Category Archives: Books

Read 212 of 2021. Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Title: Matrix
Author: Lauren Groff
Publisher: Hutchison Heinemann
ISBN: 978-1785151910
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I am not a fan of historical fiction at all. I mean sure I have liked some books over the years, but I do not dig the genre per se. So, I was initially quite hesitant to read Matrix. A book set in the 12th century wasn’t for me. Till I read a couple of reviews, and was intrigued by the plot as I read more and more. After finishing the book, it is now safe to say that I am a fan of the way Groff has written this piece of work. Of how even a book set in the 12th century could feel so relevant and timely.

Matrix is a novel that is not only bold (well, in a sense and more), but also displays great sensitivity when needed, is driven by characters that are unique and yet relatable, and more than anything it is a novel that isn’t preachy at all, given how easily it could have taken that road.

Like I said, the book is set in the 12th century and is about Marie – a poet, a free-thinker, someone who yearns for the love of her queen, and it is that very queen – Eleanor of Aquitaine who has her ejected from court, sent to be prioress at a remote royal abbey in England. From thereon, everything begins.

Matrix is a reimagining of Marie de France, no holds barred. Groff speaks less of her lais but when she does it is with great affection and joy. At the same time, her love for her long-time help Cecily and Queen Eleanor is devoted. I think those parts moved me the most. I could sense the longing Groff transfers to Marie, the yearning with which each thought is processed by the prioress – and how ultimately in all of this, she makes the abbey her home and is determined to resurrect its rundown status.

It took me about two chapters to get into the book, but when I did, I was hooked. Marie’s mother’s side of the family had me wanting to know more about them. The crusaders, the tales, the passing down of stories connected to a large extent with me. I loved the routine of the abbey. In fact, I found myself looking forward to those descriptions that Groff brings to fore with so much talent and nuance. I can only imagine the kind of research that must have happened in the writing of Matrix.

What I also enjoyed a lot was the absence of male characters, or when they appeared they took a back seat. The writing focuses on the women and rightly so. The sisterhood that is built from scratch had me cheering for them at the turn of every page. Every decision that Marie makes isn’t perfect. Groff lays out the flaws of characters that somehow makes them more endearing to the reader. Marie’s visions are beautifully explained through the prose. A feat if you ask me.

Matrix is a book about women who do not find a place anywhere in the world and how they come to live together in the abbey. The way Groff works with history – more to reimagine it is a splendid task. I loved how Marie offers herself to the Queen without any expectation (well, there is some at some points), bares her soul, and how she refuses to be trapped anywhere under any circumstances. It is all about things happening on her terms, which bring out the true warrior woman element.

Matrix is a medieval romance, it is political novel, it is a story of friendship, of sisterhoods even in disagreement, of a queer abbey, and of a spirit that is grand and not afraid to show it. You have to read Matrix to appreciate and feel the joy.

Read 210 of 2021. The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois

Title: The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois Author: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers Publisher: Harper ISBN: 978-0062942937 Genre: Literary Fiction, African American Literary Fiction, African American Women’s Fiction
Pages: 816
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I will always be grateful to Oprah’s Book Club for introducing me to the debut novel of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. The minute I saw it being picked by Oprah for her book club, I knew I had to read it. A multigenerational saga, with African American history at its core is something I wouldn’t want to miss reading. What I didn’t realize was how attached I would become to the characters, how I would root for some and become their cheerleader, how I would hate some with a vengeance, how I would fall in love with the language, and more than anything else, how I would find parts of myself in this novel.

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is more than just a story told through the lens of an African American family. It is so much more than that. It is not just about African history intertwined with contemporary living, but so much more. Jeffers lays it all out, bares her soul, to make us – the readers see what it was and what it still is. This is most marvellously done through the songs and writing of W.E.B Du Bois who is at the center of this magnificent epic.

Ailey Garfield is a headstrong, vulnerable, emotional, and highly intelligent women coming from a long line of women of the Garfield family. This is her story. This is the story of the women of the Garfield family – her mother, her maternal grandmother, great-grandmothers, her sisters, and her ancestors tracing way back to how they became slaves and what happened. It is the story of so many generations and somehow the story sadly is still the same, the one of fight – the one of voicing what is right, the one of standing up against wrong, and yet at the heart of it all there is love. A whole lot of love, that shines through the writing.

Ms. Jeffers’ voice shifts beautifully between times, between the past, the present, and beyond. The narration shifts swiftly to communicate the timbre of the times, the tone, of how it was, and in all of this never losing sight of the family and its struggle.

What I loved the most about the book is how emotional it gets you, and yet all you want to do is turn the pages. And yet there were times I wanted to just keep it down, which I did, and make sense of all the writing and the emotion. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is personal, it is political, it is devoid of the constrict of time (though it may not seem that way), and above all it is kind. It is a kind novel. It still preaches that over and over again, no matter what. Ms. Jeffers’ takes on topics that are so difficult and yet have to be talked about – the demonic nature of child abuse, the way relationships can get so messy, about slavery and colorism, about what it feels like to be the only black student and a teacher on campus, about black women who lead the novel and life, of how Ailey confronts tough situations as she goes along life, with help from her family and friends and about history that must not be whitewashed or forgotten. History that runs through the veins of every marginalised folk, in this case the African American people. The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois is compelling, gorgeous, stunning, and a read that has to be mandatory for all. Please read it.

Read 208 of 2021. Taxi Wallah and Other Stories by Numair Atif Choudhury

Taxi Wallah and Other Stories by Numair Atif Choudhury

Title: Taxi Wallah and Other Stories Author: Numair Atif Choudhury
Publisher: HarperCollins India, Fourth Estate India
ISBN: 978-9354892134
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 132
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I haven’t read Babu Bangladesh!, but now I will. I will ensure that I do, at least before the year ends, because Numair’s writing holds you by the throat, it suffocates you, it does not let you be, and more than anything else, it makes you see the stark differences in society, if in case you didn’t know about them already. 

Choudhury’s Bangladesh is a place very much like others in and around the country – poverty-stricken, gross injustice and inequalities that are visible from a mile, and more than anything else for you to acknowledge it. They make you uncomfortable because that’s the truth and we are aware of it.

Whether it is the very evident class difference that surfaces in “Rabia” – a story of a house-help and her sudden change of relationship with her aapa (who doesn’t want to be called that anymore), or in “Crumble” – a very hard-hitting story of Shahed – a brick-breaker in Dhaka who is just trying to make ends meet, or even if it is through the story “Different Eyes” about organ donors – the ones who have no choice but to do what they do, to settle their loans, each story exposes the darkness within. Choudhury’s stories aren’t for the faint-hearted. They aren’t glossy, they aren’t easy to digest, they don’t exist in happy and shiny places. They live hidden in shadows and come out when they wish to, or are already in plain sight but not seen by people.

Numair sees the world through a lens so huge and yet so minuscule – the stories could perhaps be sent in any third-world country and yet only belong to Bangladesh. The joys (however small), the sorrows, the defeat, the victories (very rare), and kindness that displays itself unexpectedly (say in “Chokra” – a beautiful story of street children and one in particular), Choudhury’s writing is sharp, raw, poetic, and shows the mirror the world.

Read this fantastic collection of short stories, and then read Babu Bangladesh! (as I will), and then lament about the fact that he was taken away too soon.

Read 207 of 2021. The Lost Soul by Olga Tokarczuk. Illustrations by Joanna Concejo. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

The Lost Soul by Olga Tokarczuk

Title: The Lost Soul
Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Illustrator: Joanna Concejo
Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
ISBN: 978-1644210345
Genre: Graphic, Illustrations, Picture Book
Pages: 48
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

The Lost Soul is one of the best reads of the year, where I am concerned. It not only makes you introspect about life and everything in-between, but also makes you want to stop in your tracks and just be for a while.

The entire book is told in pictures, with very few pages taking up text. It is about John, a workaholic businessman in existential crisis who feels he has lost his soul, and all is gone. A doctor diagnosis his malaise as his soul has been left out in the running game and all he needs to do is wait for his soul to catch-up. This is the plot. The story of our lives.

Tokarczuk is empathetic, poetic, and above all has a sensibility that matches Concejo’s beautiful illustrations, and though the text isn’t so much, yet the translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones hits the spot, like a tonic that you need to get you rid of your ailment.

I think most picture books that I have read my entire life have been more philosophical in nature than literary tomes. They say what they have to quite simply and you have no choice but to go back and reread them. Concejo’s illustrations change with every emotion on page – from sepia tones to being monochromatic to colourful, they are breathtaking in every way.

The Lost Soul teaches us about stopping, slowing down, about the grace in standing still and doing nothing. I think I need to follow this in my life for sure. To just be calm and breathe. To try not to think so much.

Read 206 of 2021. A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad by Udbhav Agarwal

A for Prayagraj - A Short Biography of Allahabad by Udbhav Agarwal

Title: A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad
Author: Udbhav Agarwal
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 9789390652723
Genre: Non-Fiction, Commentary
Pages: 120 
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 4/5 

Udbhav Agarwal’s writing is precise, and he knows how to cut to the chase. Udbhav’s Allahabad is of the past (of course), but it belongs to the present in so many ways, and not just as a means of nostalgia but so much more. And then there is the modern-day Prayagraj that one sees and yet doesn’t (thankfully). Who is to say that Allahabad doesn’t exist? Who is to say that people there do not address it yet as Allahabad and not Prayagraj? That’s hardly the point though.

A for Prayagraj brings forth the city through memory, through what is, what was, and its people who leave and return. The book opens with the prologue aptly titled, “Yogi ki Prayagshala” (a pun on Prayogshala) – where Agarwal returns to the city that is now a stranger in so many ways and yet familiar. The name change hasn’t changed the soul of the city. “That, in one of the oldest living cities in the world, things have come, and things have gone. Things have fallen apart. And yet, the city endures.” he writes with emotion that rings throughout the read.

Whether Agarwal is speaking of Holy Waters touring company owned and run by a practical Neelesh Narayan or when he is documenting his search for Upendranath Ashk’s autobiography “Chehre Anek”, or even as he speaks of the parkour boys, who just want a way out, Agarwal brings to fore the Allahabad – the one that is scrambling to accommodate all spaces – the past, the present, and perhaps even an uncertain future.

My most favourite section of the book has to be “F for Fyaar, F se Firaq” – a love story (lust story?) of sorts – somewhere between Grindr and poetry, there is love, with Firaq paving the way, and yet as it happens with most such encounters, it is in vain.

A for Prayagraj is a memoir of growing up in spaces that no longer exist, or some remnants do. It is a travelogue even, one that made me Google all the places Agarwal mentions in the book. It is about the good old days and how they have disappeared or so it seems. Udbhav’s writing makes you think, and feel, and leaves you wondering – it tells you that the personal and the political are the same, it shows you how a city can become a world.