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This is the third book I read for ‘Women in Translation‘ Month. I have had Colette’sChéri‘ with me for many years. I finally took it down from the bookshelf and read it.

Léa is a courtesan. She is forty-nine years old. She is in love with twenty-five year old Chéri. They have been together for a few years. Now Chéri’s mother decides that it is time for him to get married to a rich young woman. Léa reluctantly accepts that this is the end of their relationship. But both she and Chéri find it hard to let go. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I liked very much, the first part, which runs to around fifty pages. Léa is the main character in that, she is my favourite character, and we see things from her point of view. Then she disappears from the story for around thirty pages, and we see things from Chéri’s point of view. In my opinion, this part wasn’t that appealing. Then Léa comes back into the story, but for some reason the story isn’t as good as it was in the first part. The ending is heartbreaking.

The book created a lot of waves when it first came out in 1920. Interestingly, this year is the book’s centenary. There are other books which tell the love story of an older woman and a younger man. But I think ‘Chéri’ must have been the first story or one of the earliest ones with this plot, written by a woman writer. The blurb says that this is Colette’s finest novel. I liked the book in parts, but I feel that the book hasn’t aged well. I think it will make a great movie though, and I want to watch the movie adaptation.

Colette’s prose is beautiful. There were beautiful sentences and passages sprinkled across the book. I am sharing one of my favourites here.

“She took a thermometer from the drawer of her bedside table and put it under her arm. ‘My temperature’s normal, so it’s nothing physical. I see. I’m just unhappy. Something must be done about it.’ She drank some water, got out of bed, bathed her inflamed eyes, put on a little powder, poked the fire, and went back to bed. She was on her guard, full of mistrust for an enemy she had never known : grief. She had just said goodbye to thirty years of easy living : years spent pleasantly, intent often on love, sometimes on money. This had left her, at almost fifty, still young and defenceless.”

Colette was one of the great French writers and someone who defied the conservative world of her time. She once gave this advice to a young writer – “Look for a long time at what pleases you, and longer still at what pains you.” That always makes me think. I have heard great things about her Claudine books. I want to read them sometime.

Have you read ‘Chéri‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Colette book?

This is the second book I read for ‘Women in Translation’ month, hosted by Meytal, which runs through the whole of August.

Clara‘ by Cecile and Lemoine is a surprising beautiful discovery for me. It is a comic / graphic novel.

Clara’s favourite time of the day is when her mother comes to her schoo in the evening to take her back home. They walk the streets, feed the ducks in the park, play in the swing, go to the bakery and try some treats, go home and play the guitar and take a bath together. This is a time Clara looks forward to everyday. One day her mother doesn’t come on time. Clara stays for sometime at the daycare centre at school. When her mother finally arrives, she doesn’t speak much. She looks worried, distracted. That day, they don’t indulge in their usual adventures. That evening Clara’s father comes home early and he and her mother have a long, quiet conversation which Clara is not able to hear. We, the readers, of course, feel a dark premonition.

Well, I can’t tell you more. You have to read the book to find out what happens next.

Clara‘ is a beautiful, heartbreaking story about love, loss and grief, seen through the eyes of a young girl. It puts into pictures the nightmare that every child has, and it also shows how one particular child handles it.

Cecile’s artwork is beautiful and charming and tries to lessen the weight of the grief for us. I read that Cecile never attended art school and is a self taught artist, which was fascinating to know. I have shared a few pages so that you can experience the beauty of her art.

I loved ‘Clara‘. I can’t wait to read more of Cecile’s work.

Have you read ‘Clara‘? What do you think about it?

This is the first day of ‘Women in Translation Month‘ which happens in August every year and which is hosted by Meytal Radzinski. This is the first book I read for this year’s edition. I discovered ‘The Dog‘ by Kerstin Ekman through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) review of it. I read it today in one breath.

A man goes out of his house on some work, and his dog follows him. This dog has a puppy which follows her. But then it rains, there is a storm and the puppy gets lost in the forest. What happens to this puppy, as it navigates the hours, the days, the weeks on its own, is told in the rest of the story.

I have read many dog stories, but this is a story, the likes of which I’ve never read. Kristin Ekman tells us the story in the third person, but we are taken into the puppy’s mind, into his heart, and we see things through his eyes, we smell the new smells he does, sense the dangers he feels, feel things through his skin, and before long it is us in the forest, feeling the cold and the hunger, and the danger. Ekman doesn’t anthropomorphize the dog, doesn’t make it human, but takes us into the dog’s mind, into the dog’s heart, and makes us see how the world looks from there. It is fascinating. From the first passage,

“When does something begin? It doesn’t begin. There’s always something else before it. It begins the way a stream starts as a rivulet and a rivulet starts as a trickle of water in the marsh. It’s the rain that makes the marsh water rise.

Where does a tale begin? Under the root of a spruce, perhaps. Yes, under the root of a spruce tree. A little grey fellow was lying there, all curled up, his muzzle tucked under his tail. A dog. But he didn’t know that.”

the book grabs our attention, and refuses to let go till the end.

I loved ‘The Dog‘. It is one of my favourite dog novels, up there with ‘Dogsbody’ by Diana Wynne Jones, and ‘The Poet’s Dog‘ by Patricia McLachlan. I am glad I read it. I want to read more of Kerstin Ekman’s books now. She is one of the great Swedish writers and I discovered that she has a long backlist. Hoping that more of her books are available in English translation.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

Boyhood Island‘ is the third book in Karl Ove Knausgaard’sMy Struggle‘ series. In this book, Knausgaard describes his childhood from the time of his birth, till around thirteen years of age. This book is different from the first two books in the series. Which is good news and bad news. The good news is that the story told is pretty straightforward – it starts from year zero and runs till around year thirteen. So we can read it as a novel about childhood, as a coming-of-age story. The bad news is this. In his other two books, Knausgaard digresses a lot from the main story, he takes an idea or theme and runs with it for many pages, and these parts have some of the most beautiful passages in the book. But this book doesn’t have those digressions. So those beautiful passages are missing. I missed reading those long sentences and those multiple pages that I highlighted continuously. But I still liked ‘Boyhood Island‘.

One of my favourite characters in the first part of the series, ‘A Death in the Family‘, was Knausgaard’s mother. She was such a wonderful person. She plays only a minimal role in the second book, but she is back here, and it was wonderful to read more about her. One of the main themes of this third part was Knausgaard’s relationship to his dad. Knausgaard’s dad appears to be a menacing figure who bullies his kids but who also shows them the occasional kindness, and treats his wife, Knausgaard’s mother, well. Those parts were hard for me to read, because my dad was menacing too when I was a kid (not as bad as Knausgaard’s dad, but still), and sometimes the incidents that Knausgaard described were triggering for me and brought back some parts of my childhood and made me angry. At one point Knausgaard’s dad moves away from home for a year to pursue further studies at university, and after dropping him at the airport, Knausgaard’s mom comes back home and asks him, “Would you like to help me bake some bread?“, after which Knausgaard the narrator tells us, the readers, “That might have been the year dad lost his grip on us.” My heart leaped with joy when I read that.

Knausgaard’s grandmothers on both sides are so charming and affectionate and I loved the parts where they make an appearance in the story. This was one of my favourite passages about one of Knausgaard’s grandmothers.

“I never quite understood what the power relationship was between grandma and grandad. On the one hand, she always served him food, cooked all the meals, did all the washing-up and the housework as though she were his servant; on the other hand, she was often angry or irritated with him, and then she gave him a mouthful or made a fool of him, she was sharp and not infrequently sarcastic, while he said very little, preferring not to respond. Was it because he didn’t need to? Because nothing of what she said altered anything important? Or because he couldn’t? If Yngve and I would be present during such sparring, grandma would wink at us as if to say this wasn’t serious, or use us in her sally against him by saying things as ‘Grandad can’t even change a lightbulb properly’, while grandad, for his part, would look at us, smile and shake his head at grandma’s antics. I never saw any form of intimacy between them, other than in their verbal exchanges or the closeness that was evident when she served him.”

There is lots of other stuff in the book – friendship, football, comics, books, music, first teachers at school, first crush, the adventures that kids have. I won’t tell you more. You should read the book for yourself and find out. I will just say one thing. I was so happy that Knausgaard mentioned my favourite Western comic hero, Tex Willer, a couple of times. This is the first time I’m seeing Tex Willer mentioned in a book.

Boyhood Island‘ is an interesting book on childhood, on coming-of-age. It made me think about other famous childhood and coming-of-age stories, like J.M.Coetzee’sBoyhood‘, R.K.Narayan’sSwami and Friends‘, Stephen King’sStand By Me‘, and my favourite, Marlen Haushofer’sNowhere Ending Sky‘. I enjoyed reading it.

Well, that is nearly 1600 pages of ‘My Struggle’ done 😁 2400 more pages of ‘My Struggle’ left 😁

Have you read ‘Boyhood Island‘? What do you think about it?

I have wanted to read Václav Havel’s play ‘Temptation‘ for a long time. I finally got around to reading it.

The story told in ‘Temptation‘ goes like this. In the office of a scientific institute, some scientists are lounging around. The Deputy Director and Director walk in. They all have a brief conversation. The Director tells everyone that some strange things are happening at the institute which needs to be investigated. It later turns out that he was implying that someone was dabbling in the occult. Later the scene shifts to one of the scientists, Foustka’s house. And we discover that Foustka is the one dabbling in the occult. Then a mysterious stranger visits Foustka. Without saying anything directly, the stranger refers to the party in Foustka’s institute later in the evening and tells him that he wants to help Foustka and make a deal with him. Interesting things happen at the party, not necessarily something exceptional, but things which look real but stretch the fabric of reality, things which are too good to be true.

Who is this stranger? What happens at the party? What happens to Foustka’s dabbling with the occult? This is narrated in the rest of the play.

I found ‘Temptation‘ interesting, but I didn’t love it. Václav Havel takes the Faustian fable and sets it in ’80s Czechoslovakia in the middle of an institute mired in bureaucracy and tries to explore what happens. The play has an absurdist quality as some of the scenes get repeated with some minor changes, and the dialogue in those scenes are vague without meaning anything, and nothing much happens in them. We feel like we’re watching ‘Waiting for Godot‘. The ending was surprising and I didn’t see that coming.

The mysterious stranger is an interesting character and he speaks some of my favourite lines. This one made me smile 🙂

“Your answer had eighty-six words. Considering its semantic value that isn’t exactly a small number, and if I were you I wouldn’t reproach anybody too severely for redundancy.”

This one made me think.

“My dear Sir, the truth isn’t merely what we believe, after all, but also why and to whom and under what circumstances we say it.”

This one – a mafia don could have spoken this one 😁

“To deceive a liar is fine, to deceive a truth teller is still allowable, but to deceive the very instrument that gives us the strength to deceive and that allows us in advance to deceive with impunity – that, you truly cannot expect to get away with.”

Have you read ‘Temptation‘? What do you think about it?

I was flitting from one book to another in the last few days of June, without settling on one book. Then I picked Knausgaard’sA Man in Love‘ and the days of flitting were over.

In ‘A Man in Love‘, Knausgaard continues the story he told in the first part, ‘A Death in the Family‘. I won’t bore you with the plot outline – the book is 664 pages long, and I won’t be able to do justice to it. I will just say that most of the book is about how Knausgaard met his wife Linda, how they fell in love, and started a family, and how each of their three children bring a lot of joy and test their patience everyday. So the book is about love, family, children, being parents. The book is also about books, literature, reading, writing.

There is one thing about Knausgaard’s prose that I noticed while reading this book. The book fluctuates between two styles. The first is the regular storytelling where there are events which move the story and there is a lot of dialogue. The second is where Knausgaard takes a topic or a theme and runs with it for many pages. The first aspect of the book was good. But my favourite was the second one. That was where Knausgaard took a pause from the story and wrote most of my favourite passages. Sometimes I highlighted whole pages continuously, that it became too much. Later, I just marked the top of the page to indicate that the whole page has been highlighted. I have heard readers say that they liked this part more than the first part of the series. But I think I liked the first part more. I think that is probably because the first part had more of those contemplative passages than the second part. Or maybe I was just new to Knausgaard’s style and so the first part left a bigger impact.

As the book is about family, and as Knausgaard is famous for his unflinching close observations, the story is not always pleasant. It might sometimes feel uncomfortably too close to home. So, read at your own risk.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“When I think of my three children, it is not only their distinctive faces which appear before me, but also the quite distinct feeling they radiate. This feeling, which is constant, is what they ‘are’ for me. And what they ‘are’ has been present in them ever since the first day I saw them. At that time they could barely do anything, and the little bit they could do, like sucking on a breast, raising their arms as reflex actions, looking at their surroundings, imitating, they could all do that, thus what they ‘are’ has nothing to do with qualities, has nothing to do with what they can or can’t do but is more a kind of light that shines within them. Their character traits, which slowly began to reveal themselves after only a few weeks, have never changed either, and so different are they inside each of them that it is difficult to imagine the conditions we provide for them, through our behaviour and ways of being, have any decisive significance.”

“What had started out as a long essay slowly but surely was growing into a novel, it soon reached a point where it was everything, and writing was all I did. I moved into the office, wrote day and night, sleeping an hour here and there. I was filled with an absolutely fantastic feeling, a kind of light burned within me, not hot and consuming but cold and clear and shining. At night I took a cup of coffee with me and sat down on the bench outside the hospital to smoke, the streets around me were quiet, and I could hardly sit still, so great was my happiness. Everything was possible, everything made sense. At two places in the novel I had soared higher than I had thought possible, and those two places alone, which I could not believe I had written, and no one else has noticed or said anything about, made the preceding five years of failed writing worth all the effort. They are two of the best moments in my life. By which I mean my whole life. The happiness that filled me and the feeling of invincibility they gave me I have searched for ever since, in vain.”

Have you read ‘A Man in Love‘? What do you think about it?

I discovered Natsu Miyashita’sThe Forest of Wool and Steel‘ through one of my friends who highly recommended it. The book was about the piano and its music and I couldn’t wait to read it.

Tomura is in high school. One day one of his teachers tells him that a man will arrive in the afternoon at school, and asks Tomura to take this man to the gym. When this man arrives, Tomura takes him to the gym and leaves him there. While Tomura is leaving the gym, this man opens the piano there, presses down some of the keys and plays a few notes, and something beautiful, magical happens in Tomura’s mind. It is like someone opened his heart to a Narnia filled with music, in which when each musical note is played, Tomura sees the warm earth, whispering leaves, the forest, the trees. And Tomura comes back while this man is tuning the piano. And that is the end of life as he knows it. The boy from the mountains, Tomura, now wants to dedicate his life to the piano, he wants to become a piano tuner. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

The Forest of Wool and Steel‘ is a beautiful love letter to pianos, piano tuning, music. I loved it. I am happy that I discovered a new favourite book, a new favourite writer. I love how Japanese writers take delightful things, sometimes even everyday things, and compose a beautiful book around them – the way Yoko Ogawa wrote a book about mathematics and baseball, Ito Ogawa wrote about the pleasures of food, Banana Yoshimoto wrote about the seashore and the beach, Hiromi Kawakami wrote about the thrift store, Haruki Murakami wrote about running, Sayaka Murata wrote about the convenience store, Shion Miura wrote about the dictionary, the way Takashi Hiraide, Hiro Arikawa and Genki Kawamura wrote about this beautiful being called the cat. Natsu Miyashita’s book is a beautiful addition to this wonderful list of Japanese books which sing a song in praise of all this beauty that surrounds us.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“And here was another thing : ‘beautiful’, like ‘right’, was a totally new word for me. Until I’d found the piano I’d never been aware of things that you might call beautiful, which is a little different, of course, from not knowing they exist…The delicate frown lines between the brows of a crying baby. The bare mountain trees beginning to bud, and the ecstasy of the moment when the tips of the branches reflect a reddish hue, casting a warm glow across the mountain. The mountain on fire with these imaginary flames would stop my breath and fill my heart to bursting.
It liberated me to have a word for these things – for the trees, the mountains, the seasons. To call them beautiful meant I could take them out any time I wished, exchange them with friends. Beauty was everywhere in the world. I had just never known what to call it or how to recognize it – until that afternoon in the school gym, when it flooded me with joy. If a piano can bring to light the beauty that has become invisible to us, and give it audible form, then it is a miraculous instrument and I thrill to be its lowly servant.”

Have you read ‘The Forest of Wool and Steel‘? What do you think about it?

I am not sure how I first discovered Rafia Zakaria, but I clearly remember the first time I read something by her. It was an article by her in ‘The New Republic’ called ‘Sex and the Muslim Feminist‘. It was a fascinating article and I loved it. I have wanted to read more by her since. I finally got around to reading her first book ‘The Upstairs Wife : An Intimate History of Pakistan‘.

The Upstairs Wife‘ starts with the story of Rafia Zakaria’s aunt, Aunt Amina. When Rafia was a child, one day Aunt Amina visits their home and stays there overnight and for the next few days. It is something unthinkable during that time, because married woman don’t stay overnight in their parents’ homes in Pakistan. Over the next few days, the story slowly emerges – that Aunt Amina’s husband Uncle Sohail had decided marry again and get a second wife (which was allowed according to the law, but almost never happened) and he had come to ask her permission, but she had refused, and inspite of that, he had decided to go ahead. Aunt Amina had got upset and had gone to her parents’ home. After the elders from both sides meet and discuss the situation, at some point Aunt Amina goes back to her husband’s home, to share her house and her husband with a second wife. At this point Rafia Zakaria goes back in time and tells us the story of her grandmother when she was living in India in Bombay, before the partition. Then she narrates a third story about Pakistan as a newly independent country. Zakaria weaves these three story strands together – her aunt’s story, her grandmother’s story and Pakistan’s story – and we get this beautiful book called ‘The Upstairs Wife‘.

The Upstairs Wife‘ weaves personal story and historical narrative together into a fascinating book. I loved reading the personal stories and experiences of Zakaria’s family members and the stories about Pakistan as a new country. I think the love story of her grandparents Said and Surrayya deserves a separate book. I knew about some of the events of Pakistan’s history, but it was insightful to read it in detail in the book and understand the way it impacted Zakaria’s family. Zakaria’s packs in so many historical details into this 250-page book, that it is hard to believe how she managed to do that. The story that Zakaria tells is sometimes beautiful, sometimes moving, sometimes heartbreaking. There is one place where she describes how her grandfather goes to the government office to get something called the domicile certificate for his grandson. This certificate proves that one belongs to a particular place. To prove that one belongs to a particular place, it seems one has to prove that one’s father belongs to that place too. And to prove that one’s father belongs to that place, it seems that one has to prove that one’s grandfather belongs to that place too. It was so absurd and almost Kafkaesque, that I laughed when I read that. And then it made me sad and angry. But this is not the situation just in Pakistan. Immigrants from time immemorial, in every country, have faced this question on where they are from and have been asked in increasingly absurd ways to prove that they belonged to a particular place. It is sad and heartbreaking. Zakaria’s grandfather doesn’t give up though and is unfazed by these bureaucratic mountainous obstacles. He pushes ahead with dogged determination, and we cheer for him, and he wins in the end, and we want to hug him and give him high-fives. I hated Uncle Sohail at the beginning of the book, but towards the end I felt that he was not as bad as it looked, and things were more complex than I imagined. I think that was one of the great things about Zakaria’s writing – it was unsentimental, non-judgemental, and she followed the golden rule, ‘Show, don’t tell.’

I enjoyed reading ‘The Upstairs Wife‘. It is a fascinating look into Pakistani history of the last 70 years seen through the eyes of a few individuals. I am glad I read it.

Have you read ‘The Upstairs Wife‘? What do you think about it?

I have wanted to read Roxane Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’ since the time it came out. I finally got around to reading it.

Roxane Gay’s book is a collection of essays, many of which she had written for literary magazines and literary websites, and some essays that she wrote for this book. I thought that the essays were mostly on feminism and gender and though there definitely were many essays on those topics, the range of the essays were wide and they covered race, and other topics of contemporary interest. The essays are collected under different sections – Gender & Sexuality, Race & Entertainment, Politics Gender & Race. There is a section at the beginning which is autobiographical in which Roxane Gay tells us more about herself and her family, her initial days as a professor, her love for Scrabble. The Scrabble essay was one of my favourite essays in the book. The section titled Gender & Sexuality was probably the core of the book and that is where Gay explores most of the burning topics of contemporary interest. I liked many of the essays here. One of my favourites was one about three coming out stories. The section, Race & Entertainment, has essays on film. Gay mostly picks up a film and tears it apart 🙂

At the beginning of the book, there is an introduction in which Gay says feminists are placed on pedestals and they are knocked off and she is a bad feminist because she is imperfect and we can already consider her knocked off the pedestal. At the end of the book, Gay continues this theme and says why – though she loves the colour pink, she loves listening to thuggish rap with misogynistic lyrics, though she wants to be independent but also wants to be taken care of, though she considers some domestic tasks are gendered and should be done by men, though she is human and imperfect and is filled with contradictions – she loves feminism and considers herself a feminist, though a bad feminist. I loved what Gay said.

There are many things that Gay said that I agreed with. There were also things that she said that I disagreed with. One of my biggest disagreements happened with her essay on the movie, ’12 Years a Slave’. Gay found many reasons to criticize the movie, and it was hard for me to agree with her (I haven’t seen the movie yet). The movie was based on an actual memoir written by a black slave, the movie was faithful to the book, it was directed by a wonderful director and talented actors and actresses played leading roles with acclaim. The movie won awards. I think these are all good things. Sometimes a movie is just well made and good and there is nothing wrong in acknowledging that.

I enjoyed reading ‘Bad Feminist’. It was interesting to read Roxane Gay’s take on feminism, race and other contemporary topics. I want to read her memoir ‘Hunger’ sometime.

Have you read ‘Bad Feminist’? What do you think about it?

I have wanted to read E.R.Braithwaite’s classic memoir ‘To Sir With Love‘ for a long time. I finally got around to reading it now.

Rick Braithwaite has just come out of the Second World War. During the war he was in the RAF (Royal Air Force). During his time in the RAF, he enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow airforce colleagues. People treated him well, everyone was equal, there was no racism. When the war ends, Rick hopes to get a job in the field in which he is trained and educated – electronics engineering. Rick has got a masters degree from Cambridge university. When he applies for jobs, he is immediately invited for an interview, because of his impressive education and experience. But when the interview panel members see him in person and discover that he is black, they refuse to hire him. One interview panel member is frank – he says that he can’t ask white employees to report to Rick, but he also cannot hire Rick for a low-level position, because Rick is overqualified for that. Rick is frustrated and remains unemployed for eighteen months. When Rick says –

“It is possible to measure with considerable accuracy the rise and fall of the tides, or the behaviour in space of objects invisible to the naked eye. But who can measure the depths of disillusionment?”

– we feel like a knife has been plunged into our hearts, and it hurts us deeply as much as it does Rick. A kind stranger gives Rick good advice and asks him to apply for a teacher position. Rick does, and is immediately hired and asked to join an East End school. His fellow teachers are all white and mostly women and they all welcome him. His students are an unruly bunch though and they test and challenge him everyday. Whether Rick is able to gain their respect, and whether the students accept him is told in the rest of the book.

To Sir With Love‘ is a beautiful, inspiring memoir. The racism in post War London and the many subtle variations in which it manifests itself is so insightfully portrayed in the book. In one place Rick compares the way black people are treated in America and in Britain and it is fascinating to read. It will be interesting to find out whether what he says holds true even today. The way Rick tries to tame his students and the way they resist his attempts are also very fascinating to read. Rick even manages to fall in love with his fellow teacher who is white, and she invites him to meet her parents, and what follows is a scene straightaway from ‘Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner‘, with the father telling Rick how difficult it will be for Rick and his daughter if they get married – we can almost hear Spencer Tracy speaking there. The book has a wonderful introduction by Caryl Phillips. I did some research and discovered that Caryl Phillips is himself a Caribbean novelist and has a huge backlist of award winning novels. It is so exciting! I can’t wait to read some of them.

I loved ‘To Sir With Love‘. I can’t wait to read more books by our favourite Rick. Have you read this book? What do you think about it?