Tag Archives: 4th Estate

Book Review: Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates

Title: Mudwoman
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0007481811
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 448
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Every time I set out to read a new novel, I am a little apprehensive. Questions plague the mind: What if I do not like the book? What if it’s a waste of time? What if I cannot relate to a single character in the book? However that does not happen whenever I am out to read a new Joyce Carol Oates book.

I discovered Oates through the Oprah Book Club (the only time I was grateful to her and her show). She had chosen, “We Were the Mulvaneys” in January 2001 and I could not wait to get my hands on it. At that time there was no Flipkart or HomeShop18. I had to depend on my local bookstore and I received it in a matter of four weeks. I raced through and could not stop recommending it to friends. Sadly, they were not interested. Since then I haven’t recommended Oates to a lot of people. I am happy in the knowing that only I get to read what she writes. Till I read one of her recent books and as usual, I have to tell people about it.

“Mudwoman” is classic Joyce Carol Oates. There is a lot of darkness surging underneath, there is the psychotic (well almost) female protagonist, the girl’s deranged mother, and the different writing styles at various points in the book.

Let me also tell you that it is not easy to read Oates. It took me a long time to get into the book and actually start enjoying it. Mudwoman revolves around Jedina Kraek from the time she is a little girl to when she becomes a woman and lives out her life. When she is three, her mother tries to murder her and her five-year old sister. Jedina is shaved bald as a part of her mother’s delusions and thrown in the mud flat near the Black Snake River, left to drown. Fortunately, Jedina is found by a mentally challenged local trapper and taken into a foster family for several years. After this, a childless Quaker couple, the Neukirchens, adopt her and give her a new name – Meredith Ruth Neukirchen.

Amidst all this, Meredith tries very hard to make her adoptive parents proud – from excelling in her studies to winning a scholarship to being an overachiever to wanting a new life for herself, away from her roots and everything she had to go through. At 41, she is the first female president of a prestigious Ivy League university and calls herself M.R. Neukirchen and lives alone in a historic, almost macabre house.

This is the plot of the book. Told in alternating chapters – present day to when M.R. was a girl, Mudwoman is an account of a woman (in almost like most of Oates’ books) with a past, a present that is not too fulfilling and a future that she is unaware and unsure of. The writing as usual is strong, but at times tends to get a bit of a drag. However, once those parts are done with, Mudwoman is a delightful read. I highly recommend this one.

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Book Review: The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph

Title: The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Author: Manu Joseph
Publisher: Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-9350293645
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Manu Joseph is definitely the most promising writer on the Indian Literary scene as of now and well-deserved of that place in my opinion. Serious Men made a great impact in the literary world and rightly so. It was a sweeping novel of family, doubt, and loss in an emerging India, full of hopes, aspirations and the need to get somewhere. Manu Joseph writes with a keen eye to details. He knows what he wants to convey to the much-eager reader and he delivers to the maximum.

“The Illicit Happiness of Other People” is yet again another example of his genius. The reader should not compare it to Serious Men. It may be the same writing style, but of course, the plots are radically different.

“The Illicit Happiness of Other People” is set in Madras in the early 90s when technology was well on its way to invade the country and the lifestyle changes were crawling up unaware to the Great Indian Middle Class. Ousep Chacko is an anarchist. He is a family man. He is an alcoholic. He wants to know what happened to his first-born seventeen year old Unni Chacko, the highly talented comic book writer and illustrator. Why did he do what he did? What compelled him to? The only clue he has on hand is his son’s comic strip and he has to string and make sense of his son’s life through that and meeting people he doesn’t know existed in Unni’s life.

While this plot is unfolding itself, we have his second son, Thoma who hasn’t shown as much promise as Unni and is often ignored by his father. All his father wants is answers about Unni’s life. The other angle is that of his wife, who is suffering in silence. Unni’s cartoons reveal more than what Ousep wants to know and that reels the story in a completely different direction, with the arrival of a stranger who will change things for the three of them.

The book is beautifully written and heart-breaking to a large extent, with the right doses of humour thrown in. I must admit that it took me sometime to sink into the book at the beginning, but when I did, I could not stop myself from reading. The story is infectious and grows on you. Just when you think that the writing and characters have become predictable, there is a sense of comfort; Joseph surprises you by pulling an unexpected rabbit out of his wordsmith hat.

The writing and the characters reach out to you in ways you can never imagine. Your heart goes out to Ousep and yet there are times you wish he didn’t do things that he does. Thoma as the recluse is brilliantly etched and the mother, though silent plays a crucial part in the book. The highlight of the book for me was when it all made sense, when the book looped in. Characters searching for happiness and fulfillment in a book are most tragic for the reader. It almost holds a mirror sometimes. You then know the ulterior motives of characters. They just want happiness after all, so much so that they start despising others for being happy.

I cannot stop raving about this book. Nothing is out of place and nothing is flawed in the writing. Whoever says that Indian Writing has not yet reached its pinnacle has to read this book to probably take back their words. I would recommend it to whosoever I meet.

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Book Review: Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates

Title: Little Bird of Heaven
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: 4th Estate, Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0007342549
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 448
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I discovered Joyce Carol Oates a long time ago. I think about ten years or so. Since then I have always looked forward to what she writes and she churns out at least two books or so every year. Maybe even more. The fact of the matter is that she writes like a dream. Her prose is something else. It is of the macabre, the darkness, the sexually obsessed, of strained relationships and all about life as is – in your face and not a happy place to be in.

So when I got the opportunity to read and review one of her books, I could not help but give it a go. “Little Bird of Heaven” could be a love story. It could also be a murder mystery and a deep psychological drama. Joyce Carol Oates very cleverly makes the book about all of those.

“Little Bird of Heaven” takes place in a small town called Sparta in New York, where a young mother is found dead. The primary suspects are her estranged husband and a married man with whom she was having an affair. But that is not the story. The story is about the lady’s son Aaron and her lover’s daughter Krista who are virtually strangers to each other, and now linked to each other by this crime, as they struggle to be on opposite sides, while being infatuated with one another.

The story seems threadbare but it isn’t so. There are layers to it and rightly so, as this is just what Oates likes to deliver. Her narrative of this book is unique and surpasses somehow anything she has ever written. The first half of the book is told from Krista’s perspective, a young girl, who wants to believe in her father and somehow is torn between what is real and what she thinks of as reality.

The second part is told from Aaron’s perspective. It is less vocal, more introspective. It is about hidden emotions and not displaying any of them, even when your mother is no longer a part of the world. Despite this, Oates does not get sentimental at any point in the book. She writes with raw intensity and emotions that are in check. That is what is needed for a book like this I guess.

“Little Bird of Heaven” is about a lot of things – the past, the present and how the future shapes our lives. It is about emotional longing and cruelty. Of how children endure the pain and how they deal with it. This book is not a light read. It is about life on the edge and how the characters hang on to it. Joyce Carol Oates writes with some riveting insight. There is no happy ending; however I will definitely recommend this book to all.

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Book Review: The Extras by Kiran Nagarkar

Title: The Extras
Author: Kiran Nagarkar
Publisher: 4th Estate, Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-93-5029-204-4
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 467
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Kiran Nagarkar according to me has somehow always been under the microscopic view of readers and reviewers. May be it has to do with the way he writes and concocts themes and ideas, but one thing is for sure, there is never a dull moment in his books. I got hooked on to his books, like any other teenager (then) with Ravan and Eddie. Ravan and Eddie (though according to me was loosely based on, “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving) was a delight to read. The intricate moments of post-independent India was not hidden. The slums, the chawls, the abuses and the interwoven plots were all there – almost like a nice stew, boiling slowly, served to perfection. Ravan and Eddie was published in 1994 and now after eighteen years, there comes a sequel to it, titled, “The Extras”.

The Extras spans the lives of Ravan and Eddie as adults, in the big bad city of Bombay. I love how the title on the cover reads, “The Extras – Starring Ravan and Eddie”, with a very 70’s film poster like visual. The story of course takes on eighteen years from where it ended in the earlier book. Ravan and Eddie are adults, striving to make something out of them in the big, bad world and aspire to be actors. Bollywood is the seductress and they are easily seduced. Ravan is a taxi driver and Eddie is a bouncer-cum-bartender. They want it all – fame, money, easy rise from their chawl existence to the skyscrapers. At the heart of this, are their complicated love stories. Ravan who is in love with Eddie’s sister (yes that’s the one twist in the tale). Eddie on the other hand has to battle with both families to obtain the love of his life in the Anglo-Indian Belle.

That’s the gist of the story. The writing of course cannot be compared to anything else. Kiran Nagarkar has always been a master of his game. From Seven-Sixes are Forty Three to God’s Little Soldier; post-independence blues has always been at the center of his books (except Cuckold which was a Historical Fiction centered book). He knows the pulse of the city and can describe it beautifully. Nothing has changed much, except for the name of the city and a mall or two springing up in the past couple of years, and Mr. Nagarkar knows how to depict the sadness and claustrophobia in his book.

There are so many funny parts as well in the book – sardonic and dark at most times, and in-your-face funny too. Ravan and Eddie as characters evolve a lot more in this book and their motives are clearer. Nagarkar adds more stories to this one, though their families still remain a part and are always in the background. For me, The Extras was like a roller-coaster ride, full of unknown turns and bends. A definite read for all those who want to know Bombay in its early days.

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