Category Archives: women writers

How to Love a Jamaican : Stories by Alexia Arthurs

How to Love a Jamaican Title: How to Love a Jamaican: Stories
Author: Alexia Arthurs
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 978-1524799205
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Some books feel closer. They almost feel like a hug. “How to Love a Jamaican” is one of those books. Every story to me seemed wondrous and not a single plot or theme was out of place. And but of course, the stories are diverse, intricate, and provide a lot of authentic insight into the lives of Jamaicans living at home and out of it. The stories blend into each other – exploring themes of loss, love, personal growth, the immigrant experience and mainly what can be called home.

I was also aware of the number of books written exploring this theme and tactic and yet How to Love a Jamaican seems new and fresh. I think it has to do primarily with the writing. Some stories will obviously strike a chord more than the others, but each one will find a special place in your heart. I am a big one for short stories, so this collection did not disappoint me at all.

What is most interesting that Arthurs doesn’t try and explain the idiosyncrasies used or the words, or the phrases. They naturally flow with the stories and that’s that. It is up to the reader to want to know more, which works for a reader like me. My favourite story is “Slack” which opens with a scene of a tragedy and moves to become something larger, which left me bereft and smiling at the same time. “Shirley from a Small Place” is all about the rootedness to home, not forgetting where you came from, a dominating mother, and of course all the culture, pride and food. It seems as though it has all the tropes, but having said that, they work brilliantly. Like I said earlier, it is all about the writing.

The book reads very fast and yet there are moments that will make you stop in-between the read. Arthurs is also most times funny and extremely empathetic toward her characters. And I am sure most of them are known personally to her, for the book to be so involving and engaging to the reader.

“How to Love a Jamaican” is an unusual collection of short stories. It may seem run-off-the-mill at first place, but do not be fooled by its simplicity. There is so much simmering underneath that facade. Read it to understand the Jamaican experience and a different point of view which is redeeming, emotional and liberating, all at the same time.

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The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe

The Violet HourTitle: The Violet Hour: Great Writes at the End
Author: Katie Roiphe
Publisher: The Dial Press
ISBN: 978-0385343596
Genre: Nonfiction, Death and Dying
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

There’s something about death, isn’t it? Something so fearful and yet sometimes enigmatic for some. Sometimes also makes you think about it all and then only leads to everything becoming nothing in an instant. One day it is all there and the other it isn’t.

Katie Roiphe takes this a step further in her book “The Violet Hour” and speaks of death in the context of great writers (who are but obviously dead) at the end of their lives. She just doesn’t write of death as the end, but the entire journey of dying, so to say. For instance, how Susan Sontag thought she could beat death at its own game and did several times, till she had to go. Or for that matter, Updike who after receiving the worst possible diagnosis wrote a poem at seventy-six. And then the excesses of Dylan Thomas and his suicide attempts that finally led to his death.

A good work of nonfiction, to my mind, is the one that doesn’t stray away from facts and more than anything else does not try to romanticize facts. Roiphe’s strength lies not only in these two facets of writing, but also the way she presents her extensive research, which involved family and friends of writers and what is already known to the general public. Roiphe doesn’t make the book sentimental, and yet it tugs at the heart because death is sadly a universal experience. We have all seen it up, close and personal and can relate if not even empathize with most part of the book or all of it, as it were in my case.

The book does not tell you how to grieve. What it does though is in a way deconstruct death through experiences of great writers and what it did to them and their family and friends. And in that process, we just get to know these writers better. Death, for Freud, was just a subject to be studied till he realized that he couldn’t observe his own death after all and never hestitated to smoke himself to death and refused to take pain killers.

At some point, as a reader one could feel guilty of prying into another’s death – the last days and yet there is something about the book that makes you want to know more about these six writers. Kudos to Katie for all the research and the way she articulates thoughts, emotions, what the writers did in the last days, what they chose to rather and above all what does death mean to each of them and perhaps even to yes on a universal level.

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

VWTitle: Virginia Woolf
Author: Alexandra Harris
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
ISBN: 978-0500290866
Genre: Biography, Literary Biography
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I remember being all of 13 and attempting to read Mrs. Dalloway. It didn’t make any sense to me back then. Nothing whatsoever. In fact, I also remember dumping it and not picking up any Woolf till I turned 21. That’s when life truly made sense. Virginia Woolf’s writing has captivated me like no other author, not even Murakami for that matter.

Having said that, I wish I had read this book before reading her works, as it provides so much insight and fodder into who she was as a person and how that impacted her writing. Not only that, it goes a step ahead speaking very closely about her family, husband, and influences when it came to The Bloomsbury Group.

This edition by Alexandra Harris might be a brief one when it comes to Woolf’s life, but might I say that she has captured every phase and essence of the writer’s life and works to perfection. I say this because I have read Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee and that is quite an extensive work. Harris does not gloss over anything and provides a view that is completely unbiased and yet thankfully you can see the admiration for Woolf shine in this short biography.

Harris also takes into account Woolf’s relationship with her contemporaries and how she worked on building the Bloomsbury group. Those chapters swept me away, not to also forget how she came to write the novels that she did and her mental health always there -sometimes in the background and sometimes right there at the front.

“Virginia Woolf” by Alexandra Harris captivated me more than any tome on her could have. The writing is crisp and engaging and works well with the accompaniment of 46 photos of Woolf, only adding to the entire narrative. A read for all Woolf lovers and also for those who are afraid of her writing, just so you are encouraged to pick any of her books and read her, thus converting for life.

 

Open Me by Lisa Locascio

Open MeTitle: Open Me
Author: Lisa Locascio
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802128072
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

“Open Me” may seem like a strange book till it doesn’t and then you actually start enjoying it. “Open Me” is electrifying in so many ways – physical, emotional, spiritual, political and most of all when there are differences in relationships and how it impacts us at the core of who we are. It is a tale of sexual awakening from the outside and yes maybe that’s a part of what it is, because there is so much more in this book. It doesn’t stand on just being another “erotic” novel. There are layers, sublayers, a lot of agency, tone and detail in its pages which should not be missed.

Roxana has just graduated from high-school and is raring to go get an “experience”. To live the way she would like to. She dreams of visiting Paris with her childhood best friend, Sylvie, and as she makes her way to Paris, she realizes that the tour group has rerouted her to Denmark (fascinating and dark at the same time, isn’t it?). I must stop the review here and tell you how much I loved this and how scared I was about this happening to me at the same time. Also, Roxana resolves to go, despite her reservations and doesn’t tell her parents about this. She arrives in Copenhagen, and meets a blue-eyed Dane named Søren Holmsgaard. He is a grad student writing his dissertation on American literature and before she knows it Roxana is head over heels for him. Their affair begins early on till Roxana abandons a planned trip to Farsø with Søren so he can work on his dissertation, and while he takes off, she meets Zlata, a Bosnian refugee and she starts dating him as well.

Let me tell you that if you think this book is anything typical or cliché or ridden with stereotypes, you should stop thinking that right now. It isn’t any of that and I am only too glad for that. The relationship dynamics between the three of them and how the boys vie for Roxana’s attention is worth reading and exploring. Roxana’s coming-of-age in a way and at the same time exploring her sexual awakening without any apprehension or doubt is refreshing for a reader and to then mingle politics with it, takes the read to another level.

“Open Me” is frank, outspoken and says what it has to without any fuss. Locascio tells the story the way it should be told – with no frills. The emotional and physical aspects of the novel are rich and are definitely not dumbing it down for the reader. “Open Me” is interesting, captivating and quite an emotional rollercoaster of a ride.

Missing, Presumed Dead by Kiran Manral

Missing, Presumed Dead

Title: Missing, Presumed Dead
Author: Kiran Manral
Publisher: Amaryllis
ISBN: 978-9387383685
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Mystery/Family
Pages: 268
Source: Author
Rating: 4 Stars

I do not read thrillers. I normally stay away from them. From most of them at least. But, “Missing, Presumed Dead” is not just another thriller or not just a thriller at all for that matter. It is so much more and thank god for that! I read one of Kiran’s books before picking up this one and thoroughly enjoyed it. That one was eerie, with some suspense and kept me on the edge. This one on the other hand is more contemplative, it has its elements of thrill but what pulled me toward it was the language (simple and effective), characterisation and pacing. At no point did I feel the book go flat or not living up to my expectations.

As the synopsis will tell you, “Missing, Presumed Dead” is a story of a dysfunctional marriage, about half-sisters Aisha and Heer, and Aisha’s husband Prithvi with his own agenda (or so it seems). What the synopsis doesn’t tell you is how the story is beautifully woven and that too set on the outskirts of a town in the hills of North India. Manral creates magic where scene is concerned. And it is as though her characters and the story just blends right in, effortlessly – it inches from page to page and as a reader, you are sucked into her world.

Every scene, every dialogue between characters or for that matter even what they are thinking is clear, inviting and makes you want to know more. What happened to Aisha? What happened to Heer right after? Why is Prithvi the way he is? And the children at the centre of all this drama. What I admired the most about the book is that Kiran does not dumb it down for the readers, nor does she play safe. She enters a territory that is dangerous, dark and in my opinion not many Indian writers have managed to explore mental health the way she has in this book.

At the same time, the story is completely readable and racy (for lack of a better word, my apologies). Manral explores a different genre, gets out of her comfort zone and manages to do all of this with a lot of substance in plot and the narrative. “Missing, Presumed Dead” is the kind of book that you’d want to finish in a day (that’s exactly what I did). So keep a day ready for it.