Monthly Archives: March 2013

Book Review: The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee Title: The Childhood of Jesus
Author: J.M. Coetzee
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 978-1846557262
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

J.M. Coetzee’s books are not easy to read. His writing is not easy to comprehend either at times. It takes a while for the reader to figure where he is going with the plot, but once the reader gets the hang of it, it is a cakewalk from thereon. Every time I pick up a Coetzee, I am a little apprehensive of how is it going to turn out. I know for a fact that the book will not be a happy one. His books generally are not. That is another supposition I kept in mind when I started reading his latest book, “The Childhood of Jesus”.

Do not go by the title of the book. While the book is allegorical in nature, it is quite different from the childhood of Jesus. I think most readers would be tempted to read this one because of the title, however it is very different. The novel is very elusive. It is mysterious in so many ways and that is why to me in most places, it was a complex read. The book takes place in an alternate reality (see what I mean about the complex nature of the book), following a man named Simon and a boy named David, who have come to a place called Novilla. They aren’t related. Simon has appointed himself as David’s guardian and he wants to search for David’s real mother, going only by his instincts and nothing else. They do not know how she looks or what her name is. This is how the book begins and this in short is the plot of the book.

The book is vast and sometimes as a reader I stopped looking for any similarities with the birth and the childhood of Jesus. The city or country that Simon and David are in is quite difficult to explain. There is almost no sense of time there or sometimes sense of place. There is a dock where Simon works and meets new people and in the course of the book meets some more new people, however the associations are kind of vague and on loop for some time.

The themes that emerge from the book are vague as well and yet so strong at times: the search for meaning in a person’s life, strife, disengagement, passion, the sense of the self and a whole lot of objectivity in a literary novel of this nature and scope. While the plot is ingenious and also intriguing to a great extent, my only fear was that of getting lost in this book of vast proportions (and this has got nothing to do with the number of pages). Overall: I really enjoyed this book. It was vague in parts, but the writing was first-class and just because of this I had to give it five stars.

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Book Review: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner Title: Crossing to Safety
Author: Wallace Stegner
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
ISBN: 9780375759314
Genre: Classics, Literary Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

I had heard a lot about “Crossing to Safety” from a lot of people online. It is one of the American Classics that demand a read and once you have read it, you will be ever thankful. Or so I had heard from everyone who had read the book and could not stop talking about it. I had to read it. I tried reading it initially and then gave it up. I could not get past the fiftieth page. I tried reading it once more. It appealed to me a little and then some more. Before I knew it, I was done with the book and also had a few tissues by my side drenched with my tears. Yes, it is an emotional book and yes it makes you cry, which is wonderful, because very few books have managed to make me cry.

“Crossing to Safety” was written by Wallace Stegner during the 80s and first published in 1987 and since then it has marvelled its readers and made them think and laugh and cry. The plot is not very complex, neither it is very profound. What makes it so close to life is its writing and the fact that it is just like living – slow, redundant and yet full of hope and ideas that soar. It is a story of two couples and their long standing friendship, loves and lives played out between Vermont and Wisconsin.

The book is as simple as it seems and yet resonates with the reader on so many levels. It is about the quietness of marriage and on the stability of life, where maybe nothing much has to happen anyway. It is us who are bored of it more often than not and want changes. Stegner puts everything in perspective, well almost everything – his take on life, marriage and art is stupendous through this novel. Wallace Stegner looks at humans the way they are – defeated and sometimes with a lot of flaws. He does not glorify any character or any philosophy. In his books, things are the way they are – slow moving and without any events.

What the author does is create a magnificent portrait of relationships through two couples. The book is about how you cannot plan life and it will work out quite differently from what you thought it would. Of course I am not going to give away the subplot, however it is about the single day when you try so hard to remain in character and not do what you aren’t expected to, but end up doing just that to prove life otherwise. Stegner’s writing is big, bold and good. He takes his chances with the narrative – sometimes linear and sometimes not so much. I could not stop turning the pages and by the end of it I was enriched as a reader for sure and yet was drained as a person in the sense of an emotion – I cried because it was written so well. A must read. A classic that you should not miss.

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Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan Title: A Visit from the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN: 9780307477477
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

When you finish reading a book of a stature such as “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan, you sit down, breathe and keep breathing, till the breath paces itself out and you aren’t gasping anymore. The effect of books has to be this way. It has to have the maddening reaction in a reader – the gasping, the constant thinking about the characters and more so how would their lives turn out after the book is finished. Would they have a life at all once the reader has ended the reading? Would he or she go back and revive them? If a book can evoke these thoughts, then it is of the most superb quality writing that existed.

“A Visit from the Goon Squad” is all about lives being lived and the ones that were lived in the past. The book according to me is all about memories, failed lives, failed loves and how somewhere in all of this, there is this bleak thought of giving hope a chance and seeing where life goes thereon. There is nothing sugar coated in the book. Egan gives the reader, “life” the way it is – harsh, uncompromising, difficult and sometimes worth living just for all of that. Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the young, troubled woman he employs. The book is essentially about their lives, their pasts and how it all merges into one big fascinating book.

Egan takes us through generations and different people through the two protagonists. The other characters are integral to the plot, because through them Bennie’s and Sasha’s lives are shown to the reader. The larger themes of the novel – loneliness, despair, a lost generation, materialism, the quest for happiness is so deeply embroiled in the book that the reader would find it very difficult to disassociate his emotions from them. The story skips back and forth in time, so initially, I did face some problem reading it, however once I got the hang of it, it was a breeze of a read. The passage of time is at the core of this book, with Egan orchestrating the entire book and making it fall into place with each character’s life revealing itself in each chapter.

I loved the second last chapter of the book, which is in the form of a Power Point Presentation. This is the uniqueness that I look for in books at times and it was superlative in this one. Egan’s characters are most humane and that is the most heartbreaking quality they possess. They make their mistakes, going through life, wanting to rectify it all, wanting that one chance at redemption to make things the way they were and this is where I most connected with the book. “A Visit from the Goon Squad” is something that will not let go of you that easily. You will relate with it and that is when it will play on your mind and heart, as all great books do.

Here are some quotes from the book:

“I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away – I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art.”

“If I had a view like this to look down on every day, I would have the energy and inspiration to conquer the world. The trouble is, when you most need such a view, no one gives it to you.”

“There are so many ways to go wrong. All we’ve got are metaphors, and they’re never exactly right. You can never just Say. The. Thing.”

“Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” Scotty shook his head. “The goon won.”

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Book Review: Bitter Almonds by Laurence Cossé

Bitter Almonds by Laurence Cossé Title: Bitter Almonds
Author: Laurence Cossé
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609450892
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 172
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

It is so important to be educated. Is it not? So much so that we – the ones who are educated almost take it for granted. A privilege of sorts. We can never imagine not being literate. To us, that is the core of everything, which as I said often gets overlooked for whatever reason. I tried teaching someone once a long time ago, taught him to read a little and to me that remains closest to my heart. It was not much but it mattered and reading “Bitter Almonds” by Laurence Cossé brought back all those memories all over again. The idea that a book can do that is sufficient enough for me to keep reading, to keep turning those pages, as I pick one great book after another and that is the power and hold that books and reading have on me.

“Bitter Almonds” to put it simply is a book where one woman teaches another how to read and write. Having said this, just as any other book that look deceptively simple, this one too has many layers to it, which will warm the cockles of your heart (so to say) as you get further into the narrative. The story is based in Paris and centered on two women – Edith and Fadila, her sixty-year-old housemaid (an immigrant from Morocco), who is completely illiterate.

Edith doesn’t understand how a person can be illiterate. She doesn’t get how Fadila must be undertaking the day to day activities of life without knowing how to read or write. Edith then takes it on herself to ensure Fadila is educated and in the right manner. It is not going to be an easy task for Edith and yet at the end of it all and during the lessons, there forms an unexplainable bond between the two women – like they have known each other for years and lifetimes across this one. The thought processes, the emotions, the lives merge and this how they find their friendship, which is both delightful and heartbreaking.

This is the kind of book that I had wanted to read for a very long time by Laurence Cossé, more so after reading, “A Novel Bookstore” which is not only unusual in its plot but also highly satisfying as a novel. Of course one cannot compare the two books; however, “Bitter Almonds” is in a league of its own. Cossé takes us into the hearts and minds of these women and lets us know what friendship and love is all about. She simply describes the world and the relationship of these two women in the book – the way it is – without boundaries and the time it takes for them to trust each other.

“Bitter Almonds” is written with great care and tenderness and maybe that is why it speaks to you the way it does. The translation by Alison Anderson is but of course superlative, given that I also loved her translation of “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. It is very important that the translation speak to the reader with the same intensity that the original would, had I known how to read French.

The book spoke to me on many levels – of not being able to make sense of life when one doesn’t know how to read or write (and I shudder at the thought if I was ever illiterate), of maybe the need to help someone or change a person’s life (because I also think that we do not do that enough) and of the basic connection of the soul and heart beyond language and literacy.

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Book Review: Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag by Orlando Figes

Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes Title: Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag
Author: Orlando Figes
Publisher: Penguin Group
ISBN: 9780241955901
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

To live a life away from the one that you love is not easy at all. It almost leaves me breathless thinking about it. I mean just the thought of it is enough for me to send out a prayer for it to never happen to two people who love each other deeply. And while I type this, I am thinking of a wondrous book I finished reading this month. A lot has been written on war camps and the tortures people had to undergo in any war-time, in any country and any place in the world. However, this book is extremely close to my heart after I finished reading it, and now to its review.

“Just Send Me Word” is a moving love story of two people, Lev and Sveta, who first met while taking an entrance exam in Moscow University in 1935, moving through tough times of the Gulag and ending only with their death in old age. The book talks of how these two loved through these tough times and the only means of exchange they had through these times were letters. This is when Lev was a victim of the political scene and could not do much about it. All they had were letters.

Letters written in abundance and smuggled in and out of concentration camps – from those of WWII to the ones at Gulag and the ones that existed during the Cold War. Lev’s life was that of a prisoner from 1946 to 1954, almost eight to nine years, knowing that his wife loved him and keeping the faith that they would meet someday.

What follows in the book is simply extraordinary – the lives led through letters, the exchanges that take place, the longing to have a normal life and being denied that. There are lots of life lessons in this book as put by Orlando Figes – the way he saw it while reading their letters. I was only too glad that he decided to write a book of this nature, which is not only unique but also quite moving. While a lot has been written about the Gulags and the condition that existed in those war camps, this one provided a heartfelt perspective to me – it was beautiful, hopeful and as a reader I was hooting for the couple to see it through it all and be reunited.

Books like these speak to you. As a reader you do not have to relive the experience or have gone through it. I guess you just need to have a heart – the one that feels the words and the emotions and can connect to them like any other human being. It somehow makes you see the atrocities of war and how love triumphs almost everything. I would not say that this should be made into a film at all (though it has all the elements of one), however it should be felt again and again for the beauty of its words. A must read for a reader who wants to cry and feel happy at the end of it all.

Here is a sneak peak from the book, from Sveta’s perspective and what she thinks to herself: “if letters couldn’t be smuggled in, why couldn’t she?”

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