Tag Archives: 2017 Reads

Fresh Complaint: Stories by Jeffrey Eugenides

Fresh Complaint Title: Fresh Complaint: Stories
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374203061
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Jeffrey Eugenides’ writing has come a long way. Who am I to judge that? His ardent fan. One of his ardent fans, who could not get enough of The Virgin Suicides or Middlesex or The Marriage Plot (weakest among the three and yet, I loved it to bits). One of his fans who cannot stop raving about his new book “Fresh Complaint”, a collection of short stories that shows family love, discovery of the self, adolescence, identity and what it means to be American (well, not all the time) through ten stunning stories (two of them which I found to be off, but loved them nonetheless).

I have also always believed that writing short stories is way more difficult than the novel. Short stories have to be taut. You cannot take liberties with time and space as you would in a novel and that makes them even more difficult when it comes to engaging with readers. In Eugenides’ stories we meet people who are broken, who are whole, who go through life in a daze and some who think they have it all under control and stumble only to realize that this isn’t the life they wanted anyway.

My favourite stories in this collection are “Baster” – which is funny and yet so tragic and also “Air Mail” – which is about Mitchell whose story was left hanging in The Marriage Plot and this story somewhat gives it closure. “Complainers”, the first story in the collection is about dementia, old age and above all of the beautiful friendship two women share over the years. And last but not the least, I absolutely could not get enough of the title story. “Fresh Complaint” is a story that could very well have been a novel. It is the story of a high school student whose wish to escape her immigrant family has consequences on a British physicists’ life beyond repair.

Characters in this collection are not kind all the time. They are just human. Eugenides allows his characters to make their mistakes, live their dreams and see regrets for what they are. He takes you to uncomfortable places and is not apologetic about it. These stories date from 1989 to 2017, out of which eight were previously published (I hadn’t read any). “Fresh Complaint” is a collection of stories that are real, insightful and dark, allowing characters to hide, to be seen and not without some humour as well.

 

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Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence Title: Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life
Author: Annie Spence
Publisher: Flatiron Books, Macmillan USA
ISBN: 978-1250106490
Genre: Non-Fiction, Books about Books, Bibliophile
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Dear, Dear Fahrenheit 451,

You are a book about books and the love of reading. With this in mind, let me tell you how much I then love you, just by this fact alone. I loved you the moment I saw you on Amazon (you aren’t available in bookshops in India, yet) and knew I had to read you. You were sent by the publisher for an honest review and here we are!

Your author is a librarian (I think still is) and you are an ode to reading and books in the form of letters to each of them – not all books she has read – but the ones she thinks of fondly, the ones she doesn’t like all that much and the ones that really must go. It is also a book from a librarian’s perspective which I enjoyed very much. I must say Annie has written you very well. Your language is simple, and what is great is that one can discover more books through you. I love such books and in effect, I ended up loving you.

There is a letter inside of you to Grey which I thought was hilarious of the lot. Also, another one to, “To Kill a Mockingbird” about her sister’s love of reading which reminded me of my siblings and their love for books. You know the one addressed to “Fahrenheit 451” felt as though Annie knew that the end of books was near but the way she turned it on its head gave me so much hope for the future. Also, before I forget the letter addressed to the children’s section of the public library was most heartening, because if children do not read now, then how will they read when they grow up? Children must read. Don’t you agree?

Annie’s writing is funny, heartwarming and so true to the heart, given she works with books, readers and the love of reading. That is why you must know how much I love books about books. I could also understand why she broke up with a couple of books – I mean come on, we do move on in life and sometimes we just don’t have it in us to read books that weren’t made for us. You understand that too, isn’t it? Well, you are a book about that. But you are a book above all, about the joy of books, of book lists (in the last section, which I loved to the boot, by the way) and to tell the world to go away, since one is reading. You would understand that, Dear, Dear Fahrenheit 451. You so would.

I would love everyone to pick you up and read you. To chuckle at the letters to books inside of you. This is my rather insipid letter to you but I know you will not mind it. After all, I loved you and devoured you in three days!

There is a letter inside you, written by Annie to The Fledgling, where she says, “When people say books are full of wonder, we don’t take it seriously enough. You are over thirty-five years old. You smell like old paper and smudged fingertips. You’ve lain dusty and untouched for decades. And you’re magic.” This filled me with so much sunshine. Thank you for this book. Thanking Annie for this.

Yours,
A lover of books, a lover of books about books and a lover of reading.

 

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.”

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.

Baking with Kafka: Comics by Tom Gauld

Baking with Kafka by Tom Gauld Title: Baking with Kafka
Author: Tom Gauld
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd.
ISBN: 978-1786891501
Genre: Comics, Graphic, Humour
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Till now, I have just read one book by Tom Gauld and that is “Mooncop”, which I absolutely loved and couldn’t stop raving about for a long time. And now, the same is the case with “Baking with Kafka”. This one is a series of comics, some of which have been previously published in various publications and most of which focus on books and reading. There are some here and about on pop culture references, but essentially, this one is a treat for all booklovers.

Baking With Kafka - Image 1

Gauld has this minimal sense of drawing which works wonders for me (it isn’t for all, let me also tell you that). The words may not have that kind of impact (mostly, they do) but the drawings most certainly do and sometimes I thought to myself that maybe the words weren’t even needed. I found myself smiling a lot at the literary cartoons. It reminded me of the times when I was growing up and would wait eagerly for the newspaper, only to read the comics page.

Baking with Kafka - Image 2

For instance, there is this cartoon on Jonathan Franzen and how he is averse to any kind of marketing to how a romance novel should be written to when the book is adapted to a movie and the book’s reaction to my most favourite one of how books are classified on bookshelves. As a reader, I could connect to most of what is there in this book. I had never read any of these strips before, so the experience was new and refreshing and did not seem jaded at all.

Baking With Kafka - Image 3

“Baking with Kafka” is a funny, wry book that will leave you with a lot of laughs. If you are having a bad day or in general a grim time, this is the book to go to. Will cheer you like no other.