Tag Archives: Bloomsbury India

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett Title: The Dutch House
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526618757
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a novel of many wonders. It is a box of things that are seen at first glance, only to discover a secret opening, where new things emerge from. This book gives, and gives, and gives some more. As a reader, as a fan of Patchett’s works, as an ardent admirer of what she puts to paper, my experience with The Dutch House has been surreal, mixed with nostalgia, and snatches of memory of my own childhood (though not this morbid or unfortunate).

What is a novel? What should be a novel? Is there such a thing as an ideal novel? Who decides that, if there is something like that? The critic? The reader? Or all of us, trying to find answers to questions of meaning of life, hope, and love as we turn the pages of novel after novel, searching for truths unknown as we move from one work of fiction to another?

The Dutch House is a fairy-tale. It is also gothic in nature when you least expect it to be. It is also full of misery, and then surprises you with moments of hope and togetherness. It is the story of two siblings – how they lose their home, how they understand each other (or not), and how they reclaim some of their lost home.

We are introduced to Danny (the narrator), and his older sister Maeve right at the beginning of the book. Their introduction to their would-be stepmother Andrea is where the book starts, and that’s when the series of events unfold in front of the reader – travelling between the past and the present of the novel.

The fairy-tale element runs strong, with a fair share of the Gothic that adds to the strong plot. Not to forget the way Patchett builds on the characters – from the housekeepers to the people that enter and exit from the siblings’ lives. Each character and each plot point is thought of to the last minute detail and maybe therefore this novel is as close to being perfect or it already is in more than one way.

What I found most interesting was the use of narration – by using the first-person narrator technique in a novel where time is of most importance, we see events unfold through two perspectives – the younger Danny and the older Danny. A doppelgänger effect, adding another layer to the complexity of the book.

The Dutch House is deceptively simple. It is a book that seems so easy to read on the surface, and it is. However, it is in joining the dots that are far and wide that adds to the reading experience. It is for this reason and more that Patchett is one of my top 10 favourite writers and will always be. She makes you feel, she makes you internalise how you think and feel as you read her books, and more than anything else she reminds you that being humane is the heart of it all.

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Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

Good Talk by Mira Jacob Title: Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations
Author: Mira Jacob
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 978-1408880166
Genre: Graphic Memoirs
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

We don’t know what life has in store for us till it flings itself in our faces. Then we know. Then we truly begin to see as it unfolds itself. Mira Jacob’s Good Talk is not just a memoir. It isn’t just a conversation. It is so much more that as I sit and type this, I literally have gooseflesh.

It is a book about identity, about interracial marriage, about when do we know we are citizens of a country? Is there a certificate that gets handed out? We are constantly seeking validation about ourselves – be the way we look, or the way we feel, and most certainly the way we think. What if you needed validation that you belong to a country? What would you feel then? Good Talk is mostly about it, a lot about it, and sometimes less about it.

It is about trying to explain to a seven-year-old that he belongs. That being of the same skin colour do not make families. That it’s okay for his father to be white and his mother and him to be brown. It is more than that. It is about given the freedom to love, to choose, to make your decisions, and to also regret them.

The book travels between the past and the present – and what I realised as I read it was that not much has changed. The issues of race are the same in America. Brown bodies or black ones or anyone who isn’t white is fractured when it comes down to living life in the United States of America. In some way or the other that is. Good Talk is about Mira giving answers to her seven-year-old son’s questions about race, America, and modern politics.

The push and the pull that comes with it, and the several questions that she never side steps, but involves her husband Jed as well in the process. In all of this, the reader also moves back and forth in Mira’s life – the past to the present and how it all threads together – her insecurities while growing-up brown in America and her son’s in the present environment. The juxtaposition on some level is surreal. Obviously her son is too young to experience more, but I am sure that is another book for another time.

Good Talk is about resilience and what it takes to navigate the world we live in and its interconnectedness. It is a book that resonates the time we live in, and heavily at that. It is the era when a man is willing to build a wall to keep the “other” out. Who is the other? Are we the others? Or are the others the people who want to box and categorise people? Who are devoid of empathy? Who are devoid of sentiment? We might think we are isolated and something happening in Africa may not be linked to us, but we need to think again about everything and its impact.

Good Talk is not an easy read. More so it isn’t something we can read and forget. It applies to all of us. After all, aren’t we all a part of a family?

Dark Circles by Udayan Mukherjee

Dark Circles by Udayan MukherjeeTitle: Dark Circles
Author: Udayan Mukherjee
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN: 9789388134910
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 215
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I got to know very recently that Udayan Mukherjee is the brother of Neel Mukherjee. Not that it matters to the writing of this review, however, I just thought I should let this information be out there. Alright, now to the book. Dark Circles by Udayan Mukherjee is the story of a family, torn apart by a secret, at two points in the family’s history. There is a lot happening in this novel. Ronojoy and Sujoy’s mother dies alone in the Ashram she retreated to quite suddenly twenty-eight years ago, after the death of her husband. She has left a letter behind for her sons, in which contains a secret that has the power to wreak havoc in their lives. Though this might seem to be the plot, there is a lot more taking place in this novel.

The book is also about family (but of course), it is about depression, about how to live in the face of tragedy, and how decisions made once can never be undone. It is about forgiveness, and more than anything else, about redemption and the human heart. The writing is sparse, to the point and extremely moving in most places. What I wanted from the book was more. I wanted to know more about the bond between the brothers, what their father Subir was like (though Mukherjee has said a lot about him, there is so much more to know), what were the relationship dynamics, and why was their mother Mala the way she was.

I am also aware and agree that the writer isn’t supposed to spoon-feed the reader all the time, but all the same, I thought a little more could’ve been added. The characters are wonderful, there is this sense of darkness hanging over each of them, that lends beautifully to the telling of the story and to the title as well. Udayan Mukherjee for sure knows how to tell a story, to keep the reader gripped from page one. More than anything else, it is about relationships and ties that bind us and sometimes tear us apart.

 

Interview with Manil Suri

So I got the opportunity to interview Manil Suri, the writer who I have admired since some time now and it felt amazing speaking with him and interacting with him and talking about books that he has written, their plots and his thoughts. It is always a surreal experience speaking with a writer. When you want to uncover some questions and know something more about the writer and what led him or her to write the books he or she has written. Here is another interaction with another writer of great quality and who has many more books to write.

Manil Suri

1. I read somewhere that you took a workshop with Michael Cunningham when Death of Vishnu was just in its initial stages. How has that affected your writing style, if it did?

It did not affect my writing style at all. What I got out of it was that it was he was so encouraging. He made me see where I wanted to go with my writing. I had barely written two to three chapters when I met him. He was able to anticipate the problems I would have, from the allegorical plot to the number of characters, whether too much had been written or spoken about them.

He gave me the confidence I needed. I was not a full time writer then. Someone who is not published needs the encouragement and Cunningham gave me that.

2. The trilogy is distorted in its approach, which I loved and yet it connects so effortlessly. How much of a task was this? Also, how come earlier it was supposed to be a trinity of Gods that ends with Devi?

Well it was like when I was doing The Death of Vishnu, I had no idea that it was a trilogy. The original idea was Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. Shiva is supposed to destroy things and Brahma is the one who creates. The way it turned out was the first book was more of a contemporary times novel and the second one was more of a book in the past and the third book is about the future, maybe it occurs, maybe it does not.

It was a very organic and unplanned process. It was one book after the other. I was still trying to keep them separate. Some connections are to be made and they are sort of in there, in all the three books.

The shift to Devi from Brahma: Just before I published the first book, I met Devdutt Pattanaik, and I told him about my idea about writing these three novels, with these varied themes of trinity. He told me that that is one way of looking at it, but some people look at it from Vishnu, Shiva and Devi’s perspective.

That’s where the Devi idea came about. Academically also it does make sense. I knew that the city would play a major role for sure. Until I was half-way through, I did not know whether it was Brahma or Devi. There had to be someone to save the city. The saviour then had to be Devi.

3. A mathematician and a writer. I am sure you must have been asked this several times, however how does it all add up? Does any influence the other?

Yes I think it does but not as much as one might suspect. But not something that I can easily put my finger on and say, “I had this followed because I am a mathematician”. For instance at times, I did try and follow the decision tree making process to writing. A character makes one move and then different moves which affects the narrative as well.
The danger in that is that it rarely provides the complete picture. With this book, I did all the plotting, and realized that the ends were not working. I finally decided that more or less I experimented writing it in a mathematical manner and then gave it up. I was relieved that I did not have to work on it. But later, I looked beyond the mathematics. I saw something more to fiction, than cold reasoning that numbers provided. I actually started seeing the main characters and then started connecting those, to give form to this novel.

4. “The City of Devi” reads so fast and yet there were so many times, I had to put down the book and mull over the intricate parts. Was this intentional to your writing?

Yeah it was. On one hand, looking deeper, other structures and metaphors, and dig deeper, try to put more in there was always the concern. It did finally work out the way I wanted it to.

5. The book of yours that touched me the most and which I ended up reading on a Sunday afternoon was The Death of Vishnu. How did the idea come to you? How did it all work out?

There was really named someone Vishnu. I was a kid in Bombay, growing up at that time. He used to wave at me. I guess he lived around our area. It was around 1994 or in 1995 that he died on the steps. The municipality came and took his body away – that was kind of a springboard, from where I wanted to start my story. At first I thought I will write a story about the neighbours. I then slowly began to think that there was more to it than a short story. The scary part was that people started saying it was novella, and it ultimately took the form of a novel.

The Death of Vishnu

6. Your novels are all about faith – sometimes the lack of it and sometimes the point when it becomes a little too much to handle. Does this affect you as a person?

Well, it certainly is something that is deeply invested in various parts of my life. Different terms of my own faith, you would call it – it can be seen very deeply in the first book, my own faith and lack of it. From one perspective as a mathematician, I brought about the rational, cold and unrelenting attributes in Mr. Jalal. He had to discover his faith and I had to voice through him all the questions I had in my mind.

Faith in a person – that’s what plays out more visibly in the last book. Faith in someone you think you know and someone you trust and what does that mean. I tried to work on a spectrum. I guess for myself, it’s always a question of faith, which is the opposite of rationality. I don’t care about the evidence but I believe in it. For a mathematician it is bad news, because you need evidence and proof.

7. Your love for the city by the sea. How would you explain that? Though you live far from it, does Bombay continue to enter your dreams?

Oh yes it does and you would think that I spend 20 years here, and 32 in US, that I should be able to write more about where I live now. However that did not happen. It is almost that I transferred the obsession of Mumbai to the US. I could not imagine writing anything deep – with reference to any other city. It had to be about the city I grew up in. It is definitely a very deep-rooted connection; I guess I was not aware of, however it definitely is there. I renew it each time I come here. On the other hand, capturing Washington DC in my books would not have the same effect. It would be flat. I don’t have the same kind of connection with the city.

8. Your literary influences.

When I was growing up, I was reading a lot of bestseller fiction, from Harold Robbins to Arthur Hailey to James Hadley Chase. It was the “rites of passage” almost for people growing up in the 70’s.

I read all of that and after that serious fiction – R.K. Narayan to the others. I think the first kind of real kind of lit fiction that I remember reading was Shame by Salman Rushdie. This was in the late 80’s. I did not have much of lit fiction education till later. I slowly started reading more lit fiction like some of the Indian authors in the last couple of decades. The big thing was Salman Rushdie – huge larger than life. I always end up comparing my writing to his at some point or the other.

The City of Devi by Manil Suri

9. Dystopian fiction has always intrigued me, and yet going by what you have written earlier, I would not imagine something on those lines to come from you. How did that process develop?

With dystopia, there is more futuristic and speculative writing involved, about what might happen, 70 years from now and 100 years from now, nuclear war has come and gone and that is lot easier to write and you can arrange the landscape. People have to accept the landscape. The difference in my book is that it is set in near future, which is harder to relate to and you have to give it more depth and angles.

The near future was definitely harder to write about. The near future has the uncomfortable characteristic of being near. How am I going to make this believable if someone reads it two years down the road? That was the question. I had to cancel the dates and make it believable. It is also after all a love story too.

10. The dual-narrative structure in the book is what kept me going last night, up and about to finish the book. Did the narrative at any point drain you as a writer?

The City of Devi was a very complicated book to write. I had to almost structure it like a thriller. Hold back bits of information and give some. The hardest thing was to write about India and what happens in the world at the same time – apportion between the two narratives.

The right narrator had to be on stage when certain actions demanded that. If something has happened and say it was Jaz’s turn to narrate things, he better be talking.

It was actually a lot of technical stuff like that. Towards the end, the cutting back and forth, happened more frequently. At the same time, it had me picking up the pace alternatively, which helped the book.

11. Now that the trilogy is over, what is next on the cards?

There’s this thing that I am working on which is completely different. A combination of sorts – a math novel infused with fiction. I hope it works best for me. It will for sure be a different experience for the reader.

This was the end of a great interview. I had so much to learn from the man – his insights were amazing and the way he communicates is stupendous. I had a great time for sure.

Book Review: The City of Devi by Manil Suri

The City of Devi by Manil Suri Title: The City of Devi
Author: Manil Suri
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN: 978-93-82563-09-9
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 381
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I started reviewing books when I first read, “The Death of Vishnu” by Manil Suri. In fact, that review is also one of the first on this blog. From there on I have read everything that he has written, not because of the fact stated above, but because I admire his writing and his thought process. Suri has the uncanny ability to make so much sense of ordinary situations. His characters aren’t larger than life, however the circumstances are and with good reason – to move the plot ahead, to make the reader see and above all, to make them feel.

It is no wonder that I absolutely loved reading his new book, “The City of Devi” (the last in the not so connected series). “The City of Devi” has been touted as a dystopian novel; however I did not think it had anything to do with it. The story as his other two books has been set in Mumbai. It is about Sarita, a thirty-three year old statistician (the math angle did not surprise me considering Manil is a mathematician) who can throughout only think of one thing: To be reunited with her physicist husband Karun, who has disappeared. The times are tough: Mumbai is emptying itself under the threat of a nuclear annihilation. There are not many people left. This has almost led to anarchy. The past can but only be remembered.

Amidst all this Sarita sets out to search for her husband, in-between the gang wars of Hindus and Muslims (this angle makes you also choke a little). With her is Jaz, a Muslim whose religion is only to have sex with other men. That is what he enjoys the most – sex and nothing else and at the same time he is looking for his own lover in the city. The third angle to the book is the Goddess Devi herself who has materialized on the beach to save her city. Sarita, Jaz and Devi play their roles in the book from there on. That in short, is the summary of the book.

The book is quite unusual. Something that probably has never been tried by an Indian writer. The book is easy to read and yet there were times, I had to stop and think more about the scene I had just read or turn back the pages and read some parts all over again. Devi and her role in the book is humongous (but of course), and yet it is so calming at times, that I almost wished that she would materialize in this time and age to save her city. On the other hand, I could most relate to Jaz and his dilemma – the way he is searching for answers and not finding any.

Manil’s writing is direct in most parts and yet the web he weaves of storytelling almost leaves the reader breathless. His descriptions of a dying city are breathtaking. You can relate and yet at times, you choose not to. The city comes alive with his words and that is the power of some great writing. The situations he creates aren’t easy, the answers provided are not black or white, and yet as you turn the pages of “The City of Devi” all you want is to feel the city and hope that the characters’ lives are sorted. A must read this season.

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