Tag Archives: new york

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me by Bill Hayes

insomniac-city-by-bill-hayes Title: Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me
Author: Bill Hayes
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1620404935
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember a friend sending me excerpts of this book. I read it while I was at Doolally – a taproom in Bombay. I was waiting for friends to show up for the Wednesday night quiz and then something happened which I hadn’t expected to – I wept by the time I had finished reading the long excerpt. I cried. I think I even bawled. I strongly also believe that when an art form does that to you – when it creeps up on you like that and almost shatters your world – you’re in for a rollercoaster ride. That happened to me as I was reading “Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me” by Bill Hayes, from which the excerpt was.

Relationships are fragile, they are also very strong. At the same time, what do you do when it ends all of a sudden? When it ends not because you want it to, but because death comes suddenly knocking on your partner’s door and there is nothing you can do about it. Then what? Hayes’s partner died after sixteen years of togetherness. He then moved to New York from San Francisco in search of a new start (as most of us do). He found himself in a city that was surprising, random, and at the same time made him see the humanity that exists. Slowly and steadily, he fell in love with New York and found love in the form of the late, great neurologist and writer, Dr. Oliver Sacks.

This book “Insomniac City” as the title suggests is about New York, Oliver Sacks and Bill Hayes. It is also about life – majorly so, and how it changes constantly whether we would like it or not. It is about New York – of how brutal and gentle she can be at the same time, of how to surrender to the city is to love her completely and without any prejudice. The book ultimately is about great love that transcends all barriers, challenges, doubts and the throes of darkness. There are also the author’s stunning photographs – capturing his love for the city and Oliver.

Let me not forget the portrait of Oliver Sacks that Bill Hayes paints so vividly and beautifully – a genius who did not own a computer – who always preferred to communicate via letters and longhand, who didn’t know how a champagne bottle was opened and used goggles when he first opened them for the fear of the cork hitting his eye, who called pot “cannabis” and who believed in living life as it came – day by day. Hayes met Oliver after Oliver wrote him a letter praising his book “The Anatomist” and this is how they met and love blossomed. The book is about that love, about how Oliver met Hayes after three decades of being alone and celibate. “Insomniac City” will surprise you in ways more than one.

“Insomniac City” is about the love between Oliver and Hayes and what they shared in Oliver’s final years. The writing is so personal and out there that you cannot help but be overwhelmed. Their love for things common, their roads to discovering something they did not know, and what it is to live daily – for the bond to strengthen and one fine day to see that love slip away. The book teaches you about grief, about people coming together quite randomly on a bus or a train and makes you more aware and conscious of what it is to be human. I cannot recommend this book enough. Do yourself a favour: Order it, read it and weep. You need a good cry, now and then.

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Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie Title: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0670088485
Genre: Literary Fiction, Magic Realism
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Salman Rushdie is back after seven years to what he does best – tell a story. And not just tell a story but tell it across time, across eons perhaps, across everything and beyond your imagination. “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” – the word play on the title itself, adding to 1001 is in itself an indication of the master of words being back in his game. This book is different and yet so similar to his earlier books. Let’s look at what is similar and what is not, without giving away too much of the plot.

In context to his other books, here is what sets apart this one: The tone is way too mature and yet edged with wry humour, which was very evident in The Satanic Verses as well. At the same time, the feeling of alienation can be felt which was the case in “Fury”. The magnitude of “Midnight’s Children” is most certainly present, but what is lacking is more of magic realism. It is the trademark for sure, nonetheless more was expected.

The roller-coaster of a ride as the book zigzags from places, religion, fantasy, literature is something which has always been a part of his books – more so in this one and “The Moor’s Last Sigh”. In fact, at some point I thought that there was somewhere down the line a lot of recycling but with a lot of exuberance and verve. What isn’t there is the debate on religion which was a part of his earlier books mainly “Grimus” and “Shame”. What was also interesting was that at some point the innocence combined with a lot of angst that was a part of “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” could also be found as I turned the pages.

I also think that the book is heavily influenced by Marquez’s writings. The combination of magical and the realistic are interwoven beautifully in Rushdie’s latest work. At the same time, it does take some time to get into the book, however once the reader does, it is not easy to get out of the land created by Rushdie.

The book is a more matured version of Rushdie’s writings. There is a lot of profundity, with a balanced mix of magic-realism (the death of this word shall not come to be), mythology, history and of course not to forget love – at the core of the tale.

The usual elements are always there, lurking in the background, even Bombay snakes itself in in the first fifty pages with so much ease. There is also the magic realism, which is present throughout, but of course since the book is about a Jinni named Duniya and her love for a human being and how the connection of her children over time comes to be in the near future. There is an element of apocalypse with a storm striking New York skies and something called the “strangeness” which occurs in its aftermath, linking all of Duniya’s children across the world.

To me the story of “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” is simply breath-taking. I could not for tear myself away from the book. Where does the title come into play? The title is about the time spent by Dunia’s children fighting a war with each other as the days and nights unfold. The tales are nested, just like all his other books. There is no overtly political tone in the book, like was the case in his other works of fiction, which is very refreshing.

The story is satirical (making its jabs felt on almost every page), it is also a metaphysical fable, it is also wicked and wise at the same time. In short, it is perhaps nothing like what Rushdie has written before. The reference range in the book is also wide – given he talks of Aristotle, Mickey Mouse and Henry James as well (besides many others), so much so that your head will spin faster and faster, right when you reach mid-way.

Rushdie’s New York is another aspect about the book. He encapsulates the city like no one else ever has (I don’t only think that but also believe in it). The humour is absurdist in nature, reminding me of Gary Shteyngart.

The Arab mythology angle is dealt with in a racier manner and I could almost find myself not being able to wait for those parts to come through. There is always this sense of dread mingled with excitement while reading a Rushdie novel. This book proves to be more and beyond that. I also think that maybe the gestation helped him to create something like this.

All in all, I would say that “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” is the kind of book that comes along once in a while blending past, present, future, the mysticism and the real so innovatively that all you want to do then is reread it.
Here’s Salman Rushdie talking about his book:

Academy Street by Mary Costello

Academy Street by Mary Costello Title: Academy Street
Author: Mary Costello
Publisher: Canongate Books
ISBN: 978-1782114185
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 180
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Very few times you come across a book that makes you feel and takes you beyond that, almost in another realm of consciousness. “Academy Street” by Mary Costello was one such book that did it for me this year (and the year has not even begun properly, so to say). If you are the sort of reader that only reads a book a month, then I will almost force you to read, “Academy Street”. It is a book which every reader (no matter what level of reader) should read at least once in his or her lifetime and I am not kidding about this.

“Academy Street” came to me at a time when I needed it the most. Yes, I do believe that books find you when they have to. Till then, no matter how hard you try, you cannot immerse yourself in the book. The book’s permission is needed. “Academy Street” is a novella of one woman and her journey from being a girl to an old woman and life as she sees it through those decades and years gone by. This is perhaps me simply putting it. The book is so much more and the layers to it are just phenomenal.

I had not heard of Costello before picking up this one but I am only too glad that I have now. Tess is not just a character. She is perhaps somewhere there in all of us in various forms or maybe just one. The book charts Tess’s story so to say from childhood till she is an old woman – all her happiness, her anxieties, her loves, her transitions, the loss of her mother (which is stated at the very beginning of the book) to her migration from Ireland to America, a new land with new possibilities, new hopes and new losses. How can one remain untouched by this novella? This was my only thought when I finished this gem of a book.

I am quite sure that other writers might have explored this theme in other books, but what makes this one different is of course the writing. Costello does not confuse the reader. The facts are laid out. The story-line is simple. The writing is simpler. The characters are not so many. So what makes me say that this book is astounding? It is all in the words and the sentences used by the writer.

At the core of the book, there is empathy, loneliness and sheer need to be accepted which intensified chapter after chapter. You get to know Tess like a close friend and there were times I just wanted to keep the book down, so there would be more reading time with it. The book is about her siblings, her friends, but above it all, it was to me, just a brief and simple testimony to life and the living. Tess is constantly finding herself. She is constantly seeking, trying to become that someone, and that will ring true for anyone who picks up this book. There is grace, devastation, eye for detail, elegance and above all empathy to Costello’s writing. I suggest you go and start reading this right now. Savour and cherish it, as books such as these are meant to.

Here are some of my favourite lines from the book. There are obviously more, but for now these will do.

In her life, ever, there were only a few people who had been a fit, with whom she had felt understood.

Ease her terrible ache for human touch, human love. The room was flooded with light and she was blinded, mesmerised.

And how all things change or end or disappear, and this would too, this day, this moment. She looked around. And you too, you will all disappear.

Oh honey, when it comes to the heart, it ain’t about men or women, but people.

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Academy Street

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole Title: Every Day is for the Thief
Author: Teju Cole
Publisher: Faber and Faber, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0571307920
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 176
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Teju Cole burst on the scene with “Open City” a couple of years ago. A unique voice is needed all the time, to wake the literary circle, so to say. “Open City” had a deep impact on the sensibilities and emotions as well. There was something unique about it and at the same time, it was quite ordinary. That is the charm of Teju Cole’s writing. He makes the mundane come alive.

“Every Day for the Thief” is a sort of a literary memoir. It is not a memoir and yet sometimes feels like one. A young Nigerian goes home to Lagos, after living away from it, in New York for close to fifteen years. The unnamed narrator moves from the places in the city – recalling what he left behind and trying to make sense of everything in new light.

He witnesses his old friends, the former girlfriend, the exuberance and despair of Lagos and of an eleven-year old who is accused of stealing in the local market. A lot of such incidents shape the novel for the reader. The atmosphere is built slowly, almost creating an element of suspense and yet saying what the narrator has to.

There are patchy parts in the book as well, but I chose to ignore them, because the writing is stupendous. It flows effortlessly most of the time and the voice is strong, so that is more than enough for the reader.

What also sets this book apart, are the author’s photos that are interwoven in the story. The way he captures Lagos – both pictorially and through the written word is superlative. “Every Day is for the Thief” is a short read and manages to stay with you for a very long time. This is one book you should not miss reading out this year.

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Buy Every Day is for the Thief from Flipkart.com

Book Review: BUtterfield 8 by John O’Hara

BUtterfield 8 by John O'Hara Title: BUtterfield 8
Author: John O’Hara
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 9780143124689
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I remember the first time I watched BUtterfield 8. I was dazzled by the plot and more so by Elizabeth Taylor. I grew up some. I grew up some more. At twenty-five I realized that it was adapted from a book by the same title, written by John O’Hara and I could not wait to get my hands on it and devour it. I searched everywhere – high and low, but could not find it anywhere. This was way before the online shopping mania struck us. Somehow, I managed to find three of his novels in one book – Appointment in Samarra, BUtterfield 8 and Hope of Heaven. I devoured BUtterfield 8 in one sitting and loved it.

It was Elizabeth Taylor who played Gloria Wandrous so well, that somehow she stayed in my mind. I lost my copy and then got a chance to reread it – a fantastic Penguin Drop Cap edition of the book and it just felt the same way, the first time I read it.

BUtterfield 8 is set in New York. It is New York in 1931 and it is glamorous and ruthless at the same time. It is a society yet to pick up its pieces from the Great Depression and yet it puts on a show and façade for all to see. One Sunday morning, Gloria wakes up in a stranger’s apartment, with a torn evening dress, stockings and a pair of panties. She has nothing to wear. She steals a mink coat from the wardrobe and starts a chain of events – all strangers interconnected by that one action of hers – which but obviously only ends in tragedy for her. This in short is the plot of the book.

O’Hara’s story is bold and candid and Gloria somehow becomes an icon. An icon that no one wants to aspire to be, however she does instil courage and determination in readers. O’Hara’s pen gives us lines full of wit, candour and irony. The only problem with BUtterfield 8 is that there are too many characters in it – that flash and go and then come back, leaving the reader confused at some point.

I guess the beauty of his novels lay in honesty. He told it like he saw it, without sugar-coating anything and in that, lays the genius of a writer. I knew that there could be no other end to the story and yet the writing somehow makes you hopeful to want more for Gloria, than just a doomed love-affair. I guess if that kind of powerful writing hits you, then all you need is hot chocolate and to switch off the cell-phone and devour this book in one straight sitting.

Here is the trailer of the movie starring Elizabeth Taylor: