Category Archives: Literary Criticism

Not To Read by Alejandro Zambra. Translated by Megan McDowell

Not To Read by Alejandro Zambra Title: Not To Read
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Translated by Megan McDowell
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
ISBN: 978-1910695630
Genre: Non-Fiction, Literary Essays
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I discovered, “Bonsai” by Alejandro Zambra in 2014 and since then I have never looked back. I’ve read all his books and all I can say is that I am glad he exists in the same universe as we do and continues to write. This time it was a collection of essays, some old and some new, collected in a book “Not to Read” and published by the very erudite folks at Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The thing about Zambra’s writing is the high level of engagement he was with his readers, even without meaning to I guess. You instantly relate to what he has to say about libraries, personal libraries and books in general. At the very superficial level it is this, but at a more constant and deeper level it is his writing which seems so effortless thanks to the translation really. McDowell has done a spectacular job of giving words to his thoughts and words of course in another language so smoothly, that you almost want to read the original (written in Spanish).

The essays are spread over three sections and each section, without a doubt is a joy to read. Zambra makes you travel with him, through his literature and also through his pieces on literature. I will for one never forget how he and his friends photocopied books as they were (and still are) very expensive to buy when they were students. What is most endearing is that even when he could afford to buy the originals, the photocopy stacks still remained on the shelves. Or the time when he visits a friend’s house and comments on the shelving of books and the technique used (a hilarious piece by the way).

Zambra’s writing connects with the reader in all of us and that’s why it is so accessible. Another thing about reading books about books is the discovery. Just by reading “Not to Read”, I have chanced upon a dozen or more writers I would’ve never known. Well, the glitch is that most of them aren’t translated to English but hey, I hope wanting to read them will finally make me enroll for Spanish classes. Anything that would make you read new authors, I suppose.

Alejandro Zambra has not praised or touched on the big Chilean writers – either because he doesn’t admire their writing, which is fair or because he sincerely feels there are alternatives (which I was glad to know of). This is a very important aspect of a book about books in my opinion – giving alternatives to what already exists. The cannons of literature will remain and revered, but we need something else to hold onto as well.

“Not to Read” can be read in one sitting (like I did) or better yet dip into it time and again, read an essay or two and mull over its magnificence. I am only too happy that more authors are writing about books and reading. One of my favourite genres so far. I strongly recommend everyone to read this book.

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Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby

Lit Up Title: Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives
Author: David Debby
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1250117038
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Books about Books
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

How does a teacher ensure that children read? How does he get teenagers who are constantly on social media and on their phones to get to pick up a book and explore the world in its pages? As an English teacher, that was the biggest task in front of David Denby. It would be an awkward start for sure – one to convince them to read, get them interested in books, which were an alien concept to them and second how to go about that.

“Lit-Up” is a story. It reads like that for sure. How David went about doing this not in just one public school but three of them, sure is motivating. For me, it was the honesty of the writing that came through and stuck. David talks about his challenges with the same enthusiasm as he highlights the small successes. How his encounters with students shape him as a teacher and a person and through that how he started enjoying some books a little more filled me with so much joy.

What is interesting also is the selection of books – the twenty-four books are quite diverse – from Faulkner (very challenging you think? Not for Denby’s students) to Plath to Huxley and Orwell (both seem so relevant as of today) and more. At the end, what Denby really has to say is “choose what you want to read and read as much as you can”. This level of engagement with students is what will suck you into the book.

“Lit-Up” is one of those rare books that makes you want to get up and make a change – no matter how small or big. It just makes you want to do something worthwhile with your life and teachers do it so well. They just reach out to you and make that one difference in your life. Denby chose to do it with books and reading. A read that hits all the right chords.

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.

On Art, Literature and History: Essays by Naguib Mahfouz; Translated by Aran Byrne

51s8qRJdoUL Title: On Art, Literature and History: Essays
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translated from the Arabic by Aran Byrne
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9386050007
Genre: Essays
Pages: 172
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It will take you some time to get into this book of essays by Naguib Mahfouz, one of the finest contemporary Arabic writers, however, once you do wade your way through and read a couple of essays, you are in for a rollercoaster ride. Mahfouz’s range is wide as the title suggests is diverse – right from art to history to literature, you can read his opinions (yeah it is that after all) and more than just opinions, you can feel what he tries to tell you because he does such a good job of using words to communicate, which to me most humans cannot.

Anyhow, back to the book. “On Art, Literature and History” is a collection of essays, most of which were penned in the 1930s, that bring to life not just Mahfouz’s views but also deal with the Arab world then and development of Islam. To me, it was a very interesting read, given how he blends philosophy and art with politics, without making it too boring or uninteresting for the reader. I think I was a fan anyway since the time I read his very popular Cairo trilogy and this one just pushed me over to becoming a major fan, I suppose.

This is the first volume that Speaking Tiger has come out with so I am expecting there to be more such volumes of his non-fiction writing spanning decades. A lot of people aren’t aware of his non-fiction pieces but I really hope that they go on and pick this collection and are more aware of what he could dabble in.

The writing is complex but only when it comes to language to some extent. The reading then becomes easy once you connect with the authors’ ideas and way of thinking. After all, essays aren’t easy to write. A balance between having to say so much and brevity must be maintained at all times. I most particularly enjoyed the literature section the most – as he spoke of Chekov to other Arabic authors as well. His sense of observation is superlative and that of course will be seen as you go along from essay to essay. At some points, I did feel the pace to be languid but that is I think true of most essay collections. Maybe some can read it in one gulp and some take their own time with it. Whichever way you’d like to read it, this one is one hell of a firecracker of a read.

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

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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.