Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

Pages: 343
Genre: Fiction
Read: September 2017
Rating: 7/10

Adjectives To Describe This Book: Difficult, Different, Genre Bending, Heartbreaking

Lincoln In The Bardo was my first George Saunders book, so I was quite excited when I started it.

Unfortunately, my feelings of excitement quickly and rapidly moved to become ‘confused’. You see the book has multiple narrators – real and unreal. By this I mean, that some are fictional and then some are real excerpts from reports, journals, letters from that time.

Confused too? Let me explain by telling you what the story is. Willie Lincoln, the favourite son of the late President, Abraham Lincoln, dies at the tender age of eleven. There is no ‘burial’ but the body is placed in a tomb. The story is of Willie’s spirit in the ‘Bardo’ i.e. in Tibetan Buddhism, a state of existence between death and rebirth. He doesn’t ‘tarry’ or move on and hence, the other spirits around him who haven’t moved on either decide to help and guide him. On the way, you hear stories of their life and death and in a way, they all help each other come to terms with just that – their life and death.

The storyline of the book unfolds with the narration of the spirits in the graveyard and the excerpts of real people at the time around this unfortunate incident. I thought I would get used to the multiple narrators as I went through the book, but that wasn’t the case. Even though it was jarring, it was something I have never experienced before.

The excerpts and citations of various people – researched books, private letters – all tell very contrary tales. For example, the place and brightness or lack thereof of the moon or the color of Lincoln’s eyes or his character – kind or cruel. Saunders puts forth these different polarizing opinions on one page and it’s striking! Got to give a man credit for his research.

P.S. I found this very relevant in today’s day and age. Turns out ‘fake news’ isn’t a new age term. 

The plot itself is beautiful and heartbreaking. The magical element attached to it adds the intrigue and hence, the differentiation. Also, I’m totally a sucker for anything pertaining to history.

Will this book change your life in any way? Probably not. But it is an interesting read not only for the content but also in the style that it is written. Also, it just won the Man Booker Prize 2017. Congratulations George Saunders.

check instagram

 

Advertisements

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Pages: 228
Genre: Fiction
Read: September 2017
Rating: 7/10

Adjectives To Describe This Book: Simple, True, Real, Subtle, Bittersweet

From the first page, I was struck by the simplicity of the prose. This was a book that just flowed and before I knew it, I was done with the journey. So much happened and yet it didn’t feel like the journey was that tedious.

I had been wanting to read this book for quite a while but after it got longlisted (and subsequently shortlisted) for the Man Booker Prize 2017, I knew I had to consume it now.

The story is of two people – Nadia and Saeed who are stuck in a war-torn country and fall in love. Their lives are described and their characters are etched out through the book. Soon, they get to hear of these magical doors that have been popping up around the world that are a portal of some kind that allows people to travel distances. They escape the country they are in through one of these doors and the rest of the book is their journey – physically, mentally, individually and as a couple.

By introducing this tinge of magical realism via the doors, Hamid removes the arduous journey of the refugees that everyone seems to focus on and focuses more on the refugees as people themselves. You can feel the palpable angst, the actual feelings and the normalcy of them.

Another thing I loved about the book is that the author never stated where these refugees were coming from or what their religion was. It was obvious that they were Muslims but it was never stated. By not putting them in a box, the characters are more relatable. They could have been in Iran, Bangladesh or even India. Who knows.

So would I recommend this book? Yes. It’s a short read with some breathtaking deep dives into real emotions with real characters with actual flaws, despite the ‘magical realism’ bit.

What Kitty Did by Trisha Bora

Pages: 306
Genre: Fiction
Read: September 2017
Rating: 8/10

Adjectives To Describe This Book: Relatable, Charming, Witty

Honestly, I didn’t expect much from this book when I first got it. I didn’t know I was going to fall in love with it the moment I started reading it.

The story is of a 20 something Ketaki aka Kitty who is stuck in a shit job, has a shitty ex, has a shitty salary, has her loyal group of best friends and who refuses to grow up. Oh, and she’s also seems like she’s a raving alcoholic. She works at Poise Magazine and is given the assignment of the year – a piece on Roxy Merchant, a wealthy socialite who died on her dinner table mysteriously. Though Kitty just has to do a fluff piece on Roxy’s life, she ends up uncovering much more. The suspense of it all had me hooked till the very end.

The book had me at get go. It was my language – akin to a Sophie Kinsella novel. However, more advance. The girl uses words like ‘ignominy’. I approve. The references were on point as well – from Raymond Chandler to Mary Magdalene.

Will this book win many awards and be lauded by the critics? Highly doubtful. But was it a fun light read that kept me smiling and laughing to myself? Yes. Read it if that’s what you’re looking for. Definitely recommended.

P.S. If I ever had to write my first book, this is what I would envision it to be. So I’m a bit jealous that Trisha Bora got there before me. 😦

How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman

Pages: 64
Genre: Fiction, Graphic Novel
Read: August 2017
Rating: 8/10

Adjectives To Describe This Book: Out there, Colorful, Beautiful, Short

There just is something about Neil Gaiman isn’t there? This was my first graphic novel and I have to say I am surprised. It was good, but I felt like it went by too fast – that it was too fleeting. I wanted, craved for more.

The graphic novel, that was originally a short story in Gaiman’s Fragile Things, is about Enn – a sweet, ‘inexperienced’, unconfident young man who is dragged to a party by Vic, a boy who is the complete opposite of him. They stumble upon a house full of beautiful women and thinking that this is the party house, they stay. In the house, is where the strange story unfolds and is told from the perspective of Enn.

I don’t want to give away the twists in the tale, but it was quite out there. Not that you expect any less from Gaiman. However, story wise, as I said earlier, it was too fleeting for my liking. I wanted more. The cherry on the cake, or rather – the cake itself were the illustrations by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. Gorgeous colors and perfectly adapted to showcase the mood and setting.

Overall, I was quite happy with my first graphic novel experience. I look forward to reading many more, so if you have any suggestions, do let me know.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Pages: 87
Genre: Fiction
Read: June 2017
Rating: 4/10

Adjectives To Describe This Book: Out there, Spiritual, Preachy

I’ve heard about this book for years now. Everyone says it’s a ‘classic’, a ‘must read’. However, it’s often equated to ‘spiritualism’ and for the longest time I was like ‘Aint nobody got time for that!’

Then one day I went to a second-hand book market and I found this book and said, ‘Okay, make some time.’ And so I did. I picked up the book grudgingly and I read it.

The good thing about this book is that it is a really short read. Finished it in a matter of an hour. It has some interesting lessons to learn, however, it wasn’t what I thought it would be. But in a way, it was.

Here are some of my takeaways from the book. Nothing new, but at that time (1970s), I’m assuming it was out of the ordinary. Hence, the love and appreciation.

  • Purpose: Alleviate yourself from the drudgery of common life. Find a higher purpose, something you work towards, something that gives you joy.
  • Hone your craft – practice, practice, practice!
  • On the road to achieve something great, you will face opposition. Even if they banish you, you must not say ‘fuck em’. Be the bigger person. If you think this will change the course of things, stick with your gut. One day they will come around. (Reminded me of Galileo)

I liked the book till page 57, and then an exchange about friendship and time and space happened between Jonathan Seagull & Sullivan Seagull and I cringed. From then on, as the spiritual gyaan was hurled at me, I cringed more. I guess I can safely say I’m not spiritual?

The main theme of the book is self-discovery i.e. letting go of ‘who the world says you are’ and understanding ‘who you are’. I agree with this thought though I can deal with this only on a superficial level. At this time in life, I cannot deep dive into this process. Hence, I appreciate this book and will keep its thoughts and takeaways with me. However, it isn’t a book that truly affected my core.

Also, I can’t deal with the ‘Break the chains of your thought and thus, break the chains of your body’, ‘You are but you aren’t’ kind of BS.

So for those wondering, ‘Hey Smriti, should I read this book or not?’ I say, ‘Yeah dude. Go for it. It’s a really short read and it has some interesting things to say. It also has some blasé photographs of seagulls, if you’re into that.’

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

Pages: 491
Genre: Fiction
Read: May 2017
Rating: 9/10

With every book you read, you can always find something that went wrong – something you didn’t like. When I read Narcopolis, I couldn’t find any.

The book had me hooked from the first paragraph. I remember being tired. I had comeback from a long day at work and I had hardly slept the night before. I was ready to sleep at 10. I read the first page and suddenly, it was 1.

The book starts off with a bang with probably the best prologue I have read recently. It was very surreal and gave me ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibes. It was as if I had landed in a strange place and was having a conversation with a person with two heads. I can’t explain it to you. You have to read it for yourself.

This book, divided into 4 parts, speaks of Bombay (known as Mumbai now) and it’s opium epidemic during the 1970s to the almost present time. Different characters, mostly all drug addicts, take you from Bombay to LA to China and tell you seemingly disjointed stories.

What makes it seem ‘disjointed’ is that the book doesn’t have one narrator but many. They randomly change with no announcement. But to me, it felt natural. It flowed into the narration of the book and wasn’t jarring or confusing. The different narrators told stories of many other people, not just themselves. Sometimes one narrator narrated the story of another!

Sounds confusing right? But it wasn’t. And that’s the beauty of it! It really takes the theory of an ‘unreliable narrator‘ and adds multiple dimensions to it.

What I also loved about the book was that it was set in Bombay and the places the author mentioned are 100% authentic. Things like Marine Drive, Colaba, Regal – are common knowledge. The Chinese Graveyard in Sewri, Shuklaji Street, however, are not.

Not only were the places authentic but also the things happening around the time. I really liked that they depicted what it was like during the ’93 Bombay Riots. Though not a deep dive, but it was a description of the landscape through the eyes of the narrators.

I really can’t pinpoint what exactly made me love this book so much. Maybe it was the joy of reading ‘unreliable narrators’. Maybe it was because the book is set in the city I live in. Maybe it’s the poetic ramblings that caught my attention. Maybe it was what the ramblings were about – sex, drugs, religion, gender identity, violence, murder. So much! I can not say for sure. But what I do know is that reading this book was an amazing experience and I can’t wait to repeat it again.

P.S. Fair warning though, I do not think many of the non-Indians would appreciate this book. It has a lot of slang, language and pop culture that others may not understand.

Favourite Quotes:

“You’ve got to face facts and the fact is life is a joke, a fucking bad joke, or, no, a bad fucking joke. There’s no point taking it seriously because whatever happens, and I mean whatever the fuck, the punch line is the same: you go out horizontally. You see the point? No fucking point.”

“We’re waiting for a glance or a word, some acknowledgement that we are here.”

“For every happiness there is an equal and opposite unhappiness.”

“Doubt is another word for self-hate, because if you doubt yourself and your position in the world you open yourself to failure. You are the carrier of a virus and you’re contagious and you should be put down, because doubt is the most dangerous indulgence of them all, most dangerous than vanity or green, because doubt feeds on itself like cancer or tuberculosis, and unlike the sufferers of such ailments, the doubter does not deserve sympathy: doubt is a decision.”

[about Mumbai] “The city claimed seven islands from the sea. In the rainy reason, the sea claimed them back.”

“It is a funny thing, only the uneducated set so much stock by education. When you go to school you realize how little it means, because the street belongs to whoever takes it.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it true that men aren’t interested in tenderness as much as orgasm? Isn’t it true that the main goal of the sexual act, for a man, is the discharging of the semen into a suitable receptacle, or even an unsuitable one if nothing else is available?”

“For conversation, better to be a woman, for everything else, for sex, better to be a man.”

“But there’s no use saying this to you. You’ll only misunderstand and misquote me, and I will end up sounding pompous or foolish, which is really the same thing.”

“‘Kaam’, said Bengali, as if to himself, ‘is work in Hindi, but desire or lust in Sanskrit. So kaamvali has a double meaning, which this gentlemen is doubtless aware of.'”

 

 

The Palace of Assassins by Aditya Iyengar

Pages: 223
Genre: Fiction
Read: May 2017
Rating: 5/10

To be honest when I first started this book I had no idea where this was going.

The story is of Ashwatthama – Dronacharya’s son. He fought on the losing side of the Kurukshetra – the epic battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The story begins after the battle is lost. Ashwatthama – one of the few survivors of the war has only revenge on his mind and will go to any extent to get it.

I admit I had to google Ashwathhama and his role in the Mahabharata. It had been so long and the details were foggy. To be honest, I initially had him confused with Sudama. Of course, doing this research isn’t really necessary. You find out who Ashwathhama is through the plot and story line.

Talking about plot and storyline, it was interesting. There were the appropriate plot twists and what I suppose were supposed to be *gasp* worthy moments. Alas, I didn’t. Gasp, that is. Was it because I’m generally intelligent or because it was actually pretty obvious? No one will ever know. 😉

A lot of the book concentrated on ‘educating’ us on what certain things were in the book like ‘tatva’ etc. I felt like a lot of it was not needed and even if it were, it didn’t have to be in such detail. Also, the book in parts was a little preachy.

However, what I really enjoyed about the book was my (re)discovery of how none of the characters in the Mahabharata were purely ‘black or white’. The Pandavas weren’t always good and the Kauravas weren’t always bad.

The writing of Aditya Iyengar was easy and breezy. I loved that the chapters were so small! It made me go through the book so much faster!

All in all, it wasn’t the most gripping or the best book I have ever read. But it wasn’t bad either.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Pages: 491
Genre: Fiction
Read: May 2017
Rating: 6/10

Adjectives To Describe This Book: Unnerving, a bit of a let down, harsh reminder of our reality, very ‘black or white’

Read If You Are: interested in how social media/tech can change the world – positively and negatively

Some books make you happy. Some make you sad. Some make you want to reach into the book and shake the characters. This was the last one.

I don’t have a problem with dystopian novels. You know they’re talking of something super fucked up and it takes place in the future which seems far away, unattainable. The Circle, however, speaks of a world that is now. And that’s unnerving.

It’s funny – they are trying to show you ‘Utopia’, but all I could see was ‘Dystopia’.

The book follows the life of Mae Holland who has recently joined The Circle, a company that seems like a mix of Google and Facebook (or if Google Plus had actually done well). She joins the company that seems to be happy to take care of everything – they look after the employees well, make sure that they’re happy and involved but to a fault. I remember this scene in the beginning of the book where HR questions her about why she didn’t share what she was doing over the weekend, why she didn’t want to share the details of her father’s MS conditions? Didn’t she realize that there were other people out there who could have helped her? Similarly other people who could have benefited from her knowledge?

This seemed all too forced to me. The characters were flawed and I didn’t empathise with pretty much anyone. You could see the transformation of Mae – going from quiet and grateful to careless and ‘like/smile’ hungry. You could see that how living in her ‘utopian’ world, she was so greatly affected by anything even minutely ‘negative’ and how she obsessed over it. There really was no character development for any other character – everyone else was so uni-dimensional.

The book was very black or white – to an extreme. I do not deny that the inventions were really cool and could be life changing but then again, to go to the extent to say that everyone should broadcast their life and that ‘privacy is theft’ and ‘secrets are lies’ is taking it to a whole new level.

Apart from that I didn’t like that the book had no chapters. It had ‘Book 1 – 3’ within it but it felt very slow. So much detailing really wasn’t necessary.

In the end, all I can say is that I really wanted to like the book. No doubt, the book was very interesting and well thought out. The author wanted to shake you and keep you unnerved and that was definitely taken care of. This is a good one time read, but honestly you could also watch the movie.

Favourite Quotes:

“Better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb than in the middle of some ladder you don’t, right?”

“Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?”

“Under the guise of having every voice heard, you create mob rule, a filterless society where secrets are crimes.”

“The tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating. You’re not hungry, you don’t need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you’re pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.”

The Girls by Emma Cline

Pages: 355
Genre: Fiction
Read: March 2017
Rating: 9/10

Adjectives To Describe This Book: Seductive, Shocking, Brilliant

Read If You Are: Just read it! But it’s for adults. Kids should ideally not read it just yet.

You know when you hear so much about something that when you finally get to it, you shrug, think to yourself – ‘meh’ and then just get on with it – not really expecting too much? That’s what I felt when I started this book. And I was blown away with the first page.

The story is loosely based on the Charles Manson Family and the murders that took place in 1969. The story is told by Evie Boyd, now a shadow of the girl she used to be, house sitting and not really going anywhere in her life. She finds herself reminiscing about her time with the cult.

The story is heart breaking. You’d think they are just angsty teenage monologues, but they are the most vulnerable inner monologues. Monologues, that you may have also had but just never admitted to anyone (or even yourself) that you did. The anger and humiliation Evie felt towards her mom, the nonchalant attitude she had towards her dad’s cheating ways, the inner turmoil she went through because she wanted to please Suzanne, the passionate love she felt, the fierce feeling of needing to belong – these emotions initially shock you but then you understood them. Why? Because it was so humane, so natural.

What I really enjoyed about the book was how the characters had multiple dimensions to them – the ‘good’ had some bad and the ‘bad’ had some good. I loved that you could feel the palpable inner turmoil of pretty much every character. The narrative led you to understand the emotions behind the actions.

Emma Cline, the author, is someone I’m definitely going to look out for. Her writing was flawless and profound. Her ability to set a scene was on point. Most of the times I felt like I had to pause to take in what she was trying to say and make it stay in my head.

As Lena Dunham very aptly says, “This book will break your heart and blow your mind.’ And that’s exactly what happened. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Favourite Quotes:

“Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.”

“Life a continuous backing away from the edge.”

“The silences between us would’ve been better if they were colored with sadness or regret, but it was worse – I could hear how happy he was to be gone.”

“That was part of being a girl–you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.”

“That was the strange thing – I didn’t hate my father. He had wanted something. Like I wanted Suzanne. Or my mother wanted Frank. You wanted things and you couldn’t help it, because there was only your life, only yourself to wake up with, and how could you ever tell yourself what you wanted was wrong?”  

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Pages: 231
Genre: Non-Fiction, Fiction, Short Stories
Read: February 2017
Rating: 7/10

Adjectives To Describe This Book: Heart breaking, raw, real

Read If You Are: Young and looking for someone to encompass your ‘modern’ feelings into one book, in need of good literature in the form of short stories and essays.

On 26 May 2012 Marina Keegan died in a car crash.

This isn’t part of the story of the book. This is real life.

Marina Keegan and her boyfriend were driving her to her father’s 55th birthday party on Cape Cod. Though he was neither speeding nor drinking, he fell asleep at the wheel. The boyfriend was unhurt; Keegan was killed.

To keep her legacy alive, her parents, friends and mentor helped piece together this book of short stories and essays that Keegan had written during her lifetime.

The introduction by Marina’s professor, friend and mentor – Anne Fadiman itself made me cry. Death is a terrible thing, but to lose someone with so much potential so early, feels like a loss for humanity.

The book is divided into two parts – her fictional writing and her non-fictional one. If I had to use on adjective to describe pretty much all the short stories it would be ‘heart breaking’. ‘Sad’ would be another. Why is there so much sadness?

The book was full of realness and displayed the raw power of words and emotions. It’s one of those books where you can’t help but highlight lines because the words speak to you, where you can’t help nodding because you’ve been that person, because you’ve thought those things, said those lines.

Had Marina Keegan been alive, she would have been around my age. I understand her words. I understand the emotion. It’s a book of my generation, for my generation.

But this isn’t a good book because it’s published posthumously; it is good because it is good. As Anne Fadiman said in her introduction –

“Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”

And that’s just what this book is – good. Is it the most amazing book I’ve read? No. But did it speak to me? Yes, and that’s why I like it.

Favourite Quotes:

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.”

“What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can still change our minds. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical.’

“The best years of our life are not behind us. They are part of us and they’re set for repetition.”

“And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.”

“Success is transparent and accessible, hanging down where it can tease us but not touch us.”

“I worry sometimes that humans are afraid of helping humans. There’s less risk associated with animals, less fear of failure, fear of getting to involved.”

“The thing is, I like being liked.”

“But it became clear very quickly that I’d underestimated how much I liked him. Not him, perhaps, but the fact that I had someone on the other end of an invisible line. Someone to update and get updates from, to inform of a comic discovery, to imagine while dancing in a lonely basement, and to return to, finally, when the music stopped.”