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The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

The Book of Memory Title: The Book of Memory
Author: Petina Gappah
Publisher: Picador
ISBN:9781250117922
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source:Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“The Book of Memory” is the kind of book that creates ripples in your heart and you will not be able to control how you feel. I think that happens to me the most when I read books that have unreliable narrators. There is this sense of thrill and caution and at the same time, a strange sense of empathy that emerges for such characters. I like books that the central character is so strong and yet doesn’t overpower the entire book. This one is that sort of a read.

Memory is an albino woman who is in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe. She has been convicted of murder and as a part of her appeal, she has to write exactly what happened. And this is where the unreliable narrator angle begins (coupled with the wordplay on the name Memory, which as one goes along in the book means and stands for so much more). She has been convicted of murdering her adopted father, Lloyd Hendricks. Why did she kill him? Did she kill him at all? What exactly happened?

Gappah creates a book that might seem repetitive in terms of plot but isn’t when it comes to her writing for sure. And then again, once you are about half-way into the book, the plot also doesn’t seem repetitive or something you have read before. The characters are strongly etched and to me beside all this, it was only the writing that took the cake and more. What is also strange according to me is that Memory’s parents send her away when she is eight years old and that is not brought up again in the entire book. I thought it was oddly weird.

Having said that, “The Book of Memory” sometimes reads like a thriller and sometimes just a literary fiction book which has so much to give. The mutable nature of memory is there throughout the book – that is what makes it so unique and mysterious at the same time. All in all, this one was a hugely satisfying read.

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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.

Book Review: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett Title: The Uncommon Reader
Author: Alan Bennett
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-0312427641
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 120
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I do not know why I had not read this book in a long time. It was there next to me, all the time and I did not pick it up. I guess the time wasn’t right. Books have to choose you and only then can you read them. It doesn’t matter what kind of reader you are – common or uncommon, the book chooses you. And with this thought I now pen my thoughts on the magnificent little gem titled, “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett.

The ‘uncommon’ reader in question in the book is none other than Queen Elizabeth II, who takes a fascination to reading and books. She chances upon a mobile library at the back of her castle by chance and as all things go by chance, she starts devouring books and loves them for what they are. At the beginning of the book we see her making acquaintanceship with Norman Seakins, a young man who works in the royal kitchen. She moves him from there and makes him her personal reading guide. The Queen forgets her day-to-day duties and activities under the influence of the ‘book’ or many ‘books’. She is delayed in opening the Parliament and converses less with people (unless the conversation is steered toward reading) and this leads to dire consequences being taken by the Prime Minister and her private secretary.

Alan Bennett conjures a world of reading and writing and how is it accessible to everyone. He explores the effects of reading and writing on our lives through a warm and sometimes funny novella. I had to finish this book in one setting, considering it was a short read – around one hundred and twenty odd pages and yet every page brims with reading wisdom and anecdotes from The Queen. For instance, her tea session with authors is hilarious and also the times she ponders about how she did not get to meet certain writers she would have liked to and now cannot as they are dead.

For such a slim volume, Alan Bennett puts in a lot of ideas and themes – how reading can change you, how it can make others uncomfortable – especially the ones who don’t read and how it can lead to writing and explore oneself and other worlds. The idea that the Queen’s reading would make the rest of Britain read is a wonderful thought – another theme that comes across in the book.

“The Uncommon Reader” was a pleasant read for me. I loved the book a lot. In fact, it has to be one of the best reads for me this year. I will definitely reread it. For the beauty of books and reading and but obviously for the reader.

Book Review: By Blood by Ellen Ullman

By Blood by Ellen Ullman Title: By Blood
Author: Ellen Ullman
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 9781250023964
Genre: Literary Fiction, Thriller
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

There are books that you have been wanting to read since a very long time but never got around to. They are just laying there on your shelf, waiting silently and more so patiently, so you can get to them. “By Blood” by Ellen Ullman was one of those books for me that just lay there for the longest time. I did not pick it up and even if I did, I would read a couple of pages and let it be there. Either something else would catch my fancy or there would be no inclination to read this one. When I finally did get around to reading this one, like most books that I read (and I would like to believe, often the best ones) this one also managed to take my breath away.

“By Blood” by Ellen Ullman is part-thriller, part-mystery, part-psychological novel and a literary fiction read like no other. This book definitely made me see why literature and reading was so important to me, maybe not because of the plot so much so, as the way it has been written. The book is set in San Francisco in the 70’s, at the height of the Zodiac Killer’s reign in the city. At the heart of this novel are three major characters whose lives somehow get connected and twisted to a very large extent. A professor who is wasted and done for in his life, over hears a lesbian (And that is not the complete identity of the woman. There is more to her which the reader will know in the book.) speaking with her therapist about wanting to find her parents and this is where the book begins. The professor wants to know more about the girl, and the girl is on her search, and the therapist’s life is embroiled deeply into the tale. At the backdrop is but definitely the serial killer and his on-goings which add to the novel from a holistic perspective.

These three characters are etched superbly and the book at times is so dark that you might just have to stop, breathe a little and then get back to the book. The book touches on so many issues at one time, that as a reader I had to go back and forth and try and connect the dots, however doing that had an excitement level of its own. The story seems simple on the surface; however it is the writing that makes it wondrous and deep.

The characters are flawed and real and make no bones about doing what they do and why they do. Such honesty in the book is what kept me turning the pages, one after the other. The moral issues underlining the book are fantastic (which the readers will come to know as the plot unveils). Ullman takes you on a journey from San Francisco to Germany to the Holocaust to Israel and back to the United States. This should be enough and more intriguing points. I of course was not aware of it till I read the book, however as I got to the parts, I was taken in and blown over. As much as I have loved this month till now when it comes to reading, this one made it more complete. A great and worthy read.

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Book Review: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa Title: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Author: Yoko Ogawa
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0312674465
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 164
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I love Japanese fiction. The plots are morbid and strange things happen to people. In all my experience of reading Japanese fiction, I have not been disappointed even once and thank God for that. Japanese fiction has a charm of its own which of course I have written about earlier, however just reiterating it because of a wondrous book that I just finished reading titled, “Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales” by Yoko Ogawa.

I had read three of Ogawa’s books before reading Revenge; however nothing prepared me about what was coming my way. Revenge in the most extraordinary form of the word, is indeed a “different” book. It is full of macabre and intensity of emotions (which again to some extent are subtle) and most of all it is also about the human condition. Each story deals with either anguish or loss or loneliness which leads the characters to do and behave the way they do. There are times when as a reader I could not understand the intent of the characters, but I liked that as well. I liked the not knowing why sometimes and yet I wished I would know more about them and the book would not end in one hundred and sixty four pages.

The stories are dark and twisted, and yet interconnected in the most subtle manner. The reader can of course identify the connections (which he or she is meant to) and that is what also keeps you turning the pages. From a woman who wants to buy strawberry short cake for her dead son (this is established on the second page of the book, so it is not a spoiler) to the existence of a Bengal Tiger in a house, the stories will fascinate you at every page. That is the power of short-story telling according to me. There is only this much space the author has and he or she has to say it all and Ogawa does a brilliant job of handling space. She is one of the writers that show you how space can be used – just like Japanese minimalism and the Zen theory that can be applied to her word usage and beauty of expressions remaining intact at the same time. The atmosphere in the book, in every story is remarkable. The sentences do not run in to themselves and the prose is clean, almost like a well-cut diamond.

The stories are of loneliness, despair and terror. The protagonists are real and at the same time seem fantastical. At one point the stories do seem to be more than just tales of horror, but that is when the translation takes over beautifully and lets you know what the author actually wants to communicate. In that respect all credit also should be given to Stephen Snyder for translation and getting to readers, the writer’s emotion and intent. Revenge to me is a read that will be picked up again later in the year. It is delicious and scary, if you like your fiction that way.

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