Tag Archives: Literary Fiction Reading Project

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout Title: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-1400067695
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are times when you stumble on books, do not read them, or read a couple of pages and drop them. You pick them up again and do not get past a couple of pages. You pick it up again (the specific, dreaded book in question) and yet you just cannot seem to make it beyond the thirtieth page or so. Till one fine day, you pick it up and voila! You just cannot seem to stop reading it. In fact, you don’t want the book to end. You want it to continue, to unravel its secrets, the words that consume you and in turn make you think things about your life.

Art is almost a replica of life. They say it imitates life. I say, it just is. “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout may not resonate page by page or in the overall sense of plot, but there are places where it will take your breath away (it at least did that to me). It is a very regular story or so it seems.

Lucy Barton is unwell. She is undergoing a minor surgery and is in the hospital. It is the early 90s (not specified but you can more or less figure). Her mother visits her and stays with her for five days. The book opens with them speaking of the old days – of Lucy’s childhood, her siblings and how they lived.

That is when the secrets tumble and questions come to the fore – them being born to poverty, the time her parents locked her in a truck with a snake (why), the time her father humiliated her brother, calling him a “fucking faggot” in front of everyone after he was caught trying Mom’s high heels. We can see the family is beyond dysfunctional and redemption of any kind. Lucy is wounded, and yet she is happily married (or so we think), with two children and is on the way to becoming a writer.

Strout speaks of marriage, family, children, love, homosexuality and so much more through Lucy. And yet she makes Lucy such an unreliable narrator that you are confused but want to know so much more and after a point you do not care, if Lucy is telling the truth or not. You believe her anyway. The book is pretty much rooted in Lucy’s childhood and her reactions to things as she is an adult comes from a deep, dark, lonely place.

On the surface, “My Name is Lucy Barton” may not seem much of a book, but as you dive into its pages, you can see it for what it is and if you are looking for more answers, then there’s the sequel “Anything is Possible” (which I need to get to as soon as possible). Strout proves that brevity could most of the time be the best tool used in fiction. This book is less than two hundred pages and yet it is not a fast read. You will mull and ponder over what you read. Perhaps even go back to some sentences.

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

“It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

“But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”

“But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.”

“Because we all love imperfectly.”

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Little, Brown
ISBN: 978-1408709726
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I knew exactly what I was getting into as I started reading “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng. I had read her first book two years ago called “Everything I Never Told You” and couldn’t wait to start her new one. I can for sure say that I enjoyed “Little Fires Everywhere” a lot more (sorry for that Celeste, though I also enjoyed your debut novel a lot as well). The prose, the description and more than that how life in America is when it comes to consumerism and parenthood at some point mingling together is brilliantly depicted in this novel of dysfunctional families, twisted minds and family ties.

“Little Fires Everywhere” begins with a house burnt down in a closely tight-knit planned community where nothing of this sort would be dreamed of happening by its residents. The idea of well-gated community called Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997 says a lot about the Utopia and unwelcome change and how all if it disrupts the Richardson family’s seemingly happy life, when Mia (a charismatic artist) and her shy fifteen-year old daughter Pearl, move to the town as tenants in the house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents.

This triggers events – mainly the differences in their lifestyles and also what is the attitude of the Richardsons when old family friends on theirs decide to adopt a Chinese-American baby – that would one day lead to the Richardson’s own house burning. I am not giving away anything, don’t worry, but all I can say is that this book kept me up longer than I intended those two nights it took me to finish it.

Celeste Ng has this amazing quality of going easy on the reader mostly and then out of nowhere, she shows you the cracks in relationships, the changes as people interact with each other and how explosive it all is under a calm surface. I loved the writing. It is fast and yet bringing out the details of every character – the Richardson family (mother, father and four teenage children), Mia and Pearl (who I loved as the book moved along) and also the other couple – every detail, every sentence is in place when it comes to “Little Fires Everywhere”. The title is so layered – depicting the fires within and the ones that we see. The ones we also feel but deny and move along in life. If you have to read one book this October (while there is still time), make it this one.

 

Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely

Snow by Orhan Pamuk Title: Snow
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Publisher: Everyman’s Library
ISBN: 978-1841593388
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Works
Pages: 460
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember reading “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk for the first time in 2004 I think. It has been thirteen years since I read it. This reread though has been a very different experience. First, because I was co-reading it with TheBookSatchel (a very famous blogger and Instagrammer. Please do look her up) and second, the discussions gave way to thoughts and opinions which sometimes a solitary reading experience cannot. Books such as Snow need to be read together and discussed because there is so much to talk about. You as a reader, will be bursting with ideas and thoughts at the end of almost every chapter.

“Snow” is also considered one of Pamuk’s difficult novels (I don’t think so at all) to read. If anything, I thought “My Name is Red” to be a little tedious. Snow on the other hand, reads very easy. It is also a book about Turkey (most of Pamuk’s books are, but of course, since he belongs to the country, or does he?) and its contradictions and how difficult or easy it is for the natives to move in time, as they are on the crossroads of East and West. Pamuk has taken this idea of Turkey and distilled the identity crisis to a border town Kars, and further refined it to the person, the poet, known as Ka (notice the wordplay here? More on it later).

Ka has recently returned from political exile in Germany for the funeral of his mother and he gets drawn to the suicides of young women in Kars, a border town. These women are committing suicide because they are being forced by the government to not wear head scarves. He is in Kars to find out more about these suicides and then there is also the question of the love of his life, Ipek (the girl from his college days) who is now in Kars and has recently been divorced. With this premise, Pamuk takes us to the heart of “Snow”.

Ka finds Kars to be a place of poverty, lack of intelligence and some violent people and yet in all of this, he finds beauty as it snows in the town, sometimes nonstop. That’s what worked for me the most about this book – snow. Pamuk describes snow as a matter of fact but the emotions that Ka goes through as it snows, transfers itself to the reader and it is a melancholic experience. Ka also finds poetry on this trip to Kars. At a certain level, he also is on the road to becoming a believer from an atheist. His pursuit of truth (or various versions of it) drive him to meet various people – the editor of a newspaper who predicts (quite surreal if you ask me) stuff, terrorists, the police, atheists, extremists and women on the verge of suicide.

Snow is not an easy book to read (in terms of all that is going on). I am not contradicting myself. You need to sink your teeth into it to truly understand it – completely. There is a lot of subtext and subplots that unravel themselves beautifully. At so many points, it read as a fairy tale to me and that’s saying a lot about the book. The lyricism of language helps move through but sometimes it gets a bit much. There is so much beauty in the book though – from the premise of Ka’s poems to the canopy of characters and their quirks and the question of faith that is constantly ringing like a fire-engine bell.

The translation is superb and the reason I say this is it feels that none of the nuances are lost. Maureen Freely’s translation, I am sure is just as empathetic as the original writing. “Snow” is to be read at its own pace. You cannot rush it. At the same time, don’t be distracted by anything else while reading it. Soak yourself into what Pamuk wants you to see and hear and you will not be disappointed.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 Title: Reservoir 13
Author: Jon McGregor
Publisher: Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-0008257729
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Reservoir 13 is one of those books that miss and go. No one pays attention to them. No one talks about them. At the same time, I am only too happy that it was featured in the long-list this year for the Booker Prize. Owing to this, I hope a lot of people sat up and took notice of it. I remember reading “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” way back in 2000 and being astounded by the writing. McGregor sure knows how to make great use of a phrase, an emotion that is homeless and at the same time he does all of this with a lot of grace. Yes his books are difficult to get into (but they are delightful and once you get into them, it is very difficult to not turn the pages), but extremely satisfying.

“Reservoir 13” is long-listed for Booker 2017 (just as “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” was) and while it may not win, I was mesmerized by the writing. It is the story of lives – many lives in fact haunted by one family’s loss. A teenage girl goes missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called on to search. The search continues and daily lives are led – as they would be. Life goes on. And yet amidst all this, the missing teenager’s life hangs in the balance – through memories, secrets that tumble (also of the inhabitants of the village)and how small kindnesses and grace plays such a major role in the book.

McGregor knows how to write. In fact, he is brilliant at it. The book unfolds over thirteen years and yet the tragedy refuses to die. It is in the taking the novel from one point to another, is McGregor’s single-most talent – and that too convincingly and with a lot of heart. Just as his previous books, even in this one, nothing happens and everything happens. The technique of writing is simple (I love that about almost all long-listed titles this year) and the narrative takes its own course. There is no major psychological revelation and yet there are a series of small moments that move you. “Reservoir 13” is one of those books that might be a miss when it comes to most people’s reading list, but shouldn’t be, for sure.

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Chemistry Title: Chemistry
Author: Weike Wang
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524731748
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

September 2017 is going to be a good month of books read. The next that I read this month was “Chemistry” by Weike Wang. Chemistry is the kind of read that takes time for you to suck yourself into. I don’t mean that it is a slow read, but it is the kind of book which will have you ruminate over what is going on and go back to the pages you just read, so to make sense of what is going on as well. Wang’s craft is that of talking about various things at one time and might I add that she is brilliant at that.

For a debut novel, “Chemistry” took me by surprise. It would have also taken me by surprise had it not been a debut novel, don’t get me wrong but just the sheer force with which it is written (and it isn’t even a long read) makes you want to sit up and take notice. I was also asked by someone on Facebook if chemistry is an integral part of the book – as in does it change the life of the characters or not, to which I would say: No. While it does form a background to the book, I didn’t think it was life-altering in any way.

So what is the book about? The story follows a Chinese-American scientist (she is unnamed which is more or less like the challenges she faces in life) as she is three years into her graduate studies at quite a demanding Boston university. Amidst this there is the pressure from her parents to excel. Her love for chemistry is slowly dying. Her boyfriend wants to marry her and she has no response yet for him. She is lost just like anyone else and to find herself she has to give up everything and leave behind what she loves. This is the crux of the plot, as she gives up two years to discover herself and realizes that formulas or equations may not always have all answers as she thought they would.

The plot may not sound interesting initially but once you start reading Wang’s writing – you are just transported to her world. It is almost semi-autobiographical in nature and you can sense the confusion of her narrator and some sense of knowing in the second part (I loved the second part of the book a lot more). The writing is crisp, wry and overwhelming in a lot of places. The narrator and her relationships shine throughout but the relationship with herself is what I loved the most (as cliché as that might sound). “Chemistry” is a book of a scattered mind and a scattered soul that learns to piece itself day by day.