Tag Archives: Knopf Books

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison

The Source of Self-Regard Title: The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations
Author: Toni Morrison
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525521037
Genre: Literary Speeches, Anthologies
Pages: 386
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Toni Morrison’s collection of essays don’t follow a timeline, neither it is linear, nor it is set in an order to make it easy for the reader. At first glance, it might even seem just a random collection of essays, speeches and meditations put together, however, it isn’t that. The book, “The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations” is actually a book that speaks directly to the contemporary reader, and hence the order of essays. It goes headlong into speaking about issues at hand and whoelse better to address and them and show us the mirror than the queen herself, Ms. Morrison.

The book is divided into two parts, with an interlude. The first part is titled, “The Foreigner’s Home”, the second, “God’s Language” and in-between is the interlude aptly titled, “Black Matter(s)”. This is the structure of the book – it is Ms. Morrison’s essays, speeches, and meditations on living, race, gender, language, and the current role of politics in America and in effect its relation to the world. It is also about the duty of the press and media and what is the role of the artist in all of this. As a reader, please be prepared to face harsh realities, question the world around you and ponder over issues you never thought of earlier.

Morrison doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. The candour is not just for the sake of it. This collection is deeply personal as well. From why she became a writer (Faulkner and Women) to her thoughts on Beloved. At the same time, this collection as every reader will know is about race and what it means to be black in America, not only today but for decades and centuries and how have that played out for the black person.

Toni Morrison writes with such elegance and dignity that you get caught up in her words, and then focus on the ideas, going back to the power of her prose. The interlude piece on Martin Luther King Jr. is not only searching but also mirrors the contemporary times. In the essay, Voyagers to the West, she speaks of the Scottish pioneer William Dunbar, and how he managed to build a fortune trading slave, and how ironically his achievements are extoled till date. This is the kind of voice Morrison is all about – she knows exactly when to make the impact felt through her words and how deep.

Morrison also speaks of writers and how they impact the mindset of readers. She speaks of how jazz brought American blacks a different kind of legitimacy. She also talks about why American and English writers could not speak for people of colour, hence the onus was only on black writers to do that. Literature then took a different form altogether, and its voice wasn’t restricted in a way is what I could make out of it. In her most poignant tribute to James Baldwin, the eulogy she delivered at Baldwin’s funeral on December 8, 1987, she honours his literature, his voice, and how he used language so tenderly. Morrison’s heart is almost laid bare in this – this tribute of sorts to a dear friend. It is almost as if you start becoming her friend, piece by piece.

“Jimmy, there is too much to think about you, and much too much to feel,” she begins. “The difficulty is your life refuses summation—it always did—and invites contemplation instead. Like many of us left here, I thought I knew you. Now I discover that, in your company, it is myself I know. That is the astonishing gift of your art and your friendship: You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.”

Toni Morrison’s writing is not only simple, but elegant to the bone. It is as though you are speaking with a friend, an elder, a teacher of sorts who is telling you about life and its ways. Throughout the book, Morrison speaks of the personal and the political and how they are intertwined. The first section, The Foreigner’s Home deals not only with race, but also with the question: What is Home? Where do you find it? What does it mean? At the same time, the section has essays wide ranging from “Literature and Public Life” and also her Nobel lecture.

The third section of the book is my most favourite – the one where she speaks of language, authors, and the power of words. The essay on Beloved – how she came to write it and what it means to her, almost made me cry. Toni Morrison’s commentary on her own work – The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby, Jazz, Beloved, and Paradise are honest, and she understands the time and space she wrote them in and how they might be read differently today.

Morrison’s works – fiction and nonfiction are always relatable. One doesn’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the heart of the matter is the writing – from conception of plot to the way her sentences are constructed, every step is well-thought of and crafted.

I am convinced that there is nothing Ms. Morrison cannot write about. It is almost as if she has to just enter the space and something extraordinary emerges out of her pen. Her voice we all know is unique and original, but that’s not what makes an impact. I think it is the emotional intensity attached to it that makes all the difference, every single time.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations as a collection of essays couldn’t have been compiled and published at a better time. We inhabit a world where people are extremely conflicted about issues of race, language, colour, and above all what entails to be human. I also would strongly recommend this book to every person who wants to understand home, race, the black person’s struggle, the place of literature in the world, and how it impacts us all. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations is illuminating, thought-provoking, and above all every piece has just been written from the heart.

 

The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander

The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander Title: The Weight of a Piano
Author: Chris Cander
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525654674
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 2.5/5

The book caught my eye when I read some people comparing it to Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I think the similarity ends with music being the focal theme of both books. The Weight of a Piano is a very different book, that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is a book about how a piano made in Romania, intersects lives – one that of a woman in Russia with that of a woman in the United States of America.

The Weight of a Piano is about relationships in the modern world, and also in the world gone by. The core though remains the same: what will you do if your one passion is taken away from you? What lengths will you go to perhaps even destroy yourself in the pursuit of the passion? How does then life be lived, with all its complexities and hurdles thrown in the way, every single day?

One story starts in 1962, when eight-year-old Katya is bequeathed a Blüthner piano, that will become the love of her life. She gets married in about eight years or so and moves to America with her family, only to lose the piano in the process.

It is 2012. Bakersfield, California, twenty-six-year old Clara Lundy not only loses a boyfriend, but also has to move to another apartment. With her she just must take the Blüthner, which she has never learned to play. It came down to her by parents who died in a fire accident. She was raised by her aunt and uncle. Her uncle had a car-repair shop and she is trained to become a mechanic.

While the piano is being moved to her new apartment, her hand gets broken – emotions run wild and she decides to sell the piano. Who is the buyer? What happens thereafter is the what makes the rest of the story of The Weight of a Piano.

This is a mystery somewhat, but mostly predictable. However, don’t go by that. The real meat of the story lies in the writing. Many metaphors and parallels run through the story, only enriching it. Of course, the title is also a metaphor for the weight of the characters’ lives and how sometime or the other, the burden needs to be dropped. What I loved the most were the musical references. Piano music is superb and to listen to those pieces while reading the book is another matter of joy.

Cander’s characters could be related to because they are rooted in reality. It is an unusual story in the sense of the piano, that is almost the central character. At the same time, I also thought it was a little too long and could’ve done with some editing. Having said that, the descriptions of both Russia and the American barren landscape are spot-on. The book also had me Googling for these places, just so I could understand the places I am reading about.

The Weight of a Piano is rich in description, and speaks of the true love between the artist and passion, and how people are connected one way or the other – sometimes through the music and sometimes just by what has happened in their lives, and very rarely both.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli Title: Lost Children Archive
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525520610
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Lost Children Archive is a book that should be read by everyone. I think more so because it is so relevant for the times we live in, and also because it is written with such grace, delicacy, and at the same time rawness that is unfathomable. It is one of those rare books that once you start you don’t want it to end. It is like an experience that is immersive and yet so heartbreaking. You don’t want to read it, and yet you do. The wanting to read is obviously far greater, so you do – you read it, if you are me you also constantly mark, highlight, and annotate. Lines resonate, words linger, emotions are so deep-rooted that even if you haven’t experienced any of them, you feel for the characters, though they are nameless.

In 2017, Mexican-born novelist Valeria Luiselli, published a book called “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions”. This book was a result of her volunteering as a court interpreter for children – the “illegal aliens” (as they are called), helping them with intake questionnaires that might establish a case for asylum for them. The book is about her experience of also applying for a green card as she fights for the children.

Lost Children Archive, her much-anticipated new novel (and the first one written in English) is about these refugee children and their lives, it is about a family at the core of it – their lives, and ultimately about ties that bind us and the ones that don’t. Luiselli touches on a topic that is so relevant, so utterly terrifyingly heartbreaking that sometimes as a reader, it took me time to digest, assimilate, and then process my thoughts and emotions.

What I must not forget and mention here is that Lost Children Archive is a “road novel” as well. It is a journey undertaken at the start of the novel by a family – a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. A family that came together when the father and the mother, two single parents fell in love while recording the sounds of New York City. Their marriage is drifting. They are losing grip on who they used to be. The husband plans a new project to travel to the ancestral homeland of the Apaches in Arizona, she decides to go along with her daughter and his son. She plans to document sounds of refugees at the border, and also wants to find two missing, undocumented daughters of her immigrant friend.

Furthermore, there are boxes of the family that travel with them – boxes that are filled and some that aren’t. Boxes that mean something, that are heavy with meaning and emotion, of work documented by the husband and the wife and what remains of their union. Luiselli captures the voices of the children beautifully. The 10-year old son (from the husband) and the 5-year old daughter (from the wife) are seamlessly integrated into the narrative of adults – asking, wondering, sometimes taking pictures (you will learn of this as you read along), and questioning their identity and family as a unit.

Luiselli breaks the mould so many times as she tells the story – over and over again. With the contents of the boxes, the small chapters that integrate, the characters’ voices that seamlessly integrate and also stand-out most often, but above all the last twenty pages of the book are something else – a long sentence that reaches its ending with so much to already chew and mull over, leaving a void in your mind and heart.

Lost Children Archive is most certainly the novel of our times (and sadly as well). It is so many things and yet it is up to the reader what they want to take from it. The story of the refugee children is constantly told from various points of view and done so strangely and beautifully most of the time. Not to forget the character that is the US of A. Home, perhaps. The roads, the motels, the diners, the billboards, and the borders we create are covered with such eye for detail that you wonder if she wrote the book as she travelled. Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. It is about family – the breaking of one and where do other families fit in, the ones that have been broken through displacement, still seeking refuge?

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst Title: The Sparsholt Affair
Author: Alan Hollinghurst
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1101874561
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

To read an Alan Hollinghurst novel is to give in. I realized that when I read “The Swimming Pool Library” for the first time and that was also the first time I read a Hollinghurst novel. I was exploring my sexuality. I was learning what it was to be gay and sometimes all you need is another’s experiences – fictional or real to help you tide through and that is what Hollinghursts’ novels did for me. They gave me hope and joy, made me cry, and at the end of all it, made me realize my potential and myself.

“The Sparsholt Affair” – his latest novel is expansive, huge, overwhelming, and a mirror of the changing attitudes of the British toward the LGBTQIA community. The book starts with the arrival of David Sparsholt at Oxford in October 1940 – a handsome athlete, who has everyone taken by him. Hollinghurst wastes no time in getting into the book – we see David through the eyes of his friends and acquaintances and this is how we see Britain as well.

Please do not treat this novel as being just another LGBTQIA novel. It isn’t just that. There is so much more – the universality of emotions that only ring true and nothing else. Hollinghurst has a knack of letting new characters in and old ones disappear just one you’ve started growing comfortable with them. It used to irritate me initially but then I started enjoying it. What the book also does is sort of draw an arc of gay history from the 40’s to 2012. It is magnificent the way Hollinghurst maps it all – from nothing to iPhones and dating apps to the loneliness we all feel and yet there is no one to speak to.

I loved how nothing was served on a platter in this book. Alan makes you work very hard to pick up the clues, to make sense of what is happening and as usual he returns to Henry James one way or the other (I thoroughly enjoyed The Line of Beauty because of the innumerable references to The Spoils of Poynton). “The Sparsholt Affair” is melancholic and hopeful, almost at the same time. Hollinghurst is the master of depicting nostalgia in his books and this one is no different. Read it. Please read it.

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Title: South and West: From a Notebook
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524732790
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Joan Didion’s works are not easy to read. But once you read her books, there is no stopping. I remember reading “The Year of Magical Thinking” when it was first published in 2005 and wrenched completely to the gut by its honesty. Since then, I haven’t missed reading a single book by her. My copy of her latest, “South and West: From a Notebook” came all the way from Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, a gift from my sister. Anyhow, now back to the book.

Her essays are introspective unlike her fictional works. Don’t get me wrong here, I adore her writing, just that I feel her non-fiction is stronger than fiction. This thin volume contains two pieces: the first, a collection of assembled jottings in her notebook from a road-trip through the South in 1970; the second piece is about the Patty Hearst trial.

The first piece forms the bulk of the book – with details on everything South as they traverse that landscape – from its swimming pools in motels, to meeting regular people, knowing their views on class and racism (nothing has changed since then or so it seems) to the sedentary life lead there. At the same time, her keen eye for detail and candidness, makes you wish there was more to this book and more so to this piece.

Didion makes the South alive for you – every nuance, twitch of the faces of the people she observes and interacts with to the weather (more so important for the South) is pat down to the last nitpicking detail and as a reader you are only too happy for it. At the same time, you also feel that it could very well have been a travelogue (or is it?) with rich descriptions of the landscape and the minor details that are paid attention to.

What struck me about the book the most is that though written in the 70s, it still is so relevant today given the views of the people in the South – where discrimination – racial and classist are taken as the norm and no one seems to object – it was almost as though this were a warning for the times to come with the current President of the United States of America.

The second piece in the book is too brief – it finishes even before you have started reading it which is quite a pity. It is just a collection of notes and sketches (which of course what the entire book is) and nothing else adds to it. In fact, I had to go to Google to know more about the Patty Hearst trial.

All said and done, “South and West: From a Notebook” is a book which perhaps isn’t meant for all – or I don’t even know if it will be enjoyed by all. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner to Joan’s works but for someone who is familiar with her writing, you will love it, just as I did, so please pick it up.

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