Category Archives: FSG Originals

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.

You are Having a Good Time: Stories by Amie Barrodale

51XyTyEIp7L Title: You are Having a Good Time: Stories
Author: Amie Barrodale
Publisher: FSG Originals
ISBN: 978-0374293864
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

“You are Having a Good Time” by Amie Barrodale is a collection of non-interlinked stories of desire, consequences be damned. It is about characters who are so simple that all they want is for their desires to see fruition and at the same time so complex that they want to justify everything that desire makes them do (or so it seems). The desires in these stories could be related to the body or not. The underline theme though is that of normality being stripped away from every single character, for him or her to discover who they truly are behind the façade.

Barrodale writes with such honesty that she almost shows you the mirror without you wanting to see it. From an up and coming starlet harboring a complicated attraction to her abusive director to a compromised psychiatrist getting embroiled in a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship to even a woman who just wants to break free, so ends up having an affair with a drummer that will ruin it all, Barradole’s characters do not follow any rules. The mean, ugly, often oblivious characters are just placed in terrible situations and they have deal with them, no matter what.

This collection of short-stories does not make you question anything but if definitely makes you think of human relationships a little more in detail. The borderline of being macabre and beautiful is rather thin when it comes to Amie’s style of writing. The stories are devastatingly honest and it might even cause some discomfort but I guess that is the intent of the author. “You are Having a Good Time” will make you think and wonder about what is going on with your life at the end of the day – the compromises you make, the compromises you demand from other people and above all will make you question desire and responsibilities.

The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner

26114416 Title: The Hatred of Poetry
Author: Ben Lerner
Publisher: FSG Originals
ISBN:978-0865478206
Genre: Criticism and Theory, Poetry
Pages: 96
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

This book’s title might make you wonder: The Hatred of Poetry? Really? It might even intrigue you to pick it up (which is a very good thing by the way). Most people hate poetry as an art form by the way. The book starts with bashing poetry and Ben Lerner even stating that he hates it as well. He goes on to even list other people and even poets who have said that they hate poetry. Ben Lerner then throws this right on its head and lets readers know why people hate poetry so much and then builds a very strong defense for it.

Lerner is a poet by the way, besides being a novelist. He has published three poetry collections in case you are wondering how does he get to be an authority on poetry and write on it. “The Hatred of Poetry” is almost a treatise and yet it isn’t preachy at all. Lerner is fair when he speaks of why people hate poetry (rhymes, meter, etc.) and at the same time he uses those very elements to convey why people would love poetry as well. To me, he also made a very valid point of the language sometimes used by poets that restricts it from connecting with people (this to a very large extent is also quite true).

This book also reminded me of the poetry open mic I had been to. Thank God, the only one I had been to. I say this because at some level I could also see the pretense of it (where some of them were concerned) and Lerner also makes a point to this perspective. All in all, “The Hatred of Poetry” will either make you stop reading poems altogether or will convert you to a fan. I love poetry. So I was safe anyway.

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.