Tag Archives: Knopf

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.

Affiliate Link:

http://amzn.to/2tFdhW0

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1101947135
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are books you read that make you want to be a better person, they make your heart sing and leave you breathless because of their sheer beauty. There are books that break your heart, they keep stabbing at it with a curved blunt knife and you are in pain and you know that, but the magic of words doesn’t make you stop turning the pages. There are also books that do all of this – books that have the power to do it all, so to say and “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi (I still cannot believe that this is a debut novel) is one such book.

I love and enjoy books about families on a grand scale – something about them that makes you relate to what is going on and not so much – perhaps which is what makes it so desirable and not so. “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is about two sisters who never meet during the book. One grows up in a sort of prosperous family where she is promised in marriage to a powerful man and the other grows up in a tribe where she is captured and caught into slavery. This action takes place in Ghana – more exacting would be in the coastal region. The book is about the sisters of course but also about their children and grand-children and great grandchildren and it is marvelous to see Gyasi loop through all these characters and give them a logical start, beginning and end every single time with every single chapter.

At given point I didn’t think the writing was overwhelming because of the several sub-plots. In fact, if anything, I found Gyasi’s writing to be quite simple, empathetic and most easy to read. The trials and tribulations of these sisters and their progeny makes you think of what goes on in this world as we live safe, protected lives. The narrative switches back and forth between each generation of the sister’s family lines and to me that was a lovely way to link stories of families and to know of the songs and tales passed down from one generation to the next.

Yaa Gyasi projects the conflict of the Asantes and Fantes – the tribes of Ghana and the readers will be pulled into their lives, customs and how one of them even work with the British to sell them slaves. Honestly, it didn’t even surprise me given what some people go through in India at the hands of their so-called “community people”. I felt a little cheated in the last couple of chapters and wished there was more to the characters and their lives – but I guess those can be overlooked.

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is a novel that will take your breath away. It is meshed intricately with people across generations, timelines, emotions, men and women who are stuck with decisions they make and the ones that are forced on them. Most of all, the book is about what it takes to be human above everything else and what it really takes to make it through all the pain and hardship.

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

books-for-living-by-will-schwalbe Title: Books for Living
Author: Will Schwalbe
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0385353540
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Books about Books
Pages: 288
Source: Author
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember reading “The End of your Life Book Club” a couple of years ago. I was mesmerized and touched deeply by it. It was a book about a mother and her son and the books they read and discussed while they went for the mother’s chemotherapy sessions and doctor appointments. The son is the author Will Schwalbe and that book touched me so deep. I could not stop crying as I read it and it just made me feel alive and raw all over again. When books do that to you, you know you are home or that is what I believe.

His second book “Books for Living” as the title suggests is just that – books that have inspired him, made him relive moments and memories right from his childhood to adult life and more than anything else, books that have made him a better person. This book as the first one comes from a personal space. Each book mentioned in this book is deeply personal and important to him and that is what I loved the most about this book. It is not a random list. It is a list of memories, handpicked and the reader is allowed to get into his life and know and experience what he went through with each read.

He deftly crafts each chapter around important life topics such as trust (the book associated with it is the girl on the Train), connecting (Giovanni’s room which was my favourite chapter in the entire book), remembering (David Copperfield, where he also speaks of his closest friend David who died and the bond they shared) and many such topics that will make you smile, cry, or remember people who you haven’t spoken or connected with in a while.

Schwalbe’s writing is stark and pure. There is this honesty to it, which I love. I think when you speak of books that have touched you and mean something, you cannot not be honest. He speaks of reading and how it changes people (rightly so). Schwalbe knows the terrain of books and the power they can have over people and that to me is beautiful. I loved how he weaves his life around books and they come to life in his hands.

About Women: Conversations between a Writer and a Painter by Lisa Alther and Francoise Gilot

About Women by Lisa Alther and Francoise Gilot Title: About Women: Conversations between a Writer and a Painter
Authors: Lisa Alther and Francoise Gilot
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
ISBN: 978-0385539869
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

When a writer and a painter come together (and both of them are women) and speak of women issues, their lives, emotions, growing-up years and everything else in between, you get a fascinating conversation book titled “About Women: Conversations between a writer and a painter”. The two women talking are author Lisa Alther and painter and writer Francoise Gilot.

I came across this book randomly online and decided to read it, the minute I finished reading the synopsis. The book is about their lives and experiences. It just gives you a feeling of being in a salon and hearing them speak and hoping that the conversation will not end.

They have been friends for more than twenty-five years. They come from different backgrounds – Gilot from Paris and Alther from Tennessee. They also belong to different generations but the conversations are so intriguing – from arts to parenthood to feminism and how all of this impacted their lives and more importantly their art.

“About women” is divided into eight sections and each section gives you a different perspective on living and how art is so intricately linked with our lives. The book is all about being a woman – through generations of women and how each generation views womanhood. It is not so much about feminism as it is about making a point by doing what you wish to, whatever the circumstances. The conversations are beautifully drawn – even though they might seem random sometimes; they interconnect and fall right into place.

Affiliate Link:

About Women: Conversations Between a Writer and a Painter

About Women: Conversations Between a Writer and a Painter

Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud Title: The Woman Upstairs
Author: Claire Messud
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307596901
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I have always been fascinated by most women in literature. There is something beguiling about them and at the same time they seem to want to say it all. Whether it is a characterization of Lizzy Bennett or it is Madame Bovary, each woman is almost a world in her own sense. There are also women who are caught in circumstances beyond their understanding and will and sort of emerge with different shades of personalities.

There are women who are single and lonely and need that extra bit of life so to say, something which will complete them. This I noticed in the works of Muriel Spark more often than not and sometimes also when Iris Murdoch wrote of them. The point that I am trying to get to here is that literature is full of these fascinating characters, one of them I will add to my list, after reading, “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud.

Claire Messud’s woman is Nora Elridge. Nora is forty-two years old, a teacher and fully enraged at life, when the novel begins. She wants more out of life and doesn’t know how to do it. She wants to get out of the rut and doesn’t know where to go. She wants children. She wants a life of her own. She doesn’t want to be the “woman upstairs” who is desperate and longs for more, as days pass, living in a house that has no one else but her in it.

At the same time, the novel jumps to five years ago, in 2004 when Nora meets the Shahid family and she begins to fall in love with each member of the family – Reza her third-grade student, Sirena the mother, and finally with Skandar – Sirena’s husband and Reza’s father. This goes on for a year, the one single year that changes Nora’s life. This in brief is the plot of the novel.

Now to the style of writing of the book. The plot is so well-layered that the mystery element of the book hits you unexpectedly and that to me is some great writing skill. The thin line between fiction and reality is explored brilliantly through this book and throughout it as well. Messud’s understanding of her characters and the lives they lead is beyond excellence, because she delivers with almost every single word and that is what matters when reading a great book. Anger at all levels is reflected in the book in a very subtle and sometimes quite apparently. At the same time, there is enough intellectual depth to the book, which takes it away from being just another psychological thriller. As a reader, I was always drawn to Nora while reading the book. What would she do? How would it affect her? Should she do this at all? When a reader gets so involved with the central character, he or she knows that the book has done its bit.

Nora almost speaks to everyone and it is also frightening given the way she lives her life. One doesn’t know what is beneath the surface, till it is either revealed or one is smart enough to catch on to the hints. You will love Nora and at times also hate her – that to me is a great sign of etching a character that everyone can or almost wants to relate with and yet maintain their distance. The ending is not tidy. Messud does not even tie up the loose ends. It is for the reader to decipher what could happen and what has. The psychological inferences are many and enhance the reading experience. The cultural inferences only add to those, making the novel richer by the turn of the page.

The book is profound, deep and at the same time touches on the concept of “living” like no other book I have read in recent times. If you are up to read something that will probably make you think a lot, then this book is for you.

Affiliate Link:

Buy The Woman Upstairs from Flipkart.com