Category Archives: Nonfiction

Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir by Jayson Greene

Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene Title: Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir
Author: Jayson Greene
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524733537
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I am not a parent. I will never know what it is like to lose a child. To grieve for the loss of someone you have created, looked over, been paranoid over, and prayed to God that they live healthy and happy, and yet you have no control over what happens to them. The sheer helplessness and then the realisation after. Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene is the book that makes you see the world through the eyes of a parent – what does it mean to lose a child, how should one grieve, how much should grief take from you, and what it truly means to be able to move on (if there is ever such a thing).

It isn’t easy to read a book about the loss of a child. Of a two-year-old, who just wasn’t there in the world. Of Greta whose life her father Jayson speaks of lovingly. Of the way you as a reader become a part of it and can’t help but recollect the times you have felt that stabbing pain that doesn’t seem to go away, and it does one fine day, and it comes back once in a while, making you sense loss more than ever.

Once More We Saw Stars is also a hopeful book in so many ways. It teaches you how to grieve perhaps, and understand that at the core we are all the same people. We feel the same things. Jayson Greene takes us through this journey of loss, grief, and the coping process.

The book’s title is taken from Dante’s Inferno, also telling us that Greta’s parents will take their grief, make what they have to with it, and ultimately soar above. They will once again see the stars. The story is about love – of deep love and moments of transformation that Jayson presents with such clarity and in great abundance that you cry, weep, and sometimes smile with him, knowing that love will make it alright.

The book is full of memories. Of moments we live and some we do not and some we don’t get a chance to. Jayson’s clarity of thought – how he strings memory and presents them to us is stunning.  There is anger. There is frustration. There is also the knowing that life must carry on and in that process we know that love will remain. It will guide us and help us move ahead, to soldier on, to make us see the stars once more.

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The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel

The Kindness of Strangers by Salka ViertelTitle: The Kindness of Strangers
Author: Salka Viertel
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681372747
Genre: Autobiography, Memoir
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

If you feel like reading the quintessential twentieth-century autobiography, then this is it. You just have to read The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel. It is everything I expect from an autobiography and it delivers down to the last page. Viertel’s life was not only interesting but also lived variedly and maybe that’s the reason the book shines the way it does. It is almost a pilgrimage of one woman through the twentieth century’s darkest times and also a chronicle of the good times. I could easily classify The Kindness of Strangers as an epic read, mainly because of its sheer expanse.

The Kindness of Strangers is the journey of a woman. It is the journey of a century – all rolled into one – from a province in the Austro-Hungarian empire to Hollywood. Viertel’s book is unique in the sense that it doesn’t try and pack everything in one chapter or paragraph. It takes its time talking about people, events, and their impact. Normally, I have observed myself getting bored of such autobiographies that start right from childhood and unfold against a backdrop of larger events. That wasn’t the case with The Kindness of Strangers. I enjoyed the read and that of course had a lot to do with the writing.

Of course this isn’t an easy read, in the sense of the turn of events – from the First World War to the Second and incidents that are recalled from memory, Salka Viertel’s writing is too detailed. Sometimes that works wonders for the reader and sometimes it is too much trivia. However, it made me think about how should an autobiography be written at all then? Is there a template? Should there be one? I don’t think so though. The Kindness of Strangers as any good autobiography merges the personal and political perfectly. For instance, her concern over her children’s safety during WWII or her time as an actress in Europe to her time in Hollywood and how that merged with political opinions of many is a delight to read.

There is a lot going on in the book and I was only too glad to see timelines so as not to miss the drift of what is being said. I had no clue of who Viertel was till I started reading her memoir. The relationship with her parents, the rebellion, the relationship she shared with her sister Rose, and most importantly leading the life she wanted to. The sense of loss of innocence is spread throughout the book. Nostalgia plays such an important role – not only in its conjuring but also it feels like it is not a thing of the past at all.

My favourite part of the memoir is Salka’s later life, spent in America, where she worked in Hollywood, made friends with Greta Garbo, became an American citizen as well, and helped many artists find homes – the ones who escaped Hitler’s clutches so to say. There are these lost worlds constantly at play of which the reader is privy to. The writing while gives a sense of staying on some details a little longer, still feels hurried. I wish for some parts there was more.

The Kindness of Strangers is full of life and joy. It is also full of instances that demand attention and empathy. It is the kind of book that talks about relationships – the constancy of them and the passing on of most. Ultimately, it is the book that makes us see our follies as humans and also the kindness we are ultimately capable of which sometimes we do not know of ourselves.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison

The Source of Self-Regard Title: The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations
Author: Toni Morrison
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525521037
Genre: Literary Speeches, Anthologies
Pages: 386
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Toni Morrison’s collection of essays don’t follow a timeline, neither it is linear, nor it is set in an order to make it easy for the reader. At first glance, it might even seem just a random collection of essays, speeches and meditations put together, however, it isn’t that. The book, “The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations” is actually a book that speaks directly to the contemporary reader, and hence the order of essays. It goes headlong into speaking about issues at hand and whoelse better to address and them and show us the mirror than the queen herself, Ms. Morrison.

The book is divided into two parts, with an interlude. The first part is titled, “The Foreigner’s Home”, the second, “God’s Language” and in-between is the interlude aptly titled, “Black Matter(s)”. This is the structure of the book – it is Ms. Morrison’s essays, speeches, and meditations on living, race, gender, language, and the current role of politics in America and in effect its relation to the world. It is also about the duty of the press and media and what is the role of the artist in all of this. As a reader, please be prepared to face harsh realities, question the world around you and ponder over issues you never thought of earlier.

Morrison doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. The candour is not just for the sake of it. This collection is deeply personal as well. From why she became a writer (Faulkner and Women) to her thoughts on Beloved. At the same time, this collection as every reader will know is about race and what it means to be black in America, not only today but for decades and centuries and how have that played out for the black person.

Toni Morrison writes with such elegance and dignity that you get caught up in her words, and then focus on the ideas, going back to the power of her prose. The interlude piece on Martin Luther King Jr. is not only searching but also mirrors the contemporary times. In the essay, Voyagers to the West, she speaks of the Scottish pioneer William Dunbar, and how he managed to build a fortune trading slave, and how ironically his achievements are extoled till date. This is the kind of voice Morrison is all about – she knows exactly when to make the impact felt through her words and how deep.

Morrison also speaks of writers and how they impact the mindset of readers. She speaks of how jazz brought American blacks a different kind of legitimacy. She also talks about why American and English writers could not speak for people of colour, hence the onus was only on black writers to do that. Literature then took a different form altogether, and its voice wasn’t restricted in a way is what I could make out of it. In her most poignant tribute to James Baldwin, the eulogy she delivered at Baldwin’s funeral on December 8, 1987, she honours his literature, his voice, and how he used language so tenderly. Morrison’s heart is almost laid bare in this – this tribute of sorts to a dear friend. It is almost as if you start becoming her friend, piece by piece.

“Jimmy, there is too much to think about you, and much too much to feel,” she begins. “The difficulty is your life refuses summation—it always did—and invites contemplation instead. Like many of us left here, I thought I knew you. Now I discover that, in your company, it is myself I know. That is the astonishing gift of your art and your friendship: You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.”

Toni Morrison’s writing is not only simple, but elegant to the bone. It is as though you are speaking with a friend, an elder, a teacher of sorts who is telling you about life and its ways. Throughout the book, Morrison speaks of the personal and the political and how they are intertwined. The first section, The Foreigner’s Home deals not only with race, but also with the question: What is Home? Where do you find it? What does it mean? At the same time, the section has essays wide ranging from “Literature and Public Life” and also her Nobel lecture.

The third section of the book is my most favourite – the one where she speaks of language, authors, and the power of words. The essay on Beloved – how she came to write it and what it means to her, almost made me cry. Toni Morrison’s commentary on her own work – The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby, Jazz, Beloved, and Paradise are honest, and she understands the time and space she wrote them in and how they might be read differently today.

Morrison’s works – fiction and nonfiction are always relatable. One doesn’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the heart of the matter is the writing – from conception of plot to the way her sentences are constructed, every step is well-thought of and crafted.

I am convinced that there is nothing Ms. Morrison cannot write about. It is almost as if she has to just enter the space and something extraordinary emerges out of her pen. Her voice we all know is unique and original, but that’s not what makes an impact. I think it is the emotional intensity attached to it that makes all the difference, every single time.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations as a collection of essays couldn’t have been compiled and published at a better time. We inhabit a world where people are extremely conflicted about issues of race, language, colour, and above all what entails to be human. I also would strongly recommend this book to every person who wants to understand home, race, the black person’s struggle, the place of literature in the world, and how it impacts us all. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations is illuminating, thought-provoking, and above all every piece has just been written from the heart.

 

The Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms by Naoko Abe

The Sakura Obsession Title: The Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms
Author: Naoko Abe
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9781524733575
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography,
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

One should always get out of their comfort zone and try things they say. Different things. For me reading something which I wouldn’t otherwise is radical enough. I mean, this book intrigued me, and I just had to read it to know more. I am so glad I did. To experience a different culture (which of course I have through other reads), but also knowing about the Cherry Blossom and how it came to be saved was a brilliant experience.

The story starts in 1907, when Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram fell in love with the sakura or the cherry tree, as he was visiting Japan on his honeymoon. He was taken in with the tree to such an extent that he couldn’t help but bring back hundreds of cuttings back to England, where he literally grew them, creating a garden of cherry varieties. In fact, in 1926 when he learned that the cherry tree was extinct in Japan, he sent a cutting of his own through the Trans-Siberian express. Not only that, Ingram also ensured that cuttings were sent to other parts of the world, where it was conducive to grow the specimen.

This in short is what the book is about. However, there is so much more to it. Abe writes elegantly, and not only that – the research is spot on – with photographs, details, linking of other events, and personal perspectives. At times, I also felt that I was actually reading a historical novel, it is so well-written.

The Sakura Obsession is what it is because Abe understands Ingram’s motivations, his complex nature – the oddity and the gentleness and that’s what makes this book so unique and refreshing. The Sakura Obsession tells a story that most people aren’t aware of – of how it took one man to save blossoms people enjoy over the world and are in awe of. I am only too glad that I got out of my comfort zone and read this one.

Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston

Deep Creek by Pam Houston Title: Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
Author: Pam Houston
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393241020
Genre: Non-fiction, Memoirs
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Pam Houston’s Deep Creek has to be read, actually savoured with enough time on your hand. It cannot and shouldn’t be rushed with. This book is about home and place and what is their meaning to someone who has spent half her life travelling around the world. More than that though, it is about the places we inhabit, the landscapes we belong to, the daily rituals of living and caring for people around you. Deep Creek is all about celebrating nature, and above that survival not only in the wilderness, but also around you.

The book is about Pam’s 120-acre homestead high in the Colorado Rockies. It is about more than that though. It is about what it means to take care of land, nurture it, care for creatures on it, and finally make it such a part of you that nowhere else really is home. Pam Houston’s book isn’t something others perhaps haven’t written on or dabbled with. What makes this book special then? In all honesty, and to put it as simply, and as clichéd as it might sound: The writing.

What struck me the most delightful about the book is the connections Pam makes between her ranch and the travels she undertakes. At the same time, the beauty of it all in the ranch being the only place she sees as home and almost a sanctuary – the place that provides her much comfort and solace, after going through a childhood of parental neglect and abuse. So that’s another aspect to the book, but Houston for once doesn’t stray away from the core of the book as it were.

Pam’s writing to me is as lucid as the air she breathes. It is as stunning and clear as her experiences with nature – land, animals, seasons, the fire experienced, and in all of this the person she becomes or evolves to be. The thing is that while reading the book, I wanted to be a part of the landscape that Pam inhabited, with every single turn of the page. At times, I thought there was more to every chapter, but more than happy with what is written as well.

Deep Creek is the kind of book that makes you soak in all of it – it is a memoir,    it is written from the heart (to me any book that does that is more than enough worthy to be read and it shows), and more than anything else it is absolutely fascinating to see what it feels like to lose contact with land and then to regain it (this will become clearer as you read the book).

The stories in Deep Creek are real (but of course) and motivated mainly by gratitude – for spaces that are available to us, and nature that surrounds us. There is this sense of comfort, longing, and delight while reading it. I read it over a period of time – a couple of chapters here and there and loved it even more. Deep Creek to me, must be read by all, cherished, and passed over to spread the hope and perseverance.