Category Archives: contemporary fiction

Autumn by Ali Smith

Autumn by Ali Smith

Title: Autumn
Author: Ali Smith
Publisher: Anchor Books 
ISBN: 9781101969946
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 260
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 5/5

This was a reread for me this year. I had almost forgotten how brilliant this book is, and it is not just about the word-games or the wordplay that Smith uses to her advantage. It is also not about the latent humour that springs itself on you every five pages or so. It is about the writing. The hard-to-contain, the kind of writing that is not limited only to words, the kind of writing that makes you sit up and want to devour the book in one sitting. Autumn for me, is that kind of a book. The book that I will reread perhaps once more before this year ends. 

Autumn by Ali Smith is the first in a quartet. The season quartet as it is called. Autumn is the season of mists, of melancholy, of trees shedding leaves, of changing colours, of perhaps to see clearly, and make peace with the fact that life isn’t stationary. Autumn by Ali Smith is all of this and more. It is called “the Brexit novel”, but to me it is so much more. A lot more. Autumn is about friendship, love, art, identity, forgetfulness, ageing, of how much the world means to us, and how much we perhaps leave behind. 

It is essentially the story of Elisabeth, and her next-door neighbour Daniel Gluck, about 70 years her senior. The friendship that started when she was but a little girl, who is now a woman in her early 30s, and he is centenarian. She goes to meet him at the home for the aged. She reads to him. Constantly reading to him. There is a lot of back and forth between the present and the past in the book, which worked for me through and through. Elisabeth and Daniel’s relationship is charted through the years, of what he teaches her about art, beauty, and the nature of living. Of how she takes it all in. Of the unspoken beauty of friendship, that doesn’t come with any condition of age or time or wisdom. It just is. 

Autumn is energetic, brimming with wordplay, there is so much to it – the layers just keep peeling – perhaps also with every reread. It is also the story of Christine Keeler, of the Profumo fame, and how art plays a role in all of it. It is the story of how we function as humans. Ali Smith’s writing is perfect as far as I am concerned. No phrase or sentence is out of place, or not needed. Everything makes sense and sometimes nothing does. But that’s the beauty of her writing. You read. You pause. You savour what she serves, and you right back for a reread. I for one, cannot wait to now read Winter.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger by Aravind AdigaTitle: The White Tiger
Author: Aravind Adiga
Publisher: Free Press, Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 978-1416562603
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Indian Writing in English
Pages: 304
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 2.5/5

Every time I tried reading, “The White Tiger” I was unsuccessful. I couldn’t move beyond the tenth page. There was something about it, or something about me that didn’t enable the turning of the page after a certain point. I tried reading it in 2008 when it was first published. I tried reading it when it won the Booker that year, and many other times. I couldn’t.

Till I did a couple of days ago, and well, it turned out to be the first read of 2021. I must say that I was left disappointed. I could not empathise with any character. I mean I so wanted to with Balram at least. The one who rises above the very real and deep-rooted caste system. The one who does it all, no matter what it takes. It is Balram who is narrating the story. He could also be an unreliable narrator, but I was willing to believe it all. I was hanging on to every word till I stopped.

Balram Halwai is the protagonist of The White Tiger, or perhaps it is circumstances of one and millions of Indians who are drummed into believing that they have to serve. So, he serves. He is the son of a rickshaw puller, born in the heartland of India. He works at a tea-stall, also crushes coal, and dreams of a better life. Opportunity knocks when a big landlord hires him as a chauffeur for his son, daughter-in-law, and also to do other tasks around the house. For him, life is better when he is asked to move to Delhi with the couple, and thereon he plans his escape, so he can be a man who is at the top of the pyramid of life.

Yes, Adiga tries hard to speak of poverty, caste system, discrimination, of what he calls the “Rooster Coop” – as a metaphor for describing the oppression of the poor in the country. He does all of this, but somehow, I couldn’t find any nuance. The writing failed to make an impact. I couldn’t feel anything for any character. I did guffaw in very few places, but that was that. I did turn the pages quickly because it is that kind of read. Perhaps the very few Booker winning titles, that are actually readable. Maybe I read it because of the hype of the movie that releases on the 22nd of this month, starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkumar Rao. Whatever it is, the first read of the year turned out to be a dud.

Books and Authors mentioned in The White Tiger:

  • Harry Potter Series
  • Rumi
  • Iqbal
  • Mirza Ghalib
  • James Hadley Chase
  • Kahlil Gibran
  • Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
  • The Joy of Sex
  • Desmond Bagley

Playlist for The White Tiger:

  • Hazaron Khwaaishein Aisi by Shubha Mudgal
  • Fields of Gold by Sting
  • On My Way Home by Enya
  • I Want to Break Free by Queen
  • Return to Innocence by Enigma
  • Jawaane Jaaneman
  • Changes by Tara George
  • Hey Jude by The Beatles
  • Freedom by George Michael
  • Dil Jalane ki Baat by Farida Khannum

Jaipur Journals by Namita Gokhale

Jaipur Journals by Namita Gokhale Title: Jaipur Journals
Author: Namita Gokhale
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 978-0670093557
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Jaipur Journals is the kind of book that will work its way to your heart – bit by bit. It is the kind of book that will make you chuckle in several places, even if you haven’t been to the Jaipur Literature Festival (where the book is set) and will also make you want to pack your bags and go there. Jaipur Journals is a melting pot of a book, I think, and more. You will notice characters and at once you know them – they could be anyone you have met or heard of, and yet seem new and delightful. What I loved the most about the book is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Ms. Gokhale has the knack of telling you all (or making it seem like that) and then showing only what she wants to.

From a septuagenarian who has completed her semi-fictional novel (over and over again) but does not want to publish it, to people who are receiving threat letters at the festival, from lost lovers meeting at the festival, to a young girl who has found her way to the greatest literary show on earth through a blogging contest, to a cat-burglar who is now a poet, Jaipur Journals promises all of this, in all its eccentricities and more.

The book goes back and forth in almost every characters’ life and yet doesn’t feel too long or overwhelming. In fact, if anything I thought it ended too soon. Also, it is such a light read that you do not even know when time flies, and that too me is the greatest quality of a good book – readability and engagement, which Jaipur Journals manages spot on.

Jaipur Journals is that friend you speak with about books, the publishing industry, and how perhaps the culture of reading is either dying or not. It is about what happens at literary festivals – the usual sessions, the controversial ones, the times when love is forged, people bumping into people, and some latent hidden bitterness rearing its ugly head once in a while.

If I haven’t said it enough already in so many words, then here it is again: Read Jaipur Journals. Read it because it will make you smile, guffaw, and perhaps even let your guard down. Read it because it literally is an ode to aspiring writers, to writers who have written but do not want their work to be published, to writers who want to be published and are hesitant, to writers who shine and come into their own nonetheless.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas

91NWARscW6L Title: The Empty Room
Author: Sadia Abbas
Publisher: Zubaan Books
ISBN: 978-9385932267
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Because more stories such as this one need to be told. Stories where the political and personal merge and the voice stands out – being original, fearless and saying it like she intends to. I also most certainly have come to believe that stories of women are best told by women (you can refute me on this one but it is my opinion nonetheless). The story of Tahira in 1970s Karachi is told beautifully by Sadia Abbas. Through a work of fiction, you can sense the tone and emotions that are so real, you are transported back in time. As a reader, I was way too invested in this book and just wanted to see Tahira happy, no matter what.

Like I said, the novel is set in the 70s of Karachi. Tahira is married off quite quickly to someone she doesn’t know and her life falls apart as quickly. She is a talented painter who isn’t allowed to paint. Her marriage is nothing but a trap and she has no voice left. She was always the free one at her parents house – interacting, debating, discussing with her brother Waseem and his friends. She misses all that and comes to know one fine day that her brother and his friends are arrested and caught up in the regressive regime’s line of fire. Tahira’s world is shattered. She doesn’t know what to do and how to express herself anymore till she goes back to painting. All her paintings have the same title, “The Empty Room”.

“The Empty Room” is rich, luxuriant and more than anything else soothing in so many ways. I often found myself weeping and smiling at the same time while reading this book. The nation is new. The bride is new. Her roles are new. There is the rebel inside her which refuses to succumb and Abbas through her succinct prose has brought out all the elements and joined them quite cleverly. Yet, there are so many places where the book just is – it doesn’t try to be anything but show a mirror of times gone by and strangely you can see those times even today around you. They haven’t gone anywhere. The regressiveness exists, doesn’t matter which nation.

Abbas makes Pakistan come alive in this book. The streets, the places, the houses – the very atmosphere that is heavy and sometimes claustrophobic in Tahira’s world is described brilliantly. “The Empty Room” is just an introspective book with a lot of heart, gumption and the idea and hope that things will change for the better. Read it.