Tag Archives: macmillan

Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis

Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis Title: Can’t and Won’t: Stories
Author: Lydia Davis
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374118587
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

When Lydia Davis writes short stories, you take notice. You observe them and linger in their bitter or sweet after-thought. You also get confused. You wonder what her stories are about. As a reader, you also want to give up some times. You do not want to turn the next page. That is what you feel like and you cannot help it. You keep the book aside and after some time you get back to the book and then it hits on you, what you have been missing out on. And then the true beauty of her writing hits you.

Lydia Davis’s new collection of stories, “Can’t and Won’t” is a fantastic collection of vignettes, of short stories and of really long stories. At some point, I did not have it in me to soldier on, and yet I did. I think most of it also had to do with the fact that I had read Davis’s stories earlier. So my recommendation would be that to read some of her works online and then you will absolutely love what she writes and the way she expresses herself.

“Can’t and Won’t” is a collection that makes you ponder, makes you doubt, leaves you confused, perplexed and at the same time wrenches your heart with the most basic observations about life and living. Most of these stories are either retellings of her dreams, or related to Flaubert’s life (which are brilliantly reconstructed) or tales that are about painful memories and indecision and wanting to deal with life.

The stories are sometimes complex, sometimes simple and sometimes just make you want to drop everything else and think about life. “Can’t and Won’t” is expansive. It is a collection that challenges you, delivered in well prose and above all conjures a sense of wonder and delight, with every turn of the page.

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Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood Title: Mrs Hemingway
Author: Naomi Wood
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1447226864
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

For some strange reason, even though I do not like the man’s writing, I have always been fascinated by the life led by Ernest Hemingway. Something about the way he lived and the way he had no qualms about it. Till recently, I did not even know that he had had four wives. That was news to me and I could not stop chuckling to myself about it.

There is also not much written about Hemingway’s life. So maybe that is why not much is known about him. “Mrs Hemingway” is a story of four wives and one husband and how each of them, were either too much in awe of him or just wanted him to love them and do nothing else.

The story begins in 1926 with Ernest’s first wife Hadley, leading to Fife (his mistress first and Hadley’s close friend), to Martha and Mary, all of them, telling her own story, her own life as Mrs Hemingway and what it was like to live with the man – the most alpha of all males – both in attitude and intelligence to a large extent.

Wood writes with a lot of flair and passion. With each wife and each story, she almost gives it another voice, which is needed in a book of this nature – considering four narrators and all formidable women. I love the writing, because it is to the point – all the emotions – from rage to envy to what one feels when betrayed, are all there, to be consumed and soaked in – to perhaps not analyse right or wrong – but just move with the story and where it takes you. I love how the references to Hemingway’s writing are made – subtle and so integral to the plot.

“Mrs Hemingway” is a rare, short treat, about a writer and his women. Of the personal side – the anguish and need to cope and move on from one betrayal to another. This is a story of four women – who shared the same man and the same love that came from them for him. It is the story of love and life, of art and the self-destructive button it carries in its wake. “Mrs Hemingway” is a treat for all literary lovers.

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Book Review: Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol

Title: Anya’s Ghost
Author: Vera Brosgol
Publisher: First Second, Macmillan
ISBN: 9781596437135
Genre: Graphic Novel
Pages: 221
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Anya’s Ghost is a great graphic novel for young teens – especially for young girls. The themes touched on this novel are universal – body image, being a part of a group or clique, the need to belong and the need to identify your roots and not let go of them, no matter what, and not to mention ghost busting as well.

Anya’s Ghost is one of the few graphic novels I have read this year and I enjoyed it to the hilt. I always have felt that writing a graphic novel is far more difficult than writing a short story or a novel for that matter. It isn’t easy. It takes a lot to add words to images and vice-versa; however Vera Brosgol does an amazing job of it.

Anya is a regular 9th or 10th grader at a lower-tier public school, who is embarrassed of her immigrant past. She has no friends at school, except for Siobhan. One afternoon, Anya has a fight with her and storms off into a nearby forest where she falls in an old well. There she makes an acquaintance of a ghost from 1918 named Emily. She has been hovering there next to her skeletal frame for years, mourning the death of her fiancé in WWII and herself at the hands of a murderer. One of Emily’s bones accidentally enters Anya’s bag and once she is out of the well, she realizes that Emily is here to stay. Before long, Emily and Anya become friends and Emily helps Anya overcome all her problems – with boys, fashion, school homework and friends. Anya’s world is idyllic till Anya realizes that all is not what it seems and what she has got herself into.

Vera Brosgol has very intelligently through a ghost story merged the issue of identity and what it means to get over one’s foreign-ness in America. Brosgol seamlessly weaves through being funny, touching and thrilling. This is a book that can be enjoyed by all and for every graphic novel lover, I would recommend it so it can take the place on the shelf close to American Born Chinese and Blankets.

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Book Review: The Paperbark Shoe by Goldie Goldbloom

Title: The Paperbark Shoe
Author: Goldie Goldbloom
Publisher: Picador Books
ISBN: 978-0312674502
Genre: Literary Fiction
PP: 384 pages
Price: $15.00
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Set in Australia during World War II, “The Paperbark Shoe” is ostensibly the story of Gin Boyle Toad, an Albino woman, who has married beneath her social class in order to escape being institutionalized for life. Although a trained classical pianist and a member of the moneyed class, Gin is an outsider because of her pigmentation. Her husband, Mr. Adolphus Toad, is a crude farmer of short stature who has some unusual proclivities; his size and oddities place him outside conventional society. Antonio and John, two Italian prisoners-of-war, are participants in a worker program designed to aid Australian farmers. Outsiders because of their nationality and because they are the enemy, the two integrate their lives into those of the Boyle household. Yet, they are never fully accepted as part of the family unit and remain aware of their outsider status. As outside observers, the two surviving Boyle children, Mudsey and Alf, are affected by and comment on the adults’ interactions.

Goldbloom’s command of language is extraordinary. In relating his story, she is able to make the reader empathize with even the despicable Toad. Goldbloom’s description of the things Gin has learned since coming to Wyalkatchem, page 35 in the ARC, is a powerful testament to the strength required to survive in the harsh Australian ranchlands. One can feel the pride Gin takes in her accomplishments, though that pride is tinged with despair. Even as Toad and John, and Gin and Antonio establish relationships, they remain outside the conventions of polite society. Goldbloom draws the reader into those relationships, their joys and their sorrows.

This novel flows smoothly from beginning until it reaches its final chapter. Only there do the scenario and plot seem to become disjointed from that of the main text. It is almost as if the chapter had been written at another time and tacked onto the book’s end. While it is a powerful text, in and of itself, I do not think the book would have suffered without the inclusion of that final chapter. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful novel and richly deserves a five-star rating. If you are looking for an interesting, character driven book which will keep your attention from beginning to end, I urge you to read Goldie Goldbloom’s “The Paperbark Shoe.”

Book Review: The Four Stages of Cruelty by Keith Hollihan

Title: The Four Stages of Cruelty
Author: Keith Hollihan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press / Thomas Dunne Books
Genre: Crime Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-312-59247-9
PP: 304 Pages
Source: Author
Price: $25.99
Rating: 5/5

“Four Stages of Cruelty” is a precise description of life behind bars as seen through both the prisoner’s and the guard’s viewpoints. It’s chilling. Kali is one of the few female guard’s at her facility and she feels like an outsider. Nineteen year old Josh is one of the youngest and newest prisoners and is completely lost as he tries to settle into life behind bars. Hollihan tells his story through both Kali and Josh’s eyes though Josh’s voice rings truer.

Josh’s next door cellmate Crawley has drawn a cartoon booklet and when feels his life is endangered he gives it to Josh for safekeeping. Josh doesn’t know what the drawings mean but senses they’re important so he tries to pass the booklet to Kali when she escorts him to his father’s funeral. Kali refuses to take it but continues to worry about its significance. She begins to investigate as riots break out in the prison knowing the booklet and the escalating violence are related.

How can you tell who’s right and wrong when everyone around you seems to have ulterior motives? What is the nature of evil and goodness, and who gets to define that and why? Are people capable of lasting change or will they take advantage of you for being compassionate?

The lines between good and bad are constantly blurred in this novel, and the tension comes from guard Kali Williams’ struggle with the byzantine interests at play within the prison and what those interests say about the more nefarious aspects of human nature. The dialogue is spot-on and Hollihan’s writing is so convincing, I thought he had to have been a corrections officer or convict in a previous life (he’s just talented as hell and did incredible research, it turns out).

I like both literary and crime fiction, but I really love novels that blur the lines between those uber-genres. This is one of those books. In some ways it reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Kali Williams as Marlowe), but it also had the kinetic energy of a James Ellroy novel.

There are lots of twists and turns and a great ending in this book. Hollihan is very successful in keeping the reader’s interest though Kali comes across as a bit mechanical. His play with who is more imprisoned, the jailer or the jailed, is fascinating and clearly delineated; the best part of the book in my opinion. I can’t wait to read more from Hollihan.

You can also purchase the book here on Flipkart

Book Review: Heartstone by C.J.Sansom

Title: Heartstone
Author: C.J. Sansom
Publisher: Panmacmillan
ISBN: 9780330533799
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction, Literary Fiction
PP: 725 pages
Price: Rs. 299
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

In “Heartstone,” C. J. Sansom embroils his hero, lawyer and do-gooder Matthew Shardlake, in several intrigues that take him away from London for a large part of the novel. It is 1545, and the profligate King Henry VIII is squeezing his subjects dry in order to wage an expensive military campaign against France. The king has ordered English currency devalued, levied heavy taxes, conscripted every able-bodied Englishman, and even hired foreign mercenaries to wage war against the enemy.

Matthew, who is forty-three and hunchbacked, has never married but is a respected member of Lincoln’s Inn. He frequently puts aside his professional interests to get involved in other people’s business. For instance, he often visits Ellen Fettiplace, a woman who has been in Bedlam for nineteen years and has grown attached to Shardlake. Although he has no romantic feelings for Ellen, he is determined to find out who placed her in the asylum and why. In another matter, Queen Catherine Parr asks Matthew to look into the case of Hugh Curtey, a ward of Sir Nicholas Hobbey. There is some suspicion that Hugh has been exploited and Catherine wants Matthew to investigate the allegation.

Along with his intrepid assistant, Jack Barak, Matthew takes to the road, and a long road it is. Not only will he end up in Portsmouth, where Henry’s huge militia is preparing to defend the English coast from invasion, but he will also tangle with ruthless and greedy men who are willing to kill in order to keep their secrets hidden. Barak would rather stay in London with his pregnant wife, Tamasin; however, in order to avoid military service, he accompanies Shardlake. Matthew is intelligent, compassionate, prone to melancholy, stubborn, and a bit obsessive. Even when threatened with bodily harm, he refuses to abandon his inquiries.

“Heartstone” is fluid, informative, entertaining, and a marvel of research. The author’s period detail and descriptive writing are impressive. Sansom includes maps and background information that add realism to this intricate tale. We inhabit sixteenth century England and experience what life was like for royalty, gentlemen, farmers, merchants, and particularly soldiers (they sometimes ate rotten food, lived in flea-infested quarters, and took orders from arrogant and abusive commanders). Their reward? To get “ripped apart and slaughtered in battle.” We get glimpses of the powerful weaponry on a gigantic warship. In addition, the author points how widespread corruption and favoritism were at every level of government, and how bitter the enmity was between the affluent and those who lived from hand to mouth.

Each character is scrupulously depicted. Ellen at times appears to be irrational, but she has moments of great calm and lucidity. What terrible memories make her terrified of leaving the institution? Nicholas Hobbey and his wife, Abigail, are obviously keeping something from Matthew, but can he learn what it is in time to help Hugh? Among the villains is a familiar face, Sir Richard Rich, who is back to give Matthew even more grief. Historical novels are hard to write. One can write history and one can write a good novel; but to do both – write good history into a good novel with believable characters requires an artistic chemistry which few authors possess. Sansom does; and it shows.

Some may balk at the book’s length (over six hundred pages), but those who love high-quality British historical fiction will welcome this new installment in an excellent series.

Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Reading a Paul Auster novel is something like listening to a well-orchestrated, multi-layered musical composition where certain melodies and motifs recur with substantial elaboration and variation. He is one of our very best writers and his newest, Sunset Park, like many of his books, reflects back to us a great deal about how we live today. It is “up-to-the-moment” current, the protagonist, Miles Heller, being employed by a South Florida realty company (for part of the novel) as a “trash-out” worker who cleans out repossessed homes that are usually left in awful shape by their former inhabitants. Miles has a somewhat fetishistic compulsion to photograph the forgotten possessions, the abandoned things that have been left behind, and his large collection of digital photos of these objects comprise one of the many lists of contemporary artifacts that Auster constructs throughout the book. It includes pictures of “books, shoes, and oil paintings, pianos and toasters, dolls, tea sets and dirty socks, televisions and board games, party dresses and tennis racquets, sofas, silk lingerie, caulking guns, thumbtacks, plastic action figures, tubes of lipstick, rifles, discolored mattresses, knives and forks, poker chips, a stamp collection, and a dead canary lying at the bottom of its cage.”

Sunset Park is a different type of story, and in some ways it felt more like an intense character study. Its central character is Miles Heller, age 28, an intelligent, but directionless, Brown University dropout, who has been estranged from his family for a number of years. Miles has been harboring guilt over his part in an accident which took the life of his step-brother, Bobby, and which has torn his family apart. Miles father owns a struggling book publishing company in New York, his step-mother is an English professor, and his mother, an actress in the city. In Florida, Miles has been getting by odd jobs in Florida cleaning up foreclosed homes during the housing crisis, while trying to keep his relationship with Pilar, a quiet under-aged teenager.

Soon after tempers flare with the family of his girlfriend, Miles hears from his old friend, Bing Nathan in New York. Miles boards a bus and heads back to Brooklyn. Bing is a man who detests technology and runs a shop called “The Hospital of Broken Things”, where forgotten things of the past, like broken manual typewriters, old radios etc. get repaired. When Bing invites Miles to become a squatter in an empty apartment in the Sunset park section of Brooklyn, he joins him along with two women: Alice Bergstrom, who works part-time while working on her dissertation, and Ellen Brice, a unsuccessful real-estate agent, obsessed with the human body, who wants to be an artist.

Art and Literature bind Auster’s characters into a subset of Americana adrift and in search of moorings. As each character — mother, father, son, underage lover, coconspirator, childhood paramour — moves through dilemmas and confrontations — questions of self worth, gender, sexuality, ambition, procreation, death, global politics, and so on — to arrive at moments of clarity, compassion, self awareness and self liberation, armed for the good fight in the face of whatever the future might deliver next.

Auster loosely integrates these individual narratives into a fluid mythic context: Hollywood, in the form of William Wyler’s sentimental 1946 “The Best Years of Our Lives” which follows three World War II veterans return home to discover that they and their families (not to mention their nation 60 years later) have been irreparably changed. (Jung’s myth of the returning hero gone awry.) Auster’s contemporary characters engage the film and live out post-war angst, and post-cold war decline, into a state of lingering ennui at the end of empire today.

There’s a deeper mythology at work in Sunset Park, the exhausted spiritual state of existential reality as Samuel Beckett explored it, before the rest of us were even “born into it”. Auster’s lead character’s estranged mother, for example, is a successful aging film actress returned to the city to appear in the role of her career as Winnie in a new production of Beckett’s stark and challenging “Happy Days.” Sunset Park’s mythic context sifts through the last half century from the failed returning hero, into Beckett’s post-apocalyptic landscape of endless contemplation and anxiety, armed with nothing but logic, cunning, and language. Another contextual level is the everyday mythology of baseball heroes, discussed endlessly between generations, as well as food and popular celebrity which provide connective tissue to hold contemporary culture at least conversationally in place.

Like, “The Hospital for Broken Things”, the characters in Sunset Part are a collection of “broken souls” struggling to find a place in this world, haunted in some way by their damaged past. At times the story seemed conveniently, contrived, and the narrative without direction, yet the characters and their issues seemed very genuine. I thought the contemporary post-recession time frame was perfect as well. In the end, some things were left unresolved, leaving me with unanswered questions, and curious as to whether this was unintentional or whether Auster has a sequel in the works.

Sunset Park is a coming-of-age story. It shows young men and women struggling to cope with and grow up from the wounds of early life, to take a hint from one of the novel’s early passages. For though Miles is its main protagonist, the story revolves from one of the squat’s inhabitants to another and, skipping a difficult-to-bridge gap, to the generation above. But Auster’s latest novel also is about recession America. Waste and reclamation are everywhere present, from Miles’s job at the beginning of the story, to Bing’s store for repairing broken typewriters and record-players, to the house in Sunset Park itself. The constant need for money, the need to deal with bare essentials, are of course favourite Auster tricks to highlight, by contrast, his characters’ dilemmas.

But this novel is also the closest Auster has come to making a statement about America in the present, rather than in the abstract sense. Sunset Park is an American novel as well as the more typical metaphysical rumination. And this makes it something new to the Auster collection. Even if old themes such as homelessness (Moon Palace, City of Glass, The Music of Chance) remain present in Sunset Park, its cautious optimism, its preparedness to see light as well as dark, its greater realism make it something different. This is both a classic Auster novel and a new, intriguing departure.

Sunset Park; Auster, Paul; Henry Holt and Co; $25.00