Author Archives: thehungryreader

About thehungryreader

Hmmm so I am the Hungry Reader. The one who reads. The one who is constantly reading or wanting to read constantly. This blog is all about the books I have read, the ones that I am reading and gems that I plan to read in the future or whenever it arrives. As Virginia Woolf rightly said, "When the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards—their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble—the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury

The Epic City Title: The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta
Author: Kushanava Choudhury
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-9386432575
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I have always been fascinated by Calcutta – right to its portrayal in movies to books to even theatre and sometimes even TV shows that are genuinely set there. Something about that city – it has managed to mingle the traditional and the modern so well, that it makes me more curious about the thing they do, how they do it and why – the culture of Calcutta cannot be spread across one book or one review (most certainly not), however “The Epic City” by Kushanava Choudhury is indeed one of its kind books on the city.

I remember my first visit to Calcutta. It was 2011 and I had gone there to prepare for a course, which meant Calcutta was home for about forty-five days. The city was hesitant to be my friend initially and as I learned its ways and sought it out, it almost became a second home. Everything about it seemed better and yet there were times that nothing about it made sense to me. Sometimes I would find the people cold and distant and at others extremely affectionate. The polarity of the people lends itself to the city or is it the other way around?

So as I read “The Epic City” by Kushanava Choudhury, I would often find myself nodding my head and agreeing or disagreeing with what he was saying about the city. Kushanava arrived in New Jersey at the age of twelve – migrated from Calcutta with his parents. After graduating from Princeton, he decided to move back home – Calcutta that is and this book is a medley of experiences of that movement. As I mentioned earlier, you cannot encapsulate Calcutta in a book, but people must and need to so readers can know about this soulful city.

The book traverses through the city and Choudhury introduces to places and people off the streets. He makes us acquaintances of jobless men, of looming buildings, of a city abandoned and people who are there and yet only in a limbo. Calcutta belongs to a different era perhaps. Or it did. Yet, it struggles so hard to keep up with the rest of the country. Choudhury at the same time in his writing is hopeful of what the future holds.

“The Epic City” is written from inside out and also to a large extent from outside in. There is a quality of frankness and melancholy in Choudhury’s way of describing the city that almost breaks your heart. You want to know more about the place and yet you want to resist, because Calcutta then seems like an aged queen whose grandeur is not lost, yet she is.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire Title: Home Fire
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408886786
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 264
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I will try doing some justice to the book with my review. I will only try. “Home Fire” is one of those books that come when you least expect them to and leave you stunned, make you feel a thousand things, and then pretend that nothing has ever happened. There is the storm and also the lull at the same time. When that happens to me, while reading a book, I know that the book will stay for a long time.

Shamsie’s prose is so evocative and tender that you can feel the characters trying very hard to balance themselves – their emotions and their motives more than anything else. “Home Fire” as most people have said and so will I, is an adaptation or inspired by “Antigone”. Antigone, a teenage girl is forced to choose between obeying the law of the land (her uncle, the king of Thebes, has forbidden the burial of a traitor who happens to be her brother Polynices who declared war on the city and in the process kills his own brother Eteocles) and religious law and sentiments toward her brother. The good brother gets the funeral and the so-called bad brother doesn’t. Antigone then must decide if she wants to give Polynices a burial or not, the punishment for which is death penalty.

I remember watching Antigone a long time ago. Ratna Pathak Shah was Antigone and I could not get images out of the play out of my mind as I read “Home Fire”. Art does cross boundaries. Anyway, back to “Home Fire”. This is the same dilemma faced by Aneeka, as of course Home Fire is loosely based on the play by Sophocles. Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz has left London to work for the media arm of Isis, after knowing about their father’s death. Their sister Isma tells the police where he is gone and Aneeka is most angry, almost to the point of telling her that they have no sister. Isma is the older sister to the twins who has taken care of them like a mother. She is the voice of reason, while Aneeka’s voice is that of strong emotion. Isma meets Eamonn (, while she is studying in the US and he is on a holiday. There is a connection. However, on his return to US of A, he falls in love with Aneeka, who will go to any lengths to go home and search for her brother.

Shamsie raises the issues of love, freedom, longing, exile (from a beloved and from a country), what home truly is and of course the most underlined theme of all: xenophobia and what it is to be Muslim in modern times. There is so much going on in the book that I had to stop, hold my breath or sometimes just wait till I finish gasping and then turn the pages once again. Her writing is stunning and more than anything else, she has this quality to speak with you and anyone else through her emotions. Her words are universal. She also makes Antigone accessible but after a while the story of Antigone is merely a skeletal framework while the story of Aneeka, Isma and Parvaiz is what keeps you glued.

“Home Fire” truly deserves a place not only in the long-list for the Man Booker Prize 2017 but also in the short-list and perhaps even the winner. The book makes you see your world for what it is and is most emotional of her works if you ask me. In fact, I think, this is my most favourite of her books. A read which you will not forget.

Rapture: Poems by Sjohnna McCray

41I2Iqf5gvL Title: Rapture: Poems
Author: Sjohnna McCray
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555977375
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 72
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

There comes a time while reading poetry that you realize the poem/s is/are speaking with you. And that is the time you know that poet is for you. The same happened to me as I finished reading “Rapture” by Sjohnna McCray. This collection of poems is about desire, identity and memory. I say it with such ease but it is not an easy read at all – there is something so discomforting about these poems that they will make you think about your life in a whole new way – for those who face these issues and also for ones who don’t face them at all.

“Rapture” charts the growth of a person from childhood to adulthood and that too through poems – various poems that sometimes feel disjointed and then most of the time make perfect sense when put together. The histories of his parents (Korean mother and an American father who served during the Vietnam War) and that of his own are raw, pulsating throughout the book in the garb of poetry that will burn and break your heart. There is grief and celebration. There is also grace and redemption and might I add also a lot of guilt in its pages.

“Rapture” also asks a lot of difficult questions about identity – relationships between mothers and sons and in turn learns how to perceive oneself. McCray takes a third person view and his personal view (these poems are after all his story) and in doing so he maps the human body, relationships and how we skim through things and never say what we truly feel.

What forces love to become this difficult? Why does the body fail us when we so don’t want it to? How does a child realize love? He asks these questions through his poems and at times I was extremely uncomfortable reading this collection, till it grew on me and became second-skin.

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. Edited & Translated by Ken Liu

Invisible Planets Title: Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation
Edited and Translated by Ken Liu
Publisher: TOR Books
ISBN: 978-0765384195
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I love science fiction and when it came from China, somehow it became even more special and I don’t know why. I guess I do. I think because of living in the conditions that they have and do, the Chinese write some brilliant sci-fi stories. I’ve read a couple in the past and absolutely loved them. I also think reading other genres from other lands just broadens your world-view, even if it is science-fiction, because hey it is after all rooted in reality. Invisible Planets takes readers of English outside their comfort zone and introduces us to futures imagined by people whose lives are vastly different from ours. To me, that was the most rewarding thing about reading this anthology.

Invisible Planets has it all – dystopia, western science-fi, science opera (thank God not too much of it), futuristic for sure, and stories also by Liu Cixin whose The Three-Body Problem was a brilliant piece of science fiction which I urge everyone to read.

Some stories of course stand out and some not all that much. My personal favourites were: The Year of the Rat by Chen Qiufan about young men trying to control mutant rats (this might give some sleepless nights), then there’s also Ma Bayong’s The City of Silence which almost reminded me of the times that we are living in (more so in India where freedom of expression is going away day by day) and was quite a chilling tale at that. Another story that stood out for me was Folding Beijing – which is all about money, money and more money and how it impacts the future. Taking Care of God again presents a very unique vision of the world. I will not say more about this short story as the title also gives something away.

Invisible Planets is a fantastic anthology. It is edited brilliantly by Ken Liu and for one it will introduce readers to new Chinese authors who have an uncanny flair for science fiction which is not only unique, but also very literary at the same time.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo. Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

Iza's Ballad Title: Iza’s Ballad
Author: Magda Szabo
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681370347
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I haven’t read too many books about mothers and daughters. I am sure there a lot of them out there but I haven’t been able to cover that territory the way I have been wanting to. Every relationship when it comes to a parent gets a little complex. There are always disagreements for sure, but we don’t realize when it leads to becoming a dysfunctional relationship from an accommodating one. It happens too fast, too soon. Families are like that I suppose and a lot of writers have written and continue to write about it. I was floored by Szabo’s earlier work “The Door” – again the relationship between two women, so I knew what I was getting into and boy was I not disappointed by it!

“Iza’s Ballad” is about Ettie – the old mother from an older world. Her daughter Iza as expected is from the modern world, with thoughts that are not aligned to those of her mother’s. Ettie is recently widowed and goes to live with Iza (who is now a doctor) in Budapest. Ettie was born and brought up without a formal education and came from a poor background. However, she ensured her daughter was well-educated and did not want for anything. Her husband Vince was a magistrate and Iza has taken after him. Ettie cannot get used to Iza’s way of living. Iza on the other hand has stopped being answerable to anyone. The traditional and the modern clash just as they did in “The Door”.

Szabo’s writing is not easy. It takes some time to get into but the translation by George Szirtes is spot on to the last detail. The reason I say this without knowing a word of Hungarian is the nuances, metaphors and folk references aren’t lost at all on the English reader. To me that is some good enough criteria of a great translation. Also, being a man he gets the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship beautifully and only too accurately.

The concept is universal and hence almost every reader can relate to it. Szabo doesn’t waste her words and that is quite evident. In fact, in so many places, she doesn’t try too hard telling the reader, but just shows and leaves and that’s how a good book should be. “Iza’s Ballad” is an emotional ride and yet restrained – balancing the old and the new, the relationship dynamics and above all love and its transformation.