Tag Archives: Literary Fiction Reading Project

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad Title: The Parisian
Author: Isabella Hammad
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 9780802129437
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 576
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Hands down, The Parisian is one of the best books I’ve read this year and its only mid-March. But I can say this with utmost assurance. I do not normally read historical novels but The Parisian is an exception I am glad I made. It would have been a lost opportunity had I decided not to read this book. Plus this book is not only historical, but also psychological in nature, which makes you want to read it even more.

This is a debut and I couldn’t believe it. Hammad writes with such assurance and elegance, that no reader can believe that this is her first work. Anyhow, now to the plot. The book opens at the time of the First World War. Midhat Kamal, a young Palestinian from Nablus is forced by his autocratic father to study medicine in Montpellier, France. There, he stays at the home of a professor at the college, Docteur Molineu, who is extremely warm to him. While studying, Midhat falls head over heels in love with Molineu’s daughter, Jeannette. And this is where all troubles begin.

When the war is over, he returns to Nablus and begins to rediscover his homeland, deciding to work for his family’s clothing business. He focuses then on the old, and forgets France, as though it was just something that occurred in a different lifetime. He marries someone he doesn’t even know, has children, and his life is pretty much on track, till something occurs and his world blows apart.

This is where the political and personal merge in the novel and from hereon are my favourite parts of the novel. Hammad’s writing is lucid, and yet complex. She doesn’t spoon-feed the reader. She throws crumbs – you have to follow it, and learn more about the time, the conflict, and some resolutions concerning the timeline in which the book is set.

The Parisian deals with so many issues that one time that sometimes it becomes difficult to follow everything at once, but if you persist and read back and forth, the book is a treasure. There is the question of personal identity,  cultural identity, again given the time it is set in the idea of politics and the self, family to be placed at the helm or not, and a nation on the brink of struggling for independence. Phew! There is needed a lot going on, but not once does Hammad stray from what she wants the reader to feel while reading the book. The element of suspense and intrigue also makes you want to turn the page sooner than you know.

The writing is indeed of top-form. Yes, there are a lot of colloquialisms  but that helps you learn something new and that worked for me. And all of this is told with such clarity and well-constructed prose that it is nothing short of joy to read this novel. The Parisian is a novel that questions, gives answers as well, makes you think beyond your comfort zone, and does all of this with great warmth and tenderness.

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Women by Mihail Sebastian. Translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

Women by Mihail SebastianTitle: Women
Author: Mihail Sebastian
Translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
Publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590519547
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I am so glad I read this rediscovered classic. This book is a short, simple story of love. It is a book about a young Romanian man who has just finished his medical studies in Paris and quickly decides to vacation in the Alps. This is where the action begins. This is where he falls in love with three women. The book is about each of them, in context with him, and of course what happens next.

There are four interlinked stories in the book, of course all relating to Stefan Valeriu. I love books that have stories that are again interrelated. Something extremely satisfying reading such books. I think the landscape of the book helped a lot as well – the Alps and Paris – glorious as ever.

The sections in the book are titled after the women they describe: Émilie, Maria, Arabela, and so on. The book actually takes place over two world wars but I am glad that none of them are spoken about in great detail. The idea I think was just to focus on personal relationships and not political, as often is the case in his books. The character of Stefan Valeriu is so complex and yet so simple, that sometimes I wondered what was the author trying to tell us through him. The unrequited loves and passions are highlighted wonderfully through some really short sentences throughout the book, which seem to work very well.

Women is a very strong and powerful novella/novel. It makes so many points that sometimes I would wonder while reading it, how could Sebastian manage to do all that in such a short book and yet he did. Also, might I add that regret is one of the recurring themes in the book – which is handled so delicately. I haven’t read too many books where this has been brought out this well. The long diary sections are a treat to read and extremely memorable.

Women is elegant and lyrical. It is the kind of book that is languid in its pace and deserves to be read that way. Also, Philip Ó Ceallaigh has managed to keep the elements of ennui and alienation extremely intact through the prose. I think very few translators manage to do that, and just for this I will look at his other works. Women is a book which is most certainly not to be missed.

 

 

Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector. Translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser.

hour of the star Title: Hour of the Star
Author: Clarice Lispector
Translated from the Portuguese by
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 978-0141392035
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

Clarice Lispector’s works burst on the literary scene a couple of years ago. Her books were republished, retranslated to English (I think), and read and loved by all. Whether understood or not is secondary, and I don’t mean this in a condescending or patronising manner. The truth of the matter is: Sometimes it is hard to read Lispector, because there is so much to make of what she has written. I am only happy that more people are discovering her and reading her. It is always so important to read new authors, to break your reading mould, and experience new terrains, cultures, and lives you wouldn’t have thought about in the past.

Hour of the Star is a strange book, in the classic good-strange kind of way. It was one of her last few works published and it clearly to me is one of her best. I have read most of her books and every time I read a Lispector, my head is in a dizzy. It is like I cannot read anything else for days after reading her. That’s the effect she has with her words, her characters, and the stories she chose to tell.

Hour of the Star is a small book with some very big ideas, all along the read. The book focuses on the life of an uneducated woman and her struggle to survive in a sexist society. Sadly, this doesn’t sound very alien, does it? Hour of the Star is also about abject poverty and the class differences we witness every single day.  At the same time, Lispector’s Macabéa, the 19-year-old impoverished girl living in Rio de Janeiro doesn’t feel for once that she leads a difficult life. The story is told through the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., and he starts the book with how to tell a story and what goes into it. The fourth wall is broken. Lispector’s themes are broad and large in scope. In all of this, there is also a fortune-teller named Madame Carlota and you should read the book also for all of the secondary characters.

Lispector writes more so inwardly – there is a stream of consciousness and then there isn’t. She constantly challenges the reader to read better, if there is something like that, if not then there should be. Macabéa’s traits are so well-etched, that in all of the loving of Coca-Cola, Marilyn Monroe, and her boyfriend (scum, by the way), Lispector cuts away at her heroine’s happiness, thereby jolting the reader’s notions of poverty, identity, and love.

You can sense the dichotomy of the well-off Rodrigo writing about the poverty of Macabéa. It is this power-dynamics that Lispector chose to write about? Is it this Brazil that Lispector wanted to show her readers where the lives of the impoverished is for all to see and write about? Hour of the Star is a tragic comedy about a girl living in poverty and has literally no clue about her state. She certainly makes no impact on anyone and never even knows love, but she has her small joys and as a reader, I couldn’t help but hoot for her through it all.

The brilliance of Hour of the Star is what each reader takes away from it. Don’t be deceived by it’s size of 96 pages. There is so much more to it. Moser’s translation is crisp, and on point. There is no detailing that isn’t needed to begin with. It is a story deeply, starkly, and told rooted in reality, with dreams that can never be fulfilled.

Little Culinary Triumphs by Pascale Pujol. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

Little Culinary Triumphs Title: Little Culinary Triumphs
Author: Pascale Pujol
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609454906
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Little Culinary Triumphs is a book that will delight you. It is funny, and will leave you with the feeling of wanting to get up and hug someone. At least, I felt that way at the end of it. It is a whimsical book, it is also profound at times (rarely though), all in all it is the perfect book to be read when feeling down and about.

The story takes place in Montmartre – multi-ethnic neighbourhood, where cultures meet, mingle, and sometimes collide as well. It is the place perfect for the senses – all of them actually, but more so when it comes to the taste buds. Sandrine, one of the central characters, works in an employment office, helping people find jobs. Under this surface is a world-class cook waiting to blossom and realize her dream of opening a restaurant. A bunch of weird and eccentric characters come together, thanks to Sandrine to open the restaurant – Antoine, an unemployed professor; the giant Senegalese, a magical chef, a psychologist, and a Kama Sutra expert as well. In all of this, is a newspaper magnate, upto no good at all.

Pujol’s prose is hilarious. It sneaks up quite cleverly on you. Till I reached page 75, I was of the opinion that this book isn’t going anywhere at all. I was proved so wrong after that and I am so glad I was. The writing is crisp, delicious, and leaves you with this aftertaste that I just cannot describe. Yes, I used food adjectives, but that’s what the book is all about anyway – food, food, and more food.

I am a fan of Alison Anderson’s translations. From Muriel Barbery to J.M.G. Le Clézio, her translations are spot-on. It is as though she gets the pulse of the original to the very last detail and as a reader, I am never left wanting more or wondering how it would’ve read in the original language. Little Culinary Triumphs is a novel that will make you laugh, chuckle, and understand a minuscule bubble of a universe of oddballs, who eventually grow to understand and sometimes even like each other.

 

 

Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei

Farewell My OrangeTitle: Farewell, My Orange
Author: Iwaki Kei
Translated from the Japanese by Meredith
McKinney
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 9781609454784
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 144
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

There are books that always have you wanting more. You wish they were longer. You wish you had more to chew on. You wish you had more of those characters, and that their lives wouldn’t end with the book. I love reading big books and I cannot lie (the biggest cliché there is, but it is oh so true). I wish, Farewell, My Orange were a novel, instead of just a novella, however, let me also tell you that it works splendidly for its size and it shouldn’t have been a novel.

Salimah and Sayuri belong to different worlds. Both are immigrants in Australia. One is Nigerian. The other, Japanese. It is highly unlikely that their worlds will ever collide. But they do through English-speaking classes (ESL) and how a bond is formed over tragic incidents in their lives is the crux of Farewell, My Orange.  I am not saying much about the story, because then it would really mean nothing to read the book. However, Kei’s writing then will drag you to the book, would make you want to read it no matter what.

The book is so layered and intense and at the same time, it is just way too beautifully written. There are passages that make you stop as you are reading, just to admire the way Kei has framed sentences and expressed the anguish of not going back home and the longing for it. The characters are regular people who just want to live in a place that offers them more – the opportunities, the dreams, and the hope of belonging, which they think can only be accomplished through language. Meredith McKinney’s translation makes it even easier to relate to all of this – at no point it feels that there is something left unsaid or unexpressed because of it being a translated novella.

Farewell, My Orange is the kind of book that is hopeful and yet sometimes full of despair, owing to circumstances. It is the kind of book that will make you see the lives of other people, or at least manage to get a glimpse of it. Sure, there have been a dime a dozen books written on the migrant experience and each one attempts to stand out. The thing with this novella is that with its powerful voice and range of emotions, it does ultimately show you another side to life.