Category Archives: February 2019 Reads

The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

The Body Myth Title: The Body Myth
Author: Rheea Mukherjee
Publisher: The Unnamed Press
ISBN: 978-1944700843
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 234
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

There are some books that hit you unexpectedly. You don’t expect anything out of them, maybe because you don’t know what to expect which then turns out to be great, when a certain threshold is met. This is what happened to me while I was reading The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee. It is a book about love and love that knows no boundaries or limits. The kind that we all want to experience and yet are afraid of what will happen to us when we do. It is all-consuming and will just not let you be till you are a part of it.

The Body Myth is about Mira – a teacher living in the heart of a fictional city called Suryam in India. It is the place where the Rasagura fruit grows. The only place as a matter of fact. Mira lives by herself and leads a quiet life. She is recently widowed and is trying to cope with loss and loneliness. One fine day she comes across Sara, who suffers from a seizure in the park, and Mira but obviously tends to her. Thereon she meets Rahil, Sara’s husband and before she knows it, her life is on a course of an emotional rollercoaster ride – filled with angst, love, loneliness, and desire.

Mukherjee’s writing is to the point. She doesn’t extend herself without reason. There are of course a lot of metaphors ascribed to the Rasagura (a fictional fruit by the way) – its sweet and sour nature and how it is meant to be full of mysticism (really need to read the book to understand this at a deeper level). The relationship between Mira and Sara is astounding – how it is so much more without stating the obvious and how Rahil then is a part of it all or not. Mukherjee’s characters are willing to change and embrace it even though sudden. What starts off as a friendship between Sara and Mira, and then becomes this triad of a relationship with Rahil in the fray as well is a thing to experience while reading.

The Body Myth is a book about relationships that aren’t easy to define. They just are. While people may judge and do what they do best, the relationship continues. I loved how the three of them were discussing, loving, figuring out the dynamics, and just being. I also think that one must read this book with an open mind and heart, or it will just not sink in. The end is inevitable but the book leaves you with a lot of questions about the body, and how we think we know ourselves, but do we really? The tone of the book is just perfect, and you actually also get a holistic view of the situation. The Body Myth might make a lot of people uncomfortable, however, it is a book of our times and Mukherjee definitely knows how to address emotions and thoughts we all feel and think, but do not say them out loud.

 

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All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung

All You Can Ever Know Title: All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir
Author: Nicole Chung
Publisher: Catapult
ISBN: 978-1936787975
Genre: Memoir, Women
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

It is never easy to bare your soul and speak the truth. When a writer does that, or for that matter anyone who does that, you instantly connect. Not because you have faced the same, but because there is empathy that extends itself on a universal sphere – that of longing, loss, and love. Nicole Chung’s book is all of that and more.

Nicole was adopted by a white couple in Oregon when she was two months old. As a child, Chung’s adoptive parents always made it a point to let her know that she was adopted.  She rarely met any Asian people growing-up and often felt a sense of alienation – a sense of not belonging and made to feel that by children and adults. As she grew into an adult, this bothered her even more. More so, when she thinks of starting a family with her husband Dan, and sets out to find her birth parents. 

All You Can Ever Know is a memoir that cuts through the pretence. It is stark and doesn’t mince words. Of course the sense of family and its roots is very strong, but at no point does Chung’s writing make it seem like she needs validation. It is just an honest account told as though someone is writing a diary or confiding in an old friend. What she went through is extremely heartfelt and moves you to tears (at least did to me). There is also a lot of humour amidst family secrets, relationships, and the question of identity that Chung brings to the book. The complications of race are sensitively told, and ultimately it is all about love and what defines it in the long run. All You Can Ever Know is a must-read for all families – no matter what kind or shape.

 

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison

The Source of Self-Regard Title: The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations
Author: Toni Morrison
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525521037
Genre: Literary Speeches, Anthologies
Pages: 386
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Toni Morrison’s collection of essays don’t follow a timeline, neither it is linear, nor it is set in an order to make it easy for the reader. At first glance, it might even seem just a random collection of essays, speeches and meditations put together, however, it isn’t that. The book, “The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations” is actually a book that speaks directly to the contemporary reader, and hence the order of essays. It goes headlong into speaking about issues at hand and whoelse better to address and them and show us the mirror than the queen herself, Ms. Morrison.

The book is divided into two parts, with an interlude. The first part is titled, “The Foreigner’s Home”, the second, “God’s Language” and in-between is the interlude aptly titled, “Black Matter(s)”. This is the structure of the book – it is Ms. Morrison’s essays, speeches, and meditations on living, race, gender, language, and the current role of politics in America and in effect its relation to the world. It is also about the duty of the press and media and what is the role of the artist in all of this. As a reader, please be prepared to face harsh realities, question the world around you and ponder over issues you never thought of earlier.

Morrison doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. The candour is not just for the sake of it. This collection is deeply personal as well. From why she became a writer (Faulkner and Women) to her thoughts on Beloved. At the same time, this collection as every reader will know is about race and what it means to be black in America, not only today but for decades and centuries and how have that played out for the black person.

Toni Morrison writes with such elegance and dignity that you get caught up in her words, and then focus on the ideas, going back to the power of her prose. The interlude piece on Martin Luther King Jr. is not only searching but also mirrors the contemporary times. In the essay, Voyagers to the West, she speaks of the Scottish pioneer William Dunbar, and how he managed to build a fortune trading slave, and how ironically his achievements are extoled till date. This is the kind of voice Morrison is all about – she knows exactly when to make the impact felt through her words and how deep.

Morrison also speaks of writers and how they impact the mindset of readers. She speaks of how jazz brought American blacks a different kind of legitimacy. She also talks about why American and English writers could not speak for people of colour, hence the onus was only on black writers to do that. Literature then took a different form altogether, and its voice wasn’t restricted in a way is what I could make out of it. In her most poignant tribute to James Baldwin, the eulogy she delivered at Baldwin’s funeral on December 8, 1987, she honours his literature, his voice, and how he used language so tenderly. Morrison’s heart is almost laid bare in this – this tribute of sorts to a dear friend. It is almost as if you start becoming her friend, piece by piece.

“Jimmy, there is too much to think about you, and much too much to feel,” she begins. “The difficulty is your life refuses summation—it always did—and invites contemplation instead. Like many of us left here, I thought I knew you. Now I discover that, in your company, it is myself I know. That is the astonishing gift of your art and your friendship: You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.”

Toni Morrison’s writing is not only simple, but elegant to the bone. It is as though you are speaking with a friend, an elder, a teacher of sorts who is telling you about life and its ways. Throughout the book, Morrison speaks of the personal and the political and how they are intertwined. The first section, The Foreigner’s Home deals not only with race, but also with the question: What is Home? Where do you find it? What does it mean? At the same time, the section has essays wide ranging from “Literature and Public Life” and also her Nobel lecture.

The third section of the book is my most favourite – the one where she speaks of language, authors, and the power of words. The essay on Beloved – how she came to write it and what it means to her, almost made me cry. Toni Morrison’s commentary on her own work – The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby, Jazz, Beloved, and Paradise are honest, and she understands the time and space she wrote them in and how they might be read differently today.

Morrison’s works – fiction and nonfiction are always relatable. One doesn’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the heart of the matter is the writing – from conception of plot to the way her sentences are constructed, every step is well-thought of and crafted.

I am convinced that there is nothing Ms. Morrison cannot write about. It is almost as if she has to just enter the space and something extraordinary emerges out of her pen. Her voice we all know is unique and original, but that’s not what makes an impact. I think it is the emotional intensity attached to it that makes all the difference, every single time.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations as a collection of essays couldn’t have been compiled and published at a better time. We inhabit a world where people are extremely conflicted about issues of race, language, colour, and above all what entails to be human. I also would strongly recommend this book to every person who wants to understand home, race, the black person’s struggle, the place of literature in the world, and how it impacts us all. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations is illuminating, thought-provoking, and above all every piece has just been written from the heart.

 

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Mouthful of Birds Title: Mouthful of Birds
Author: Samanta Schweblin
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1786074560
Genre:
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The world of Samanta Schweblin’s stories is intriguing. There is aplenty and then there is nothing. You begin to wonder as a reader, in-between being stumped by the prose and the sheer magnitude of the story being read, whether or not you are worthy of it. The stories are nightmarish for sure, but then Schweblin also prepares you for them right at the beginning. The context and the tone are set immaculately, the translation by Megan McDowell precise to the last word and emotion, and more than anything else the diversity of the collection, only makes you want to turn the pages sooner, even if the collection seems too long at twenty stories.

Mouthful of Birds is strange. But that’s what makes it so delicious a read. The title story is that of a teenaged girl, who to the fascination (at some point) and repulsion of her divorced parents resorts to only eating live birds. It just happens, one fine day without any reason. So what does one feel after reading such a story? Pity? Empathy (can you, really)? Disgust? Schweblin gives you enough and more room to feel, get in touch with your emotions at the end of the every story, only to be met with another story, with another set of emotions all over again.

The devastating realities of fairy tales creep up in The Merman. You cannot help but go back to your childhood and be alarmed at what you read. This is just Schweblin’s perspective when she has a story to tell and it shines. Or you have a story such as “Butterflies” whose end will leave your stomach churning and wanting more. The imagery of no two stories is remotely similar. Schweblin draws every story and every framework from different places and varied emotions, which makes it even more interesting.

That’s the thing about Samanta’s stories. They make you wonder, you are awed, fascinated even, repulsed, revolted, and yet you cannot help but turn the page to the next one. It is the feeling of a roller-coaster ride, knowing you are going to fall, plunge headlong and yet there is this excitement – the butterflies-in-your-stomach kind of a feeling. If anything and more, this collection is ferocious.

You can also tell that the stories have matured and come to the author over a period of time. These have not been written all at once, and it shows. The translation by Megan McDowell is on-point. She also translated Fever Dream by Schweblin, which was written after this collection but translated and published in English before. But that’s just a technicality in the sense of publishing timeline.

What is truly astounding is how McDowell makes the original voice hers, thereby giving us a culminated effort. The multiple stories breathe and live multiple lives. It is as though you can see the author mature and an underlined theme runs throughout – that of intense dysfunctional of family and the self. Headlights, the opening story is strange – Schweblin has got the emotion pat-down and you can see the misogyny of men. In another story titled Preserves, an unborn baby is spat out (perhaps unwanted as well). Each story shines and has its own unique element. Some leave the reader satisfied, while others don’t.

Mouthful of Birds breaks ground in storytelling and so many times also sticks to the traditional format of showing more and telling less. It challenges readers every step of the way, and never lets you imagine what will happen next. Samanta Schweblin’s reality is the one we inhabit and also the one we are way far-off from. That to me is the beauty and core of this fantastic short-story collection, that deserves to be read by almost everyone.

The Legacy of Nothing by Manoj Pandey. Illustrations by Yuko Shimizu

The Legacy of Nothing by Manoj Pandey Title: The Legacy of Nothing
Author: Manoj Pandey
Publisher: Pan Macmillan India
ISBN: 978-9386215628
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 126
Source: Publisher
Rating: 2 stars

There are times you are reading a book and really hope and pray that you like it, that it doesn’t disappoint you, till it does, and honestly you then do not know what to do. Should one continue reading it? Endure it so to say, for some time only, like a bad relationship is endured? Should one drop it? I read it. It had a lot of promise, if only the stories were longer and better structured.

The Legacy of Nothing by Manoj Pandey is a collection of ten byte-sized (forgive me for using this phrase) stories. I don’t know if the stories are poems or the poems are stories, either way, it didn’t work for me. The landscape of Manoj’s stories is beguiling. You want to be sucked into it. You want more and end up receiving nothing.

His stories are of migrants, of people who just want to make a living with dreams and hopes of their own, of people who are treated callously in their own country, feeling dejected and alienated. This is precisely why I wanted to love this collection, to soak into their lives, but maybe the form of writing isn’t for me.

The collection starts with how we project ourselves on social media and the lengths we will go to achieve that. The first story “Decay” hits you hard when the protagonist, a struggling musician will go to any lengths to stir a sensation online – even take advantage of a story of rape. Or the one titled “Inadequacy” which is about new age role-plays and how it fits into our current social conditioning (which by the way doesn’t come through at all). “Pretty as Fuck” is about Facebook friends who chat, interact, get to know each other, and then what happens when they meet. There are seven other stories – of a Maoist who finds solace in sips of Coca-Cola (the only one I could feel toward), of a man who changes his sex (The longest story in the collection. I wish there was some empathy while writing this), and more in the same vein.

So, here’s the thing: The stories aren’t empathetic enough toward its characters, or perhaps they don’t want to project that to the reader. Maybe that’s how it is when it comes to these stories and its fine, but as a reader I felt nothing for the characters.

The writing seems rushed and not involving. Everything is just on the surface. The format is new and works initially, only to become jaded and leave you wanting more. The Legacy of Nothing sadly leaves you with nothing at the end of the book.