Category Archives: Riverhead Books

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

The Brief and. Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders Title: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
Author: George Saunders
Publisher: Riverhead Books
ISBN: 978-1594481529
Genre: Dystopian Fiction, Cyberpunk Science Fiction, Satire
Pages: 134
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders is a book that cannot be categorized. It is a dystopian novella, a science fiction read, a satirical take on our times, the 21stcentury Animal Farm in a way, and perhaps more.

Written in 2006, almost fourteen years ago, this novella is still so frighteningly prescient. We are living it in a way, in almost every country. Most countries of the world today have their own Phil, and their reign isn’t brief.

The country in the book is called Inner Horner, large enough for only one resident at a time. There are citizens who wait to gain entry, and these citizens fall under the rule of the despot Phil, which further leads to mass chaos and hysteria.

The novella is funny (intentionally I guess, at the same time making you see the mirror), dark, and in no way, you will not think about it after you’re done. The so-called people in the story are human in their actions, but maybe not in their appearance. They resemble machines, so maybe Saunders is making multiple points at the same time.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is for sure a quick read and a political allegory that we are perhaps a part of without realizing it. It is the kind of book that will jolt you a bit and makes you also look at the on-goings in the book from a distance by removing the human element. It is a book that delivers its message if you want to see it. Coupled with some lucid illustrations, this book blends the elements of the surreal and fantastical with great ease, making for a highly introspective read.

Book Review: Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family by Najla Said

Looking for Palestine Title: Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family
Author: Najla Said
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
ISBN: 9781594487088
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

It must not be easy being torn between cultures. To also live through them and find an identity of your own cannot be easy. Najla Said, the daughter of a prominent Palestinian Father and a Lebanese mother did not have it easy. I somehow love stories about conflicts when it comes to identity and culture. I like the revelation and how did it all end for the person narrating his or her life.

“Looking for Palestine” is Najla’s account of her life – growing up in Manhattan, living with strong parents – not to forget Edward Said and his opinions on she should be brought up. She then decided to see her identity for herself and what she stood for besides being a Jew and living in times which are volatile and ever-changing.

The book is about Najla’s experiences – growing up in her father’s shadow and for the longest time trying to find her own voice. She did not want to be just another Jew. She took marked steps to separate herself from her heritage and in the end she ended up finding herself in her culture and roots.

Najla Said’s writing is marvellous. It is full of irony, heartfelt moments and about how life is conflicting at almost every single step. The book is about her personal struggles and bittersweet to a very large extent, which I love in a memoir. It cannot all be sugary. Nor it can be all bitter and dark. There has to be a balance in it, which Najla provides very well.

There is a lot of complexity to the book. In fact, at most points, I had to go and read up on Palestinian history to make sense of what Najla had to say. But all said and done, it is a great memoir – of discovery, loss and finding oneself all over again.

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Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride Title: The Good Lord Bird
Author: James McBride
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1594486340
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historic Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I have always been wary of award-winning books. Something about them, that makes me most skeptical to pick them up and start reading. May be that is why, I get all wired when I start reading an award-winning title. It has happened in the past and I thought it would happen again; however this year’s NBA winner, “The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride took me by surprise. I actually enjoyed reading this, though in parts it did get tedious, but overall, it was an irresistible experience. I would keep the book in-between and immediately get back to it. I had to soak in everything it had to offer.

“The Good Lord Bird” is about a boy – Henry Shackleford (an African-American slave), who is abducted by John Brown (a white abolitionist), following a brawl. We all have heard of John Brown – the zealot, who wanted to abolish slavery in America and succeeded to a large extent. The novel is about Henry also known as Henrietta (as he is mistaken to be a girl by John Brown and his men), and the incidents that occur, as seen through his eyes. He is known as “Onion” by John Brown and that is another name that sticks.

Henry observes people around him as the group is on the move to free slaves, wage wars against people who are Pro-Slaves and think of ways and means to win the battle against slavery. What I found most interesting in the book were the parts of Henry being a girl, and interacting with other white men and people of his own colour. Why is he a girl? Because John Brown mistakes him to be one, given his skin colour and hair texture and that sticks. In order to save his life and be free (which is of a conflicting nature in his head sometimes), Henry pretends to be a girl.

McBride captures an age gone by beautifully through use of language, idiosyncrasies, and description of the landscape. The story moves from Kansas to Missouri and Virginia with great ease and aplomb and so do the characters, as seen by Henry. The writing almost feels real, though you know that most of it is made up or rather all of it is, and yet you cannot help yourself but think of the conversations and incidents to have occurred.

There is a plethora of characters that Henry meets along the way, and they all have a role to play, which McBride executes with great ease and charm. The book is funny in most places and yet there is the tragic aura to it, given the concept of slavery and other issues mentioned. There is a lot of depth of emotion to the book, lend by various characters – from one of the whores in a brothel to John Brown’s sons, to even a couple of Pro-Slavers.

James McBride takes a major chunk of history and makes it his own, which is something very few authors can manage to achieve. Why is the title what it is? For that, you would have to read the book to find out. I can only say one thing, that perhaps this book has to a large extent changed my opinion of award-winning books. It is definitely going to be read again in 2014.

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Book Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer Title: The Interestings
Author: Meg Wolitzer
Publisher: Riverhead Books, Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-1-59448-839-9
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

It is never easy to write about the world the way it is. To talk of love and friendships and everything that takes place in between is never something that can be done without wrenching the way you feel about them. I have always admired writers who can manage this and continue to do so, because it takes a lot out of the writer to dig in and generate stories that resonate long after you have finished the book. Books that speak of growing up and its challenges and make me realize how I feel about the way things are, manage to be very close to my heart, and one such book that I have read off-late is, “The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer.

“The Interestings” begins kind of slowly, almost letting you see how things got to where they did. However once that is shaken off, the book somersaults into various kinds of emotions and that is where the narrative is the strongest. The writing reminded me of Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen – more so because of the back and forth in time, almost linear in narrative and sometimes just spellbinding. It is a chronicle of four decades and the lives of six strangers who become friends at a summer camp in the seventies and how their lives change every year after that. The narrative and action takes place mostly in New York and that is another charm of the book. This is the basic plot of the book and as the adage goes, there’s more to what meets the eye and it could not get truer for this work.

I had never read anything by Wolitzer before this one, but I sure will now. The references throughout the book of the decades gone by are extremely interesting. What is even more interesting is how she manages to stick her story inside all of this and make each and every character stand out. She speaks of the rituals of childhood, the dilemmas of adulthood and how when middle-age takes over, it comes with envy in its wake. The writing is dynamic, with a lot happening on almost every page and maybe that is one of the reasons I wanted to put it down and take in every word page by page and moment by moment.

The various friendships forged throughout the book just reminded me of my relationships and people who I have held close for years. It also reminded me of friends who have drifted away. That is the effect of this book. It not only makes you think, but also feel. The subject matter of the book may not be original – since it is about friendships being forged and then not working out at some level, however the way Wolitzer writes is something very unique and brilliant.

The writing is economical and yet the expressions aren’t. Wolitzer manages to capture the essence of every single emotion. From a successful couple to a one who is not so and how their friendship takes on its own form and shape. The novel provides various insights and various perspectives and that is something which is hard to miss. Each character has his or her voice and that helps a lot as you turn the pages. It is not a story told from one perspective or a single person, which I loved the most about this one.

“The Interestings” title comes from the fact that the six friends do not want to be boring and Wolitzer ensures that for the reader at every single page. Characters are forever growing in this one and that is what makes the book so unique. The cover of the book is retro and says a lot and connects wonderfully to the plot. A must read for all. I totally recommend this one wholeheartedly.

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Book Review: The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen

Title: The Grief of Others
Author: Leah Hager Cohen
Publisher: Riverhead Books, Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-1-59448-612-8
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

It is not easy to read a book about grief. I am certain that it is not easy to write about grief as well. I am sure the process is excruciating – mentally, physically and emotionally. More so, it is not easy to deal with grief once it strikes you and you relate to it through a book that you are reading and will eventually review.

I lost a parent at the age of twenty-one. This is personal and yet while reading, “The Grief of Others” by Leah Hager Cohen, I kept thinking of my father and the times spent with him. Maybe that is what grief does – it reminds you of stuff and it connects with you and others at a deeper level, even if it is a writer and her work.

“The Grief of Others” is about The Ryries and the loss they have suffered: the death of a baby just fifty-seven hours after his birth. John and Ricky, in the wake of this tragedy, try to return to their lives. They want normalcy and want to make things the way they were. However, nothing works out the same way. Their children, ten-year old Biscuit and thirteen-year old Paul, respond to the unnamed tensions in the air around them and act out their lives with grace and eccentricity. The couple cannot understand their children and they cannot understand themselves anymore.

The story further moves on when a stranger arrives at their doorstep and they deal with their loss and pain and unite once more as a family, in surprising ways.

The plot of the book is basic and may have also been written about in the past. But the way Cohen writes is different. There is this starkness, almost raw quality to her writing. A spade is a spade and there is no sugar-coating for the emotions and the way her characters feel. Secrets tumble out the closet and things happen along the way, but the eternal question that remains in the readers’ minds while reading this book is: Will this family be able to cope what they are going through?

For me, the book touched a chord somewhere as I mentioned earlier and maybe that is why, I am of the firm belief that there is nothing more universal than grief as an emotion. It somehow connects people in a very different manner. The writing in the book is thankfully not sentimental. It is emotional and makes you think and at the same time makes you wonder about your relationships with people.

“The Grief of Others” is about fragile people, who are trying to patch themselves after a disaster. It is about people who do not know best when tragedy strikes and wait in the wings for things to become alright. They try, they fail and they try once more, with the help of a stranger. Sometimes for all that you endure; you finally last at the end of it all. “The Grief of Others” is emotional and it is heartfelt. Read it only if it appeals to your senses.

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