Archive for December, 2022

Every year, a month before Christmas, the book buying fever catches me, and it rages for a while, while I empty my bank account. Then it leaves as suddenly as it had arrived. This year was no different. When the book buying storm died, these were some of the books which smiled at me 😊

1. Siberian Haiku by Jurga Vilė and Lina Itagaki – Discovered this book through a review. The story is set in Lithuania. I’ve never read a Lithuanian book before. It looks like a cross between a regular book and a graphic novel. So excited to get to it.

2. James Joyce’s Ulysses by Nicolas Mahler – Discovered this through Melissa (from ‘The Book Binder’s Daughter) and Joseph’s (from ‘roughghosts’) review. It is a new graphic novel adaptation of James Joyce’s classic. This adaptation was originally written in German. Looks very fascinating.

3. Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo – Discovered this book through one of my friend’s recommendations. I got it a while back, but decided to include it in this Christmas collection. The cover is beautiful and the book looks fascinating. Always love discovering new Caribbean literature.

4. Dark Avenues by Ivan Bunin – Discovered this through one of my friend’s recommendation. Ivan Bunin was the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize. But his books were always hard to find. So when I found that this collection of his short stories was still in print, I was excited to get it. Looking forward to reading it.

5. Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women by Jenny Hartley – Discovered this book through Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens. It was hard to find and it was expensive. It is published by Methuen. I didn’t know that Methuen was still around – I thought they must have been bought over and absorbed by one of the big publishing behemoths. Nice to see that they are alive and kicking. So excited to read this book.

6. D.H.Lawrence by Catherine Carswell – After reading D.H.Lawrence’s novellas recently, I thought I should read his biography. This one is written by one of his friends and she herself is a fascinating character. Can’t wait to read this one.

7. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – Watched the 1949 film adaptation of this book a few years back. Have wanted to read the book since then. Emma (from ‘Book Around the Corner’) gushed about the book recently, and so decided to get it. Read the first page and it is fascinating.

8. Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell – I’ve never seen one great novelist write the biography of another great novelist who is her contemporary. Never. So I was very excited when I discovered that Elizabeth Gaskell has written a biography of Charlotte Brontë! Why isn’t this more famous? Why didn’t I know about this before? Very excited to read this!

I got more books. They were all mostly classics. I also got many Kindle books – too many to include here. I’ll mention just one. At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid. It is the first book featured in #WeReadJamaicaKincaid which is a year long event celebrating Kincaid’s work, starting in January 2023. So excited to read this!

Have you read any of these books? What do you think about them? What books did you buy during this holiday season?

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I discovered ‘Out of Time : The Collected Stories of Samira Azzam‘ recently. I was very excited because this is the first time Samira Azzam’s stories are getting translated into English. This collection is published by Arablit Books.

Samira Azzam was born in 1927 in Palestine. When the Naqba happened in 1948 and Palestinians were thrown out of their homes and many of them became refugees abroad, she was 21. She worked as a journalist and wrote short stories. She died in 1967, just shy of her fortieth birthday, very young and many more years of life still ahead. It was heartbreaking. It was also the year when the next wave of violence was unleashed on Palestinians and many of them lost their homes.

This collection has 31 stories. Many of the stories are about simple people who are struggling to get through the day, and the joys and sorrows they experience, and how their social and economic situation tries to crush them and how sometimes they resist it with defiance. One of my favourite stories ‘No Harm Intended‘ is about a man who comes to a sweetshop everyday and tries samples but doesn’t buy anything. He can’t afford to buy anything and he knows it and the people working in the shop know it. How things unravel after that is told in the story. Another of my favourite stories ‘Lest the arteries harden‘ is about a old woman who visits the bar everyday at a particular time and the story behind that. ‘The Little Things‘ is about a young woman who doesn’t believe in love but suddenly find herself falling in love. ‘From Afar‘ is about a young man who has been cut off by his dad and who is struggling to pay his college fees, when his friend who has an unconventional job helps him out. It is one of the most beautiful stories in the book. ‘Her Story‘ is a moving letter that a sister writes to her brother. ‘The Ironing Man’s Apprentice‘ is about a boy who works with an ironing man and the small dreams he has. ‘The Bicycle Pump‘ is one of the most moving stories in the book. One of the main characters says in the end – “But isn’t it miserable that I can’t promise you I’ll stop this terrible behavior, unless I choose a life of hunger for myself and for my family?” We feel a deep pain in our heart when we read that. ‘When Wives Fall Ill‘ is structured like a play. ‘Night of Riddance‘ is about an old dog. It is a heartbreaking story and there is more to the story than meets the eye. ‘The Rival’ is about a washerwoman who has to compete against technology which makes her job obsolete. ‘Another Year‘, ‘Zagharid‘, ‘When Hajj Mohammed Sold Out His Hajj‘ are all about people who suffer because they’ve lost their homes or they’ve lost their families who are either dead or on the other side of the border where they can never go. ‘Zagharid‘ is about a mom’s sorrow at not being able to go to her son’s wedding, because she lives in Palestine and he lives outside and she’ll never be able to see him again. It is a story which makes us cry.

I loved ‘Out of Time‘. Many of the stories in the collection are poignant and heartbreaking. Some of them have happy endings. Some of them are fun reads. Ranya Abdelrahman’s translation is beautiful. The book has a beautiful essay by Adania Shibli in which she contemplates on the beauty and power of Samira Azzam’s stories.

The book also has a beautiful introduction which quotes what Samira Azzam said about the Arabic short story. It goes like this –

“It seems to me that the Arabic short story is going through difficult times. The reason might not lie in its nature, as much as it does in factors outside of it, including its subjugation to the novel. Writers of the short story have become convinced that writing a novel is the measure of their creativity, especially since short story collections are not heralded by critics the same way novels are : The publication of a story collection goes by without anyone even trying to say a single word about it… And publishing houses hesitate to accept story collections, as if publishing them is a risky venture.”

It is very fascinating, because this is very true today as it was then, and it is true, not just for Arabic short stories, but for short stories in any language. Writers use short stories as a stepping stone before they can publish their novel, publishers regard short stories as an inferior art form when compared to novels, novelists are rewarded with money and fame if they become successful, while short story writers struggle. Alice Munro said after she won the Nobel Prize that the short story is a beautiful art form and it is beautiful for its own sake, but no one is listening and nothing has changed. It is sad.

I felt sad after reading the book, because this is the only Samira Azzam book out there, this is all there is, and there’ll never be another new story by her. But I’m also glad I read it.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It is from one of my favourite stories, ‘When Hajj Mohammed Sold Out His Hajj‘.

“People had become addicted to grief, and death seemed a logical, acceptable, and happy ending for everyone, no matter their age. The dead died once, and their deaths were certain and final; they knew why they had died, and they didn’t have to live wondering what they were living for, with their voices smothered by roaring tractors that sliced open the stolen land behind the barbed wire fence. The grief of the living was drenched in sunlight, and they had to grieve with their eyes wide open.”

Have you read Samira Azzam’sOut of Time‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered James Welch through a friend’s recommendation so decided to read his book, ‘Winter in the Blood‘.

Winter in the Blood‘ describes the life of a Native American man in a reservation, his work, his family, his joys and his sorrows, his kindness and cruelty, his family, his community and their history. It sometimes goes back and we discover his family secrets from the past, a past filled with some tragic events, and with a surprising revelation in the end. There is a beautiful horse character called Bird too. One of my favourite parts in the story is when the narrator’s grandmother tells the story of her past when she lived in a totally different era, when Native Americans lived in the traditional way like their ancestors lived across the centuries. Another of my favourite parts of the book is when the narrator goes to meet an old man and they have a fascinating conversation. I loved the parts in which the horse called Bird makes an appearance too.

This book has a beautiful introduction by Louise Erdrich. In her introduction Louise Erdrich says this –

“What astounded me after a while was that something so familiar could be made into literature. Welch had done something nobody else had – written about Indians without once getting pious, uplifting, or making you feel sorry for The Plight. That is why, finally, I love this book so much. Welch took all the chances in the world with it. He told it right out.”

I loved that.

James Welch was one of the first Native American novelists, I think. ‘Winter in the Blood’ is his first novel. I enjoyed reading it. I am ashamed to say that I’ve never read a Native American writer before. And so I’m glad I’ve finally got started now by reading this classic. Hoping to read more.

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

Young Man : “You’re a good housekeeper, old man.”

Old Man : “I have many years’ practice. It’s easier to keep it sparse than to feel the sorrows of possessions.”

Young Man : “Possessions can be sorrowful.”

Old Man : “Only when they are not needed.”

Young Man : “Or when they are needed – when they are needed and a man doesn’t have them.”

“I don’t know how they figure it, old horse, but one year to me is worth four or five to you. That makes you over a hundred years, older than that old lady, and you’re not only living, but carrying out your duties just like they trained you…Now, old machine, I absolve you of your burden. You think I haven’t noticed it. You don’t show it. But that is the fault of your face: Your face was molded when you were born and hasn’t changed in a hundred years. Your ears seem smaller now, but that is because your face has grown. You figure you have hidden this burden well. You have. But don’t think I haven’t seen it in your eyes those days when the clouds hide the sun and the cattle turn their asses to the wind. Those days your eyes tell me what you feel. It is the fault of the men who trained you to be a machine, to react to the pressure of a rein on your neck, spurs in your ribs, the sound of a voice. A cow horse. You weren’t born that way; you were born to eat grass and drink slough water, to nip other horses in the flanks the way you do lagging bulls, to mount the mares. So they cut your balls off to make you less temperamental, though I think they failed at that…”

“You must understand how people think in desperate times. When their bellies are full, they can afford to be happy and generous with each other – the meat is shared, the women work and gossip, men gamble – it’s a good time and you do not see things clearly. There is no need. But when the pot is empty and your guts are tight in your belly, you begin to look around. The hunger sharpens your eye.”

Have you read ‘Winter in the Blood‘ or other books by James Welch?

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I unearthed this gem recently when I discovered a box filled with books at home. There used to be a beautiful event called ‘Dickens In December‘ hosted by Delia (from ‘Postcards from Asia’) and Caroline (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) and  I loved participating in that. I thought I’ll do my bit to revive that and so picked this biography and read it.

Charles Dickens : A Life‘ is a 400-page biography of Charles Dickens. It describes how Dickens was born in a poor family, how he had to even work in a boot polish factory when he was a kid, how he rose up from those depths, became a journalist, and then became a novelist, and then a literary legend. By the time he was done, he was one of the greatest writers of the 19th century (Tolstoy called him ‘THE’ greatest writer of the 19th century – warm praise from one master to another), an amazing achievement by someone who didn’t even finish school.

Dickens was a complex person. On one side he was generous to people, particularly his friends and relatives, (and sometimes even strangers, especially poor women who were suffering because they were harassed by the law – the book starts with this anecdote which was very beautiful and inspiring), and helped them and their families when they were in financial trouble. His dad used to frequently get into debt and Dickens repeatedly bailed him out. This pattern got repeated when his brothers got into debt, and later his sons got into debt. He helped them all. If a friend died, he raised money for the friend’s wife and kids, and ensured that they lived a respectable life and didn’t slip into poverty. He loved inviting friends over, he cracked jokes and entertained them and made them laugh and sometimes even staged amateur plays for them. He enjoyed taking long walks with some of his friends and he continued this till the end of his life. He championed social causes and wrote about the plight of the poor in the paper and the magazines that he worked for or which he managed himself.

In my opinion though, the greatest thing he did was that he got the help of a rich sponsor and started a home for women who were sex workers, who wanted to leave their profession and live a normal life. This home offered them training in some skills, quiet time to recover, then advice and help in finding new jobs or migrating abroad. Many of the women who came to this home, went on to live happy, fulfilling lives. Dickens didn’t talk about this, and kept quiet about it. There is a whole book about this called ‘Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women‘ by Jenny Hartley. I want to read that sometime.

But there was also another side to Dickens. Dickens was also a controversial person in some ways. He fought with his publishers who had backed him, threatened to break contracts with them, if they didn’t offer more money, and negotiated his way to a more remunerative contract. He broke up with his friends if they didn’t side with him sometimes. But the biggest thing was what happened when he was around 45. He met a young woman, fell in love with her, and then broke up with his wife, trashed his wife in public, writing bad things about her in the paper. When some of his friends and relatives disagreed with him, he broke up with them. He behaved like an irresponsible prima donna. It affected his physical and mental health and he suffered many ailments, he suddenly aged too fast, and by the time he was 58 he was dead. During that stormy decade, he also wrote ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and one of his finest novels, ‘Great Expectations‘.

It is sad that when Dickens dumped his wife, most of his kids sided with him. The way it typically happens in families when kids side with the stronger parent who has more money and resources, when the gentler parent might be the one who was wronged. Even his wife’s sister Georgina, sided with him. Only his son Charley, in an act of defiance, sided with his mom and went to live with her. Dickens’ wife Catherine comes through as a saint, as she kept a dignified silence, while Dickens raged against her like a madman, in public, in the press, and in his correspondence with his friends. Catherine kept her dignified silence till the end. One of Dickens’ daughters, Katey, finally broke the silence many years after both her parents had passed, and said that she was ashamed that she didn’t support her mom enough and she wanted to do justice to her mom. Her revelations were published as a book called ‘Dickens and Daughter’ which created controversy when it came out and it was trashed by Dickens’ fans.

This book talks about all of this, the good and the bad. Claire Tomalin has done a wonderful job in presenting both the sides and showing us the complexity of Dickens’ personality.

This book is also a great introduction to Dickens’ work. The parts which focus on them are beautiful to read. In my opinion, Dickens’ finest novels, the must-reads, are The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Bleak House. If I can add one more, it might be A Tale of Two Cities, but I feel that this is probably a notch below the other five. I feel that Tomalin’s book confirmed what I thought, though it also raves about Dickens’ other work. I’m intrigued especially by The Old Curiosity Shop. I want to add that to my list and see how it is.

One of my favourite parts of the book was Dickens’ meetings with other great writers of that era, especially those from other countries, like Hans Christian Andersen and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s account of their meeting is fascinating. It goes like this –

“In 1862 the Russian novelist Dostoevsky, an admirer of Dickens’s work – he had read Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield in prison – visited him at Wellington Street. Years later he wrote in a letter to a friend a remarkable account of what Dickens said in the course of their conversation about writing. Dostoevsky introduced Dickens’s words with his own :

“The person he (the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day, is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it’s the author’s own actions which make him understand, or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine…in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me : one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.”

This is an amazing report, and if Dostoevsky remembered correctly it must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour. It is as though with Dostoevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public. It also suggests that he was aware of drawing his evil characters from that he disapproved of and yet could not control.”

One of the sad things I discovered at the end of the book was that many of Dickens’ children didn’t do well. One of his sons was a successful lawyer and he lived a distinguished life, but nearly every other son of his got into debt and died penniless. His daughters seemed to have fared better. It will be interesting to find out whether any of his descendants are alive today.

This book I read is also a beautifully produced edition and it has photographs and portraits of people and sketches of places and buildings which bring that era alive.

I loved Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens. It is beautifully researched and beautifully written. She has written many other wonderful biographies, and I want to read some of them, especially the ones on Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, and Jane Austen.

Have you read this book or other biographies written by Claire Tomalin? Do you love Dickens’ novels? Which ones are your favourites?

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I’ve wanted to read D.H.Lawrence for a long time. But before getting into one of his novels, I thought I’ll dip into his shorter works. I have a huge book which has all his short novels, or rather novellas. So I read that in the last few days.

There are seven novellas in the collection. They range from 30 pages to around 110 pages, while many of them are around 50 pages long. Many of them have suggestive titles, like ‘The Captain’s Doll‘, ‘The Fox‘, ‘The Virgin and the Gipsy‘, ‘The Escaped Cock‘. But when we read them we can almost hear Lawrence laughing at us and saying, “What did you think? I’m a nice person. I write nice stories with nice characters. What, you thought that all these stories are going to be wild?” 😆 For example, ‘The Captain’s Doll‘ is about a doll that a woman makes, which looks like her lover, the captain. ‘The Fox‘ is about an actual fox while visits the farm in the night to catch some chickens. ‘The Escaped Cock‘ is about the bird which escapes from the farm.

The surprises don’t end there. I was expecting the prose to be old-fashioned and hard to read – after all Lawrence wrote his stories nearly a hundred years back. But the prose look very modern, the themes are very contemporary, it feels like the stories have been written today. Most of the stories are about love and desire. Sometimes the ending of a story is frustrating, at other times it is surprising. There is atleast one incredibly beautiful passage in every story. Typically there are more. In most stories, the main character is a strong woman who typically defies convention and breaks the rules. I liked all the stories in the book, some more than others. ‘The Ladybird‘, ‘St Mawr‘, and ‘The Virgin and the Gipsy‘ had the best endings. ‘The Escaped Cock‘ is very surprising in the way it uses the story of the escaped bird as a metaphor, to describe Lawrence’s own version of the Resurrection legend. The first part of that story is brilliant and is one of the finest pieces of writing in the book. ‘The Ladybird‘ has one of my favourite passages from the book. I read the first one-third of ‘St Mawr‘, plodded through it really, and nearly gave up. Then I started speed-reading it, and at some point, was browsing through pages to find out what was happening. It was the longest story in the book at around 110 pages, and though it started well, it was hard to read. But Lawrence shifts gears in the second half of the book and it becomes wonderful and the ending is brilliant. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the second half, I was not in the mood to read it, and so zipped through it. But I’m glad I discovered that the story improved and became much better. I’m hoping to give some space for a few days and then read the second part of the story slowly and savour it.

I loved reading Lawrence’s novellas. I was surprised by my reaction, because I wasn’t expecting to like them so much. But it is safe to say now that Lawrence has hit it out of the park.

Lawrence started his career as a schoolteacher and started writing full-time when he was twenty-eight. He died when he was forty-five. In that short life, he shone brilliantly like a star, defied the censors and the literary establishment and the moral police of his era, and sculpted beautiful stories like these. His reputation today rests on his most famous and controversial novel, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover‘. But he was not a one-trick pony. As can be seen from these fascinating novellas.

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

From ‘The Captain’s Doll

She : “But do you never count, then?”

He : “Well – very rarely. I count very rarely. That’s how life appears to me. One matters so very little.”

She : “But if you matter so very little, what do you do anything at all for?”

He : “Oh, one has to. And then, why not? Why not do things, even if oneself hardly matters. Look at the moon. It doesn’t matter in the least to the moon whether I exist or whether I don’t. So why should it matter to me?”

She : “I could die with laughter. It seems to me all so ridiculous – no, I can’t believe it.”

He : “Perhaps it is a point of view.”

From ‘The Fox

“It’s no good walking out into the forest and saying to the deer: “Please fall to my gun.” No, it is a slow, subtle battle. When you really go out to get a deer, you gather yourself together, you coil yourself inside yourself, and you advance  secretly, before dawn, into the mountains. It is not so much what you do, when you go out hunting, as how you feel. You have to be subtle and cunning and absolutely fatally ready. It becomes like a fate. Your own fate overtakes and determines the fate of the deer you are hunting. First of all, even before you come in sight of your quarry, there is a strange battle, like mesmerism. Your own soul, as a hunter, has gone out to fasten on the soul of the deer, even before you see any deer. And the soul of the deer fights to escape. Even before the deer has any wind of you, it is so. It is a subtle, profound battle of wills which takes place in the invisible. And it is a battle never finished till your bullet goes home. When you are really worked up to the true pitch, and you come at last into range, you don’t then aim as you do when you are firing at a bottle. It is your own will which carries the bullet into the heart of your quarry. The bullet’s flight home is a sheer projection of your own fate into the fate of the deer. It happens like a supreme wish, a supreme act of volition, not as a dodge of cleverness.”

From ‘The Ladybird

“Take actual fire…This is what I was taught. The true fire is invisible. Flame, and the red fire we see burning, has its back to us. It is running away from us…the yellowness of sunshine – light itself – that is only the glancing aside of the real original fire. You know that is true. There would be no light if there was no refraction, no bits of dust and stuff to turn the dark fire into visibility. You know that’s a fact. And that being so, even the sun is dark. It is only his jacket of dust that makes him visible. You know that too. And the true sunbeams coming towards us flow darkly, a moving darkness of the genuine fire. The sun is dark, the sunshine flowing to us is dark. And light is only the inside-out of it all, the living, and the yellow beams are only the turning away of the sun’s directness that was coming to us…we’ve got the world inside out. The true living world of fire is dark throbbing, darker than blood. Our luminous world that we go by is only the white lining of this.”

From ‘The Escaped Cock

“The man who had died looked nakedly on life, and saw a vast resoluteness everywhere flinging itself up in stormy or subtle wave-crests, foam-tips emerging out of the blue invisible, a black and orange cock, or the green flame-tongues out of the extremes of the fig tree. They came forth, these things and creatures of spring, glowing with desire and with assertion. They came like crests of foam, out of the blue flood of the invisible desire, out of the vast invisible sea of strength, and they came coloured and tangible, evanescent, yet deathless in their coming. The man who had died looked on the great swing into existence of things that had not died, but he saw no longer their tremulous desire to exist and to be. He heard instead their ringing, ringing, defiant challenge to all other things existing.”

Have you read Lawrence’s novellas? Which ones are your favourites?

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