Category Archives: Nonfiction

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

71iKMkHjSHL Title: The Argonauts
Author: Maggie Nelson
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555977351
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoirs
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Well, I am sure that you wouldn’t have read anything like “The Argonauts” ever before. It is a memoir for sure but not the kind that you’d expect. It doesn’t start-off like that nor does it feel like you are reading a memoir, but a memoir it is. It is the story of Maggie Nelson and her relationship with the artist Harry Dodge. It is also the story of her life and what was, could have been and what eventually came to be. At the same time, Nelson also speaks of so many things that your mind will be pulled in a hundred different directions and you will only enjoy the ride as you read further.

The book didn’t seem strange to me at all (though a lot of people who I know of read it and thought that way). In fact, if anything it seemed very normal to me as she traversed the landscape of sexuality (Harry is neither man nor woman), how it felt (feels) to love Harry, how they got married facing a lot of criticism and yet at the core of this book all I read about was love. Maggie also becomes pregnant with a sperm donor at the same time as Harry takes testosterone and has breast removal surgery. I don’t even know if I can call this queer or anything else. Why must anyone label it?

“The Argonauts” moves beyond all of this. It is about love – maternal, paternal and more. It is about building a home and making a family just like yours and mine. The personal experiences of Nelson merge with the exploratory, bordering intellectual as well. The writing at any point does not feel sentimental. It is matter of fact and not meant to scandalize anyone. I loved the small parts of the book – single sentences that made so much sense when viewed within the larger picture. Also the notes in the margin will make the reading experience even better. “The Argonauts” to me is just an honest account of love, faith, and joys of family-making, which every reader will relate to and enjoy.

On Art, Literature and History: Essays by Naguib Mahfouz; Translated by Aran Byrne

51s8qRJdoUL Title: On Art, Literature and History: Essays
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translated from the Arabic by Aran Byrne
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9386050007
Genre: Essays
Pages: 172
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It will take you some time to get into this book of essays by Naguib Mahfouz, one of the finest contemporary Arabic writers, however, once you do wade your way through and read a couple of essays, you are in for a rollercoaster ride. Mahfouz’s range is wide as the title suggests is diverse – right from art to history to literature, you can read his opinions (yeah it is that after all) and more than just opinions, you can feel what he tries to tell you because he does such a good job of using words to communicate, which to me most humans cannot.

Anyhow, back to the book. “On Art, Literature and History” is a collection of essays, most of which were penned in the 1930s, that bring to life not just Mahfouz’s views but also deal with the Arab world then and development of Islam. To me, it was a very interesting read, given how he blends philosophy and art with politics, without making it too boring or uninteresting for the reader. I think I was a fan anyway since the time I read his very popular Cairo trilogy and this one just pushed me over to becoming a major fan, I suppose.

This is the first volume that Speaking Tiger has come out with so I am expecting there to be more such volumes of his non-fiction writing spanning decades. A lot of people aren’t aware of his non-fiction pieces but I really hope that they go on and pick this collection and are more aware of what he could dabble in.

The writing is complex but only when it comes to language to some extent. The reading then becomes easy once you connect with the authors’ ideas and way of thinking. After all, essays aren’t easy to write. A balance between having to say so much and brevity must be maintained at all times. I most particularly enjoyed the literature section the most – as he spoke of Chekov to other Arabic authors as well. His sense of observation is superlative and that of course will be seen as you go along from essay to essay. At some points, I did feel the pace to be languid but that is I think true of most essay collections. Maybe some can read it in one gulp and some take their own time with it. Whichever way you’d like to read it, this one is one hell of a firecracker of a read.

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Title: South and West: From a Notebook
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524732790
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Joan Didion’s works are not easy to read. But once you read her books, there is no stopping. I remember reading “The Year of Magical Thinking” when it was first published in 2005 and wrenched completely to the gut by its honesty. Since then, I haven’t missed reading a single book by her. My copy of her latest, “South and West: From a Notebook” came all the way from Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, a gift from my sister. Anyhow, now back to the book.

Her essays are introspective unlike her fictional works. Don’t get me wrong here, I adore her writing, just that I feel her non-fiction is stronger than fiction. This thin volume contains two pieces: the first, a collection of assembled jottings in her notebook from a road-trip through the South in 1970; the second piece is about the Patty Hearst trial.

The first piece forms the bulk of the book – with details on everything South as they traverse that landscape – from its swimming pools in motels, to meeting regular people, knowing their views on class and racism (nothing has changed since then or so it seems) to the sedentary life lead there. At the same time, her keen eye for detail and candidness, makes you wish there was more to this book and more so to this piece.

Didion makes the South alive for you – every nuance, twitch of the faces of the people she observes and interacts with to the weather (more so important for the South) is pat down to the last nitpicking detail and as a reader you are only too happy for it. At the same time, you also feel that it could very well have been a travelogue (or is it?) with rich descriptions of the landscape and the minor details that are paid attention to.

What struck me about the book the most is that though written in the 70s, it still is so relevant today given the views of the people in the South – where discrimination – racial and classist are taken as the norm and no one seems to object – it was almost as though this were a warning for the times to come with the current President of the United States of America.

The second piece in the book is too brief – it finishes even before you have started reading it which is quite a pity. It is just a collection of notes and sketches (which of course what the entire book is) and nothing else adds to it. In fact, I had to go to Google to know more about the Patty Hearst trial.

All said and done, “South and West: From a Notebook” is a book which perhaps isn’t meant for all – or I don’t even know if it will be enjoyed by all. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner to Joan’s works but for someone who is familiar with her writing, you will love it, just as I did, so please pick it up.

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Just Kids by Patti Smith

Title: Just Kids
Author: Patti Smith
Publisher: Ecco Books, HarperCollins Books
ISBN: 978-0060936228
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Memoirs, Rock
Pages: 320
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

Just Kids is one of those books that you’d want to read over and over again. This was my first reread and I know I will go back to it. I read it about nine years ago for the first time and as I read it again this year, I found my perspectives and opinions change a lot as the book moved me in different places, which perhaps it didn’t the first time I picked it up. That’s the beauty of some very good books – they make you see, feel and think differently with each read and that to me is a single most parameter for a reread.

Back to Just Kids: This book is the first part memoir written by singer and songwriter Patti Smith. Before she took over punk and rock and roll, she was just another girl who had come to New York to search herself and understand what she wanted to do. She had her poetry and the intrinsic lack of trust in society. In New York she met future photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and “Just Kids” is a document of their life together – as artists, lovers, friends and a trip down memory lane.

The book is razor sharp and has no holds barred. Smith says what she has to and without apology. Robert and Smith’s relationship was mercurial and yet there is something so fulfilling as you turn the pages and don’t want the chapters to end. You want to know more about their lives and for that I recommend you read M Train (where Robert doesn’t feature at all or does but hardly so). Patti Smith just like her songs has this ease of writing to her prose as well – it becomes poetry in so many places and has the capacity to take your breath away. Read it. Be mesmerized.

Landour Days: A Writer’s Journal by Ruskin Bond

landour-days-a-writers-journal-by-ruskin-bond Title: Landour Days: A Writer’s Journal
Author: Ruskin Bond
Publisher: Penguin India
ISBN: 978-0141005942
Genre: Non-Fiction, Journal
Pages: 160
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

Hands down, “Landour Days: A Writer’s Journal” by Ruskin Bond is my favourite book of all that he has written. The book was first published in 2002 and I read it last week, 15 years later. It was republished by Penguin India in 2005 and now again in 2016 on their 30th anniversary. I picked this up at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year and something just made me read it right-away and loved it to the bone.

The book is based on notes and journal entries of Ruskin Bond from his private collection – describing people, nature and what he observes around Landour, Mussoorie. It is divided into four seasons of a year, and every season has its own unique entries – with humour, wit and profoundness. Mr. Bond knows how to write a book. It is simply told and there are no frills. I think I like reading him because of that – it is the primary reason and the plot or content follows close. All in all “Landour Days” is the kind of book that needs to be read slowly and savoured over time. It shouldn’t be about the length of the book as much the content. Do read it.