Category Archives: Literary Fiction

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.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Z Title: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Author: Therese Anne Fowler
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
ISBN: 978-1250028662
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 375
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

When I started reading Z, I knew about Zelda Fitzgerald but not all that much. I knew only what I think the rest of the world did (well some part of the rest of the world at least) – that she was deemed crazy, that she was unstable and highly emotional and also that F. Scott Fitzgerald had plagiarized from her works to create the classics that would be called his. I also knew of the love between them but also of his affairs and how she took to them. However, after reading “Z” by Therese Anne Fowler, I got a better idea of how much of it was true (given Therese Anne Fowler’s research was to the mark) and how much of it wasn’t. To complement this book, you might also want to read “Careless People” by Sarah Churchwell that traces the life of the Fitzgeralds to the time of The Great Gatsby’s publishing.

“Z” starts in 1918 when a reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance. She is only 18 and life is waiting for her with both arms. He is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama and has nothing to his name. She comes from lineage – a judge’s daughter. Her father does not approve of him. He sells his first novel “This Side of Paradise” to Scribner’s and she boards a train to marry him. The rest as we all know is history.

The darling couple of the literary world had the universe at their feet and more. The Jazz Age as we know it. The roaring 20s, the time when everything seemed possible, the era of bright lights, fast music and when anything could be said. Everyone wanted to be with the Fitzgeralds. He for his book and she for her wit and sharp tongue. But there is also trouble in paradise and that is also what Fowler touches on in her book – the fame, its cons, the egos of the husband and wife (and rightly so in her case in my opinion), who was Zelda really and also the doomed Lost Generation with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and more.

Therese Anne Fowler writes about the literary world no doubt but what she manages to do is also show us who Zelda really was, or who she might have been. The wives of famous men are often in the background and Fowler brings Zelda’s story to the front like perhaps no other author has. The ups and downs of their lives are heartbreakingly told and one can connect with her instantly. I don’t consider this book to be a woman’s perspective but that of another author, another talent who shared the same space as her husband and wrote gregariously but never really got her due. Fowler touches on so many aspects of their lives and also of hers that the book feels complete at every step. Never once did I think I want more. I love literary biographies, though this was touted as a novel, it could have very well been a biography. Read “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” if you also want to know more about her.

Don’t forget the watch the series Z: The Beginning of Everything on Amazon Prime, based on this book.

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.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg. Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak

51oe4dOcMOL Title: Swallowing Mercury
Author: Wioletta Greg
Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Publisher: Portobello Books
ISBN: 9781846276071
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 146
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

How does one describe a book that gave you so much joy as you read it? It has been a while since I read anything like “Swallowing Mercury”. I think this book just made me realize that there is still a lot of hope and faith in the world, though it does have its own set of problems, having hope and faith I mean. Greg’s characters are unique, literally that with their eccentricities, and yet the naivety about them is endearing to make you smile and wish them happiness. “Swallowing Mercury” is that kind of book – it leaves you with a tingling feeling – I don’t have any better way to put it.

This book was read by me as a part of the Women in Translation Month – August 2017. I am so glad that I got to know of this book through this initiative. At the core of the book is Wiola, who lives in a close-knit agricultural community (this by itself is charming. There is a sense of old-world feeling to it which cannot be ignored and that’s the major portion of the book which I love the most. So Wiola also has a black cat named Blackie (you can’t help but love the tongue-in-cheek reference). Her father who deserted the family is back and is now a taxidermist. Her mother is a strange one (but then who isn’t when you come to think of it), who frequently warns her about not entering certain rooms and that one must not kill spiders or there will be storms. Might I also add that all this takes place in Poland.

“Swallowing Mercury” has this fable like quality attached to it. There are also a lot of fables in the book per se as Wiola is a Catholic girl, growing up on them and not to mention, superstitions. Greg’s writing has this feeling of wanting to finish the book (given it is so short anyway) and yet to pick it up immediately after.

The translation from Polish by Eliza Marciniak is beautiful – the book is written in fragments and yet the subtle transition of Wiola from a child to an adolescence is so lucid and more so the background of politics, morality, violence and faith makes it even more intriguing. Trust me when I say that you will not be able to put this book down – there are so many layers to it and more than anything else you get so engaged in the Polish life as a reader that you are almost melancholic as it ends.

The Crooked Line by Ismat Chughtai. Translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi

413WM8yVqeL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_ Title: The Crooked Line (Tehri Lakeer)
Author: Ismat Chughtai
Translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi
Publisher: Feminist Press
ISBN: 978-1558615182
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translation, Feminist Literature
Pages: 393
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

When I got to know of Women in Translation month toward the end of July, I knew that Chughtai would have to be one of the authors that I would read. Chughtai is something else. I can never use the past tense for her, because she lives on and on and on through her works no matter how cheesy it might sound to you. I recall the first time I had heard of that name and most people in my college only associated her with “Lihaaf”, her most popular short-story on love between women. But there is a sea of work that Chughtai wrote and while most of it is fairly popular, it isn’t as famous as her short stories. Her novellas, novels and even her memoir, Kagaji Hai Pairahan (loosely translated to a life of words) are stunning. Everything she wrote will go down in history.

My relationship with Chughtai’s works is of fierceness. I always associate the word fierce with her and her heroines. Their inner lives as captured by her remain as probing and mysterious as they were when first published. There is no recipe for emancipation in her books. Her heroines don’t try to break free from their worlds in ways which are extreme, but work around them. I don’t mean this as a good or a bad thing, it is just how things were then, when Ismat Appa was growing and observing the world of women around her.

“Tehri Lakeer” one of Chughtai’s most autobiographical work (translated wondrously by Tahira Naqvi as “The Crooked Line) tells the story of Shamman and her world, the women in her family – from her mother to her sisters and cousins, to her time at a boarding school and experiences there and how she grows into a woman on the brink of India’s independence, at the same time fighting her inner battles. “The Crooked Line” is about Indian women living in purdah (the world Shamman is born and grows into in the first part of the book) – her Amma who is callous enough to let Shamman being taken care of by her sisters. Her Bari Appa (oldest sister) who is a premature widow and uses this to her advantage time and again in the family. Her cousin Noori who very early on understands how to wield power over men. Chughtai’s characters may appear weak and subdued but don’t be fooled. They are strong and yet know when to appear weak.

The world of purdah disappears as Shamman grows up, with its own set of rules and it all comes down to how women control men around them. Shamman, now educated sees herself different from her family and is almost alienated by them. She doesn’t even understand her place in the modern world and is somewhat stuck in a limbo. Ismat Chughtai’s characters are also known to traverse paths of identity confusion more often than not. Be it Masooma (from the novel of the same name) or even Bichchoo Phoophee, they are always stuck, always searching and breaking paradigms in their small ways. Shamman does the same and is seeing the world change drastically – be it through her friend Alma, who has a child out of wedlock and is unable to love it fully or abort it – or through Bilqees, the femme fatale who uses men and is always surrounded by them, without knowing if she loves them or is just using them.

This is also a constant in the book – women who are neither here nor there. Women who were in purdah had no control and women who have the freedom don’t know what to make of it. In all of this is Shamman’s role as a headmistress (which reminded me so much of the Brontë sisters) and her relationship with the gossiping colleagues to her own sexuality as and when it blossoms, Chughtai’s feminism is not contained or a listicle of sorts. It is the kind of feminism that questions and makes you very uncomfortable while asking those questions. She isn’t apologetic and neither are her characters. Tahira Naqvi’s translation from the Urdu is top-notch as she keeps all phrases and words intact, where they should be. There is also a glossary behind for those who might need to refer it. This was perhaps the last Chugtai book that I had left to read. Knowing me though, I will go back to her works, almost every year. She was truly a woman of gumption and it reflected in her writing all the way. Read her. Breathe her works. And I would be very envious of you, if you haven’t read her at all, because there is so much there for you to read and adore.