Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

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image: penguin india

I’m more familiar with literary movements that swept the US and Europe than the ones closer home. The first that I heard of the Hungry generation was in this book (they figure in Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints too). The Hungryalists, as they were known, were a revolutionary band of poets who originated in West Bengal. They questioned the rigidity of form and exclusivity imposed by upper-class poets, the bourgeoisie. They rubbed shoulders with Allen Ginsberg when he visited India. In fact, shocked by the legal action slapped on the Hungryalists for obscenity by a few righteous literary leaders of that time, he did his best to help the Hungryalists by writing to various people in positions of power that he knew in India. The poets received recognition and support from the international community while back home, they faced harsh and unforgiving judgments.

Much of the poets’ work was destroyed. However, Chowdhury has featured what could be found through her research and interviews in the book. She has interspersed the account of the literary movement with copies of translated poems and reproduced letters exchanged between the poets and others. Their passion and urgency are still intact in these letters. Even at the worst of times, despite the persecution, their love for poetry held them strong. Chowdhury has written an engaging narrative with prose that ebbs and flows, rich in lyricism, apt for the subject.

Title: The Hungryalists
Author: Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury
Genre: Non-Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House India, 2018
ISBN: 9780670090853, 0670090859

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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image: simon & schuster

“What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence” is an anthology of essays, in which fifteen writers share their stories about what they never had the opportunity to talk about with their mothers. The collection of essays is edited by Michele Filgate. It gets off the ground with her own essay about what she wants to share with her mother. The essays reveal how relationships between mothers and children are never clean and straightforward. There are wounds that go deep, there is love, there are things left unsaid which eat you up slowly, skin to flesh to bone.

Of the mother and child relationship, Filgate writes:

“That mother-and-child connection is a complicated one. Yet we live in a society where we have holidays that assume a happy relationship.”

Why rake up the mud when it can settle down at the bottom and we can pretend all is good, or when we can simply look the other way?

Filgate says:

“The more we face what we can’t or won’t or don’t know, the more we understand one another.”

The essayists hold the bull by the horns and risk being gored as they delve into their personal experiences of abuse, immense love, confusion. It is not all roses and greeting-card odes to mommy dearest. Each of the essays in the anthology pulsates with courage and honesty. Disparate though experiences may be, they are unified by the theme of what these writers have not shared with their mothers until now.

Title: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence
Editor: Michelle Filgate
Genre: Essays, Non-Fiction
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2019
ISBN: 978-1982107345, 1982107340

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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image: via goodreads

The unfolding of a woman

Janice Pariat’s novella The Nine-Chambered Heart is a collection of nine stories tied together by a single woman. The nine also references the paper folds that make up an origami heart – at least the one that I attempted. Eight people, men and women, who have loved or desired the young woman describe her and their relationship with her. Written in the second person, the narratives read like conversational letters of confusion, love, concern, nostalgia, and bitterness that the lovers felt.

A single narrator holds court in each chapter and is described with a title related to the role that he/she plays in the unnamed woman’s life at different stages. Only the Butcher appears twice. People and places have no names. Only the animals do: China, India, Scapara, Layla, Gramsci. There are cities with rivers and those without.

Over the course of the nine narratives, the reader sees the woman only from the perspective of various people. The multiple perspectives move on a ‘Rashomon’ tangent and as in the movie, the readers don’t get to know the woman in her entirety; she remains incomplete, an enigma, a mere sum of perceptions. A fear of abandonment along with a need for love and the pain of loss ripple through the narratives. Perhaps that explains the lack of names which brings with them the possibility of attachment that’s longed for and yet feared.

Most of the narratives offer the protagonist in small and similar bites, something of her background, her quirks, her love for cats and origami, her fragility, the aloofness she exudes. It is only in The Lighthouse Keeper’s narrative that a side of the woman is presented that jars against the impressions gathered from the others.

The most striking feature in The Nine-Chambered Heart is the well-crafted sentences, each precise and poetic. The novella is not something that a reader would down in a single gulp but something that one would want to slowly savor. And then round back for second helpings.

Title: The Nine-Chambered Heart
Author: Janice Pariat
Genre: Novella, Literary Fiction
Publisher: The Borough Press, 2018
ISBN: 978-0008272548

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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A short story that Sylvia Plath penned as a student at Smith, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” takes the reader on a familiar journey marked by the conflict between light and dark. While Plath’s descriptions at times are overdone, the story is ripe with symbolism that is largely expressed through color, the train journey, and the natural views.

The story’s beginning reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” It too begins innocently enough. The first scene is of Mary boarding a train despite her better judgment. She meets an unnamed woman and over the course of the journey, her will and awareness sharpen and she realizes that she does not want to be on this journey.

While the language lacks the intensity and concision of Plath’s later work, the themes of darkness to light, apathy, and free will are familiar and hold the reader to the story. Though it isn’t one of Plath’s best works, it is relevant as part of the author’s entire body of work and in tracking Plath’s growth as a writer.

Title: Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom
Author: Sylvia Plath
Genre: Short Story, Fiction
Publisher: Faber Stories
ISBN: 978-0-571-35173-2

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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image: youtube / slimani reading

Lullaby is the song which puts you to sleep, lose awareness, become unconscious. Its layered meaning is fully exploited by Leïla Slimani in “Lullaby,” also known by the titles “Chanson douce” and “The Perfect Nanny.” The novel begins at the end. And then it starts again, innocently enough, a child-like quality to its simple sentences told in the present tense. The steady rhythm of the sentences lull the reader to sleep, even as the novel, not so much picks up pace, but intensifies as it shifts from one point of view to the other, reconstructing lives, getting under the skin of characters.

Myriam and Paul are just another couple in Paris. Both are ambitious and both love their children, Mila and Adam. Myriam’s ambition leads her to return to work as a lawyer and the couple decide, not without apprehension, to hire a nanny for their children. Louise is the nanny of dreams, doll-like with immense strength, with her Peter Pan collar and varnished fingernails, descriptions which Slimani repeats. It is this too-good-to-be-trueness that heightens a sense of foreboding. Soon cracks – at times, vicious and at times, pitiful – begin to appear. But when things are convenient, red flags are ignored and justified, which is precisely what Myriam does.

Slimani unearths many underlying tensions in the situation: complexities of motherhood, conflicts of a working mother, loneliness, how nannies are treated, confused intimacies, and the final spiral into darkness. In the end, everyone stands guilty.

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

(also here!)