Mise en abyme, Polymaths and Trains @ BYOB Party in Sep 2018 (Part 6)

Image result for the counterfeiters amazon primeSamarth got the BYOB Party back into fiction mode by deconstructing The Counterfeiters by French novelist André Gide. This immersive book hosts multiple characters and points of view as well as various plotlines including Mise en abyme (a novel in a novel) and is considered as the precursor to the nouveau roman. In this philosophical novel, the real counterfeiters are not the makers of false coins but the writers themselves – Édouard and Gide himself.  The book deals with identity, the nature of truth, alter ego, deception and the Parisian culture of the time.

You may be interested in reading Andre Gide’s  Nobel Prize winner’s acceptance speech here.

Image result for the man without qualities amazonRakesh explained how difficult his quest for a definite favorite book has been but he finally did find one, while on a quest for the thickest book- an obscure and prestigious book of ideas called The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. It’s a book of ideas that he keeps going back to, the story of the Viennese Ulrich who was a soldier, a polymath and sceptic. The book is populated by emotional and logical characters and the ideas that percolate through a single chapter of the book gives enough for you to chew on for days. Rakesh read out a passage:

“At this moment he wished to be a man without qualities. But this is probably not so different from what other people sometimes feel too. After all, by the time they have reached the middle of their life’s journey few people remember how they managed to arrive at themselves, at their amusements, their point of view, their wife, character, occupation and successes, but they cannot help feeling that not much is likely to change anymore. It might even be asserted that they have been cheated, for one can nowhere discover any sufficient reason for everything’s coming about as it has. It might just have well as turned out differently. The events of people’s lives have, after all, only to the last degree originated in them, having generally depended on all sorts of circumstances such as the moods, the life or death of quite different people, and have, as it were, only at the given point of time come hurrying towards them.”

Tempting book indeed!

Image result for last train to istanbul amazonAnshuman got an interesting fiction called the Last Train to Istanbul by Ayse Kulin, a screenwriter whose experience with cinematic narrative seeps into her novels. The title reminds you of Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh but there the similarity ends. Kulin explores multiple themes like ethnicity, the politics of migration, the impossibility of love and the irony of human situations. The plot is pretty complex – a Muslim girl falls in love with a Jewish boy and since this is faux pas, they flee to Europe just when Nazi flags fly high and become part of an elaborately planned escape. Definitely a page-turner.

More books discussed in Part 7.


Short Book Review: Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. CoetzeeSBR: Before I ever read Waiting for the Barbarians, I had been exposed to so much admiration for it from many people whose recommendations I take seriously that now I feel annoyed at myself not really liking it. I also feel very lonely in my distaste for the book. Ah! It feels good to be able to say that out loud.
Coetzee’s prose is beautiful and the story is an important one. But what is the protagonist of Disgrace doing in this story? Why is this story being told from the point of view of a middle-aged man who is obsessed with his sexuality, who seems to secretly loathe himself for it, but who preys upon young women all the same, and then instead of dealing with his self-loathing, tries to philosophize about it pointlessly? He achieves nothing, he can achieve nothing in the story but for some reason, he is at the center of it. It is annoying that the most important observations of the story are being spouted from his mouth. It doesn’t help that female characters exist not to be fleshed out, but only to be used (by him!). My complaint is not that the protagonist is not likable. (Who wants a goody two shoes for a protagonist?) But that he has been indulged so much by the author in a story that doesn’t belong to him. All the torture meted out to him is purely wanton. And one wonders why would he be given so much attention even as a receptacle for the violence of his captors. In a messed up system they belong to, surely they have more cunning usage for their violence.
Dusklands was great, but after Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians, I think I am done with Coetzee for a while. If I do pick up another book, I would need some serious assurance beforehand that it doesn’t have a self-loathing, middle-aged man philosophizing about his libido and getting off on being disgraced.
To read or not to read: Not on my recommendation. But it is an acclaimed book, so I won’t stop you from reading it!

Yiddish, Right to Education, and Elephants @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 6)

Image result for love in exile isaac amazonApurba is fond of reading remote narratives about obscure places and people. This time she chose a Hebrew writer called Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote in Yiddish.  Love and Exile is the story of Singer’s own life from his childhood in Poland until the time he went to New York. It’s the story of the birth and growth of a writer, a Yiddish one at that. Once Hitler came to power, his family fled from Poland; he finally ended up going to the US following the heels of many of his friends who had emigrated to other countries including Palestine because they had the money. Apurba identified with this Nobel Prize Winner’s candor. In his late 20s, he was as disillusioned and clueless about life as many of us are. He wrote in Yiddish, which was a dying language.  Even when he was in the US, he found it difficult to gel with the east coast Jewish population. His older brother was more established than he was. In fact, the first thirty years of his life were pretty unremarkable. This was heartening to Apurba as here was a man who lived an ordinary life and talked about, including all his failures and the alienation of displacement.

Here’s a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer if you want to get hold of his fantastic prose right now. Click here.

Image result for dear mrs naiduAbhaya got a children’s book this time, a delightful read called Dear Mrs Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian.  The story revolves around Sarojini whose best friend moves out of her basti. She now wants to go to his school which is better than hers; the Right to Education Act then makes its appearance and using the story of a friendship and letters to the freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu, Mathangi Subramnium creates a very informative and educational book with the message that good intentions alone are not enough for implementation. Comparisons of the book with the Bollywood movie Hindi Medium were made. Although the book is for children, Abhaya found it well worth a read to make sense of this controversial act.

Image result for swimmer among the starsamazonSwimmer Among the Stars, a collection of short stories, by Kanishk Tharoor did not disappoint. Sowmya looked forward to yet another Tharoorian waft of prose. and she was delighted. “He’s a master with words,” she gushed, ” His stories are simple but very different. In fact, my favorite story is one about an eyelash.” His stories are diverse featuring elephants, cooks, space and armies. His historical epic take of the world is punctuated by myth and folklore and influences of Italo Calvino and Borges appear from time to time.

Click here to read an interview with the master craftsman.


More books in Part 7.

Suspect X and Miniaturist Art @ BYOB Party in November 2017 (Part 2)

There was a crime thriller edge to the BYOB Party this time. Kshitija spoke about a unique crime thriller called The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. The reason for its uniqueness is that the book is no conventional whodunit and the thrill lies in the power play of human psychology. The storyline is uncomplicated and even though the book is a translation from Japanese, Kshitija enjoyed the writing style. Here’s an interview with the translator Alexander O’Smith if you want to understand more about the how this novel was translated.

The story throws light on the little details of day-to-day life in Japan. Yasuko Hanoaka is a divorced single mother who lives with her daughter. Her abusive ex-husband shows up one day and ends up being killed. Detective Kusanagi suspects Yasuko but needs Professor Galileo’s help to find the culprit. The ending is wowing and Kshitija spoke in breathless excitement about the cleverness of the title. This is one psychological crime thriller you do not want to miss out on.

Aditi also got her hands on a unique literary historical crime thriller by Orhan Pamuk called My Name is RedThis book is a translation as well. Pamuk meshes love, crime and art with sixteenth-century Turkey as the backdrop. One of the miniature artists commissioned by the Sultan to create a book of his glories has disappeared. What makes the book unique besides its ambitious plotline is the fact that the point of view changes from chapter to chapter and requires a great deal of staying power to finish and do justice to as a reader. If you stick with it, this is a book that is hard to forget.

Here’s a link to an interview with Orhan Pamuk where we look at the author who brings life to Turkey’s past, present and future, using the Bosphorus river as the setting for his imagination.

Mr. Biswas @ BYOB Party in July 2017 (Part 3)

Sourajit, a scientist working at ISRO on the moon mission talked about another Nobel Prize winner’s work. A House for Mr. Biswas is V. S. Naipaul’s masterpiece. The story is biographical — an unflattering farcical tragedy of his own father, one who fights against an unrelenting destiny.

“The problem with the book is that it is far too episodic and so if you skip a couple of chapters, you aren’t missing anything. His style, on the other hand, is terrific. There is nothing that his observant eye misses- be it the socio-political or the cultural. The other thing that I noticed is that he is very rude. He says the meanest things about communities and mines the personal tragedy of his own family. In spite of all this, you know that he is not glossing over anything either good or bad. And so you empathize. It’s almost as though he has an obligation to be honest, although I honestly don’t know if he is misguided or not in this endeavour.” Saurojit arrived at the gist of what has made a man who is undoubtedly judged and judgemental a great writer whose prose is nuanced. He read out a passage from the book that throws light on his writing style:

Soon it seemed to the children that they had never lived anywhere but in the tall square house in Sikkim Street. From now, their lives would be ordered, their memories coherent. The mind, while it is sound, is merciful. And rapidly the memories of Hanuman House, The Chase, Green Vale, Shorthills, the Tulsi House in Port of Spain would become jumbled, blurred; events would be telescoped, many forgotten.  Occasionally a nerve of memory would be touched – a puddle reflecting the blue sky after rain, a pack of thumbed cards, the fumbling with a shoelace, the smell of a new car, the sound of a stiff wind through trees, the smells and colours of a toyshop, the taste of milk and prunes – and a fragment of forgotten experience would be dislodged, isolated, puzzling. In a northern land, in a time of new separations and yearnings, in a library grown suddenly dark, the hailstones beating against the windows, the marbled endpaper of a leatherbound book would disturb: and it would be the hot noisy week before Christmas in the Tulsi Store: the marbled patterns of old fashioned balloons powdered with a rubbery dust in a shallow white box that was not to be touched. So later, and very slowly, in securer times of different stresses, when the memories had lost the power to hurt, with pain or joy, they would fall into place and give back the past.

In case the contrarian views of V. S. Naipaul put you off, you may like to know what women think of him (everyone knows what he thinks of women writers).

More books in Part 4.

Short Book Review: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

MyNameIsRedSBR: What do you say about a book which is very well written and incredibly boring to read? No. Not in the way some people find classics. My Name is Red really is well-written for a modern audience. The translator must have done a hell of a job for it not to feel awkward anywhere. It even has a fairly good mystery plot. But the beautiful chapters, written from a thousand different points of view, repeat the same things over and over again and by the time the story moves, you don’t care about the mystery anymore. Besides whatever you have to learn about the Persian vs. Turkish vs. European painting styles of the sixteenth century, you learn in the first few chapters and could do without learning over and over again. There is a daastaangoi  kind of experience with fantastical, mythical stories making their appearances, but that too gets too repetitive after a time.
To read or not to read: If you are someone who can experience the joy of reading something beautiful for the heck of it, please go ahead. But if repetition tires or bores you, you will be pulling your hair out within the first hour of reading. I wish I could categorically say, don’t read it. Unfortunately, I can’t.