Archive for September, 2021

After reading ‘The Goshawk’ by T.H.White, I searched for other books which were similar. That is how I discovered ‘Brood‘ by Jackie Polzin.

In ‘Brood‘, the nameless narrator describes her life in a small Minnesotan town with her brood of four chickens. She describes their individual personalities, how she came about to be with them, the pleasures and challenges of having chickens at home, how the seasons change and how they impact her home and her human and bird family members. While doing this, she also talks about her husband, her mother, her neighbours and her best friend, who makes frequent appearances in the story. She also delves a little into her past and touches on a heartbreaking thing that happened to her.

I loved ‘Brood‘. I was almost hoping for it to be a memoir. (It is not. It is a novel). The story is beautiful and we learn a lot about chickens and fall in love with them. Jackie Polzin’s prose is soft and gentle and soothes our mind and heart. It is a great book to read on a stressed out day, when you just want to get back home, make a cup of hot tea, and curl up in front of the crackling fireplace with your dog snuggling next to you, and let the soft sentences wash over you.

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

“Cleaning has no magic formula. The secret is to go at it long enough to get results. The results of cleaning can be observed. Reflective surfaces, when clean, multiply the light in a room, filling a room with light. Smooth glass, polished metal, old-fashioned wood cared for in an old-fashioned manner—all become a source of light. Light bounces from clean surface to clean surface, making light of all in the room. An unclean house accumulates dust and therefore darkness.”

“Each sound a chicken makes has meaning. No one knows if these sounds contain information, like our words, or if the sounds of a chicken merely provoke action in the world at large. If at first these seem like the same thing, consider a scream. A scream provokes action without specific information. The specifics prove unimportant. Whatever else a scream aims to accomplish, it gets attention. The same is true of the scream of a chicken, harsh and rising. It is safe to assume that a scream of some form was a precursor to every human language, just as every known human language uses high, soft sounds to comfort a baby. A chicken also uses these high, soft sounds to comfort her young, but because the lives of chickens have evolved toward a separation of hens and chicks, more and more chickens do not learn this language, never hear it, nor use it. At some point, the motherese of chickens will cease to exist, leaving the world no different. While there is not agreement on the subject of chickens and words, there is agreement that chickens speak only of the here and now. A chicken does not speak of the day before. A chicken does not speak of tomorrow. A chicken speaks of this moment. I see this. I feel this. This is all there is.”

“It is June and the trees are full of leaves, causing the shadows also to have leaves, and leaves of both kinds move in the wind, making a shadow of the wind.”

“A healthy chicken shines. Feathers belong to a family of natural luminescence. Included in this group spanning past, present, and future life are fish scales and butterfly wings and the skin of bright berries as the sun passes through them, the glowing eye of an animal when lit at night, the interior of the shell of an abalone, the intricate glitter of the flower of a violet. The leaf of a begonia shatters light when struck with sun, green as viewed from above or red as viewed from below; so do the leaves of a hosta appear to flicker at some point each cloudless day. While seated on the bus, I have seen the back of the neck of a young boy sparkle in this way, so perhaps we, too, are part of the family of glitter and light. The chickens’ feathers appear more lustrous now than ever before. Yes, sparkle and shine are signs of cleanliness, but what makes a feather shine is not purely superficial. The shine of a feather is an indication of good health, just as the original sparkle, the very reason we are drawn to all things sparkling—that of water on the horizon—was the promise of life itself. An object that ceases to shine is old or unwell and, either way, is closer to dying.”

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


Read Full Post »

I have heard of ‘Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture‘ by Apostolos Doxiadis for years and I finally decided to read it. I loved the graphic non-fiction book ‘Logocomix‘ which was co-authored by Apostolos Doxiadis and so was excited to read this.

The narrator of the story is a teenager in high school. He hears stories about his eccentric Uncle Petros from his dad and his other uncle. Though they both acknowledge that Uncle Petros was brilliant, they also regard him as a failure. So our narrator decides to find out more about Uncle Petros, and while he is attempting to do that, he stumbles upon the mysterious Goldbach’s Conjecture, one of the great unsolved problems in mathematics, which Uncle Petros had attempted to solve. The rest of the story is about what happened to Uncle Petros and his quest for solving the puzzle posed by the Goldbach Conjecture.

Though this book is a novel, it offers a dazzling overview of the history of mathematics in the twentieth century, especially the foundations of mathematics and number theory. Many great 20th century mathematicians make a guest appearance in its pages, including G.H.Hardy, Srinivasa Ramanujam, Kurt Godel, Alan Turing. The mathematics in the book is descriptive and informative and enjoyable and it is never intimidating. There is no equation in the main text. One can just read the story and enjoy the information it shares, or if one is more adventurous, one can research more on the things that the book talks about. So the book can be read in many ways at multiple levels. The story told in the book is also very beautiful and inspiring.

I enjoyed reading ‘Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture‘. It made me think of George Gamov’s Mr. Tompkin books. But while Gamov’s book focuses more on the science, I think this book perfectly balances the math and the story, while leaning more towards the story, thus making it more appealing to the general reader.

I’m sharing a couple of my favourite passages from the book below. Hope you like them.

“…real mathematics has nothing to do with applications, nor with the calculating procedures that you learn at school. It studies abstract intellectual constructs which, at least while the mathematician is occupied with them, do not in any way touch on the physical, sensible world…Mathematicians find the same enjoyment in their studies that chess players find in chess. In fact, the psychological make-up of the true mathematician is closer to that of the poet or the musical composer, in other words of someone concerned with the creation of Beauty and the search for Harmony and Perfection. He is the polar opposite of the practical man, the engineer, the politician or indeed, the businessman.”

“During the course of the lessons I witnessed an amazing metamorphosis. The mild, kindly, elderly gentleman I had known since my childhood, one easily mistaken for a retired civil servant, turned before my eyes into a man illuminated by a fierce intelligence and driven by an inner power of unfathomable depth. I’d caught small glimpses of this species of being before, during mathematical discussions with my old room-mate, Sammy Epstein, or even with Uncle Petros himself, when he sat before his chessboard. Listening to him unravel the mysteries of Number Theory, however, I experienced for the first and only time in my life the real thing. You didn’t have to know mathematics to feel it. The sparkle in his eyes and an unspoken power emanating from his whole being were testimony enough. He was the absolute thoroughbred, pure unadulterated genius. An unexpected fringe benefit was that the last remaining trace of ambivalence…regarding the wisdom of my decision to abandon mathematics was now dispelled. Watching my uncle do mathematics was enough to confirm it to the full. I was not made of the same mettle as he – this I realized now beyond the shadow of a doubt. Faced with the incarnation of what I definitely was not, I accepted at last the truth of the dictum: Mathematicus nascitur non fit. The true mathematician is born, not made. I had not been born a mathematician and it was just as well that I had given up.”

Have you read ‘Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I discovered Milorad Pavić’sDictionary of the Khazars‘ through a friend who highly recommended it.

The book talks about the history of a people called the Khazars who according to the book lived somewhere between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It focuses mostly on one event which was significant in Khazar history – when the Khazar king invited a representative each of the three major religions and asked them to interpret his dream and depending on which religion gave the most convincing interpretation, he and his people converted to that religion. After this event, the Khazars mostly disappeared from history. The book has three parts describing the events from three different points of view – christian, islamic and jewish.

The book is structured as a dictionary or a lexicon. So, it has three dictionaries / lexicons inside. As the author describes in his introduction, the book can be read in different ways – reading it traditionally from the beginning to the end, or picking up a random entry and exploring further, jumping to other entries using the links provided, or reading a particular entry in one part of the book (for example the christian part) and then reading the entry on the same topic in another part (for example the islamic part). In this format, the book makes me think of Julio Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’, but it takes ‘hoptscotching’ to another level.

Though the book looks like a dictionary, it does tell some kind of overall story. The entries in it are all connected, and things are tied up in the end in the appendix. There are, of course, some open questions still at the end. Some entries are short and comprise just a paragraph while other entries are long and run to many pages, sometimes even to the length of a short story. The longer entries were the most interesting to me. One of my favourites was about Avram Brankovich, which was around thirty four pages long. It had history, magic, fantasy, mystery, a love story, war. It was amazing that the author has managed to squeeze in so much into those pages. It was a 34-page epic.

The book feels like a combination of Borges, Umberto Eco and the Arabian Nights combined together, with Julio Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’ style thrown in. Because there are three different perspectives of the story which are narrated, we also see some ‘Rashomon’ thrown in, as we wonder what actually happened, and which is the real version of the truth. To give you a flavour of a Borges type story in the book, I’ll share this passage.

“After dining…he would go to the long-unopened rooms of his father’s house, where deep into the night he would leaf through English and French newspapers printed in Alexandria at the end of the 19th century. Crouching on his heels…he would read the papers with thirsty interest, because they could have nothing to do with him. The advertisements were ideal for this purpose. Night after night he pored over advertisements put in the papers by people who had long since died; offers that were now meaningless glistened in a dust that was older than he…One evening in 1971…Dr Muawia sat down and answered an advertisement from 1896. He carefully wrote out the name and address – an Alexandria street he was not sure still existed – and put his reply in the mail. From then on, every evening, he would answer another ad from the end of the 19th century. Piles of letters were sent out into the unknown. Then one morning the first reply arrived.”

To find out what happened after that, you have to read the story 😊

I’ve never read a lexicon type novel before, though I’ve heard of a few like Xiaolu Guo’s ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers’, David Levithan’s ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ and, of course, Roland Barthes‘ famous ‘A Lover’s Discourse’ (which I think is not a novel). I’ve always wondered how a lexicon type novel will work. Going by the experience of reading Milorad Pavić’s book, I would say it works pretty well.

The book comes in two editions, the female edition and the male edition. The description at the bottom of the book says that the two editions are nearly identical, except for one crucial passage. Sometimes a single word, a single sentence, or even a punctuation mark placed in the right spot, can change a story dramatically. So, I decided to get both versions of the book. I read the female edition first and then went and compared it with the male edition, especially that particular passage which was different. That passage was different, but it didn’t seem to alter the story much. Not at all, actually. I have to take the two editions again and read those two passages again in the calm light of day tomorrow and see whether I am able to get some insight. Maybe, I’ll be able to see some magic then.

Dictionary of the Khazars‘ came out in English translation in the late 1980s, and got rave reviews at that time. Since then it has slid into obscurity, though occasionally it appears in ‘Best Books’ lists. Milorad Pavić is a virtually unknown name now outside the former Yugoslavia region. It is sad, because this book is wonderful, and Pavić is a brilliant writer. I loved the inventive structure of the book and I am glad I read it. After this book, he went on to write other books with similar experimental structures. One of those books comes with a pack of tarot cards, and the reader is supposed to pick a tarot card randomly and read the chapter in the book corresponding to it, and continue reading the book in that vein. That is crazy even for Milorad Pavić and I want to find out how he pulled that off 😊

A book like ‘Dictionary of the Khazars‘ is a rare thing these days. Literary fiction these days touches mostly on contemporary issues and a book which talks about the history of a probably fictional community which lived a thousand years back, a book which is structured like a lexicon where one can’t see the beginning or the end, where this open structure demands effort from the reader, an effort which may or may not deliver tangible gains for the reader other than a pleasurable reading experience – this book will probably not get published today. So, I am glad that this book got published when it was, and it continues to exist today.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. There were so many of them in the book.

“I can say that he is a person who tends to his future like a garden with special attention and zeal. He is not one of those who will journey through life on the run. He settles his future very slowly and conscientiously. He uncovers it piece by piece, like an unknown shore; first he clears it, then he builds on the best site, and finally he rearranges the objects inside at great length. He tries not to let his future slow down its pace and growth, but he also takes care not to rush ahead of it. It is a kind of race : the quickest is the loser. At present, Kyr Avram’s future is like a garden where a seed has already been planted, but only he knows what will sprout.”

“They had stumbled upon an inn; darkness was falling in reddish flakes, and Masudi was breathing deeply on his bed. His own body looked to him like a ship riding the waves. Somebody in the next room was playing the lute. Later, Anatolian lute players would tell the legend of that night and that music. Masudi immediately recognized the lute as an exquisite specimen. It was made from the wood of a tree that had not been felled with an ax, so the sound in the wood had not been killed. Moreover, it had been found in some high country, where the sound of water does not reach the woods. And, finally, the belly of the instrument was made not of wood but of some kind of animal matter. Masudi could tell the difference, just as wine drinkers know the difference between inebriation on white wine and on red. Masudi recognized the melody the unknown musician was playing; it was an extremely rare tune, and he was surprised to hear this particular song in such an out-of-the-way place. There was an extremely difficult section in this song, and in the days when he had still played the lute, Masudi had devised a special fingering for it, one that was used widely by lute players. However, the anonymous player was using another, still better fingering; Masudi could not figure out what it was, could not find the key to it. He was stunned. He waited for the section to come around again, and when it did he finally understood. Instead of ten, the player was using eleven fingers for that section. Masudi knew now that it was the shaitan playing, because the devil uses his ten fingers and tail to play.”

“…he began passing the time by forgetting his first love – music. He forgot not song by song, but piece by piece of these songs. First to fade from his memory were the lowest tones; the wave of oblivion rose like the tide to ever-higher sounds; then the flesh of the songs vanished and all that was left was the skeleton of their rhythm. Finally he began forgetting his Khazar notes, word by word, and was not too sad when one of Brankovich’s servants tossed his dictionary into the fire….”

“The translation was faithful when ben Tibbon was in love with his betrothed, good when he was angry, wordy if the winds blew, profound in winter, expository and paraphrased if it rained, and wrong if he was happy. When he finished a chapter, Tibbon would do as the ancient Alexandrian translators of the Bible had done – he would have someone read him the translation while walking away from him, and Tibbon would stand still and listen. With distance, parts of the text were lost in the wind and around corners, the rest echoing back through the bushes and trees; screened by doors and railings, it shed nouns and vowels, tripped on stairs, and finally, having begun as a male voice, would end its journey as a female voice, with only verbs and numbers still audible in the distance. Then, when the reader returned, the entire process would be reversed, and Tibbon would correct the translation on the basis of the impressions he had derived from this reading walk.”

Have you read ‘Dictionary of the Khazars‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I discovered Danilo Kiš recently and I decided that it was time to read my first Danilo Kiš book. ‘The Encyclopedia of the Dead‘ is the book of his which is easy to find in English translation and so I got that first and read it today.

The Encyclopedia of the Dead‘ has nine short stories. Most of them are are around ten pages long, a couple of them are longer, and one at forty pages is the longest. They are all on different topics, though Kiš himself says that his book has an overall metaphysical theme. My favourite story in the book was the title story, ‘The Encyclopedia of the Dead‘. It is about a woman who ends up in a library in the middle of the night and the amazing things she discovers there. A woman in a library who comes face-to-face with infinity – totally Borgesian isn’t it? 😊 There is another Borgesian story called ‘The Book of Kings and Fools‘ which tries to discover the origin of a mysterious book. It made me think of Borges’ ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius‘. Another of my favourite stories was ‘Red Stamps with Lenin’s Head‘ (needs a change of title in my opinion). In this story an unknown woman writes a letter to someone explaining some mysteries. It made me think of my favourite Stefan Zweig stories. Other favourite stories were ‘Pro Patria Mori‘ which is beautiful and heartbreaking and ‘Simon Magus‘ which is about a person who does miracles like Jesus, but who preaches against Jesus’ disciples. One of my favourite passages from the book was from a story called ‘The Legend of the Sleepers‘, which is inspired by resurrection legends from Roman times and from the Koran. That passage goes like this.

“Was it a dream? Was it the dream of a sleepwalker, a dream within a dream, and hence more real than a real dream, since it cannot be measured against waking, since it cannot be measured by consciousness, because it is a dream from which one awakens into another dream? Or was it a god-like dream, a dream of time and eternity? A dream without illusions and doubts, a dream with its own language and senses, a dream of both soul and body, a dream of consciousness and corporality both, a dream with clear-cut boundaries, with its own language and sound, a dream that is palpable, that can be explored with taste, smell, and hearing, a dream stronger than waking, a dream such as only the dead perhaps can dream, a dream that cannot be denied by a razor nicking your chin, for blood flows at once, and everything you do is further proof of reality and waking; skin and heart bleed alike in the dream, the body rejoices in the dream a does the soul, the only miracle in this dream is life itself; awakening from this dream means awakening into death.”

The book has an introduction by Danilo Kiš’ biographer Mark Thompson, which tells us more about Danilo Kiš and his work. The introduction is interesting but it has the flaw that most introductions have these days. It summarizes all the stories. So it is better to read the introduction after you read the book. The thing I liked more was the postscript that Danilo Kiš has provided at the end of the book. In that, Kiš describes how each of the stories came about, and it clarifies things that we might not have understood while reading a particular story. After reading the postscript, we are tempted to go back and read some of the stories again in new light.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Encyclopedia of the Dead‘. I am glad I read my first Danilo Kiš book. Hoping to explore more of his work soon.

Have you read this book or other books by Danilo Kiš?

Read Full Post »

After reading Jelena Lengold’s wonderful short story collection ‘Fairground Magician‘, I wanted to explore more of her work. The only other book of hers available in English translation was her novel ‘Baltimore‘. So I decided to read that.

Baltimore‘ starts with our narrator, who is a forty-something woman living in Belgrade, looking at her computer everyday afternoon. She has somehow managed to hook up to a camera in Baltimore, Maryland. And she waits for a young man, who comes at a specific time everyday, and waits for the bus, and boards it when it arrives. She makes up imaginary stories about him and even has a name for him. The second part of the chapter is about a woman who is of similar age, who meets her therapist and talks about her problems. We are taken deeply into this therapy session during this section. Both these women look like the same person – the voice is similar, their age is similar, their moms look similar. So we conclude, it is the same person. The first section of a chapter sometimes assumes a Dostoevskian shape. Our narrator shares her thoughts on life, which was one of my favourite parts of the book. She then proceeds to describe events from her life which serve as examples which prove the truth of her views on life. I loved this structure. In one of these chapters, the narrator talks about how once she stopped going to work, became silent and refused to talk to anyone, but did the household chores and kept things running, and every morning, after her husband went to work, she took a book and went to a park and read for most of the day (sometimes she went to the park to crochet and watch children play) and how it made her happy, while her family thought that it was strange and she was not well. I loved that chapter and it made me smile, because I did that once. I didn’t go silent, but I quit my job and went to the cafe in the morning and read for the whole day there. I carried this on for a while, and I loved it and it made me happy, but others thought it strange. Towards the end of the book, all the different story strands come together (or do they? You have to read the book to find out 😊) and there is even a surprise (it was a surprise atleast to me), and the ending was interesting.

Baltimore‘ had everything that Jelena Lengold’s readers look forward to, in her stories – a little dreamy surrealism, the occasional erotica, a kick-ass main character who speaks her mind (the book starts with these lines – “Let’s get something clear first : If this is going to be one of those stories in which everyone is nice and polite, then we’d better stop now. I would like to tell you everything about everything, and there is so much to say. You get that, don’t you? When you want to say it all, not everyone can be pleasant and polite. Least of all me.” How can we not fall in love with the narrator after reading that?), the profound commentary on contemporary life which is almost Dostoevskian in depth, and lots of quotable passages. I enjoyed reading it.

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

“I don’t know exactly when I made the decision not to have children. Or if it even was a decision or just one of those things you keep putting off indefinitely, knowing full well the time that you have is limited. Maybe only fifteen, twenty years at the most. And then, you suddenly realize that the decision is no longer up to you. You definitely can’t have them, even if you wanted to. Stories like: A woman in India gave birth at the age of sixty! Both mother and infant are healthy and doing fine…. You somehow know this doesn’t apply to you and that this is just a newspaper article. Was this another one of those decisions I tend to make for the sole purpose of making myself feel bad? Either way, that’s how it turned out. It’s not that bad for now. We have our time. And time is one of the rare things a person can actually have. We have our afternoons and our weekends. We have order in our kitchen and neatly stacked shelves. We never had to use the washing machine twice a day because of dirty diapers. Nor did we have to get out of bed ten times during the night. You don’t think that’s really a plus? Okay. Maybe you’re right. I’m just presenting my arguments. Your family and friends resign themselves to the idea when you reach your late thirties. This is when they definitely lose all hope. But, there are always those times when you need to get your hair done. In hair salons, most of the talk is about children. Photographs are taken out. Pregnant women get their hair done out of turn. There’s mention of C-sections, pelvic births, measles, baby-teeth are shown around, and sometimes even the children are brought in to get their hair cut with their mothers, at which time we all have to sigh and cry oh, he’s so cute and swear the child is the spitting image of its mother. I’ve yet to see a woman who comes into a salon and talks about her ill mannered, full-grown child. I’ve never heard a woman talk about how her son had to repeat a grade, as she was getting a perm. Or how he robbed a corner store. Or how he started taking drugs. Or how he beat up a neighbor. Or how he can’t get into college. Or how he moved to another continent and calls only once a year, just to ask for money. In a hair salon, children exist solely in their angelic form. A form that only gives rise to plain, unadulterated envy. A form which makes you want to get out of there, with the curlers still in your hair, but not before you apologize to everyone for being there, even though you’re not worthy of their company. Because they, these women, know something that you don’t. And they have felt something you never will. They are a family. You are a couple, at the most.”

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

Read Full Post »

I have wanted to read T.H.White’sThe Goshawk‘ ever since I discovered that Helen MacDonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’ was inspired by it. I finally got to read it today.

Sometime in the 1930s, T.H.White quits his job as a schoolteacher, moves to the countryside, and gets a goshawk, which is a type of hawk, and tries to train it. As a guide, he uses a hawk training manual written in 1619, which is clearly outdated. He describes this experience in this book. There are two parts to the book. One part is about how White trains the hawk. The second part is the one in which he describes the personality of the hawk, his relationship to the hawk, and delves into the history of hawk training, and takes digressions into literature, like when he describes how falconry / hawk training is embedded in some of Shakespeare’s plays. The first part was filled with a deluge of details which would be of interest to a fan of falconry. I was lukewarm towards it. I loved the second part. It was beautiful. Of course, the two parts are not clearly split, but are interwoven together like the warp and weft which make a fabric. So White will be talking about how he is training his hawk and I’ll find that hard to read and will be wondering when it will end and whether I should continue reading the book, when suddenly, there will be a page on the history of falconry or on how his hawk regarded him with contempt and he couldn’t do anything about it, and I’ll smile and will continue reading.

The book had these legendary lines –

“But what on earth was the book to be about? It would be about the efforts of a second-rate philosopher who lived alone in a wood, being tired of most humans in any case, to train a person who was not human, but a bird.”

To train a person who was not human, but a bird” – how beautiful is that?

I loved the places in which White describes how his hawk regarded him with contempt, refused to listen to him, and he couldn’t do anything about it, because you can’t tame a hawk or make the hawk listen to you by force, and only patience, kindness and gentleness will work, while the hawk continues to treat you with contempt 😊 That passage goes like this –

“I could never make up my mind whether I was the master. Gos regarded me with tolerant contempt. He had no doubts about who was the slave, the ridiculous and subservient one who stood and waited. For himself, he had the whole day to fill in.” 😊

I also loved the passages where White describes how his hawk regards his love or kindness with suspicion, because the hawk knows instinctively that humans show kindness to it because they want to conquer its will and enslave it. It was amazing to discover how much wisdom was encoded in the hawk’s wild instinct. I also loved the part where White talks about how a hawk which grows up in the wild is sleek and cool and an accomplished hunter, because it was trained by its hawk parents and then learnt more by experience, while the hawk which is trained by humans is clumsy and a poor imitation of the wild version. Of course, this leads to the natural question on why train a wild bird like a hawk, when it can do better on its own, why reduce this magnificent wild being to a human pet. Well, that is a discussion for another day.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Goshawk‘. Marie Winn says in her introduction that it is a cult book now. At the time it was published in the 1950s, it must have been a unique book. I don’t know any other mainstream writer from that time trying to train a hawk or a wild animal and writing about it. T.H.White seems to have been an interesting, fascinating person.

Have you read ‘The Goshawk‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I discovered Jelena Lengold’sFairground Magician‘ by pure accident. It was in the list of titles mentioned in the back of another book, with a brief description. I like discovering new books like this and as this was a collection of short stories, I thought I’ll give it a try. I’m glad I did.

Fairground Magician‘ has thirteen short stories. There are different kinds of short stories in it – there are stories about love, loss, family. There is also fantasy and science fiction. There are a couple of erotic stories. There is also one story about a cat which is very beautiful. Most of the stories have brilliant first paragraphs which pull you into the story and never let you go. There were beautiful passages in every story, even in stories which were not necessarily my favourites. In one story called ‘Nosedive‘ there is a description of domestic intimacy which is one of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve ever read. It even made me smile. In another story ‘Wanderings‘, which is a cat story, there is a beautiful description about the narrator and her cat. These were two of my favourite passages from the book. I’m sharing them below. Do tell me if you like them. I enjoyed reading most of the stories in the book. One of the erotic stories didn’t work for me, but readers who enjoy literary erotic stories might love it. It was beautifully written with just one long sentence. Atleast half of the stories were absolute favourites for me – they gave me pleasure and joy from the first sentence, and gave me lots of goosebumps till the end. One of the stories ‘Senka‘ even made me happy at the end and I’m thankful to the author for that.

I loved Jelena Lengold’s short story collection. It is one of my favourites of the year. One of the great things about the past one-and-a-half months has been discovering great short story writers from the ex-Yugoslavia region, most of them women. First it was Asja Bakić, and then it was Miljenko Jergović, and then it was Alma Lazarevska. And now I’ve discovered Jelena Jengold, and I am amazed by the richness of these short stories. Alma Lazarevska said in an interview that she prefers writing and reading short stories. I’m wondering whether the writing part is true for many of the writers from the region. It appears that the concentration of short story talent here is mind boggling. I’ve never discovered so many favourite short story writers in such a short span of time. Short stories are a tricky literary form and pulling it off with one great short story after another (like Jelena Lengold has done in this collection and others have done in the other collections I’ve read) is extremely hard. But these writers seem to have pulled off the impossible.

I’m sharing three of my favourite excerpts from the book below. Hope you like them.

From ‘Nosedive

“My husband insisted on having his own towel. I do not know whether this fact explains anything. Sometimes I would try to substitute my own towel, by using various little subterfuges. For instance, I would say that I had washed all the towels and there was only one left. Or that we were just about to go away and there was no point in dirtying so much clean laundry. Sometimes I would even hang my towel, which I had only used once, on the hook where he usually put his. But none of that helped. Quietly, without a word of protest, without expressing his wishes or displeasure out loud, he would find a clean towel and when I followed him into the bathroom later I would always find that same, definitive sign of the separation of our bodies. I was not able to understand this. There are countless places on our bodies where we touch one another, kiss and lick, but after all of that we went to wash it all off ourselves, he would always need to prevent one single dead cell from my skin from crossing onto his. I do not know exactly how to say at what moment, after so many years of shared life, I began to believe that I would fall in love, irrevocably and headlong, with the first person who would want to rub himself dry with my towel. The towel that had just wiped my stomach and my arse; that had been drawn between my legs and, possibly, still had a moist hair on it. Someone for whom something like that would be quite natural.”

From ‘Wanderings

“…she looked back at Lola, who was now lying perfectly peacefully on his shabby blanket, blinking at her with his yellow eyes. She knew he would soon fall asleep and that he would then sleep for hours. That is how it always was. People never sleep so tranquilly, she thought with a hint of envy. Not even as children. Even then, all kinds of monsters come to them in their sleep. But Lola slept without a care in the world. You could just make out his breathing, the rhythmic rising and falling of his stomach. Sometimes an ear would twitch, at a fly or bug. Sometimes, without opening his eyes, he would get up, stretch his back, change his position and carry on sleeping. And that was all. He had no worries. He did not think about what had happened the previous day, he had no plans of any kind, he was not tormented by envy, he had no ambitions, he did not know anxiety. But who knows, she thought, perhaps I am wrong; perhaps he too has his feline worries? But still, this idea seemed hardly likely. Lola, asleep like this, seemed the very picture of absolute tranquillity. Sated, washed and carefree. Perfectly safe in his garden. She wondered whether he had any conception of what safety was. Or did he know only fear, the moment he felt it. Watching the cat always soothed her in some strange way. She liked sitting beside him, sleeping beside him, watching a film beside him, eating when he ate, reading a book while he dozed with his head on her slippers, in a word – she liked it when the cat was here, in her field of vision.”

From ‘Aurora Borealis

“…with his elbows on the table, he tried to think what would be more sensible: to have a shower or make a coffee. The coffee was essential to give him the energy for a shower, but equally, a shower was an essential precondition for making coffee. How can I decide, he wondered. What if I never decide and stay forever at the table, immobilised by my dilemma? What if I never do summon up the energy to do either of these two things? Then he thought that it wasn’t all that important, after all. He had already made all the important wrong decisions. He had made them with incredible ease. With an absolute lack of awareness that every detail, even the slightest, had its own weight.”

Have you read ‘Fairground Magician‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

Marija Knežević is a Serbian poet and writer and ‘Ekaterini‘ is the only book of hers which has been translated into English.

This book tells the story of Ekaterini, the title character, and is narrated by Ekaterini’s granddaughter. The story starts at around the beginning of the twentieth century and ends at the dawn of the twenty-first. Ekaterini is a greek girl. The story starts when she is young and how during the First World War her family falls into bad times. Ekaterini goes to work and it looks like she might get a measure of independence, but things don’t work that way. Soon a young man falls in love with her, and Ekaterini’s family likes him, but when they discover that he is not Orthodox Christian but Catholic, they distance themselves from him. When the young man discovers that this is the reason for his proposal being rejected, he feels that this is a minor thing, and he changes his religion and becomes an Orthodox Christian. Ekaterini gets married to him, and later because of another war, she has to move out of Greece and move to Yugoslavia, where her husband is from. The place is new, the people are new, she doesn’t know the language. What happens to her as she navigates these big changes in her life, and how it mirrors the history of her adopted country is told in the rest of the story.

I enjoyed reading ‘Ekaterini‘. How a Greek woman moves to a new country and becomes Yugoslavian is very beautifully told in the book. The story made me think of Miljenko Jergović’sKin‘, because in that book Miljenko Jergović talks about his great grandfather who was German and lived in Bosnia. I also loved the way the book describes how historical happenings impact Ekaterini’s life and the life of her children and grandchildren. There are beautiful scenes which describe the relationship between a mother and her daughters and later a grandmother and her granddaughter. It made me smile to read how a woman who was tough on her own daughters, loves her granddaughter unconditionally and inspires her granddaughter to be a free spirit and even encourages rebellion 😊 There is also a beautiful scene which describes a father’s love for his daughters which I loved.

Marija Knežević’s prose is pleasant to read and there are many beautiful passages. I’m sharing some of them below.

“Lucija adored her father. For her, he was all-powerful and yet tender; he’d sit her on his knee and sing her songs, and he also taught her to read and write. She remembers well the big box he brought home after one of his wholesale shopping days. He put it in the children’s room, called Lucija and Ljubica and, beaming with joy, full of that anticipation which is the greatest pleasure for those who like to please others, watched their astonished reactions when he lifted the lid. The box was full to the top with stationery. The girls were speechless with amazement. They saw all these things for the first time. They didn’t know if they were enchanted by the exercise books, rubbers, pencils and rulers per se, or by the sheer quantity of stationery, which would surely last them into their high-school days.”

“Various things can give us a sense of security: family, a beloved being or beings, customs whose repetition is reassuring. Some find calm in a comfortable life with possessions and a full house, others in the opportunity to roam and wander free. Peace can certainly play that role too, in the long or short pauses between wars. As can hard times which could easily have been the end of us, but which we survived, and become the strongest foundations of all to have been invented. They’re like wisdom after a shipwreck for the survivors, in a life which in Serbian we’d call ‘a gift’. For some, it’s enough to hear just one ‘I love you’, se agapo.”

“The sun shone in through the freshly cleaned windows and she was delighted with the day’s efforts. As if there was no glass; not a fleck to be seen! But the rays wandered around the room and played with the specks of dust, those irrepressible thousands of particles which eluded both mop and rag. She blew out smoke and began to get annoyed. This blasted dust! You go to so much effort and the room still isn’t immaculate.”

“Our first and very major limitation is that we don’t know what it was like to be born. From that very first moment on, we depend on other people’s versions and have no way of learning the truth. Everyone talks about how they felt; no one even thinks that we might have felt something at the time too, let alone what, although we were the cause of all those manifestations of happiness, excitement, fear, inebriation and sobering-up because of the birth of a child.”

“Ekaterini sat peacefully, looking at the potted basil for a while, or the cat slinking around the house, or the kids with beach balls and underwater goggles; she heard their chirpy little voices saying thalassa, the sea, and gazed with the same calm at her toenails as at her memories which rose and ebbed away again like gentle tides. She engaged with every instant of the scenes around her and inside her. She spoke to a butterfly, the dripping tap in the courtyard, aeroplanes in the sky, or Lucija. Once again she was able to hear several voices at the same time – precisely because she didn’t have to. She didn’t have to do anything. There’s no word for that individual feeling of existence in its totality, when you have the good fortune of feeling everything and all at once. Just as living abroad is impossible to explain. Foreigners just hope they will live to experience this some day, and in this way they really reconcile themselves; all their life they reconcile themselves with the truth that home now only exists in their jumbled, nomadic memory: a memory maintained by fantasy – often an outright invention – and succoured by the sweetness of victory greater than that of any battle when we manage to convince friends and family that things were exactly as we said. Nomads live on stories. Only in stories do they feel they exist. Ekaterini was finally able to abandon herself to her senses. And she listened to the language like a cherished melody, near and dear but hummed by someone else.”

“I felt immeasurable pain, she – emptiness. The former is bearable but the latter cannot be compensated for, like the deaths of people close to us, which the poet Marina Tsvetayeva speaks of after the poignant word ‘Be!’. When someone dies with whom your life has been fulfilled, she says, you miss them, but they’re still there; they’re not sundered from you because you feel their presence. But when someone dies with whom your life was unfulfilled, there remains only inconsolable sadness.”

I’m glad I discovered ‘Ekaterini‘. Hoping to read more of Marija Knežević’s work.

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

Read Full Post »

I discovered Andrea Jeftanovic’sTheatre of War‘ recently and decided to read it today.

When the story starts, the narrator Tamara describes a play which is being staged in which she is one of the performers. Soon we realize that the play might be the story of her life, as the narrator describes her childhood, her life with her siblings and her parents, how her dad moved from his war-torn country to a new one, but still has nightmares about it, how her mom is nearly always unhappy, how her brother and sister look different compared to her and the secret behind that. The story starts with this and continues as it charts Tamara’s life as she grows up, goes to college, falls in love and has interesting and challenging life experiences.The story starts with a war and it ends with a war and its aftermath. In between, it is the story of a family which navigates these troubled waters called life.

The descriptions in the book on how Tamara’s family goes through hard times because of financial circumstances is very moving. Reading about how they frequently get evicted from their house because they couldn’t pay the bills and how their personal possessions are all auctioned off (once the TV is plugged off and taken away while they are watching a programme) before they are evicted is heartbreaking to read. Being poor and being an immigrant is always hard and the book depicts that movingly. How Tamara’s dad continues to be a nine year old boy who has nightmares of war and how Tamara’s mom loves her family but hates responsibility and yearns to be a free spirit is beautifully depicted in the book.

Andrea Jeftanovic’s prose is beautiful and a pleasure to read. In some places she decides to be playful and toys with the reader. I remember reading one passage at the end of which I felt something strange – there was a dissonance there and it didn’t make sense overall. I felt the passage was hiding a secret and it refused to reveal it to me, because I wasn’t giving it the attention and love it deserved. I decided to read it again more slowly pausing after every sentence and taking it in, and this time, the passage opened its heart and spoke to me and revealed its secret to me. Every sentence in the passage changed the point of view – the first sentence was about Tamara and the second sentence was about her dad and it continued like this. When I discovered this, the whole passage glowed with its beauty and music. In music, there is a form called contrapuntal, in which two are more independent melodic parts are connected together by a common harmony. This passage was like that. It was brilliant and beautiful.

When we reach the end of the book, an interesting question arises. Is the whole book the narrator Tamara’s story? Or is the book just the story told in the play in which Tamara plays one of the parts? Or is it both? It is a fascinating thought to ponder on. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this if you get to read this book.

I loved ‘Theatre of War‘. Andrea Jeftanovic is clearly a talented writer and this is a brilliant debut. This book was first published around twenty years back (so it has been around for a while), though it has been translated into English only recently (it was originally written in Spanish. Andrea Jeftanovic is from Chile.) She has published more books since then – I spotted atleast one more novel, three collections of short stories and one collection of essays. I hope they get translated into English soon.

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

“Mum prepares breakfast for two kids every morning. She kisses Adela and Davor on the forehead as they leave the house. She makes two beds, fills the tub two times. She hugs one child with each arm. From the balcony her eyes follow two shapes as they walk away. She holds out one hand to cross the street, then the other. I’m left at the end of the line, clutching at my sister. She whispers a little secret to the right, another to the left. Her two legs guide two paths. Two tears roll down her face as she watches her children sleeping. She doesn’t know the little girl who lies beside her and follows her around the house, snatching at her dress and repeating her name. She is incapable of including me in her twofold affection.
      I don’t want to hear her ask again : Who’s that girl lying there naked with her hair all tangled? Mum never reaches my centre, just brushes around my edges, grazes my surface. I spread out before her like an incomprehensible atlas. A pair of steaming bowls are waiting for us when we get home from school. My brother and sister don’t say anything, just silently serve a third portion on the bread plate. I have lunch at the corner of the table. And for a moment I want to drive it into my abdomen.
      Another day my sister and brother and I all come home together and I stop to tie my shoes. As I reach the door, mere steps behind them, it slams in my face and I’m locked outside. I watch Mum, her welcoming smile, her wrist turning the key in the lock. Her world is a perfect triangle, not an awkward square. I’m the edge that doesn’t fit into that geometric shape. For Mum I’m nothing more than an empty space in her brain, a black hole that swallows up all memory of me.”

Have you read Andrea Jeftanovic’sTheatre of War‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »