Category Archives: 2019 Novella Reading Project

Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn

Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn Title: Bottled Goods
Author: Sophie Van Llewyn
Publisher: Fairlight Books
ISBN: 978-1912054305
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 190
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I have read almost more than half of the Women’s Prize longlist of this year, and hands down this is one of the top 3 favourites of mine. Bottled Goods is the kind of book that makes you contemplate and ruminate over life and its dynamics at the end of every chapter almost, which doesn’t happen very often when you read a book. Bottled Goods wrenches you and takes you to a place where you start wondering about good and bad, right and wrong, and the need to want to leave your home and yet stay.

The book is set in communist Romania and at the heart of it is Alina living with her husband, Liviu, quite satisfied, with her head down and going about her life. This is all well and good till her brother-in-law defects to the West and she and her husband come in the eye of secret service. There is torture from the agents – emotional, mental, and physical, eventually taking a toll on their marriage. In all of this enters Alina’s aunt Therese who can help her escape the country through the old folk ways.

Van Llewyn writes brilliantly and with great brevity. No word or sentence is out of place. Whether she is talking about Alina’s rocky relationship with her mother, husband, or country, everything is just perfect. I never thought I needed more to hit home. I have not read any book with Romania as a setting so far, and I am only intrigued to know more about it in the time of Ceausescu and what did normal folk go through, living day by day.

Bottled Goods as the title has so many meanings to it. The yearning to get out – as if you are bottled goods itself, the meaning of not being able to take bottled goods out of the country, or even aspirations when it comes to perfume or bottles of aerated drinks that aren’t accessible. The atmosphere of the book is spot-on. Llewyn manages to create tension and menace right throughout the book, infused with humour, regret, and rumination over what has been lost.

Bottled Goods is the kind of book that opens your world to what was going on in the world and does it delicately, at the same time not sparing any details. The characters are rounded, and communist Romania emerges very strongly as another character. For me, the magical elements were magical, and I did not consider them to be metaphors (though some readers could). Overall, I am hooting for it to win, only because it is something so different, empathetic, real, and more than anything else written with great finesse and style.

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Elevation by Stephen King

elevation by stephen king Title: Elevation
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton, Hachette
ISBN: 978-1473691520
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

No matter how short or long the book is, I am a sucker for books written by Stephen King. Also, no matter how not so very good or very good those books are. Well, I guess some writers are just worth your time. In fact, I was just discussing with a friend yesterday that how he has the perfect blend of writing (if there is something like that at all) – the one that combines mass market with literary. Stephen King to my mind writes like no one else I have read and that’s perhaps that’s quite a tall claim, but I shall go with it for now.

Elevation is not like any Stephen King book you would’ve read and for someone with that kind of bibliography, that’s saying a lot. At first glance, a book about a man who is worried about his steady weight loss might seem to go in King’s safe spot, it isn’t the case as you continue reading it. The plot takes a very un-King twist and from there on the book becomes something else. Even in a 160-page book, King manages to fit in so much without it seeming that way.

The twist in the tale of Elevation is the plenty references of earlier books set in Castle Rock – from IT to the others. But what sets this one apart is how Scott (the protagonist) deals with what is happening to him and more importantly what is happening around him when a lesbian couple comes to town, opening a fine-dining restaurant and the town’s bias and prejudices start showing.

I for one, am extremely happy that King chose to speak of a marginalized community and has done so with great empathy. Sure, the tropes are present – the biggest being the backdrop of Thanksgiving. Having said that, there is a very small element of suspense that gets cleared very soon. I think King should write more of these novellas, that are so precise and yet convey everything. At the same time, I realize that I miss a tome from him.

Elevation is a much-needed book and I am glad it’s out there for people to read. It captivates and makes you think and wonder about your own biases. Read it. Please read it. Like I said, it is the kind of book that will make you sit up and take notice of people and communities around you.

Romtha by Mahasweta Devi. Translated from the Bengali by Pinaki Bhattacharya

Romtha by Mahasweta Devi Title: Romtha
Author: Mahasweta Devi
Translated from the Bengali by Pinaki Bhattacharya
Publisher: Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-8170462576
Genre: Indian Writing, Novella, Novelette
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

I remember the time the movie Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa had released. It was directed by Govind Nihalani and had got not such a great theatrical release. I think it barely must have released in a couple of theatres in Bombay. The year was 1998. That was the time I got to know that the movie that touched me so deeply was based on a book. I also discovered to my pleasure that one of my favourite movies released five years ago in 1993, Rudaali, was also based on the same author’s short story. Those were the times when great literature was converted to films in Indian cinema – till of course the likes of Govinda movies took over. That’s not the point though.

It has been 20 years since I have been reading Mahasweta Devi’s works. Repeatedly. Sometimes, chancing upon one of your favourite authors’ works, purely by accident is the best that could have happened to you. Thankfully, she has written prolifically, and we have so many of her works at our disposal, thanks to Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books.

Mahasweta Devi’s writing is not easy, no matter how big or small her works are. The beauty of the short story written by her is that it has the same impact as that of a novel penned by her. Romtha (Criminal, Convict) is one such example. I cannot believe I hadn’t read it till now, but this lament is for a later date. Back to the book.

Romtha is a story of a criminal – a beautiful young man, Sharan, who is condemned to death for a crime of passion – that of his lover, a beautiful courtesan, Chandrabali. He has killed her and mourns for her, almost yearns for her. In all of this, there is a lonely widow, Subhadra, pining for Sharan – wanting him and yet wants nothing more than her freedom as well. All of this takes place in twelfth century Bengal – shifting from the royal city of Gaur and the rural landscape of Bengal – focusing on how the Romtha culture came to be, drawing details on casteism, hypocrisy of the world, and chalking characters who find no redemption or second chances at life.

Mahasweta Devi’s writings are not comfortable. They make you uncomfortable and rightly so. She talks of issues that she has experienced first-hand. You cannot expect getting into a Mahasweta Devi work and not be reeled by the injustice meted by our society to the less privileged. Romtha speaks of so much more and the muted silences in-between do most of the talking. Every character – from Gopal – the chief security who forces Chandrabali to get intimate with him, Subhadra – just wanting a better life, and Chandrabali who is dead before her time – each of them are threaded by Sharan – the Romtha, who is so ironically named, as there is no refuge for him at all.

Twelfth-century Bengal – its customs, traditions, are brought out with nuance so much so that it had me Googling and finding out more about that time. Also, please do not skip the very insightful interview, Naveen Kishore has with Mahasweta Devi – on words, language, and how they have been used in the story. Pinaki Bhattacharya’s translation is on point – I think it must have been tough given the stream of consciousness that jumps in at the reader, which I loved. Every terrain, texture, emotional landscape, and the beauty of unrequited love, desire, and the possibility of more is expressed empathetically and more so with stark reality.

Mahasweta Devi’s works are par excellence and there is no doubt about it at all. One of my projects this year is to go through all her books – the ones that are translated in English. Thank you, Naveen Kishore, for what you do.

 

 

Fox 8 by George Saunders. Illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal

Fox 8 by George Saunders Title: Fox 8
Author: George Saunders
Illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 978-1526606488
Genre: Satire, Fiction, Fable for Adults
Pages: 64
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

There are some books that just nestle into your heart and stay there. For me, those have been the likes of An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Capote, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. You get the drift, don’t you? These are the kind of books that can be read to soothe me, when I am feeling down. I am certain we all have these kind of books – the ones that make everything alright, just by opening them and reading – over and over again. Fox 8 by George Saunders is the latest addition to my ever-growing list of “heartwarming” books. (I hate the use of the word heartwarming, my apologies).

I love Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo though is my least favourite book written by him, though it won the Man Booker Prize and all that). His short fiction is par excellence, his essays even better in my opinion, and basically whatever he writes is pure gold. Fox 8 is no less of a book because of its size. If anything, after you are done reading it, you tend to agree that it had to end, where it did, even if you wanted more of it.

Fox 8 - Image 1

Read more: In Appreciation of George Saunders

This 64-page novella/novelette is about a fox – the name is Fox 8 who is curious about humans (poor sad fox. I for one can’t stand most humans) and also learns some of the English language, by watching parents read to their children (I love how the fox also debunks fairy tales for us with reference to the role of the fox in them). Saunders is in his full form with inventiveness of language – writing (phonetically) the way a fox would – yooman and not human, bare and not bear, and the list goes on. At first, you wonder about the writing style and when you give in, you are in love with this fantastical tale of two foxes visiting a mall (that has been built razing most of their forest) and what happens next.

Fox 8 - Image 2Read more: George Saunders’s 10 Favourite Books

Before I forget, kudos and more to Chelsea Cardinal for the illustrations that go so well with the story. The illustrations are all black and white, except the foxes – they are in orange and stunning would perhaps be a lesser adjective to use. Saunders’ story is telling of our times – of the way we inhabit spaces and make of them to how endangered our wild life really is – and all of this is said with the eccentric and almost witty (in this one at least), true blue Saunders style.

Fox 8 is heartwarming, also heart-wrenching, makes you look at the world we have made and why and question almost every decision – which I think we must. At the same time, it makes a spot in your heart and will not go away. I am very happy that it was the first read of the year for me. Read it. It is truly beautifully done.

You can buy Fox 8 by George Saunders here