Category Archives: 2019 Literary Reads Project

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.

 

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Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane

Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane Title: Rules for Visiting
Author: Jessica Francis Kane
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 9781783784646
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Jessica Francis Kane’s book, Rules for Visiting grows on you. Much like the trees and grass spoken about in the book. Much like how they are an intrinsic part of the book, as the protagonist is a gardener. May Attaway, is a 40-year-old gardener who lives in her parents’ home with her father, an 80-year-old man inhabiting the basement (his own accord). May’s mother died when she was 40 and this kicks off May’s choice to change some things about her life. The primary one being to go and visit four of her women friends, with whom she has lost touch.

Thank God that this book isn’t one about intimacy of women that will give you the warm cuddly feeling. It is an honest book about honest relationships, and how they are in life – twisted, damaged, complicated, and yet the kind that leave space for repair.

Her friends’ lives are something else altogether – one of them is going through a divorce (quite expected), another is a new wife and a stepmother to two boys, and as the book progresses you see how May changes as a person (not altogether but in small ways). Kane’s May is flawed and knows it. She is aware, and tries not to be a bother when visiting her friends. The rules for visiting comes from there – it also signifies how we have to make our spaces without it being an intrusion in homes we visit.

Rules for Visiting is hilarious, often a lot of fun, and also has a lot of twists and turns to it that are touching and ironic as well. The book is about friendship – what we take for granted and let go for years, and what we come back to. And then it connects to the environment beautifully with descriptions of trees, and what they stand for when it comes to life and living.

Also, the character of May that tries very hard to be reliable, but is sometimes just taken in by what she sees around her. I loved the fact that she was so human. Rules for Visiting is about the lost art of friendship and what it takes in our world clogged and bogged down by social media to rekindle it, to get in touch without any guilt or fear, and ensure that relationships last beyond just a screen. Rules for Visiting is the kind of book that perhaps most people will relate to instantly. A must-read, in my opinion.

Love and Lust: Stories & Essays

Love and Lust Title: Love and Lust: Stories & Essays
Author/s: Various
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9388292528
Genre: Anthology
Pages: 152
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

How can an anthology on love and lust go wrong when it has writings by Kamala Das, Vikram Seth, K.R. Meera, and Rajinder Singh Bedi to name a few? Can it go wrong at all? Aleph Book Company has got it bang on with these mini-anthologies, titled Aleph Olio. There are a couple of other titles in this series as well, but for now we will focus on Love and Lust.

It isn’t about the range as well, as much as it is about what these writers are trying to communicate. We live in times where perhaps both love and lust are looked down on in most places. Lust a little more than love. Anyway, the point of this collection is to show us both love and lust through various lens – whether it is that of a mother who just won’t have her khatri daughter dating a Muslim man (an excerpt from A Suitable Boy), or whether it is Kamala Das demonstrating feminism and all shades of desire through her story A Little Kitten, or even of course Manto who doesn’t stop at anything to make us see our hypocrisy when it comes to matters of the flesh in Tang (translated from the original Boo), this short but extremely effective collection has it all.

I also think that it has been edited very cleverly in so many ways – first what I have already mentioned earlier – the authors, what to select from what these authors have written, and the order also in which these stories and essays are placed. And might I also add that I did think earlier about representation – in the sense of covering identities, however, one cannot encompass everyone when it comes to a limited anthology such as this. So it worked for me, irrespective.

Aleph Olio series are perfect to understand the writing of a particular writer whose work you want to explore in detail. Pick these series for that and also of course for the broader themes. The ones that are out are: In a Violent Land, The Essence of Delhi, Notes from the Hinterland, and Love and Lust.

Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir by Jayson Greene

Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene Title: Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir
Author: Jayson Greene
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524733537
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I am not a parent. I will never know what it is like to lose a child. To grieve for the loss of someone you have created, looked over, been paranoid over, and prayed to God that they live healthy and happy, and yet you have no control over what happens to them. The sheer helplessness and then the realisation after. Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene is the book that makes you see the world through the eyes of a parent – what does it mean to lose a child, how should one grieve, how much should grief take from you, and what it truly means to be able to move on (if there is ever such a thing).

It isn’t easy to read a book about the loss of a child. Of a two-year-old, who just wasn’t there in the world. Of Greta whose life her father Jayson speaks of lovingly. Of the way you as a reader become a part of it and can’t help but recollect the times you have felt that stabbing pain that doesn’t seem to go away, and it does one fine day, and it comes back once in a while, making you sense loss more than ever.

Once More We Saw Stars is also a hopeful book in so many ways. It teaches you how to grieve perhaps, and understand that at the core we are all the same people. We feel the same things. Jayson Greene takes us through this journey of loss, grief, and the coping process.

The book’s title is taken from Dante’s Inferno, also telling us that Greta’s parents will take their grief, make what they have to with it, and ultimately soar above. They will once again see the stars. The story is about love – of deep love and moments of transformation that Jayson presents with such clarity and in great abundance that you cry, weep, and sometimes smile with him, knowing that love will make it alright.

The book is full of memories. Of moments we live and some we do not and some we don’t get a chance to. Jayson’s clarity of thought – how he strings memory and presents them to us is stunning.  There is anger. There is frustration. There is also the knowing that life must carry on and in that process we know that love will remain. It will guide us and help us move ahead, to soldier on, to make us see the stars once more.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends - An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli Title: Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Publisher: Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566894951
Genre: Essays, Emigration and Immigration Studies
Pages: 128
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

Some books leave an impact that lasts forever. Tell Me How It Ends is one such book. A book about migrant children – children who have crossed into the border of United States of America illegally from these three countries – Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. And why so many children migrated to the US of A between 2014 and perhaps continue to till today? Well, the reasons were simple – to escape gang violence of their countries, to escape poverty, and to flee abuse from their own families or people outside of their families.

This book is not an easy one to read, and you would’ve guessed that by now. It is a book that made me think and question so many things around us – why do we think we own the land we are born on? What makes us think that parts of the earth belong to different people and not to all of us? Why are we the way we are when it comes to people who seek asylum or shelter in our countries? Why aren’t we more inclusive? And this book is about child migrants – these children are anywhere from the ages of five to seventeen and they are usually accompanied by coyotes to enter the US of A.

These are the children who are murdered along the way, go missing, are raped, and abused – all for the dream to make a better living, to escape what they wanted, and most importantly to never go back to that life. They cross the border, hand themselves over to the border officer who then notifies their relatives/family about them and then a trial begins. Luiselli’s job for some time was that of a translator – she had to translate answers to forty questions asked of these children – Why did they want to come to the US? Did they face any problem getting there? Do they have family in the US? These questions are what make this book’s subtitle: An Essay in Forty Questions.

Tell Me How It Ends is what Luisell’s six-year-old daughter (then six) asks her. Tell Me How It Ends. What is the fate of these children? Why does the US Government not want to acknowledge their role in children migrating? The gangs are but of course started to meet the drug demands of the people living in the US. That’s one part of it. The book breaks you. It makes you want people to sit up and take action. And then Luiselli speaks of Trump in her post-script note. She speaks of the horror that this man is and the fear that exists. But this book is also about hope and what it can do to change things.

Tell Me How It Ends is a book that makes us think about ourselves in the context of the world, humanity, and the selfishness we are made of. How we perceive people given their race, class, skin colour, and who they are, most importantly where they come from. It is a book that is not for the weak-hearted. I would recommend it every single time. While you are at it, also read “Lost Children Archive”, the first full-length novel by Valeria Luiselli on lost children, migrants, and what is called home.