Category Archives: Farrar Straus and Giroux

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.

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables by David Bellos

Title: The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables
Author: David Bellos
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 9780374223236
Genre: Non-Fiction, Books about Books, Literary Criticism
Pages: 307
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

41aWIV8ySAL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

I love books about books. There is something magical about them that cannot be ignored, say what you will. Books talking about books is almost surreal – not even meta, it is just something that makes you want to pick up the books that are being spoken about and reread them or read them if you haven’t already. This is what happened to me when I finished reading “The Novel of the Century” by David Bellos.

This book is about Les Misérables and how it came to be. I remember watching Les Misérables – the movie when it released (the one starring Anne Hathaway) and crying. I couldn’t get enough of it and surprisingly I hadn’t read the book. I had to change that. I did read the book soon after and was mesmerised by it. I mean the characters – Inspector Jarvet, Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette and even the minor ones that play such an important role in this book of power, politics and love. I can see how it came to one of the greatest novels of the 19th century or the greatest, I think.

David Bellos takes a leap and writes about this book. How did it come to me? Why was it written? What was Victor Hugo thinking when he wrote this? How did he come about such characters? What Bellos also does is explain why this novel fascinates us (most of us at least) and how it places itself so beautifully in the modern context. To me, that was the most favourite parts in the book.

Bellos’ research is spot on. I was reading a lot about the book and the times in which it was set while reading The Novel of the Century and that to me is the best thing an author can do to you while he is writing about another book. The writing then is truly powerful. This is also not a biography of Victor Hugo but of course it has to trace his life briefly and how he came to write Les Mis. The angle of prostitution in those times, religion playing such a major role and also just how women survived is fascinating when Bellos brings it to the fore.

“The Novel of the Century” isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure. It is for people who love Les Misérables or perhaps want to really read it sometime in the future. Having said that, I couldn’t get enough of Bellos’s writing – crisp, to the point and very meticulous with his research. At times, I almost felt like I was watching the movie or reading the book again. The characters I went back to welcomed me back and I for one felt so nice meeting them after all these years. A book for book lovers and of course of the classic as well.

The Answers by Catherine Lacey

Title: The Answers
Author: Catherine Lacey
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 9780374100261
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It is not easy to write a review for a book like “The Answers”, however I shall try. The book essentially is about love, it is also about dealing with life, mental disorder, some more life, and how is it possible to live in isolation and still love? The book questions – at every step – about relationships, love, friendships and technology. But don’t be fooled in getting answers to how to live. “The Answers” by Catherine Lacey is a primer for our times – where we constantly yearn for love, but perhaps want it pre-programmed for us, so the investment is minimal.

Mary needs a change. In fact, she needs a new life. She is burdened by debt, works at a travel agency – a job she doesn’t particularly like, seems agonized by multiple ailments and just needs a change. Her best friend, Chandra recommends she finish a course of Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia (PAKing) which helps her get rid of the physical ailments. However, the course is expensive and Mary has to think of another way to make more money to be able to afford this.

The second job comes in the form of playing an “emotional girlfriend” amongst several other girlfriends (anger girlfriend, IT girlfriend, redundant girlfriend, etc) to a Hollywood actor/director in the name of a research project to gauge how these women would react and behave given the certain need they would fulfill for that star. The project is called GX – The Girlfriend Experiment and of course that forms the crux of the story. What makes it more exciting (so to speak) is that Mary has never heard of this film star, so she is the only one who can approach him neutrally. How come she hasn’t heard of this star? That is because she was homeschooled by her parents and escaped to live with her aunt Clara, ending up in New York. This in a nutshell is the plot of the book.

A book like that needs a deft emotional hand and Lacey’s writing proves that no one could have written this book better. Jumping from first and third-person narratives, the book tries to encompass almost everyone’s point of view and that is the only time I thought it felt kinda short but got up right back due to the nature of love and its treatment. At first, it does take some time to warm up to Mary but when you do; you can actually hear her thoughts in your head long after you have finished the book. The writing is taut and at no point I felt that the book could do with some more editing. The Girlfriend Experiment project is scarily real and could easily be a possibility where you are told how to love and you make money instead of loving with all your heart and the way you feel becomes artificial.

“The Answers” is a take on modern love. I think I can say that. It is also a meditation on the nature of loss, acceptance and above all whether or not we need to define ourselves by the constructs laid out by the society in order to live or not. At the end of the day, this book will leave you with more questions but it is worth it every step of the way.

Avid Reader by Robert Gottlieb

avid-reader-by-robert-gottlieb Title: Avid Reader
Author: Robert Gottlieb
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374279929
Genre: Literary memoirs, Biographies and Memoirs
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I am a sucker for literary memoirs or biographies. Anything related to books about books, I cannot resist. I mean, I have to go out there and read all of it on this subject. I chanced upon “Avid Reader” by Robert Gottlieb and this was without knowing who he was (once I did, I was in supreme awe and fascination). So who is Gottlieb? Well, he was the editor at Simon and Schuster and Knopf and his career is enviable, given the kind of authors he has worked with. “Avid Reader” is his memoir of his career in publishing (kinda reminded me of Ashok Chopra’s book) full of zest, gusto and life. It is after all a sixty-old career and that cannot be easy to write about.

Like I said, I love reading everything literary – what happened to this book (I mean one off book and many more in this book by Gottlieb), how it came to be, how did Gottlieb edit it and what was the equation with writers involved, and more anecdotes had me begging for more and more from Avid Reader.

At the same time, at some point in the book you feel that it is nothing but a series of dedications by Robert to the people he has worked with. Having said that, the book doesn’t lose its sense of irreverence and gumption. At the same time, I was amazed by Gottlieb’s sense of determination to make it in the world of publishing and from there come all the insights to the mad world – from excessive use of punctuation in books to fighting over authors to how to market books, it is all there in this one.

What makes this book even more important and a must-read is the relationships built by Gottlieb over the years, which he is very candid about. My favourite parts of the book though were his growing-up years. Something about the 30s and the 40s and the way he describes them is utterly charming and quaint.

Robert Gottlieb is of course great at his writing skills (that goes without saying, doesn’t it?). I couldn’t wait to know more about this industry and its workings. Every anecdote was laced with humour and a lot of pathos. “Avid Reader” is the kind of book that will also ring true to most debut writers and also the seasoned ones. The bottom-line of course is all about getting out a good book and Gottlieb has done that consistently for such a long time and chronicled it in this wonderful book. A must read for sure.