Category Archives: Knopf

About Women: Conversations between a Writer and a Painter by Lisa Alther and Francoise Gilot

About Women by Lisa Alther and Francoise Gilot Title: About Women: Conversations between a Writer and a Painter
Authors: Lisa Alther and Francoise Gilot
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
ISBN: 978-0385539869
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

When a writer and a painter come together (and both of them are women) and speak of women issues, their lives, emotions, growing-up years and everything else in between, you get a fascinating conversation book titled “About Women: Conversations between a writer and a painter”. The two women talking are author Lisa Alther and painter and writer Francoise Gilot.

I came across this book randomly online and decided to read it, the minute I finished reading the synopsis. The book is about their lives and experiences. It just gives you a feeling of being in a salon and hearing them speak and hoping that the conversation will not end.

They have been friends for more than twenty-five years. They come from different backgrounds – Gilot from Paris and Alther from Tennessee. They also belong to different generations but the conversations are so intriguing – from arts to parenthood to feminism and how all of this impacted their lives and more importantly their art.

“About women” is divided into eight sections and each section gives you a different perspective on living and how art is so intricately linked with our lives. The book is all about being a woman – through generations of women and how each generation views womanhood. It is not so much about feminism as it is about making a point by doing what you wish to, whatever the circumstances. The conversations are beautifully drawn – even though they might seem random sometimes; they interconnect and fall right into place.

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About Women: Conversations Between a Writer and a Painter

About Women: Conversations Between a Writer and a Painter

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Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud Title: The Woman Upstairs
Author: Claire Messud
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307596901
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I have always been fascinated by most women in literature. There is something beguiling about them and at the same time they seem to want to say it all. Whether it is a characterization of Lizzy Bennett or it is Madame Bovary, each woman is almost a world in her own sense. There are also women who are caught in circumstances beyond their understanding and will and sort of emerge with different shades of personalities.

There are women who are single and lonely and need that extra bit of life so to say, something which will complete them. This I noticed in the works of Muriel Spark more often than not and sometimes also when Iris Murdoch wrote of them. The point that I am trying to get to here is that literature is full of these fascinating characters, one of them I will add to my list, after reading, “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud.

Claire Messud’s woman is Nora Elridge. Nora is forty-two years old, a teacher and fully enraged at life, when the novel begins. She wants more out of life and doesn’t know how to do it. She wants to get out of the rut and doesn’t know where to go. She wants children. She wants a life of her own. She doesn’t want to be the “woman upstairs” who is desperate and longs for more, as days pass, living in a house that has no one else but her in it.

At the same time, the novel jumps to five years ago, in 2004 when Nora meets the Shahid family and she begins to fall in love with each member of the family – Reza her third-grade student, Sirena the mother, and finally with Skandar – Sirena’s husband and Reza’s father. This goes on for a year, the one single year that changes Nora’s life. This in brief is the plot of the novel.

Now to the style of writing of the book. The plot is so well-layered that the mystery element of the book hits you unexpectedly and that to me is some great writing skill. The thin line between fiction and reality is explored brilliantly through this book and throughout it as well. Messud’s understanding of her characters and the lives they lead is beyond excellence, because she delivers with almost every single word and that is what matters when reading a great book. Anger at all levels is reflected in the book in a very subtle and sometimes quite apparently. At the same time, there is enough intellectual depth to the book, which takes it away from being just another psychological thriller. As a reader, I was always drawn to Nora while reading the book. What would she do? How would it affect her? Should she do this at all? When a reader gets so involved with the central character, he or she knows that the book has done its bit.

Nora almost speaks to everyone and it is also frightening given the way she lives her life. One doesn’t know what is beneath the surface, till it is either revealed or one is smart enough to catch on to the hints. You will love Nora and at times also hate her – that to me is a great sign of etching a character that everyone can or almost wants to relate with and yet maintain their distance. The ending is not tidy. Messud does not even tie up the loose ends. It is for the reader to decipher what could happen and what has. The psychological inferences are many and enhance the reading experience. The cultural inferences only add to those, making the novel richer by the turn of the page.

The book is profound, deep and at the same time touches on the concept of “living” like no other book I have read in recent times. If you are up to read something that will probably make you think a lot, then this book is for you.

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Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan Title: A Visit from the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN: 9780307477477
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

When you finish reading a book of a stature such as “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan, you sit down, breathe and keep breathing, till the breath paces itself out and you aren’t gasping anymore. The effect of books has to be this way. It has to have the maddening reaction in a reader – the gasping, the constant thinking about the characters and more so how would their lives turn out after the book is finished. Would they have a life at all once the reader has ended the reading? Would he or she go back and revive them? If a book can evoke these thoughts, then it is of the most superb quality writing that existed.

“A Visit from the Goon Squad” is all about lives being lived and the ones that were lived in the past. The book according to me is all about memories, failed lives, failed loves and how somewhere in all of this, there is this bleak thought of giving hope a chance and seeing where life goes thereon. There is nothing sugar coated in the book. Egan gives the reader, “life” the way it is – harsh, uncompromising, difficult and sometimes worth living just for all of that. Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the young, troubled woman he employs. The book is essentially about their lives, their pasts and how it all merges into one big fascinating book.

Egan takes us through generations and different people through the two protagonists. The other characters are integral to the plot, because through them Bennie’s and Sasha’s lives are shown to the reader. The larger themes of the novel – loneliness, despair, a lost generation, materialism, the quest for happiness is so deeply embroiled in the book that the reader would find it very difficult to disassociate his emotions from them. The story skips back and forth in time, so initially, I did face some problem reading it, however once I got the hang of it, it was a breeze of a read. The passage of time is at the core of this book, with Egan orchestrating the entire book and making it fall into place with each character’s life revealing itself in each chapter.

I loved the second last chapter of the book, which is in the form of a Power Point Presentation. This is the uniqueness that I look for in books at times and it was superlative in this one. Egan’s characters are most humane and that is the most heartbreaking quality they possess. They make their mistakes, going through life, wanting to rectify it all, wanting that one chance at redemption to make things the way they were and this is where I most connected with the book. “A Visit from the Goon Squad” is something that will not let go of you that easily. You will relate with it and that is when it will play on your mind and heart, as all great books do.

Here are some quotes from the book:

“I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away – I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art.”

“If I had a view like this to look down on every day, I would have the energy and inspiration to conquer the world. The trouble is, when you most need such a view, no one gives it to you.”

“There are so many ways to go wrong. All we’ve got are metaphors, and they’re never exactly right. You can never just Say. The. Thing.”

“Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” Scotty shook his head. “The goon won.”

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Book Review: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

Final-cover-Hallucinations-250 Title: Hallucinations
Author: Oliver Sacks
Publisher: Knopf Books
ISBN: 978-0-307-95724-5
Genre: Medicine, Non-Fiction
Pages: 326
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I had only read two books of Oliver Sacks till I read “Hallucinations”. He was high on the reading radar but again there were other authors who took more preference. However, after reading Hallucinations that will not be the case anymore. “Hallucinations” is a different kind of book for me, because I have never read something like this in the past.

One doesn’t know more about any topic till one starts reading about it. We all think that hallucinations happen to those who are slightly mentally imbalanced or have become senile. However, that is not the case. Most people do not even know they are hallucinating at times. And if they do, they probably think they are crazy and therefore do not discuss this with anyone.

Oliver Sacks has taken this concept and given it a whole new perspective (which he always does with his books). The book is divided into fifteen chapters and each chapter is full of anecdotes and its relation to medicine. Sacks writes about the “Charles Bonnet Syndrome”, which was a new one for a layman like me. The condition more popularly known as CBS occurs when the brain is deprived of perceptual information and that is how people hallucinate. As Sacks also says that for every perception there are hallucinations. So this made perfect sense to me. There is a lot of insight into concepts such as “Auditory Hallucinations”, “Religious visions” and “Visions of oneself” (which I found most interesting).

The book makes you understand the reasons behind visions, the so called phantoms of the brains. The unknown territories and how this impacts everyday living. The thing with Oliver Sacks’ writing is that he can turn everything and anything to an interesting read. The book isn’t an academic work, so the understanding of concepts is crystal clear or at least was for me. Oliver Sacks has drawn extensively on his personal interactions with patients, medical reports and artistic references. There is this holistic perspective in this book.

For me, the amount of research done while writing this book clearly shows and is the cornerstone for writing non-fiction. I have never been this taken into a book about a subject which is so unique and yet so commonplace. “Hallucinations” has been one of the great non-fiction reads for me this year and I cannot stop recommending it to more people.

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Book Review: Om Love by George Minot

Om Love by George Minot Title: Om Love
Author: George Minot
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1400042746
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Love arrives in various forms and shapes. It doesn’t know when or how either. Love stories have been written and spoken about since time immemorial. We have read so many heart-breaking novels centered on love that sometimes you wonder: Can anyone ever write something different on this topic? Can there be something else, a different dimension to it? I am glad that I read, “Om Love” by George Minot, because it was exactly what I wanted – a different love story, with all the clichés of love and how it changes our lives.

“Om Love” by George Minot is a typical love story, written differently. Billy, an artist falls in love with Amanda in a yoga class on a typical New York Day and wins her affection. They have some mind-blowing sex and further fall in love. Then Amanda discovers that she has a fatal disease. Billy takes care of her. She goes to India. She is cured to some extent and comes back only to fall ill all over again. The rest is revealed to the reader when he or she reads it (though it is made clear at the beginning anyway).

Now to why I think that this book is written differently? It is a love story, definitely so, and yet there is so much staccato to begin with. I found it difficult to start the book and somewhere down the line the unusual styles grew on me. At one point, the book almost reads like something straight out of a yoga position that is meant to give you the clarity and peace of mind at the end of it all, and yet filtered with joy, passion, anger, envy and so much love.

The tale of Billy and Amanda moves from lines and emotions all over the place to a steady stream of consciousness to a poignant end, and yet Minot does not lose sight of the big picture: Of love and its nature. I loved the writing. It is quiet like the river sometimes and sometimes it is in your face like an overblown theatrical act. Love is described but obviously through its twists and turns in almost every page. There is anxiety, patience and the knowledge of how to deal with situations at the end of it all.

“Om Love” was a quiet and sometimes yet a powerful and strange book for me. I have enjoyed every minute of reading this small marvel. At one point I was almost reminded of Proust (mainly because of the stream of consciousness bit) and loved it even more because of that. I would definitely recommend “Om Love” to whoever who wants to know more about love in fiction.

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