Tag Archives: Literary Non-Fiction

Not To Read by Alejandro Zambra. Translated by Megan McDowell

Not To Read by Alejandro Zambra Title: Not To Read
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Translated by Megan McDowell
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
ISBN: 978-1910695630
Genre: Non-Fiction, Literary Essays
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I discovered, “Bonsai” by Alejandro Zambra in 2014 and since then I have never looked back. I’ve read all his books and all I can say is that I am glad he exists in the same universe as we do and continues to write. This time it was a collection of essays, some old and some new, collected in a book “Not to Read” and published by the very erudite folks at Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The thing about Zambra’s writing is the high level of engagement he was with his readers, even without meaning to I guess. You instantly relate to what he has to say about libraries, personal libraries and books in general. At the very superficial level it is this, but at a more constant and deeper level it is his writing which seems so effortless thanks to the translation really. McDowell has done a spectacular job of giving words to his thoughts and words of course in another language so smoothly, that you almost want to read the original (written in Spanish).

The essays are spread over three sections and each section, without a doubt is a joy to read. Zambra makes you travel with him, through his literature and also through his pieces on literature. I will for one never forget how he and his friends photocopied books as they were (and still are) very expensive to buy when they were students. What is most endearing is that even when he could afford to buy the originals, the photocopy stacks still remained on the shelves. Or the time when he visits a friend’s house and comments on the shelving of books and the technique used (a hilarious piece by the way).

Zambra’s writing connects with the reader in all of us and that’s why it is so accessible. Another thing about reading books about books is the discovery. Just by reading “Not to Read”, I have chanced upon a dozen or more writers I would’ve never known. Well, the glitch is that most of them aren’t translated to English but hey, I hope wanting to read them will finally make me enroll for Spanish classes. Anything that would make you read new authors, I suppose.

Alejandro Zambra has not praised or touched on the big Chilean writers – either because he doesn’t admire their writing, which is fair or because he sincerely feels there are alternatives (which I was glad to know of). This is a very important aspect of a book about books in my opinion – giving alternatives to what already exists. The cannons of literature will remain and revered, but we need something else to hold onto as well.

“Not to Read” can be read in one sitting (like I did) or better yet dip into it time and again, read an essay or two and mull over its magnificence. I am only too happy that more authors are writing about books and reading. One of my favourite genres so far. I strongly recommend everyone to read this book.

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When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele

When They Call You A Terrorist Title: When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir
Authors: Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 978-1250171085
Genre: Non-Fiction, Social Rights
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

This book will not be an easy read. Not because it is written in a difficult to understand manner, but because the lives spoken of haven’t been easy. So, if you get squeamish easy, then this book isn’t for you. This book is about the world and how it is, how it always was – how racism is so deep-rooted that it might take ages before it is wiped out completely. And yet, this book does not only deal with the issue of racism or schizoaffective disorder, it deals with identity and the basic right to live, which should not be taken away from anyone at all.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors life has not been an easy one at all. Being sheltered and fed wasn’t easy while she was growing up. As I have mentioned, her brother who suffers from schizoaffective disorder and a mother who works from dawn to dusk, just to ensure the kids are fed and clothed.

What upsets me the most is the involvement of the police when it comes to mental health organizations when it comes to checks or emergencies. I mean how would they know what it means to be mentally unstable and what one goes through? But that is just one part of the story.

The crux of the book is what it means to be black in today’s world and how unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality causes havoc in people’s lives. Patrisse outraged the most in 2013, when Travyon Martin’s killer went free, which led to the formation of Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.

Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele give you insights into how it is to survive in the face of violent racism. We think nothing is going on, that we live in evolved times, but that is all well and good in the comfort of our homes. What happens in the world is simply horrific.

“When They Call You A Terrorist” hits hard (like it should) and will make you think twice about how sometimes we behave when it comes to people who are different from us. This is a book that is most needed for our times. The situations and people will always remain the same, till an entire culture changes, the one that says Black Lives Matter.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel - Essays by Alexander Chee Title: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays
Author: Alexander Chee
Publisher: Mariner Books, HMH
ISBN: 978-1328764522
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It isn’t easy to write a book of essays that charts life. And when you come across a work that is so lucid, questions the world and has so many identities rolled into itself, that you just have to sit up, take notice and devour it cover to cover. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” by Alexander Chee is one such collection of finest essays of our times and that is mainly because it is as honest as it can get. There is something about books that come from the heart – they manage to get through to you breaking all pretense and that’s what this collection of essays does to you. It gets through.

Alexander Chee’s writing was only known to me through his earlier literary fiction works, “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night” which I loved immensely. This is his foray into non-fiction and I just hope that he continues writing many such essays. What I found a notch above the essay collections I have read in the past couple of months in this one was just the candid and heartwarming way in which they are written.

Chee doesn’t shy from talking about his life, his struggles and his perception of the world at large. When you write non-fiction, you become more susceptible to judgment than when you write fiction. Everyone may not have an opinion about the storyline or characters but one sure does have an opinion (maybe more) on the world and its issues.

Chee’s essays range from growing-up in America and how different identities take over his life – a son, a Korean American, a gay man, a student, a teacher and a novelist amongst others. I loved the way he connected his life to his country and its issues and everything just seemed one. For instance, the section on AIDS and then again on 9/11 were most hard-hitting to me. When he speaks of literature (there are so many references throughout the book), you just want to sit up and listen. I for one, remember re-reading so many passages about writing and what it takes to be a writer.

Alexander Chee’s essays are wry, real, political (everything is political in today’s time and age), and above all makes us ask questions of art and life and what happens to it all, when they come under attack. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” is hands down one of the best essay collections of 2018 and I am not speaking too soon.

The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop

The Anna Karenina Fix Title: The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature
Author: Viv Groskop
Publisher: Fig Tree, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241308639
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Memoirs
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I am a sucker for Russian Literature. I have read Anna Karenina twice and the Brothers Karamazov about two and a half times (I dropped it half-way the third time, because it was getting too much for once to handle) and not to forget Master and Margarita about twice as well. There are many more Russian works of great significance and most of it is classical or semi-modern. What I also love is books about books and “The Anna Karenina Fix” merges these elements beautifully. It is a book about books but Russian Literature and how it can save your life (well in more ways than one) and also how one can actually learn from it.

“The Anna Karenina Fix” by Viv Groskop is a handy guide to life as learned from the works of Russian Literature. Be it Chekov or Turgenev or Akhmatova, every book or author chosen by Groskop in this book has had a role to play in her life – in making her live it day after day, month after month and year after year. It is a warm and fuzzy (well, not so fuzzy) book about humans, their frailties, passions, desires and weaknesses when it comes to that.

The book charts the author’s relationship with everything Russian – language, art, culture and how she weaves her memories with the classics is something any reader who loves books will enjoy. At the same time, Groskop introduces the Russian classics to you if you hadn’t heard of them and does a very good job of that. Also, even though there are spoilers, but that will not take away from the experience of reading these Russian books if you want to at some point.

“The Anna Karenina Fix” is a solid book about living life and how to actually go about it through some Russian books. It is sublime, lucid and provides a great reading list as well. She also could have gotten preachy about the life lessons, however that doesn’t happen at all. If anything, it is all about what you can take away personally from these books and apply to your life (if you want to, that is).

Academic research material is not heavy-handedly used in the book. If anything, the language is extremely simple, just as it should be. “The Anna Karenina Fix” is the kind of book that creeps up on you unexpectedly and stays long after. It is also the kind of book that will make you read other books, which is a double-win if you ask me. So, go, read this book!

The White Road: Journey into an Obsession by Edmund de Waal

The White Road Title: The White Road: Journey into an Obsession
Author: Edmund de Waal
Publisher: Picador USA, Macmillan USA
ISBN: 978-1250097323
Genre: Non-Fiction, Literary Non-Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It had been a while since I had read a good non-fiction and I am very picky when it comes to this genre. The book has to be a solid one or I will just drop it and not read further. Life is too short to read badly written books. I loved Edmund de Waal’s earlier book “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” (Please read it if you haven’t already. Trust me, you will love it as well). This is when I received his new book to read “The White Road: Journey into an Obsession”. How does one describe this book? There is a lot going on in it, but I shall try and make sense of it.

In this book, Edmund de Waal gives us a peek into his obsession with porcelain, also known as “white gold’. Edmund is also a porter who has been working with porcelain for more than forty years now. This book is about his exploration through five journeys to understand porcelain better – where was it dreamed, refined, collected and why do so many people covet it this way. While China, Germany and England were at the core of his visits, he also managed to visit other places around the world and how while doing that, he encountered some of the darkest periods of history, thus intertwining his life, obsession with porcelain and history altogether like a well-crafted mosaic.

This book is highly insightful and well-researched. De Waal doesn’t miss the beat on a single page when it comes to uncovering history and delving to its darkest core. You almost feel that you are undertaking the journey with him alongside and not just reading it. The comparisons he makes given the countries he visits, makes you think of your ignorance, given how the world really works, thinks and imagines.

To me the idea of the book is very unique. I love the concept of how something that wouldn’t otherwise come to mind is at the heart of the book – porcelain and around it Edmund de Waal explores his history and family heritage so to speak. The book is like a friend that needs to be hugged and taken care of. The writing is extremely simple and that helps in turning the pages. All said and done, I couldn’t get more of this book at all and wish it lasted longer than it did.