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Posts Tagged ‘Gae Polisner’

I had a not-so-good reading year in 2016. I read only 18 books. That is not not-so-good. That is bad. I left some of the books half-read. Not because they were not good, but because I was distracted or got into a reading slump. I could finish reading only 18.

That is the bad news. The good news is that I liked most of what I read. Actually loved most of them. That makes me very happy. That means, my list of favourites will contain most of the books I read 🙂 I don’t have to differentiate between them and choose some over others for arbitrary reasons. That is one of the great pleasures of reading less number of books. That makes me very happy.

So, without much further ado, here is the list of my favourite books from 2016, in no particular order.

Short Stories / Short Prose Pieces / Novellas

(1) A Game of Chess and other stories by Stefan Zweig

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My first proper book by Stefan Zweig. The title story was exceptional – it had some of the best passages I have read. There was also a beautiful description of the Riviera in another. Loved the whole book. I can’t wait to read another Stefan Zweig book.

(2) The Steppe by Anton Chekhov

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Chekhov’s love letter to the Russian Steppe. Also his longest story. My most favourite of his.

(3) A Dreary Story by Anton Chekhov

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One of Chekhov’s longer short stories. Loved it.

(4) The Walled City by Zeenat Mahal

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One of my favourite discoveries this year was author Zeenat Mahal (the nom de plume of Faiqa Mansab) and her novella The Walled City. It is a love story set in the beautiful city of Lahore and evokes the sights, sounds, smells, people and culture of the city so brilliantly. It also had one of my favourite passages :

“Saqib watched his work with forced detachment. He’d put his dreams to sleep on canvas after canvas, crystallized in a vice of color and form. Some had emerged as twisted nightmares, others as singed vestiges of shattered hopes.
     This painting was both.
     Like the woman, it had exacted much from him. He could almost feel the weight of the palette knife in his hands again, as he’d mixed and smeared, brushed and stroked in a frenzy of ecstasy or despair, until she’d emerged out of its blankness in the arms of another man, a faceless lover. But her almond shaped eyes that had held him captive for so long, gazed out at him, even now. He wasn’t just the painter; he was voyeur and conspirator, sinner and judge, plunderer and savior. The man in her arms didn’t matter, not to her, not to him.”

If you want to read ‘The Walled City‘ online, you can find it here.

Faiqa Mansab’s new book “This House of Clay and Water” is coming out in May. I can’t wait to read it.

(5) Strange Tales from the Make-Do Studio by Pu Songling

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There is a story plot which I have been fascinated by. In this story, a character from a book jumps out into the real world. (Or conversely a real world character jumps into a book or a painting). When I first heard this story, it gave me goosebumps. I discovered that Jasper Fforde has written this. Jodi Picoult has also written this. Then I discovered that Cornelia Funke has written this before them both. I was amazed to discover that Woody Allen wrote a story with this plot in the ’70s. (In his story Madame Bovary jumps out of the book into the real world and falls in love with the reader). Then I further discovered that Raymond Queneau wrote this in his book ‘The Flight of Icarus’. I thought this must be the earliest form of this story. I let it be. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that Pu Songling had written similar stories. In the late 17th century! He seemed to be saying from the distant past – “Experimental writers from the 20th / 21st century – Take that! All these innovative plots that you think you invented (or copied from others without acknowledgement) – it has all been written and done and dusted.” Songling’s book is made up of ghost stories and stories of the supernatural written for grown-up mature readers. There are probably 500 stories of his. I probably read around 30 in this book. Many stories involve the main character, who is a scholar, who falls in love with a beautiful woman, but who turns out to be a ghost or a fox fairy or flower fairy. In many stories, the beautiful woman loves our scholar back, they get married and have children and live happily everafter 🙂 It is the kind of ghost story that I have never read before. This book deserves a proper review. Highly recommended.

(6) Contemplations by Franz Kafka

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I read ‘ The Metamorphosis‘ and many other stories by Kafka this year. My favourite was this one – his first ever published collection containing short one or two page prose pieces. Very beautiful.

Novels

(7) A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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A novel about an introverted, shy man whose life story it tells. Very beautiful. It got into many award shortlists. Wish it had won some.

(8) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

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I got this book years back when it first came out. I finally read it. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in post Second World War America. The difference though is that our American Hamlet cannot speak and his parents rear dogs.  So, while we are expecting Hamletian madness to happen, we get one of the most beautiful dog novels ever written. Almondine is one of my most favourite dog characters ever and Easy is another favourite. There is a black pup (of which animal we never know) which our Hamlet’s dad saves from the flood. It refuses to eat or drink anything and the part of the story where it comes is beautiful and heartbreaking. I really should have written a proper review of this beautiful book.

(9) The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

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This much awaited novel from one of my favourite writers is set in the aftermath of 9/11 and tells the story of ordinary people who show extraordinary courage. Gae Polisner says that the manuscript of her next novel has gone out already. I hope that novel comes out this year. We readers are always greedy!

(10) A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

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The longest novel of the year for me (862 pages). The longest novel I have ever read on the Kindle too. It has been called the Japanese Wuthering Heights. It was long and epic and I loved it.

Graphic Novels / Manga

(11) A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (graphic novel – part 1)

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I got this because I was planning to watch the TV show. Before long the show took over. But till then, the graphic novel version of the book was good, very good.

(12) Barakamon (part 1) by Satsuki Yoshino

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A Manga comic about a young calligrapher who goes and lives in an island and his friendship with the islanders. Very charming! Can’t wait to read the next part!

Science

(13) The Universe in your Hand : A Journey through Space, Time and Beyond by Christophe Galfard

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Stephen Hawking’s former student gives his own version of the history of the universe. And I can confidently say that the student has excelled the master here. Galfard’s book is very readable. (Hawking’s book is unreadable after the first chapter – believe me, I tried). He uses storytelling techniques and science-fiction-movie-style narration to bring the most complex concepts alive. Probably the finest book on physics written for the general reader. One of the wonderful things that I learnt from this book was about the things we don’t know and which we will never know. This is a book that I will be reading again.

(14) The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg

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Weinberg’s book has been called the finest account of the Big Bang theory ever written. Weinberg being a Nobel Prize winner himself, this book has been well respected. I have wanted to read it for years. Finally got to read it. The initial few chapters are easy to follow. The book then gets more challenging. The thing I loved about the book though was reading Weinberg’s thoughts on physics and why it is important and why we should be doing it. Weinberg’s humility as a person and as a scientist shone through when he talked about the larger issues in science and his confidence as one of the great scientists of the 20th century shone through when he talked about the science we knew and could predict. It made me fall in love with him. I will be reading those parts of the book again.

(15) Mr Tompkins in paperback by George Gamov

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One of my friends has recommended this for years. I finally got around to reading it. It has two parts  – Mr.Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr.Tompkins Explores the Atom. Beautiful book on relativity, radioactivity, structure of the atom and quantum mechanics. It has one of the finest descriptions of radioactivity that I have ever read. The book also has a foreword by one of my favourite scientists Roger Penrose. That doubled my pleasure! Great book to gift to your young ones at home. I wish I had read this when I was in school.

Have you read any of these? Which are your favourite books from 2016?

Happy New Year! Hope you have a wonderful year filled with great books and beautiful reading moments 🙂

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One of the books that I eagerly awaited this year was Gae Polisner’s ‘The Memory of Things’. I loved Gae Polisner’s first two books ‘The Pull of Gravity‘ and ‘The Summer of Letting Go‘ and so couldn’t wait to read the new book. It came out this week and that is what I have been reading for the past few days. Here is what I think.

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The Memory of Things‘ is set on the day of 9/11 and the story continues during the subsequent days of that fateful week. It is a beautiful Tuesday morning and suddenly there is an explosion and initially people ignore it but when more explosions happen and everyone realizes what is happening, people start moving out of buildings. The narrator of our story, Kyle, is a teenager who is presently at school. Once the seriousness of the events become apparent, everyone from Kyle’s school gets evacuated and teachers try to get their students home. Kyle has to cross the bridge to get to Brooklyn, where his home is. He sees something strange at the bridge, which looks like a big bird. When he moves back and tries to take another look, he discovers that it is a girl, who is wearing huge wings. It appears that she might be trying to jump into the river. Kyle rushes and gets her and takes her home. She appears to have suffered temporary amnesia probably because of the shocking events of the day. She can’t even remember her name. We also learn that Kyle’s father and Uncle Paul are officers with the NYPD and are at Ground Zero, his other uncle Matt who used to be at the NYPD is paralyzed because of an accident and lives with them, while his mother and daughter are in LA for an audition.

How does Kyle handle this situation? Who is this mysterious girl whom he feels responsible for but whom he also feels attracted to? Is Kyle able to reach his dad during this day filled with crisis? Is Kyle able to reach his mom? How does the story of each of them pan out? You should read the book to find out.

I loved ‘The Memory of Things‘. I loved the way the book evoked the atmosphere of that time, the fear and uncertainty that followed the disastrous events and also the calm of the people who stood strong. It is a story of everyday heroes who stood strong amidst adversity and handled the situation with grace and dignity. I loved the way the relationship between Kyle and the girl evolved, from being uncertain strangers to friends to something more. I also loved the character of Uncle Matt – though he couldn’t walk or speak much he was a cool character and has a wonderful sense of humour. In one place he says – “Am pah-lyze, Ky-uh. Not brain … dead…” – I couldn’t stop laughing when I read that 🙂

I loved the way the story is told, the narrative voices alternating between Kyle’s and the girl’s. Kyle’s voice narrates the story and moves the action along, while occasionally contemplating on life and the deeper meaning of things. The girl’s voice is poetic, dreamy, surreal. Both of them complement each other so beautifully. I liked some of the little things in the book that we discover when we look carefully – like this nod to Dickens – “it occurs to me that, in the middle of one of the worst things that has ever happened to me, is now also one of the best things.” The ending of the story is bittersweet but perfect. There is a note by the author at the end of the book in which she describes how she was inspired to write the book. It was beautiful to read.

I loved many passages from the book. Polisner’s prose is beautiful and I couldn’t stop highlighting passages. Here are two of my favourites.

    “Well, it feels like that, Kyle, back there. Like I’m adrift, in soaking wet clothes that are too heavy with the weight of things I don’t even know. And then the water doesn’t drown me but carries me and, for a second it lightens everything a little, and I feel momentarily hopeful. But always, there are things, beneath the waves, threatening to pull me under. And the land is right there, close enough to swim to—I can see it—but I’m not sure I want to come back to shore again. It’s like I’m here, solid, but I’m not connected to anything. I’m completely untethered. I know that makes no sense,” she says.
      “It does,” I say, “I think I get it. But you’re wrong. You’re tethered to me.”

      Change comes in two ways. The first is the blindside way that comes without warning. Like Uncle Matt’s motorcycle accident. Or the Twin Towers collapsing one Tuesday morning as you’re minding your own business in school. Or a girl showing up out of nowhere, covered in ash, and wearing some costume wings.
      That kind of change takes your breath away.
      But other times, change comes gradually, in that sure, steady way you can sense coming a mile away.
      Or maybe a day away.
      Or, maybe, a few short hours.
      And, since you know it’s coming, you’re supposed to prepare. Brace yourself against the stinging blow. But just because you plant your feet wider, doesn’t mean the blow won’t take you down.

I loved ‘The Memory of Things‘. It is a story about normal people handling extraordinary situations with great dignity and courage. It is also a story about friendship, love and family. It is one of my favourite books of the year. If you haven’t read it already, go get it now 🙂

Have you read ‘The Memory of Things‘? What do think about it?

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One of the books that I was looking forward to reading this year was ‘The Summer of Letting Go’ by Gae Polisner. I read Polisner’s ‘The Pull of Gravity’ last year and loved it. (It is about a boy and a girl who go on a quest and read John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ on the way, and learn a few life lessons through the book and through their quest). So, when ‘The Summer of Letting Go’ came out at the end of March I went out and got it. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

The Summer Of Letting Go By Gae Polisner

‘The Summer of Letting Go’ is about Frankie (Francesca) Schnell who is going to turn sixteen soon. She lives with her parents and there seems to be a pall of gloom at home. The reason for that is that Frankie’s brother Simon died a few years back. Frankie and her family had gone to the beach that day and while her parents were taking a nap asking Frankie to keep an eye on her brother, Frankie turns her attention away for a short while and at that time, as disasters normally happen when we are not looking, Simon goes to get a pail of water and a big wave pulls him into the ocean. When Frankie notices it, it is too late and though she tries to jump into the ocean to save her brother, more and more big waves come and pull him in. Her father wakes up and comes to the rescue but to no avail. Frankie is traumatized by the event and she thinks that she is responsible for the loss of her brother. Her mother stops talking to her in the normal way and Frankie feels that her mother blames her too. Only her father is still nice to her. A few years later, at the present time, one day Frankie spots her father’s car on the street, but her father doesn’t come home. Then she spots someone who looks suspiciously like her father at a neighbour’s home. The beginning of a suspicion crosses Frankie’s mind – on whether something is going on between her father and her neighbour, Mrs.Merrill. Frankie decides to investigate. She follows Mrs.Merrill into a club. And she meets young Frankie Sky there. And the biggest surprise of all is that Frankie Sky looks suspiciously like her brother Simon. And Frankie Sky mentions Simon’s name which stuns Frankie. When Frankie discovers that Frankie Sky is four years old and was born at around the same time that her brother Simon died, Frankie wonders whether he is the reincarnation of Simon. She starts investigating that topic. Frankie’s best friend is Lisette. Lisette’s boyfriend is the handsome Bradley. But unfortunately for our heroine Frankie, she likes Bradley too. When Frankie asks Lisette about reincarnation, Lisette tells her that Bradley knows a lot about that topic and she can talk to him about it. The stage is set for sparks to fly.

 

Will Frankie talk to Bradley about reincarnation? Will sparks fly during their interaction? Will that impact her friendship with Lisette? Who is Frankie Sky? Is he really the reincarnation of Frankie Schnell’s brother Simon? Does Frankie discover the secret behind the relationship between her father and Mrs.Merrill? And can Frankie ever forgive herself? And win her mother’s love back? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.

 

I loved ‘The Summer of Letting Go’. The story is beautiful and makes us want to turn the page to find out what happens next. Gae Polisner’s prose is smooth and elegant and flows like a river. There is not a single superfluous or redundant word. Reading the book was like taking a boat ride on the river on a warm summer day – very beautiful and enjoyable, though some of the themes that the book covers were serious. I liked all the characters in the story – it has been a long time since I last read a book where every character was likeable. The way some of the scenes were crafted with tension and conflict eventhough all the characters were likeable – that was very nicely done. I loved the way Frankie Sky spoke – his was a beautiful and original voice. It made me think of Jack from Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ whose voice I liked so much. In a book in which both the main characters have the same name, things could get a bit confusing, but Polisner navigates those waters masterfully and so though the same name leads to many interesting moments, there is no confusion. I loved the way the relationship between Frankie’s dad and Mrs.Merrill was described – so many things were left beautifully unsaid. I also loved the descriptions of nature that Polisner gives through the voices of her characters – they were some of my favourite passages from the book. I was a bit worried about the ending, because things could have turned out in many different ways that would have depressed me, but the ending was perfect. I won’t tell you though, whether it was happy or sad or something in between. You have to read the book to find out.

 

‘The Summer of Letting Go’ is a beautiful story. It is a tale of love, loss, forgiveness and finding love again. It is the story of a girl and her little brother, beautifully told. I am glad that I read the book. Now, I can’t wait to read Gae Polisner’s next book.

 

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

 

I always love when she brushes my hair because it makes me feel cared for without words.


I stare at my feet and think of this photograph I once saw of grains of sand magnified under a microscope, each grain its own tiny but perfect full-blown shell. I try to picture this now, how, under my feet, a whole miniature world exists – pink coral shaped like antlers, translucent raindrop hearts, amber spirals, each grain a complete miracle, too small for the naked eye to see.

 

As we walk, Bradley points out plants and animals, amazing things I never knew existed here. Not just horseshoe crabs, but miniscule bugs that skim the very top of the water. He makes Long Island sound like some sort of exotic paradise. He points out eel grass (which grows in meadows and can grow up to four feet tall), eastern oysters (their pearls are pretty, but not worth much), and orange-billed winter cormorants (his favorite birds, even if they’re common, because they all stand facing in one direction, their beaks making goofy expressions). He tells me how when bluefish feed in a frenzy, it appears as if the water’s surface is boiling. He shows me how clamshells have rings that tell you their age, the same way a tree trunk does. As he talks and points and digs, his eyes sparkle, and it gets harder and harder to remind myself that he’s Lisette’s boyfriend rather than mine.

 

I reach out and poke the tattoo on his belly, and he giggles. The superhero wrinkles and disappears into the folds.

 

Have you read ‘The Summer of Letting Go’? What do you think about it?

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