How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel - Essays by Alexander Chee Title: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays
Author: Alexander Chee
Publisher: Mariner Books, HMH
ISBN: 978-1328764522
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It isn’t easy to write a book of essays that charts life. And when you come across a work that is so lucid, questions the world and has so many identities rolled into itself, that you just have to sit up, take notice and devour it cover to cover. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” by Alexander Chee is one such collection of finest essays of our times and that is mainly because it is as honest as it can get. There is something about books that come from the heart – they manage to get through to you breaking all pretense and that’s what this collection of essays does to you. It gets through.

Alexander Chee’s writing was only known to me through his earlier literary fiction works, “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night” which I loved immensely. This is his foray into non-fiction and I just hope that he continues writing many such essays. What I found a notch above the essay collections I have read in the past couple of months in this one was just the candid and heartwarming way in which they are written.

Chee doesn’t shy from talking about his life, his struggles and his perception of the world at large. When you write non-fiction, you become more susceptible to judgment than when you write fiction. Everyone may not have an opinion about the storyline or characters but one sure does have an opinion (maybe more) on the world and its issues.

Chee’s essays range from growing-up in America and how different identities take over his life – a son, a Korean American, a gay man, a student, a teacher and a novelist amongst others. I loved the way he connected his life to his country and its issues and everything just seemed one. For instance, the section on AIDS and then again on 9/11 were most hard-hitting to me. When he speaks of literature (there are so many references throughout the book), you just want to sit up and listen. I for one, remember re-reading so many passages about writing and what it takes to be a writer.

Alexander Chee’s essays are wry, real, political (everything is political in today’s time and age), and above all makes us ask questions of art and life and what happens to it all, when they come under attack. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” is hands down one of the best essay collections of 2018 and I am not speaking too soon.

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Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur

Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur Title: Heart Spring Mountain
Author: Robin MacArthur
Publisher: Ecco
ISBN: 978-0062444424
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

What is home and what does it mean to you? For the longest time, I have asked myself these questions and gotten nowhere with knowing the answer. Maybe I don’t want to anymore. The idea of home if ever, is just people and memories, I suppose. The place you perhaps can go back to every time you feel out and down in the big, bad world. Isn’t that home?

“Heart Spring Mountain” is to be read with all this in mind but at the same time, it demands to be read without judgment. Robin MacArthur’s book is full of sub-plots and characters that are easy to judge and bracket and yet we forget – the terrain of the human heart is constantly changing. There is no room forjudgment​t. It is what it is.

August 2011. Tropical Storm Irene has wreaked havoc on Vermont. Vale receives a call in New Orleans about her mother Bonnie’s disappearance. Vale has long been estranged from Bonnie and yet decides to go home in search of her. Vale then rediscovers herself and the relationships she ran away from – the three generations of women who live on Heart Spring Mountain – the land that belonged to her forefather, leading her to a secret that she could never think of.

So here’s the deal with Heart Spring Mountain: You might get confused initially, given multiple narratives (that happens to me quite a lot) but once you do manage to sink your teeth into the book (which will happen very soon given the prose of MacArthur that shines and breathes life on almost every page), reading this book is a joyride.

While Vale is one of the central characters, and I hoped to have read more of her, I nonetheless enjoyed the different narratives and how lives merge at the end of it all. The pull of the land is strong on this book and to me it is all about the stories – where we grow up, the same place where we depart from and how it all comes back together in some way or another – we then learn to find our way back.
“Heart Spring Mountain” is emotional. It isn’t sentimental. MacArthur captures the rural lay of the land stunningly and adds so many moments of joy and tenderness that everything seems right with the world. It is also quite hard to imagine that it is a debut. Read it one Sunday afternoon and be mesmerized.

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

Feel Free - Essays by Zadie Smith Title: Feel Free: Essays
Author: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0241146897
Genre: Essays, Non-Fiction
Pages: 464
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

My association with the works of Zadie Smith started somewhere in 2003, with White Teeth. It was one of those books that are actually unputdownable (I have always been of the opinion that terms such as these are nothing but marketing gimmicks). Since then, Smith has been one of my favourite writers and with good reason. Her prose is like biting into a plum – tart and sweet and almost awakens you from your stupor. It makes you stand up and take notice of how the world works and perhaps what it always was. Smith doesn’t mince her words. Her characters are everyday people who speak their mind and this is also reflective in her new collection of essays, aptly or ironically (given the world we live in) titled, “Feel Free”.

“Feel Free” to me is one of the books of our times. The kind of book that doesn’t preach but makes so many relevant points that you want to see the world and put it so eloquently as Smith does. It is the collection of essays which are spread over five sections – In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf and Feel Free. These sections pose questions that we recognize and perhaps want answers to: What is the Social Network? What is joy and what is the tolerance of it, if there is something like it? How many kinds of boredom make up life? Who owns the narrative of black America? There are many such questions over a diverse range of topics and that’s what makes Zadie’s essays stand out.

Feel Free speaks of pop culture, culture, social change, political debate, the ever-changing fabric of society and what it really means to be human in the 21st century. Some of these essays have appeared before and some are new. At the same time, all of them are relevant and essential to most areas of our lives.

Smith’s essays are sometimes written with the perspective of an insider, but mostly she is an outsider looking in. It isn’t difficult to understand Smith and to me that was the most brilliant aspect of this collection. For instance, when she writes about a book, you want to get up and go read it. When she speaks of Joni Mitchell, you just want to listen to “River” and “Circle Game” on loop. To me, that is the power of great writing.

Essays are often tough to read and since they are so personal in nature, it becomes even more difficult to gauge the place they are coming from. This does not happen when you are reading “Feel Free”. Zadie’s essays are personal and yet appeal to all. The universal quality of her words is too strong to not be understood and related to. “Feel Free” is the collection of essays that needs to be savoured and pondered on. The one that you will not forget easily.

The Armenian Champa Tree by Mahasweta Devi. Translated by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee

The Armenian Champa Tree by Mahasweta Devi.jpg Title: The Armenian Champa Tree
Author: Mahasweta Devi
Translated from the Bengali by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee
Publisher: Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-8170461463
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Works
Pages: 54
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember reading my first Mahasweta Devi book at the age of twenty-two I think. It was a long time ago or so it seems like. Since then, I have read and re-read her works. I have tried to make sense of her world or the worlds she creates from reality. I have often found myself helpless, not because I can’t do anything for the under-privileged but because I am perhaps lazy.

At the same time, reading her makes you feel so many things that you just feel them – you don’t fight her writing and you mustn’t. However, “The Armenian Champa Tree” is the kind of book which is layered by politics and caste system and yet doesn’t seem like that. It is one of those books by her which is easy to read (also given that it is so short) and yet makes you think about what she is trying to say.

Mato is a young Buno tribal boy of ten and all he does is daydream, which is mother despises. He is most attached to his pet baby goat, Arjun. A tantric saint demands Arjun’s sacrifice to the goddess Kali and thus begins Mato’s quest to save the baby goat, even if it means entering the Armenian church for it. This is where the stroke of genius of Mahasweta Devi lies. She talks of religious superstitions and makes us see the world for what it is through the eyes of a young boy and a goat. To me, just that was enough to pick up the book.

Also, might I add that the translation by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee is spot on. The reason I say this without reading this in the original form is that some words and phrases are as is which only add to the flavor of the book, at the same time, leaving not wanting for more.

“The Armenian Champa Tree” seems to be an easy book to read and absorb on the surface and it is. Till the layers start peeling and you enjoy it even more.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn Title: The Woman in the Window
Author: A.J. Finn
Publisher: William Morrow, HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0062678416
Genre: Literary Fiction, Thriller
Pages: 448
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I am not a fan of thrillers. I do not read them so often, however, I wanted to read “The Woman in the Window”. Although it would be shelved under thrillers or mystery, it is definitely more than that, according to me. It is extremely literary and not in the hard-kind-of-way-to-read literary. It is a very easy read but it keeps you engaged. Pages may not fly as they do when you read a thriller but let me also tell you that you have to immerse yourself in about one hundred and twenty pages or so till you get to the juicy parts and it is worth every turn of the page.

“The Woman in the Window” also has an unreliable narrator and I am for one not big on this form of writing, however, this might it seemed to work for me. Dr. Anna Fox is a psychologist (child psychologist) who peers through her camera at the neighbours in 212, stuck in her agoraphobic world in her very expensive apartment, estranged from her husband, Ed and young daughter Olivia. She also plays chess online and is a part of an online forum to help other agoraphobics. She goes by the ID thedoctorisin.

At the same time, Anna isn’t one of the most reliable people you know of (that’s why the unreliable narration). She drinks red wine and in copious quantities. She also overdoses her medication. Her psychiatrist Dr. Fielding, comes to check in one her once a week and all her time if not spent snooping in others’ lives, is spent watching old crime noir films. Till one fine day, Anna notices something happening in 212 and life is never the same.

A.J. Finn creates a sense of claustrophobia most of the time (guess it is intended) for his readers and that lends extremely well while reading the book. I often found myself looking over my shoulder to see if someone was around and most often just to breathe, as I thought I was out of breath. Having said that, the writing is light but not without being intelligent and witty (in some places).

The entire book almost feels like a Hitchcock film – you can almost visualize it and to add to that there are these references (and sometimes scenes as well) of the movies Anna loves to watch and watches when the action is going on. I loved the references! What I also liked about the writing is that A.J. Finn doesn’t spoon-feed you with the sub-plots or characters. It flows as the story ambles along. The pace I did have a problem with initially, but that sorted itself early on.

“The Woman in the Window” is a thriller that will make you fall in love with the way characters are sketched, plots are intertwined and unravel and the overall plot structure. A.J. Finn has created a book that is clever as it shows itself to you, page after page. A read not to be missed out this year.