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Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

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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I got Danilo Kiš’Garden, Ashes‘ a few days back. I was so excited about it, because it took me a long time to get this book, because Danilo Kiš’ books are hard to come by.

The narrator of the story is a boy called Andi Schaum. He tells us about his family, his mother, his sister, and his father. A significant part of the book is about his father. Through the book the family’s circumstances seem to be changing from good to bad to worse. And they are constantly moving from one place to another. In these circumstances, Andi describes his life and life around him and narrates his experiences while growing up.

This is the simplistic version of the plot. But this is not all what the book is about. The Holocaust looms large in the background, though it is only implied and hinted at and never explicitly mentioned, but we can feel its dark shadow throughout the book.

The book can be read as a coming-of-age story, a boy’s story about his father, a story about the Holocaust, or even as Danilo Kiš’ veiled memoir.

For me, the thing I loved the most about the book is this. Danilo Kiš’ prose sizzles throughout the book. In some places, there are beautiful sentences. But in other places, and these were my favourite parts, there were long passages of absolute beauty, which were almost Proustian in their depth and elegance. These were so pleasurable to read and gave me goosebumps. These passages continued till the end of the book – one of the last ones is a passage in which Andi and his mother light a lamp in the evening and start talking (I think) and it is magical. I waited for these long passages to arrive and when one of them arrived I read it slowly and immersed myself in it, and then contemplated on it for a while, and then went back and read it again. The book is slim at 170-pages, but that slimness contains such immeasurable, poetic beauty. I am sharing some of those passages below for your pleasure.

“I am sure that I will not be able to fall asleep that night. I have been lying awake long that it seems to me that dawn should already be at hand, so I lift my head to hear if the others are asleep or are just pretending, but then I sense that my head is drooping from tiredness and that I will not really be meeting the dawn awake. Yet there is no way for me to comprehend how sleep comes on all at once, without any effort of will or knowledge on my part, how I can fall asleep every night without catching hold of that instant when the angel of sleep, that great butterfly of night, swoops down to close my eyes with its wings. So I begin to set an ambush for that instant. I would have liked to catch hold of sleep at least once, just as I had been resolved to catch hold of death one day, to catch hold of the wings of the angel of sleep when it came for me, to grab it with two fingers like a butterfly after sneaking up on it from behind. I use precisely this metaphor because when I say “the angel of sleep” I am thinking – just as I was when I believed in the angel of sleep – of the moment when the waking state passes into the state of oblivion, for I long believed – and I think I was right – that this shift occurs all of a sudden, for – if the organism lulls itself to sleep over a long interval – consciousness has to sink all at once, like a stone. And yet I wanted to catch the angel of sleep in its insidious fortress…”

“Notes at the bottom of pages and all the ideograms – crosses, crescents, asterisks – were supplanted by whole pages of manuscript in a tight hand. Abbreviations became subchapters, subchapters became chapters. The original idea of a combined guidebook-baedeker had become just a tiny, provocatory reproductive cell that was dividing, like a primitive organism, in geometrical progression. In the end, all that remained of the ‘Bus, Ship, Rail, and Air Travel Guide’ was a shriveled cocoon, an ideogram, a bracket, an abbreviation here and there. In the meantime, the underlying text and marginalia and footnotes had absorbed this delicate, utilitarian, unstable structure that now stood almost invisible and wholly adjunct on the varicolored map of the world of essence, and this fabricated and abstract prototopic was represented only by the thin lines of meridians and parallels in the immense structure of some eight hundred pages, single-spaced. The text stubbornly, obstinately retained its original title as a travel guide, reflecting the sick confusion in my father’s mind : he actually believed that some publishers would be fooled by this obvious fraud and publish his chaotic compendium under the guise of an innocent timetable-travelogue.”

I loved ‘Garden, Ashes‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I’ve met only a few Danilo Kiš fans on the internet, but every one of them has raved about him. Though he was one of the literary stars during his lifetime, it is sad that he is less well-known today. I wish his books are more widely read.

Have you read ‘Garden, Ashes‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Svetlana Alexievich’sThe Unwomanly Face of War‘ sometime back. I knew Svetlana Alexievich mostly as the writer of ‘Secondhand Time‘, which seems to be her most popular book. So, I was surprised when I discovered this book, which is on an unconventional topic, atleast unconventional for its time (this book was originally published in Russian in 1985, so it was far ahead of its time).

Normally, when historians and commentators and biographers write about the role of women in a major war, it is typically about how women worked as nurses and tended to wounded soldiers, like Florence Nightingale during the Crimean war, or like Vera Brittain in the First World War, an experience about which she wrote movingly in her memoir ‘Testament of Youth‘. The second type of book or story is about how women handled the challenges in the homefront when their male family members were away at the warfront. In this book, Svetlana Alexievich asks the question, what about the women who were actually at the warfront? The women who were soldiers, snipers, sappers, doctors, nurses, truck drivers, tank drivers, engineers, technicians, pilots, mechanics, cooks, laundresses, sailors, partisans? After asking this question, Alexievich goes on a quest into the past, finds out more about these women who were in the Russian / Eastern front during the Second World War, meets with many of them, interviews them and discovers their stories and compiles them into this book.

The book starts with how a young woman decided to go to the warfront, what her family’s reaction was to it, her initial experience of being one of the few women out there, how men reacted to a woman soldier or sniper working with them, how the commander treated the new women recruits. The book continues with the initial war experiences, first brush with violence and death, how these women soldiers felt about killing enemy soldiers and how this impacted them emotionally, whether they found love in the trenches in the midst of war and whether that love survived the war, whether their feelings towards the enemy soldiers changed after the enemy was defeated, how the reunion with their family went after the war, how their country treated them after they came back from the war, whether the war left a lasting impact on their lives. These and more are described in the book through the personal voices of these women. Many of these women were in their teens when they enlisted, and they joined the war effort (though no one asked them to, and sometimes inspite of family opposition) because they loved their country. They learnt complex skills on the job and did some amazing things, and when they came out on the other side (if they did), the war had changed them and they came out as different people. One woman talks about how her hair started turning grey overnight, when she stood guard for the first time for the whole night in a cemetery. Another talks about how her son couldn’t recognize her when she got back home, because he was expecting his mother to arrive, but what he saw was a soldier stepping off a horse.

After the war got over, most of these women went back home to everyday civilian life and became teachers and nurses and farmers and accountants and factory workers, many of them married and became mothers, and they quietly faded away from the limelight and were forgotten. Till a journalist called Vera Tkachenko wrote an article about them in ‘Pravda’ and brought them back to the limelight.

I want to write about the individual stories narrated in the book, but there are so many of them, that it is next to impossible to talk about them in detail. So I’ll just say this. The book was moving, heartbreaking and haunting. I cried through most of it. There were some beautiful moments, some rays of hope, and the occasional dash of humour which made us smile, but it was mostly heartbreaking. I’ve never read a book like this before, and it is hard to believe that all these terrible things happened. I’ll share some of my favourite stories below so that you can get a feel for the book.

Maria Ivanovna Morozova (Ivanushkina) Corporal, Sniper

“Well, so we got to the front. Near Orsha … The 62nd Infantry Division … I remember like today, the commander, Colonel Borodkin, saw us and got angry: “They’ve foisted girls on me. What is this, some sort of women’s round dance?” he said. “Corps de ballet! It’s war, not a dance. A terrible war …” But then he invited us, treated us to a dinner. And we heard him ask his adjutant: “Don’t we have something sweet for tea?” Well, of course, we were offended: What does he take us for? We came to make war …And he received us not as soldiers, but as young girls. At our age we could have been his daughters. “What am I going to do with you, my dears? Where did they find you?” That’s how he treated us, that’s how he met us. And we thought we were already seasoned warriors … Yes, yes … At war!”

Lola Akhmetova Foot Soldier, Rifleman

“You ask what’s the most frightening thing in war? You expect me … I know what you expect … You think I’ll say the most frightening thing in war is death. To die. Am I right? I know your kind … Your journalist’s tricks … Ha-ha-ha … Why aren’t you laughing? Eh? But I’ll say something else … For me the most terrible thing in war was—wearing men’s underpants. That was frightening. And for me it was somehow … I can’t find the … Well, first of all, it’s very ugly … You’re at war, you’re preparing to die for the Motherland, and you’re wearing men’s underpants. Generally, you look ridiculous. Absurd. Men’s underpants were long then. Wide. Made of sateen. There were ten girls in our dugout, all wearing men’s underpants. Oh, my God! Winter and summer. For four years. We crossed the Soviet border … As our commissar used to say at political sessions, we were finishing the beast off in his own den. Near the first Polish village we got a change of clothes: new uniforms and … And! And! And! For the first time they issued us women’s underpants and brassieres. For the first time in the whole war. Ha-ha-ha … Well, of course … We saw normal women’s underwear … Why aren’t you laughing? You’re crying … Why?”

Tamara Lukyanovna Torop Private, Construction Engineer

“I wrote a letter home from the army telling him that I had built and defended bridges. What joy that was for our family. Papa made us all fall in love with bridges; we loved them from childhood. When I saw a destroyed bridge—bombed or exploded—I felt about it as about a living being, not a strategic object. I wept … On my way I encountered hundreds of destroyed bridges, big and small; during the war they were the first thing to be destroyed. Target number one. Whenever we went past the ruins, I always thought: how many years will it take to rebuild it all? War kills time, precious human time. I remembered well that papa spent several years building each bridge. He sat up nights over the drafts, even on weekends. The thing I was most sorry for during the war was the time. Papa’s time …”

Maria Afanasyevna Garachuk Paramedic

“I finished medical school … I came back home, my father was ill. And then—the war. I remember, it was morning … I learned this terrible news in the morning … The dew hadn’t dried on the leaves of the trees yet, and they were already saying—war! And this dew that I suddenly saw on the grass and the trees, saw so clearly—I remembered at the front. Nature was in contrast with what was happening with people. The sun shone brightly … Daisies bloomed, my favorites, there were masses of them in the fields … I remember us lying somewhere in a wheat field; it was a sunny day. The German submachine guns go rat-a-tat-tat—then silence. All you hear is the wheat rustling. Then again the German submachine guns go rat-a-tat-tat … And you think: will you ever hear again how the wheat rustles? This sound …”

Sofya Mironovna Vereshchak Underground Fighter

“…he put me on the list to be shot … On the night before the execution, I looked back over my life, my short life … The happiest day of my life was when my father and mother, after driving away from home under bombardment for several dozen miles, decided to come back. Not to leave. To stay home. I knew then that we would fight. It seemed to us that the victory would come so soon. Absolutely! The first thing we did was find and rescue the wounded. They were in the fields, in the grass, in the ditches, or had crept into someone’s barn. I stepped out one morning to dig some potatoes and found one in our kitchen garden. He was dying … A young officer, he didn’t even have enough strength to tell me his name. He whispered some words … I couldn’t make them out … I remember my despair. But I think I’ve never been so happy as during those days. I acquired my parents for a second time. I used to think my father was not concerned with politics. He turned out to be a non-Party Bolshevik. My mother—an uneducated peasant, she believed in God. She prayed all through the war. But how? She fell on her knees before an icon: “Save the people! Save Stalin! Save the Communist Party from that monster Hitler.””

Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kashechkina Underground Fighter

“They sentenced me to death by hanging. They put me in the cell for the condemned. There were two other women. You know, we didn’t cry, we didn’t panic: we knew what awaited us when we joined the underground fighters, and so we remained calm. We talked about poetry, remembered our favorite operas … We talked a lot about Anna Karenina … about love … We didn’t even mention our children, we were afraid to mention them. We even smiled, cheered each other up. So we spent two and a half days … In the morning of the third day they called me. We said goodbye, kissed without tears. There was no fear. Apparently I was so used to the thought of death that the fear was already gone. And so were the tears. There was some sort of emptiness. I no longer thought of anyone …”

Aglaia Borisovna Nesteruk Sergeant, Liaison

“Finally, we were on their land … The first thing that struck us was the good roads. The big farmhouses … Flowerpots, pretty curtains in the windows, even in the barns. White tablecloths in the houses. Expensive tableware. Porcelain. There I saw a washing machine for the first time … We couldn’t understand why they had to fight if they lived so well. Our people huddled in dugouts, while they had white tablecloths. Coffee in small cups … I had only seen them in the museum. Those small cups … I forgot to tell you about one shocking thing, we were all shocked … We were attacking, and took the first German trenches … We jumped in, and there was still warm coffee in thermos bottles. The smell of coffee … Biscuits. White sheets. Clean towels. Toilet paper … We didn’t have any of that. What sheets? We slept on straw, on sticks. Other times we went for two or three days without warm food. And our soldiers shot at those thermos bottles … At that coffee …In German houses I saw coffee sets shattered by bullets. Flowerpots. Pillows … Baby carriages … But still we couldn’t do to them what they had done to us. Force them to suffer the way we suffered. It was hard for us to understand where their hatred came from. Ours was understandable. But theirs?”

Nina Vasilyevna Ilinskaya Nurse

“I remember a battle … In that battle we captured many Germans. Some of them were wounded. We bandaged their wounds; they moaned like our lads did. And it was hot … Scorching hot! We found a teapot and gave them water. In the open. We were under fire. An order: quickly entrench and camouflage yourselves. We started digging trenches. The Germans stared. We explained to them: so, help us dig, get to work. When they understood what we wanted from them, they looked at us with horror; they took it that once they dug those pits, we would stand them by those pits and shoot them. They expected … You should have seen their horrified looks as they dug … Their faces …And when they saw that we bandaged them, gave them water, and told them to hide in the trenches they had dug, they couldn’t come to their senses, they were at a loss … One German started crying … He was an older man. He cried and didn’t hide his tears from anyone …”

I loved ‘The Unwomanly Face of War‘. I am glad I read it, eventhough it was mostly heartbreaking. I hope to explore more of Svetlana Alexievich’s work.

Have you read ‘The Unwomanly Face of War‘? What do you think about it?

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Like Water and Other Stories‘ is a collection of fifty two short stories by Olga Zilberbourg. That sounds like a lot of stories, but it doesn’t feel that way while reading the book, because the stories are of varied length – some of them are what used to be called short-shorts which run for a few pages, while others are just a paragraph long like a Lydia Davis story, something which is called micro fiction these days. There are some stories which are longer too.

There are two major types of stories in the book – the Russian stories and the American stories. Olga Zilberbourg is Russian-American and so she has given importance to both sides, though I would say that the book on the whole leans towards the Russian side. Many of the Russian stories explore the Russian-American experience. One of my favourites was a story called ‘Sweet Porridge‘ in which a Russian mother and her American child read a Grimm fairytale together and how their interpretation of the story is totally different. Another of my favourites was ‘Cream and Sugar‘ in which a Russian mother comes to America to visit her daughter and her family. What happens during that time and the gentle clash of cultures is beautifully depicted in the story. Another favourite was ‘Doctor Sveta‘ in which the narrator travels to St.Petersburg to meet her family and during a formal dinner she is seated next to her aunt’s best friend who is a doctor. The narrator and this doctor have a conversation and what happens after that is fascinating. The title story ‘Like Water‘ was beautiful and was one of my favourites too. The narrator of the story discovers a secret about her past and it surprises her very much. I can’t tell you anything more about it. You have to read the story and discover its pleasures for yourself. The last passage in the  story –

“And most likely, it’s too late. My habits have been too firmly established. Water isn’t for me. But I’m staring at the mug—it’s right there in the middle of the table. I can’t forget that water is in there. I’ve grown used to something else by now, but what if I dared? What if I did what so many of my students do at eighteen or twenty? Namely, experiment. Try out a new identity. I’m terrified, but I also can’t pretend I don’t understand. Water is life.”

– was one of the most beautiful passages in the book. I can’t tell you, of course, what the water she has mentioned there means. You have to read the story and discover its pleasures and secrets for yourself.

Out of the American stories, one of my favourites was ‘Helen More’s Suicide‘. It is about a literature professor called Helen More who is dynamic and fascinating, but for some unknown reason takes her own life one day. Her best friend and one of her younger friends meet one day and talk about this. It is a beautiful story which asks some big questions.

There are more stories in the book, of course, there are fifty-two in all. I loved most of them, but I’ll stop with this sample. I enjoyed reading this collection. Olga Zilberbourg’s first three short story collections were published in Russian. This is her English language debut. I hope her Russian collections get translated into English. I’d love to read them.

Have you read ‘Like Water and Other Stories‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Andrey Kurkov’sA Matter of Death and Life‘ recently. I haven’t heard of Andrey Kurkov before and this book was slim and so I thought I’ll read it.

The narrator of the story is going through a difficult phase in life. His marriage is collapsing, it appears that his wife is having an affair with someone, he is unemployed, his bank balance is low, he doesn’t seem to have any friends. One day he decides to do something which he thinks will be spectacular. He decides to hire a hitman to kill him. He makes arrangements and is resigned to his fate, and thinks about how he will be in the news when it happens and he’ll become famous and people will look at him differently. But at some point things start looking up, and he even finds some happiness and he doesn’t want to die anymore. But how do you stop a hitman from executing his contract? Not possible, isn’t it? What happens after that is darkly comic and unravels like a Coen Brothers movie.

I loved reading ‘A Matter of Death and Life’. Andrey Kurkov’s prose is spare and there is no superfluous sentence, no wasted word. The pages fly, though occasionally there is a Dostoevskian passage. For example, this passage, which could have easily been in a Dostoevsky novella –

“I found the glaring whiteness of the paper irritating. My urgent concern to make the most of what time I had left seemed suddenly totally devoid of meaning. See who? Ring who? I was needed by no-one, and needed nobody. A fact so obvious as to prompt an icy shiver followed by more positive thoughts, amongst which was the absolute rightness of my decision in favour of suicide. Collecting yet another coffee and taking a colder, more realistic view, I deleted “Ring Nina”, and was at last free to devote to myself such time as remained.”

Kurkov’s dark humour zings in every page and it makes us smile. For example, this passage –

“Outside, the sun was shining, though to no useful purpose at this time of the year. Still, millions of citizens would be glad of it. Taking pleasure in what served no useful purpose had become a habit, and something I was fond of doing.”

There is a beautiful love story in the middle of the book, which was very unexpected. I’m not sure exactly what happened in the end though – I have a few thoughts on that, and if you have read the book, I’d love to discuss it with you.

Andrey Kurkov is Ukrainian, but he writes in Russian. This is one of his earlier books. He has since written many books, and I’m excited to explore more of his work.

Have you read ‘A Matter of Death and Life’? What do you think about it?

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