Category Archives: Knopf

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Chemistry Title: Chemistry
Author: Weike Wang
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524731748
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

September 2017 is going to be a good month of books read. The next that I read this month was “Chemistry” by Weike Wang. Chemistry is the kind of read that takes time for you to suck yourself into. I don’t mean that it is a slow read, but it is the kind of book which will have you ruminate over what is going on and go back to the pages you just read, so to make sense of what is going on as well. Wang’s craft is that of talking about various things at one time and might I add that she is brilliant at that.

For a debut novel, “Chemistry” took me by surprise. It would have also taken me by surprise had it not been a debut novel, don’t get me wrong but just the sheer force with which it is written (and it isn’t even a long read) makes you want to sit up and take notice. I was also asked by someone on Facebook if chemistry is an integral part of the book – as in does it change the life of the characters or not, to which I would say: No. While it does form a background to the book, I didn’t think it was life-altering in any way.

So what is the book about? The story follows a Chinese-American scientist (she is unnamed which is more or less like the challenges she faces in life) as she is three years into her graduate studies at quite a demanding Boston university. Amidst this there is the pressure from her parents to excel. Her love for chemistry is slowly dying. Her boyfriend wants to marry her and she has no response yet for him. She is lost just like anyone else and to find herself she has to give up everything and leave behind what she loves. This is the crux of the plot, as she gives up two years to discover herself and realizes that formulas or equations may not always have all answers as she thought they would.

The plot may not sound interesting initially but once you start reading Wang’s writing – you are just transported to her world. It is almost semi-autobiographical in nature and you can sense the confusion of her narrator and some sense of knowing in the second part (I loved the second part of the book a lot more). The writing is crisp, wry and overwhelming in a lot of places. The narrator and her relationships shine throughout but the relationship with herself is what I loved the most (as cliché as that might sound). “Chemistry” is a book of a scattered mind and a scattered soul that learns to piece itself day by day.

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Men without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Title: Men Without Women: Stories
Author: Haruki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780451494627
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

When Murakami writes, you sit up and take notice. It happens to me every single time I pick up his books – he shocks me out of my existence, and takes me to a world of missing cats or women, jazz, elephants even, books – more so noir ones, and places where one loses their soul and don’t know how to get it back. His world is weird but I must also admit that it is pretty close to the one in which we live – only we don’t see it that clearly, whereas he has managed to and that’s why has the capacity to sweep us off our feet, every single time.

The same anticipation and excitement made me start his latest collection of stories (this means there is a novel coming up in 2018) “Men without Women” (inspired by Hemingway and thank God that’s where the inspiration ends). Well, let me be honest – as much as I love and adore Murakami’s writing, I wasn’t impressed initially. They all seemed to be the same kind of stories I had read in the past – about jazz, cats, women leaving men, etc. I thought it was the same but I was gladly mistaken when that perception changed as I finished the fourth story.

“What changed?” you might ask. Well, I think after the fourth story, at least to me, his stories made sense like they never had. The loneliness existed (but obviously) in each of them and there was this sense of ennui as well that loomed large, but there was something else that kept gnawing at me – something that I just cannot define. Was it my mid-life crisis (I just turned 34) that I saw being manifested in these stories? At some point, was it the realization of being lonely and perhaps abandoned by someone I love? What was it, that kept tugging at my heart relentlessly? Trust me, I tried very hard to find the answer within the pages of this collection of 7 stories (out of which I love four) that are vintage Murakami – and so be it if he has to write the way he does every single time, as long as people’s hearts and souls can relate to his written word.

Murakami’s characters are mysterious, enigmatic, call them what you might but they are just human – like you and I. The only difference is that their vulnerabilities are to be peeled – layer by layer – they don’t show it. So it could be Kino right out of a bad marriage, who opens a bar and emerges himself in it, only to understand his purpose. Or for that matter it could be the story of a successful plastic surgeon who hopelessly falls in love with a married woman (with whom and many others he has a clockwork arrangement of meeting and fucking and nothing else) and is doomed because he cannot have her. Murakami’s characters and his worlds are hidden and yet once in a while you get some glimpses of it to help you navigate through the writing, which to me is superlative.

The story that stood out most particularly for me was “Samsa in Love” – a tribute to Kafka, where Gregor Samsa woke up to find that he is human (loved the irony there) and how there is some sort of dystopian world at large outside his house, which he is unaware of, till a lady who deals with making locks makes him aware of it. This is Prague by the way – one of the few times I have read a Murakami story set outside of Japan. The pace at which this story moved – extremely fast and at the same time, leaves you with this unsettling feeling. I think most of his stories do that. They jolt you from your reverie and you don’t even realize that it has happened long after till you mull over it.

A lot of people have also criticized this collection by calling it sexist. Have they even read this collection of stories? To my mind, there is nothing sexist about it – it is if anything about empowered women who know better than men – a lot better if you ask me. They are not vague about their decision-making, nor are they women who need men – in fact it is the other way around – in all these 7 stories it is the men who want women so badly, that they might just do anything to have them in their lives. The translation by Philip Gabriel (who to my mind has translated most of Murakami’s works) and Ted Goossen shines – you can sense everything that Murakami might want to say (maybe I felt it because I have read a lot of his work?) and nothing seems to be lost to the reader.

From a recently widowed actor in the story “Drive My Car” to a teenager who has no ambition whatsoever and wants his girlfriend to date other men in “Yesterday”, Murakami’s men are there everywhere. Some of them lead lives that are content. Some that aren’t. Some who glide through life not wanting to upset the order of things and some who will challenge everything laid out for them. But they are around for sure. We just need to see them with the right set of eyes.

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Title: South and West: From a Notebook
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524732790
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Joan Didion’s works are not easy to read. But once you read her books, there is no stopping. I remember reading “The Year of Magical Thinking” when it was first published in 2005 and wrenched completely to the gut by its honesty. Since then, I haven’t missed reading a single book by her. My copy of her latest, “South and West: From a Notebook” came all the way from Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, a gift from my sister. Anyhow, now back to the book.

Her essays are introspective unlike her fictional works. Don’t get me wrong here, I adore her writing, just that I feel her non-fiction is stronger than fiction. This thin volume contains two pieces: the first, a collection of assembled jottings in her notebook from a road-trip through the South in 1970; the second piece is about the Patty Hearst trial.

The first piece forms the bulk of the book – with details on everything South as they traverse that landscape – from its swimming pools in motels, to meeting regular people, knowing their views on class and racism (nothing has changed since then or so it seems) to the sedentary life lead there. At the same time, her keen eye for detail and candidness, makes you wish there was more to this book and more so to this piece.

Didion makes the South alive for you – every nuance, twitch of the faces of the people she observes and interacts with to the weather (more so important for the South) is pat down to the last nitpicking detail and as a reader you are only too happy for it. At the same time, you also feel that it could very well have been a travelogue (or is it?) with rich descriptions of the landscape and the minor details that are paid attention to.

What struck me about the book the most is that though written in the 70s, it still is so relevant today given the views of the people in the South – where discrimination – racial and classist are taken as the norm and no one seems to object – it was almost as though this were a warning for the times to come with the current President of the United States of America.

The second piece in the book is too brief – it finishes even before you have started reading it which is quite a pity. It is just a collection of notes and sketches (which of course what the entire book is) and nothing else adds to it. In fact, I had to go to Google to know more about the Patty Hearst trial.

All said and done, “South and West: From a Notebook” is a book which perhaps isn’t meant for all – or I don’t even know if it will be enjoyed by all. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner to Joan’s works but for someone who is familiar with her writing, you will love it, just as I did, so please pick it up.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1101947135
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are books you read that make you want to be a better person, they make your heart sing and leave you breathless because of their sheer beauty. There are books that break your heart, they keep stabbing at it with a curved blunt knife and you are in pain and you know that, but the magic of words doesn’t make you stop turning the pages. There are also books that do all of this – books that have the power to do it all, so to say and “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi (I still cannot believe that this is a debut novel) is one such book.

I love and enjoy books about families on a grand scale – something about them that makes you relate to what is going on and not so much – perhaps which is what makes it so desirable and not so. “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is about two sisters who never meet during the book. One grows up in a sort of prosperous family where she is promised in marriage to a powerful man and the other grows up in a tribe where she is captured and caught into slavery. This action takes place in Ghana – more exacting would be in the coastal region. The book is about the sisters of course but also about their children and grand-children and great grandchildren and it is marvelous to see Gyasi loop through all these characters and give them a logical start, beginning and end every single time with every single chapter.

At given point I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming because of the several sub-plots. In fact, if anything, I found Gyasi’s writing to be quite simple, empathetic and most easy to read. The trials and tribulations of these sisters and their progeny makes you think of what goes on in this world as we live safe, protected lives. The narrative switches back and forth between each generation of the sister’s family lines and to me that was a lovely way to link stories of families and to know of the songs and tales passed down from one generation to the next.

Yaa Gyasi projects the conflict of the Asantes and Fantes – the tribes of Ghana and the readers will be pulled into their lives, customs and how one of them even work with the British to sell them slaves. Honestly, it didn’t even surprise me given what some people go through in India at the hands of their so-called “community people”. I felt a little cheated in the last couple of chapters and wished there was more to the characters and their lives – but I guess those can be overlooked.

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is a novel that will take your breath away. It is meshed intricately with people across generations, timelines, emotions, men and women who are stuck with decisions they make and the ones that are forced on them. Most of all, the book is about what it takes to be human above everything else and what it really takes to make it through all the pain and hardship.

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

books-for-living-by-will-schwalbe Title: Books for Living
Author: Will Schwalbe
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0385353540
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Books about Books
Pages: 288
Source: Author
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember reading “The End of your Life Book Club” a couple of years ago. I was mesmerized and touched deeply by it. It was a book about a mother and her son and the books they read and discussed while they went for the mother’s chemotherapy sessions and doctor appointments. The son is the author Will Schwalbe and that book touched me so deep. I could not stop crying as I read it and it just made me feel alive and raw all over again. When books do that to you, you know you are home or that is what I believe.

His second book “Books for Living” as the title suggests is just that – books that have inspired him, made him relive moments and memories right from his childhood to adult life and more than anything else, books that have made him a better person. This book as the first one comes from a personal space. Each book mentioned in this book is deeply personal and important to him and that is what I loved the most about this book. It is not a random list. It is a list of memories, handpicked and the reader is allowed to get into his life and know and experience what he went through with each read.

He deftly crafts each chapter around important life topics such as trust (the book associated with it is the girl on the Train), connecting (Giovanni’s room which was my favourite chapter in the entire book), remembering (David Copperfield, where he also speaks of his closest friend David who died and the bond they shared) and many such topics that will make you smile, cry, or remember people who you haven’t spoken or connected with in a while.

Schwalbe’s writing is stark and pure. There is this honesty to it, which I love. I think when you speak of books that have touched you and mean something, you cannot not be honest. He speaks of reading and how it changes people (rightly so). Schwalbe knows the terrain of books and the power they can have over people and that to me is beautiful. I loved how he weaves his life around books and they come to life in his hands.