Category Archives: Authors I Love

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

Title: A State of Freedom
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670090150
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 275
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Neel Mukherjee’s “A State of Freedom” begins with a father who has come to India with his six-year old son from the States (where he now works). He wants his son to see the Taj Mahal and the nearby monuments at Fatehpur Sikri. The son is intimidated by the landscape – he doesn’t belong to this country and the father feels that even he is a “tourist in his own country”. This sense of alienation and weirdness furthers on into the first chapter, only to leave the reader gasping for more and turning the pages.

The start is powerful, albeit not very clear, but powerful nonetheless. It will leave the reader with two choices (as most starts do) – to either abandon the book or to carry on with it. I recommend that you edge on and you will be in for a surprise. Mukherjee’s characters are closely interlinked with the plot – though the plot is finely segregated into five segments (that is only too deceptive by the way), you see how characters appear time and again from one plot to another – it is as though they have decided to colour outside the lines and they very well will do so.

A construction worker falls to his death in the first section of the immigrant young father and his son and how his story is tackled later. At the same time, let’s not forget the core of the story (to me at least) of a passing poverty-struck man with his dancing bear (the cover is thus inspired) – each trying to find a way out – one of poverty and one of captivity – a “state of freedom” is being tried to achieve. The themes of alienation, identity and longing are further explored in the section of a young man who lives in London and visits Bombay time and again to meet his parents. In the course of the visits, he is taken in by the life of their cook Renu and another servant, Milly – so much so that he is encouraged by Renu to visit her village and stay with her brothers and their families – only to reach an understanding that he never can and never will be able to imagine the lives of others and how they live – his capacity for that is too diminished.

For me, while reading this book, there was the sound of loneliness that rang in almost every page – thus leading to the sound of grief, of belonging and to find salvation in one’s circumstances. I did read The Lives of Others last year, but this book has had an altogether different impact. I think what worked for me while reading this book is the association of daily life that Mukherjee doesn’t throw in your face but doesn’t hesitate to make you see what you normally would’ve shirked away from – the class, the racism, the feeling of not crossing lines because it gets uncomfortable after a point is so stark and raw that it will leave you with a lump in your throat.

For instance, the angle of Lakshman and the bear. There is so much going on in this part of the book that you would have to stop, take a breath and then continue – from the way Lakshman trains the bear (or so he thinks he has) to the drudgery of day to day living – to finding food for himself and the beast, Mukherjee’s prose shines on every single page. The peripheral layers to every section may seem ordinary, till they surface in another section and realism merges with the philosophical.

As a reader what also took me away was the different forms or narratives in which each section is written – the first section is in third person, the second in the first person, and how with each section the story only becomes even more complex and yet so simple. The fourth section is that of Milly and her friend Soni and how these two girls born and brought up in poverty, set out to want better lives and what the outcome of that is. The meaning of dislocation is the strongest in this portion of the book, thereby tying all loose ends.

The last section of the book is the one that is an unpunctuated chapter – told in first-person. It definitely gives the book the much required closure but it is also the chapter that I cannot talk about. “A State of Freedom” is one of those rare books that take you in slowly, capture you by the throat, overwhelm you time and again, make you see broken, fractured lives and at some point also make the attempt to make you whole again from that experience. It is one of those books that you would have to read, no matter what. I cannot stop talking about it.

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui

Title: The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir
Author: Thi Bui
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
ISBN: 978-1419718779
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Pages: 336
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

The times we live in aren’t easy. We live in xenophobic times. As much as I hate to say it, it is true and we cannot turn a blind eye to this one. In these times, as much as I don’t want to read what stares in my face all over the place – on Twitter, on FB, on almost every social media – hatred for a religion or class, or a set of people that aren’t yours, but you read because you feel you will understand and empathize better and this is the time “The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir” came into my life.

This is a graphic memoir, which means it happened to the author and her family – a set of events – after her parents moved to the land of milk and honey from Vietnam on a boat. The story is deceptively simple but layered with relationships issues, immigration and belonging issues and above all: what it really takes to blend in? Do people who come from outside can after all be called citizens of a particular country even after decades or do they have to keep proving themselves and their patriotism over and over again?

Bui’s story is the story of her family – as she begins to adjust to being a first-time mother, she reminiscences what it means to be a parent from her parents’ perspective – from the sacrifices to unnoticed gestures to love that need not be spoken all the time. In all of this is America – Grand Old America in the background (not as much) always making them question their identity and the importance of home. There are panels that are so breathtakingly beautiful and how they mingle with the prose – will make you weep and in the next panel before you know it you are smiling and cheering on for Thi and her circumstances.

This book as Viet Thanh Nguyen claims will break your heart and then heal it – did just that for me. What is funny is that I also spoke to my maternal aunt after reading this book to know her memories of coming to India from Pakistan during the Great Partition and what it was like for them. “The Best We Could Do” as the title suggests is just that – the best they did and how sometimes you have to keep doing your best to find your place in the world.

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Title: South and West: From a Notebook
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524732790
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Joan Didion’s works are not easy to read. But once you read her books, there is no stopping. I remember reading “The Year of Magical Thinking” when it was first published in 2005 and wrenched completely to the gut by its honesty. Since then, I haven’t missed reading a single book by her. My copy of her latest, “South and West: From a Notebook” came all the way from Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, a gift from my sister. Anyhow, now back to the book.

Her essays are introspective unlike her fictional works. Don’t get me wrong here, I adore her writing, just that I feel her non-fiction is stronger than fiction. This thin volume contains two pieces: the first, a collection of assembled jottings in her notebook from a road-trip through the South in 1970; the second piece is about the Patty Hearst trial.

The first piece forms the bulk of the book – with details on everything South as they traverse that landscape – from its swimming pools in motels, to meeting regular people, knowing their views on class and racism (nothing has changed since then or so it seems) to the sedentary life lead there. At the same time, her keen eye for detail and candidness, makes you wish there was more to this book and more so to this piece.

Didion makes the South alive for you – every nuance, twitch of the faces of the people she observes and interacts with to the weather (more so important for the South) is pat down to the last nitpicking detail and as a reader you are only too happy for it. At the same time, you also feel that it could very well have been a travelogue (or is it?) with rich descriptions of the landscape and the minor details that are paid attention to.

What struck me about the book the most is that though written in the 70s, it still is so relevant today given the views of the people in the South – where discrimination – racial and classist are taken as the norm and no one seems to object – it was almost as though this were a warning for the times to come with the current President of the United States of America.

The second piece in the book is too brief – it finishes even before you have started reading it which is quite a pity. It is just a collection of notes and sketches (which of course what the entire book is) and nothing else adds to it. In fact, I had to go to Google to know more about the Patty Hearst trial.

All said and done, “South and West: From a Notebook” is a book which perhaps isn’t meant for all – or I don’t even know if it will be enjoyed by all. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner to Joan’s works but for someone who is familiar with her writing, you will love it, just as I did, so please pick it up.

Affiliate Link:

http://amzn.to/2tFdhW0

Hostage by Guy Delisle

Title: Hostage
Author: Guy Delisle
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, Random House
ISBN: 978-1911214441
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Pages: 432
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Guy Delisle’s graphic novels deal with humanity on a grand scale. When I say humanity I mean the issues we deal with not only on a day to day basis, but also the ones that sometimes go unnoticed – the events that go unspoken of, the people who get caught in unsuspecting circumstances and whose stories aren’t told as much. Delisle’s graphic novels till now (at least the ones I’ve read) have dealt with his life as the spouse of a Médecins Sans Frontières (literal translation: Medicine without Frontiers) physician in different cities. “Hostage” is different from these.

“Hostage” tells the story of Christophe André and his kidnapping in early July 1997 from his Doctors without Borders office in Nazran, a small town in the former Soviet Republic of Ingushetia. His kidnappers took him to Chechnya, where they tried to get a ransom of a million dollars. The story is of his captivity and how he managed to survive in the face of a hopeless situation – when he was moved from one place to another, when he didn’t know if he would live to see the next day or for that matter a random act of kindness from a captivator meant so much.

Delisle recounts André’s harrowing experience in hostage and not once the reader (of course me in question in this case) gets bored. Delisle conveys the psychological effects of solitary confinement through some brilliant use of colours, paneling and muted colour washes. Hostage had me hooting for Christophe and all I wanted was for him to go scot free without any injury. Your heart goes out to him as he is cuffed to a radiator, doesn’t know why he is here, doesn’t know whether his organization would pay for him and whether or not he will be able to attend his sister’s wedding or ever see her (heartbreaking in my opinion). I for one had goosebumps while reading this because I started wondering how I would behave in captivity. Would I be able to have any hope? Would I give up too soon?

The topic is grim and something that perhaps most people may not digest well. It being in a graphic form, in fact sometimes makes it only too real. Having said that, the book is compelling. Christophe managed to keep his sanity (you have to read to find out how he managed that) in an environment that was not conducive at all and yet is alive and managed to tell his tale to Delisle, which now is in the form of a brilliant graphic biography (I might even call it a memoir because all experiences are of Christophe after all and were narrated to the author). “Hostage” is a book that filled me with a lot of hope, troubled me at times and also made me see how easy it is sometimes for common folk to get into situations beyond their control. I also for one wouldn’t be surprised if someone decided to make a movie out of it.

You can buy the book here: http://amzn.to/2sZXYpo

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Title: Just Kids
Author: Patti Smith
Publisher: Ecco Books, HarperCollins Books
ISBN: 978-0060936228
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Memoirs, Rock
Pages: 320
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

Just Kids is one of those books that you’d want to read over and over again. This was my first reread and I know I will go back to it. I read it about nine years ago for the first time and as I read it again this year, I found my perspectives and opinions change a lot as the book moved me in different places, which perhaps it didn’t the first time I picked it up. That’s the beauty of some very good books – they make you see, feel and think differently with each read and that to me is a single most parameter for a reread.

Back to Just Kids: This book is the first part memoir written by singer and songwriter Patti Smith. Before she took over punk and rock and roll, she was just another girl who had come to New York to search herself and understand what she wanted to do. She had her poetry and the intrinsic lack of trust in society. In New York she met future photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and “Just Kids” is a document of their life together – as artists, lovers, friends and a trip down memory lane.

The book is razor sharp and has no holds barred. Smith says what she has to and without apology. Robert and Smith’s relationship was mercurial and yet there is something so fulfilling as you turn the pages and don’t want the chapters to end. You want to know more about their lives and for that I recommend you read M Train (where Robert doesn’t feature at all or does but hardly so). Patti Smith just like her songs has this ease of writing to her prose as well – it becomes poetry in so many places and has the capacity to take your breath away. Read it. Be mesmerized.