Tag Archives: 2019 Women Writers Reading Project

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.

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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.

Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston

Deep Creek by Pam Houston Title: Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
Author: Pam Houston
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393241020
Genre: Non-fiction, Memoirs
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Pam Houston’s Deep Creek has to be read, actually savoured with enough time on your hand. It cannot and shouldn’t be rushed with. This book is about home and place and what is their meaning to someone who has spent half her life travelling around the world. More than that though, it is about the places we inhabit, the landscapes we belong to, the daily rituals of living and caring for people around you. Deep Creek is all about celebrating nature, and above that survival not only in the wilderness, but also around you.

The book is about Pam’s 120-acre homestead high in the Colorado Rockies. It is about more than that though. It is about what it means to take care of land, nurture it, care for creatures on it, and finally make it such a part of you that nowhere else really is home. Pam Houston’s book isn’t something others perhaps haven’t written on or dabbled with. What makes this book special then? In all honesty, and to put it as simply, and as clichéd as it might sound: The writing.

What struck me the most delightful about the book is the connections Pam makes between her ranch and the travels she undertakes. At the same time, the beauty of it all in the ranch being the only place she sees as home and almost a sanctuary – the place that provides her much comfort and solace, after going through a childhood of parental neglect and abuse. So that’s another aspect to the book, but Houston for once doesn’t stray away from the core of the book as it were.

Pam’s writing to me is as lucid as the air she breathes. It is as stunning and clear as her experiences with nature – land, animals, seasons, the fire experienced, and in all of this the person she becomes or evolves to be. The thing is that while reading the book, I wanted to be a part of the landscape that Pam inhabited, with every single turn of the page. At times, I thought there was more to every chapter, but more than happy with what is written as well.

Deep Creek is the kind of book that makes you soak in all of it – it is a memoir,    it is written from the heart (to me any book that does that is more than enough worthy to be read and it shows), and more than anything else it is absolutely fascinating to see what it feels like to lose contact with land and then to regain it (this will become clearer as you read the book).

The stories in Deep Creek are real (but of course) and motivated mainly by gratitude – for spaces that are available to us, and nature that surrounds us. There is this sense of comfort, longing, and delight while reading it. I read it over a period of time – a couple of chapters here and there and loved it even more. Deep Creek to me, must be read by all, cherished, and passed over to spread the hope and perseverance.

 

 

Romtha by Mahasweta Devi. Translated from the Bengali by Pinaki Bhattacharya

Romtha by Mahasweta Devi Title: Romtha
Author: Mahasweta Devi
Translated from the Bengali by Pinaki Bhattacharya
Publisher: Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-8170462576
Genre: Indian Writing, Novella, Novelette
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

I remember the time the movie Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa had released. It was directed by Govind Nihalani and had got not such a great theatrical release. I think it barely must have released in a couple of theatres in Bombay. The year was 1998. That was the time I got to know that the movie that touched me so deeply was based on a book. I also discovered to my pleasure that one of my favourite movies released five years ago in 1993, Rudaali, was also based on the same author’s short story. Those were the times when great literature was converted to films in Indian cinema – till of course the likes of Govinda movies took over. That’s not the point though.

It has been 20 years since I have been reading Mahasweta Devi’s works. Repeatedly. Sometimes, chancing upon one of your favourite authors’ works, purely by accident is the best that could have happened to you. Thankfully, she has written prolifically, and we have so many of her works at our disposal, thanks to Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books.

Mahasweta Devi’s writing is not easy, no matter how big or small her works are. The beauty of the short story written by her is that it has the same impact as that of a novel penned by her. Romtha (Criminal, Convict) is one such example. I cannot believe I hadn’t read it till now, but this lament is for a later date. Back to the book.

Romtha is a story of a criminal – a beautiful young man, Sharan, who is condemned to death for a crime of passion – that of his lover, a beautiful courtesan, Chandrabali. He has killed her and mourns for her, almost yearns for her. In all of this, there is a lonely widow, Subhadra, pining for Sharan – wanting him and yet wants nothing more than her freedom as well. All of this takes place in twelfth century Bengal – shifting from the royal city of Gaur and the rural landscape of Bengal – focusing on how the Romtha culture came to be, drawing details on casteism, hypocrisy of the world, and chalking characters who find no redemption or second chances at life.

Mahasweta Devi’s writings are not comfortable. They make you uncomfortable and rightly so. She talks of issues that she has experienced first-hand. You cannot expect getting into a Mahasweta Devi work and not be reeled by the injustice meted by our society to the less privileged. Romtha speaks of so much more and the muted silences in-between do most of the talking. Every character – from Gopal – the chief security who forces Chandrabali to get intimate with him, Subhadra – just wanting a better life, and Chandrabali who is dead before her time – each of them are threaded by Sharan – the Romtha, who is so ironically named, as there is no refuge for him at all.

Twelfth-century Bengal – its customs, traditions, are brought out with nuance so much so that it had me Googling and finding out more about that time. Also, please do not skip the very insightful interview, Naveen Kishore has with Mahasweta Devi – on words, language, and how they have been used in the story. Pinaki Bhattacharya’s translation is on point – I think it must have been tough given the stream of consciousness that jumps in at the reader, which I loved. Every terrain, texture, emotional landscape, and the beauty of unrequited love, desire, and the possibility of more is expressed empathetically and more so with stark reality.

Mahasweta Devi’s works are par excellence and there is no doubt about it at all. One of my projects this year is to go through all her books – the ones that are translated in English. Thank you, Naveen Kishore, for what you do.