Category Archives: Dysfunctionality

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Little, Brown
ISBN: 978-1408709726
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I knew exactly what I was getting into as I started reading “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng. I had read her first book two years ago called “Everything I Never Told You” and couldn’t wait to start her new one. I can for sure say that I enjoyed “Little Fires Everywhere” a lot more (sorry for that Celeste, though I also enjoyed your debut novel a lot as well). The prose, the description and more than that how life in America is when it comes to consumerism and parenthood at some point mingling together is brilliantly depicted in this novel of dysfunctional families, twisted minds and family ties.

“Little Fires Everywhere” begins with a house burnt down in a closely tight-knit planned community where nothing of this sort would be dreamed of happening by its residents. The idea of well-gated community called Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997 says a lot about the Utopia and unwelcome change and how all if it disrupts the Richardson family’s seemingly happy life, when Mia (a charismatic artist) and her shy fifteen-year old daughter Pearl, move to the town as tenants in the house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents.

This triggers events – mainly the differences in their lifestyles and also what is the attitude of the Richardsons when old family friends on theirs decide to adopt a Chinese-American baby – that would one day lead to the Richardson’s own house burning. I am not giving away anything, don’t worry, but all I can say is that this book kept me up longer than I intended those two nights it took me to finish it.

Celeste Ng has this amazing quality of going easy on the reader mostly and then out of nowhere, she shows you the cracks in relationships, the changes as people interact with each other and how explosive it all is under a calm surface. I loved the writing. It is fast and yet bringing out the details of every character – the Richardson family (mother, father and four teenage children), Mia and Pearl (who I loved as the book moved along) and also the other couple – every detail, every sentence is in place when it comes to “Little Fires Everywhere”. The title is so layered – depicting the fires within and the ones that we see. The ones we also feel but deny and move along in life. If you have to read one book this October (while there is still time), make it this one.

 

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My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent Title: My Absolute Darling
Author: Gabriel Tallent
Publisher: Fourth Estate, HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0008185220
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Once in a while, you read a book that makes you angry. Very angry. And you cannot help but cheer so madly and wildly for the underdog. The book takes over your life till you are done reading it and while it is hopeful (in small doses and so not enough), it also leaves you exhausted, frustrated and contemplative about the world you inhabit. “My Absolute Darling” by Gabriel Tallent is one such book and it is very hard to believe that it is only his debut.

“My Absolute Darling” is the kind of book that will in the most brutal manner stay with you long after you’ve finished it. It is one of those books that you wouldn’t even want to stay with you and yet it will. It is the dark “Lolita”. Nabokov’s “Lolita” looks like a bird in front of this one. The book is of the coming-of-age genre in the most raw, terrible manner. The one that no child must go through and perhaps the ones that do, mostly emerge to be the stronger ones. But as the blurb says, “Sometimes strength is not the same as courage” or “Sometimes leaving is not the only way to escape” – this book lives up to it in so many ways.

Julia (Turtle) Alveston is a survivor. She is all of fourteen and has grown-up isolated since the death of her mother. Her father, Martin, is tortured and believes that Julia is the best thing that has happened to him. So much so that he doesn’t want to let go of her. She is after all his, “absolute darling”. Turtle is physically, mentally and emotionally abused by her father. Turtle’s social existence is confined to her school, and sometimes meeting her grandfather, who she is most fond of. She doesn’t have friends. She is angry, miserable, and all she knows is how to survive and that her daddy loves her very much (she also deep down just wants to get away from all of this).

In all of this, Turtle meets Jacob, a high-school boy who reads, is funny and lives in a big clean house with his parents and sister. For once, Turtle feels some kind of normalcy in her life and starts forging friendships. But she now has to find a way to escape her old life and start anew. She wants to leave her “devoted” father. And thus begins the story of Turtle (almost more than halfway through the book). She becomes her own hero and I as a reader often found myself just hooting for her, cheering, interacting with her, wanting to hug her and tell her that it will all be okay, to reach out between the pages and scream at Martin, to perhaps even kill him.

The emotional complexities of this book are of another level. The setting of the book is the outdoors (woods along the Northern California Coast) – where Turtle lives with her father. This adds another layer of fierceness and subtext to the novel. Of how sometimes even though circumstances aren’t just about right, you can still seize what is yours if you want to. But this book thankfully, isn’t preachy. It is real. Sometimes too real.

The story is gripping. You cannot help but turn the pages and yet you don’t want to. Tallent takes you to the heart of darkness (multiple times) and leaves you hanging with what will happen next. He takes you through the maze in Turtle’s head – her confusion, her loss of expression, her self-doubt (always thinking she isn’t pretty and not worthy of anything good), self-loathing and finally being resilient to it all. There are times when words that need Turtle’s expression aren’t there and yet you know it all. The writing is that surreal and empathetic. The prose is measure, even though laborious at times, but it is worth it. Tallent has also referenced so many authors and books in this book, which to me was nothing short of brilliant and each reference made so much sense in the larger sense of the plot (I will list those down soon). There were technicalities with weapons which I didn’t get at all, but I let it go. The characters that Tallent creates are frighteningly real. Such an incident or series of incidents could be happening in your backyard and you wouldn’t know of it.

This one sentence stood out for me as an explanation for the entire book, however the entire book is peppered with so many of them: “Her moments of happiness occur right at the margin of the unbearable”.

Read this book only if you can stomach it. But read it. Make yourself stronger and read it. The prose demands to be read. The emotions most certainly do. Tallent is one author to watch out for. I loved reading this one.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

GV Title: Goodbye, Vitamin
Author: Rachel Khong
Publisher: Henry Holt
ISBN: 9781471159480
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 196
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Off-late, I’ve been reading a lot of literary fiction (as I always do), but have hardly come across books that are both literary and funny. “Goodbye, Vitamin” is one such book. The story is of Ruth (but not just her, you come to know as you go along) who comes back home to her parents, after receiving a call from her mother Annie when her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Don’t get me wrong – the book isn’t funny funny as much as it is full of wry humour and irony, which most certainly worked for me.

Howard Young is a prominent history professor who doesn’t know what is happening to him. He seems to be lost and is mostly isn’t aware of his condition. His wife is of the opinion that almost all food isn’t good for his health, which leaves him with very few options to eat. Ruth is trying to come to terms with a break-up.

This being the plot of the book is not all. The issue of identity, belonging and what happens when a parent faces dementia is heart-breaking. Khong tells the story with such tenderness that as a reader you do nothing but give in. The book is constructed in the form of journal entries and what happens through one year (I think) and how it impacts these characters, day by day.

I love the storytelling style. While it isn’t new, it somehow makes you more engaged as a reader. You want to know more. You feel like you are snooping on someone else’s life and somehow it is alright. This isn’t a feel-good novel but it does have its moments and the balance makes it even better, if you ask me. Added to that, it looks at perspectives of outsiders as well – friends, neighbours, colleagues and that provides another layer to the story.

Khong’s writing is simple. There are no frills. I love when the author is so sure about what he or she is doing that there are no fillers in the book. “Goodbye, Vitamin” is not only that kind of book but it is also the kind of book that is very comforting.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice by Lisa Genova Title: Still Alice
Author: Lisa Genova
Publisher: Pocket Books, Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 9781501106422
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 353
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

One of the many diseases of old-age that I am most frightened of is Alzheimer’s. The thought of losing all memory, day by day and not knowing anything at all makes me break into a sweat. The idea of not recognizing your loved ones even more so. I don’t think anyone should go through that torture. It is just one of those diseases that take everything away from you.

So when you read a book where the disease is almost the protagonist, you are completely overwhelmed and more than anything else you also cheer for the person for being a survivor and battling it at all costs. Dr. Alice Howland has it all going for her. She is a psychiatry professor at Harvard. She has three children and a loving husband. She is fifty years of age and Alzheimer’s has struck. It is about her family coping with her disease and how their lives change forever. “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova is a book that will make you think about life and death and the consequences of life being too short.

Genova skillfully explores Alzheimer’s through Alice. The onset of it and the rapid progression as shown from September 2002 to September 2005 will make you turn the pages and feel for Alice and her family, which maybe you must not have in a very long time. For instance, the unwell Alice spotting a message the healthier Alice left on voicemail and figuring what it was will absolutely break your heart. There are many such instances throughout the book.

I was majorly taken in by the book because Alzheimer’s is one thing that has always intrigued me. One day you know it all and the other you are reduced to becoming someone who can’t even remember his or her name. “Still Alice” had me in from the very first page and did not let go of me at all. I recommend this to all readers – it will appeal to everyone and probably also make you realize that time is too short and life must be lived nonetheless.

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Still Alice

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob Title: The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing
Author: Mira Jacob
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9789384052706
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 512
Source: Publicist
Rating: 5/5

The past is beautiful and also has the power to be vicious. For it to rear its ugly head and not let go, till the demons have been put to rest. As a reader, I see this theme occurring again and again in books. I think that one cannot ignore it in any art form. The past is a strong element of nature that will not be ignored at all and it will be repeated again and again, just as it plays a central and vociferous role in Mira Jacob’s book, “The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing”.

“The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing” is a story of a dysfunctional family, of old ties, of relationships that cannot be forgotten and which honestly, is nothing new in the world of literature. What is new though is the way it is said. The narration is so strong that it made me feel that I was reading a book of a different nature and plot. As it happens in all family stories – this one also has a lot of grandeur, a lot of mess, a lot of fleeting and unsaid emotions, and a lot of past, present and future that tangles itself and slowly unravels the plot.

At the heart of this book is the Eapen family. The novel opens in Seattle where Amina Eapen gets a call from her mother, Kamala in Albuquerque, saying that something is wrong with her surgeon father, Thomas, who is now talking to family members who are no longer alive. This is where Amina flies down to check on her father and the story begins – back and forth between India and America and New Mexico and the Eapen family’s secrets and despair and love and longing are unravelled, chapter by chapter. There is a lot happening in the book and maybe that is what makes it so special, also not to forget that it keeps coming back to the core of the plot.

The family is just like any other family and yet it is not what it seems. As you turn the pages, you are stunned by the language, the tenderness and harshness of prose at the same time, the starkness and as a reader; I was only happy that it was a big read and not cut down. Every character has his or her part etched beautifully. No one is out of place. From Amina dealing with her issues and identity looming large to her brother Akhil who is struggling with his own demons. There is also a lot of humour infused in the book – dry as it may be but it definitely helps the reader get through the complex parts.

Jacob in a very tragic-comic manner talks of an Indian family in America and their past linked to their future. The journey from India to America in search of a better life and the consequences of it, are described in great detailed and told with great empathy. The book is honest and that is most needed out of any book. There are no frills or pretensions around it. There is a lot of food in it as well. There is a lot of drama. There is a lot of love and there are sentences and dialogues which are stunning and will leave you begging for more.

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