Tag Archives: america

Census by Jesse Ball

Census by Jesse Ball Title: Census
Author: Jesse Ball
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 78-1783783755
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“Census” by Jesse Ball isn’t a difficult book to read. It seems like that initially but as you are way into it, you just don’t want it to end. It reminded me of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy but don’t worry – it isn’t that dark, but haunting nonetheless in its own way. I doubt I have read anything like “Census” before, but that’s the magic of Jesse Ball’s books. They may sound similar to other books but are far from it. This is the third Ball book I’ve read and I am astounded by the consistency of his writing prowess.

“Census” is a very personal book when it comes to Jesse Ball as he has dedicated it to his deceased brother, Abram Ball who had Down Syndrome and he has mentioned it in the prologue, how he decided to write this book and more so write around the syndrome than about it.

The book is about an ill widower, a doctor who takes on the role of a census taker and sets off with his son who has the Down Syndrome to take the census, from towns A to Z.

This is the basic premise. But of course, there is more than what meets the eye. The entire activity and exercise undertaken by the father is layered – of being counted – of life being taken into account while he is nearing his death and in the sense his son’s responsibility being taken on by another person. Then the son becomes a census – a number and perhaps nothing more.

“Census” is also wondrously allegorical – given the times in which we are living – of unnamed identities (are they even identities then?), of places and countries that restrict and of how there is so much kindness and heart still present in the world.

“Census” is perhaps one of the most important books of our times, in my opinion. There are so many revelations as you go along the book, that will leave you astounded and wanting more.

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The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui

Title: The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir
Author: Thi Bui
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
ISBN: 978-1419718779
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Pages: 336
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

The times we live in aren’t easy. We live in xenophobic times. As much as I hate to say it, it is true and we cannot turn a blind eye to this one. In these times, as much as I don’t want to read what stares in my face all over the place – on Twitter, on FB, on almost every social media – hatred for a religion or class, or a set of people that aren’t yours, but you read because you feel you will understand and empathize better and this is the time “The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir” came into my life.

This is a graphic memoir, which means it happened to the author and her family – a set of events – after her parents moved to the land of milk and honey from Vietnam on a boat. The story is deceptively simple but layered with relationships issues, immigration and belonging issues and above all: what it really takes to blend in? Do people who come from outside can after all be called citizens of a particular country even after decades or do they have to keep proving themselves and their patriotism over and over again?

Bui’s story is the story of her family – as she begins to adjust to being a first-time mother, she reminiscences what it means to be a parent from her parents’ perspective – from the sacrifices to unnoticed gestures to love that need not be spoken all the time. In all of this is America – Grand Old America in the background (not as much) always making them question their identity and the importance of home. There are panels that are so breathtakingly beautiful and how they mingle with the prose – will make you weep and in the next panel before you know it you are smiling and cheering on for Thi and her circumstances.

This book as Viet Thanh Nguyen claims will break your heart and then heal it – did just that for me. What is funny is that I also spoke to my maternal aunt after reading this book to know her memories of coming to India from Pakistan during the Great Partition and what it was like for them. “The Best We Could Do” as the title suggests is just that – the best they did and how sometimes you have to keep doing your best to find your place in the world.

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Title: Ghost World
Author: Daniel Clowes
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, Random House
ISBN: 978-0224060882
Genre: Graphic Novel
Pages: 80
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

If I remember clearly, “Ghost World” was my introduction to graphic novels and at that time I found it very strange – it is barely 80 pages long and yet manages to convey teen angst with such accuracy that my head spun. It was published in 1997 and I remember a friend gifting it to me in 2000. More so, what was or rather is unique about it is that it is in only two colours – green and blue and to me that still is fascinating – even when I reread it now.

“Ghost World” as most aficionados know is also a movie starring Thora Birch and Scarlet Johansson. Now that that is out of the way, the book is about two teens – Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer – who are most cynical, pseudo-intellectual and recently graduated from high school. They encounter people and wonder what life has in store for them – they live dry and dull lives in an unnamed small-town and want to perhaps step out and discover the world.

This graphic novel is dark and yet does not lose its humour. I loved the writing – it is razor-sharp and doesn’t lose its capacity for nostalgia. Clowes characters remind you of the most ordinary people you might come across in daily life and perhaps ignore in a split of a second. “Ghost World” is also a lonely book – of two girls who are either trying desperately hard to fit in or just living life as it passes them by. Clowes has this uncanny sense of the society we live in – that demands appearances be kept up and yet you have these two teenagers who don’t want to keep up and are loud, edgy, and refuse to submit or conform. A book that needs to be devoured in every sense of the word.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1101947135
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are books you read that make you want to be a better person, they make your heart sing and leave you breathless because of their sheer beauty. There are books that break your heart, they keep stabbing at it with a curved blunt knife and you are in pain and you know that, but the magic of words doesn’t make you stop turning the pages. There are also books that do all of this – books that have the power to do it all, so to say and “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi (I still cannot believe that this is a debut novel) is one such book.

I love and enjoy books about families on a grand scale – something about them that makes you relate to what is going on and not so much – perhaps which is what makes it so desirable and not so. “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is about two sisters who never meet during the book. One grows up in a sort of prosperous family where she is promised in marriage to a powerful man and the other grows up in a tribe where she is captured and caught into slavery. This action takes place in Ghana – more exacting would be in the coastal region. The book is about the sisters of course but also about their children and grand-children and great grandchildren and it is marvelous to see Gyasi loop through all these characters and give them a logical start, beginning and end every single time with every single chapter.

At given point I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming because of the several sub-plots. In fact, if anything, I found Gyasi’s writing to be quite simple, empathetic and most easy to read. The trials and tribulations of these sisters and their progeny makes you think of what goes on in this world as we live safe, protected lives. The narrative switches back and forth between each generation of the sister’s family lines and to me that was a lovely way to link stories of families and to know of the songs and tales passed down from one generation to the next.

Yaa Gyasi projects the conflict of the Asantes and Fantes – the tribes of Ghana and the readers will be pulled into their lives, customs and how one of them even work with the British to sell them slaves. Honestly, it didn’t even surprise me given what some people go through in India at the hands of their so-called “community people”. I felt a little cheated in the last couple of chapters and wished there was more to the characters and their lives – but I guess those can be overlooked.

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is a novel that will take your breath away. It is meshed intricately with people across generations, timelines, emotions, men and women who are stuck with decisions they make and the ones that are forced on them. Most of all, the book is about what it takes to be human above everything else and what it really takes to make it through all the pain and hardship.

Academy Street by Mary Costello

Academy Street by Mary Costello Title: Academy Street
Author: Mary Costello
Publisher: Canongate Books
ISBN: 978-1782114185
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 180
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Very few times you come across a book that makes you feel and takes you beyond that, almost in another realm of consciousness. “Academy Street” by Mary Costello was one such book that did it for me this year (and the year has not even begun properly, so to say). If you are the sort of reader that only reads a book a month, then I will almost force you to read, “Academy Street”. It is a book which every reader (no matter what level of reader) should read at least once in his or her lifetime and I am not kidding about this.

“Academy Street” came to me at a time when I needed it the most. Yes, I do believe that books find you when they have to. Till then, no matter how hard you try, you cannot immerse yourself in the book. The book’s permission is needed. “Academy Street” is a novella of one woman and her journey from being a girl to an old woman and life as she sees it through those decades and years gone by. This is perhaps me simply putting it. The book is so much more and the layers to it are just phenomenal.

I had not heard of Costello before picking up this one but I am only too glad that I have now. Tess is not just a character. She is perhaps somewhere there in all of us in various forms or maybe just one. The book charts Tess’s story so to say from childhood till she is an old woman – all her happiness, her anxieties, her loves, her transitions, the loss of her mother (which is stated at the very beginning of the book) to her migration from Ireland to America, a new land with new possibilities, new hopes and new losses. How can one remain untouched by this novella? This was my only thought when I finished this gem of a book.

I am quite sure that other writers might have explored this theme in other books, but what makes this one different is of course the writing. Costello does not confuse the reader. The facts are laid out. The story-line is simple. The writing is simpler. The characters are not so many. So what makes me say that this book is astounding? It is all in the words and the sentences used by the writer.

At the core of the book, there is empathy, loneliness and sheer need to be accepted which intensified chapter after chapter. You get to know Tess like a close friend and there were times I just wanted to keep the book down, so there would be more reading time with it. The book is about her siblings, her friends, but above it all, it was to me, just a brief and simple testimony to life and the living. Tess is constantly finding herself. She is constantly seeking, trying to become that someone, and that will ring true for anyone who picks up this book. There is grace, devastation, eye for detail, elegance and above all empathy to Costello’s writing. I suggest you go and start reading this right now. Savour and cherish it, as books such as these are meant to.

Here are some of my favourite lines from the book. There are obviously more, but for now these will do.

In her life, ever, there were only a few people who had been a fit, with whom she had felt understood.

Ease her terrible ache for human touch, human love. The room was flooded with light and she was blinded, mesmerised.

And how all things change or end or disappear, and this would too, this day, this moment. She looked around. And you too, you will all disappear.

Oh honey, when it comes to the heart, it ain’t about men or women, but people.

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Academy Street