Category Archives: Authors I Love

Enigma Variations by André Aciman

51L-bsaKRML Title: Enigma Variations
Author: André Aciman
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374148430
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember when I first read “Call Me by Your Name” by André Aciman and couldn’t stop crying. The book touched me in places I didn’t even know existed within me. The love of a teenager and an older man had me by the gut and for the longest time I couldn’t stop recommending it to people. Actually, I still do. Good books must always be read by all, even if it means just most people, but read it must be for sure. And for a while after I didn’t read anything by Aciman, till “Enigma Variations” was sent to me and I couldn’t help myself.

You cannot expect “Enigma Variations” to be like “Call Me by Your Name” but the writing is for sure similar (the same author of course) and that is what keeps the reader going. This novel charts the life of a man named Paul – whose loves remain as overpowering and passionate throughout his adulthood as they were during adolescence. With this book Aciman has sealed himself as being one of my favourite authors for sure. This book is that powerful and lyrical.

“Enigma Variations” is about Paul of course, but it is also about the people he falls in love with – both women and men. The setting could be Southern Italy, where as a boy he had a crush on his parents’ cabinetmaker (reminded me so much of Call Me by Your Name) or it could be a snowbound campus in New England where he falls hard for a girl and meets her over and over again, or it could also be his nefarious one-night stands with men who he will never meet, or New York’s sidewalks and cafés and more – the bottom line is that Aciman makes his characters yearn, gives them raw desire and emotions and leaves them to grapple with it. At no point did I get bored with the book. In fact, if anything I just didn’t want the book to end.

It felt like I was Paul and it was my life playing itself out in front of me. Aciman’s language casts a spell – through his words and situations he maps corners of desire that were most mysterious and out of reach. His characters are human. They make mistakes. They cry. They hurt. They also want and they also waver from the wanting. They are indecisive and it is alright for them to be this way. Paul takes account of all his fears, hopes, desires and still wants love in his life.

To me that is of paramount significance – after being such enigmas to our own selves, we finally discover what it is that we really want. Aciman plays on everyday emotions and scenes. At no point as a reader you will feel strongly disconnected from the plot. It is almost like he is chronicling what you might have gone through once a upon a time. Aciman understands emotions intricately and is not shy of putting them out like an open wound.

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.

Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography by Ruskin Bond

71uPk+sgj5L Title: Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography
Author: Ruskin Bond
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9386338907
Genre: Autobiography, Memoirs
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

When you have grown up reading an author’s work, then to suddenly read his autobiography is a pretty gratifying experience. Ruskin Bond is an author who is at it – from novels to short stories to ghost stories to children’s books to novellas and now an autobiography wistfully titled “Lone Fox Dancing”. I was a little apprehensive initially as I picked this book, but it most certainly grows on you. The book is also magical in a way given the time and place Mr. Bond was born and grew up in. He has truly seen it all and I was most certainly envious of the life has led till now (and continues to) as I turned the pages.

Most autobiographies tend to be a little long-drawn and tedious. But while reading “Lone Fox Dancing”, I just wanted it to go on and on and on and never end. There is this sense of nostalgia (but obviously) that seeps deep into your bones as you read this book. Might I even call it magical to a large extent. Ruskin Bond makes his life seem very effortless and yet there yxzsis so much going on – from his birth in the 30s to his boarding school days in Shimla and the time spent in Dehradun, and of how he discovered some great books and the love of reading to finding his calling – writing.

I was most curious about his craft (he doesn’t speak of it in detail but does to some extent) and how he weaves dreams through his books. The part of how The Room on the Roof came to be is most interesting. The book traverses his entire journey to where he is now – Mussoorie and how content he is amidst the nature and the family he has made his own. With every page, you can feel the years passing and how each phase of life of Mr. Bond’s was different from the next. “Lone Fox Dancing” is full of anecdotes, and why shouldn’t it be, given the rich life he has led. I am sure half of them had to go in the edits.

To me what also was intriguing was the time period – by default the book takes you through the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, so on and so forth till present time. The book oozes with honesty and truth – it has the ring of the whimsical and stark realities of living at times. “Lone Fox Dancing” is the kind of book that deserves to be reread. Well I won’t get back to it immediately, but soon enough for sure.

The Crooked Line by Ismat Chughtai. Translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi

413WM8yVqeL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_ Title: The Crooked Line (Tehri Lakeer)
Author: Ismat Chughtai
Translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi
Publisher: Feminist Press
ISBN: 978-1558615182
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translation, Feminist Literature
Pages: 393
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

When I got to know of Women in Translation month toward the end of July, I knew that Chughtai would have to be one of the authors that I would read. Chughtai is something else. I can never use the past tense for her, because she lives on and on and on through her works no matter how cheesy it might sound to you. I recall the first time I had heard of that name and most people in my college only associated her with “Lihaaf”, her most popular short-story on love between women. But there is a sea of work that Chughtai wrote and while most of it is fairly popular, it isn’t as famous as her short stories. Her novellas, novels and even her memoir, Kagaji Hai Pairahan (loosely translated to a life of words) are stunning. Everything she wrote will go down in history.

My relationship with Chughtai’s works is of fierceness. I always associate the word fierce with her and her heroines. Their inner lives as captured by her remain as probing and mysterious as they were when first published. There is no recipe for emancipation in her books. Her heroines don’t try to break free from their worlds in ways which are extreme, but work around them. I don’t mean this as a good or a bad thing, it is just how things were then, when Ismat Appa was growing and observing the world of women around her.

“Tehri Lakeer” one of Chughtai’s most autobiographical work (translated wondrously by Tahira Naqvi as “The Crooked Line) tells the story of Shamman and her world, the women in her family – from her mother to her sisters and cousins, to her time at a boarding school and experiences there and how she grows into a woman on the brink of India’s independence, at the same time fighting her inner battles. “The Crooked Line” is about Indian women living in purdah (the world Shamman is born and grows into in the first part of the book) – her Amma who is callous enough to let Shamman being taken care of by her sisters. Her Bari Appa (oldest sister) who is a premature widow and uses this to her advantage time and again in the family. Her cousin Noori who very early on understands how to wield power over men. Chughtai’s characters may appear weak and subdued but don’t be fooled. They are strong and yet know when to appear weak.

The world of purdah disappears as Shamman grows up, with its own set of rules and it all comes down to how women control men around them. Shamman, now educated sees herself different from her family and is almost alienated by them. She doesn’t even understand her place in the modern world and is somewhat stuck in a limbo. Ismat Chughtai’s characters are also known to traverse paths of identity confusion more often than not. Be it Masooma (from the novel of the same name) or even Bichchoo Phoophee, they are always stuck, always searching and breaking paradigms in their small ways. Shamman does the same and is seeing the world change drastically – be it through her friend Alma, who has a child out of wedlock and is unable to love it fully or abort it – or through Bilqees, the femme fatale who uses men and is always surrounded by them, without knowing if she loves them or is just using them.

This is also a constant in the book – women who are neither here nor there. Women who were in purdah had no control and women who have the freedom don’t know what to make of it. In all of this is Shamman’s role as a headmistress (which reminded me so much of the Brontë sisters) and her relationship with the gossiping colleagues to her own sexuality as and when it blossoms, Chughtai’s feminism is not contained or a listicle of sorts. It is the kind of feminism that questions and makes you very uncomfortable while asking those questions. She isn’t apologetic and neither are her characters. Tahira Naqvi’s translation from the Urdu is top-notch as she keeps all phrases and words intact, where they should be. There is also a glossary behind for those who might need to refer it. This was perhaps the last Chugtai book that I had left to read. Knowing me though, I will go back to her works, almost every year. She was truly a woman of gumption and it reflected in her writing all the way. Read her. Breathe her works. And I would be very envious of you, if you haven’t read her at all, because there is so much there for you to read and adore.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

25663539-2 Title: Outline
Author: Rachel Cusk
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 9781250081544
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

For the longest time, I avoided reading Outline. I don’t know why but there was this mental block surrounding it that of course broke the minute I started reading it. From then on I couldn’t turn back. I had to finish this book and yet hope it wouldn’t get over. Having said that, Outline also isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. That is just because of the writing – it takes some time to sink into and before you know it, it has already started growing on you.

“Outline” is a story of ten conversations – ten different plot lines, ten lives and a woman at the core of it. The story is of a novelist and the people she meets, the stories she gathers, what people confide in her and tell her – their hopes, regrets, fantasies, anxieties and longings. It is all about life from a vantage point come to think of it. The crux though lies in the novelist’s own life – her losses and gains and how she comes to terms with all of it.

The execution of the book is brilliant. The ideas are stupendous -the fact that all of them find their way and space in the book says a lot about the author’s craft. Cusk’s writing style may seem random at times but it isn’t. Cusk makes you see the world bit by bit, layer by layer, as if an orange is being peeled. She doesn’t jump into incidents or facts of people’s lives. She takes time to introduce them to the reader and the reader is then taking his or her time getting familiar with them. The human details are spread out beautifully over ten lives and the narrator’s of course, that you only end up in awe at the end of this wondrous read.