Category Archives: picador books

365 Stories: Day 8: The Crease by Ben Sonnenberg

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Today’s story was a strange one, rather sublime as well – “The Crease” by Ben Sonnenberg is a story of a man and his many loves and what happens to him at the end, when most of them are revealed to one woman.

The pace is fast, the story is established quickly and it isn’t a long one – so you can read it fast and then mull over it. It is the kind of story that will take some time to sink in, but when it does, you will enjoy it thoroughly. I read it twice – not because I couldn’t understand it but because even with sparse writing Sonnenberg shows what can be done and it is fantastic. A treat for every reader.

Book Review: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett Title: The Uncommon Reader
Author: Alan Bennett
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-0312427641
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 120
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I do not know why I had not read this book in a long time. It was there next to me, all the time and I did not pick it up. I guess the time wasn’t right. Books have to choose you and only then can you read them. It doesn’t matter what kind of reader you are – common or uncommon, the book chooses you. And with this thought I now pen my thoughts on the magnificent little gem titled, “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett.

The ‘uncommon’ reader in question in the book is none other than Queen Elizabeth II, who takes a fascination to reading and books. She chances upon a mobile library at the back of her castle by chance and as all things go by chance, she starts devouring books and loves them for what they are. At the beginning of the book we see her making acquaintanceship with Norman Seakins, a young man who works in the royal kitchen. She moves him from there and makes him her personal reading guide. The Queen forgets her day-to-day duties and activities under the influence of the ‘book’ or many ‘books’. She is delayed in opening the Parliament and converses less with people (unless the conversation is steered toward reading) and this leads to dire consequences being taken by the Prime Minister and her private secretary.

Alan Bennett conjures a world of reading and writing and how is it accessible to everyone. He explores the effects of reading and writing on our lives through a warm and sometimes funny novella. I had to finish this book in one setting, considering it was a short read – around one hundred and twenty odd pages and yet every page brims with reading wisdom and anecdotes from The Queen. For instance, her tea session with authors is hilarious and also the times she ponders about how she did not get to meet certain writers she would have liked to and now cannot as they are dead.

For such a slim volume, Alan Bennett puts in a lot of ideas and themes – how reading can change you, how it can make others uncomfortable – especially the ones who don’t read and how it can lead to writing and explore oneself and other worlds. The idea that the Queen’s reading would make the rest of Britain read is a wonderful thought – another theme that comes across in the book.

“The Uncommon Reader” was a pleasant read for me. I loved the book a lot. In fact, it has to be one of the best reads for me this year. I will definitely reread it. For the beauty of books and reading and but obviously for the reader.

Book Review: By Blood by Ellen Ullman

By Blood by Ellen Ullman Title: By Blood
Author: Ellen Ullman
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 9781250023964
Genre: Literary Fiction, Thriller
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

There are books that you have been wanting to read since a very long time but never got around to. They are just laying there on your shelf, waiting silently and more so patiently, so you can get to them. “By Blood” by Ellen Ullman was one of those books for me that just lay there for the longest time. I did not pick it up and even if I did, I would read a couple of pages and let it be there. Either something else would catch my fancy or there would be no inclination to read this one. When I finally did get around to reading this one, like most books that I read (and I would like to believe, often the best ones) this one also managed to take my breath away.

“By Blood” by Ellen Ullman is part-thriller, part-mystery, part-psychological novel and a literary fiction read like no other. This book definitely made me see why literature and reading was so important to me, maybe not because of the plot so much so, as the way it has been written. The book is set in San Francisco in the 70’s, at the height of the Zodiac Killer’s reign in the city. At the heart of this novel are three major characters whose lives somehow get connected and twisted to a very large extent. A professor who is wasted and done for in his life, over hears a lesbian (And that is not the complete identity of the woman. There is more to her which the reader will know in the book.) speaking with her therapist about wanting to find her parents and this is where the book begins. The professor wants to know more about the girl, and the girl is on her search, and the therapist’s life is embroiled deeply into the tale. At the backdrop is but definitely the serial killer and his on-goings which add to the novel from a holistic perspective.

These three characters are etched superbly and the book at times is so dark that you might just have to stop, breathe a little and then get back to the book. The book touches on so many issues at one time, that as a reader I had to go back and forth and try and connect the dots, however doing that had an excitement level of its own. The story seems simple on the surface; however it is the writing that makes it wondrous and deep.

The characters are flawed and real and make no bones about doing what they do and why they do. Such honesty in the book is what kept me turning the pages, one after the other. The moral issues underlining the book are fantastic (which the readers will come to know as the plot unveils). Ullman takes you on a journey from San Francisco to Germany to the Holocaust to Israel and back to the United States. This should be enough and more intriguing points. I of course was not aware of it till I read the book, however as I got to the parts, I was taken in and blown over. As much as I have loved this month till now when it comes to reading, this one made it more complete. A great and worthy read.

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Book Review: The Great Night by Chris Adrian

Title: The Great Night
Author: Chris Adrian
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 9781250007384
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

It isn’t easy to take a Shakespearean play and retell, even if it is being done loosely. Chris Adrian manages that and more with his book, “The Great Night”. I read the book in almost one sitting. It wasn’t that I was enthralled. It was just that the story was way too beautifully told for me to ignore it. I could also not read anything else while reading this one. I had to complete it.

Now to the plot: Three brokenhearted people lose their way in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. They are lost on a night known to the Faerie kingdom as, “The Great Night”. This is where the action unfolds. This retelling isn’t like the Shakespearean comedy. In fact, it is a tragedy. Chris Adrian has reshaped, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” into a mammoth, messy, erotic, and a feast of faeries and monsters. So these three people are lost in the park. There is a group of homeless people as well, who are rehearsing for a musical version of Soylent Green. While this counts for the mortals in the park, we then have the Faerie Queen, Titania, who is in throes of deep sorrow at the loss of her son (changeling child) to leukemia. She is inconsolable and has a spat with the King Oberon, leading to his departure from the park.

Titania wants him back and in a rage of anger, she lifts the controlling enchantment off of Puck, also known as the Beast, freeing him to wreck havoc in the park. The stipulation is clear: Nothing mundane or fantastical, gets in or out of the park when the park walls are up as created by Oberon. The three mortals are at the center of the tale: Molly, who has been recovering from the suicide of her boyfriend, Will, in love with a strange woman who dumped him a year ago, and Henry, whose compulsive habits drove his boyfriend away.

The stories are in plenty in this book. The sub-plots fascinated me even more so. Titania and Oberon are sweeping figures in the book. The grief that they go through in the book is simply stunningly written. There is a lot of chaos in this book just as it was in the play. The writing is clear in parts and not so in some other. For instance, the end was abrupt and anti-climatic. It leaves the reader hanging with no solution at all. But that is only a fragment of the book. The writing otherwise is something that is magnificent and grand.

I am happy that I read this book. There are so many interpretations of Shakespearean themes and characters, that it is always great to read another one. Some sections of, “The Great Night” are quite strong and worth reading. There is so much beauty and tragedy in the book that at times I was left speechless. A great read for me.

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Book Review: The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Title: The Free World
Author: David Bezmozgis
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-1250002518
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

When you write about the migrant experience, it becomes very difficult to encompass everything in one single book, keeping the trail of thought intact. The Free World by David Bezmozgis is a perfect example of this. A lot of books about the immigrant experience have been written and it isn’t to write so. A part of the author’s life also goes into the book or else you cannot write about the immigrant life.

David Bezmozgis’s book is a unique take on displaced people, of a family that is nowhere and yet the whole world seems to encompass in this book through their eyes. The Free World is a story of a family of Soviet Jews, who were released in the 1960s and 70s (the Russian Jews could finally leave and find their own way in the world) and could not travel directly to Israel or to the US. They had to often stop over at Vienna or Rome to enter the so-called “Free World”. The stop was undecided. It could take days, weeks or months. Till then, families had no clue as to what was going to happen. The limbo existed.

The book opens in 1978 with the arrival of the Krasnansky family in Rome. The family like any other family has its own eccentricities. Each character propels the story forward from his or her way of fitting into the novel. The patriarch, Samuil – an old Communist and Red Army Veteran, who reluctantly leaves home, misses his old life and mulls over it again and again. The mother, Emma is constantly devoted to her family and accepts all decisions without as much a mutter. She is yet central to the theme. The eldest son, Karl, arrives with his wife and two sons. He finds a new way in his life: The Roman Underworld. The younger son, Alec, the womanizer is accompanied with his new bride Polina, who is as scandalous as ever.

The family struggle with themselves – making sense of why they left and what it feels like to be in a strange country, in transit, waiting to get to the free world. The title of the book speaks to the reader on various levels – from freedom (which in this case is elusive as the characters speak for themselves) to the idea of freedom. Bezmozgis’s characters are as real as you and I. The story is beyond a story of a family’s stay in Rome. The political friction is sensitively handled throughout the novel. David Bezmozgis has successfully managed to show us how the family got to where they are when the novel opens.

The writing is accessible. At no point, did I get bogged down reading the book or turning the pages over and over again for references. The other Russian Jews in the book are as endearing as the central family. Each character has his or her story to tell and that is what makes this book unique. There is a lot of history in the book. I for one would have to read more books to understand that perspective a little better. The entire Anti-Semitism, restrictions, deep rooted fears of Stalin and his successors, the dangerous paths for Jews applying for visas, and the ones that literally got away – all this needs to be understood a little more. I could not stop thinking about the characters once I finished the book. Bezmozgis is able to capture the story of a family – lost within itself and in the outside world beautifully. A must read.

Here are some excerpts:

“So far I’ve been a citizen of two utopias. Now I have modest expectations. Basically, I want the country with the fewest parades.”

“What does it matter to them where they were?” muses Samuil. “How were they different from the birds who landed in one place or another, unmoored by allegiances or souls.” In this land of limbo, the only true connection is not to homeland – past or present – but to each other.

At one point, Alec says, “The same borders you crossed to get here, you can cross in reverse. It needn’t be hard. For all we know, it might even be easier in reverse.”

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