Category Archives: September 2017 Reads

Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely

Snow by Orhan Pamuk Title: Snow
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Publisher: Everyman’s Library
ISBN: 978-1841593388
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Works
Pages: 460
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember reading “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk for the first time in 2004 I think. It has been thirteen years since I read it. This reread though has been a very different experience. First, because I was co-reading it with TheBookSatchel (a very famous blogger and Instagrammer. Please do look her up) and second, the discussions gave way to thoughts and opinions which sometimes a solitary reading experience cannot. Books such as Snow need to be read together and discussed because there is so much to talk about. You as a reader, will be bursting with ideas and thoughts at the end of almost every chapter.

“Snow” is also considered one of Pamuk’s difficult novels (I don’t think so at all) to read. If anything, I thought “My Name is Red” to be a little tedious. Snow on the other hand, reads very easy. It is also a book about Turkey (most of Pamuk’s books are, but of course, since he belongs to the country, or does he?) and its contradictions and how difficult or easy it is for the natives to move in time, as they are on the crossroads of East and West. Pamuk has taken this idea of Turkey and distilled the identity crisis to a border town Kars, and further refined it to the person, the poet, known as Ka (notice the wordplay here? More on it later).

Ka has recently returned from political exile in Germany for the funeral of his mother and he gets drawn to the suicides of young women in Kars, a border town. These women are committing suicide because they are being forced by the government to not wear head scarves. He is in Kars to find out more about these suicides and then there is also the question of the love of his life, Ipek (the girl from his college days) who is now in Kars and has recently been divorced. With this premise, Pamuk takes us to the heart of “Snow”.

Ka finds Kars to be a place of poverty, lack of intelligence and some violent people and yet in all of this, he finds beauty as it snows in the town, sometimes nonstop. That’s what worked for me the most about this book – snow. Pamuk describes snow as a matter of fact but the emotions that Ka goes through as it snows, transfers itself to the reader and it is a melancholic experience. Ka also finds poetry on this trip to Kars. At a certain level, he also is on the road to becoming a believer from an atheist. His pursuit of truth (or various versions of it) drive him to meet various people – the editor of a newspaper who predicts (quite surreal if you ask me) stuff, terrorists, the police, atheists, extremists and women on the verge of suicide.

Snow is not an easy book to read (in terms of all that is going on). I am not contradicting myself. You need to sink your teeth into it to truly understand it – completely. There is a lot of subtext and subplots that unravel themselves beautifully. At so many points, it read as a fairy tale to me and that’s saying a lot about the book. The lyricism of language helps move through but sometimes it gets a bit much. There is so much beauty in the book though – from the premise of Ka’s poems to the canopy of characters and their quirks and the question of faith that is constantly ringing like a fire-engine bell.

The translation is superb and the reason I say this is it feels that none of the nuances are lost. Maureen Freely’s translation, I am sure is just as empathetic as the original writing. “Snow” is to be read at its own pace. You cannot rush it. At the same time, don’t be distracted by anything else while reading it. Soak yourself into what Pamuk wants you to see and hear and you will not be disappointed.

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Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

GV Title: Goodbye, Vitamin
Author: Rachel Khong
Publisher: Henry Holt
ISBN: 9781471159480
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 196
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Off-late, I’ve been reading a lot of literary fiction (as I always do), but have hardly come across books that are both literary and funny. “Goodbye, Vitamin” is one such book. The story is of Ruth (but not just her, you come to know as you go along) who comes back home to her parents, after receiving a call from her mother Annie when her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Don’t get me wrong – the book isn’t funny funny as much as it is full of wry humour and irony, which most certainly worked for me.

Howard Young is a prominent history professor who doesn’t know what is happening to him. He seems to be lost and is mostly isn’t aware of his condition. His wife is of the opinion that almost all food isn’t good for his health, which leaves him with very few options to eat. Ruth is trying to come to terms with a break-up.

This being the plot of the book is not all. The issue of identity, belonging and what happens when a parent faces dementia is heart-breaking. Khong tells the story with such tenderness that as a reader you do nothing but give in. The book is constructed in the form of journal entries and what happens through one year (I think) and how it impacts these characters, day by day.

I love the storytelling style. While it isn’t new, it somehow makes you more engaged as a reader. You want to know more. You feel like you are snooping on someone else’s life and somehow it is alright. This isn’t a feel-good novel but it does have its moments and the balance makes it even better, if you ask me. Added to that, it looks at perspectives of outsiders as well – friends, neighbours, colleagues and that provides another layer to the story.

Khong’s writing is simple. There are no frills. I love when the author is so sure about what he or she is doing that there are no fillers in the book. “Goodbye, Vitamin” is not only that kind of book but it is also the kind of book that is very comforting.

Upcountry Tales: Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India by Mark Tully

Upcountry Tales Title: Upcountry Tales: Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India
Author: Mark Tully
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9386582690
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I think writing short stories is the most difficult thing to do. To encapsulate everything, you have to say in a short story isn’t easy. And maybe that’s the reason I admire people who write short stories. Mark Tully returns to the terrain of fiction after a while with his short story collection “Upcountry Tales: Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India”. His last work of fiction, “The Heart of India” was published in 1995 and the only one at that So he has written fiction after 22 years and let me tell you, it doesn’t seem that way at all.

The stories in this collection are set in villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh during the second half of the 1980s (so you will not find technology intruding in any of them and thank God for that). These stories are of common people (a teacher in The Reluctant Lover)– some you might encounter but not give a second glance or time of day. At the same time, these very people come alive in Mr. Tully’s stories – they aren’t in the background – they come to the fore and that’s what I loved about these stories.

There are rebels, pragmatists, bumblers, quiet heroes as well – all finding a way to deal with social hierarchies and the government forces around them. You relate to so much as you read. Mark Tully’s India isn’t quite what you or I imagine to be – maybe because we don’t know the real India so to say, so sometimes the terrain is rather surprising (or should I say shocking) but having said that, you get used to its flora and fauna and above all, its people.

The book is of stories that are serious, that are light-hearted and are also tragic. You meet heroes and heroines who have battled in their ways and manner against corruption and red-tapeism. Mark Tully does a wonderful job of painting these stories against a canvas of a wide-range of topics – from class to race differences to the rules of a patriarchal society (The Ploughman’s Lament) and that to me was something else while reading this book. He also goes on to admit in the introduction that only two of the stories are based on real characters (which had to happen given his knowledge and experience on a first-hand basis with India), while the rest are fictional.

“Upcountry Tales” is a book full of warmth and of an India that we need to know. Time doesn’t matter then – whether the stories are set in the 80s or not (that’s barely anything to go by in my opinion), what matters is the people – people who when push comes to shove, will make their presence felt.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

A Darker Shade of Magic Title: A Darker Shade of Magic
Author: V.E. Schwab
Publisher: TOR Books
ISBN: 978-0765376466
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I have always been wary of reading fantasy and high-fantasy at that. In my mind, there are so many plots and sub-plots to follow that I lose track of all of them and then the names in these books – almost difficult to remember and recall when needed. I would always have to go back and see where did I encounter a particular character and what happened to them. However, that doesn’t deter me to read fantasy novels, that I want to or the ones I have loved before of a certain author. It takes me time to finish it, or the series but I do get around anyhow. This time though, “A Darker Shade of Magic” by V.E. Schwab – the first book in the Shades of Magic trilogy surprised me. I started and finished it in almost a span of three days and that’s saying lot, giving I was reading multiple books at the same time.

“A Darker Shade of Magic” is about multiple Londons and magic. These are parallel Londons – The Grey, The Red, The White and once upon a time, there was The Black London as well. And at the center of all of this is Kell – one of the last Antari – magicians with a rare ability to travel between these Londons. Before I say anything further about the book, let me say something about the author and her writing style. Schwab doesn’t spoon-feed the plot to you. She doesn’t explain anything right at the beginning. You are not served, so to say. You need to figure things as a reader. Now back to the book: Kell is not only a messenger of Red London (belonging to the Royal Family) but he is also a collector of trinkets and often risks bending some rules to collect these. We don’t know much about Kell till of course the plot unfurls and then you cannot wait to know more about him.

By the time you have almost gotten into Kell’s part, you meet Lila Bard – the thief so to say in Grey London and is far more enthusiastic than the greyness and gloom of this London. The story then becomes very interesting when Kell’s and Lila’s path cross (of course that’s a given), given Lila wants an adventure and Kell perhaps needs something else which he isn’t aware of. And before you know it, it is up to them to save all of the worlds from the deadliest enemy of them all.

Schwab’s writing is quick. She doesn’t waste them. You get to know about the characters by their actions, not as much as the author telling you about them. So, there is more showing, which is how it should be. Kell and Lila of course are multi-faceted and layered, and at the same time, you know exactly how they will react at times – you are that comfortable with them as a reader. You come across some really bad-ass villains which you will come to hate and the idea is that they just want to reintroduce vitari magic (you will learn of this as well) in all of Londons, thereby keeping them open to immense destruction. The characters are excellent. The plot is without any loop-holes and brilliantly conceptualized. More than anything, the writing is super. I cannot wait to finish the trilogy.

In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi

In the Darkroom Title: In the Darkroom
Author: Susan Faludi
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
ISBN: 9780805089080
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

To be honest, I had gone blind into this book. I had not read the synopsis or any review online. Nothing. I knew nothing about the book and just went on an adventure with it. Take me where you will, I had almost said and saw through that to the very end.

Faludi’s book to put it simply is about her father and identity. However, it isn’t as simple as it sounds. Susan’s father had left her when she was young. She then set off to investigate him in the summer of 2004 – in the process of discovering and knowing her father, she began understanding her roots and history – Jewish history at that.

Susan found out that her seventy-six year old father – now living in Hungary had undergone sex reassignment surgery. This then led to the questions of identity and gender in the modern world, as seen and observed by her. How could she come to terms with a new parent? A parent who was no longer a man, but a woman? Did it make sense at all? Should it make any sense in this world? At the same time, she had always known her father to be violent. He was a photographer (hence the title and more layers to it which you will figure as you read the book)and the reference to images and the shifting of them is another thing that will leave you spellbound in this book.

The book traverses between the present and past beautifully. Susan’s writing takes you to dark corners of the human heart and soul – when she speaks of politics, she integrates it with the personal and that lends itself so well again to the “question of identity”. Can you escape it? Can you so easily invent another one for yourself? Is it really that simple?

What I also loved is that Susan talked of the trans-gender movement (being a gay man, and it falling under the umbrella of LGBTQIA, I couldn’t help but wonder about it, which led me doing my own research on it) and not only that, the way she speaks of universal father-daughter relationships and how she doesn’t know where she stands in that equation anymore. Through her writing, you can see her struggle to find her father beneath the person he has now become.

“In the Darkroom” is emotional for sure but above all it is a book of such intricate details of relationships – that are strong and fragile and need a voice of their own, which Faludi lends hers to beautifully.