Category Archives: essays

Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani

Michiko Kakutani

Title: Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread
Author: Michiko Kakutani
Publisher: William Collins
ISBN: 978-0008421953
Genre: Books about Books, Essays, Literary Theory
Pages: 304
Source: Personal Copy 
Rating: 2.5/5 

I love books about books. I do. I’m a sucker for them. I was excited for “Ex Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread” by Michiko Kakutani, the former chief book critic of The New York Times. I was excited given the kind of reading she has done and the books she must have connected with over the years, but I was mildly disappointed to see only most “white” writers on this list, and more than anything else no variety as such.

There’s the same old Donna Tartt, the good old Tolkien, Steinbeck, Atwood, Orwell, Tara Westover, and David Foster Wallace. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I expected more. There is Jhumpa Lahiri, the Márquez, the Zadie Smith, and Colson Whitehead. It somehow doesn’t make me discover or yearn to read a particular title. Some I won’t even bother reading cover to cover. I wish this was a varied and more diverse list. It just didn’t do anything for me. Yes, it’s produced beautifully. The illustrations are quite amazing and all of that. But I wish there was more substance. But by all means pick it up, if you love lists (like I do). I might even try a reading project of this to read and reread all these books (well, or maybe not).

The Night in Gethsemane: On Solitude and Betrayal by Massimo Recalcati. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

The Night in Gethsemane - On Solitude and Betrayal by Massimo Recalcati

Title: The Night in Gethsemane: On Solitude and Betrayal
Author: Massimo Recalcati
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Publisher: Europa Editions, Europa Compass
ISBN: 978-1787702592
Genre: Non-fiction, Essay
Pages: 96
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Betrayal. The word conjures so many emotions in us. Anger, melancholy, a sense of loss, of love lost, and even pity. Massimo Recalcati’s brilliant short book, “The Night in Gethsemane” is a book about Jesus’s betrayal by Judas and Peter. Of how Judas arrives with armed men in the olive grove, abandoning Jesus with a kiss. It is the time of being forsaken not only by the ones dearest to him, but also by his father, his God. This is what this short gem is about.

At the same time, it will also make you see and realize and think upon your betrayals – the ones you’ve been guilty of, and the ones done to you. But it is also about suffering, and who is there when we hurt the most. Who is there in our most painful moments? Who was there for Jesus, son of God? How did he fall and more than anything else how did he survive the fall?

While Recalcati looks at Jesus as son of God, of someone Divine, he also looks at him as human. All his emotions are analysed. The prophecy of Jesus being betrayed – when he said that someone close to him will betray him at the last supper. That’s when it happened, right after. Of the different natures of betrayal of Judas and Peter. In all of this we as readers are exposed to the loneliness of the human experience. When one is betrayed, how does one feel? It is as though the person enters an abyss of loneliness that is difficult to get rid of. Ann Goldstein’s translation from the Italian is as always to the point, exercising great brevity, and nuance. The Night in Gethsemane is all about questions of the ordinary, brought to light through the extraordinary. A great feat.

This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace

This Is Water by David Foster Wallace Title: This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life
Author: David Foster Wallace
Publisher: Little, Brown
ISBN: 978-0316068222
Genre: Non-Fiction, Speech
Pages: 144
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I have read quite a few commencement speeches by authors. Authors who celebrate creativity (Rowling), some who talk about making art great again or creating good art (Gaiman) and some others who speak of the future and what it has in store (Saunders). And then there is someone like Foster Wallace who gives it to you the way it is – the real world, with no sugar-coating whatsoever.

I knew that would be the case once I received this backlist title from the good folks at Hachette India. David Foster Wallace has left behind a legacy. A cannon of work that I at least read in bits and pieces because sometimes what he says is too much to bear.

This is Water is a speech given by Foster Wallace to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005. He starts with a little parable – the one that seems like one, and quickly goes on to break that mode of starting a commencement speech. David’s speech is a trove of wisdom and compassion, thought provoking, and what it means to live in the 21st century.

I think the thing about such books that there is no single universal message. There is something that relates with everyone. The message of giving up on the rat-race (is that even possible?), the one that speaks about awareness, self-consciousness before saying or doing what we say or do (this one hit home real hard), or just the one to understand what it means to give and sometimes sacrifice a little bit, if you have to.

David Foster Wallace doesn’t speak of glory in the most basic terms. There is glory in empathy. There is glory in understanding. There is glory in small efforts as he rightly puts it. This is Water is the kind of book that is needed at every stage of life. The speech will resonate throughout.

I will leave you with this thought that is my favourite from this read:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

 

 

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends - An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli Title: Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Publisher: Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566894951
Genre: Essays, Emigration and Immigration Studies
Pages: 128
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

Some books leave an impact that lasts forever. Tell Me How It Ends is one such book. A book about migrant children – children who have crossed into the border of United States of America illegally from these three countries – Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. And why so many children migrated to the US of A between 2014 and perhaps continue to till today? Well, the reasons were simple – to escape gang violence of their countries, to escape poverty, and to flee abuse from their own families or people outside of their families.

This book is not an easy one to read, and you would’ve guessed that by now. It is a book that made me think and question so many things around us – why do we think we own the land we are born on? What makes us think that parts of the earth belong to different people and not to all of us? Why are we the way we are when it comes to people who seek asylum or shelter in our countries? Why aren’t we more inclusive? And this book is about child migrants – these children are anywhere from the ages of five to seventeen and they are usually accompanied by coyotes to enter the US of A.

These are the children who are murdered along the way, go missing, are raped, and abused – all for the dream to make a better living, to escape what they wanted, and most importantly to never go back to that life. They cross the border, hand themselves over to the border officer who then notifies their relatives/family about them and then a trial begins. Luiselli’s job for some time was that of a translator – she had to translate answers to forty questions asked of these children – Why did they want to come to the US? Did they face any problem getting there? Do they have family in the US? These questions are what make this book’s subtitle: An Essay in Forty Questions.

Tell Me How It Ends is what Luisell’s six-year-old daughter (then six) asks her. Tell Me How It Ends. What is the fate of these children? Why does the US Government not want to acknowledge their role in children migrating? The gangs are but of course started to meet the drug demands of the people living in the US. That’s one part of it. The book breaks you. It makes you want people to sit up and take action. And then Luiselli speaks of Trump in her post-script note. She speaks of the horror that this man is and the fear that exists. But this book is also about hope and what it can do to change things.

Tell Me How It Ends is a book that makes us think about ourselves in the context of the world, humanity, and the selfishness we are made of. How we perceive people given their race, class, skin colour, and who they are, most importantly where they come from. It is a book that is not for the weak-hearted. I would recommend it every single time. While you are at it, also read “Lost Children Archive”, the first full-length novel by Valeria Luiselli on lost children, migrants, and what is called home.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break The Silence. Edited by Michele Filgate

What My Mother and I Don't Talk About Title: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break The Silence
Edited by Michele Filgate
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 978-1982107345
Genre: Essays
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Relationships are complex. Most relationships are not easy to navigate around. I think the one we share with our parents is most difficult. I have always had a problem expressing what I feel to my parents. I think it just stemmed from the fact that we do not speak enough or try to make ourselves heard enough. This has nothing to do with love not being there, or not being brought up in a healthy environment (at least in my case). It is just that we have not learned how to communicate with them. Perhaps that needs to change and maybe it will. Only time and effort can tell, to be honest.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is a compilation of essays by fifteen writers, edited by Michele Filgate. As the title suggests it is about breaking the silence. It is about talking to our mothers about what matters or has mattered the most. The collection starts with Michele’s essay about being abused by her stepfather. This took her almost more than a decade to write about and then to think how it would affect her relationship with her mother. This in turn encouraged her to reach out to other writers and see how they look at their relationships with their mothers.

The collection see-saws from one extreme to another – while some writers are extremely close to their mothers, some are estranged beyond repair. It is the question of also mothers being first homes as we make our way into the world and a support system for most. The one whose validation we seek the most and the one with whom we also fight the most. This collection is solid and comes from a diverse selection of writers and what they do not talk about: family, love, abuse, secrets, expectations, and disappointments to say the least.

My favourite pieces from the book were the ones written by Alexander Chee (about his sexual abuse and his not being able to fit in at school at the same time), Michele Filgate (as I mentioned it is about abuse by her stepfather), Brandon Taylor, (most heart wrenching according to me about how he wish he could’ve understood his mother better), and Nayomi Munaweera (she speaks about her mother’s borderline personality disorder).

Regret, estrangement, the universal feeling of love and pain are the running themes in this book. There is a common trait that we all identify and relate with: That of lack of communication. How sometimes mothers don’t listen and how we don’t say what we must. But not all of the essays stem out of pain. Some are funny (rare) and some are just looking at their mothers differently – a new perspective and realising themselves in the process, which I think we must all look at.

Reading an essay or a collection of essays such as these is so intimate that it physically hurts you. It makes you see yourself as a person and whether or not you have evolved in relation to your mother. What is the basis of your relationship with her, beside the fact that she gave birth to you? What it actually means to get closure when you need it the most? What it does to you to take the step and speak out loud? What would it then do to your other relationships, once you cross this barrier with your mother and try and face the concealed truth? We all go through this. We have all been there. This book if anything speaks to all of us and will for sure make you sit up and perhaps call your mother.