Category Archives: Literary Reads 2018

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

PontiTitle: Ponti
Author: Sharlene Teo
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1509855322
Genre: Teenagers, Friendship, Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

You read books that have similar plots. You also read books that surprise and stun you. Those books are rare and far and few in between. “Ponti” for sure is one of them! At the same time, it is a weird book in the sense of time and its shift – the constant back and forth, which only lends itself beautifully to the novel. “Ponti” also masterfully moves away from being just a “perspectives” novel to include landscape, culture, and ethos of not only a city but also friendship and matters of the heart.

“Ponti” is a story that centres mainly on two years – 2003 and 2020. Place: Singapore. Sixteen year-old Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa, who was once an actress and now is just a hack medium performing séances with her sister in an almost dilapidated house. Szu then happens to meet Circe – who is not only quite expressive to the point of being offensive but also privileged. Their friendship is the start of something, offering Szu an easy escape. Things happen, life changes and seventeen years later – life is off to another start, with a project and secrets that decide to not remain secrets anymore.

Might I add here that after reading this book, all you’d want to do is visit Singapore. Teo makes the city come alive like no other writer and just for that (if I had to pick one element of the book that is) I would highly recommend this book. The writing is edgy and full of wonders – good and bad. Yes, I would believe there could be bad wonders – or would that just be shocking so to say.

Teo’s writing is so powerful – at times I thought the wind had been knocked off me. I loved the pace and the style. The characters face loneliness, angst, and confusion like no other – this causes them things to do which perhaps they wouldn’t and that’s where most of the story stems from. “Ponti” also needs patience in the first couple of pages, after which for me it was a smooth ride. A read that is fascinating, worrying and also insightful in so many ways.

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Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Karate Chop by Dorthe NorsTitle: Karate Chop
Author: Dorthe Nors
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 978-1782274322
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Collections
Pages: 96
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Dorthe Nors’s stories or books are not easy to read. Well, they are superficially easy so to say, till you think about them, mull over them a little and before you know it, you want to go back to the worlds created by Nors. The stories in this collection like I said may seem ordinary, almost run-of-the-mill really, but there are glimpses of the extraordinary lurking beneath the ordinary, which appear as you go along. These stories are also more like vignettes than anything else – fifteen compact stories – all about life and its ongoings, layered with multiple emotions, splattered all over its pages.

Nors’s characters are also quite twisted and strange. They aren’t the sort of people you might bump into the street or maybe they are but concealing their quirks as they go along life. A relationship between a father and son is tested and beyond emotions at that. A woman in an abusive relationship reflects on how she got there and takes responsibility without passing blame or trying to. A daughter and a mother’s tender and almost brutal relationship as the daughter is witness to the mother probably going insane. A man on the other hand is obsessed with female killers. A woman who suddenly finds herself in the possession of a giant tornado. You get the drift of these stories, don’t you?

I cannot categorize them under magical or magic realism as they say (though it might seem like that for most part). The only reason I am not categorizing them that way is there is more to them – the underlined human emotion and its complexity. All of Nors’s characters are lonely – wanting some companionship to get through life. At the same time, these stories do not end the way you would want them to. Most of them are open-ended and it is to the reader to decide the fate of these characters.

The translation by Martin Aitken is superb in the sense that you do realize of course you are reading a translated collection of stories and yet you do not. All nuances are there. All vignettes seem intact and the prose flows like it should. Also, since August is the Women in Translation month, I was so happy that this was the first book read as a part of that theme/project.

The Hazards of Good Fortune by Seth Greenland

The Hazards of Good Fortune Title: The Hazards of Good Fortune
Author: Seth Greenland
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609454623
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 624
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I loved Seth Greenland’s “I Regret Everything”. It was witty, sharp and biting and his latest book is no different. Thank God for that! “The Hazards of Good Fortune” while being hilarious and often witty, does not stop being profound or showing us what the author wants us to see, one which is thinly veiled and not exposed to all. He explores big themes, big emotions and a big landscape in this book – New York and the Obama presidency.

Jay Gladstone is the kind of aware and ‘woke’ man I would love to meet. He makes his errors and he is aware of them to the point that he tries to make amends as well. He does not try and absolve himself of his silly ways, so to say. He sees himself a moral man, who doesn’t want to repeat his father’s mistakes. He is born to privilege and checks it at all times. Till life, circumstance and other people happen to him and everything spirals out of control or so it seems.

Greenland looks at uncomfortable topics unflinchingly – race, class and gender. He doesn’t mince his words. The book reminded me so much of “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. Some things were so similar – a man caught in circumstances beyond his control, the element of race and how it works in the Obama presidency and the question of morals and what place they hold in our lives.

“The Hazards of Good Fortune” is never light (though it may come across that way sometimes). It is an extremely appropriate read for our times and the kind that makes you sit up and take notice of what is going on. The writing is incisive and sharp. The characters play out urban angst fantastically and the author doesn’t hide their weaknesses for one single minute. The plot is layered, the book runs at a break-neck speed and still manages to find some humour in all of this. Read it and find out.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal PeopleTitle: Normal People
Author: Sally Rooney
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN:978-0571334643
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages:  288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

So, I got to read this book last month and I must say that I enjoyed this one a lot more than “Conversations with Friends”. It felt as though Rooney has finally found her voice and she must stick to that. “Normal People” is a breath of fresh air that raises so many questions of class, race and above all, it speaks of love and what happens to it over time.

Connell and Marianne grow up in the same town in rural Ireland. They attend school together and are familiar with each other as Connell’s mother is a cleaner at Marianne’s house. Connell, after school,  visits his mother at Marianne’s house so they can go home together. And in that time he gets to know Marianne, who is plain, stubborn and friendless at school. They share a connection, a bond and soon discover that there is something between them. Furthermore, they both get accepted to Trinity College in Dublin and this is when things change. Marianne is now the popular one and Connell is on the sidelines. What happens next and how they realize that they will always be in and out of each other’s lives is what the book is about.

I think “Normal People” is one of those books that has the power to wake you up from your stupor and see love, for what it is – complicated yet simple and a whole lot of wrongs till you get it right. The writing hits you hard and there are a lot of books mentioned which I loved. Connell and Marianne are loveable, endearing, and there are times you also detest them for doing the things they do. But there is always hope and some redemption.

“Normal People” is written in a manner that speaks directly to the reader. Rooney comes to the point quite directly and that is extremely endearing. The characters’ hearts and emotions so to say are placed in front of the reader, without judgement and the story plays itself out quite meticulously, to the point of being extremely relatable.

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas

91NWARscW6L Title: The Empty Room
Author: Sadia Abbas
Publisher: Zubaan Books
ISBN: 978-9385932267
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Because more stories such as this one need to be told. Stories where the political and personal merge and the voice stands out – being original, fearless and saying it like she intends to. I also most certainly have come to believe that stories of women are best told by women (you can refute me on this one but it is my opinion nonetheless). The story of Tahira in 1970s Karachi is told beautifully by Sadia Abbas. Through a work of fiction, you can sense the tone and emotions that are so real, you are transported back in time. As a reader, I was way too invested in this book and just wanted to see Tahira happy, no matter what.

Like I said, the novel is set in the 70s of Karachi. Tahira is married off quite quickly to someone she doesn’t know and her life falls apart as quickly. She is a talented painter who isn’t allowed to paint. Her marriage is nothing but a trap and she has no voice left. She was always the free one at her parents house – interacting, debating, discussing with her brother Waseem and his friends. She misses all that and comes to know one fine day that her brother and his friends are arrested and caught up in the regressive regime’s line of fire. Tahira’s world is shattered. She doesn’t know what to do and how to express herself anymore till she goes back to painting. All her paintings have the same title, “The Empty Room”.

“The Empty Room” is rich, luxuriant and more than anything else soothing in so many ways. I often found myself weeping and smiling at the same time while reading this book. The nation is new. The bride is new. Her roles are new. There is the rebel inside her which refuses to succumb and Abbas through her succinct prose has brought out all the elements and joined them quite cleverly. Yet, there are so many places where the book just is – it doesn’t try to be anything but show a mirror of times gone by and strangely you can see those times even today around you. They haven’t gone anywhere. The regressiveness exists, doesn’t matter which nation.

Abbas makes Pakistan come alive in this book. The streets, the places, the houses – the very atmosphere that is heavy and sometimes claustrophobic in Tahira’s world is described brilliantly. “The Empty Room” is just an introspective book with a lot of heart, gumption and the idea and hope that things will change for the better. Read it.