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Read 219 of 2021. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

Title: The Book of Form and Emptiness
Author: Ruth Ozeki
Publisher: Canongate Books
ISBN: 978-1838855239
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 560
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

All I am going to say is this, if you haven’t Ruth Ozeki, now is the time and no better book to start with than this one. The Book of Form and Emptiness has to be one of my top 10 favourites of the year. It shines, it dazzles, it makes you believe in the not so believable aspects of life and living, but above all – the writing is splendid. It has the touch of lightness to it, without it being it. Ruth Ozeki has done it again and deserves two rounds of applause.

The Book of Form and Emptiness is about a boy named Benny Oh whose father Kenji, a Korean American jazz musician is run over by a chicken truck in an alley behind their house. And this is where the story begins. A story of grief, loss, even humour to some extent, hope, and how we redeem ourselves from the guilt we hold inside. Soon after, Benny starts hearing voices from inside everything. From his dead father’s clarinet to objects around the house to the lettuce in the fridge to furniture to everything in sight – each clamouring for their own attention and space. They all tell Benny their stories – of pain, of laughter, of histories of abuse and how they were handled.

Things are going downhill for his mother Anabelle as well. Benny and she constantly fight, as she refuses to let go of things and hoards more and more, and he cannot help but want to get rid of things as they speak and speak and speak. In all of this, Ozeki speaks of complex neurodivergent subjectivity in some form, touches on Benny’s journey into the schizoaffective, leading him to one of the quietest spots – the library. Even though books also speak with him, especially one specific book. At the library, he finds love and philosophy in two very different people – one a street artist, and the other a homeless philosopher-poet.

The Book of Form and Emptiness is about everything and nothing at all. It is about all of it – rolled into one – about space junk, about life on the margins, toxic masculinity, of Zen Buddhism, bad weather, of coping mechanisms, and above all about how humans come together and find love in most unexpected places.

Ozeki’s writing is magnificent. Almost like a painting or a movie. Her writing is constantly in motion and that makes the reader want to keep pace or just lay languidly without turning the page. The writing gives you the comfort and luxury to do that. The book is also about books to a large extent – of how books save us and what role they play in our lives. Ozeki writes carefully about mental health and trauma, with most empathy and grace. Ozeki’s world is surreal, it is haunting, it is not perfect, and definitely not absolute. It is messy, jagged, demands attention, and perhaps talks about things that truly matter or should matter to human beings, given our small lives.

Read 201 of 2021. China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

Title: China Room
Author: Sunjeev Sahota
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House India
ISBN: 9780670095070
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I honestly picked up China Room without any expectation. There was zero expectation as I started the book, and savoured it over a period of a week or so. China Room was a revelation of many aspects. It unravels itself as you turn the pages, and with such elegant and deceptively simple prose that makes you go back and read some sentences all over again.

China Room in brief is about three women who are married away to three men in the year 1929, in rural Punjab. Mehar is one of the brides who is trying to find out the identity of her husband, since she has never seen him. The wives are cut off from their husbands during the day and only called on at night if their mother-in-law Mai wills it. All of this of course because there is need of an heir. What comes of it is the rest of the story.

In another time, in 1999 to be precise, another story unfolds. That of a young unnamed man who travels from England to a farm that has been abandoned for decades, with his own demons. The trauma of his adolescence – his experience with racism, addiction that continues, and more importantly the chasm between him and his culture.  In the process of finding himself (or coming of age in some sense), he finds his roots linked to Mehar.

Sahota does a brilliant job of intertwining the two threads. At the same time, at no point as a reader did, I feel I needed to know more. Sahota’s storytelling skills are totally on-point, and at most times I felt I was reading a literary page-turner (which I think it was). The issues that this book brings to light are so many. There is the awareness of India’s struggle for independence looming large, the idea of women’s liberation (that doesn’t exist at all, whether it is 1929 or 1999 in a country like India), and above all the concept of family and loss that makes for the entire arc of the story.

China Room is also to some extent based on what the author heard from his parents and ancestors, of what happened in his family and that’s why you resonate so much with the writing. It is told with a lot of heart and soul. It explores lives that go by without being chronicled, the book aims to understand the human heart, and what often transpires inside of it. A must-read in my opinion.   

The Good Girls – An Ordinary Killing by Sonia Faleiro

The Good Girls - An Ordinary Killing by Sonia Faleiro

Title: The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing
Author: Sonia Faleiro
Publisher: Penguin Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 978-0670088829
Genre: Non-fiction, Gender Studies, True Accounts
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Faleiro had heard about the Badaun killings on Twitter, in the year 2014, as did most of us. It shook her to this extent that she decided to go the village of Katra in the Badaun district in Uttar Pradesh where the death of two teenage girls, who were also cousins, took place. The picture that circulated on social media was that of them hanging from a mango tree, whose memory is etched in so many minds and hearts. Though momentarily forgotten perhaps, it can be conjured in an instant. Between 2014 and 2019, Faleiro interviewed everyone connected with the deaths to produce a story in which there are different perspectives – each struggling to make themselves heard, each hustling for credibility.

Whether it is a cousin who claimed to have seen the girls getting kidnapped by Pappu Yadav, a 19-year old from the neighbouring village. Or whether it was someone else who had claimed to have spotted Pappu with the girls (who are known as Padma and Lalli in the book). Or whether it was the parents and relatives of these girls who didn’t act soon enough, scared that their honour will be at stake. Well, at the end of the day, the truth is that the girls were dead.

The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing by Sonia Faleiro is not just an investigative book or a “non-fiction novel” as some would seem it to be. It is a chronicle of what women go through in the country on a daily basis, and this isn’t just restricted to one region or is a function of being educated or not. The brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012 is a testament of that fact. The Good Girls is a book that holds no judgement. It is about the facts, and yet Faleiro’s writing is so strong and insightful that you cannot help but feel overwhelmed in most places while reading. The idea that two teenage girls – children really, died before their time. The idea that they could not lead full lives. The idea that we give so much importance to factors such as caste, honour, about how a girl should be and should not be, that we forget to consider life – the very basic essence of life and living.

Sonia Faleiro’s book is about the India that is still struggling with so much – patriarchy, lack of education for women and girls, poverty being the biggest issue (which most , maybe even all politicians turn a blind eye to or very conveniently use it to their advantage), about lack of faith not only in the judiciary system but also in the workings of the police and safety that cannot be trusted, and about the way we treat our women and men at the same time.

The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing – just the very title says so much. Something that is so chilling, and yet only so ordinary that it could take place on an almost daily basis (and maybe does) and yet apathy is supreme. Sonia Faleiro also without taking any side goes to the heart of that apathy and indifference through this work that chronicles the brutality, that takes place more on a mental and emotional level. Faleiro’s writing is to the point. All facts and suppositions (that sprung from various narratives) are laid out for the reader. Everything is in plain sight. The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing never lets us forget that at the heart of it – of all that occurred, two teenage girls, two children really, with so much life, and possibility and a future, lost their lives to patriarchy and its machinations.

The House of Paper by Carlos María Domínguez. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

The House of Paper by Carlos Maria Dominguez

Title: The House of Paper
Author: Carlos María Domínguez Translated from the Spanish by: Nick Caistor
Illustrations by: Peter Sís
ISBN: 978-0151011476
Publisher: Harcourt
Genre: Novella, Literary Fiction
Pages: 103
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

Books about books have always fascinated me. There is something so relatable about them that it breaks my heart and also repairs it at the same time. They are love letters to books – almost love stories between books and collectors – I am sure most will agree with me when it comes to this. A reader and his or her books can never be apart.

“The House of Paper” is one of those books you just cannot get enough of. It is a short book – a novella of 106 pages or so but every page and every sentence and every word gleams in it. This one was a reread for me and I had actually forgotten how much I loved this book, till I read it now. The story is of a Cambridge professor who is killed by a car while reading Dickinson (or so it is assumed). A book is sent to her – a dirty, dusty copy of Conrad’s “The Shadow-Line”. A colleague of hers travels to Uruguay, determined to know the connection between these two people and instead ends up hearing a very strange story – of the man Carlos Brauer and how he has built himself a house from books by the sea. The rest is for you to read and find out – the why, what and the how that is.

“The House of Paper” is magic realism and a lot more than just that in my opinion. Books and reading form such a core of this read that you wished it were longer and that it would not end at all. The book raises questions of mad bibliophiles and the length they will go to for their love of books. At the same time, it doesn’t make it too philosophical or dreary. This book is perfect to the ones obsessed with the written word and for one I cannot stop recommending it. I must also add here that the translation by Nick Caistor is tongue in-cheek, lively and not to forget the beautiful illustrations by Peter Sís. My copy by the way is from The New York Public Library and I was delighted that it came to me in India from there. Only book-lovers will understand this. Also this book. So read it. Please.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

The Brief and. Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders Title: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
Author: George Saunders
Publisher: Riverhead Books
ISBN: 978-1594481529
Genre: Dystopian Fiction, Cyberpunk Science Fiction, Satire
Pages: 134
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders is a book that cannot be categorized. It is a dystopian novella, a science fiction read, a satirical take on our times, the 21stcentury Animal Farm in a way, and perhaps more.

Written in 2006, almost fourteen years ago, this novella is still so frighteningly prescient. We are living it in a way, in almost every country. Most countries of the world today have their own Phil, and their reign isn’t brief.

The country in the book is called Inner Horner, large enough for only one resident at a time. There are citizens who wait to gain entry, and these citizens fall under the rule of the despot Phil, which further leads to mass chaos and hysteria.

The novella is funny (intentionally I guess, at the same time making you see the mirror), dark, and in no way, you will not think about it after you’re done. The so-called people in the story are human in their actions, but maybe not in their appearance. They resemble machines, so maybe Saunders is making multiple points at the same time.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is for sure a quick read and a political allegory that we are perhaps a part of without realizing it. It is the kind of book that will jolt you a bit and makes you also look at the on-goings in the book from a distance by removing the human element. It is a book that delivers its message if you want to see it. Coupled with some lucid illustrations, this book blends the elements of the surreal and fantastical with great ease, making for a highly introspective read.