Tag Archives: USA

In Appreciation of Saunders

george-saunders

Ever since I have read George Saunders I have been in awe of his writing. I may not have enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo the way I thought I would, but that’s hardly of concern when it comes to appreciating Saunders’ works. I think the beauty of Saunders beside the writing, is his capacity to create characters that are regular – they are flawed, broken, and perhaps have no capacity to be extraordinary and yet strangely enough they are.

Also, might I add the skill with which he writes or rather crafts a story. After Munro, if there is any other short-story writer I truly admire, it is him. Whether it is the idea of the fantastical merging with everyday living, or just the irony of getting through the day, Saunders literally saves a reading-slump-kind-of-day. You just have to read any short story written by him and it is worth it – every single word and every sentence.

Pastoralia was introduced to me by a friend and I cannot thank the friend enough. This collection of short-stories embodies the twisted, the lonely, and the post-modern version of American – served hot and ready to be slaughtered. Whether he talks about a couple living in a theme-park, where speaking is an offence (rings a bell given the times we live in?), or whether he is speaking of a male exotic dancer and his family, Saunders shows us a world that is funny and yet so scary, so familiar and strange, but above-all, so authentic and graceful in its prose.

Pastoralia

I must speak of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil here. This slim book is literally a tour-de-force (I know this word is way overused, however, I can’t help but use it for this one). This is the book about power-hungry, and demagogic Phil (again can’t help but relate it to the times we live in) and how his reign begins as people from one nation run into another for asylum.

Phil

Saunders has always sort of been prophetic when it comes to his stories, and whatever he chooses to write about really. Whether it is Tenth of December or In Persuasion Nation, both fantastic short-story collections, Saunders is on the top of his game, never missing a beat. His people are lost, maybe not even seeking redemption – all they want is their stories to be told, voices to be heard, and sometimes remain in the shadows battling their demons.

Tenth of December

The Brain-Dead Megaphone is perhaps one of the best collection of essays I have read in a long time. It is his first collection of essays and has trained himself to look at the real – ridden with a strangeness – in the political and cultural milieu. I loved the literary pieces in this book – Saunders’ view on Mark Twain, Vonnegut, and Barthelme – every essay is on point and showcases all the skewed characters chosen by the author.

Megaphone

This, I think in a very brief manner encapsulates his body of work that I have enjoyed and loved over the years. He is one writer that never disappoints and constantly delivers, no matter what. Read him and allow yourself to be taken in by his eccentric, mad, most illuminating prose.

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South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Title: South and West: From a Notebook
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524732790
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Joan Didion’s works are not easy to read. But once you read her books, there is no stopping. I remember reading “The Year of Magical Thinking” when it was first published in 2005 and wrenched completely to the gut by its honesty. Since then, I haven’t missed reading a single book by her. My copy of her latest, “South and West: From a Notebook” came all the way from Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, a gift from my sister. Anyhow, now back to the book.

Her essays are introspective unlike her fictional works. Don’t get me wrong here, I adore her writing, just that I feel her non-fiction is stronger than fiction. This thin volume contains two pieces: the first, a collection of assembled jottings in her notebook from a road-trip through the South in 1970; the second piece is about the Patty Hearst trial.

The first piece forms the bulk of the book – with details on everything South as they traverse that landscape – from its swimming pools in motels, to meeting regular people, knowing their views on class and racism (nothing has changed since then or so it seems) to the sedentary life lead there. At the same time, her keen eye for detail and candidness, makes you wish there was more to this book and more so to this piece.

Didion makes the South alive for you – every nuance, twitch of the faces of the people she observes and interacts with to the weather (more so important for the South) is pat down to the last nitpicking detail and as a reader you are only too happy for it. At the same time, you also feel that it could very well have been a travelogue (or is it?) with rich descriptions of the landscape and the minor details that are paid attention to.

What struck me about the book the most is that though written in the 70s, it still is so relevant today given the views of the people in the South – where discrimination – racial and classist are taken as the norm and no one seems to object – it was almost as though this were a warning for the times to come with the current President of the United States of America.

The second piece in the book is too brief – it finishes even before you have started reading it which is quite a pity. It is just a collection of notes and sketches (which of course what the entire book is) and nothing else adds to it. In fact, I had to go to Google to know more about the Patty Hearst trial.

All said and done, “South and West: From a Notebook” is a book which perhaps isn’t meant for all – or I don’t even know if it will be enjoyed by all. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner to Joan’s works but for someone who is familiar with her writing, you will love it, just as I did, so please pick it up.

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Book Review: The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy

The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy Title: The Baker’s Daughter
Author: Sarah McCoy
Publisher: Broadway
ISBN: 978-0307460196
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

A lot of books have been written about the Second World War by now. More so from the perspective of the Holocaust and nothing else. At times, you also think that you have read it all. After all, how different can one story be from the other? I have always thought that or rather used to. To read enough all the time about a particular incident does not make you an expert on it. Nothing can till you live it. That I guess just holds true for any human life. It has to be endured, and lived and sometimes chronicled.

“The Baker’s Daughter” was an interesting read for me this month. Though it started very slowly and did not interest me initially, it picked pace at about page fifty or so and from then on did not let go. The year is 1944 and the Third Reich rule Germany. Elsie Schmidt is sixteen years old and the youngest daughter of a baker in Germany. Everything seems to be going fine in her life, till she discovers a surprise in her house and from there on life changes course and events unfold. This is further complicated with another track, years later, in late 2000’s, practically sixty years later, when the past emerges and threatens to merge with the present. For now, this is all that I can give away.

Why should you or anyone else for that matter read this book? Because according to me, the book is written the way it should be. It is precise in its plot and the emotions it wants to convey with every turn of the page, which as a reader, matters the world to me and my sensibilities. It is well-researched and almost makes you think more of men and women thrown in extraordinary circumstances and what they must do to survive and make decisions against their nature. There were times in the book that I got a little bored by the description, but as I read further, I understood that it had its place and could not be done without.

The two story lines are fantastically juxtaposed and more intelligently so. The shifting in timelines does take some time to get used to, however once you do, then it is a cakewalk. Elsie’s story and character is but obviously the stronger one, however the second track is equally important and needed. The setting is quite challenging given the number of books already written on this subject, both fiction and non-fiction. McCoy does a fantastic job of chronicling the side of the Holocaust that is rarely written or talked about – the German side (this is to give you an inkling to the rest of the story without giving away anything about the plot).

There are some acts in life that are born out of humanity, some out of kindness, and some purely out of love. This story reflects that and makes us question our choices in times of need and how we behave and act. This is one of the times that I went back and reflected on the quiet power of storytelling.

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Book Review: The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn

 Title: The Patrick Melrose Novels
 Author: Edward St Aubyn
 Publisher: Picador USA
 ISBN: 978-0312429966
 Genre: Literary Fiction
 Pages: 688
 Source: Publisher
 Rating: 4/5 

The Patrick Melrose novels written by Edward St. Aubyn are not to everyone’s taste. These novels aren’t a happy read and do not promise a rose garden, so to say. The Patrick Melrose novels are made of 4 novels – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. The novels trace the English Upper Class through Patrick Melrose and his affluent family.

The four books made me think a lot and sometimes cringe as well while I was reading them. That is because Edward St. Aubyn has written a set of stories so believable that you almost recollect memories of people and times when you have encountered similar situations, may be through different people.

All books in the series take place over twenty-four hours and that is quite a feat for a writer. To be able to fit in everything – the plot, the emotions, the reactions and the thought-process over a given period in a book has always fascinated my sensibilities.

Never Mind – the first book, starts with Patrick at five-years old, being sexually abused by his demonic and narcissist father. The abuse also extends to Patrick’s American mother and at the end of the book; you are left feeling hopeless and angry.

The second book, Bad News, shows Patrick Melrose trying to face his own demons as he at 22, sets off to collect his father’s ashes from New York. Most of the second book is told in interior monologues which makes it both – interesting and confusing at times. Patrick in New York spends a drug-crazed twenty-fours and experiences life in a new form.

The third book, Some Hope reflects on Patrick’s life as a recovering addict. It depicts the possibility of him starting over. In this book, Edward gets us to see the other side of Patrick – the point when he is in-between sorting his life and wanting to start anew. The state of mind, emotions and thoughts are beautifully described in this book.

The fourth book in the series, Mother’s Milk is about Patrick as a parent. In this book, the focus is on Patrick’s mother who is plotting her own scheme of betrayal and hence the title. The series does not end here. There is a fifth book as well, “At Last” which I yet have to read and discover the magic of St Aubyn’s writing all over again.

Edward St Aubyn is not a writer that you take to instantly. His writing grows on you. The writing is vivid, sharp and painful, with the occasional brushes of humour. The Patrick Melrose novels are all about greed, decadence, amorality and the decline of a system of the aristocrats as observed through a person and his family. The story has to be read in order. One cannot skip a novel or read from anywhere. There is a lot of verbal power packed into these books, to the point that I had to read something funny to get back to these books. Like I said it isn’t meant for everyone, however if you do enjoy some serious fiction, then this is it for you.

Here are some quotes to give you an idea of his writing:

“It seems people spend the majority of their lives believing they’re dying, with the only consolation being that at one point they get to be right. ”

“Irony is the hardest addiction of all. Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, the deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.”

“Perhaps all of his problems arose from using the wrong vocabulary, he thought, with a brief flush of excitement that enabled him to throw aside the bedcovers and contemplate getting up. He moved in a world in which the word “charity”, like a beautiful woman shadowed by her jealous husband, was invariably qualified by the words “lunch”, “committee”, or “ball”. “Compassion” nobody had any time for, whereas “leniency” made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences. Still, he knew that his difficulties were more fundamental than that.”

Book Review: One and a Half Wife by Meghna Pant

Title: One and a Half Wife
Author: Meghna Pant
Publisher: Westland Publishers
ISBN: 978-93-81626-48-1
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 296
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Too many characters in a book sometimes just make the reader lose interest in the narrative. The reader is too caught up in the relationships of characters, and loses sight of the bigger narrative. This however did not thankfully happen to me while reading, “One and a Half Wife” by Meghna Pant.

“One and a Half Wife” may at times feel to be a clichéd book with a plot that is not very unique, however don’t be fooled by the writing that starts off as a simple narrative and then veers into the a little more complicated manner of writing – in the sense the shift between characters and their personalities and how it all interweaves through the story.

The book is about Amara Malhotra and her so-called American Dream gone wrong. She is everything a girl could ask for and has everything a girl could want. Intelligent, spirited and with a strong head, she leads a life worth being envious of, till she marries a Harvard-educated millionaire, Prashant Roy. It doesn’t seem to get better than this for Amara.

Till but obviously the twist in the tale has to occur and it does. The fairytale marriage doesn’t last the way it is supposed to. Amara returns to the place of her birth, Shimla and there starts another episode or rather a series of episodes of her life.

The juxtaposition of the life she had led and the life she would have to given the circumstances is beautifully done by the author. Amara doesn’t know what to believe in anymore – the old is in constant battle with the new and that is not even the start of her problems. She makes new friends; there are new battles to be fought and new territories that need to be explore.

What I liked about the book is that it doesn’t force anything on the reader. The writer says what she has to through the book and leaves it at that. My favourite character in the entire book has to be Baba – the silent, supportive and sometimes someone who speaks his mind nonetheless. Amara is strong, independent and yet sometimes quite not sure of her decisions, which I liked, as it made her only more human.

For me, the book represents the age-old tug-of-war between the old and the new and how much can one or should compromise? Or should one compromise at all?

This is one of my favourite parts of the book: “This is all hogwash, she told herself. All marriages were a consequence of security, tradition, money and beauty. Love was a chance, a lucky coincidence. Its existence was an after-thought, for more serious matters cemented marriage.”

This excerpt is enough to show you the skills of Meghna Pant as a writer – sometimes razor sharp, assured and knows where to take the story and at what pace. I did not get bored reading this book and I am sure neither will you. One of those reads that is perfect for a lazy summer afternoon.

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