Category Archives: Penguin Random House

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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My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout Title: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-1400067695
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are times when you stumble on books, do not read them, or read a couple of pages and drop them. You pick them up again and do not get past a couple of pages. You pick it up again (the specific, dreaded book in question) and yet you just cannot seem to make it beyond the thirtieth page or so. Till one fine day, you pick it up and voila! You just cannot seem to stop reading it. In fact, you don’t want the book to end. You want it to continue, to unravel its secrets, the words that consume you and in turn make you think things about your life.

Art is almost a replica of life. They say it imitates life. I say, it just is. “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout may not resonate page by page or in the overall sense of plot, but there are places where it will take your breath away (it at least did that to me). It is a very regular story or so it seems.

Lucy Barton is unwell. She is undergoing a minor surgery and is in the hospital. It is the early 90s (not specified but you can more or less figure). Her mother visits her and stays with her for five days. The book opens with them speaking of the old days – of Lucy’s childhood, her siblings and how they lived.

That is when the secrets tumble and questions come to the fore – them being born to poverty, the time her parents locked her in a truck with a snake (why), the time her father humiliated her brother, calling him a “fucking faggot” in front of everyone after he was caught trying Mom’s high heels. We can see the family is beyond dysfunctional and redemption of any kind. Lucy is wounded, and yet she is happily married (or so we think), with two children and is on the way to becoming a writer.

Strout speaks of marriage, family, children, love, homosexuality and so much more through Lucy. And yet she makes Lucy such an unreliable narrator that you are confused but want to know so much more and after a point you do not care, if Lucy is telling the truth or not. You believe her anyway. The book is pretty much rooted in Lucy’s childhood and her reactions to things as she is an adult comes from a deep, dark, lonely place.

On the surface, “My Name is Lucy Barton” may not seem much of a book, but as you dive into its pages, you can see it for what it is and if you are looking for more answers, then there’s the sequel “Anything is Possible” (which I need to get to as soon as possible). Strout proves that brevity could most of the time be the best tool used in fiction. This book is less than two hundred pages and yet it is not a fast read. You will mull and ponder over what you read. Perhaps even go back to some sentences.

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

“It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

“But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”

“But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.”

“Because we all love imperfectly.”

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Chemistry Title: Chemistry
Author: Weike Wang
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524731748
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

September 2017 is going to be a good month of books read. The next that I read this month was “Chemistry” by Weike Wang. Chemistry is the kind of read that takes time for you to suck yourself into. I don’t mean that it is a slow read, but it is the kind of book which will have you ruminate over what is going on and go back to the pages you just read, so to make sense of what is going on as well. Wang’s craft is that of talking about various things at one time and might I add that she is brilliant at that.

For a debut novel, “Chemistry” took me by surprise. It would have also taken me by surprise had it not been a debut novel, don’t get me wrong but just the sheer force with which it is written (and it isn’t even a long read) makes you want to sit up and take notice. I was also asked by someone on Facebook if chemistry is an integral part of the book – as in does it change the life of the characters or not, to which I would say: No. While it does form a background to the book, I didn’t think it was life-altering in any way.

So what is the book about? The story follows a Chinese-American scientist (she is unnamed which is more or less like the challenges she faces in life) as she is three years into her graduate studies at quite a demanding Boston university. Amidst this there is the pressure from her parents to excel. Her love for chemistry is slowly dying. Her boyfriend wants to marry her and she has no response yet for him. She is lost just like anyone else and to find herself she has to give up everything and leave behind what she loves. This is the crux of the plot, as she gives up two years to discover herself and realizes that formulas or equations may not always have all answers as she thought they would.

The plot may not sound interesting initially but once you start reading Wang’s writing – you are just transported to her world. It is almost semi-autobiographical in nature and you can sense the confusion of her narrator and some sense of knowing in the second part (I loved the second part of the book a lot more). The writing is crisp, wry and overwhelming in a lot of places. The narrator and her relationships shine throughout but the relationship with herself is what I loved the most (as cliché as that might sound). “Chemistry” is a book of a scattered mind and a scattered soul that learns to piece itself day by day.

A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma

Title: A Life of Adventure and Delight
Author: Akhil Sharma
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House India
ISBN: 978-0670089024
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Akhil Sharma is the kind of writer who gets under your skin, whether you like it or not. I was apprehensive of reading “An Obedient Father” a long time ago (and still haven’t by the way), but I did read “Family Life” in 2015 I think and it completely swept me by my knickers. The book was emotional and yet not sentimental, it was wry and not funny, it showed me facets to the human condition and made me see some people differently, which very few books manage to do. His third book and this time a collection of short stories titled, “A Life of Adventure and Delight” does just the some – maybe in a lot more measure but sure does hit the spot.

His writing is raw and quite grounded and maybe that is what attracts me to it. This is a collection of eight stories about Indians living abroad and at home. The stories range across various themes – love, the suddenness of it all, loneliness, grief – the stories are just a way of glancing in another’s life – to perhaps relate to it (most of us do and sometimes we don’t admit to it as well) and thus know the fragile ways in which we live.

The stories are diverse and yet there is a commonality to them all – the universe of human emotions is all but the same in these stories. Each one can stand alone and yet the binding factor of human loneliness, cruelty, baggage and how we just wait for another day of happiness is overwhelming, only sometimes to the point of being repulsive. Why repulsive? Because you so want these characters to stand up and take control and yet even though they want to do that, life doesn’t quite turn out that way.

Don’t be fooled by the title of the short-story collection. The lives of characters are neither adventurous nor delightful. So the play of title works only till the time you start the first story. His stories are about fragile relationships and all that goes with this territory. For instance, “If You Sing Like That for Me” is about grief – and how a song finds itself in it so beautifully that I could not stop thinking about. And the story is about love – the love a woman feels for her husband. Trust Mr. Sharma to turn this one on its head.

On the other hand there is the title story about relationships, to what extent we trust and what goes on when humans are just humans who are flawed. The writing doesn’t seem wasted at all. Every word is in place and every sentence and description deserves that attention. It is extremely well-crafted and exquisitely interwoven (not literally but from a broader theme perspective).

All said and done “A Life of Adventure and Delight” is a short-story collection where almost every character yearns to be happy and will go against every social grain or norm to find it, only to see and realize that life works very differently.

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

Title: A State of Freedom
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670090150
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 275
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Neel Mukherjee’s “A State of Freedom” begins with a father who has come to India with his six-year old son from the States (where he now works). He wants his son to see the Taj Mahal and the nearby monuments at Fatehpur Sikri. The son is intimidated by the landscape – he doesn’t belong to this country and the father feels that even he is a “tourist in his own country”. This sense of alienation and weirdness furthers on into the first chapter, only to leave the reader gasping for more and turning the pages.

The start is powerful, albeit not very clear, but powerful nonetheless. It will leave the reader with two choices (as most starts do) – to either abandon the book or to carry on with it. I recommend that you edge on and you will be in for a surprise. Mukherjee’s characters are closely interlinked with the plot – though the plot is finely segregated into five segments (that is only too deceptive by the way), you see how characters appear time and again from one plot to another – it is as though they have decided to colour outside the lines and they very well will do so.

A construction worker falls to his death in the first section of the immigrant young father and his son and how his story is tackled later. At the same time, let’s not forget the core of the story (to me at least) of a passing poverty-struck man with his dancing bear (the cover is thus inspired) – each trying to find a way out – one of poverty and one of captivity – a “state of freedom” is being tried to achieve. The themes of alienation, identity and longing are further explored in the section of a young man who lives in London and visits Bombay time and again to meet his parents. In the course of the visits, he is taken in by the life of their cook Renu and another servant, Milly – so much so that he is encouraged by Renu to visit her village and stay with her brothers and their families – only to reach an understanding that he never can and never will be able to imagine the lives of others and how they live – his capacity for that is too diminished.

For me, while reading this book, there was the sound of loneliness that rang in almost every page – thus leading to the sound of grief, of belonging and to find salvation in one’s circumstances. I did read The Lives of Others last year, but this book has had an altogether different impact. I think what worked for me while reading this book is the association of daily life that Mukherjee doesn’t throw in your face but doesn’t hesitate to make you see what you normally would’ve shirked away from – the class, the racism, the feeling of not crossing lines because it gets uncomfortable after a point is so stark and raw that it will leave you with a lump in your throat.

For instance, the angle of Lakshman and the bear. There is so much going on in this part of the book that you would have to stop, take a breath and then continue – from the way Lakshman trains the bear (or so he thinks he has) to the drudgery of day to day living – to finding food for himself and the beast, Mukherjee’s prose shines on every single page. The peripheral layers to every section may seem ordinary, till they surface in another section and realism merges with the philosophical.

As a reader what also took me away was the different forms or narratives in which each section is written – the first section is in third person, the second in the first person, and how with each section the story only becomes even more complex and yet so simple. The fourth section is that of Milly and her friend Soni and how these two girls born and brought up in poverty, set out to want better lives and what the outcome of that is. The meaning of dislocation is the strongest in this portion of the book, thereby tying all loose ends.

The last section of the book is the one that is an unpunctuated chapter – told in first-person. It definitely gives the book the much required closure but it is also the chapter that I cannot talk about. “A State of Freedom” is one of those rare books that take you in slowly, capture you by the throat, overwhelm you time and again, make you see broken, fractured lives and at some point also make the attempt to make you whole again from that experience. It is one of those books that you would have to read, no matter what. I cannot stop talking about it.