Monthly Archives: July 2019

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls Title: City of Girls
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526615237
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I am just going to go on record and say that I absolutely love Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing. I remember the time Eat, Pray, Love had released in India and had become an overnight sensation. The literary snobs (as they are called) were pretty hesitant to even read it, often dismissing it as “chick-lit” (hate this term by the way). And then “The Signature of all Things” was published a couple of years later and it was a literary sensation. More than anything else, just the way it was written – the characters, the setting, the prose – all of it. But this review is about City of Girls.

 City of Girls is a novel that seeps you into its timeline, makes you feel for the characters, and makes you aware of the fact that you are under a spell as long as you’re reading it. City of Girls may not also be everyone’s cup of tea. It is slow and takes time to build up, but I loved every bit of it because it is atmospheric and lures the reader in – with every turn of the page.

 The book is set in New York of the 1940s – the world of theatre at that. Vivian Morris is eighty-nine years old, looking back on her life in the 40s – freshly kicked out of Vassar College, arriving at Manhattan to live with her aunt Peg who owns the crumbling theatre called the Lily Playhouse. This is where the story begins with oddball characters, and a mistake committed by Vivian that sends her world twirling headlong upside down and more.

 This is the plot of the book to put quite simply. The book is about growing-up at a time when the world was changing at a neck-breaking speed and to keep up with all of it. Of course, the book is also about war and what it does to people. Gilbert writes about it realistically and yet not losing her touch of empathy and emotional quotient.

City of Girls may seem extremely slow in bits and parts (especially in the middle), however, just like any other book it works for some and doesn’t for the other. Gilbert’s writing prowess is the same or even better when it comes to this read, and please don’t compare The Signature of All Things to this one, because they are vastly different. What most certainly worked for me was the transition from the 1940s to the current time and Gilbert has done a stunning job of bringing it all together, in one book. Read it if historical fiction interests you, or if you are comfortable with a book taking its own time.

 

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Bhaunri by Anukrti Upadhyay

Bhaunri by Anukrti Upadhyay Title: Bhaunri
Author: Anukrti Upadhyay
Publisher: Fourth Estate India, HarperCollins India
ISBN: 978-9353570033
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 148
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3 stars

Bhaunri is the book that should be read on a rainy day. It is short and can be finished in less than an hour and a half. It is atmospheric. It is everything that you want from a book not set in a milieu you are familiar with. The writing makes you turn the pages, and also because you want to know how to book ends.

This novella by Anukrti Upadhyay is set in a village in Rajasthan. The protagonist, Bhaunri is married, according to the customs of her nomadic tribe of blacksmiths at a very young child, till the time comes for her husband and his family to take her away. She is a young woman now and is aware of the ways of the world. Her parents have taught her well and at the same time given her the liberty to think for herself. There is another angle to it – her parents’ love story which I will not reveal.

Bhaunri finds herself drawn deeply to her husband Bheema. The love isn’t only physical but also all-consuming. Her mother-in-law and her marital life are also a very important part of the book. With the great atmospheric background of the desert and village life, the drama plays out, to reach the end that I didn’t have in mind.

I liked the book because like I said the setting had me gripped from the first time. The folklore, the myths, the superstition, and above all the food that was cooked all worked. Plus the way the author describes the house and what goes on in there – the shed, the workings of sleeping outside in winter, so on and so forth.

What didn’t work is that the pace seemed too rushed. I felt that there was a tearing hurry to just finish the book and not build on the emotions of other characters, except Bhaunri. Also, the second-half of the book (well not like a film), somehow just left me feeling that a lot could’ve gone down (with one character just being a prop and the other not being spoken about at all), yet I guess it is to the author’s discretion.

Having said this, Bhaunri is a book that is refreshing and full of female agency and must be read to explore new lands, thoughts, and ways of life. A book that will sure want me to read her other book Daura in due time.

77 by Guillermo Saccomanno. Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger

77 by Guillermo Saccomanno Title: 77
Author: Guillermo Saccomanno
Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
Publisher: Open Letter
ISBN: 978-1940953892
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 220
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Books written to defy, to present various points of view, and above all to show us that we can and should raise voices against powers are books that I love to read. It makes me feel stronger, it makes me want to protest, and more than anything else it makes me feel that I have companions and not alone in the world when it comes to issues close to my heart. 77 is one such book that held me by my throat and being and I just had to finish it in almost three sittings or so. The book still lingers in my memory, and I know that it will for a long time to come.

 So, what is the book about?

 The book is set in Buenos Aires, 1977. A time that is considered to be a part of the darkest days of the Videla dictatorship, from the time he seized power in 1976. At the heart of the book is Gómez, a gay high-school literature teacher, trying very hard to keep a low profile as his friends and students begin to disappear. This is the time when questioning is forbidden, and people aren’t allowed to live the way they wish to.

 Things also start spiralling when he gives shelter to two dissidents in his house, and to make things worst he is having an affair with a homophobic cop who is loyal to the government and no one else. The book is told in flashbacks – from 2007 to 1977 – jumping back and forth.

 I was stunned reading this novel. I didn’t know what to feel for some time and then I realized that I was scared. Scared of such a regime being thrust upon us (though it seems that day isn’t very far) and how we would react or live in that case. Living under a dictatorship isn’t easy. At the same time, it isn’t very hard for people to get used to it, which is most fearful.

Saccomanno’s writing is fluid and clear. In most parts, I thought of it to be autobiographical and I don’t think I was far from the truth. The moral, social, and intellectual dilemmas that present themselves make the book so haunting and real. Is literature dead? Is sexual preference dead? Is raising your voice dead? What is alive anymore?

 77 is a book not just about a year – about people, their opinions, the regime that wants a mental shutdown of its people, a state that will have nothing but totalitarianism at the helm of things. 77, to me was more than just a book. It is about a literary soul that is trapped and is the story of one man trying to make sense in a world of madness and inhumanity, lurking in almost every corner. It is a book that shows you what shouldn’t be repeated. We can only hope and pray.

 

Why Read? by Charles Dantzig. Translated from the French by Renuka George

Why Read by Charles DantzigTitle: Why Read?
Author: Charles Dantzig
Translated from the French by Renuka George
Publisher: Yoda Press
ISBN: 978-9382579564
Genre: Books about Books, Bibliophilia
Pages: 206
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Why does one read? Why does anyone read at all? What is the purpose and point of it all? Is it a pointless activity? Does it add to our knowledge or does it enhance us as people? If we think about the other spectrum, then why do writers write? What is the point of it all?

Charles Dantzig was a revelation to me this month. Thanks to Yoda Press for publishing him in English and sending me a copy of delightful essays penned by him, answering the one elusive question in various ways: Why Read? I love books about books, books about reading, books about readers and writers, and writing in general. Why Read? is a book that will stay with me for a long time to come.

Dantzig is hilarious. He is real, and therefore oh so relatable. There are about seventy-odd essays in the book and each of them ponders about the pleasures, woes, ill-effects (you must have to embrace his humour as well), joys, complexities, and sometimes also the pains of reading. Dantzig’s world is all about books and that is seen most clearly, as you turn the pages. Whether he is speaking of his childhood reads, or how people read to show off (just too funny), how reading is a tattoo, the joys of marginalia, reading on the beach (what and how), every essay shines. Well, most of them at least.

Renuka George’s translation is perfect. She lets some French reside in the book so it doesn’t feel too translated (if there is something like that). The book is honest in the sense that Dantzig just says it the way it is, almost in most parts not romanticising the act of reading. While I did not agree with him when it came to those portions, I certainly felt that it made sense and rightly so. At the same time, there is a sense of solidarity when it comes to readers and books about books that speak to them.

Reading Why Read? is almost like hearing a friend speak about books, authors, and readers. Why Read? is comforting, hilarious, makes you think about what you want to read next, makes you also want to pick up a book on an unknown impulse, but above all it cements the relationship we have with books, authors, and reading stronger and does so with great joy and splendour.