Category Archives: Farrar Straus and Giroux

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Universal Harvester Title: Universal Harvester
Author: John Darnielle
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374282103
Genre: Literary Fiction, Literary Thriller
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3 Stars

I did not read his first novel “Wolf in White Van” but I will most certainly read it, because I absolutely loved “Universal Harvester”. The book is not only unusual in terms of its plot but also kind of edgy that it stays with you – and the horrific bits do. The book starts off normally – very usual plot of a small town and its people till it becomes something else mid-way and you are astounded at the turn of events.

It is the late 90s and something sinister is brewing in Nevada, Iowa. It creeps up on you suddenly as you are enjoying or doing something else. You are watching something on your VHS player (yes there is a rental store that rents out VHS tapes and I loved the time it is set it) and suddenly there is heaving breathing in the dark coming from it, as your movie gets interrupted. There are clips and more clips in different tapes that surface and for some reason Jeremy cannot help but watch. He works at the store and wants to get to the bottom of this mystery.

The book reminded me of House of Leaves to some extent – ust the setting and the atmosphere surrounding it, and due to this, I was even spooked out easy, I suppose. Darnielle’s form of writing is easy. It doesn’t make you think so much while reading the book as it does after. At the same time, I thought it was a bit too detailed even though I am a sucker for them. It just got a lot to take in by the time I reached the end. Jeremy’s character is brilliantly etched. You can sense the darkness looming and yet don’t want him getting to that side.

“Universal Harvester” is eerie, and yet hopeful. I just wish it wasn’t so rough at the edges and a bit clean with the details and other miniscule characters and emotions.

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Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne Title: Borne
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 9780374115241
Genre: Literary Fiction, Science-Fiction, Dystopian Fiction
Pages: 330
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“Borne” is an unusual book that takes some time getting into. It isn’t an easy read. Don’t be fooled by the initial pages. If anything, it will also drive you in a tizzy, trying to sometimes make sense of what is going on. It is dystopian and not so much because we can see what will happen to us if we don’t take care of our surroundings and the environment. This was a wake-up call for me but more than anything else, VanderMeer’s writing (I have read his The Southern Reach trilogy and it is fantastic) is first-class and he is most certainly at the top of his game.

Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city – destroyed by drought and conflict, the other half destroyed by experiments (which were obviously in vain) conducted by the Company – a biotech firm, now rendered useless. Rachel lives with her partner Wick who deals with his own homegrown psychoactive biotech. And in all of this one fine day Rachel finds Borne and takes him home. Borne is more than just a green lump and has something magnificent about him. Borne is a constant reminder to Rachel of the life before the so-called apocalypse that took place (albeit of a different kind). She takes care of Borne, nurtures him – he makes sense of the world and makes Rachel believe in the goodness of the world all over again. Till he grows of course and everything goes for a toss. The world they have created is not perfect and Rachel would have to reconsider her decision.

There is a sense of morality about “Borne” which is very high. VanderMeer is okay with you taking any side, and yet it feels that he only wants you to be on one side so to say. He is also great at casting a web of fables – most of the book is that, but it is also the scary future we could have. Jeff’s prose is lucid and yet detailed at so many levels. He stretches your imagination and doesn’t serve anything on a platter, which to me is fantastic. The characters behave strangely and it is great to get to the motive at the end of it. I hope this one also has another two-parts, because to me Borne’s story does not end here. I am certain there is more. So if you like your books to make a chill run down your spine, then this is the one for you.

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.

Swimmer among the Stars: Stories by Kanishk Tharoor

91B0D9x1GZL Title: Swimmer among the Stars: Stories
Author: Kanishk Tharoor
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

It is not easy to write a short story. More than anything else, I believe it isn’t easy to write a good short story. There are many writers who can write beautiful prose but it is all limited only to the novel. When they try dabbling in the short-story form it somehow falls flat on their face. Short story is a form that folds novels into itself if done the right way. But then again that’s just my way of thinking when it comes to writing and appreciating this form. I also think another barometer for me is that I shouldn’t feel deprived or want more while reading a short-story. Neither must I feel that the story is too long. It should be of the right length to engage and keep the reader entertained.

Kanishk Tharoor’s “Swimmer among the Stars” has been one of the most satisfying reads for me this year. His debut short-story collection was nothing like what I had read before and maybe that’s why it opened new vistas for me, new dreams were dreamed and though some stories did disappoint (not too much though), I could let that slide by because the entire collection is just worth every word.

Table Tennis is played in zero gravity in a post-apocalyptic tale. In another, a team of anthropologists’ trek to a remote village to meet a woman who is her language’s last surviving speaker – to also record her for the sake of posterity. A story of an elephant’s fascinating journey is the crux of another story. Of course, I cannot forget the story of the seven days of a town that is about to be razed by an invading army. The people’s thoughts, their stories, their loves and disappointments are so stark that I enjoyed every bit of it.

Thirteen stories form this book – give it the varied voices that it deserves and must be lauded for. Reading this book reminded me sometimes of Calvino’s writing (magic realism and how), Borges’s vision, Arabian Nights’ span, Angela Carter’s grandeur and Murakami’s restraint. It is all there in this cracker of a read.

Kanishk’s writing doesn’t seem forced at all. Not one word seems out of place or something that could have been given a miss. The book is detailed (which I never have a problem with) way too much and that only works to the advantage of what Tharoor wants to communicate through his stories. The fable-like quality of the stories adds much-needed charm and dreamlike essence. All said and done, I will for sure be waiting for his next book.