Monthly Archives: April 2019

Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury by Carolyn Burke

Foursome by Carolyn BurkeTitle: Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury
Author: Carolyn Burke
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780307957290
Genre: Art History, Literary Biographies
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I had only known of Georgia O’Keeffe before reading this book. The others were merely names till I read this biography. Of course, I was aware that Alfred was Georgia’s mentor and love, but that’s that. This book is not about the gossip, as much as it is about art and what it does to artists. Foursome is a read about four brilliant artists and their place in the world. It is about an “inner circle” – their turmoils in relation to art, their successes, the places they lived and visited, and the relationship they shared with each other.

Foursome is a book that takes its time to grow on you. You cannot jump into it expecting immediate gratification as a reader. You have to be patient with it for itself to be shown to you. Burke’s new impressive book Foursome is also about America in the making. This book also made me see that perhaps personal relationships (no matter how crucial to artists) are not larger than the artistic ones that develop between people who would go to any lengths for their creative passions.

The centre of Burke’s research are the years from 1920 to 1934 in which the four companions (can term them that) flirted, developed and knew their passions, experimented artistically, and also saw fame – some greater, some lesser. It is almost like living in a bubble surrounded by people you can feed off artistically. And I think this is what led them to become such sources of gossip. Burke looks at all of this and more. She strives to write about what went on in the world as well, while their stories and lives were unfolding. History then becomes a parallel story-teller of sorts, drawing upon what changed and therefore how their relationships altered.

Foursome is the kind of biography that makes you want to jump right in and read more about the world at that time and the people who inhabited them. It is about people who take their chances, and are aware of their flaws, strengths, and all of it. The nature of art and its relationship with artists is of course the crux of the book but Burke goes further and gives us journal entries, letters, and conversations (some recorded, most not) that adds to the telling of lives that is fascinating, intriguing, and above all just makes you think about people who influenced the structure of twentieth-century art.

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What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break The Silence. Edited by Michele Filgate

What My Mother and I Don't Talk About Title: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break The Silence
Edited by Michele Filgate
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 978-1982107345
Genre: Essays
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Relationships are complex. Most relationships are not easy to navigate around. I think the one we share with our parents is most difficult. I have always had a problem expressing what I feel to my parents. I think it just stemmed from the fact that we do not speak enough or try to make ourselves heard enough. This has nothing to do with love not being there, or not being brought up in a healthy environment (at least in my case). It is just that we have not learned how to communicate with them. Perhaps that needs to change and maybe it will. Only time and effort can tell, to be honest.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is a compilation of essays by fifteen writers, edited by Michele Filgate. As the title suggests it is about breaking the silence. It is about talking to our mothers about what matters or has mattered the most. The collection starts with Michele’s essay about being abused by her stepfather. This took her almost more than a decade to write about and then to think how it would affect her relationship with her mother. This in turn encouraged her to reach out to other writers and see how they look at their relationships with their mothers.

The collection see-saws from one extreme to another – while some writers are extremely close to their mothers, some are estranged beyond repair. It is the question of also mothers being first homes as we make our way into the world and a support system for most. The one whose validation we seek the most and the one with whom we also fight the most. This collection is solid and comes from a diverse selection of writers and what they do not talk about: family, love, abuse, secrets, expectations, and disappointments to say the least.

My favourite pieces from the book were the ones written by Alexander Chee (about his sexual abuse and his not being able to fit in at school at the same time), Michele Filgate (as I mentioned it is about abuse by her stepfather), Brandon Taylor, (most heart wrenching according to me about how he wish he could’ve understood his mother better), and Nayomi Munaweera (she speaks about her mother’s borderline personality disorder).

Regret, estrangement, the universal feeling of love and pain are the running themes in this book. There is a common trait that we all identify and relate with: That of lack of communication. How sometimes mothers don’t listen and how we don’t say what we must. But not all of the essays stem out of pain. Some are funny (rare) and some are just looking at their mothers differently – a new perspective and realising themselves in the process, which I think we must all look at.

Reading an essay or a collection of essays such as these is so intimate that it physically hurts you. It makes you see yourself as a person and whether or not you have evolved in relation to your mother. What is the basis of your relationship with her, beside the fact that she gave birth to you? What it actually means to get closure when you need it the most? What it does to you to take the step and speak out loud? What would it then do to your other relationships, once you cross this barrier with your mother and try and face the concealed truth? We all go through this. We have all been there. This book if anything speaks to all of us and will for sure make you sit up and perhaps call your mother.

If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail N. Rosewood

If I Had Two Lives Title: If I Had Two Lives
Author: Abbigail N. Rosewood
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609455217
Genre: Literary Fiction, Immigrant Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Sometimes you just don’t know what to make of a book till you are done reading and pondering a bit over it. If I Had Two Lives was that kind of read for me. This is a coming of age book, it is also a book about an immigrant in the United States of America, and it is also about going back home. Honestly, it might also seem been there, done that (and I also felt that on reading the blurb), but it isn’t that at all. I think every book no matter how similar the plot line to another book, always has something different to say – no matter in what capacity.

If I Had Two Lives is the story of a child who has been isolated from the world in a secret military camp, with a distant mother. Distant mothers as we all know only lead to more mental health issues in all of fiction. Anyway, there she meets a sympathetic soldier and another girl, leading to a very unlikely friendship.

The scene then jumps to New York, where as an adult, she is torn between people who are no longer a part of her life and people who are. She understands that for all of it to make sense, she has to return to where she started from: Vietnam. This in short is the plot of If I Had Two Lives.

Why did I like it?

Rosewood’s writing is sparse and most effective. Most of the novel is without names, except for some and you will understand why as you read the book. I think it is actually because of the title and what it means – the sense of identity (can there be one without a name?), memory (how twisted and convenient it can be), and what is the value we place on people in our lives?

If I Had Two Lives seemed like not a debut, but a work of someone experienced. I think it is also about how well you tell a story, and what do you want to communicate to the readers. In this case, it was the brutality of dislocation and the force of compassion that came through stunningly, with every turn of the page. It is a modern tale, seeped in the past and that’s what makes it what it is: intriguing and gorgeously written. A great debut that deserves all the attention.

The Cracks in Our Armour by Anna Gavalda. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

The Cracks in Our Armour Title: The Cracks in Our Armour
Author: Anna Gavalda
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1787701632
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I love short stories. A good short story is as good as a novel. Sometimes even better. Of course, some may think otherwise, but this is just my opinion. And to see one of my favourite writers venture into the short-story territory was a joy and she didn’t disappoint at all. The Cracks in Our Armour is a collection of stories that is right up her alley and completely what is expected from a writer of her calibre.

I will start right away with the translation. Alison Anderson by far is one of my favourite French translators. From the Elegance of the Hedgehog to Pétronille by Amélie Nothomb, her translation prowess is on point and she brings her very best game to The Cracks in Our Armour as well.

This collection of short stories, seven of them, are all told in first person. These stories are about everyday people – who show their vulnerabilities and admit their weaknesses. There is nothing new about the characters that Gavalda introduces us to – not new to her regular readers. For instance, her trademark elements of loneliness and despair starts from the very first story and continues till the very last one. From a trucker who decides to put his dog to sleep to an alcoholic widow trying to make sense of the world, Gavalda infuses the day-to-day nature of living in her characters in big doses. They are just like you and I, and hence the connect.

Gavalda’s stories are extremely quaint in their appeal – in terms of perhaps how people behave, feel, and think, and yet set in urban places. This then places a sort of bigger burden so to say in terms of writing and connecting. I loved how people in her stories find unique solutions to modern problems of love, dating, friendship, and marriage. Her characters maybe a gloomy bunch and forever stuck in the zone of low self-esteem, but they are also full of life – even while mourning the loss of a loved one. This to me is the power of Gavalda’s writing that makes you connect so much to the characters and place.

All said and done, The Cracks in Our Armour is a collection of stories that speak to the heart in all its simplicity, complexity, and the understanding of love and empathy that makes you see the world from a larger perspective of kindness and a whole lot of heart.

 

Adèle by Leïla Slimani. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

Adele Title: Adèle
Author: Leïla Slimani
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571349203
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

This is a book about sex addiction and it is brilliantly written. Slimani goes into places and territories where perhaps others may not and she brings out the dark side of her characters with no remorse at all. I am not the one to enjoy erotic literature but that’s just me. Having said that, I quite liked the pace and tone of Adèle. Slimani’s writing is to the point. There is no beating around the bush and maybe that’s why it is extremely satisfying to read her.

Adèle is addicted to sex, with anyone who isn’t her husband. She lives as it may seem to have sex and that’s that, caring little about her husband or son. Her single point of satisfaction is that of her sexual needs being met, sometimes kinky, and sometimes just the plain old way. Of course Slimani tries to sketch variety of possibilities for Adèle’s behaviour: a childhood trip to Paris with her mother, who abandoned her in a hotel room to meet a man who wasn’t her father; the man who she lost her virginity to, or even the idea of being brought up in a run-down crammed apartment, indicating that she wanted more and needed to be free.

Adèle reminded of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina but with more gumption. Here, Slimani doesn’t make her feel sorry for what she does. There is no moral compass. It is what it is. She is just driven by this inane restlessness, and there is nothing to be done to satiate it but have sex. The female lives and sexuality is at the fore of this book and Slimani very cleverly also uses other women characters and their sub-plots, reconnecting all of it to the larger picture and question: Whose body it is? To what extent we as a society accept desire, sex, and passion?

Adèle is full of physical and sexual detailing. There were times I had to bring myself not to read it, only because it was overwhelming in a great way. The writing is stark and says what it has to. The translation by Sam Taylor successfully manages to capture the dream-like compulsions of Adèle, and yet not missing out on the truth of the real world. As a read, Adèle demands a lot from the reader. It is extremely rewarding, satisfying, leaving you astounded and questioning your own beliefs, long after you are done with the book.