Monthly Archives: September 2012

Book Review: Panorama City by Antoine Wilson

Title: Panorama City
Author: Antoine Wilson
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547875125
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Some books just have a big heart. Maybe they weren’t meant to be written that way. Maybe they were. Panorama City by Antoine Wilson is one such book. I remember reading it on a Sunday afternoon and could not tear myself away from it for a single minute.

Panorama City opens with the protagonist Oppen Porter who is a lot like Forrest Gump, but I thought he was more intelligent than Forrest. Oppen is a twenty-eight year old man, who is a simpleton. He calls himself a slow absorber. We see him at the beginning of the book, moving from his hometown Madera for the San Fernando Valley and Panorama City, where his aunt lives. He does so as he has just buried his father and wants to leave his hometown to make something of himself. In his words, he wants to be a, “man of the world”.

Oppen’s aunt is weird. She is everything he doesn’t like being around with. She is a control freak and a religious fanatic. She gets him a job at the local fast food restaurant and lines up sessions for him with a local shrink. She wants to treat him as a project and whip him into shape.

Oppen as a character is endearing. You do not think he is challenged in anyway. He drifts from one situation to another and has his thoughts laid out. For instance, one person who makes a big impression on Oppen is Paul Renfro, a so-called philosopher (basically a con man), who meets him on the bus to LA and meets him again in Panorama City.

Oppen questions everything that he goes through in his life. His observations are peculiar and new and funny to a very large extent. He is convinced he is going to die young and wants to leave his story for posterity. He is telling his story into a tape-recorder from a hospital bed as a legacy for his unborn son, Juan-George. Yes that is another twist in the tale which surprises the readers. The book traces forty days and forty nights as the story unfolds.

Antoine Wilson has done something which maybe writers take a long time to do through their books – he makes the reader feel. He makes you relate to Oppen and surprisingly you do, even if you thought you couldn’t to begin with.

Panorama City spoke to me on many levels – on losing a parent, on death, on trying to survive in a world and go through it in a funny manner. Antoine’s writing is bittersweet and presents itself in long monologues, which works beautifully for the structure of the novel. The big questions of life are answered in a touching and funny manner and that is what I loved the most about the book. Panorama City is a sweet and tender book. It is the kind of book that unfolds hope and misgivings of life side by side and makes you hoot for Oppen. Antoine Wilson has done a wonderful job of the book. A must-read.

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A Love Letter to Books

Dear Books,

This is my love letter to you. An earnest lover’s love expressed through words. The words that you and I understand and know the best. I will try not to make it sentimental. I will try not to get overwhelmed. I will try not to stain the page with my tears of joy, because come on, you and I know how important your existence is to me.

You have been there in my life since I knew how to read and thank god for that. Some people do not understand you and they are such fools that I don’t even bother interacting with them. There are others who write you and yet haven’t read the best of what you have to offer. You are hidden sometimes – waiting to be found in that pile on the wall, in that library shelf, in the section of the bookstore that no one goes to and yet when they find you, they are overjoyed. That is your charm. I guess that is the reason of your existence – to spread happiness through words and their meanings and emotions.

Books, you know you have been there throughout, right? If not, then you should be made aware. You have been there all the time – through the good times, through the worst of them and sometimes in-between. I cannot begin to thank you and how for making life a lot bearable. If it weren’t for you, then it would be a dull life for sure. In fact, let me go a step ahead and say that maybe it wouldn’t be worth living.

You guys know it all. You are precious to me. I love you more than anything else in the world and I hope you know that by now. You have to. People say I am boring. They say that I do not party or get out much often. But well, I have you. So I guess it is enough or so it seems for now. The love-affair is peaceful. There are no expectations from me, but besides the fact that I read. You guys have the capacity to lure me, entice me, do the word-dance and I am all yours for the night.

I said I would not get sentimental but that seems a little difficult, given that it’s you I am talking about. How can I not get sentimental? How can I not think of all the times I have spent with you and more times to come and expect not have the lump in my throat? I cannot. I am human after all.

Books, you have made this world easy to tolerate. You have taken me places and brought me back in the comfort of my spot in my room. You make me dream of stories I read in you. You make me wonder and question and open my mind through your writers’ thoughts. You do that and much more. I could never get enough and maybe this letter is not worthy of your praise. I could go on and mumble about how much I love you. But then this is enough for now. The message is clear.

A Reader.

Book Review: Silent House by Orhan Pamuk

Title: Silent House
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-670-08559-0
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translation
Pages: 334
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Not everyone I have met who like reading, like Orhan Pamuk. They say they cannot get into his books. Of course. It is true. One needs a lot of patience and time on hand to be able to read and appreciate a Pamuk. The first time I started on was with, “My Name is Red” and it took me two rereads to be able to understand the intricacies and his style. After that, most of his books seemed to be a breeze, with a lot of substance at heart. Grand issues, families, morals and emotions are at the core of his books. Not to forget the Turkish culture.

“Silent House” by Orhan Pamuk might be new for the English reading population, but definitely not for the Turkish one. It is Pamuk’s second novel and well better late than never that the English readers get to read it.

The plot revolves around an old widow Fatma, living in an old mansion in Cennethisar, a former fishing village in Istanbul, awaiting the annual summer visit of her grandchildren. She has been a part of the village for decades now, where her husband, a doctor, first arrived to serve the village folk. Fatma is now almost bedridden, attended on by her faithful servant, Recep, a dwarf and the doctor’s illegitimate son.

The dwarf and the matron share everything – life, memories, food, happiness and grievances of the early years, before Cennethisar became a resort and of the present – the changes that are pushing Istanbul to modernity.

The grandchildren arrive bringing with them their burdens, lives and hopes. Faruk, the failed historian, his sensitive leftist sister, Nilgun; Metin, the high-school student who is drawn to the so-called life of nouveaux riches and dreams of America and the possibilities. Amidst them there is Hassan, Recep’s nephew, a school drop-out and a right-wing Nationalist, whose views are radical and in touch with the Istanbul that he envisions.

The story has way too many layers to it. I felt at times that maybe three hundred and thirty four pages weren’t enough to tell this story, but maybe had it extended beyond, it would probably get boring.

Recep shone throughout the book. The dwarf’s character has been etched to the hilt and is definitely not underplayed at any given point. His interaction with the others is sometimes what propels the book. Fatma mulls over life and longing, as the action unfolds in the mansion and lives are played out. Hassan is the angry young man in so many ways and restrained in so many others.

Orhan Pamuk’s genius can never be doubted. Maybe he just knows how to deliver, even if the book has just been translated recently. The writing takes you by the throat in some places and makes you wonder and contemplate in others. Robert Finn’s translation is even and I am thankful that it was done for this book.

“Silent House” is a treat for all literary lovers. One that needs to be savoured and read maybe once again. I will in time for sure. It deserves a reread.

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Book Review: Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

Title: Ten Thousand Saints
Author: Eleanor Henderson
Publisher: Quercus Books
ISBN: 978-1780872179
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

It took me quite a lot of time to get into the skin of this book and enjoy it. “Ten Thousand Saints” by Eleanor Henderson wasn’t an easy read to begin with. Let me directly get to the plot.

The book begins on New Year’s Eve 1987 in a fictional college town Lintonburg, Vermont. Two teenagers, Teddy and Jude are out partying with their new friend Eliza from Manhattan. Everything seems to be going fine when Teddy is found dead the next morning, after huffing Freon and on an overdose of Cocaine. The guilt weighs heavy on Jude and Eliza, as they were the ones who provided the drugs. Eliza also discovers that she is pregnant with Teddy’s baby and is confounded about what to do. Eliza, Jude and Teddy’s older half-brother Johnny then decide to raise the baby.

That is essentially the crux of the story. I found it a little difficult to read initially because of the structure but when you get used to it, it is a breeze. The parents of the teenagers are as involved in the book as the kids. The story also centers on the parents’ decisions and its impact on their kids. Jude’s divorced parents make their living by selling marijuana. Eliza’s mom is a self-indulgent and aging ballerina. Teddy and Johnny’s mom is an aging hippie. In short: Nothing is what it seems and it all goes wrong and also connects everyone with the other after Teddy’s death.

The book does tend to get repetitive at times but it is fascinating to some extent. There are times when you can get into the characters’ minds because they are so well-formed and etched. Maybe it is nothing new, but the content covers almost every topic – from homelessness to the emergence of AIDS in the late 80’s, to the time when things were progressing rapidly in the US of A and its impact on the characters and their lives.

The metaphors used are marvellous and fit like a glove on every page. The redemption of characters takes place gradually in the book and when you see it as a reader, it has the capacity to astound you. The overarching themes make the plot what it is – beautiful that is. The moral dilemma of the characters only adds to the book.

“Ten Thousand Saints” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was definitely mine and I am glad I endured and read through it.

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Book Review: The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph

Title: The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Author: Manu Joseph
Publisher: Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-9350293645
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Manu Joseph is definitely the most promising writer on the Indian Literary scene as of now and well-deserved of that place in my opinion. Serious Men made a great impact in the literary world and rightly so. It was a sweeping novel of family, doubt, and loss in an emerging India, full of hopes, aspirations and the need to get somewhere. Manu Joseph writes with a keen eye to details. He knows what he wants to convey to the much-eager reader and he delivers to the maximum.

“The Illicit Happiness of Other People” is yet again another example of his genius. The reader should not compare it to Serious Men. It may be the same writing style, but of course, the plots are radically different.

“The Illicit Happiness of Other People” is set in Madras in the early 90s when technology was well on its way to invade the country and the lifestyle changes were crawling up unaware to the Great Indian Middle Class. Ousep Chacko is an anarchist. He is a family man. He is an alcoholic. He wants to know what happened to his first-born seventeen year old Unni Chacko, the highly talented comic book writer and illustrator. Why did he do what he did? What compelled him to? The only clue he has on hand is his son’s comic strip and he has to string and make sense of his son’s life through that and meeting people he doesn’t know existed in Unni’s life.

While this plot is unfolding itself, we have his second son, Thoma who hasn’t shown as much promise as Unni and is often ignored by his father. All his father wants is answers about Unni’s life. The other angle is that of his wife, who is suffering in silence. Unni’s cartoons reveal more than what Ousep wants to know and that reels the story in a completely different direction, with the arrival of a stranger who will change things for the three of them.

The book is beautifully written and heart-breaking to a large extent, with the right doses of humour thrown in. I must admit that it took me sometime to sink into the book at the beginning, but when I did, I could not stop myself from reading. The story is infectious and grows on you. Just when you think that the writing and characters have become predictable, there is a sense of comfort; Joseph surprises you by pulling an unexpected rabbit out of his wordsmith hat.

The writing and the characters reach out to you in ways you can never imagine. Your heart goes out to Ousep and yet there are times you wish he didn’t do things that he does. Thoma as the recluse is brilliantly etched and the mother, though silent plays a crucial part in the book. The highlight of the book for me was when it all made sense, when the book looped in. Characters searching for happiness and fulfillment in a book are most tragic for the reader. It almost holds a mirror sometimes. You then know the ulterior motives of characters. They just want happiness after all, so much so that they start despising others for being happy.

I cannot stop raving about this book. Nothing is out of place and nothing is flawed in the writing. Whoever says that Indian Writing has not yet reached its pinnacle has to read this book to probably take back their words. I would recommend it to whosoever I meet.

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