Category Archives: Women Writers Reading Project

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli Title: Lost Children Archive
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525520610
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Lost Children Archive is a book that should be read by everyone. I think more so because it is so relevant for the times we live in, and also because it is written with such grace, delicacy, and at the same time rawness that is unfathomable. It is one of those rare books that once you start you don’t want it to end. It is like an experience that is immersive and yet so heartbreaking. You don’t want to read it, and yet you do. The wanting to read is obviously far greater, so you do – you read it, if you are me you also constantly mark, highlight, and annotate. Lines resonate, words linger, emotions are so deep-rooted that even if you haven’t experienced any of them, you feel for the characters, though they are nameless.

In 2017, Mexican-born novelist Valeria Luiselli, published a book called “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions”. This book was a result of her volunteering as a court interpreter for children – the “illegal aliens” (as they are called), helping them with intake questionnaires that might establish a case for asylum for them. The book is about her experience of also applying for a green card as she fights for the children.

Lost Children Archive, her much-anticipated new novel (and the first one written in English) is about these refugee children and their lives, it is about a family at the core of it – their lives, and ultimately about ties that bind us and the ones that don’t. Luiselli touches on a topic that is so relevant, so utterly terrifyingly heartbreaking that sometimes as a reader, it took me time to digest, assimilate, and then process my thoughts and emotions.

What I must not forget and mention here is that Lost Children Archive is a “road novel” as well. It is a journey undertaken at the start of the novel by a family – a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. A family that came together when the father and the mother, two single parents fell in love while recording the sounds of New York City. Their marriage is drifting. They are losing grip on who they used to be. The husband plans a new project to travel to the ancestral homeland of the Apaches in Arizona, she decides to go along with her daughter and his son. She plans to document sounds of refugees at the border, and also wants to find two missing, undocumented daughters of her immigrant friend.

Furthermore, there are boxes of the family that travel with them – boxes that are filled and some that aren’t. Boxes that mean something, that are heavy with meaning and emotion, of work documented by the husband and the wife and what remains of their union. Luiselli captures the voices of the children beautifully. The 10-year old son (from the husband) and the 5-year old daughter (from the wife) are seamlessly integrated into the narrative of adults – asking, wondering, sometimes taking pictures (you will learn of this as you read along), and questioning their identity and family as a unit.

Luiselli breaks the mould so many times as she tells the story – over and over again. With the contents of the boxes, the small chapters that integrate, the characters’ voices that seamlessly integrate and also stand-out most often, but above all the last twenty pages of the book are something else – a long sentence that reaches its ending with so much to already chew and mull over, leaving a void in your mind and heart.

Lost Children Archive is most certainly the novel of our times (and sadly as well). It is so many things and yet it is up to the reader what they want to take from it. The story of the refugee children is constantly told from various points of view and done so strangely and beautifully most of the time. Not to forget the character that is the US of A. Home, perhaps. The roads, the motels, the diners, the billboards, and the borders we create are covered with such eye for detail that you wonder if she wrote the book as she travelled. Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. It is about family – the breaking of one and where do other families fit in, the ones that have been broken through displacement, still seeking refuge?

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Tiffin: 500 Authentic Recipes Celebrating India’s Regional Cuisine by Sonal Ved

TiffinTitle: Tiffin: 500 Authentic Recipes Celebrating India’s Regional Cuisine
Author: Sonal Ved
Publisher: Roli Books
ISBN: 978-8193704967
Genre: Food Writing, Recipes
Pages: 496
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Okay, I have to say this right at the onset: This is book that should be owned by everyone who loves food – eating, cooking, or talking about it. Tiffin is the kind of book that may not seem unique at first glance. Sure, you have seen this format several times. Dishes from every part of India, and so on and so forth. Tiffin encompasses all states and union territories. Sonal’s research is spot-on and every recipe isn’t just a recipe, but a footnote of sorts to the world she opens up for the reader/chef/cook.

Tiffin 1

I have always wondered how does one review a book about food. Does one cook the recipes and talk about it? Does one just read and imagine the taste? Does one get it cooked through someone else and then talk about it, after tasting it of course? It could be done anyhow I suppose but taste you must and that’s what I did. I also then came to the conclusion that the styling of food in those pictures in books is way better than what you or I could at our homes. That being said, the taste is what matters. Isn’t it?

Tiffin 2

Tiffin ensures flavour in every bite. Sonal has chosen the recipes carefully – after having interacted with local cooks, chefs, and people who cook at home day in and day out. Of course the most obvious thing which I loved about the book is the depth of research done. The book of course speaks of the most obvious dishes – the butter chicken, the dhansak, dum aloo, etc, but what it also does most beautifully is go beyond all of this to truly discover Indian food across regions.

Tiffin 3

The book is divided into 6 sections – North India, Central India, West India, South India, East India, and Northeast India. Furthermore, it is then divided into these for every section: Appetizers, Poultry and Eggs, Meat and Pork, Fish and Seafood, Vegetarian, Rice and Breads, and Desserts. So the arrangement is very easy to follow and refer. Moreover, if you even go by index at the end of the book, that has its own charm – almost feels like jumping from one region to another.

Tiffin 4

Tiffin is also the kind of book that while it may seem that it caters more to an audience out of the country, that is not the case. I personally think that it in fact lends more to the people living in India and what we can learn from it – right from basic recipes (a wonderful section at the beginning of the book) to the intense heavy-duty cooking. Might I also add that Sonal is an accomplished food writer and food editor at Vogue India (something which I got to know only after I read this book). All in all, Tiffin is the kind of book that you must own – even if you don’t cook, especially if you don’t cook, so it can inspire you to step into the kitchen and cook something entirely different – from any part of the country.

The Music Room by Namita Devidayal

The Music Room Title: The Music Room
Author: Namita Devidayal
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-8184000542
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoirs, Music, Indian Writing
Pages: 320
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

I first read this book when it released in 2007. It has been more than a decade, and I decided to reread it. It has been a while since I cried while reading a book and this one managed to make me weep, yet again. The story of a mentor and a student, and above all music that binds them is beyond beautiful. It is so sublime that there were times I had to just keep the book aside, to only soak in what I had read. Namita Devidayal’s writing skills are beyond ordinary. She tells us the story of her music teacher, Dhondutai and does it with great empathy, feeling, love, and honesty.

The Music Room is also about Hindustani Classical Music – it is so wide that perhaps only a bit can be covered in one book, but Devidayal does try to bring to fore what she learned, what her teacher learned, and in turn manages to enthral readers with every turn of the page. Namita started learning music from her teacher Dhondutai from the Jaipur gharana at the age of ten, at the insistence of her mother.  And thus, begins a journey of not only learning music, but perhaps also learning how to be a better person.

The book traverses the journey of Namita’s musical education and moves back and forth in time – tracing how Dhondutai got her musical education, how she became a part of the Jaipur Gharana (at a time when women were not taught music at all or the ones who did learn music were looked down upon or thought to be nothing but courtesans), how she was trained under the tutelage of greats such as Alladiya Khan, and the tempestuous Kesarbai Kerkar.

The Music Room is a homage to a time gone by. I don’t remember or cannot think of anyone undergoing music lessons as of today and that too in Hindustani classical. But that’s not the point I am trying to make. The Music Room is a book that has so many layers to it – women empowerment, women who do what they must because they are passionate about something, men who do not bind, what music means – what it meant to rulers in an India gone by, and of course at the heart of it there is always music. It is because of this book that I became aware of ragas, of taans, of what raag is sung when, and it all happened organically – in the sense the book isn’t preachy. Thank God for YouTube so I could listen to the greats as I read about them.

This is a book full of anecdotes, of life, of how we find ourselves in places where we least expect to be, and how life comes full-circle more often than not. It is a beautiful profile of Dhondutai, but my favourite portions were ones on Kesarbai. Devidayal writes about her mischievously, with a lot of love, and reverence as well. But when she speaks of her teacher – there is a whole lot of heart and you can sense the bond without it becoming too sentimental. Read it. Please read it. You must. Just must.

 

 

 

Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector. Translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser.

hour of the star Title: Hour of the Star
Author: Clarice Lispector
Translated from the Portuguese by
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 978-0141392035
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

Clarice Lispector’s works burst on the literary scene a couple of years ago. Her books were republished, retranslated to English (I think), and read and loved by all. Whether understood or not is secondary, and I don’t mean this in a condescending or patronising manner. The truth of the matter is: Sometimes it is hard to read Lispector, because there is so much to make of what she has written. I am only happy that more people are discovering her and reading her. It is always so important to read new authors, to break your reading mould, and experience new terrains, cultures, and lives you wouldn’t have thought about in the past.

Hour of the Star is a strange book, in the classic good-strange kind of way. It was one of her last few works published and it clearly to me is one of her best. I have read most of her books and every time I read a Lispector, my head is in a dizzy. It is like I cannot read anything else for days after reading her. That’s the effect she has with her words, her characters, and the stories she chose to tell.

Hour of the Star is a small book with some very big ideas, all along the read. The book focuses on the life of an uneducated woman and her struggle to survive in a sexist society. Sadly, this doesn’t sound very alien, does it? Hour of the Star is also about abject poverty and the class differences we witness every single day.  At the same time, Lispector’s Macabéa, the 19-year-old impoverished girl living in Rio de Janeiro doesn’t feel for once that she leads a difficult life. The story is told through the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., and he starts the book with how to tell a story and what goes into it. The fourth wall is broken. Lispector’s themes are broad and large in scope. In all of this, there is also a fortune-teller named Madame Carlota and you should read the book also for all of the secondary characters.

Lispector writes more so inwardly – there is a stream of consciousness and then there isn’t. She constantly challenges the reader to read better, if there is something like that, if not then there should be. Macabéa’s traits are so well-etched, that in all of the loving of Coca-Cola, Marilyn Monroe, and her boyfriend (scum, by the way), Lispector cuts away at her heroine’s happiness, thereby jolting the reader’s notions of poverty, identity, and love.

You can sense the dichotomy of the well-off Rodrigo writing about the poverty of Macabéa. It is this power-dynamics that Lispector chose to write about? Is it this Brazil that Lispector wanted to show her readers where the lives of the impoverished is for all to see and write about? Hour of the Star is a tragic comedy about a girl living in poverty and has literally no clue about her state. She certainly makes no impact on anyone and never even knows love, but she has her small joys and as a reader, I couldn’t help but hoot for her through it all.

The brilliance of Hour of the Star is what each reader takes away from it. Don’t be deceived by it’s size of 96 pages. There is so much more to it. Moser’s translation is crisp, and on point. There is no detailing that isn’t needed to begin with. It is a story deeply, starkly, and told rooted in reality, with dreams that can never be fulfilled.

Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (And Essays) by Rebecca Solnit

call them by their true names- american crises (and essays) by rebecca solnit Title: Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (And Essays)
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1783784974
Genre: Political Science, Feminist Criticism, Essays
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I think I would read Solnit even if she would write in a greeting card. She is that powerful as a writer, and I am sure a great human being. Rebecca Solnit has written on a varied number of topics – from the history of walking, to space and how to maintain it, to bow to get lost, to how men explain things to women – she has touched every single surface when it comes to writing (more or less), and this time this collection of essays is her masterstroke.

These essays are telling of our times and it is scary to observe the world we live in. Solnit speaks of the election of Donald Trump and makes no bones about her disagreement. Her essays more than being timely or savage are honest and backed with facts. The insights are spot-on and attempt to diagnose what ails the American culture. Right from the MeToo movement to the incarceration of African-American men, to the misleading speech of President Trump, Solnit emerges as one of the most powerful cultural critics that the world of literature possesses.

Solnit’s writing is powerful, stark and a representation of the times we live in. This collection of essays ends with the injustice Americans (mostly) face every single day – from the cynicism, to police shootings, the gentrification, and the crises that ultimately define America today. As she so eloquently puts it, ““Being careful and precise about language is one way to oppose the disintegration of meaning, to encourage the beloved community and the conversations that inculcate hope and vision. Calling things by their true names is the work I have tried to do in the essays here.”

The primary ideas behind the book are the naming and precision of language which somehow also tends to fall short somewhere, more so in alignment with what Solnit is trying to talk about. Sure it is from a very personal space and she acknowledges that. My favourite essays were: “Twenty Million Missing Storytellers”, which is on voter suppression, “Milestones in Misogyny” about the 2016 presidential election is sympathetic to Clinton and I thought was written with a lot of force.

“Call Them By Their True Names” is a powerful read, the one that makes you question, stand up, take notice and see what is going on with America and therefore with the rest of the world. The one that deserves to be read right now!