Tag Archives: 2019 Reads

When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History by Hugh Ryan

When Brooklyn Was Queer Title: When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History
Author: Hugh Ryan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 978-1250169914
Genre: LGBT Nonfiction, Social and Cultural History
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I had never read something like this before – yes cities and the queer culture did merge in books and I have read parts of it, but nothing like this book. I honestly also believe that every city’s culture needs to be talked about through the people who live on its margins, and maybe that’s why this book hit a nerve the way it did. When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History by Hugh Ryan is the kind of book we all need to read, irrespective of orientation and labels.

The story begins in 1855 with the publication of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and ends in the 1960s when Brooklyn’s queer identity declined, due to several factors. You have to read this book only because the way Ryan unearths how there was a systematic erasure of the queer history of Brooklyn. What must one remember then? Who decides that? What is at the core of people’s histories and more than anything else of places?

Not only this, this book is fantastic if you want to get to know people’s voices and lives – queer lives – right from the famous drag kings and queens of the 1800s, of a black lesbian named Mabel Hampton and how she worked as a dancer, of a WWII gay spy scandal and so much more between its pages.

Ryan’s writing is never just a dry documentation of facts. There is so much more to it. There is tenderness and empathy and above all it is a voice that strives to let people know more. Also, the nuances of gender identity, orientation, and sometimes even race are handled with such a sense of larger understanding of issues, that it makes you want to read more.

More than anything else it is about resistance and no matter what governments do or stand for, people will always continue to live the way they want to, which should be at the core of every identity battle. Ryan’s research is spot-on, so much so that you instantly feel that you are in that world, the minute you start reading the book. He shares letters, diary entries, and publication excerpts to support and validate his arguments of what was erased and how it was found.

What I loved the most was the beautiful prologue – a short one at that but so effective – a glimpse into the lives of Gypsy Rose Lee and Carson McCullers, and from thereon begins what it means to be “queer”.

When Brooklyn Was Queer is one of those rare books that makes you want to sit up and take notice of what’s going on in the world. The past, present, and future merge seamlessly in this account of what history allows us and what it doesn’t. The small joys, sorrows, the sacrifices made, the lives that carry on regardless, and most of all what it means to be queer is what this remarkable book is about. Do not miss out on this read.

 

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The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad Title: The Parisian
Author: Isabella Hammad
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 9780802129437
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 576
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Hands down, The Parisian is one of the best books I’ve read this year and its only mid-March. But I can say this with utmost assurance. I do not normally read historical novels but The Parisian is an exception I am glad I made. It would have been a lost opportunity had I decided not to read this book. Plus this book is not only historical, but also psychological in nature, which makes you want to read it even more.

This is a debut and I couldn’t believe it. Hammad writes with such assurance and elegance, that no reader can believe that this is her first work. Anyhow, now to the plot. The book opens at the time of the First World War. Midhat Kamal, a young Palestinian from Nablus is forced by his autocratic father to study medicine in Montpellier, France. There, he stays at the home of a professor at the college, Docteur Molineu, who is extremely warm to him. While studying, Midhat falls head over heels in love with Molineu’s daughter, Jeannette. And this is where all troubles begin.

When the war is over, he returns to Nablus and begins to rediscover his homeland, deciding to work for his family’s clothing business. He focuses then on the old, and forgets France, as though it was just something that occurred in a different lifetime. He marries someone he doesn’t even know, has children, and his life is pretty much on track, till something occurs and his world blows apart.

This is where the political and personal merge in the novel and from hereon are my favourite parts of the novel. Hammad’s writing is lucid, and yet complex. She doesn’t spoon-feed the reader. She throws crumbs – you have to follow it, and learn more about the time, the conflict, and some resolutions concerning the timeline in which the book is set.

The Parisian deals with so many issues that one time that sometimes it becomes difficult to follow everything at once, but if you persist and read back and forth, the book is a treasure. There is the question of personal identity,  cultural identity, again given the time it is set in the idea of politics and the self, family to be placed at the helm or not, and a nation on the brink of struggling for independence. Phew! There is needed a lot going on, but not once does Hammad stray from what she wants the reader to feel while reading the book. The element of suspense and intrigue also makes you want to turn the page sooner than you know.

The writing is indeed of top-form. Yes, there are a lot of colloquialisms  but that helps you learn something new and that worked for me. And all of this is told with such clarity and well-constructed prose that it is nothing short of joy to read this novel. The Parisian is a novel that questions, gives answers as well, makes you think beyond your comfort zone, and does all of this with great warmth and tenderness.

The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor Title: The Dragonfly Sea
Author: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0451494047
Genre: Coming of Age, Literary Fiction
Pages: 512
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Books that manage to capture place, time, person, and at the same time keep the prose intact and tight are rare to come about. The Dragonfly Sea is one of them. It scores very high on each of these parameters and then some more. When I say more, I mean what the reader feels for the characters, which to me is primary. The Dragonfly Sea is the kind of book that will keep you enthralled, and make you wonder about the Kenyan landscape – but more than anything else it will leave you wanting more of Owuor’s writing.

The book opens on the island of Pate, off the coast of Kenya, where stubborn Ayaana lives with her mother, Munira. Ayaana has never known what it’s like to be with a father, till Muhidin, a sailor enters their lives and things start to change. There is so much happening in the book that for some time I had to just pause and take a breath. That’s the power of this book. It also reminded me of Homegoing but not so much. So, it is its own person so to say and I love that about it.

The Dragonfly Sea is a coming-of-age book that is unlike any other I have read. Maybe it is the setting, but mostly it is the way Owuor has written this book. This is the first time I am read something by her, and it won’t definitely be the last. Ayaana’s voice, her thoughts, and the way circumstances impact her thoughts are beautifully expressed throughout the book. Whether is a visitor with a murky past or from dragonflies to a tsunami or kidnappers, or even her journey to the Far East, every plot-line has a purpose to serve and even though the book stretches to five hundred and twelve pages, it is worth every sentence.

Owuor’s prose strikes you immediately, it almost jumps at you and you also have to reread some sentences to make sense of what’s going on. It might even take some time for the reader to get into the book, but once you get the hang of the plot and the sub-plots, there’s no stopping you. I loved how descriptions change as per place, which of course they will, but I guess just the deftness with which it is done is remarkable. All details are laid out, and that helps a lot. The emotions of characters are unpredictable and that helps steer the novel in various directions, which is needed for a saga such as this one.

The Dragonfly Sea is one of those books that has it all – adventure, compassion, the choices we make and how difficult they prove to be, and of course more than anything else the need for home – to what becomes home and where we feel at ease. It is the kind of book you want to come home to at the end of the day and not stop reading at all. A fantastic read that is not to be missed.

 

 

Mr Salary by Sally Rooney

Mr Salary by Sally RooneyTitle: Mr Salary
Author: Sally Rooney
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 9780571351954
Genre: Short Story
Pages: 48
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

March 2019 has been a slow reading month. This is only the 4th read and I know I will also catch up. It’s okay to take it easy sometimes. It is just fine to read at the pace you wish to. So I then decided to read the Faber Stories (there are 20 of them, I own about 13), one by one, and this is the first that I read today.

And just like that perspective shifts. And just like that Sally Rooney writes a short story that has the capacity to pierce and make you wonder about circumstances of falling in love, of the nature of love itself. .

Mr Salary is one of the 20 mini books published by Faber Books as a part of their celebrating 90 years of publishing. It is a story of Sukie and Nathan, of what brings them together and what keeps them apart. Read it. There is nothing Rooney can’t write about. It is a story about love that is different (might sound cliched but please do read it) and how it sustains itself over time. Also, how the story gets its name is kind of funny and delightful to read about.

Rooney’s characters are so layered and complex, even in a short story. That’s the writing prowess and the world she conjures. It almost feels that you are a part of it all for those 40 pages or so. Her writing is sparse but is most effective. I know it is a short story and perhaps doesn’t exactly count as a “book read”. However, it most certainly has the potential to become a full-fledged novel. Read it for the prose. Read it for the setting (Dublin). Read it for how she has the ability to make sense of (sometimes) some emotions.

Women by Mihail Sebastian. Translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

Women by Mihail SebastianTitle: Women
Author: Mihail Sebastian
Translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
Publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590519547
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I am so glad I read this rediscovered classic. This book is a short, simple story of love. It is a book about a young Romanian man who has just finished his medical studies in Paris and quickly decides to vacation in the Alps. This is where the action begins. This is where he falls in love with three women. The book is about each of them, in context with him, and of course what happens next.

There are four interlinked stories in the book, of course all relating to Stefan Valeriu. I love books that have stories that are again interrelated. Something extremely satisfying reading such books. I think the landscape of the book helped a lot as well – the Alps and Paris – glorious as ever.

The sections in the book are titled after the women they describe: Émilie, Maria, Arabela, and so on. The book actually takes place over two world wars but I am glad that none of them are spoken about in great detail. The idea I think was just to focus on personal relationships and not political, as often is the case in his books. The character of Stefan Valeriu is so complex and yet so simple, that sometimes I wondered what was the author trying to tell us through him. The unrequited loves and passions are highlighted wonderfully through some really short sentences throughout the book, which seem to work very well.

Women is a very strong and powerful novella/novel. It makes so many points that sometimes I would wonder while reading it, how could Sebastian manage to do all that in such a short book and yet he did. Also, might I add that regret is one of the recurring themes in the book – which is handled so delicately. I haven’t read too many books where this has been brought out this well. The long diary sections are a treat to read and extremely memorable.

Women is elegant and lyrical. It is the kind of book that is languid in its pace and deserves to be read that way. Also, Philip Ó Ceallaigh has managed to keep the elements of ennui and alienation extremely intact through the prose. I think very few translators manage to do that, and just for this I will look at his other works. Women is a book which is most certainly not to be missed.