? Differences?

It is difficult to compare countries but let’s give it a shot.

Both South Africa and India have iconic histories that have inspired far beyond their backyard. Both share diverse populations, a number of languages and divisive histories.

Today India and South Africa are important powerhouses in their respective regions. Both are bullies in their regions as they lobby to become big bullies on the global scene – You bully Bangladeshis, we bully Zimbabweans. It is easy because the world likes your call centers and our gold mines.

There are also the security issues. You have jihadists planting bombs every now and then, and smug Delhi boys have begun molesting unsuspecting girls with disturbing regularity. On our side of the globe, we carjackings, murders and one of the highest incidences of rape in the world.

Also, both governments seem to have low expectations of their electorate – and so corruption and mismanagement is par for the course – and this is unlikely to rescind.

Hah, now we seem like long-lost cousins!

But to be fair, South Africa is home to 50 million people and we can’t seem to get it right. Meeting the expectations of 1.2 billion must pose some serious logistical issues for your management…

4. Your literary influences…

Hesse, Fanon, Foucault, Sontag, (Tom) Eaton, Herge’s Tintin and my father’s letters to newspaper editors.

5. Azad as a writer…

Anarchic, moody, disorganised and violent.

6. Azad the person…

Rather pleasant, most of the time.

7. What do you think of the so-called modern India?

Fascinating, really. There is an Indian type of modernity that is pacy, prosperous, bafflingly in its intensity but extremely exclusive and isolating. Surely modernity is more than another excuse to amass personal wealth, shop in decadent malls and fuel an insatiable thirst to consume the same products dressed up with an Indian flavour?

Modernity is also about designing the future with an emphasis on raising the standards of living, including health, housing and education for as many people as possible in improving human dignity. It just feels that India, like South Africa, would do well to take a step back and decide what type of modernity it desired before it plunged right in and pretended that the Maharaja Mac burger was anything different to a Big Mac…

You can read my review of the book here