Category Archives: Literary Reads 2018

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater Title: Freshwater
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571347216
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 226
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Fierce is the first word that comes to mind when I think of the reading experience of “Freshwater”. I was also dazzled but fierce is way more appropriate. I don’t know if I have ever read something like this book before (in all probability no) but I can say that this one stands out like no other book has for me in the last year or so (beside Homegoing).

Emezi’s book cannot be classified that easy. Actually, I think one of the reasons it breaks form is this. There is a sense of familiarity while reading “Freshwater” and bam!, before you know it, the sense of the known is gone and you are left wanting more.

Ada is born with an Ogbanje (a godlike Igbo spirit) inside her, and the story begins with Ogbanje’s narration from inside her body. Interesting enough for you to pick it up? Oh wait there is more! Ada is not just born with one spirit inside of her. There are more. And that’s what the book is about. Many lives inside and the one that will ultimately live.

“Freshwater” however is more than what I have mentioned here. It is rooted deep in mythology, covering identity, mental illness and trauma. The book will pierce inside of you and make you see things you never thought of before.

Emezi’s powerful prose comes from a different place within her, I think. To conjure different spirits and narrate the book through their points of view is truly magnificent. She then has turned the idea of identity and being on its head, which kept me hooked way into the night.

The idea of a protagonist’s identity being dependent on many and for the reader to be involved for her voice to be heard is not only experimental in form but also when it comes to story-telling. Emezi writes deeply and emotionally, just the way a book like this (or any book for that matter) is meant to be written. This book made me feel all sorts of emotions – love, anger, despair, and also made me perhaps understand myself a lot more.

“Freshwater” is an experience and not just a book on fantastical realism or something dark and powerful (which it sure is). It takes you on a different journey with Ada and her spirits – along with culture, experiences, making it more challenging and thought-provoking read. I cannot recommend it enough.

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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.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller Title: Circe
Author: Madeline Miller
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, Hachette USA
ISBN: 978-0316556347
Genre: Mythology, Literary Fiction, Greek Mythology
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I have never followed Greek Mythology with great fervor. In fact, even while I was in school and college, these myths did not interest me much. Till after, when I started reading The Iliad and the Odyssey that my interest levels peaked and there was no turning back. Also, might I add the various retellings – from “The Penelopiad” by Margaret Atwood to Ilium by Dan Simmons (a lesser-known work but a work of sheer beauty) to also the funny “Gods Behaving Badly” by Marie Phillips and then “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller happened and changed it all, I suppose.

I read “The Song of Achilles” and was floored by it. And now her brand-new book “Circe” – to me is even better. I also tend to think her craft has worked way better when it comes to this one. Circe has always been thought of as the dangerous siren from Homer’s Odyssey who lured sailors to their deaths with her seductive song. Madeline Miller changes that perception and manages to make her more human (ironic, isn’t it?) than just be someone cold and distant.

Madeline Miller makes Circe’s life real, with motivators, with passion, life experiences that made her who she was. There is no justification and no sides are taken. Miller steers clear from all of that. There are shades of grey which are present in almost every character in the book – from Helios – Circe’s father (Titan God of the Sun) or Perse (her mother, an Oceanid naiad), to her siblings who are cruel to her (this was one of the major reasons of Circe being who she turned out to be), and all the other nymphs who are seemingly lovelier than Circe.

Circe turns to witchcraft when she makes Glaucos (a mortal) a god, and even more so when Glaucos falls in love with another nymph. “Pharmaka” or witchcraft is frowned upon by all gods and goddesses and this is how Circe is banished to the island of Aiaia to live a solitary life. It is here that she practices her powers of witchcraft and excels. It is here that her life begins (as is also mentioned in the Odyssey).

I love how Miller uses the story of Circe to make so many points – feminism, alienation, acceptance, loss of love and not being able to fit in. Madeline Miller also didn’t restrict the book to mainly being Circe’s story. It is also about the other mythological characters that Circe encounters – Prometheus, Daedalus, Icarus, Hermes, Athena, Penelope and more and all the other gods and mortals. It is also through them that Miller shows us various emotions and sides to Circe, thus leading her to actively participate in their myths as well.

“Circe” might be a retelling and may not be for everyone (more so if you are a purist when it comes to myths) but it sure did work for me. All in all, it was a great read, with everything falling in place – from the plot to the characters to the way Madeline has written the story – with not a single dull moment. Will sure keep you turning the pages.

 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones Title: An American Marriage
Author: Tayari Jones
Publisher: Algonquin Books
ISBN: 978-1616208776
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

We never know what life has in store for us and that can very well be the premise of Tayari Jones’ book, “An American Marriage”. I was intrigued by this book (just like many others) after Oprah picked it up as her next book club selection. In fact, if anything I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, because I really do trust Oprah’s recommendations and let me tell you that I loved this book to bits and pieces. I want to be all intellectual while reviewing this title, but I’d rather be emotional, as this book is all heart and nothing else.

“An American Marriage” isn’t just about two people in a marriage or in love. It is about a nation and its fears, its racism and class barriers (It still exists in some quarters) and above all it is about time and what it does to you. The vagaries of time play such a major part in the book – that it almost takes over the book and yet very cleverly, Jones doesn’t give in to the exact timeline.

Celestial and Roy are newlyweds and have nothing but dreams in their eyes, representing the New South. Roy is an executive who is young and fresh in the word. Celestial is a doll-maker. It has been a year since their marriage and they are now on their way to make a family, when something unimaginable takes place and Roy is convicted for a crime he did not commit and that’s when their relationship changes.

A marriage takes time to build on. A lot of persistence, love, patience and care and so does life. Jones’ characters are so layered and complex that if you don’t pay attention to the details, it might all be lost on you. Who I must also mention is Andre – Celestial’s childhood friend who is a constant companion when Roy is in prison and how that further complicates all their relationships. To me, Andre’s character was most interesting – his guilt, his decisions and above all the consequences in store.

What I love about the book is that Tayari Jones bares a marriage to its bones. There is no discomfort in the writing when it comes to showing things the way they are. My favourite part in the book were letters Roy and Celestial write to each other while he is in prison. They are by far the most heartbreaking letters I have read in fiction.

Jones brings to light the injustice in the American Judicial System (not that it wasn’t always there) and combines it with a marriage, and that to me was stunning – the balancing act between loneliness, despair and identity and what it does to people.

The portrait of a marriage or how they came to me – all of them is the heart of “An American Marriage”. The tug-of-war between the past, the present and the future is constant in this novel. Will they or won’t they lead normal lives or what is normal anymore is what will have you wondering and asking for till you reach the very end.

All in all, ‘’An American Marriage” is a story of failed dreams, dashed hopes and yet it is about not giving in, but continue to strive to make things better – day by day. I could not stop reading it this book – the questions of race, class and above all love hovered large as I made my way through life. A book that will not be easy to shake off once you are done. Read “An American Marriage” to get a better sense of the world we live in. You will not be disappointed.

Border Districts by Gerald Murnane

Border Districts by Gerald Murnane Title: Border Districts
Author: Gerald Murnane
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374115753
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 144
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Very cleverly, Border Districts calls itself a fiction. After reading the synopsis, and knowing that this book is about a man and the books he has read and the relationship he shares with them, I couldn’t help but smile and kind of relate to it. I hadn’t heard of Murnane before reading this book and now I am so in awe that I want to lay my hands on everything he has written.

“Border Districts” is a story of a man who moves to a remote town in the border country, where all he wants to do is spend the last years of his life. While he is doing that, he wants to look back at a lifetime of seeing and of reading. Of what he saw and what he read. The images, people and places he witnessed as he grew along the years and the fictional characters he came across, the words he soaked in and the books he cherished. And where memory enters any novel/novella, secrets are bound to make an appearance and that’s exactly what happens, which also play with your head.

Murnane’s writing is soothing and yet I could sense the urgency and the head-rush that came with it. Like I said, I had not heard of him until this read and now I can’t wait to read everything he has written. His prose jumps at you and takes you captive. It is that kind of power. The shifting of narrative between seeing and reading is seamless and maybe that’s why I was hooked the way I was.

“Border Districts” is mostly autobiographical in nature, based on Murnane’s move from Melbourne to a remote town. Australia for me has never come this alive in any book. Sometimes unexpected books and authors jump at you and before you know it, you are in love.