The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander

The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander Title: The Weight of a Piano
Author: Chris Cander
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525654674
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3.5/5

The book caught my eye when I read some people comparing it to Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I think the similarity ends with music being the focal theme of both books. The Weight of a Piano is a very different book, that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is a book about how a piano made in Romania, intersects lives – one that of a woman in Russia with that of a woman in the United States of America.

The Weight of a Piano is about relationships in the modern world, and also in the world gone by. The core though remains the same: what will you do if your one passion is taken away from you? What lengths will you go to perhaps even destroy yourself in the pursuit of the passion? How does then life be lived, with all its complexities and hurdles thrown in the way, every single day?

One story starts in 1962, when eight-year-old Katya is bequeathed a Blüthner piano, that will become the love of her life. She gets married in about eight years or so and moves to America with her family, only to lose the piano in the process.

It is 2012. Bakersfield, California, twenty-six-year old Clara Lundy not only loses a boyfriend, but also has to move to another apartment. With her she just must take the Blüthner, which she has never learned to play. It came down to her by parents who died in a fire accident. She was raised by her aunt and uncle. Her uncle had a car-repair shop and she is trained to become a mechanic.

While the piano is being moved to her new apartment, her hand gets broken – emotions run wild and she decides to sell the piano. Who is the buyer? What happens thereafter is the what makes the rest of the story of The Weight of a Piano.

This is a mystery somewhat, but mostly predictable. However, don’t go by that. The real meat of the story lies in the writing. Many metaphors and parallels run through the story, only enriching it. Of course, the title is also a metaphor for the weight of the characters’ lives and how sometime or the other, the burden needs to be dropped. What I loved the most were the musical references. Piano music is superb and to listen to those pieces while reading the book is another matter of joy.

Cander’s characters could be related to because they are rooted in reality. It is an unusual story in the sense of the piano, that is almost the central character. At the same time, I also thought it was a little too long and could’ve done with some editing. Having said that, the descriptions of both Russia and the American barren landscape are spot-on. The book also had me Googling for these places, just so I could understand the places I am reading about.

The Weight of a Piano is rich in description, and speaks of the true love between the artist and passion, and how people are connected one way or the other – sometimes through the music and sometimes just by what has happened in their lives, and very rarely both.

Advertisements

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Krishna Sobti. Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell.

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Krishna Sobti Title: A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There
Author: Krishna Sobti
Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670091195
Genre: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Memoir
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Despite the translation, Krishna Sobti’s book, “A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There” isn’t an easy read to begin with. Only when you get used to the person narratives being changed constantly, time being fluid, and above all anecdotes thrown about constantly, and in-between chapters, that you realize what a marvel of a book you are reading.

I honestly did not want this book to end. This novel (meta), memoir, a commentary on the Partition, a commentary even more on the world left behind, makes you want to explore everything written by Ms. Sobti, if you haven’t already read her. In fact, even if you have read her, you’d just want to go back and reread her books.

“A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There” is a book that can perhaps be summed as falling under many genres, but to me it was a book about the Partition, about home and longing, about old and new worlds that will never merge, and mainly about displacement. Krishna Sobti’s Zindaginama is perhaps one of the finest works on the Partition to have emerged from the subcontinent, however, this book is so diverse in the plot and sub-plots that to me it is perhaps even better than Zindaginama.

The setting of course is 1947. A young Krishna and her family are now in India. The country is new, and they are treated as refugees (more about this later). She is determined to make her own path in the world and an opportunity presents itself in the form of heading a preschool in the princely state of Sirohi. From there on, she faces misogynistic behaviour from Zutshi Sahab, the man charged with hiring for the position. And finally, she is governess by twist of fate to the child maharaja Tej Singh Bahadur, which accounts for around hundred pages of the book.

Like I said, the book is a lot of things, but don’t let that bother or distract you from the writing. Sobti’s writing is charming, often melancholic, and peppered with nostalgia. She constantly goes back in time to speak of pre-partition and how it was then. The comparisons also occur. For instance, when she meets her Nani and her great-uncle on a trip to Bombay, she is overwhelmed at how her Nani is still stuck in the past (and longs for it), and how her uncle ensures that she is well-taken care of.

One of my favourite scenes is when Sobti goes to visit her aunts in Ahmedabad and they think that drinking tea (cardamom and cinnamon) will make them forget about sad incidents. I love the simplicity of this scene. It is extremely endearing and relatable to most. Tea in a way does make you forget the bad things. Also, before I forget, my most favourite part of the book is the picnic Sobti’s friends and headmistress of the college go on due to her birthday is iconic. This happens before Partition, so the sense of it never happening again hits the author so hard, and in effect the reader.

Sobti’s writing is razor-sharp. She observes acutely and doesn’t hesitate to talk about the horrors of Partition, which is of course where the book gets the title from – a Gujarat with us and another Gujarat that side of the border. Another incident that brings out the ruin of Partition is Sobti speaking of Lady Mountbatten and Rameshwari Nehru visiting the refugee camps and how the women there were told to wear colourful orhnis to show respect for the Laat Sahiba.

Everything in this book is deliciously worded. Even though at times I wondered that it could become a translator’s nightmare – given how Sobti moves from past to present and changes person from first to third almost line after line. Daisy Rockwell has done a stupendous job of this translation. I loved The Women’s Courtyard last year, which was again translated by her. I love how she gets the nuance so right – the structure, the plot, and the meaning plus emotion doesn’t get lost at all. Rockwell gets it all pat-on and the reason I say it, is I am also reading the original in Hindi alongside.

Feminism in this book isn’t lost at all. If anything, it is so subtle and yet makes itself felt, heard, and seen on every page. From Sobti choosing to work away from home to her friends and aunts and niece’s choices, women empowerment and rights shine through the book. At the same time, it isn’t easy for them. Also, the parts when she asserts her role of a governess. Though she is taking care of royalty, she does what she must.

Krishna Sobti has written a lot about women and the hypocrisy faced by them in everyday life in her other works as well – from Zindaginama to Listen Girl! (Ae, Ladki) to To Hell with you, Mitro! (Mitro Marjani). If anything, just to know her body of work, read these as well, and more.

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There is a brilliant book, that juxtaposes the past and the present, with nostalgia and loss at its core. It is the kind of book that must definitely be read with copious amounts of tea on the side. Read it! You will hands-down love it.

 

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Mouthful of Birds Title: Mouthful of Birds
Author: Samanta Schweblin
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1786074560
Genre:
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The world of Samanta Schweblin’s stories is intriguing. There is aplenty and then there is nothing. You begin to wonder as a reader, in-between being stumped by the prose and the sheer magnitude of the story being read, whether or not you are worthy of it. The stories are nightmarish for sure, but then Schweblin also prepares you for them right at the beginning. The context and the tone are set immaculately, the translation by Megan McDowell precise to the last word and emotion, and more than anything else the diversity of the collection, only makes you want to turn the pages sooner, even if the collection seems too long at twenty stories.

Mouthful of Birds is strange. But that’s what makes it so delicious a read. The title story is that of a teenaged girl, who to the fascination (at some point) and repulsion of her divorced parents resorts to only eating live birds. It just happens, one fine day without any reason. So what does one feel after reading such a story? Pity? Empathy (can you, really)? Disgust? Schweblin gives you enough and more room to feel, get in touch with your emotions at the end of the every story, only to be met with another story, with another set of emotions all over again.

The devastating realities of fairy tales creep up in The Merman. You cannot help but go back to your childhood and be alarmed at what you read. This is just Schweblin’s perspective when she has a story to tell and it shines. Or you have a story such as “Butterflies” whose end will leave your stomach churning and wanting more. The imagery of no two stories is remotely similar. Schweblin draws every story and every framework from different places and varied emotions, which makes it even more interesting.

That’s the thing about Samanta’s stories. They make you wonder, you are awed, fascinated even, repulsed, revolted, and yet you cannot help but turn the page to the next one. It is the feeling of a roller-coaster ride, knowing you are going to fall, plunge headlong and yet there is this excitement – the butterflies-in-your-stomach kind of a feeling. If anything and more, this collection is ferocious.

You can also tell that the stories have matured and come to the author over a period of time. These have not been written all at once, and it shows. The translation by Megan McDowell is on-point. She also translated Fever Dream by Schweblin, which was written after this collection but translated and published in English before. But that’s just a technicality in the sense of publishing timeline.

What is truly astounding is how McDowell makes the original voice hers, thereby giving us a culminated effort. The multiple stories breathe and live multiple lives. It is as though you can see the author mature and an underlined theme runs throughout – that of intense dysfunctional of family and the self. Headlights, the opening story is strange – Schweblin has got the emotion pat-down and you can see the misogyny of men. In another story titled Preserves, an unborn baby is spat out (perhaps unwanted as well). Each story shines and has its own unique element. Some leave the reader satisfied, while others don’t.

Mouthful of Birds breaks ground in storytelling and so many times also sticks to the traditional format of showing more and telling less. It challenges readers every step of the way, and never lets you imagine what will happen next. Samanta Schweblin’s reality is the one we inhabit and also the one we are way far-off from. That to me is the beauty and core of this fantastic short-story collection, that deserves to be read by almost everyone.

The Legacy of Nothing by Manoj Pandey. Illustrations by Yuko Shimizu

The Legacy of Nothing by Manoj Pandey Title: The Legacy of Nothing
Author: Manoj Pandey
Publisher: Pan Macmillan India
ISBN: 978-9386215628
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 126
Source: Publisher
Rating: 2 stars

There are times you are reading a book and really hope and pray that you like it, that it doesn’t disappoint you, till it does, and honestly you then do not know what to do. Should one continue reading it? Endure it so to say, for some time only, like a bad relationship is endured? Should one drop it? I read it. It had a lot of promise, if only the stories were longer and better structured.

The Legacy of Nothing by Manoj Pandey is a collection of ten byte-sized (forgive me for using this phrase) stories. I don’t know if the stories are poems or the poems are stories, either way, it didn’t work for me. The landscape of Manoj’s stories is beguiling. You want to be sucked into it. You want more and end up receiving nothing.

His stories are of migrants, of people who just want to make a living with dreams and hopes of their own, of people who are treated callously in their own country, feeling dejected and alienated. This is precisely why I wanted to love this collection, to soak into their lives, but maybe the form of writing isn’t for me.

The collection starts with how we project ourselves on social media and the lengths we will go to achieve that. The first story “Decay” hits you hard when the protagonist, a struggling musician will go to any lengths to stir a sensation online – even take advantage of a story of rape. Or the one titled “Inadequacy” which is about new age role-plays and how it fits into our current social conditioning (which by the way doesn’t come through at all). “Pretty as Fuck” is about Facebook friends who chat, interact, get to know each other, and then what happens when they meet. There are seven other stories – of a Maoist who finds solace in sips of Coca-Cola (the only one I could feel toward), of a man who changes his sex (The longest story in the collection. I wish there was some empathy while writing this), and more in the same vein.

So, here’s the thing: The stories aren’t empathetic enough toward its characters, or perhaps they don’t want to project that to the reader. Maybe that’s how it is when it comes to these stories and its fine, but as a reader I felt nothing for the characters.

The writing seems rushed and not involving. Everything is just on the surface. The format is new and works initially, only to become jaded and leave you wanting more. The Legacy of Nothing sadly leaves you with nothing at the end of the book.

Figuring by Maria Popova

Figuring by Maria Popova Title: Figuring
Author: Maria Popova
Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 978-1524748135
Genre: Biographies, Memoirs, Science
Pages: 592
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

How does one begin to explain a book like Figuring? Honestly, I don’t know, however, I shall try. The book Figuring is much like Popova’s site, brainpickings.org: it is sort of a Russian doll, revealing layer after layer after layer, only if you wish to see it, or perhaps experience it. Figuring is a book that you should read with the mindset of allowing the book to take it where it wants to, without expecting something too traditional or run of the mill.

Figuring is a beautiful combination of science with art. The alignment sticks – how each of them is intertwined and how art inspires science and vice-versa. It is like her website, only more detailed – pieces that go on and go and that’s what I loved as a reader, knowing I didn’t have to scroll up or down and could be after reading one paragraph or two and going back to it after a cup of tea.

Maria Popova’s book brings the wonder of scientists and then combines it with hearts and emotions of people, mainly women scientists and that to me was most unique. Figures looks at love, and truth through the interconnected lives of historical figures across four centuries. She begins with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and it ends with Rachel Carson who was so important in the environmental movement.

And in all of this, Popova includes more artists, writers, and scientists (which makes it even more fun to read) – women, and queer and their contribution. What I love about Figuring is that it is like a rabbit hole that you would love getting into. Maria Popova interconnects, segregates, and makes you question matters of life, love, and the heart and what are we doing to leave an impression on the world.

Figuring asks big questions and it isn’t afraid of doing that. There is so much happening in the book that it takes some time to assimilate all of that, and only then can you get into its groove (or at least that’s what happened to me). Figuring would seem disconnected and disjointed in most places, till it all falls into place and that’s when you as a reader start seeing it for what it is. The book is a marriage of art, life, science, music, philosophy, feminism, decline of religion, free love, astronomy and poetry, and honestly no one better to do it than our very trusted Brain Picker.