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Archive for October, 2021

I discovered ‘The Word Pretty‘ by Elisa Gabbert accidentally. I read the first page and found it beautiful and so decided to read it.

The Word Pretty‘ is a collection of essays. Many of the essays in the collection are about books and bookish things, my favourite kind of essays. There are essays on keeping a notebook to record thoughts, on translations, on the pleasure of reading introductions to books, on the beauty of paragraphs, on the importance of punctuation, on poetry, on aphorisms. There are also non-bookish essays on photographs, on different words used to describe beauty, on the interplay between time, money and happiness. There is an even an essay on the Alcatraz prison.

The essays in the book are interesting and pleasurable to read. I enjoyed reading them. I liked both the bookish essays and the non-bookish ones. That is the good news.

I have one or two quibbles with the book though. That is the bad news. After reading a few essays at the beginning, I felt like Elisa Gabbert was quoting a lot of other writers in her essays. This is normal, of course, in today’s essays. But when a particular essay is about books, there are quotes from the introduction to the book and what other writers or reviewers thought about the book, and one has an increasingly nagging suspicion that Elisa Gabbert hasn’t read the book. She even says that in one of her essays – “I’m a promiscuous and impatient reader, so one of my literary guilty pleasures is reading the introductions to great books and not the books themselves.” She talks about the Tao Te Ching, but she hasn’t read the book itself (or has only dipped into it) but quotes from the introduction to it. This trend keeps continuing through the rest of the essays in the book, that one starts wondering whether Elisa Gabbert has read the book in question or whether she has just read the introduction to it and maybe a couple of reviews or essays about the book and maybe the Wikipedia entry on it, and has then written this essay. Even when she says that she has read the book, for example, in the case of ‘Le Grande Meaulnes‘ (‘Lost Estate‘) by Alain-Fournier (one of my favourite books), it is hard for us to believe it, because she quotes from the introduction and not from the book, and whatever she says about the book can be found in a Wikipedia entry or a typical review – that is, the essay is probably derivative and offers secondhand opinions. I’m not sure that she has read ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’. But I think she did read the two Javier Marias books that she has written about. Writers writing about books that they haven’t read is common these days, but it is still frustrating when we encounter such instances.

The other quibble I had was this – in one of the essays Elisa Gabbert says that lately she is drawn more towards translated fiction and she likes reading them more. Then she goes on to write about Javier Marias’ books. So far so good. But then, there is no evidence in the rest of the book that she prefers translated fiction (or poetry) or enjoys reading them. No names of non-English writers are even mentioned. It is a cool thing, these days, to say that one prefers translated fiction. It is also very cliched.

One more quibble I have – the last one, I promise – is that Elisa Gabbert criticizes different writers and their works in the essays – sometimes she criticizes a writer for ‘overwriting’ a book, sometimes for ‘underwriting’ a book, sometimes for using too much pronunciation, sometimes she hates the title of a book. But when someone criticizes her owns books in review sites like Goodreads, she takes offence 😊 To her credit, she writes about both, in her essays.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Word Pretty‘. If you like reading nice bookish essays, this book is for you. It will make pleasurable reading on a Sunday afternoon, when you are sitting in your garden, with a cup of tea, and enjoying the fragrance of the flowers, the sounds of the birds, the flitting of the butterflies, and your dog or cat enjoying time on your lap.

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

“When I was seven or eight, I confessed to my mother that I couldn’t stop narrating my life back to myself; I thought it meant I was crazy. No, she said, it means you’re a writer.”

“I’ve always believed that the secrecy of diaries is pretense; with their naked confessions, they seem designed for others to discover and read, unlike notebooks, which are coded, often impenetrable to outsiders.”

“I read that Kafka’s Metamorphosis is difficult to translate into Japanese because of “insect appreciation” — that is to say, the Japanese do not experience revulsion at the prospect of a man-sized beetle. What to do, then — convert Gregor Samsa into something that the Japanese do find disgusting? Or let it become a new story in a new context? Which is more accurate, more faithful to the original? Imagine reading Metamorphosis without understanding why Gregor’s family is repulsed by him — after all, he has transmutated into something wondrous, something perhaps better! Everything is translatable, but nothing is perfectly translatable : tidy words become gangly phrases, the “Kafkaesque” becomes fantastical, innuendos appear or disappear, polysemy and rhyme seem to teleport to a new location in the poem. Meaning dissipates in the processing, decays over time, but it’s remarkable how much is retained, the way it’s remarkable how good the Lascaux cave paintings are…Problems in translation are not much of an argument against translation. The work can remain what it is while also being transposed, twisted, given new significance, like a glove turned inside out.”

“There are probably people who go through life with a permanent mind of poetry. I am not one of those people. I fall in and out of it, and not at will. As I write this, I am not in it, and have not been for three or four months, which is to say, I have not been able to focus on or become absorbed in any book of poetry. Oddly, I have continued to write poetry. I continue to think about poetry, almost daily…one doesn’t need a mind of poetry to talk about poetry. But I don’t want to read it. Or— and this is how it feels, when I’ve lost my mind for poetry — poetry doesn’t want me to read it. I can look at the words on the page and feel fairly certain that they represent good poetry, but I remain unmoved and unengaged. It’s like looking at an attractive person when you’re freshly in love with someone else : an empty appreciation that leads nowhere. When I’m in the mood for poetry, it’s not a seduction on my part; it’s more like the poem and I have chemistry.”

Have you read ‘The Word Pretty‘? What do you think about it?

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Vasil Bykau is one of the great Belarusian writers and ‘Alpine Ballad‘ is one of his famous books.

The story told in ‘Alpine Ballad‘ is set at the end of the Second World War. Ivan is a soldier in the Soviet army. He is from a small village in Belarus. He has been captured by the Germans and is in a camp with others. He tries escaping from the camp repeatedly but is caught everytime. Once he and his mates are working on defusing a bomb. But instead of defusing it, they make it explode. In the confusion, Ivan makes his escape. He leaves the camp and the village and ends up in the mountains, always looking behind his back to see whether the Germans are pursuing him with their dogs. In the mountains he bumps into a young woman called Giulia. She is Italian and she also seems to be a prisoner who has escaped from the Germans. These two fugitives go on a run into the mountains. What happens when a young man and a young woman get together and try to escape from their erstwhile captors? Magic happens, of course 😊 Are these two able to evade the bad guys and reach safety? You have to read the story to find out.

Alpine Ballad‘ is a thrilling story of escape and a beautiful love story. It is beautiful, charming, moving, haunting. Vasil Bykau’s description of the mountains and the meadow is so vivid that we feel we are actually there, and we can almost smell the grass and the flowers and hear the sound of the flowing stream. The relationship between Ivan and Giulia is so beautifully and delicately depicted in the book. I cried when I finished reading the last chapter.

I discovered that this book has been adapted into a movie. I want to watch that.

Have you read ‘Alpine Ballad‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered the Pushcart Prize Anthology through one of my friends sometime back. After resisting temptation for a while, I yielded to it, and got a couple of Pushcart anthologies. After all didn’t Oscar Wilde say “I can resist anything except temptation“? 😊

I got two Pushcarts – the most recent edition and one of the older ones. I thought that the Pushcart Prize was like the O’Henry Prize – that, it was given for short stories. I was surprised to discover that this was not the case. The anthologies featured short stories, poems, essays and excerpts from books. They also weren’t placed in separate sections so that all the short stories were together and all the poems were together. They were placed randomly in no particular order. It added to the charm of the book, because once you finish reading a story or a poem, you have to turn the page to find out what is coming up next. Sometimes the contents of anthologies are organized by authors’ names in alphabetical order. None of that here. Everything was random. I loved that, because this is the way we discover new books, writers, stories, poems – randomly. The Pushcart anthology reflected that.

In one of the books, there was an introduction by the editor Bill Henderson in which he described how the Pushcart Prize and anthology came into being – how it started as an act of rebellion against big publishers who routinely rejected the work of new talented writers and so Pushcart decided to promote new writers and small presses through the Pushcart Prize and anthology. On the way, Bill Henderson takes potshots at the internet and bloggers which made me smile 😊

One of the things I discovered about Pushcart which I loved was this. It is an anthology which is published annually in December. So you can read it during the December holiday season. It is around 500 – 600 pages long. So it is reasonably hefty and it will entertain and enlighten the reader for a while. The most important thing I discovered was this. There doesn’t seem to be any Kindle or digital edition. It is a proper physical book which you can hold in your hand and read. So, no monthly literary magazine, one anthology every year, available as a traditional book only. They have continued this tradition for more than 50 years now. It is very beautiful, traditional, old-fashioned, charming. The Pushcart must be one of the last such literary annuals out there. I don’t know how long they can keep up with this tradition (there must be a strong temptation by some of the younger editors to come out with a digital edition, but I don’t think that will happen as long as Bill Henderson is around), but we should celebrate this as long as it lasts.

I want to say something about the small presses featured in the book. Most of the presses were unknown to me. This is how it should be, because this anthology promotes small presses. But I was surprised by a few names, especially Granta and The Paris Review. These two might have started out as unknown small presses, but I don’t think they are small now. I don’t think they promote new writers. If you are a new writer and you send your work to Granta or The Paris Review, you can be sure it will be rejected, even if your work is good. There is no difference now between Granta and The Paris Review and the big guys like The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review or The New York Review of Books. These are all guys who reject new writers. I also saw McSweeney’s featured in one of the Pushcart anthologies. McSweeney’s started out as a literary magazine which published work which other literary magazines had rejected. But that is all in the past. These days, if a new writer sends their work to McSweeney’s, it is most probably going to get rejected 😊

Being a writer is hard. Because most of the time, a writer’s work is going to get rejected. I have seen writers who have published multiple books through leading publishers, whose new work – short stories, poems, novel manuscripts – routinely gets rejected. I don’t know why this happens but it does. Also, for 99% of writers, their writing is not going to pay their bills. So they get a regular day job which helps them pay their bills, and after coming back home from work, they indulge in their passion, which is writing. With a high rate of rejection and low economic prospects, it is only a brave person who ventures into writing. But inspite of the odds stacked against them, many writers indulge in their passion and spend a lot of time and energy creating beautiful works of literary art. The only reason that they do this is because of the love they have for their work. They need all the encouragement that they can get. It is so wonderful that small presses promote such writers and there is a Pushcart Prize which celebrates those writers and small presses.

Well, long essay done 😊 Now I have to get started on the two anthologies. So excited!

Have you read Pushcart anthologies? What do you think about them?

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Today’s spooky read is ‘Eleven‘ by Patricia Highsmith.

Eleven‘ is a collection of 11 short stories. Patricia Highsmith being Patricia Highsmith, there are no ghosts or supernatural things here. It is mostly people who do the spooky things.

In one story, a man suddenly gets interested in snails and gets a couple of them as pets and watches them everyday. Of course, things don’t go as planned. They go bad, very bad. In another story, a professor decides to go to a remote island in search of a giant snail. Legend says that this snail is 15 feet tall, but it looks like no one has seen it. We, of course, immediately know that this snail is definitely there on that island, and it is going to be bad, very bad, for the professor, if he goes there. If a remote island is rumored to have giant snails, dinosaurs, pterodactyls and other giant ancient beings, the common sensical thing to do is to leave it alone and not go there. We scream at the professor to take it easy and not go there. But the professor refuses to listen to reason and ends up in the island. In another story, a kind couple, who live in the middle of nowhere, hire a new governess to take care of their kids. We have read too many stories or watched too many movies like this. We know that something sinister is going to happen soon. In another story, a couple discover a furry creature darting across the floor in their house. It looks like a rodent, but it looks big. They borrow a friend’s cat to catch this guy. But things don’t go according to plan. In another story, we discover that a young woman is trapped in a horrible marriage. When she got married she thought she was escaping from her previous life and had moved to heaven, but she soon discovers that she is in hell now. She decides to do something about it.

So, these are some of the stories in the book. They are all scary, spooky, haunting, sinister.

There is a beautiful introduction to the book by Graham Greene in which he says this –

“She is a writer who has created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger, with the head half turned over the shoulder, even with a certain reluctance, for these are cruel pleasures we are going to experience, until somewhere about the third chapter the frontier is closed behind us, we cannot retreat, we are doomed to live till the story’s end with another of her long series of wanted men…Miss Highsmith is the poet of apprehension rather than fear. Fear after a time, as we all learned in the blitz, is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably. We have to learn to live with it.”

This describes the stories in the book, perfectly.

I enjoyed reading ‘Eleven‘. It is a great book to read for this Halloween season. This year is also the birth centenary of Patricia Highsmith and so it is a perfect time to immerse into her stories and enjoy letting them scare us and haunt our dreams.

Have you read ‘Eleven‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Patricia Highsmith book?

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Catherine Lim is one of Singapore’s greatest writers. I’ve wanted to read her books for a while. When I discovered that she has written a collection of ghost stories, I thought it would be a perfect read for this Halloween week.

The Howling Silence‘ is a collection of 14 ghost stories. The stories aren’t the scary type in which the ghosts come and scare people (and the reader). Many of the stories are suggestive, which is the best kind of ghost story. There is one story in which a woman is grieving and it appears that she gets a gift from the netherworld from her beloved. It was one of my favourite stories in the book. In another story, a woman keeps in touch with her dead daughter, while her dead daughter is growing up in her own world. And at one point, the two parallel worlds interact (or it looks like they do) in a surprising way with some interesting consequences. That story made me smile, because it looked like a story straight out of Pu Songling’s strange tales collection, because that has many stories in which the two worlds interact with surprising consequences. In another story, there is an Indian-Singaporean whose apartment is haunted by three Chinese ghosts, and he tries to figure out how to placate them. One of my favourite stories was that of a dead principal who haunts her school and tries to continue her work like she is still alive.

One of the things I loved about the book was that the stories were realistic. This is the kind of ghost story and haunted story that people will talk about during family gatherings, about haunted houses encountered during their childhood and the ghost of the young woman in their street who couldn’t marry her beloved. Singaporeans seem to have a strong belief in ghosts and haunted houses and many of the stories touch on that.

I loved ‘The Howling Silence‘. If you want to read a book of ghost stories where the stories look real, and are written in a literary style, you’ll like this book.

Have you read ‘The Howling Silence‘ or other books by Catherine Lim?

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I discovered ‘Root Magic‘ by Eden Royce recently and I finished reading it yesterday.

The story told in ‘Root Magic‘ goes like this.

Jez is a ten year old girl. She has a twin brother called Jay. They live with their mother and their uncle. Their father doesn’t seem to be around. The story opens with the funeral of Jez’ and Jay’s grandma. After they get home after this sad event, they discover that the police deputy is waiting for them. He barges into their home, does a search without cause, turns everything upside down and leaves. Jez and her family have just had a tragic event happen in the family, and now they face the harassment of the law. While things are as they are, we discover that Jez’ grandma and now her uncle did rootwork. That is, they took roots and herbs and plants and other exotic ingredients and made medicines out of them or made potions out of them to help people in their everyday lives. Some of these potions were for protecting their houses and families. Jez’ uncle wants to teach Jez and Jay how to do this and initiate them into the mysteries of rootwork or rootmagic. The extraordinary, unexpected magical things that happen after that form the rest of the story.

One of the things I loved about the story was the way it looked at magic and the mysterious dark things which are on the side of magic. We get to see that from this side, the human side, and it is scary, but Eden Royce at some point, shifts the perspective and shows us things from the opposite side, and it is very fascinating. It helps us see things in a totally new light. I loved that.

One of my favourite characters in the story is Susie who is Jez’ best friend from school. Their friendship is beautifully depicted, and like any friendship between preteens and teenagers, it goes through beautiful and challenging moments, but it just keeps getting better and better. Susie is awesome.

I loved ‘Root Magic‘. The story is beautiful, our leading lady and narrator Jez is awesome, her family is wonderful, her best friend Susie is awesome, there are some kind characters and wicked villains, and beautiful magic which looks real and unusual and very different from what we read in other books. The author says in the note in the end that a lot of the book is based on the stories her grandmothers told her. Eden Royce’s prose is soft and gentle and is such a pleasure to read. The book also comments on the political and social situation of the times (the story is set in the early 1960s) and we discover that sometimes the real monsters who do wicked things are humans.

Last but not the least, the book also talks about Southern cuisine. It was mouthwatering just to read. One thing which caught my eye was okra pickles. I hate okra (ladies finger). When my mom used to make it, I’d avoid eating it. I am not picky when it comes to vegetables – I love them all. Or nearly all. But there is one exception, and that is okra. Okra, I hate. But the book’s description of okra pickle made me think that this might be delicious. I want to try that  American Southern cuisine sounds so delicious! Why haven’t I tried that before? I’m kicking myself!

I discovered that Eden Royce has written more books, especially southern gothic horror stories. I want to read them.

There are some beautiful classroom scenes in the story, some of them involving a wonderful teacher who shares her favourite poems with the students. I’m sharing one of my favourite passages which describes this scene beautifully.

“I settled into my seat and waited for Miss Watson to begin her magic. Reading aloud sounds like something more for younger kids, babies almost, but it wasn’t. That she chose one of her favorite poems to read to us made me feel like she was showing us something no other teacher had before. She was sharing a part of herself, knowing that we might not like the same things she liked, but doing it anyway. Her voice changed when she got to certain parts of the poem. It swelled up to fill the whole room with sound, then it whispered softer than the wind through trees. Our whole class hushed and listened, but I pretended she was reading only to me. I closed my eyes and let the sound of her voice wash over me…”

Have you read ‘Root Magic‘? What do you think about it?

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I’ve never read an Armenian book before and so I was excited to read Susanna Harutyunyan’sRavens Before Noah‘.

The story starts with a young woman giving birth to two baby twins, both of them girls. The midwife who helped in giving birth and the village people don’t expect the babies to survive, but they do. Soon we learn that this is a village in the middle of nowhere, beyond the mountains. People who live here have escaped from the outer world in some way. Mostly they have been victims of war or violence. They were mostly discovered by Harout, who is like the village elder (though he is not old), who saved them and brought them to the village. Once people arrive at the village they don’t leave. The village is their sanctuary. Harout is the only person who knows the way out and he goes out once in a while to buy things that the village might need. No one else in the village knows the way out. As the story proceeds we get to know about the lives of the people in this village, in this sanctuary. Sometimes we get to know about what happened to them before and how they landed up here. We learn a little bit about Harout too. We discover that people live normal lives here, sometimes pulling each other’s legs, gossiping about each other, feeling jealous of each other, showing each other kindness – the kind of things people who live in a small community do. People live in a village which is their sanctuary without contact with the outside world, and they live happily everafter – this is, of course, heaven, it is Shanghri-La. If the outside world discovers this, it is not going to leave them alone. No one wants a small community of people to live happily everafter, do they? How can they be happy when the rest of the world is miserable? What happens when the outside world discovers this village forms the rest of the story.

There are many beautiful characters in the story. One of my favourites were Nakhshun, the young woman who gives birth to the two baby girls at the beginning. She is a fascinating character and her relationship with Harout is beautifully and delicately depicted in the story. Another favourite was Varso, who tells stories to children. Or rather she tells one story to the children, which continues everyday for years. The children grow up and they have children themselves and Varso continues with her story, keeping engrossed a new generation of kids. She continues spinning this yarn till the last day of her life, becoming the unofficial Scheherazade of the village. The scene in which the kids and the grownups crowd around her bed asking her to tell them the ending of the story before she leaves is one of the most beautiful and moving scenes in the story.

Susanna Harutyunyan’s prose is not simple or straightforward. Or spare as they say these days. It is the opposite of spare. The point of view of the story kept shifting and the story kept moving across mulriple timelines, moving seamlessly from the present to the past, that at the beginning, it was hard to keep track or figure out what was happening. But after a while I got hold of a thread and moved with it, and the story revealed itself and I could glimpse its glorious beauty.

The writing was filled with poetic imagery which was beautiful to read. For example, this passage –

“The pure wind plucked from the nostrils of the sky would sometimes blow into the trees’ armpits, and the applause of the trees would blend with the sounds emitted by the birds, bees and water.”

And this one –

“…the wind’s legs were tied and it was rolling about miserably in the sand somewhere, exploding from time to time and casting sand on the waves, simply to remind them of its existence.”

And this one –

“The wind slithered up the spine of the mountains in the bright darkness of the autumn night, scratching the sky with a strangled scream, hanging itself from the ragged clouds and slipping down, praying sounds and dust from the place where it fell, pressing the rocks to the ground clawing at rocks and bushes with nail-less fingers, grabbing its own tail in its mouth as it rolled about wildly, thrashing and slithering… and whizzing… Like being skinned alive, the wind was ripping itself apart.”

And this one –

“The dawn flowed out through the throat of the rooster and when it poured out, the air went red at the force of the blow. The first cock-a-doodle-doo scratched at the dawn like a stream of water blowing into a strong wind, where it shatters and turns into moisture.”

And this one –

“Throughout the winter, the ice would hold tightly to the water and strangle it, stifling it in its palm. When it melted in the spring, the water would explode and splash its cold scream to the face of the sky.”

The story touches on the massacres of Armenians in 1896 and 1905 and the Armenian genocide of 1915. Many of the characters end up in the village because they were victims of these violent events.

I loved ‘Ravens Before Noah‘. I am pretty sure that there is a deep connection between the title and the raven that the biblical Noah released after the flood, but I haven’t figured out that connection yet, and I need to contemplate on that a little bit. I am so happy that I read my first Armenian novel. Susanna Harutyunyan is an amazing writer (what exquisite prose!) and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

I have seen only 6 posts on this book on the internet, 3 of them reviews. This book deserves to be more well known than that, because it is wonderful. It deserves a bigger readership. I am doing my bit now, making this 6 to 7 😊

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

“Perch knew everything. There were more faces in his memory than were even in the Bible. Each of them was carefully arranged in a frame and nailed to the wall of his memory. It’s too bad that he aged quickly and the autumn migration flights from his memory started early. In a single night, all the faces and incidents flew off flock by flock, like the wrinkles disappearing from the face of the deceased—his mind was wiped clean and his blood lost its memory and he became a hollow reed. Perch cleansed his brain—as if intentionally—by directing that fountain of misery inward, in the same way that the waters of God’s wrath washed over the world, but he left nothing behind. No memory, no Noah. His memory at first, then his sight, then his ability to speak… He cocooned himself in oblivion, like a male butterfly enclosing the love organ of a female so that nothing can enter or leave any more… He was free of everything that bothered him and could now live in peace.”

Will you read ‘Ravens Before Noah‘? What do you think about it from the above? Does it appeal to you?

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My journey into contemporary Russian literature continues. This time I decided to read Elena Chizhova’sThe Time of Women‘.

The story told in ‘The Time of Women‘ is set during the late 1950s / early 1960s. A young woman gets pregnant and has a baby daughter. Her boyfriend is not in the picture, and she comes to live in a communal apartment with three older women, who are old enough to be her mother. The young woman worries about who will take care of her baby when she goes to work. The three older women tell her to not worry and they volunteer to take care of her baby. So while her mother is away at work, Baby Sofia grows up under the care of three grandmothers. The three grandmothers are different in their own ways and they teach her different things and different ways of looking at life and appreciating its beauty. There is one problem though. Sofia doesn’t speak. Whether she’ll start speaking soon or whether she will end up mute, no one knows. But her grandmothers and her mother are worried. Because in the Russia of that time, if a baby is mute, it will be taken away by the state and will be put in a special school or in an orphanage, the kind of thing that Sofia’s mother and grandmothers don’t want. What happens after this forms the rest of the story.

I loved the portrayal of the Russia of that time in the book. It was very nuanced and realistic. The way one has to depend on the government for everything, small or big – whether one wants a job, or wants to buy groceries or wants to buy a TV, or wants to get an apartment, how there is a queue for everything, how things like a TV or an apartment take a long time – it is all very beautifully portrayed. Also how money was scarce and how one always has to keep an eye on the price while buying simple things like groceries, a fabric for sewing clothes, a pastry at a bakery – it is all very realistically portrayed. Also how one’s boss or senior employees in influential positions in one’s workplace have an inordinate amount of influence on one’s personal life, asking inappropriate questions and influencing / bullying a single person or a single mom – all this is realistically portrayed. It takes us back in time and makes the Russia of that era come alive. How the people of that time, especially women, inspite of these constraints and restraints, tried to be kind, found friendship and happiness and love, is also beautifully portrayed in the book. To me, that was the central core of the book.

There are some scenes in the story which are filled with sharp humour, which is very Russian. For example, this one, which was my favourite 😊

      “How are things?” – he asks.
      “The things,” I said, “all depend on me. They won’t take care of themselves.”

And this one, which also I liked very much.

      “If people listened to you they’d still live in the Stone Age. They’d still be lighting sticks.”
      “Well, what’s wrong with that?” – Yevdokia shrugged her shoulders. – “Were the sticks bothering anyone?”

I loved ‘The Time of Women‘. It is a beautiful story of five women from three different generations, who love each other. I am hoping to explore more of Elena Chizhova’s work.

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

“I tried studying ancient traditions, but they seemed dead to me, until I saw one Egyptian picture. A woman on the bank of a brook. This picture amazed me, as usually Egyptian artists painted battle scenes and almighty pharaohs. They intentionally painted them as enormous figures, and kept everyone else small, so that the viewer would get the impression that they ruled over their subjects: over their life and death. But this picture simply showed a woman on her knees, crawling along the bank of a brook. At first I thought she was a pharaoh’s wife too: there was an inscription in hieroglyphics at the top, which I couldn’t read. But then I found a translation. It was the soul of a deceased woman drinking water in the other world. I thought of her all the time when I was preparing my first work for an exhibition. I intentionally made it in black and white. Grisha liked my work, he even gave me a nickname: Brook. And I decided it was because of my surname, but he said the surname wasn’t the main thing. He simply liked the woman painted in the Egyptian tradition: according to their canon, the body and the face were painted in profile, while the eyes looked ahead… As if they were living a life separate from the body. Grisha said that I had found a precise image.”

Have you read ‘The Time of Women‘? What do you think about it?

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I wanted to read some contemporary Russian literature and so picked up Dmitry Novikov’sA Flame Out at Sea‘.

The story told in the book navigates multiple time periods, the early 1910s, the 1930s, the 1970s, the early 2000s. There is also a plot arc which spans the 16th century. The main story is about Grisha who makes trips to the Russian North to connect with his roots, and his grandfather, who inspired him deeply, and their beautiful relationship. Through their stories, the story also describes how the Russian North has transformed across the years, especially through the 20th century, from the pre-Revolution days to the communist era to the contemporary time. The part of the story which happens in the 1930s is heartbreaking. The story is sometimes told through the first person and sometimes through the third person.

The book is a beautiful love letter to the Russian North, to the White Sea, to the salmon, to the Pomor way of life. Dmitry Novikov’s prose is gentle and soft and contemplative and his descriptions are beautiful and haunting and are such a pleasure to read. I couldn’t stop highlighting my favourite passages from the book – there were so many of them.

I loved ‘A Flame Out at Sea‘. It is worth reading just for the beautiful, haunting descriptions of the Russian North.

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

“Ask anyone whether he knows what happiness is. It’s not a quiet pier, when there’s no wind and that is already bliss. Rather, it’s a sharp instant that comes like a bite, when your whole body is suddenly pierced by what feels like pain, but it’s not pain, its joy. And your soul feels a bit lighter, as if the Mother of God up above was smiling, and you caught a glimpse of this smile and realized that it was meant for you and no one else. That tearful moment might be a kiss from your child. Or the sudden vastness of the sea, when you come from behind a rocky cape into the open sea. Or a young, inexperienced, wise night. But for me, happiness will forever be the first salmon that I ever saw, when it leaped out into the sunlight from the dark water, and froze for an instant in the rainbow of spray that flew up into the sky with it. It was nearly the first time that my mother had ever let me walk down to the river alone. I was crawling among the bushes and looking for different bugs and spiders to study them. Then I suddenly heard a splash so loud that it scared me. I looked out from the little promontory and there it was flying up. The day was dim, overcast, but there a heavenly light which shone right down on the fish from the clouds. Ever since then, whenever someone says that God does not exist, for me there is no question : I saw it, I know.”

“For me, there is nothing better in life than to go along the White Sea coast in a canoe when the weather is fine. The beauty of this border region is capable of driving you mad if you are weak in spirit. That is why the road leading here is so difficult; so that a person can grow stronger before they reach here. But once you are on the water, you move along without fearing anything. Just look carefully at the sky, the wind, the clouds, it makes your soul open wide. You admire, drink in and absorb the grace of this place – it will later serve you as a reserve to draw on after countless years of a gray existence. The coasts here are rocky, red granite – that is if you are going towards the North, towards Chupa and Keret. But if you are going south, there are fewer bare stones, the coast is even lower, and only rarely, among the swamps, will a smooth opening or a steep promontory stick out. In both places two colors dominate the coasts: red and green. They are not bright colors but saturated, thick, somewhat muted yet strong, speaking directly to one’s soul and lending a sense of calm to the eyes. The sea, if it is blocked by islands, is like a wide, slow-moving and static river that flows off towards an endless distance from which nothing returns. If the islands are far away, they seem to hang in the air, merging with the clouds and confirming their beauty with their lightness. It seems like it would be enough to blow and they would be swept away like a merry procession. But if it is open sea, then this is a feast for the soul. I do not know, I cannot understand why that open, blue, flat expanse awakens all the best emotions in a person. You feel the joy of freedom and pity for those who cannot share that joy with you, as well as a primitive sense of bravery, when you can trust only in God and your own courage.”

“When the juice was ready to drink, Grisha’s father would take from a paper bag a sweet roll that he had bought beforehand. The roll had powdered sugar sprinkled on it and was already wonderful in itself. But if Grisha washed it down with the salty tomato juice, it was delectable. At various times in his life, Grisha often looked back on these trips to the shop with his father, on the juice and the roll, and could never understand why he remembered this, what was so special about those things. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly it came to him: perhaps this was the main Russian sentiment: when things turn sweet, but they are followed immediately afterwards by salt. To ensure that you don’t enjoy things much, you don’t grow weak by allowing yourself too much, so that you keep sober. This sentiment, this constant readiness for the salt that follows on sweetness, is instilled in a person starting from childhood. Yet, at the same time, it is so much sharper, more delicious than the two tastes alone, for then they would lose much more than simply being divided in half. Salt and sweetness together, at the same time, one right after the other, inseparable. Plus, the knowledge that it would always be that way – salt following on sweetness – makes you not just stronger and faster, not just twice as much, but far more. It enables you to stand ready, to survive. Salt in turn after sweetness. Salt for sweetness.”

Have you read ‘A Flame Out at Sea’? What do you think about it?

P.S. : I read the introduction to the book just now and the introduction had a revelation which was surprising! It was like watching ‘The Sixth Sense’ but not getting the ending! But when I sit back and think about it now, I don’t agree with that revelation, though if that interpretation is true, it makes the story more surprising and shocking. My interpretation of that is different, is more nicer, is more filled with light. I can’t tell you more. If you read the book, I’d love to discuss this with you.

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One of my favourite ways of discovering a new book is through a footnote in another book. I discovered Ales Adamovich’sKhatyn‘ that way – through a footnote in Svetlana Alexievich’sThe Unwomanly Face of War‘.

During the Second World War, around 600 villages in Belarus were burnt down by the German army, alongwith their inhabitants. Only a few people survived. This book takes this fact and makes a story out of it.

Many years after the Second World War, a group of former partisans are meeting for a reunion. They are travelling through some of the old places where they lived and fought and had fun and lost some of their mates. One of them, our narrator, is a blind man, and has come on this trip with his wife and son. The narrator describes the present time, when his former partisan friends relive the past and talk about the fun they had, and he goes back in time and narrates the events of the past, when he joined the partisans as a young man and subsequently describes the terrible events that happened.

The book marries the historical events that happened alongwith the author’s own experience as a partisan during the war which results in this moving, haunting story. There are some charming scenes at the beginning, some friendship, some camaraderie, some romance, some humour. But most of the rest of the book is stark, grim, haunting and heartbreaking. I cried through most of it. It is hard to believe that all these events happened. The burning image on the cover is a heartbreaking representation of the tragic events described in the book.

I’m sharing some of my favourite passages from the book below.

“It was considered obligatory to fight in a cheerful manner. It was only the beginners who described the fighting seriously and in detail; Kasach’s experienced men talked of it as amusing, almost ridiculous adventures. Someone would come tearing along, having barely hooked it from the Germans, his eyes each as big as an apple, but he was already thinking up a story, trying to find something funny in what had happened just as if he had been playing some kind of cruel, but cheerful game with the Germans. If it had not turned out all right and the Germans had made our tails hot, that was made out to be funny too. And only when the dead were brought back, it was best not to go near if for some reason you had not been involved in the fight, for they would bite your head off as if you had been a stranger. In the evening they would sing songs softly and listen pensively as a prewar baritone assured Masha that “our life is splendid on sunny days”.

“If a person has found a place, a spot in your heart for ever, it is not that he just has filled a kind of vacancy that anyone might have occupied instead. He does not take up that gleaming spot of light, but he creates it, and without him it would not exist within you.”

“When you look back on what you have lived through, you only see a single line of events, but when you look ahead into the future there is a cluster of paths splaying out, and you still do not know yet which is the only one of them for you. You live through a month, a day, a minute, and what was a cluster is squeezed up together again, becomes bare like a little branch that has been pulled through a lightly clenched fist. But even after you are left with a single twig stripped of leaves, you will look back again and again, senselessly hoping to return to the moment when everything could still have turned out differently, the moment when that one bare, merciless truth had not yet emerged….”

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

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