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I have always been a huge fan of American poetry. The reason for that – the long scenic route version – is this. American prose writers have always strived to be accessible to the general reader. What this meant was this – American writers have always tried using language that could be understood by a normal person, avoiding complex words, long sentences and long philosophical ruminations. Instead they have focussed on short sentences, everyday words, plot, character building, great dialogue. This is how American fiction writers worked for decades. There were exceptions, of course, and these days things seem to be changing, but to make things intelligible for the largest number of readers was always the goal. American poets had very similar aims – to bring poetry to the largest group of readers. So, American poets wrote on themes that readers could identify with, and used everyday vocabulary to compose their poems. No complex words, no references to Greek or Roman mythology or some ancient civilizations, no vague sentences where we can understand the meaning of individual words, but we can’t understand the meaning of the sentence. But poems, by nature, demand the presence of beauty – beauty in thought, beauty in ideas, beauty in feelings, beauty in words. Because of this, American poets composed poems on accessible themes, using everyday words and sentences, which were also poetic and beautiful. For example, read this poem called ‘Separation‘ by W.S.Merwin.

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Simple words, simple language, identifiable theme, but incredibly beautiful, isn’t it? American poets did this again and again – create beauty with everyday words and simple ideas – that I fell in love with them. So, when one of my favourite friends sent me the poetry collection ‘Ask Me‘ by William Stafford, I was very excited. I haven’t heard of William Stafford before and so I couldn’t wait to read his poems.

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This book has a selection of one hundred poems by William Stafford, selected by his son Kim Stafford. It doesn’t seem to be necessarily organized by theme, but I found that sometimes poems which are next to each other are on a similar theme like war (or anti-war rather), nature etc. There is an introduction at the beginning of the book by Kim Stafford which is very beautiful.

On the poems in the book, there is nothing much to say, other than the fact that I loved them. I loved every one of them and I loved the whole book. Of course, I loved some poems more than others. William Stafford is now my newest favourite poet and I am so happy about that. With respect to poetry, I am a firm believer in the old adage, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating it’. So, instead of writing about what I think about Stafford’s poems, I will share some of my favourites here. You can read them yourself and make up your mind on whether you like them or not.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

The Little Ways That Encourage Good Fortune

Wisdom is having things right in your life
and knowing why.
If you do not have things right in your life
you will be overwhelmed :
you may be heroic, but you will not be wise.
If you have things right in your life
but do not know why,
you are just lucky, and you will not move
in the little ways that encourage good fortune.

The saddest are those not right in their lives
who are acting to make things right for others:
they act only from the self —
and that self will never be right:
no luck, no help, no wisdom.

Passing Remark

In scenery I like flat country.
In life I don’t like much to happen.

In personalities I like mild colorless people.
And in colors I prefer gray and brown.

My wife, a vivid girl from the mountains,
says, “Then why did you choose me?”

Mildly I lower my brown eyes —
there are so many things admirable people do not understand.

Any Morning

Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.

People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.

Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won’t even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.

Later in the day you can act like the others.
You can shake your head. You can frown.

I loved William Stafford’sAsk Me‘. It is one of my favourite poetry collections ever. I can’t wait to read more poems by him.

Have you read William Stafford’sAsk Me‘ or other poems by him? What do you think of his poems? Did you like the above poems?

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One of my friends recommended ‘Amla Mater‘ by Devi Menon, and today, I finally got a chance to read it. ‘Amla Mater‘ is a graphic novel. In the first page we encounter Mili, who tells us that small things take us back to the past, to a different time and place. Before we know, a small piece of amla takes Mili and us back to the past, when she was a young girl in Kerala and was best friends with Maya. We read about the charming life that these two live in Kerala as children. On the way, we also get to know that Mili is pregnant now and is going to become a mother soon. As her pregnancy proceeds, Mili remembers more and more things about her past and we get to know what happened to her friendship with Maya, how she moved to a bigger city to go to work, the people she encountered there, the new friends she made, the new experiences she had, how she fell in love and what happened after that. At some point the past and the present intertwine and the story glides into the future.

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I loved ‘Amla Mater‘. The story is charming and heartwarming, and the illustrations are done in a minimalistic style. Reading the book made me nostalgic, as it made me relive the similar kind of experiences I went through. I don’t know whether the book is based on the author’s own experiences, but it looked very real and memoir-ish, and it reminded me a lot of Marjane Satrapi’sPersepolis‘ and Lucy Knisley’sRelish‘. There was a surprise in the end which brought tears to my eyes – happy tears, of course. I also loved the way the book meditates on time and memory and the homage it pays to Marcel Proust and that famous madeleine scene.

If you like realistic graphic novels on contemporary themes, you can try this.

Have you read ‘Amla Mater‘ by Devi Menon? What do you think about it? Do you like graphic novels? Which are your favourites?

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Rinko works in a restaurant in a big city. One day she comes home to find that her apartment has been cleaned out by her boyfriend and he has left. She doesn’t have any option other than moving in with her mom, who lives in a village. All this makes Rinko temporarily lose her voice. Even though her relationship with her mother has always been difficult, Rinko’s mother lets her stay there. After a few days, Rinko decides to start her own restaurant in the village. This would be a special kind of restaurant in which she will serve only one table – either one person or a couple or a family. Rinko plans to talk to this person or family in advance and prepare and serve exquisite dishes which will give them pleasure and make them happy. Her friend Kuma helps her to setup the restaurant.

What happens after that? Is Rinko’s restaurant successful? Do the customers like her food? Does her relationship with her mother become better? Does she find love again? Does she find her voice again? The answer to these questions form the rest of the story.

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I loved ‘The Restaurant of Love Regained‘. It is a glorious celebration of food, a beautiful love letter to food. There are pages and pages of descriptions of how Rinko cooks a particular dish, in Ito Ogawa’s spare, elegant prose, and they are beautiful to read – we can almost smell the aroma of the wonderful food wafting from the kitchen. The story is nice too – it is about how a person who loses everything, tries to climb back from the depths and the surprises she encounters in the way. There is Kuma, her friend, who is very likeable, and there is Rinko’s mother Ruriko, who is a complex character and there is more to her than meets the eye. Then there is Hermes, Ruriko’s pet pig, who is very protective of her, and very adorable. I loved all these characters. The main character is, of course, Rinko, who narrates the story. Towards the end of the story something happens – it is a very Japanese, Chinese, East Asian thing. I won’t tell you what it is, because I don’t want to reveal spoilers. But I will say this – I didn’t see that coming and it was heartbreaking.

I saw a film years back called ‘Babette’s Feast‘. (In case you are interested my review is here.)  It is an incredibly beautiful celebration of food. ‘The Restaurant of Love Regained’ is its literary sister. If you like reading novels about food, you will like this. I read that this book has been made into a film too. I can’t wait to watch that.

Have you read Ito Ogawa’s book? What do you think about it?

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I loved Nandini Sen Gupta’s first book ‘The King Within‘ which came out last year. When I discovered that her second book ‘Beaten by a Beard and other stories‘ was coming out, I was so excited. I started reading it yesterday and finished reading it today.

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Beaten by a Beard and other stories‘ is a collection of eight short stories. All the eight short stories are historical short stories. The historical short story is the rarest of rare birds. I have read some books and stories in my time across a wide range of genres, but I haven’t read a historical short story yet. The closest I have come is when I read a book called ‘The Mammmoth Book of Roman Whodunits‘ which had fictional whodunits set during the Roman era. Writers who write historical fiction rarely write short stories. Almost never. They try to use the  historical facts, that they unearth in their research, in a full-length novel. But Nandini Sen Gupta breaks new ground here, and presents eight historical short stories in this collection. The most fascinating thing about these short stories is that they are not pure fiction, but are based on facts, on actual happenings. Many of the actual events behind these stories are less well known – atleast for me – and so they make the reader see the past with new eyes. Didn’t Marcel Proust say that “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes“? This book takes us on a journey into the distant past and makes us see it with new eyes. For example, the title story ‘Beaten by a Beard‘ is about a queen in a small kingdom in Ancient India. Her husband, the king, passes away, and her son is too young, and the queen ends up governing the kingdom. The interesting thing though is that she is of Greek origin – her name is Agathokleia – and her culture is different from that of her subjects. How she navigates this tricky terrain and fends off the attention of neighbouring kings while trying to govern her kingdom – this is told in the rest of the story. The author explains in the note after the story that there was an actual Queen Agathokleia during ancient times on whom this story is based. I knew that after Alexander left India, some of his generals and retinue stayed back. But I didn’t know that there was a Greek queen who ruled a kingdom. Very fascinating! ‘Dahir’s Daughters‘, the longest story in the book, is about the Arab conquest of Sind and how King Dahir and his daughters are caught in the middle of it. It is in some ways a beautiful and in other ways a sad story. ‘The Pillar‘ is a love story about a diplomat of Greek origin and a courtesan. ‘My Husband the Saint‘ is a story about a princess who marries a Buddhist scholar / saint and how her experience turns out to be. It is a beautiful, poignant story. ‘Parthal‘ is about a young woman who yearns for the independent, everyday middle class life, but who ends up attracting the attention of not one but two kings. ‘Tears of Mahmud‘ is about the last days of Mahmud of Ghazini and it poignantly depicts that death the leveller catches up with even the greatest of conquerors. ‘The Last Book‘ is about the burning of the Nalanda university and library by invaders and how one book, the last book, is saved by a surviving monk. ‘Begada the Venom Veined‘ is about the love of a Sultan for a woman in his harem. It is beautiful, poignant and heartbreaking. And yes, it is not a story from the Arabian Nights, it is based on an event that actually happened. One of the things that stood out to me was this – most of the stories in the book are also about women who wanted to live life on their terms during ancient times, the challenges they faced, and how they responded to those challenges.

I loved ‘Beaten by a Beard and other stories‘. I love the way the book takes a less known fact from ancient history and shines a light on it through the form of a story and takes the reader on a fascinating journey across time. I also love the notes at the end of each story in which the author describes the historical fact or event on which the story is based and points out the historical sources so that inquisitive readers can explore them further. I love the fact that the author has experimented and broken new ground and probably invented a new genre, the historical short story. I am so happy to have read my first collection of historical short stories. I can’t wait to find out what Nandini Sen Gupta comes up with next.

Have you read ‘Beaten by a Beard and other stories‘ by Nandini Sen Gupta? What do you think about it?

Note : From what I know, ‘Beaten by a Beard and other stories’ is available only in digital form. If you’d like to read it, you need to install the Readify App, which is available at the Google Playstore, on your smartphone and search for the book in it. You can buy and read the whole book or you can buy and read individual stories. Happy reading!

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Gae Polisner’sIn Sight of Stars‘ was one of my most awaited books this year. I loved all her three earlier books and so I couldn’t wait to read her new one.

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In the first scene of the story we find Klee Alden, our narrator, opening a door and entering somewhere and he sees something inside which shocks him and something inside him snaps and he takes a knife out of his pocket and before anyone around him could do anything, he tries to cut himself in his neck. Sometime later we find him in a hospital and he hears voices while his eyes are closed. Later, when his physical health is better, he meets the therapist, Dr Alvarez. As Klee and Dr Alvarez talk about his past and what led to his present, Klee also narrates his story in the first person in the gaps between two therapy sessions, and we get to know more about his life, his dad who was a lawyer but who was a painter at heart, his mom who is always dressed elegantly and who seems to be always detached emotionally from family happenings, his friends Kleto and Dan, his new friend and later girlfriend Sarah – we learn about all these people and the part they play in Klee’s life. We also learn about the people he meets at therapeutic centre – Martin, Sabrina and Gene – people who are there for therapy like him and with whom he becomes friends. Atleast sort of. We also learn about Sister Agnes Teresa who frequently visits Klee in the evening, plays board games with him and keeps him engaged and provides him opportunities to learn and grow as a person. We also learn about Nurse Carole, who takes care of Klee. We also learn about Klee’s love for the paintings of Van Gogh, a love which has been passed on to Klee by his dad. As we wonder what happened in Klee’s life that led to his present situation, the different story strands weave together into one fabric and the surprises are revealed. When the revelations arrive, they are stunning – I didn’t see them coming.

The first thing I loved about ‘In Sight of Stars‘ was the cover. It is stunning, isn’t it? A great ode to Vincent Van Gogh. I also loved the story – the shocking start, the journey back and forth across time as the different happenings in Klee’s life are revealed, the stunning surprise which leaps at us towards the end and how all the story strands come together perfectly in the end. Halfway through the novel, I despaired for Klee – it looked clearly that he has suffered a lot, but we don’t know the details, and I wanted things to become better for him so that he could live a normal boring life, like everyone else. Does he get to do that? I so want to answer that question but I won’t – that is not for me to reveal but for you to read and find out. I loved most of the characters in the story – some of them were beautiful and perfect while others were beautiful and complex and flawed. I loved both types. My favourites were Dr Alvarez and Sister Agnes Teresa and also Klee’s mom, but when I think about it again, I really loved them all – they were beautifully sculpted. Gae Polisner’s prose flows beautifully and every sentence and paragraph and page moves the story, builds a character or sets up a scene. There is no word wasted. The book is also a love letter to Vincent Van Gogh and his paintings. If you love Vincent Van Gogh, this book is definitely for you.

It is hard for me to not compare ‘In Sight of Stars‘ with Gae Polisner’s other books. I love them all because of the way they take a contemporary issue involving teenagers, family, community and society and explore it in depth in the form of fiction. ‘The Pull of Gravity‘ will always have a special place in my heart because it was Polisner’s first book but I also loved ‘The Summer of Letting Go‘ and ‘The Memory of Things‘. In this book, ‘In Sight of Stars‘, I felt that the style and the story and the characters were more intense, more grown up.  I felt that the author was getting into new terrain here. I loved that. I think, though it is hard to compare, that it is one of Gae Polisner’s finest works.

In Sight of Stars‘ is about love, family, loss, grief and about the beauty and therapeutic power of art. It is early days yet, but I think it is one of my favourite books of the year.

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

      “My body plummets, strong like a bullet, and then I hit the water, hard, stinging, losing my grip on Sarah’s hand. I plunge deeper, and deeper, and deeper.
      Everything erases from my brain. The pressure is intense on my ears.
      No sound.
      No thoughts.
      No nothing.
      Then, pushback. And lightness. From dark green to pale green to blue, a brilliant and stunning restoration of light as I ascend. I surface, above the water, bobbing like a cork. The sun hits my face and my breath relaxes, and my ears fill with the sound of Sarah laughing.”

      “Was there magic?”
      She laughs. “Well, maybe ‘magic’ is too strong a word. Funny, though,” she says, “how we only recognize huge, seismic breakthroughs when, really, all progress is good progress no matter how small. Sometimes we need to be willing to measure it in millimeters, not feet.”

“So, as long as we’re already here at rock bottom,” Dr. Alvarez says softly, “digging at the painful stuff, let’s just do it, shall we? Let’s deal with the big purple elephant in the room. Let’s go the rest of the way. That’s what I’m paid for, right? I might as well earn my keep.”

“We can only make ourselves happy. We can’t save others. We can love others. But we can only save ourselves.”

Have you read Gae Polisner’sIn Sight of Stars‘? What do you think about it?

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I read Sara Naveed’s second book ‘Our Story Ends Here‘ last year and liked it very much. A few months back Sara Naveed’s first book ‘Undying Affinity‘ was reissued again in a second edition. I was finally able to read it this week.

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Zarish is twenty two years old. She is doing her masters at the university. She is good at her studies. She also loves hanging out with her friends. Haroon is her best friend. Zarish loves him like a friend, platonically. Haroon secretly loves her, romantically. One day Zarish is spending time with her friends at the mall when she accidentally bumps into a tall, handsome stranger. Food spills on her clothes. Heated words are exchanged. Zarish takes her revenge later. But the next day she notices that the tall, handsome stranger walks into the university. She is stunned and doesn’t know who he is and doesn’t know what to do. Who is he? Is he a fellow student? Is he going to be in Zarish’s class? Or, more interestingly, is he a teacher? Is he going to be teaching Zarish’s class? As lovers of romance, isn’t that what we want? What is going to happen when Zarish and this handsome stranger bump into each other again? Are they going to hate each other? Are they going to be attracted towards each other? Are the sparks going to fly? The answers to these questions form the rest of the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘Undying Affinity‘. The story is fast-paced and makes one want to turn the page to find out what happens next. Sara Naveed’s prose is spare and moves along the plot nicely – every word and sentence moves the plot forward or builds a character or sets up a scene. There are no redundant sentences and long-winding descriptions. The initial pages move at a fast pace, while setting up the story and the characters, and then the book moves slowly when the love story starts flowering, and then three-fourths into the book, the story gains pace again as surprises are revealed, twists happen in the tale, and the story hurtles into its climax. I loved the way the story changes pace across the book, depending on the story arc and the mood, like a beautiful complex piece of classical music. I also loved the way all the intricate story strands are woven together in the end into a beautiful, satisfying ending.

It is hard to resist comparing ‘Undying Affinity’ with Sara Naveed’s second book, ‘Our Story Ends Here‘. I don’t know which one I like more – both are love stories and both are very different. There are beautiful descriptions of the Swat valley in ‘Our Story Ends Here‘, but outside of that, both stories are nice, beautiful reads.

If you like romance novels and love stories, do try this one. And also ‘Our Story Ends Here‘. I can’t wait to find out what Sara Naveed is going to come up with next.

Have you read Sara Naveed’s ‘Undying Affinity‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Nicole Krauss’The History of Love‘ around ten years back. I was discussing favourite books with one of my friends at that time and she said Krauss’ book was one of her top five alltime favourites. I made a mental note to read it at some point. When our book group decided to read it this month, I was so excited.

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There are three story arcs in ‘The History of Love‘. The first one is narrated by a man in his eighties, Leo Gursky. He is Jewish and he moved from Poland to America during the Second World War to escape from the Nazis. The girl he loves moved to America before the war started. He hopes to catch up with her, get married to her, and live happily ever after. The Leo Gursky of today, narrates what happened. The second story arc is narrated by a teenage girl, Alma Singer. She lives with her mother and younger brother. Her father is no more. Her mother continues to grieve for her husband while the children grieve in ways that they don’t even realize. One of the things that Alma talks about is a book called ‘The History of Love’ written by a mysterious writer called Zvi Litvinoff. The third story arc is about the writer Zvi Litvinoff and how he came to write this book. How the three arcs come together and get woven into one fabric and how this mysterious book binds them together, forms the rest of the story.

There was a time in the middle and late 2000s, say from around 2002 to around 2010, when there was an explosion of novels of a particular kind. It was hard to classify them – they were not love stories or murder mysteries or historical novels or literary fiction, though they had elements of some of these. Because they were hard to classify, they were called ‘Contemporary Fiction‘. They were written in prose which was accessible but also beautiful. In some of these stories, the narrator was a young character, maybe a teenager or sometimes even a pre-teen. But these books were not written for teenagers or pre-teens. They were written for grownup readers. Books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Secret History, The Dante Club, The Piano Tuner, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The Selected Works of T.S.Spivet, The Shadow of the Wind, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Lovely Bones, The Book Thief. Many of these books were written by first-time writers and they received great acclaim. Some of these writers followed up with a second book which was less acclaimed. Most of these writers faded away after that. Some of the writers continue to publish today, but their works mostly fall below the radar. I don’t know whether this is how things happened. Or whether I am taking a collection of random facts and weaving them into my own fictional narrative. But this is how I look at it.  Nicole Krauss was one of those writers. And ‘The History of Love‘ was one of those books.

Nicole Krauss’ book has many of the elements of the books that came out during its time. It has a teenage narrator, it has some history woven in, the prose is accessible but beautiful, there is an underlying mystery in the story, and the ending is not simple and it makes us contemplate. There are digressions from the main story in which the narrator talks about life in the deepest parts of the ocean, how to find out whether a forest plant is edible, evolution, and other topics which are quite interesting to read. There are also direct and implied literary references to Kafka, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer which are fascinating to read. I discovered a new book because Alma Singer gushes about it – ‘The Street of Crocodiles‘ by Bruno Schulz. I want to read that now.

I loved the two narrators of the story. Their voices are very different and Krauss brings them authentically alive on the page. Leo Gursky has the wisdom and the humour and the kindness and the devil-may-care attitude of a person of his age, while it is hard to resist comparisons between Alma and her more famous literary cousin,  Scout, from Harper Lee’sTo Kill a Mockingbird‘. I loved the fact that there is a book behind the story and it weaves all the plot strands together.

The prose is beautiful and there are many iconic sentences. Like this one :

“Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”

And this one :

“It took seven languages to make me; it would be nice if I could have spoken just one.”

There were beautiful passages like this one :

“She’s kept her love for him as alive as the summer they first met. In order to do this, she’s turned life away. Sometimes she subsists for days on water and air. Being the only known complex life-form to do this, she should have a species named after her. Once Uncle Julian told me how the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti said that sometimes just to paint a head you have to give up the whole figure. To paint a leaf, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape. It might seem like you’re limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realize that having a quarter-of-an-inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky.
      My mother did not choose a leaf or a head. She chose my father, and to hold on to a certain feeling, she sacrificed the world.”

And this one :

“He learned to live with the truth. Not to accept it, but to live with it. It was like living with an elephant. His room was tiny, and every morning he had to squeeze around the truth just to get to the bathroom. To reach the armoire to get a pair of underpants he had to crawl under the truth, praying it wouldn’t choose that moment to sit on his face. At night, when he closed his eyes, he felt it looming above him.”

The History of Love‘ is about love, family, relationships, history and how these things can come together and become literary art. I loved it. I am happy to report that Nicole Krauss was one of the writers of her time who didn’t fade away – her newest book came out last year, though it looks like it was very much below the radar. I can’t wait to read more books by her.

Have you read Nicole Krauss’The History of Love‘? What do you think about it?

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