Tag Archives: Writer

Book Review: Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie

Title: Joseph Anton: A Memoir
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, Random House
ISBN: 978-0-224-09397-2
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoirs
Pages: 633
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

So I have a confession to make: I have not been able to complete a single Rushdie novel, except for Haroun and the Sea of Stories and I am not ashamed of it, only because I have tried reading his works time and again. I haven’t been able to cross the hundredth page. That is the relationship I share with Salman Rushdie’s books.

I started reading, “Joseph Anton”, his memoir about a week ago and I have read it twice since then. Strange, I thought, to myself: I cannot read the man’s fictional works but can breeze through this memoir and that too twice. What was different about it? Why did I read it twice and enjoy it more so the second time?

“Joseph Anton” is not just about a man who was in hiding from another man’s followers who were determined to hunt him down (as though he was an animal) and kill him, because of what he had written in his book (which the perpetrators hadn’t even read and never would). The fatwa on Salman Rushdie was issued on the 14th of February 1989 – Valentine’s Day (irony much) and since then he was forced underground – moving from house to house, with the presence of armed forces – they were his shadow.

An author who always believed in free speech and grew up with that philosophy in Bombay, with liberal parents (who later for some reason did not share liberal views), saw the world differently when the fatwa was issued. Things began to change. So did people – either for better or for worse, but they did.

The book, “Joseph Anton” is the most human that I have read this year. Salman Rushdie is angry and is hurt and hides no emotions. He is honest to the core – about his marriages, his children and his writing. The incidents and events that took place sometimes and were related to the book were horrifying – for instance, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered. The Norwegian publisher was shot. He could not attend his mother’s funeral. He wasn’t there with her when she passed on and that for me hit the chord somewhere. That is probably the worst that could happen to a person and Rushdie isn’t shy from talking about his deepest emotions. What ran through my mind though while reading the book was just this: Is there really a true freedom of speech and writing?

“Joseph Anton” asks a lot of questions. It makes the readers think and the best part according to me about the book was the way it was written in third person. It is almost like Rushdie is taking count of his life (which it is in a way) and not being subjective in his style.

The book clearly depicts the powerlessness of the heads of states of various countries and how often politics was above the written word or the author. Amidst all this, Rushdie tried very hard to have a normal life – marry, raise children and write some more. He could never stop doing that after all. I remember at one point, he mentions that for once he thought he would have been someone else but a writer and then banished the thought as soon as it entered his head.

There is nothing which I did not like about the book. Everything worked for me. From the way he writes about every book he has written and its structure and story to the moments of glory and the moments of anguish – they are visible through his brilliant writing.

The title of the book is taken from his name that he used when he was in hiding, so one could recognize him – a combination of two of his favourite writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov – hence Joseph Anton.

For me, “Joseph Anton” is all about courage and resilience. It is about writing, the process, the wonder and the anguish it sometimes brings to the writer and his or her readers. It is clearly a fight – where more authors are being put to task for writing and viewing their feelings, their thoughts and emotions. The sad part being that no one can do anything about the consequences sometimes, though someone should. The writer’s voice is his only liberty – that is my sum of “Joseph Anton”. A riveting read for all. I cannot recommend it enough. All of its six hundred and thirty three pages.

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Book Review: A Life in Words: Memoirs by Ismat Chughtai

Title: A Life in Words: Memoirs
Author: Ismat Chughtai
Translator: M. Asaduddin
Publisher: Penguin India, Penguin Classics India
ISBN: 978-0-670-08618-4
Genre: Memoirs, Autobiography, Non-Fiction
Pages: 282
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

It is sometimes sad to know that readers (most of them) only remember Ismat Chughtai for “Lihaaf” or “The Quilt”. She has written a lot more and the “more” is even more interesting than “Lihaaf”. I remember the first time I was introduced to her works. I had turned twenty-three and my friend had taken me to watch a play, “Manto Ismat Hazir Hain” produced by Motley, – which featured two short stories by Manto, a story by Chughtai and an essay by her as well with reference to the court trial that almost got both the writers imprisoned in the 1940s for so-called “obscenity” in their writing.

I was mesmerized after watching the play. The urge to know more of her and read more works by her was immense. I had read a bit of Manto earlier, however Chughtai took my attention and held it there. Prithvi theatre bookshop was the ideal place to find her books, though translated in Hindi (now I cannot read Urdu. I only wish I can someday). I remember reading almost all of her books, except her memoirs, “Kaghazi hai Pairahan” which I ultimately did. I did struggle a bit as I do not read so many books in Hindi (and am not proud of the fact). The beauty of the language was brilliant. The words used to describe her life from early childhood to being a mother and a wife and a famous writer before all of that resonated way after finishing the book.

I received the much-awaited English translation of “Kaghazi hai Pairahan” from Penguin Books India, aptly titled, “A Life in Words: Memoirs” and delightfully translated by M. Asaduddin. The minute I started reading this edition, memories of the Hindi edition came sweeping by. The same intensity with which Ismat Aapa (I cannot think of anything better to call her) wrote in the original (I am assuming) is captured vividly and precisely in this translation.

One cannot define Ismat Chughtai’s character as anything but colourful and introspective. May be to a large extent that passed down to her by her large and varied family. When you read the memoirs, it almost feels like you are reading a story. One gets the necessary information about her works as well – from short stories to novels to essays (as footnotes) which is needed while reading about a writer. What I loved the most about this book was Chughtai’s family and their antics. Ismat Aapa was born into a large family – she had nine siblings – so one can only imagine the life lead during the Indian Independence and seeing times through Partition, her schooling, her youth, her stubborn nature, her want to get educated and then subsequently the need to write and tell tales.

Chughtai’s tone is fictional and caustic throughout the book. There are a lot of diversions which are fun, despite the danger of losing track of semi-plots and characters, but I guess that can be overlooked when reading memoirs. It is quite natural that the tone will shift, which works well to hang on to the reader’s attention. There are pieces which I loved – for instance, “Aligarh” – which depicts the writer’s hostel life, “In the Name of Those Married Women” – the piece on the much talked about courtroom trial of Manto and Ismat, “Sujat” – revolving around politics and “Chewing on Iron” – depicting class differences.

For me, reading this in English was a treat, thanks to the wonderful translation by M. Asaduddin, who has translated Chughtai’s other works. The translation is subtle and he doesn’t shy from using the words as used in Urdu by the writer sometimes, owing to the fact that there is a glossary as well, which serves the purpose well.

“A Life in Words: Memoirs” by Ismat Chughtai is an honest and stark account of a writer’s life – from childhood to youth to old-age. The ideas in the book are numerous – from women’s liberation to class differences to the inner-life of a Muslim girl. Here is a book that is integral to its ideas, structure and words. I cannot recommend this one enough and while you are at it, please read more of Chughtai’s works. You will not be disappointed at all.

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An Interview with Alma Katsu

Hello everyone! I loved The Taker. The book reaached out to me this year and will be one of the books that I will return to before the year ends. Here is my review of the book. At the same time, after reading the book, I was flooded with questions for Ms. Katsu. Here is a short interview with her. Thank you Alma.

How did the idea of, “The Taker” come to you?

The novel grew out of a short story I wrote a long time ago, which was a ghost story set on an abandoned farmhouse in rural Maine. I kept thinking about the characters in the story and what happened to them after the story ended—and those characters were Jonathan and Evangeline (who was the ghost). I’d taken a long break from writing fiction to concentrate on my day job, but when I began writing again, that story became the first chapter in what was to become The Taker. That short story is nowhere to be seen in the final version of the book, by the way, as the story ended up changing quite a bit over time.

Did you always set out to write a book? If not a writer, then what would you have been?

My story is probably the most common for anyone who aspires to work in the arts: I grew up wanting to be a writer, then reality set in.

I have always been a reader. Like many readers, I tried my hand at writing. I was very young at the time, and somehow got it into my head that I would be a novelist. It soon became apparent that this wasn’t something you could just pursue as a day job, so I worked at newspapers for a short time. Even newspaper work was hard to come by full-time, so I eventually went into another line of work: I became an analyst for the US government. It was a great career, but after twenty years I realized that if I didn’t return to writing I probably never would.

I didn’t return to writing fiction thinking I’d be published. I wanted to see if I could learn to write a novel. I’d become a senior analyst by that point and knew the level of effort it took to really master a skill. I knew I hadn’t worked as hard as I needed to in my early twenties. I went to grad school for writing and spend ten years working on the book. I’d run into a problem that I couldn’t figure out, put the book away and work on another one, figure out a way to fix the problem and pull The Taker manuscript out again, run into another problem, repeat the cycle. That would be a piece of advice I’d give aspiring novelists: don’t make it all about the one book. I learned a lot about writing from the books I worked on during the in-between times, and it’s pretty common to have to write several novels before you have one that’s publishable.

Your Literary influences…

So many, too many to list here. Horror classics, like Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson. Patricia Highsmith. Thomas Hardy. John Barth, John Irving, Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephenson. Virginia Woolf. Sandor Marai—I consider Casanova in Bolzano a direct influence on The Taker.

Alma – the writer…

…wishes people read more. Wishes there was more of a conversation about books, the way there is about celebrities, and movies and television. For the life of me I can’t understand this worshipping of celebrities.

Did you ever wish that one of the characters of The Taker were to come to life? If yes which one and why?

I suppose the obvious answer is Jonathan, because he’s so beautiful. He’s also maddening, and not very giving, and ultimately it would be too frustrating to spend any length of time with him, I think. Adair is another obvious choice (if you’re of an adventurous frame of mind), as long as you can keep your emotional distance from him. Unfortunately, those two characters are so colorful and larger-than-life that they make the more normal ones, like Luke, seem uninteresting by comparison. At least Luke wouldn’t be potentially harmful to everyone he meets.

The book creeped me out in several places. Did you feel that while writing it?

Yes. There are a number of creepy scenes in The Taker that jolt the reader. But books are reflections of life (with perhaps a few distortions) and in every one’s life there’s going to be at least one jarring, unsettling experience that shakes you profoundly enough to make you see life differently. The Taker has “those moments” for a couple of the characters—hence, I think some readers have found it to be a bit much to take. I wanted the book to be outsized in every way, a real epic, and that meant going a little overboard in that respect (darkness), too. (I have to say, however, that it is hardly the darkest book ever written, and I suspect that part of some readers’ reactions might be because I’m a woman and they don’t expect a woman to write such a dark book.)

Alma – the reader…

…reads widely but tends toward literary fiction and (since you’re catching me on a bad day) is tired of the trend toward formulaic fiction. Novels are becoming like television programming: bland and interchangeable, with no real character.

How does it feel to know that The Taker has been so well-received almost all over the world?

The book has gotten some wonderful reviews, and I get great email from readers, and I know I am very lucky. It’s gotten it’s share of bad reviews—no book will be loved by every reader. One surprise has been that the setting—early America—hasn’t been offputting to readers outside the US. Post-Colonial America is hardly a beloved time or place for readers, like Regency England.

When did you realize that you had so much more to say that The Taker become a trilogy?
The Taker was originally written to be a standalone, but by the end of the book I saw the opportunity to stretch the boundaries even more—turn it up to 11 on the emotional scale for readers, if you get the Spinal Tap reference—and what writer could resist that?

Your thoughts on the modern literary scene and your favourites from it…

As I mentioned, I read pretty widely. So on one hand, I really enjoy mystery writers like Denise Mina and Tana French, and on the other hand, literary authors such as Adam Haslett. I particularly like writers who experiment with narrative form such as David Mitchell, although his last novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, didn’t do that.

What I don’t like about the modern literary scene is that the celebrity culture is establishing itself here, too, and the only books that get any major coverage—which is still important for a book to be able to “break out”—are the ones that have tons and tons of money behind them. Readers aren’t aware that the tsunami of publicity for the books that land on the bestsellers’ lists came from the publishers’ checkbook, not on the actual merit of the book.

This is the end of the interview, however not of the series. The second instalment will be out soon and I for one cannot wait for it.