Category Archives: Literary Fiction

The Gardens of Consolation by Parisa Reza

Title: The Gardens of Consolation
Author: Parisa Reza
Translated by: Adriana Hunter
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609453503
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 260
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“The Gardens of Consolation” by Parisa Reza is a book about common people, literally caught up in conditions which are not ordinary – things happen around them, their country changes and they just hope and pray that things remain the same. It is the story of a family that sees Iran through the changes and what do those changes mean for them and their lives. Historical fiction isn’t easy to write. I mean there is so much already written about history timelines of a country – that sometimes as a reader I wonder: what else is left to read about this? Then comes along a book like ‘The Gardens of Consolation’ that defies my way of thinking and presents me with something new and exciting.

The book is set in 1920s with young newlyweds Talla and Sardar Amir travelling from their native village Qamsar to the suburbs of Tehran, where everything is new to them. Sardar is amazed at what he can do when it comes to work and Talla is slowly coping with the ways of the world – a major change being with the Shah announcing that the chador must not be worn anymore. This is just one of the incidents but it leaves a huge impact on Talla’s life. The book then proceeds with them moving to Shemiran where they raise their son Bahram – who is somewhat of a prodigy in school and after and how his political leanings (nationalist) change him and the family. The overthrow of Mosaddegh plays a prominent role in the book and of course how Iran progressed as a country from pillar to pillar, thereby also witnessing its decline in the coming years.

I don’t want to give away much of the plot, so this is the story in brief. Having said this, the characters of this book almost become family. I could empathize so much with Talla – be it the situation of the chador to the time she is envious of the girlfriends her son brings home to also the time she goes back to her hometown and yet cannot recognize all that was left behind. Reza’s prose and Adriana Hunter’s translation does wonders to the prose. Sardar on the other hand is a content man (so is Talla by the way) and that’s why he is under constant fear of his world being torn apart one way or the other. I think so many of us can relate to this – time doesn’t matter, neither does class, what matters is the common fear of feeling secure throughout your life. Bahram’s character on the other hand is immensely complexed – he wants more and yet he doesn’t want more. We see him grow from a child to a teenager to an adult and see how his perspectives change as well.

Reza’s writing is compassionate. She makes you want to know a lot more about the characters and the situations they face on a day to day basis. “The Gardens of Consolation” makes you hoot for common people and hope and pray that all goes well in their world – and when you start doing that in a book, it means you are hooked to it. Reza makes you weep (a little), smile (a lot) and makes you a see a world that you never thought existed. A read not to be missed.

Ties by Domenico Starnone

Title: Ties
Author: Domenico Starnone
Translated by: Jhumpa Lahiri
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609453855
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 144
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

To learn a language and not do anything about it is what regular folk do. It just sits in their memory and without any practice or anyone to speak with fades from there as well. That is how language works – more so when a new language is learned. But to actually do something the skills acquired with a lot of struggle, pain and heartache is perhaps what people like Jhumpa Lahiri do when they learn a new language. In her case, Italian and the translated work (by her) was Ties by Domenico Starnone.

I was anticipating this one for a while. I think it was more because I knew it was translated by Lahiri and I have loved almost all her books in the past, but as I read the book, I was taken in by the plot and I understood why I was waiting for it after all. “Ties” is a story of a marriage and also I would like to think of objects and empty spaces that surround us, where words get lost, and communication is dead between spouses. Also, might I add that “Ties” is not just another marriage story – there is a lot more to it which seethes under the surface as beautifully imagined by Starnone.

“Ties” is also beyond just the marriage of Vanda and Aldo. It is also about the other relationships that come with the terrain of marriage and how all of them get impacted when a marriage goes awry. The brokenness, the visible fault lines and sometimes not so visible ones, the routine and the mundane that act as barriers to them fulfilling their vows and above all no compatibility makes this book a rollercoaster of emotions read. To me, the book also symbolized time – the years of a marriage, the so-called affiliation between a couple, the ups and downs as they happen and above all the empathy for each other, which somehow is so fragile that it can break any time.

Domenico’s writing is sparse. I love how he doesn’t waste words when it comes to describing a situation, detail or emotion. I don’t know how the book reads in Italian but the translation seems just in place – just what is needed for this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, though initially it was a breeze to get into, later as the layers got added and it became a little more complex, it was tough but eventually it picked pace again.

“Ties” is the kind of book which has multiple facets to it – the ones that will make you see how sometimes marriages work and sometimes they do not – it is all around you for you to observe and make your deductions. At the same time, it is the kind of read that sticks – Starnone delves deep into the minds and hearts of common people and brings out every side to them through his characters. Lahiri’s translation hits home with the details, nuances and dialogue which is pitched perfectly for readers in English. “Ties” is the kind of a book which of course can be read for a weekend, but will stay for way longer than that.

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra

multiple-choice-by-alejandro-zambra Title: Multiple Choice
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Translated by: Megan McDowell
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1783782697
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 112
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember loving multiple choice questions at school. I would actually look forward to that option at any exam or test, given that I could at least deduce some and get my answer and be almost sure that it would be the right option that I had chosen. Alejandro Zambra’s new book “Multiple Choice” is a book which is inventive, playful and based on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test. It is one of the highly inventive books I have across in a long time (after Hopscotch by Cortazar I think and even he was Latin American) and I can in all honesty say that I loved it immensely.

“Multiple Choice” is a collection of micro-stories which engages the reader at every turn of the page – by giving them options to choose from. At the same time, it doesn’t really give you a choice and that’s when the clever writing of Zambra kicks in. This is not a novel for sure. It isn’t even a collection of short stories. I love the way this book breaks all norms and becomes something which no one can define. The irony lies in the postmodern prose where it challenges everything postmodern as well.

The book does take some time getting into and understanding the format – but once you do, you cannot help yourself but finish it. The book is divided into forms of multiple choice sections where as a reader you have to do either of these: exclude a term, reorder a sentence, decide on how to fill in the blanks in a sentence, eliminate sentences from a short narrative or show comprehension skills of stories. What the book then ends up doing is automatically laying ground for many perspectives to emerge from each short piece. What is interesting is the hidden political criticism that emerges in most short stories, almost defying a system in place.

Alejandro Zambra’s books are not easy to get into, as I mentioned earlier but what they do manage to do is leave a lot of thoughts lingering with the reader. “Multiple Choice” is a smart book that will make you feel clever and also underutilized at the same time. Some pieces are deeply moving as well – I loved the reading comprehension story on divorce which will choke you a bit. Sometimes the unconventional novel or a literary work challenges the way you think and rightly so. I strongly think more works of literature should do that, given the times we live in.

All said and done, “Multiple Choice” is also this good because of the fantastic translation by Megan McDowell. Every word, no matter how small stands out in the reading comprehension pieces and makes so much sense when connected with the questions at the end of it. I think that is the beauty of fiction that doesn’t follow the norm – it all ends up together one way or the other. “Multiple Choice” is deeply emotional, passionate, and political, and to forget a brilliant moving read. One of the best I’ve read in this genre and form in a while.

The Carousel of Desire by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt

the-carousel-of-desire-by-eric-emmanuel-schmitt Title: The Carousel of Desire
Author: Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Translated by: Howard Curtis, Katherine Gregor
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 9781609453466
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 672
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I knew the minute I started reading this book, I knew that it would be something different and I wouldn’t mind the fact that it was a tome and kinda tough to get by to initially. “The Carousel of Desire” is about desire – it is sometimes about misplaced eroticism, emotions which are all over the place, relationships that are not long-lasting and those that are have too many cracks in them and above all, it is about romance – free of any moral judgement and yet the kind that looks at human relationships intricately and without making them seem frivolous.

“The Carouse of Desire” is about regular people, stuck in situations beyond their control and how Eros plays its own tricks on their unassuming lives. At the heart of the story are human emotions and experiences and how humans, while being so flawed are the only ones sometimes who have all the chances at redemption – sometimes more than one as well. The human psyche when it comes down to class, love, race and community are brilliantly brought out by Schmitt and just for that I would recommend you read this book.

So, what is this book all about? A love note, that’s what it is about. A love note is delivered anonymously to each inhabitant of Piazza Guy d’Arezzo in Brussels one morning and that’s where it all begins. To me it was the characters, the plot and most of all the dialogues (which have a great blend of love and philosophy) that did it all to love this book. The telling of the story is visual – it is almost like watching a movie and you can see it all happening. To me that is also great storytelling by Schmitt and some great translation by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor. I think when reading a translation, you somehow know if a job is well-done or not or when it becomes more than a job and the passion is conveyed on paper. I could feel that while reading “The Carousel of Desire”.

Running between the major characters such as the powerful E.U. commissioner, a confused (almost) book publicist, a banker who is seemingly happily married, and a parrot loving strange woman amongst others, you will also meet some brilliant secondary characters that make for the heart of the story. Like I said earlier, there are no judgements in this story – there is no right or wrong, immoral or morals, something that should be done or should not be done. Schmitt lets his people be and more so makes them live their lives to the fullest, always questioning and always wanting to push themselves more.

As I age, I look out for books that are more fulfilling or those that will bring some comfort and not disappoint. I mean, honestly, you cannot go about reading bad books and pretend that they never happened. So when great books such as “The Carousel of Desire” happen, you take them with both arms and not let go.

Mikhail and Margarita by Julie Lekstrom Himes

mikhail-and-margarita-by-julie-lekstrom-himes Title: Mikhail and Margarita
Author: Julie Lekstrom Himes
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609453756
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I had read “The Master and Margarita” in college. It was a long time ago. It was one of those prescribed classics that you just had to read and I remember loving it a lot, after initially not liking it at all. It was too fantastical for me to begin with and then the allegorical symbols rang home and I couldn’t stop turning the pages, hungry for more. Bulgakov’s writing cannot be described by the words I have at my disposal. He is that good. What you must also remember is that “The Master and Margarita” was written under a totalitarian regime and how it got published is another story. For now, I will stick to the review of “Mikhail and Margarita”.

Most times, I get scared to pick up a book of historic significance and background. More so, if a writer has perhaps reimagined a certain time in history and tried to recreate it for the reader, I try and stay away from such books, mostly. This time I took a chance and read “Mikhail and Margarita” by Julie Lekstrom Himes. I don’t know if the story is real or not, but I know one thing: Ms. Himes sure knows how to tell a tale. I could not stop reading this book and right after I finished it, I wanted to go back to the Bulgakov classic.

“Mikhail and Margarita” as you might have guessed from the title is a story of Mikhail and his love for a woman named Margarita that inspired him to write “The Master and Margarita”. Let me also tell you that in real-life it was Bulgakov’s third wife Yelena Shilovskaya who was the inspiration for the character Margarita. I am guessing that Himes’ Margarita is also inspired by his real-life. Himes has also made this a love-triangle with an agent of Stalin’s police who is also in love with Margarita. The year it is set in is 1933 and how at that time Bulgakov’s career was at a complete dead-end. The book is brilliant – it speaks of passionate love, more passionate ideals, and the regime that will not allow any of this. All it wants is human sacrifice in the name of the country.

Himes’ writing is taut, detailed and well-researched. The book will make you at some points even go back to “The Master and Margarita” (but not so many). Himes’ characters are just everyday people trying to deal with a country and its policies that don’t give them the independence to think, forget falling in love. Much like what is happening today or might happen in the near future where USA and some other countries are concerned. I would highly recommend “Mikhail and Margarita” for the newness of plot, the writing and the way the book will make you think.