Tag Archives: contemporary fiction

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls Title: City of Girls
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526615237
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I am just going to go on record and say that I absolutely love Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing. I remember the time Eat, Pray, Love had released in India and had become an overnight sensation. The literary snobs (as they are called) were pretty hesitant to even read it, often dismissing it as “chick-lit” (hate this term by the way). And then “The Signature of all Things” was published a couple of years later and it was a literary sensation. More than anything else, just the way it was written – the characters, the setting, the prose – all of it. But this review is about City of Girls.

 City of Girls is a novel that seeps you into its timeline, makes you feel for the characters, and makes you aware of the fact that you are under a spell as long as you’re reading it. City of Girls may not also be everyone’s cup of tea. It is slow and takes time to build up, but I loved every bit of it because it is atmospheric and lures the reader in – with every turn of the page.

 The book is set in New York of the 1940s – the world of theatre at that. Vivian Morris is eighty-nine years old, looking back on her life in the 40s – freshly kicked out of Vassar College, arriving at Manhattan to live with her aunt Peg who owns the crumbling theatre called the Lily Playhouse. This is where the story begins with oddball characters, and a mistake committed by Vivian that sends her world twirling headlong upside down and more.

 This is the plot of the book to put quite simply. The book is about growing-up at a time when the world was changing at a neck-breaking speed and to keep up with all of it. Of course, the book is also about war and what it does to people. Gilbert writes about it realistically and yet not losing her touch of empathy and emotional quotient.

City of Girls may seem extremely slow in bits and parts (especially in the middle), however, just like any other book it works for some and doesn’t for the other. Gilbert’s writing prowess is the same or even better when it comes to this read, and please don’t compare The Signature of All Things to this one, because they are vastly different. What most certainly worked for me was the transition from the 1940s to the current time and Gilbert has done a stunning job of bringing it all together, in one book. Read it if historical fiction interests you, or if you are comfortable with a book taking its own time.

 

99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai

99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai Title: 99 Nights in Logar
Author: Jamil Jan Kochai
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 978-1408898420
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

While 99 nights in Logar may seem to have been set in a culture and time alien to most readers, the universality of theme is astounding, which you only begin to realize as the pages turn. This is where the genius of Jamil Jan Kochai only begins. You don’t need a tour guide to take you through the terrains of Afghanistan or a map to get you acquainted to the landscape. You just need to go with the story and that’s enough.

I must admit though initially I did face a problem with who was whom in the family and what were the relationships and more than anything else, the confusion about names. However, that ended soon enough and from thereon it was a journey worth taking.

This debut is narrated by Marwand, a 12-year-old boy who is raised in America and takes a trip with his parents and brother to a village in Afghanistan in 2005. The American war is almost over, and no one knows what the future has in store.

The book starts with a search – Marwand, and his uncles and cousin – Gul, Dawood and Zia set out to find his uncle’s dog Budabash. The dog hasn’t been seen since he savaged Marwand’s index finger on the first day of his arrival. A lot of things happen on the course of finding the dog – people drop out of the search party for one reason or the other, stories are exchanged (which to me is the brilliance of the novel) – over a cup of chai, waiting for things to happen in the course of the search, or even while doing nothing.

Kochai tells us the story of a family and he doesn’t do it keeping the West at the fore. The images are spot-on, you feel a part of the narrative, and for most Farsi or Pashto words there is no English translation given, which is quite natural given the people in this region speak that way. Coming back to the family, Jamil Jan Kochai weaves the story back and forth in time through the stories told by everyone not just the boys – and then it only further changes hands of time.

99 nights in Logar is all about memory. Memory is at the heart of this novel and throughout the book. Whether is it recollection of stories, or even how things happened a week ago or two days ago, Kochai manages to make the story funny, filled with nostalgia, angst, and a great coming-of-age experience.

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Mouthful of Birds Title: Mouthful of Birds
Author: Samanta Schweblin
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1786074560
Genre:
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The world of Samanta Schweblin’s stories is intriguing. There is aplenty and then there is nothing. You begin to wonder as a reader, in-between being stumped by the prose and the sheer magnitude of the story being read, whether or not you are worthy of it. The stories are nightmarish for sure, but then Schweblin also prepares you for them right at the beginning. The context and the tone are set immaculately, the translation by Megan McDowell precise to the last word and emotion, and more than anything else the diversity of the collection, only makes you want to turn the pages sooner, even if the collection seems too long at twenty stories.

Mouthful of Birds is strange. But that’s what makes it so delicious a read. The title story is that of a teenaged girl, who to the fascination (at some point) and repulsion of her divorced parents resorts to only eating live birds. It just happens, one fine day without any reason. So what does one feel after reading such a story? Pity? Empathy (can you, really)? Disgust? Schweblin gives you enough and more room to feel, get in touch with your emotions at the end of the every story, only to be met with another story, with another set of emotions all over again.

The devastating realities of fairy tales creep up in The Merman. You cannot help but go back to your childhood and be alarmed at what you read. This is just Schweblin’s perspective when she has a story to tell and it shines. Or you have a story such as “Butterflies” whose end will leave your stomach churning and wanting more. The imagery of no two stories is remotely similar. Schweblin draws every story and every framework from different places and varied emotions, which makes it even more interesting.

That’s the thing about Samanta’s stories. They make you wonder, you are awed, fascinated even, repulsed, revolted, and yet you cannot help but turn the page to the next one. It is the feeling of a roller-coaster ride, knowing you are going to fall, plunge headlong and yet there is this excitement – the butterflies-in-your-stomach kind of a feeling. If anything and more, this collection is ferocious.

You can also tell that the stories have matured and come to the author over a period of time. These have not been written all at once, and it shows. The translation by Megan McDowell is on-point. She also translated Fever Dream by Schweblin, which was written after this collection but translated and published in English before. But that’s just a technicality in the sense of publishing timeline.

What is truly astounding is how McDowell makes the original voice hers, thereby giving us a culminated effort. The multiple stories breathe and live multiple lives. It is as though you can see the author mature and an underlined theme runs throughout – that of intense dysfunctional of family and the self. Headlights, the opening story is strange – Schweblin has got the emotion pat-down and you can see the misogyny of men. In another story titled Preserves, an unborn baby is spat out (perhaps unwanted as well). Each story shines and has its own unique element. Some leave the reader satisfied, while others don’t.

Mouthful of Birds breaks ground in storytelling and so many times also sticks to the traditional format of showing more and telling less. It challenges readers every step of the way, and never lets you imagine what will happen next. Samanta Schweblin’s reality is the one we inhabit and also the one we are way far-off from. That to me is the beauty and core of this fantastic short-story collection, that deserves to be read by almost everyone.

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

Sea Prayer Title: Sea Prayer
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Illustrator: Dan Williams
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526605917
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Fiction, Immigrant Fiction
Pages: 48
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Before I start this review, I would just like to make one thing clear from point of view, a book is a book is a book. Yes, big books and expansive stories make a lot of difference (and I am the kind of reader that loves to read big books and I cannot lie), at the same time, short books (as some might call them and roll their eyes to pay for them) make an impact as well. They have the power to transform and make you introspect the world and yourself in it. “Sea Prayer” by Khaled Hosseini is one such book.

“Sea Prayer” is a lot of things. It is a cry for comfort, of the known, the familiar and what it means to not know or identify home anymore. What does it even mean to not have a home? To me, more than anything else, “Sea Prayer” is about loss and in a very strange way, a story of hope, as most Hosseini’s stories are. They are hopeful, in times of bleakness. There is some ray of sunshine, something to help people get by and in the case of this book it is the sea – both hopeful and dangerous.

SP 1

“Sea Prayer” is written in the form of a short letter, from a father to his son, on the eve of their journey, far away from home. The book is a portrait of their life in Homs, Syria, before and after the war. The gorgeous water colour and ink illustrations by Dan Williams complement the book in so many ways, that you cannot think of the book without it. The interplay of word and image on every page will leave you breathless, wanting so much more, that you wouldn’t mind rereading (re-watching?) the book over and over again.

SP 2

More than anything else anyone who reads, “Sea Prayer” should be affected by it mainly because of the times we live in. We unfortunately guard our spaces and privacy and boundaries so fiercely that we forget to be humane and compassionate. We have seen enough and more of brutality when it comes to the Trump administration and their stance on refugees and immigrants and on the other, the Rohingya crisis – a people almost forgotten, a people not acknowledged at all. And but of course, at the core of the book is the Syrian crisis.

SP 3

“Sea Prayer” will make you realize your own indifference to everything that goes on around us, and at the same time make you check your privilege. It is the kind of book that seeps through and stays in your subconscious, whether you like it or not. All in all, a read that shakes you up and leaves you more empathetic and kinder.

 

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas

91NWARscW6L Title: The Empty Room
Author: Sadia Abbas
Publisher: Zubaan Books
ISBN: 978-9385932267
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Because more stories such as this one need to be told. Stories where the political and personal merge and the voice stands out – being original, fearless and saying it like she intends to. I also most certainly have come to believe that stories of women are best told by women (you can refute me on this one but it is my opinion nonetheless). The story of Tahira in 1970s Karachi is told beautifully by Sadia Abbas. Through a work of fiction, you can sense the tone and emotions that are so real, you are transported back in time. As a reader, I was way too invested in this book and just wanted to see Tahira happy, no matter what.

Like I said, the novel is set in the 70s of Karachi. Tahira is married off quite quickly to someone she doesn’t know and her life falls apart as quickly. She is a talented painter who isn’t allowed to paint. Her marriage is nothing but a trap and she has no voice left. She was always the free one at her parents house – interacting, debating, discussing with her brother Waseem and his friends. She misses all that and comes to know one fine day that her brother and his friends are arrested and caught up in the regressive regime’s line of fire. Tahira’s world is shattered. She doesn’t know what to do and how to express herself anymore till she goes back to painting. All her paintings have the same title, “The Empty Room”.

“The Empty Room” is rich, luxuriant and more than anything else soothing in so many ways. I often found myself weeping and smiling at the same time while reading this book. The nation is new. The bride is new. Her roles are new. There is the rebel inside her which refuses to succumb and Abbas through her succinct prose has brought out all the elements and joined them quite cleverly. Yet, there are so many places where the book just is – it doesn’t try to be anything but show a mirror of times gone by and strangely you can see those times even today around you. They haven’t gone anywhere. The regressiveness exists, doesn’t matter which nation.

Abbas makes Pakistan come alive in this book. The streets, the places, the houses – the very atmosphere that is heavy and sometimes claustrophobic in Tahira’s world is described brilliantly. “The Empty Room” is just an introspective book with a lot of heart, gumption and the idea and hope that things will change for the better. Read it.