Tag Archives: Knopf Books

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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Book Review: The News from Spain: 7 Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham

la-ca-joan-wickersham-20121014-001 Title: The News from Spain: 7 Variations on a Love Story
Author: Joan Wickersham
Publisher: Knopf Books
ISBN: 978-0307958884
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Short stories have an impact which probably novels do not, where I am concerned. I do not why but the short story form has so much to say and so much that is left unsaid at the same time. It is left to the reader to infer. The reader is given that doubt of sensibility which somehow to me does not come across in the novel, the way it does in a short story. Maybe that is why I like to read a short story before I sleep every night. It somehow gives me a whole new perspective on life and its issues.

When I received a review copy of, “The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story” by Joan Wickersham, I knew I would love it. Even before reading the first story or any story for that matter. I knew that for two reasons. First because of the way this collection is written – seven different stories and variations on almost one single theme – “The News from Spain” and second because I had read an excerpt in a magazine earlier, which almost moved me to tears.

The book according to me is one of a kind. Not because the idea has not been explored before, but because of the writing. There were so many places in the book where I could not help myself but cry. Wickersham writes with such elegance and beauty that you cannot help but mull over what you have read; maybe sometimes throughout the day. My most favourite story in the book is that of a paralyzed dancer and her relationship with her husband who is a famous choreographer. At the same time in the story, there is another track of her gay caretaker and his feelings towards his so-called partner. Out of seven stories in the book, I have loved reading six of them and would probably reread at some point.

The stories have so much insight, that at times you are left breathless. The relationship between a mother and her daughter is beautifully expressed through the daughter’s love life and career progression, while the mother is unwell at a home for the aged. The theme in the book runs through as a musical note, one that as a reader you will look forward to in the next story in terms of context and plot.

The characters are as real as you and I. Their lives are delicately laid out, so much so that the book sometimes feels like one big elaborate universe and the characters are spread across far and wide. The language is crystal-clear and evokes various emotions – bittersweet, sadness, hope, happiness and envy. I cannot forget to mention the last story in the book, which absolutely left me speechless. It is a double love-story and a meditation on the nature of love and the limits it holds within itself.

At the end of it all, the reader is left satiated and at the same time wanting more, just like Wickersham’s characters in love. Joan Wickersham as a writer knows what she does – she breathes hope into words, she moulds them to emotions and scenes and will sometimes break your heart and beautifully mend it all over again with those same words.

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Book Review: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Title: The End of Your Life Book Club
Author: Will Schwalbe
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307594037
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoirs, Memories
Pages: 352
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

I had wanted to read, “The End of Your Life Book Club” the first time I read about it, which was in April 2012 or somewhere closer to that month. I love reading books about books and more so when a selection is made and discussed, just as the title suggests – a book club. For me, it was more than that. It was the story that made me want to grab this one and start and I did when I got the first chance. I have just finished reading this book and I am overwhelmed beyond words. So maybe this review will be a short one, just because I want whichever reader to pick up this book, to be able to enjoy it without any pre-conceived notion of anyone else’s opinion about it.

“The End of Your Life Book Club” is about a mother and a son (the author and his mother), whose love for books is never-ending. They discuss books and talk about books throughout the journey that the author describes brilliantly in this work. Will’s mom has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the journey of the book club starts at the doctor’s office and the waiting room as they wait for the chemo appointments and discuss books that they are reading at the same time. The book is a tribute to his mother and books and life and its magnanimity.

What struck me was the way this book is written. It is about Mary Ann Schwalbe and her family, with books playing a major role between her and her second born, Will Schwalbe. The book is simple and yet chronicles a family’s life, a mother’s love and more than that, the woman that she was – compassionate, generous, kind, loving and a reader. I had to pen down this review because I want more people to read this book – it is about books for sure and it is also about connections – about telling your loved ones that you love them and are proud of them, no matter what.

The writing is thread-bare and comes from the heart. It must have been very difficult for Mr. Schwalbe to pen this book, considering how personal it is, and yet at the same time, I am only too glad that he decided to write this book and share his mother’s life with readers around the world. Of how building a library in Kabul was the most important task for her (given her associations with non-profit organizations) to the daily planning of dinners and birthday parties. Mary Ann Schwalbe is a woman I think every reader would want to have known and this book is a perfect way of doing that. To know what she read and why and more so what sort of a woman she was – determined to help others and live her life to the fullest no matter what, not even deterring in the face of a disease.

“The End of Your Life Book Club” comes from an emotional place. There were times I choked and nearly cried and was so happy to have been reading this book. I know for a fact that I will reread this one and also read all the books that Will and Mary read throughout the course of the book. It is a book about reading and how it can save you at most times. It is about love and what family means to you. It is about life. I cannot recommend it enough.

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