Tag Archives: September 2017 Reads

Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely

Snow by Orhan Pamuk Title: Snow
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Publisher: Everyman’s Library
ISBN: 978-1841593388
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Works
Pages: 460
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember reading “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk for the first time in 2004 I think. It has been thirteen years since I read it. This reread though has been a very different experience. First, because I was co-reading it with TheBookSatchel (a very famous blogger and Instagrammer. Please do look her up) and second, the discussions gave way to thoughts and opinions which sometimes a solitary reading experience cannot. Books such as Snow need to be read together and discussed because there is so much to talk about. You as a reader, will be bursting with ideas and thoughts at the end of almost every chapter.

“Snow” is also considered one of Pamuk’s difficult novels (I don’t think so at all) to read. If anything, I thought “My Name is Red” to be a little tedious. Snow on the other hand, reads very easy. It is also a book about Turkey (most of Pamuk’s books are, but of course, since he belongs to the country, or does he?) and its contradictions and how difficult or easy it is for the natives to move in time, as they are on the crossroads of East and West. Pamuk has taken this idea of Turkey and distilled the identity crisis to a border town Kars, and further refined it to the person, the poet, known as Ka (notice the wordplay here? More on it later).

Ka has recently returned from political exile in Germany for the funeral of his mother and he gets drawn to the suicides of young women in Kars, a border town. These women are committing suicide because they are being forced by the government to not wear head scarves. He is in Kars to find out more about these suicides and then there is also the question of the love of his life, Ipek (the girl from his college days) who is now in Kars and has recently been divorced. With this premise, Pamuk takes us to the heart of “Snow”.

Ka finds Kars to be a place of poverty, lack of intelligence and some violent people and yet in all of this, he finds beauty as it snows in the town, sometimes nonstop. That’s what worked for me the most about this book – snow. Pamuk describes snow as a matter of fact but the emotions that Ka goes through as it snows, transfers itself to the reader and it is a melancholic experience. Ka also finds poetry on this trip to Kars. At a certain level, he also is on the road to becoming a believer from an atheist. His pursuit of truth (or various versions of it) drive him to meet various people – the editor of a newspaper who predicts (quite surreal if you ask me) stuff, terrorists, the police, atheists, extremists and women on the verge of suicide.

Snow is not an easy book to read (in terms of all that is going on). I am not contradicting myself. You need to sink your teeth into it to truly understand it – completely. There is a lot of subtext and subplots that unravel themselves beautifully. At so many points, it read as a fairy tale to me and that’s saying a lot about the book. The lyricism of language helps move through but sometimes it gets a bit much. There is so much beauty in the book though – from the premise of Ka’s poems to the canopy of characters and their quirks and the question of faith that is constantly ringing like a fire-engine bell.

The translation is superb and the reason I say this is it feels that none of the nuances are lost. Maureen Freely’s translation, I am sure is just as empathetic as the original writing. “Snow” is to be read at its own pace. You cannot rush it. At the same time, don’t be distracted by anything else while reading it. Soak yourself into what Pamuk wants you to see and hear and you will not be disappointed.

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Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

GV Title: Goodbye, Vitamin
Author: Rachel Khong
Publisher: Henry Holt
ISBN: 9781471159480
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 196
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Off-late, I’ve been reading a lot of literary fiction (as I always do), but have hardly come across books that are both literary and funny. “Goodbye, Vitamin” is one such book. The story is of Ruth (but not just her, you come to know as you go along) who comes back home to her parents, after receiving a call from her mother Annie when her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Don’t get me wrong – the book isn’t funny funny as much as it is full of wry humour and irony, which most certainly worked for me.

Howard Young is a prominent history professor who doesn’t know what is happening to him. He seems to be lost and is mostly isn’t aware of his condition. His wife is of the opinion that almost all food isn’t good for his health, which leaves him with very few options to eat. Ruth is trying to come to terms with a break-up.

This being the plot of the book is not all. The issue of identity, belonging and what happens when a parent faces dementia is heart-breaking. Khong tells the story with such tenderness that as a reader you do nothing but give in. The book is constructed in the form of journal entries and what happens through one year (I think) and how it impacts these characters, day by day.

I love the storytelling style. While it isn’t new, it somehow makes you more engaged as a reader. You want to know more. You feel like you are snooping on someone else’s life and somehow it is alright. This isn’t a feel-good novel but it does have its moments and the balance makes it even better, if you ask me. Added to that, it looks at perspectives of outsiders as well – friends, neighbours, colleagues and that provides another layer to the story.

Khong’s writing is simple. There are no frills. I love when the author is so sure about what he or she is doing that there are no fillers in the book. “Goodbye, Vitamin” is not only that kind of book but it is also the kind of book that is very comforting.

Upcountry Tales: Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India by Mark Tully

Upcountry Tales Title: Upcountry Tales: Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India
Author: Mark Tully
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9386582690
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I think writing short stories is the most difficult thing to do. To encapsulate everything, you have to say in a short story isn’t easy. And maybe that’s the reason I admire people who write short stories. Mark Tully returns to the terrain of fiction after a while with his short story collection “Upcountry Tales: Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India”. His last work of fiction, “The Heart of India” was published in 1995 and the only one at that So he has written fiction after 22 years and let me tell you, it doesn’t seem that way at all.

The stories in this collection are set in villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh during the second half of the 1980s (so you will not find technology intruding in any of them and thank God for that). These stories are of common people (a teacher in The Reluctant Lover)– some you might encounter but not give a second glance or time of day. At the same time, these very people come alive in Mr. Tully’s stories – they aren’t in the background – they come to the fore and that’s what I loved about these stories.

There are rebels, pragmatists, bumblers, quiet heroes as well – all finding a way to deal with social hierarchies and the government forces around them. You relate to so much as you read. Mark Tully’s India isn’t quite what you or I imagine to be – maybe because we don’t know the real India so to say, so sometimes the terrain is rather surprising (or should I say shocking) but having said that, you get used to its flora and fauna and above all, its people.

The book is of stories that are serious, that are light-hearted and are also tragic. You meet heroes and heroines who have battled in their ways and manner against corruption and red-tapeism. Mark Tully does a wonderful job of painting these stories against a canvas of a wide-range of topics – from class to race differences to the rules of a patriarchal society (The Ploughman’s Lament) and that to me was something else while reading this book. He also goes on to admit in the introduction that only two of the stories are based on real characters (which had to happen given his knowledge and experience on a first-hand basis with India), while the rest are fictional.

“Upcountry Tales” is a book full of warmth and of an India that we need to know. Time doesn’t matter then – whether the stories are set in the 80s or not (that’s barely anything to go by in my opinion), what matters is the people – people who when push comes to shove, will make their presence felt.

In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi

In the Darkroom Title: In the Darkroom
Author: Susan Faludi
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
ISBN: 9780805089080
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

To be honest, I had gone blind into this book. I had not read the synopsis or any review online. Nothing. I knew nothing about the book and just went on an adventure with it. Take me where you will, I had almost said and saw through that to the very end.

Faludi’s book to put it simply is about her father and identity. However, it isn’t as simple as it sounds. Susan’s father had left her when she was young. She then set off to investigate him in the summer of 2004 – in the process of discovering and knowing her father, she began understanding her roots and history – Jewish history at that.

Susan found out that her seventy-six year old father – now living in Hungary had undergone sex reassignment surgery. This then led to the questions of identity and gender in the modern world, as seen and observed by her. How could she come to terms with a new parent? A parent who was no longer a man, but a woman? Did it make sense at all? Should it make any sense in this world? At the same time, she had always known her father to be violent. He was a photographer (hence the title and more layers to it which you will figure as you read the book)and the reference to images and the shifting of them is another thing that will leave you spellbound in this book.

The book traverses between the present and past beautifully. Susan’s writing takes you to dark corners of the human heart and soul – when she speaks of politics, she integrates it with the personal and that lends itself so well again to the “question of identity”. Can you escape it? Can you so easily invent another one for yourself? Is it really that simple?

What I also loved is that Susan talked of the trans-gender movement (being a gay man, and it falling under the umbrella of LGBTQIA, I couldn’t help but wonder about it, which led me doing my own research on it) and not only that, the way she speaks of universal father-daughter relationships and how she doesn’t know where she stands in that equation anymore. Through her writing, you can see her struggle to find her father beneath the person he has now become.

“In the Darkroom” is emotional for sure but above all it is a book of such intricate details of relationships – that are strong and fragile and need a voice of their own, which Faludi lends hers to beautifully.

Interview with Chhimi Tenduf-La: Author of “Loyal Stalkers”.

So I had just finished reading “Loyal Stalkers” and had a few questions in my mind for the author. I was lucky enough to have been in touch with him on mail, so I could conduct this interview through the web. Chhimi Tenduf-La is a world citizen in the true sense. His stories are of ordinary people and yet seem so extraordinary that they cut across territories of geography, mind and emotions. A collection that I loved reading and truly cherished.

final cover

Here is a short interview:

What made you write a collection of short-stories, after two novels?

I started a couple of stories in Loyal Stalkers as novels, but I felt they were better left with some things unsaid, whereas if I fleshed them out they would have lost their subtlety. When I found I could connect them I knew I could advance an over-riding story through a number of different characters and plots. This was enormously enjoyable and allowed for much more freedom. When writing a novel I may think of a character I want to write about but cannot fit him into the plot. With a collection I could just write a new story for him.

Your characters aren’t redeemed easily. Why so? Why is there a constancy in not letting them see the light of day?

I guess I had not thought about this much, until you asked this excellent question, but one of my pet hates is people acting with impunity because they know they will not be punished whatever they do. Here in Sri Lanka money and connections can get you off most things and that annoys me. As you point out, all my characters, although they have redeeming features, pay for the crimes they commit.

Chhimi book 3

I am intrigued by the title. How did you choose that for the story (a little obvious, yes) but then why stick to this for the entire collection?

I feel this whole book could have been written by a nosey aunty obsessed with what her neighbours are doing. I think it is indicative of society here that people are more concerned with other people’s lives than their own. Most of the stories have some stalking theme; the maid obsessed with her boss, the abusive relationship, the loyal dog following his special needs friend. I wanted the title to be creepy, but also reflect Colombo society in some ways; everyone is invested in each other’s lives, they can be a little annoying, but yet there is that closeness and that feeling that there is always someone nearby to help you when in need.

You’ve been a citizen of the world and yet this collection restricts itself to Sri Lanka. Why so? Why not give the characters space to see the world?

As I found my feet as an author I felt safest writing about what I know best. I have been here so long I have forgotten what it is like to live elsewhere. Yet now you have said it I do want to explore what some of my characters would be like living in another country. How much would it change them? Thanks for the idea!

Your top 5 favourite books and why?

I have limited this to books I have read recently.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared 
by Jonas Jonasson 

Comedy in literature is hard to balance. Endearingly silly, or annoyingly farcical. Jonasson gets it just right in this inspiring tale about Allan Karlson who goes on the run to avoid celebrating his 100th birthday. As he does so, we travel back through a hilarious twentieth century history lesson, in which Karlson mingles with great leaders and tyrants; at one point he convinces Stalin to shave off his moustache, and he regularly has a young Kim Jong Il sitting on his lap. Genius.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Great movie, greater book. The prose, slick and punchy, suck you in, slap you back and forth and churn you out. With great twists, cool dialog, and an abundance of quotable lines, Palahniuk tells an extraordinarily original story with awesome ease.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilika

It is more than a novel about cricket; it is Sri Lankan modern history through the eyes of an alcoholic. It is recognition of the tragedies, often self-inflicted, that tore at Sri Lanka’s core. It is a detective story, a mystery, a thriller, the search for a genius Tamil cricketer whose name and records have all but been wiped out of Sri Lankan history.

The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War 
by Rohini Mohan

A 368 page lesson about Sri Lanka’s civil war. In fact, this is the definitive lesson about any war; about child soldiers, mistrust, disappearances and lies. This book reads like a novel, whereas it is fact. Rohini Mohan messes with your emotions; she humanises people we thought were monsters. She makes you root for them, understand them, believe them.

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

I had to pluck up the courage to read this a second time because it is an incredibly disturbing book for a parent to read – but it was all worth it. Munaweera’s writing is brilliantly fluid, emotive and captivating and personally I felt this was an even better book that her prize-winning Island of a Thousand Mirrors.

Chhimi 9

Was writing “Loyal Stalkers” a cathartic experience? Did you live some of these stories yourself or through someone else?

I find all writing to be cathartic and relaxing. But yes, Loyal Stalkers touched on a number of issues that all of us in Sri Lanka should be more aware of. Since writing it I have become more sensitive to others affected by these issues, be it a friend battling homophobia or a maid not getting enough credit for the work she does.

Chhimi as a writer…

I write purely for enjoyment at the moment. I have never felt pressured into it or had writer’s block; maybe I require both to improve as a writer. I have a fairly wild imagination so this is an outlet for it. I write two hours a day, but nothing on weekends and I read back my work hundreds of times to try to see if it flows. Once it is printed I hate looking at my writing because it is too late to change anything I don’t like. I try to be snappy, hip, humorous and sensitive as a writer but probably fail in all regards. My story-telling is more inspired by movies than by books, for some reason, maybe because I don’t want to write like anyone else (not that I could).

How important do you think it is for the short-story form to be recognized in India and why do people prefer the novel over the story?

I was told by a UK based publisher that the issue they have with short story collections is that it is very hard to get the leading lit critics to review them, unless the writer is very well known. If a book does not get reviewed, book shops are reluctant to sell it. Maybe the problem with short stories is that readers may love one, but lose momentum if they don’t quite dig the next one. It is a lot of stopping and starting I guess, whereas with a novel you have invested in the characters already and so each time you pick up the book you’re not taking a blind leap of faith. This is why I have tried to link the stories in Loyal Stalkers, and have the characters popping in and out of each other’s lives. I love reading short stories myself because they are standalones; I can read one each night and if I don’t like one I have not wasted too much time on it. In some ways short stories are more accessible to people who aren’t necessarily bookworms and thus they are important to India if they can get more people to read. They can also get more people to write; almost anyone can sit down and write a short story, whereas a novel requires a different level of commitment and craft. With such rich culture and tradition, as well as the complexities of class I am sure there are hundreds of thousands of people in India who could write an important short story.

Chhimi 4

Your 5 favourite short-story writers

I’m inspired by R K Nayaran,  Alejandro Zambra and Raymond Carver. To understand how to appeal to a large audience, Jeffrey Archer. Of current South Asian writers Prajwal Parajuly, Sandip Roy and Ashok Ferrey. (I know this is 8 and not 5, sorry).

What are you working on next?

I have taken a break because I am not entirely sure in what direction I want to go. A novel, a collection, a movie? Maybe I will focus on writing more articles for a while. I have had many false starts with writing because I jump into new projects too fast, so now I am trying to be patient and I hope a killer idea for a novel will start growing on me.