Category Archives: women writers

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout Title: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-1400067695
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are times when you stumble on books, do not read them, or read a couple of pages and drop them. You pick them up again and do not get past a couple of pages. You pick it up again (the specific, dreaded book in question) and yet you just cannot seem to make it beyond the thirtieth page or so. Till one fine day, you pick it up and voila! You just cannot seem to stop reading it. In fact, you don’t want the book to end. You want it to continue, to unravel its secrets, the words that consume you and in turn make you think things about your life.

Art is almost a replica of life. They say it imitates life. I say, it just is. “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout may not resonate page by page or in the overall sense of plot, but there are places where it will take your breath away (it at least did that to me). It is a very regular story or so it seems.

Lucy Barton is unwell. She is undergoing a minor surgery and is in the hospital. It is the early 90s (not specified but you can more or less figure). Her mother visits her and stays with her for five days. The book opens with them speaking of the old days – of Lucy’s childhood, her siblings and how they lived.

That is when the secrets tumble and questions come to the fore – them being born to poverty, the time her parents locked her in a truck with a snake (why), the time her father humiliated her brother, calling him a “fucking faggot” in front of everyone after he was caught trying Mom’s high heels. We can see the family is beyond dysfunctional and redemption of any kind. Lucy is wounded, and yet she is happily married (or so we think), with two children and is on the way to becoming a writer.

Strout speaks of marriage, family, children, love, homosexuality and so much more through Lucy. And yet she makes Lucy such an unreliable narrator that you are confused but want to know so much more and after a point you do not care, if Lucy is telling the truth or not. You believe her anyway. The book is pretty much rooted in Lucy’s childhood and her reactions to things as she is an adult comes from a deep, dark, lonely place.

On the surface, “My Name is Lucy Barton” may not seem much of a book, but as you dive into its pages, you can see it for what it is and if you are looking for more answers, then there’s the sequel “Anything is Possible” (which I need to get to as soon as possible). Strout proves that brevity could most of the time be the best tool used in fiction. This book is less than two hundred pages and yet it is not a fast read. You will mull and ponder over what you read. Perhaps even go back to some sentences.

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

“It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

“But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”

“But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.”

“Because we all love imperfectly.”

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The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop

The Anna Karenina Fix Title: The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature
Author: Viv Groskop
Publisher: Fig Tree, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241308639
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Memoirs
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I am a sucker for Russian Literature. I have read Anna Karenina twice and the Brothers Karamazov about two and a half times (I dropped it half-way the third time, because it was getting too much for once to handle) and not to forget Master and Margarita about twice as well. There are many more Russian works of great significance and most of it is classical or semi-modern. What I also love is books about books and “The Anna Karenina Fix” merges these elements beautifully. It is a book about books but Russian Literature and how it can save your life (well in more ways than one) and also how one can actually learn from it.

“The Anna Karenina Fix” by Viv Groskop is a handy guide to life as learned from the works of Russian Literature. Be it Chekov or Turgenev or Akhmatova, every book or author chosen by Groskop in this book has had a role to play in her life – in making her live it day after day, month after month and year after year. It is a warm and fuzzy (well, not so fuzzy) book about humans, their frailties, passions, desires and weaknesses when it comes to that.

The book charts the author’s relationship with everything Russian – language, art, culture and how she weaves her memories with the classics is something any reader who loves books will enjoy. At the same time, Groskop introduces the Russian classics to you if you hadn’t heard of them and does a very good job of that. Also, even though there are spoilers, but that will not take away from the experience of reading these Russian books if you want to at some point.

“The Anna Karenina Fix” is a solid book about living life and how to actually go about it through some Russian books. It is sublime, lucid and provides a great reading list as well. She also could have gotten preachy about the life lessons, however that doesn’t happen at all. If anything, it is all about what you can take away personally from these books and apply to your life (if you want to, that is).

Academic research material is not heavy-handedly used in the book. If anything, the language is extremely simple, just as it should be. “The Anna Karenina Fix” is the kind of book that creeps up on you unexpectedly and stays long after. It is also the kind of book that will make you read other books, which is a double-win if you ask me. So, go, read this book!

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

Hourglass Title: Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage
Author: Dani Shapiro
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0451494481
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

To sit back and see life passing you by. That’s the thought I had while reading, “Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage” by Dani Shapiro. It almost felt as though an old friend was speaking with me – telling me tales from her life, snippets that were hidden, incidents that had occurred a long time ago and were being recounted because she just wanted to let me know how she felt or feels. “Hourglass” though it is only 160 pages long, takes its own time to grow on you, and once it does, there is no way you can tear yourself from it.

So, you might wonder, why should I read a memoir about someone’s life and marriage when I don’t even know anything about the person? That’s a valid question to ask, however, that’s also where the answer is. You have to read the book, because Shapiro makes the disassociations feel familiar. Her emotions are universal (just like all of us) and we can relate to it one way or the other.

There are sweet and poignant moments and then others that are cast with essential sadness. Essential sadness – the kind of sadness that there is no running away from. The exploration of a marriage is so honest, that it almost takes you by surprise and awe at some points of the book.

She puts her marriage under a microscope. Initially, I was a little uncomfortable reading about her personal life (as it always happens to me when I read a memoir) but slowly and steadily for sure, I started looking at it more from the point of the writing, which is staggering. Her prose isn’t fancy or verbose and that to me is the beauty of the book. Marriage is difficult, sometimes impossible and Dani’s marriage to M of 18 years cannot be contained in one book. I hope there are others. For our sake. So we can all learn as we go along life.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Little, Brown
ISBN: 978-1408709726
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I knew exactly what I was getting into as I started reading “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng. I had read her first book two years ago called “Everything I Never Told You” and couldn’t wait to start her new one. I can for sure say that I enjoyed “Little Fires Everywhere” a lot more (sorry for that Celeste, though I also enjoyed your debut novel a lot as well). The prose, the description and more than that how life in America is when it comes to consumerism and parenthood at some point mingling together is brilliantly depicted in this novel of dysfunctional families, twisted minds and family ties.

“Little Fires Everywhere” begins with a house burnt down in a closely tight-knit planned community where nothing of this sort would be dreamed of happening by its residents. The idea of well-gated community called Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997 says a lot about the Utopia and unwelcome change and how all if it disrupts the Richardson family’s seemingly happy life, when Mia (a charismatic artist) and her shy fifteen-year old daughter Pearl, move to the town as tenants in the house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents.

This triggers events – mainly the differences in their lifestyles and also what is the attitude of the Richardsons when old family friends on theirs decide to adopt a Chinese-American baby – that would one day lead to the Richardson’s own house burning. I am not giving away anything, don’t worry, but all I can say is that this book kept me up longer than I intended those two nights it took me to finish it.

Celeste Ng has this amazing quality of going easy on the reader mostly and then out of nowhere, she shows you the cracks in relationships, the changes as people interact with each other and how explosive it all is under a calm surface. I loved the writing. It is fast and yet bringing out the details of every character – the Richardson family (mother, father and four teenage children), Mia and Pearl (who I loved as the book moved along) and also the other couple – every detail, every sentence is in place when it comes to “Little Fires Everywhere”. The title is so layered – depicting the fires within and the ones that we see. The ones we also feel but deny and move along in life. If you have to read one book this October (while there is still time), make it this one.

 

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby Title: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
Author: Cherise Wolas
Publisher: Flatiron Books
ISBN: 9781250166586
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 544
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

All Joan Ashby has ever wanted, since she was thirteen in fact, was to focus on her writing, write books and live independently without the care or concern of a husband or children. At the height of her fame and just when she is working on her full-length novel (up until now she has only written short stories), she meets Martin and falls in love with him. They seem to believe in the same things – kids are off the table and that their careers will always be placed above everything else. But of course, things aren’t what they seem. They get married and Joan accidentally becomes pregnant.

Martin then is ecstatic and Joan can sense the betrayal. The shift that takes place because of her pregnancy and how she is just there to raise a family and has to wait for years to work on her novel and what happens when she finally manages to finish the book is the plot of this book, “The Resurrection of Joan Ashby” by Cherise Wolas. It is about the small and the big betrayals of life, of hope, dreams, despair and how the choices you make end up impacting you for the rest of your life.

Let me just go on record and say this: I loved this book. I absolutely loved it. I loved the idea of a book within a book but more than anything else I loved Joan. Cherise Wolas has created a character that will be etched in people’s minds (if they read this book) for a long time. She is almost the new classic heroine who just wants to reclaim her life, one way or the other. The plot may seem pedestrian but it isn’t. Trust me, there is more to it than meets the eye.

The writing is super taut and yet with over 500 pages, it doesn’t seem too long at all. There is so much going on in the book that all I wanted to do was literally gulp all of it and could not stop wanting more. The heroine is just that – a heroine who wants to change her life – Joan wants that resurrection and goes after it at any cost, even if secrets start tumbling out of the closet. Is it a feminist novel? Sure, is and I am glad that it is to a very large extent. Wolas’s prowess is just showing and I hope her next one is out soon enough.