Category Archives: Non-Fiction

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death: A Memoir by Maggie O’ Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am - Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O' Farrell Title: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death: A Memoir
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525520221
Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

The book is about the author’s seventeen near misses with death. I could say this and explain the book to you but that would not be fair to it. The book is a lot more than just this (though this is the core, mind you, as the title and sub-title will tell you). And yet what I take from it is the fragility of life, sometimes the joy in living and the fact that you still move on, despite the seventeen near misses with death. “I Am, I Am, I Am” is a testament really to living and living with life’s bittersweet moments.

There is no melodrama or sentimentality when it comes to this book. There is a lot of emotion though, but nowhere does it get emotional to the point that it tends to feel fake. O’Farrell’s writing is raw, straight from the core of the heart, to the point of it being exhausting at times (which I was prepared for given the nature of the book) and yet, the book lifts you from the ordinary in so many ways.

Death is something we do not speak of casually or even for that matter most seriously. It is something that we take for granted till perhaps you face it and if you have had close shaves with it seventeen times, then you know better than to think you are immortal or life is long and so on and so forth. “I Am, I Am, I Am” in that sense uproots your ideas of death and life, about how fragile we are and yet as humans we don’t admit it.

Maggie’s experiences could’ve been anyone’s really and even if they aren’t she makes them ours through the power of her writing. When she is on the verge of drowning, so are we. When she suffers, so do we. The book is divided by body parts that were involved in these brushes, sometimes even the entire body and then you see the magnanimity of situations she was in and as a result of that, you empathize no end.

The poetry of prose is also hard to bear, the events intense (some of them) and often drive you to tears. Compassion is strengthened and you bring yourself to find moments of happiness, hope and joy throughout. Maggie O’Farrell has put her heart out on paper and whether or not you have read her novels, you should read “I Am, I Am, I Am” for sure.

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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel - Essays by Alexander Chee Title: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays
Author: Alexander Chee
Publisher: Mariner Books, HMH
ISBN: 978-1328764522
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It isn’t easy to write a book of essays that charts life. And when you come across a work that is so lucid, questions the world and has so many identities rolled into itself, that you just have to sit up, take notice and devour it cover to cover. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” by Alexander Chee is one such collection of finest essays of our times and that is mainly because it is as honest as it can get. There is something about books that come from the heart – they manage to get through to you breaking all pretense and that’s what this collection of essays does to you. It gets through.

Alexander Chee’s writing was only known to me through his earlier literary fiction works, “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night” which I loved immensely. This is his foray into non-fiction and I just hope that he continues writing many such essays. What I found a notch above the essay collections I have read in the past couple of months in this one was just the candid and heartwarming way in which they are written.

Chee doesn’t shy from talking about his life, his struggles and his perception of the world at large. When you write non-fiction, you become more susceptible to judgment than when you write fiction. Everyone may not have an opinion about the storyline or characters but one sure does have an opinion (maybe more) on the world and its issues.

Chee’s essays range from growing-up in America and how different identities take over his life – a son, a Korean American, a gay man, a student, a teacher and a novelist amongst others. I loved the way he connected his life to his country and its issues and everything just seemed one. For instance, the section on AIDS and then again on 9/11 were most hard-hitting to me. When he speaks of literature (there are so many references throughout the book), you just want to sit up and listen. I for one, remember re-reading so many passages about writing and what it takes to be a writer.

Alexander Chee’s essays are wry, real, political (everything is political in today’s time and age), and above all makes us ask questions of art and life and what happens to it all, when they come under attack. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” is hands down one of the best essay collections of 2018 and I am not speaking too soon.

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

Feel Free - Essays by Zadie Smith Title: Feel Free: Essays
Author: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0241146897
Genre: Essays, Non-Fiction
Pages: 464
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

My association with the works of Zadie Smith started somewhere in 2003, with White Teeth. It was one of those books that are actually unputdownable (I have always been of the opinion that terms such as these are nothing but marketing gimmicks). Since then, Smith has been one of my favourite writers and with good reason. Her prose is like biting into a plum – tart and sweet and almost awakens you from your stupor. It makes you stand up and take notice of how the world works and perhaps what it always was. Smith doesn’t mince her words. Her characters are everyday people who speak their mind and this is also reflective in her new collection of essays, aptly or ironically (given the world we live in) titled, “Feel Free”.

“Feel Free” to me is one of the books of our times. The kind of book that doesn’t preach but makes so many relevant points that you want to see the world and put it so eloquently as Smith does. It is the collection of essays which are spread over five sections – In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf and Feel Free. These sections pose questions that we recognize and perhaps want answers to: What is the Social Network? What is joy and what is the tolerance of it, if there is something like it? How many kinds of boredom make up life? Who owns the narrative of black America? There are many such questions over a diverse range of topics and that’s what makes Zadie’s essays stand out.

Feel Free speaks of pop culture, culture, social change, political debate, the ever-changing fabric of society and what it really means to be human in the 21st century. Some of these essays have appeared before and some are new. At the same time, all of them are relevant and essential to most areas of our lives.

Smith’s essays are sometimes written with the perspective of an insider, but mostly she is an outsider looking in. It isn’t difficult to understand Smith and to me that was the most brilliant aspect of this collection. For instance, when she writes about a book, you want to get up and go read it. When she speaks of Joni Mitchell, you just want to listen to “River” and “Circle Game” on loop. To me, that is the power of great writing.

Essays are often tough to read and since they are so personal in nature, it becomes even more difficult to gauge the place they are coming from. This does not happen when you are reading “Feel Free”. Zadie’s essays are personal and yet appeal to all. The universal quality of her words is too strong to not be understood and related to. “Feel Free” is the collection of essays that needs to be savoured and pondered on. The one that you will not forget easily.

Oliver Sacks: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

Oliver Sacks - The Last Interview and Other Conversations Title: Oliver Sacks: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Author: Oliver Sacks
Interviewers: Charlie Rose, Studs Terkel, Lisa Burrell, Tom Ashbrook and Robert Krulwich
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
ISBN: 978-1612196510
Genre: Non-Fiction, Interviews
Pages: 208
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4 Stars

I’ve always admired Oliver Sacks. His works make you want more and illuminate you on so many levels about science, humanity, relationships and empathy. Oliver Sacks was not just another neuroscientist. I think he knew how to give cases a voice – to add the human touch to them, to not make them seem so scientific but connect with them on an emotional level because that is what science is at the core. His creativity, compassion and insight made him a worldwide renowned persona and this volume of interviews only make that belief stronger at every possible level.

“The Last Interview and Other Conversations” is a series of interviews (including the last one) with eminent personalities and the volume read by me was of course the one on Oliver Sacks. This volume includes transcripts of six interviews given by Sacks from 1987 until 2015. He died in August 2015 at 82.

These interviews were conducted around the time of his books’ releases – four books and the last two (my favorite ones in the volume) are on aging and finding love. This book just makes you look at Sacks’ various personality attributes – shyness, inquisitiveness, and how he could empathize with people who had neurological disorders and not just treat them as only cases.

This book is a great place to start if you haven’t read any of Oliver Sacks’ works only because these interviews give you the essence to the man and the writer, which would compel you to read at least one of his books if not all. Which would further lead the reader to some incredible case studies (The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat) or the one about the face colorblind person (it is a real thing by the way) to the surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome who also flew a plane.

Sacks speaks of them so fondly in these interviews, also about his friendship with Robin Williams to my most favourite interview (the last one) where he speaks of death and finding love at seventy-seven. These six interviews are like the appetizers that will for sure want you to take a bite of the main course. Read these interviews. Also, read all his works.

 

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

Draft No. 4 Title: Draft No. 4: On The Writing Process
Author: John McPhee
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374142742
Genre: Non-Fiction, Writing Skills, Essays
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I have read books on reading. I have read books on writing as well. But off-late no book on writing has made me laugh and “Draft No. 4” managed to do that. It made me chuckle and kept my spirits high and also in its own way told me that it is okay to not get that sentence correct, that it is alright to not stress over punctuation sometimes and also that there will be times that you will not be able to write. It broke a lot of writing fallacies that are out there and made me see writing in a whole new way.

Also, if you have to learn about a subject, then why not turn to one of the very best? John McPhee is a professor of journalism at Princeton, writes for The New Yorker and has published over thirty books. Let me also tell you that “Draft No. 4” could have easily fallen in the trap of being preachy and pedantic, which it doesn’t. McPhee makes you see how writing is – truly is for those who are writers and also for those who want to become writers.

What I loved about the book is that I could identify with most of it. For instance, McPhee states that while you might write for only two to four hours a day, your mind is working twenty-four hours on the book. He also mentions of “the elegance in the less ambiguous ways” – for instance, the turn of the phrase or where to place the bracket words (he does get to technique as well).

This is a collection of essays that doesn’t take away from the joy of writing. It lends to it beautifully. He of course says and advises the way he has to, but also gives you room to come up with your comfort rules of writing. The ones that actually work for you. So why must you read this book then? Because it will open your mind to going back to the basics of writing (which is what every writer says but most don’t really know what they are talking about) and implement them in your way to your advantage. McPhee makes it seem simple (not without mentioning its cons and the power of writing to drive you crazy sometimes) and at the same time ironically tells you that your fourth draft perhaps will be the best one, ready to publish.