Category Archives: 2017 Reads

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Z Title: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Author: Therese Anne Fowler
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
ISBN: 978-1250028662
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 375
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

When I started reading Z, I knew about Zelda Fitzgerald but not all that much. I knew only what I think the rest of the world did (well some part of the rest of the world at least) – that she was deemed crazy, that she was unstable and highly emotional and also that F. Scott Fitzgerald had plagiarized from her works to create the classics that would be called his. I also knew of the love between them but also of his affairs and how she took to them. However, after reading “Z” by Therese Anne Fowler, I got a better idea of how much of it was true (given Therese Anne Fowler’s research was to the mark) and how much of it wasn’t. To complement this book, you might also want to read “Careless People” by Sarah Churchwell that traces the life of the Fitzgeralds to the time of The Great Gatsby’s publishing.

“Z” starts in 1918 when a reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance. She is only 18 and life is waiting for her with both arms. He is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama and has nothing to his name. She comes from lineage – a judge’s daughter. Her father does not approve of him. He sells his first novel “This Side of Paradise” to Scribner’s and she boards a train to marry him. The rest as we all know is history.

The darling couple of the literary world had the universe at their feet and more. The Jazz Age as we know it. The roaring 20s, the time when everything seemed possible, the era of bright lights, fast music and when anything could be said. Everyone wanted to be with the Fitzgeralds. He for his book and she for her wit and sharp tongue. But there is also trouble in paradise and that is also what Fowler touches on in her book – the fame, its cons, the egos of the husband and wife (and rightly so in her case in my opinion), who was Zelda really and also the doomed Lost Generation with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and more.

Therese Anne Fowler writes about the literary world no doubt but what she manages to do is also show us who Zelda really was, or who she might have been. The wives of famous men are often in the background and Fowler brings Zelda’s story to the front like perhaps no other author has. The ups and downs of their lives are heartbreakingly told and one can connect with her instantly. I don’t consider this book to be a woman’s perspective but that of another author, another talent who shared the same space as her husband and wrote gregariously but never really got her due. Fowler touches on so many aspects of their lives and also of hers that the book feels complete at every step. Never once did I think I want more. I love literary biographies, though this was touted as a novel, it could have very well been a biography. Read “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” if you also want to know more about her.

Don’t forget the watch the series Z: The Beginning of Everything on Amazon Prime, based on this book.

Bombay Fever by Sidin Vadukut

51FWR4u6XwL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_-2 Title: Bombay Fever
Author: Sidin Vadukut
Publisher: Simon and Schuster India
ISBN: 978-8193355282
Genre: Thriller, Mystery, Horror
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

What are the elements of a good thriller? Pace, pace and more pace is what I would answer if someone asked me such a question. Also, the plot matters and that goes without saying. I like thrillers to be simple and not so complicated. Off-late, every thriller I picked up has had the element of too much happening in it, which kind of ruins the book for me. I like a story to be direct, perhaps even one-dimensional when it comes to this genre and not too complex that I don’t understand what’s going on after a point. It shouldn’t become the Interstellar of novels.

So when a copy of “Bombay Fever” by Sidin Vadukut found its way to be for review, I was a little skeptical to read it. I do not enjoy medical thrillers. I have read a couple of Robin Cooks as we all do when in college but that’s about it. Till I started reading this one and was completely taken in by it. The book starts in Switzerland and in the courtyard of a Hindu temple – a woman collapses in the arms of a visiting Indian journalist, and her body is nothing but blood. The same then continues to happen all over Mumbai – men, women, children, the young and the old die in the same way and no one knows why. It is a deadly disease but that’s all is known about it. What will happen next? Will the city be saved? Will the world be saved? Sidin makes you dig further and also smartly leaves clues all over the place as you turn the pages.

Vadukut’s writing till now has only been in the genre of humor and sarcasm, so maybe that is why I was skeptical to even read this one. Having said that, this book isn’t like any other thriller. I loved the research done by Sidin for this one – there is a lot of medical and historical trivia of the last century which was so essential to the plot. The writing is crisp and doesn’t amble now. The chapters are short (Thank God for small mercies) which is what is most needed when a thriller is being written or according to me one gets bored, if the chapters are too long. Also, what I loved about the book is that the writing is simple. Even the technical terms usage doesn’t impact the writing. Might I add, there is also some humor in the book which is much needed given the seriousness and tension that the book is layered with.

“Bombay Fever” hits the right spots at the right time. It makes you want to turn the pages and the plot twists and characters are all very plausible. At the same time, it is very scary to note that something like that could actually happen. An epidemic is only a reality that Sidin writes of, instilling that strange fear in you at 2 am in the morning as you turn the page.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

819-Mmqz8XL Title: A Manual for Cleaning Woman: Selected Stories
Author: Lucia Berlin
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374202392
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Berlin’s collection of short stories is about ordinary people. The people who live right on the margins of society and aspire to make their lives better and yet some succeed (rarely) and most do not. They go through bad Christmases, live hand to mouth sometimes and don’t know what tomorrow brings with it for them. Her characters aren’t depressing as much as they are clueless and bored of living the same life, inside out, almost every single day. Her stories are real and you can identify with each of them with ease and at the same time, they also make you think about the state of affairs of the blue-collar workers.

The stories in “A Manual for Cleaning Women” are slow. Let me warn you upfront about it if you are expecting them to move at a certain pace. That will not happen with a Berlin collection. Berlin’s stories are horrific tales of addiction, poverty, alcoholism, illness, failed love affairs, and wrong choices. At the same time, the obvious isn’t apparent in her stories and that is something which leaves the reader guessing. She doesn’t dish it to you on a platter. At the same time, there is minimum dialogue and brevity in her writing. At times while reading this collection I was reminded of Chekov only because of the way Berlin understood the human condition and expressed it beautifully through her stories.

The collection will leave you devastated if you read it in one go. You need to take your time with these stories and read it after a couple of intervals. Berlin’s writing also reminded me of Alice Munro (who I love and admire) – the slowness, the eye for detail and doesn’t skip a beat when it comes to human emotions. “A Manual for Cleaning Women” will most certainly leave you begging for more.

You are Having a Good Time: Stories by Amie Barrodale

51XyTyEIp7L Title: You are Having a Good Time: Stories
Author: Amie Barrodale
Publisher: FSG Originals
ISBN: 978-0374293864
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

“You are Having a Good Time” by Amie Barrodale is a collection of non-interlinked stories of desire, consequences be damned. It is about characters who are so simple that all they want is for their desires to see fruition and at the same time so complex that they want to justify everything that desire makes them do (or so it seems). The desires in these stories could be related to the body or not. The underline theme though is that of normality being stripped away from every single character, for him or her to discover who they truly are behind the façade.

Barrodale writes with such honesty that she almost shows you the mirror without you wanting to see it. From an up and coming starlet harboring a complicated attraction to her abusive director to a compromised psychiatrist getting embroiled in a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship to even a woman who just wants to break free, so ends up having an affair with a drummer that will ruin it all, Barradole’s characters do not follow any rules. The mean, ugly, often oblivious characters are just placed in terrible situations and they have deal with them, no matter what.

This collection of short-stories does not make you question anything but if definitely makes you think of human relationships a little more in detail. The borderline of being macabre and beautiful is rather thin when it comes to Amie’s style of writing. The stories are devastatingly honest and it might even cause some discomfort but I guess that is the intent of the author. “You are Having a Good Time” will make you think and wonder about what is going on with your life at the end of the day – the compromises you make, the compromises you demand from other people and above all will make you question desire and responsibilities.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg. Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak

51oe4dOcMOL Title: Swallowing Mercury
Author: Wioletta Greg
Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Publisher: Portobello Books
ISBN: 9781846276071
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 146
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

How does one describe a book that gave you so much joy as you read it? It has been a while since I read anything like “Swallowing Mercury”. I think this book just made me realize that there is still a lot of hope and faith in the world, though it does have its own set of problems, having hope and faith I mean. Greg’s characters are unique, literally that with their eccentricities, and yet the naivety about them is endearing to make you smile and wish them happiness. “Swallowing Mercury” is that kind of book – it leaves you with a tingling feeling – I don’t have any better way to put it.

This book was read by me as a part of the Women in Translation Month – August 2017. I am so glad that I got to know of this book through this initiative. At the core of the book is Wiola, who lives in a close-knit agricultural community (this by itself is charming. There is a sense of old-world feeling to it which cannot be ignored and that’s the major portion of the book which I love the most. So Wiola also has a black cat named Blackie (you can’t help but love the tongue-in-cheek reference). Her father who deserted the family is back and is now a taxidermist. Her mother is a strange one (but then who isn’t when you come to think of it), who frequently warns her about not entering certain rooms and that one must not kill spiders or there will be storms. Might I also add that all this takes place in Poland.

“Swallowing Mercury” has this fable like quality attached to it. There are also a lot of fables in the book per se as Wiola is a Catholic girl, growing up on them and not to mention, superstitions. Greg’s writing has this feeling of wanting to finish the book (given it is so short anyway) and yet to pick it up immediately after.

The translation from Polish by Eliza Marciniak is beautiful – the book is written in fragments and yet the subtle transition of Wiola from a child to an adolescence is so lucid and more so the background of politics, morality, violence and faith makes it even more intriguing. Trust me when I say that you will not be able to put this book down – there are so many layers to it and more than anything else you get so engaged in the Polish life as a reader that you are almost melancholic as it ends.