Category Archives: Penguin UK

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.

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Last Stories by William Trevor

Last Stories Title: Last Stories
Author: William Trevor
Publisher: Viking, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241337769
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Of all that I have read of William Trevor’s work, one thing is certain: There is a sense of magic to his prose. His sentences take you by the hand, lead you on (you give in quite readily as well) and for sure you will never be disappointed. As a reader, you will be at a loss, because you loved every story and that hasn’t happened in a while with a short-story collection. You then realize that you after all read Trevor and make a promise to reread the collection and you do. Nothing sweeter than to honour this kind of a promise.

I am obviously referring to Trevor’s last collection of stories, posthumously published and aptly titled “Last Stories” (though I think to some extent that was very lazy). “Last Stories” is a collection of stories that is mysterious, enigmatic, sparse and yet spot on – the pace of the prose is languid and easy and somehow has the potential to draw you right into it.

Now to the stories. Trevor wrote of common men and women – those who are lost and are struggling to come to terms with life. I think after Alice Munro, Trevor is hands down my second favourite short-story writer. Every story that I have read by him has left a mark on my mind, heart and life.

All through the book what tugged at my heart is loneliness and longing that is consistent in almost every story. “Mrs Crasthorpe” is about a middle-aged widow who is only seeking companionship, only to be rebuffed later on in the story by a widower. It definitely broke my heart and that too with luscious prose at its center. And then there is “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil” which is perhaps the most cheerful story of the collection. Miss Nightingale is the protagonist of this story who has known a bit about disappointment in her life, who in her fifties is almost reminiscing about her sixteen-year-old affair with a married man. Like I said, loneliness and longing are at the heart of every story in this collection and Trevor doesn’t let you forget that.

In “At the Caffe Daria” a wife whose husband left her for her best friend, renews her relationship with friend, after the husband’s death. And then there is “The Unknown Girl” featuring Emily, a housecleaner who commits suicide after speaking of love to the son of the house. William Trevor knows the harshness of the real world and yet somehow his characters never let go of some hope, in whatever way and manner, even in death so to say.

His stories spell disaster, confusion and loss of innocence (if there was any) for his characters. They grow-up but perhaps a little later. Or they also grow-up a little sooner than expected. Life is unfair and unkind to them and yet they are survivors all along. “Last Stories” will remind you of his genius and make you wonder why he had to leave us so soon. A beauty of a book.

 

The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne

The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne Title: The Adulterants
Author: Joe Dunthorne
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241305478
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Ray as we are told is not a bad guy. He has just cheated on his pregnant wife a couple of times. He isn’t popular among his friends. On most days, he doesn’t like them either. His job is that of a freelance tech journalist and he doesn’t do much when it comes to that as well. Everything in his life is at a languid pace – nothing happens and nothing is expected to till a string of events take place, only to make him see that he has a knack to just make things spiral downward and perhaps affect lives (including his own) in ways he did not imagine.

“The Adulterants” is hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud in so many places and this is despite the irony. The book is also dark in so many places. Dunthorne has this uncanny ability to make you stop in your tracks amidst all the humour and fun and let things take a turn that you never expected. And yes, there will be a lot of times when Ray will not be liked (as that is the point really), but what Dunthorne does is shows us human nature and nothing else and for that no one should be begrudged.

Sometimes tongue-in-cheek and most times just profound (in a way one can’t imagine really), “The Adulterants” is a book about coming-of-age (no fixed age you see) of an everyday man, trying to cope with life in his thirties. It isn’t as if Dunthorne isn’t aware of the fallacies of Ray, but it is also that the protagonist is just there and whether or not the reader warms up to him, you will still feel a sense of odd affection.

And how can I forget London, that plays such a major part in this story as the city where it all begins and ends. I just wanted to pack my bags and be there! “The Adulterants” is a perfect book for our times – of how we are, why we are and what does it take sometimes to see things differently.

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.

The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop

The Anna Karenina Fix Title: The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature
Author: Viv Groskop
Publisher: Fig Tree, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241308639
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Memoirs
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I am a sucker for Russian Literature. I have read Anna Karenina twice and the Brothers Karamazov about two and a half times (I dropped it half-way the third time, because it was getting too much for once to handle) and not to forget Master and Margarita about twice as well. There are many more Russian works of great significance and most of it is classical or semi-modern. What I also love is books about books and “The Anna Karenina Fix” merges these elements beautifully. It is a book about books but Russian Literature and how it can save your life (well in more ways than one) and also how one can actually learn from it.

“The Anna Karenina Fix” by Viv Groskop is a handy guide to life as learned from the works of Russian Literature. Be it Chekov or Turgenev or Akhmatova, every book or author chosen by Groskop in this book has had a role to play in her life – in making her live it day after day, month after month and year after year. It is a warm and fuzzy (well, not so fuzzy) book about humans, their frailties, passions, desires and weaknesses when it comes to that.

The book charts the author’s relationship with everything Russian – language, art, culture and how she weaves her memories with the classics is something any reader who loves books will enjoy. At the same time, Groskop introduces the Russian classics to you if you hadn’t heard of them and does a very good job of that. Also, even though there are spoilers, but that will not take away from the experience of reading these Russian books if you want to at some point.

“The Anna Karenina Fix” is a solid book about living life and how to actually go about it through some Russian books. It is sublime, lucid and provides a great reading list as well. She also could have gotten preachy about the life lessons, however that doesn’t happen at all. If anything, it is all about what you can take away personally from these books and apply to your life (if you want to, that is).

Academic research material is not heavy-handedly used in the book. If anything, the language is extremely simple, just as it should be. “The Anna Karenina Fix” is the kind of book that creeps up on you unexpectedly and stays long after. It is also the kind of book that will make you read other books, which is a double-win if you ask me. So, go, read this book!