Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

I discovered Max Frisch’sAn Answer from the Silence‘ while browsing in the bookshop. I am happy and excited that in these days when we discover most books through the internet, it is still possible to visit the bookshop, spend sometime browsing, and discover a beautiful book. This is the first book I read for this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The story told in Max Frisch’s book goes like this. The main character, whose name we don’t know, is staying in an inn near the mountains. He is thirty years old. He is passing through and he is trying to climb one of the nearby cliffs. We learn that he feels that he hasn’t accomplished much, has drifted from one dream to another, and finally decided that he is going to attempt climbing a cliff which no one has ever done before, and if he succeeds, he feels he would have accomplished something and not just lived a regular, mundane life. And then he meets a woman at the inn. And they begin a wonderful conversation. What happens after that and how their friendship evolves and whether this man climbs the cliff and finds the meaning of life is told in the rest of the story.

An Answer from the Silence‘ is a slim book at around a hundred pages. It is also a beautiful book. It is one of the great introvert novels like Marlen Haushofer’sThe Wall‘, Alexis M.Smith’sGlaciers‘, Robert Seethaler’sA Whole Life‘, Peter Stamm’sUnformed Landscape‘, Muriel Barbery’sThe Elegance of the Hedgehog‘ and Rabih Alameddine’sAn Unnecessary Woman‘, in which the main character lives a rich inner life and contemplates on some deep questions. It is the kind of book I love. There are so many beautiful passages in Frisch’s book that I couldn’t stop highlighting. The character of Irene, the woman who starts a conversation with our mountain-climbing main character, is so beautifully depicted, and she was my favourite character in the book. Max Frisch’s prose is beautiful and flows serenely like a river. There are beautiful descriptions of the mountains and nature. One of my favourite descriptions went like this :

“Outside there is no light visible that has been lit by human hand. There are just the stars glittering above the mountains and it’s bright, so that you can even see the blades of grass on the ground nearby, almost as bright as day, though it’s a different gleam, a lifeless gleam pouring over things, dull and without shadow, very strange, as if one were on another planet where there’s no life, on a planet which, with all its rocks and ice, is not made for man, however indescribably beautiful it may be.”

The book also asks some deep, profound questions on life which are relevant even today. This book came out in 1937, during the time when Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann were still active, and so it is not surprising that it asks some profound questions. I haven’t read a Max Frisch book before and I am surprised that he is not that well known today, because this book is really good, as good as the best ones of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Frisch seems to have led an interesting life too – he was a writer and journalist, but couldn’t pay his bills, and so went and studied architecture and became an architect, and while he was in the army during the Second World War, he started writing again and he continued his successful architecture practice alongwith his writing after the war. It seems he was also in a relationship with my favourite, Ingeborg Bachmann. I want to read more about him and I want to read more of his books.

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

“It’s just like a relay race, he laughs, a relay race with no finishing tape; they hand life over to us and say, ‘Go on now, run with it, for twenty or seventy years.’ And you run, you don’t look at what you have in your hand, you just run and hand it on. And what, he says, if one of us asks what the aim of it is? You could be nasty and grab one of them by the sleeve and take him to one side and when he opens his hand – nothing. And that’s what we’re running for, one generation after another? It’s nothing but a circus, round and round in a circle…”

“Why do we not follow our longing? Why is it? Why do we bind and gag it everyday, when we know that it’s truer and finer than all the things that are stopping us, the things people call morality and virtue and fidelity and which are not life, simply not life, not a life that’s true, great, worth living! Why don’t we shake them off? Why don’t we live when we know we’re here just this one time, just one single, unrepeatable time in this unutterably magnificent world?”

Have you read Max Frisch’sAn Answer from the Silence‘? What do you think about it?

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For Halloween every year, I try reading some horror stories and watch some horror movies. With respect to reading, I am a completist – I try reading a book till the end before picking my next book. Even if I read a collection of stories or an anthology, this is how I read. I almost never read two books at the same time. Today, I decided to change things a little bit. I decided to pick a few books and read one or two stories from each of them. I wanted to see how it would be to read out of my comfort zone. These are the books I picked.

(1) A Wild Swan and other tales by Michael Cunningham

(2) The Power of Darkness : Tales of Terror by Edith Nesbit

(3) The PAN Book of Horror Stories

(4) The Call of Cthulhu by H.P.Lovecraft

(5) Dracula by Bram Stoker

Michael Cunningham’s book was a retelling of famous fairytales. I read a couple of stories from it and they were interesting, but nothing home to write about. The artwork was gorgeous though.

Edith Nesbit’s book was interesting because this is the first time I am reading horror stories by her. I read three stories from this book and there was one common theme across them – they were all love stories and they had sad endings. I liked them. I want to read more of her stories.

The PAN anthology had a wide variety of horror stories covering different themes. I read ten of the stories. I couldn’t stop reading this book. It was very interesting. I hadn’t heard of most of the writers featured in the book except for Bram Stoker, Muriel Spark and maybe L.P.Hartley. So it was nice to discover new-to-me horror writers.

I also read a few pages from Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, my alltime favourite vampire novel. I wanted to read Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, but unfortunately, it was too late and my time was up.

To add icing to the cake, I also watched the movie ‘The Conjuring‘. It was scary and enjoyable.

So, that is how my Halloween went 🙂 What did you do for Halloween? Did you read anything? Did you watch a horror movie? Did you put on costumes and go trick-or-treating?

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I discovered Viv Groskop’sThe Anna Karenina Fix : Life Lessons from Russian Literature‘ while browsing in the bookshop and couldn’t resist getting it. I thought it was time to read it now.

Viv Groskop’s book has eleven essays on Russian classics. In each of the essays, Groskop picks one Russian classic, discusses the plot and the characters, and talks about the insights and life lessons that the classic has to offer. She covers many of the great 19th century writers (and some 20th century writers) but Leo Tolstoy gets the pride of place by having two of his books featured in the list. My favourite essays in the book were those on Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ and Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’.

Throughout the essays, Groskop weaves in her own story and experiences and describes how the classics impacted her and helped her. Groskop’s style is breezy, charming, conversational, filled with humour and is a pleasure to read. The book suspiciously resembles Elif Batuman’s acclaimed book ‘The Possessed : Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them‘. But I haven’t read Batuman’s book yet, and so I can’t really complain.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Anna Karenina Fix‘. It is a beautiful, charming love letter to Russian literature. It is also a great introduction to Russian literature. If you love Russian literature, you will enjoy reading this.

I am giving below two of my favourite passages from the book to give you a feel for Groskop’s style.

“The Russian classics are, admittedly, not the most obvious place to look for tips for a happier life. Russian literature is full of gloomy people wondering how on earth they have ended up in the appalling predicament in which they find themselves, looking around desperately for someone else to blame and then realizing that, in fact, they were right in the first place : life really is extremely inconvenient and annoying, and we are all just waiting to die. But they also teach us that it can, crucially, be survived. And it can be enjoyed, beautifully.”

“A few weeks after…we moved on to Pushkin. If I thought the parrot was a bad idea, this was an even worse one. It’s like giving someone a two-week course in English and then saying, ‘And now we’re going to read Othello.’ It’s fairly typical of the teaching of Russian though. They like to throw you in at the deep end. And they like to make sure you remain completely intimidated by the language for as long as possible. That way, if you pass on to the other side and actually do learn to speak it, you’ll maintain the age-old myth that it’s difficult to learn and pass that on to other people so that the Russian speakers can remain in their own special and secret club. Having to read Pushkin several weeks into a ‘Russian from scratch’ course is a sort of hazing you never recover from. It is specially designed to make you want to haze others so that they will suffer as you have suffered. To quote Pushkin : ‘I want to understand you. I study your obscure language.'”

Have you read Viv Groskop’s book? What do you think about it?

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Anton Chekhov mostly wrote only short stories and plays. His longest story and probably his only novel was this one, ‘The Shooting Party‘. I have wanted to read this for a long time. I finally read it today.

The story told in ‘The Shooting Party‘ goes like this. A man walks into a magazine editor’s office. He looks handsome and distinguished. He tells the editor that he has written a novel based on a real event. And he hands over a manuscript to the editor. The editor says that he can’t promise anything but he will read the manuscript and see what he can do. The story told in the manuscript goes like this. The narrator is an investigating magistrate who lives and works in the countryside. He is friends with the count who owns the nearby estate. The count is travelling most of the time and occasionally drops by at his estate. Then he calls our magistrate and they party for days. The narrator describes their parties and adventures. At one point the narrator meets a beautiful young woman who lives nearby. There is mutual attraction. A lot of things happen after that – love, wedding, seduction, affairs, fights, heartbreaks, jealousy. At around three-fourths into the story, one of the main characters is dead. It looks like this character was murdered. The rest of the story is about finding out who the murderer is.

I think ‘The Shooting Party‘ is probably not Chekhov’s best work. For a significant part of the story, it is more and more parties and people getting drunk, and seductions and affairs and jealousy and fights. Chekhov tries to do a Turgenev here, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t work. Turgenev was a master at this kind of plot. Chekhov – maybe the play or the short story form was more his thing, or maybe he wrote this book when he was young, before his style matured. Wish he had tried his hand at a novel again, later in life.

There are some nice passages here and there in the book, which are a pleasure to read. One of my favourites was this one :

“Pine trees are boring in their silent monotony : they are all the same height, they all look exactly the same and they do not change with the seasons, knowing neither death nor vernal renewal. On the other hand they are attractive in their very gloominess – so still, so silent, as if they are thinking melancholy thoughts.”

There are beautiful, evocative character sketches in the story. One of my favourites is the narrator’s servant Polikarp, who is hardworking and loyal, loves reading Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, but who is also fearless and speaks his mind to his master and doesn’t think twice about screaming at his master, if his master has done some reprehensible thing. Polikarp is so cool! Another of my favourites is the doctor Pavel Ivanovich, who is wise and kind and loves knowledge and learning new things.

When one of the characters drops dead, the story undergoes a transformation and becomes a murder mystery. There are some dark, almost Dostoevsky-ian passages, in this part, and in the end when the identity of the murderer is revealed, we jump from our seats, because we don’t see that coming – the surprise is as good as the best Agatha Christies, it would have had even Hercule Poirot stumped. That revelation turns the book on its head, and we start seeing everything in new light.

It was fun reading Chekhov’s longest story. It is probably not his best work, but I am happy that I can cross it off my checklist now. I discovered that this book was adapted into a Russian movie. I want to watch that sometime. (In case you are interested, it is called ‘Мой ласковый и нежный зверь‘ (‘My Tender and Affectionate Beast‘) (A Hunting Accident). You can find it here. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have English subtitles.)

Have you read Chekhov’sThe Shooting Party‘? What do you think about it?

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I always wondered how contemporary Russian fiction looked like, because when discussing Russian literature, readers always talk about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Chekhov and Turgenev and Pushkin and other 19th century greats – writers who are affectionately called the ‘Dead Russians’ now. Sometimes readers talk about writers who can be termed as ‘dissident writers’ – writers who resisted the Soviet regime and whose books were banned in the Soviet Union – writers like Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Akhmatova, Shalamov, Zamyatin. But contemporary writers are rarely mentioned. Russians, of course, still read today. Their love for books is legendary. I am sure there are still Russian writers who write books for these readers, books set in contemporary Russia, which talk about how today’s Russians live their lives, how they fall in love, what kind of work they do, how they respond to political developments, the relationship between Russian parents and their children, these and other contemporary themes which are relevant today. I wondered who these writers were and how I could get their books. Then I discovered ‘Rasskazy : New Fiction from a New Russia‘. I was thrilled.

Rasskazy‘ has 22 stories. Each of these stories is by a different writer. So that is 22 new writers – whoohoo! Some of these stories are a few pages long, many of them are around 10 pages long, some of them are even longer. The longest has 43 pages.

Now a little about my reading experience. I got this book a long time back. I read the first 100 pages of the book at that time, but then got distracted. When I started reading the book again now, I remembered liking the first hundred pages, though I couldn’t remember the stories. I decided to read the book differently this time. I decided to read the last one-third first, followed by the middle one-third and then the first one-third. When I started reading the last one-third, a strange thing happened. I read one story and then the next and then a third. Nothing much happened. I went on and read five stories and still there was nothing. I was expecting moving stories and profound passages, but, unfortunately, it was hard reading. It was like I could understand every word in the story, but couldn’t get the story. I wondered what was happening. I wondered whether I should continue reading the book. I felt like I was hemmed in at the top of the mountain with nowhere to go. Then Natalya Klyuchareva arrived like the legendary Tolkien eagle, picked me up and soared high into the sky. She delivered a beautiful, stunning masterpiece called ‘One Year in Paradise‘. That was the end of the book as I knew it. This transformed new book was a different being, an amazing thing. I screamed with joy. It was one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read.

Things got better after that. I read the middle one-third and then the first one-third, and discovered other beautiful stories I liked.

Here are some of my favourite stories from the book and what I think about them.

(1) One Year in Paradise by Natalya Klyuchareva – This is my most favourite story from the book. It was the last story featured in the book. In this story, a man moves from the city to the countryside, in the middle of nowhere, and decides to live there. He just has a bag filled with books. What happens to him is the rest of the story. Such a quintessential Russian story, such a beautiful one. If you would like to read it, you can find it here.

(2) A Potential Customer by Ilya Kochergin – A young man who works as a hunter and a trapper in the Russian Far East, goes back to Moscow for a month. He goes to deliver a package to his friend’s aunt and there he meets a young woman with whom he falls in love. What happens after that is the rest of the story.

(3) History by Roman Senchin – A history scholar visits a bookshop, buys a book and is walking to the metro station to get back home. There is a political protest happening in front of the metro station and somehow our scholar gets trapped in the middle of that. And then bad things start happening. An insightful commentary on the situation in Russia today.

(4) The Diesel Stop by Arkady Babchenko – A young soldier goes home on leave to attend his father’s funeral. He comes back late to report for duty. The army establishment assumes that he was trying to desert. He is arrested. The strange, crazy things that happen to him form the rest of the story. This was the longest story in the book.

(5) The Killer and his Little Friend by Zakhar Prilepin – Describes the friendship between two soldiers in the army, one who is a giant, and another who is small. Makes us think of George and Lennie from John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’.

(6) D.O.B. by Aleksander Snegirev – A young man goes through a series of adventures on his birthday, getting into trouble, one after the other.

(7) Why the Sky Doesn’t Fall by German Sadulaev – a story set in Chechnya during the war, mostly told from the Chechnyan perspective.

(8) Have Mercy, Your Majesty Fish by Olga Zondberg – describes the life of a blogger.

(9) Bregovich’s Sixth Journey by Oleg Zobern – describes the friendship between a man and his neighbour’s dog, whom he calls Ivan Denisovich.

(10) Russian Halloween by Aleksander Bezzubtsev-Kondakov – a man moves from the middle of the city to the outskirts after his divorce. He is depressed because he misses the city. But then strange, surprisingly pleasant things happen to him, unexpectedly.

(11) Spit by Kirill Ryabov – a man who is committed to an institution gets released after he is cured of his illness. How he navigates the wild world outside is the rest of the story.

(12) Drill and Song Day by Vladimir Kozlov – the story of the friendship between three boys in school who are outsiders in different ways.

I enjoyed reading ‘Rasskazy‘. It was wonderful to discover so many new contemporary Russian writers in one place. I am especially happy to have discovered Natalya Klyuchareva. I can’t wait to read more stories by her and by the others.

Have you read ‘Rasskazy‘? What do you think about it? Would you like to recommend some of your favourite contemporary Russian writers?

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N.P.‘ by Banana Yoshimoto was recommended to me by friends who were Yoshimoto fans. One of my friends lent it to me and I read it yesterday. This is the third Yoshimoto book that I have read in the past three months. Isn’t that cool?

The story told in ‘N.P.‘ goes like this. Kazami, the narrator of the story, is a young woman who works in the university. She talks about an author called Sarao Takase whom she discovered years back, because her boyfriend of that time, Shoji, was translating one of Takase’s stories, from the original English to Japanese. There was one volume of Takase’s stories in print at that time, and that contained ninety-seven stories. A ninety-eighth story was discovered recently, and Shoji was translating it. Then, suddenly, Shoji commits suicide. And Kazami discovers that the three people who tried translating the story have all committed suicide. Now, during the present time, Kazami bumps into Takase’s son, while taking a walk during lunchtime. Soon, they become friends. Before long, Takase’s daughter also comes to meet Kazami and they become friends too. And soon a mysterious woman called Sui also crosses Kazami’s path. She seems to be related to the Takases. How these friendships and relationships evolve, who the mysterious Sui is, whether a new translation of Takase’s story is attempted, whether the story claims one more sacrifice – the answers to these questions are told in the rest of the story.

I enjoyed reading ‘N.P.‘ It is the story of a complex friendship between four young people, who are linked together by a mysterious author and his last story. It is also a fascinating love story, though an unconventional one. This book was very different from the other two Yoshimoto stories I had read, because Yoshimoto has really pushed the envelope here, with respect to the unconventional part. Yoshimoto’s prose is spare and glides elegantly through the pages. I read the book in an evening – that is how fast the pages flew by. The book also has some fascinating thoughts on translation which are thought-provoking. The ending of the story is interesting and complicated. Kazami says in the end – “I saw the sky and sea and sand and the flickering flames of the bonfire through my tears. All at once, it rushed into my head at tremendous speed, and made me feel dizzy. It was beautiful. Everything that had happened was shockingly beautiful, enough to make you crazy.” You have to read the book to find out why she says that.

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

“A person without a voice gradually loses language. For the first two days, my thought processes remained the same as before. If my sister stepped on my foot, I would think “ouch” in words. When a place I had been to before appeared in TV, my thoughts would virtually be in the same form as the words might have come out of my mouth at that moment, had I been able to speak – like, “Oh, I know where that is. I wonder when they filmed this,” or something like that.
But after a period of being unable to speak those words, something changed in my head. I came to see the array of colors that lay behind words. When my sister was being nice to me, I perceived a brilliant image of pink light. My mother’s words and gestures when she was teaching us English were gold; a bright yellow orange cane through the palm of my hand when I bent down to pat our cat as she wandered by.
Living like that utterly convinced me of the extreme limitations of language. I was just a child then, so I had only an intuitive understanding of the degree to which one loses control of words once they are spoken or written. It was then that I first felt a deep curiosity about language, and understood it as a tool that encompasses both a single moment and eternity.”

“Time stopped. Perhaps God in his grace glanced down upon us then. It was that peaceful, for an eternal moment, in the valley of the night…When I thought about that moment later, in the light of day, it didn’t seem so monumental. But when it came upon me, the touch of darkness was undeniably vast and pure.”

Have you read Banana Yoshimoto’sN.P.‘? What do you think about it?

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This is my fourth book for Diverse Detectives Month hosted by WOCReads. I read ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ (= Murder Season) by Sujatha, for the first time, when I was a teenager. It was one my favourite detective mysteries then. I had forgotten most of the story since, including who was the bad guy 🙂 So I thought it was a good time to read it again.

The story told in ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ goes like this. Lawyer Ganesh and his assistant Vasanth are hired to look at some estate documents and see whether there are any problems with respect to the title and ownership. The owner of the estate is a young woman called Leena, who is going to turn eighteen. Her parents have passed. Her uncle is her guardian now and has been managing the estate on her behalf. On her eighteenth birthday he will be handing over the estate to her. But when the lawyer duo stay at the estate for a couple days, strange things start happening, voices are heard in unoccupied rooms and there seems to be a ghost near the lake. And there is a legend behind the ghost – she seems to an ancestor of Leena, the young woman who owns the estate – and the legend says that the ghost is out to seek revenge. And before long someone is dead. And the dead person’s body disappears. And both our heroes are beaten up by a probable supernatural being. Is it really a ghost which is doing all these bad things? Or is it some good old plain vanilla human beings who are doing these bad things out of greed? Who will benefit by these strange happenings? Is Leena’s life in danger? Are out lawyer-detectives able to find the mystery behind all this? You have to read the story to find out.

Re-reading ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ was an enjoyable experience. I had forgotten the story completely and so couldn’t guess the revelation in the end. Sujatha does a Hitchcock and kills the main suspect halfway through the story and after that it is a roller coaster ride and it becomes harder to guess the ending. There are many popcultural and literary references throughout the story – like a quote from an O’Henry story, the Bruce Lee movie ‘The Return of the Dragon’, the Frederick Forsyth novel ‘The Devil’s Alternative’, a description of a plot revelation from a Tamilvanan novel (one of my favourite Tamil crime fiction writers), Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Agatha Christie – it was fun to spot all these. I don’t think I spotted or appreciated most of these when I read the book the first time, all those years ago.

I enjoyed reading ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ again. It didn’t resonate with me as much as it did to my teenage self, but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless. After reading the book I wondered whether I had grown out of Sujatha books. But then I remembered that I read the collected plays of Sujatha sometime back and it deeply resonated with me and I loved it. So there is hope yet.

Have you read Sujatha’sKolaiyudhir Kalam‘? What do you think about it?

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