The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

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imageI admit that I had already given The Moor‘s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie a couple of unsuccessful tries before I finally challenged myself to reading it in one go a couple of weeks ago. It seemed just the right time to plunge into something by Rushdie after I unexpectedly met him at a conference he was giving in Madrid as part of the World Book Day celebration.

And yes, it was a big challenge. If one can love and hate a book at the same time, admire and despise it, crave for more and wish to finish it immediately, then I experienced it as well while turning the pages of The Moor‘s Last Sigh. I couldn‘t but admire Rushdie‘s genius, his boundless imagination and his capacity to interweave the lives of the characters of the book and the historical facts into one single fabric full of new colors. And at the same time I hated the slowness of the plot, which became even slower mixed with my incapacity to read Rusdhie‘s ornate language faster.

I loved how the author‘s experienced hand mixed classes, religions, ethnic groups, politics, business, crime and art. And I pitied my lack of knowledge of the historical and political context, which made me miss a lot of allusions and connotations that would have made more sense for somebody living in India.

I was tired of long sentences. And I relished the poetry of the language.

I chose to quote one single sentence, which resumes everything I tried to say in this review, and everything I was not able to express:

“And if the flies buzzed in through the opened netting-windows, and the naughty gusts through the parted panes of leaded glass, then opening of the shutters let in everything else: the dust and the tumult of boats in Cochin harbour, the horns of freighters and tugboat chugs, the fishermen’s dirty jokes and the throb of their jellyfish stings, the sunlight as sharp as a knife, the heat that could choke you like a damp cloth pulled tightly around your head, the calls of floating hawkers, the wafting sadness of the unmarried Jews across the water in Mattancherri, the menace of emerald smugglers, the machinations of business rivals, the growing nervousness of the British colony in Fort Cochin, the cash demands of the staff and of the plantation workers in the Spice Mountains, the tales of Communist troublemaking and Congresswallah politics, the names Gandhi and Nehru, the rumours of famine in the east and hunger strikes in the north, the songs and drum-beats of the oral storytellers, and the heavy rolling sound (as they broke against Cabral Island’s rickety jetty) of the incoming tides of history.”

Give it a try. Or a few. You’ll love it or you’ll hate it. Or both.

Oh, and if you are not sure what a palimpsest is, this book will teach you everything you need to know about it, I promise.

May 2014

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“Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett

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No28333962t being the greatest fan of short stories I had loved Haslett’s “You are not a Stranger Here” so much when I had read it a couple of years ago, that I was really looking forward to discover more of his writing. Not too long ago I had tried to read his debut novel “Union Atlantic” and it had not engage me at all. In spite of my failure to fall in love with Haslett’s first novel, I was happy to discover that his second one, “Imagine Me Gone”, had just been published, and managed to get a copy of it through NetGalley.

“Imagine Me Gone” is a brutally honest account of the effects of a mental illness on everybody around it. I don’t always like it when the narration is split into many different voices, but Haslett was really brilliant in giving voice to all the members of the family, whose lives are involuntarily affected first by the mental illness of John, the father, and then of Michael, the son. The illness, both in its presence and absence, casts an indelible shadow on all the characters, and it’s so tangible and real, that you can perceive it almost as one of the characters of the book, at the very center of it.
“Imagine Me Gone” is not only about mental illness and agony it causes to the person who is suffering from it, and to all those who are close enough to its epicenter, but also about our desire to explain it, to solve it, to believe that there always must be a trauma somewhere in the past which must have triggered the illness, and that if we locate it, we will no doubt be able to cure it. It is about how wrong we may sometimes be, and how far from being able to empathize with and understand the one who is ill.

Reading Haslett’s book brought my own anxieties up to the surface and reminded me of how wide the spectrum of what we call a mental illness is, and I caught myself biting my cuticles while I was reading it during my lunch breaks at work.

It is a devastating and poetic journey, and I can’t but recommend you to take it. I am really happy that my failure to engage with “Union Atlantic” had not discouraged me from giving this book a chance. Haslett has now firmly installed himself among my favorite contemporary writers.

“The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes

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27406560Even though I was born in the Soviet Union myself, I was still very little when Lithuania gained its independence, too little to have my own memories of the horrors which my parents and grandparents spoke about so often. And still, I feel that I’m a product of the legacy of the Soviet years, where the most important rule for survival was not to trust anyone, where everybody had to live double lives, applying logic and common sense only at home, where nobody could see or hear them, and adhering to the communist ideology when in public. There were no famous people in my family, nobody was supposed to cause an unwanted interest by the government, and still my grandparents together with their parents and siblings were deported to Siberia, where they finally met, got married, and where my mother was born before they were allowed to leave ten years after the deportation.
It is not difficult to imagine that nobody wanted to be in the center of interest of the government. Julian Barnes’ “The Noise of Time” follows an internationally famous Soviet composer, Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, through three difficult moments of his life, each of them 12 years apart. Unfortunately for Shostakovich, writing music that drew attention of the critics and the public, was not compatible with being unnoticed by Stalin. In the first part of the book Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” is visited by Stalin and later prohibited, filling the life of the composer with a constant fair of death, torture or exile. Twelve years later, Shostakovich is chosen to be part of a Soviet delegation to the US, where he is required to represent an ideology that has forbidden his own works, that uses art as a tool of power and control, imposing a purpose on it which it should never have. Another twelve years later, even though Stalin is already dead, nothing is over yet, and Shostakovich, already an elderly man is forced to join the Communist Party he so despises, and is made a Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers.
No historical documents can give us access to what Shostakovich felt through these three devastating experiences and between them. Julian Barnes does an incredible job of filling out this unknown space with his brilliant writing and breathing life into the historical character.
Even though not my favourite book by Barnes, I can really recommend it to those who are interested in learning about the horrors of the Soviet years and the situation of art in the Soviet Union. A great and enlightening read!

“A Single Man” by Christopher Isherwood

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16842So right after finishing Isherwood’s “A Single Man” last night I did this terrible (or wonderful?) thing of watching the movie based on the book. I was moved after the book, and it only got intensified after I finished the movie at 2:30 am last night. And I could not sleep until the morning. The terrible part is that I can’t tell which of the two was responsible for my insomnia in the end. The wonderful part that I had not been moved in such way in a very long time.

“A Single Man” follows George, a middle-aged university professor, through the 24 hours of one single day of his life. Such a short time span concerned me a little before starting the book, as I could not imagine it was going to be enough to get me immersed in its plot, but after I have finally closed the book, it felt like I have known George for my whole life.

We know from the very beginning that George is British, that he is gay and that he is grieving over the loss of his boyfriend Jim, whom he had used to share his house with. George’s grief is palpable, and although a year has already passed since Jim’s death, his shadow is present in George’s every move.

“Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small space, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove, squeezing past each other on the narrow stairs, shaving in front of the same small bathroom mirror, constantly jogging, jostling, bumping against each other’s bodies by mistake or on purpose, sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently, in rage or in love – think what deep though invisible tracks they must leave, everywhere, behind them!”

George is willing to live in the Present, to live Now, because the Past is what has already been lost, and the future is Death. However, sticking to the Now is complicated, and he is constantly dragged to one side or another, to nostalgic memories or to concerns about what is waiting for him in the future.

“But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until — later of sooner — perhaps — no, not perhaps — quite certainly: it will come.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the critique of the society employed in the book, and even though it was written in the 60s, a lot of it is still valid nowadays. There is a lot of sarcasm in this book, but there is also this incredible subtlety with which the author treats some of the topics and which I couldn’t but love.

George’s and his student Kenny’s dialogue at the end of the book is one of these subtle and moving scenes that will haunt me forever. What an amazing comparison of youth and old age the author has provided us with. I can’t say any more about it, you will have to arrive to this scene on your own. And the journey will wear you out. And you will not regret it.

May, 2014

A Wild Swan by Michael Cunningham

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23848124“A Wild Swan: And Other Tales” is not a typical book by Michael Cunningham. It’s a colorful collection of fairy tales, revisited by the author, and presented to us from completely new perspectives. I was curious before starting the book if I was going to be able to recall any of the stories or characters from the fairy tales chosen by Cunningham, as the last time I remember myself reading a fairy tale was definitely more than twenty years ago. I did however find all the stories familiar and enjoyed the chance to conjure them up from the far-away corners of my memory.

If you ever had a chance to re-read any of your childhood favorite fairy tales, you’ll probably agree that a lot of times they seem illogical and cruel, and that their characters do things whose motivation is utterly unclear, although these are never questioned by a child. Cunningham questions the irrationality of the fairy tales and masterly invents the motivation and background behind all these actions and events we used to take for granted. Have you ever asked yourself why could a gnome want a queen’s firstborn child? And how did the life of the guy who retained a swan’s wing instead of his arm looked like? Cunningham places the characters and the events of the fairy tales in the modern times. If magic can happen at all, why does it have to be in the past? Why do we always see fairy tales as something that has happened really long ago?

Another aspect of these revisited fairy tales I really loved was the author’s ability to tell them from totally unexpected perspectives. He gives voices to both good and evil characters, main and secondary or unnoticed ones.

A witty and entertaining read.

Note: I obtained this book through NetGalley.

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

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5942I read some people saying that this book is composed of fragments. I would rather say it is composed of silences between them. So many things are untold in “Anil’s Ghost”, but can be perceived and felt so clearly. To me this eloquent mosaic of silences was as important, as beautiful and poetic as Ondaatje’s words in this fragmented story. And what can better transmit the fear of the people caught amidst the Sri Lanka civil war than silence?

Ondaatje loosely tells us about the situation in Sri Lanka during some of the worst years of the civil war, where people felt trapped in the conflict between the government, the antigovernment insurgents and the separatist guerillas. During these years people were disappearing in big numbers, their bodies later appearing in the sea, rivers, fields or crowded hospitals. More often, they became lost forever. The three conflicting groups were the main players in this terror, none better in its methods than the other, which meant that the only way for people to survive was keeping their heads low and being silent. Not asking questions. Not looking for the answers, not wanting the truth.

Anil, a forensic pathologist who left Sri Lanka, her country of origin, fifteen years ago, comes back on a seven week mission to investigate the infringements of the human rights in the country. She is determined to identify a victim whose bones were found in the area protected by the government. Will her quest for truth be successful? Could naming one victim help her name and stand for all of them? Does it really matter which group is responsible? Can the truth be more important than peace?

Anil’s local partner in the investigation is Sarath, a Sri Lankan archeologist, who finds solace in his studies. Archeological artefacts serve him as an anchor, the only things that are stable in his life, never changing throughout thousands of years. Sarath seems to Anil remote and impenetrable, difficult to trust because of his contacts in the government.

And then there is Gamini, Sarath’s younger brother, one of the most beautifully crafted characters I have met in my literary life. Gamini is a doctor who is not capable of sleep, except for maybe a short moment in a bed of a ward, who almost lives in the hospital, never finding peace anywhere else, who is afraid of the dead, afraid to see their faces, lest he recognizes them.

A doctor, a forensic pathologist and an archeologist. A study of the living, the dead and the immortality.

The book evolves slowly, taking us back and forth in time, peeling off the layers of its characters, getting us closer to their nature, revealing one startling and uncomfortable truth after another, until we are sucked in, immersed in this wearisome journey and until it spits us out burnt-out and wasted and, perhaps, a little less ignorant.

June, 2014

My favourite books discovered in 2015

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As the year is almost over, it’s time to share the books discovered this year that I have enjoyed the most. Thus, here it goes, in no particular order.

6514
“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath. 

 

A partially autobiographical novel about a talented girl, aspiring to become a writer, who undergoes a bout of madness. I loved the author’s brave and always witty protest about the situation of women in the 60s, her sense of humour and the sometimes unsettling ability to connect with the reader, making me identify with the protagonist even in her most awkward and complex moments.

166997

“Stoner” by John Williams

Probably my favourite discovery of the year. Williams provides us with a detailed portrait of Stoner and his life, from his childhood in a countryside of Missouri, the “accidental” discovery of literature in the university, a failure of a marriage, becoming a professor, a father, a lover, to his old age and death. There is a simplicity in Williams’ style that I found just perfect and, at the same time, extraordinarily poignant.

38474“Another Country” by James Baldwin

“Giovanni’s Room”, my first book by Baldwin, had already introduced me to the complexity of his themes, and “Another Country” took this complexity to a whole new level. Colour, sexual identity, fear, discrimination, violence that breeds even more violence, hatred, uncertainty, social pressure, guilt, infidelity and love in all its dimensions are among the themes presented to us by Baldwin. Continue…

23168277“The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Another amazing discovery of 2015. I found Nguyen’s debut novel about the fall of Saigon and the years after it absolutely genius. I raise my hat to the author’s intelligence, mastery of words and, especially to his capacity of being equally critical to all sides and forces involved in Vietnam War.

103345“If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” by Jon McGregor

There is nothing remarkable about the characters of this book. They are ordinary neighbors of a run-down neighborhood, living their ordinary lives, going through their ordinary routines, talking about ordinary things. Yet Jon McGregor, the author of “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” subtly shows us that the ordinary can be and is remarkable. Continue…

1342650“Life Class” trilogy by Pat Barker

I was in love with Pat Barker’s style and unforgettable characters after her “Regeneration” trilogy on WWI, so I couldn’t miss another trilogy by her on the same topic, although from a completely different angle. The last book in this trilogy extends to WWII and covers some of the harrowing events during the London Blitz. You can read my full review of Toby’s Room, the second book in the trilogy HERE.

92267“Ship Fever” by Andrea Barrett

I must admit that I am not a fan of short stories, and this book got into my hands when my creative writing teacher recommended one of the stories from “Ship Fever” (it was actually called “Ship Fever” as well). What happened was that after finishing that story I just couldn’t put the book down and devoured it in a few days. As Boston Globe reviewers aptly said, it’s a collection of stories about the “love of science and the science of love” set mostly in the 19th century. A must read for all lovers of literature who are curious about science and the world.

192378“Missing Person” by Patrick Modiano

I am a bit ashamed to admit that I had not read anything by Modiano until he won the Nobel Prize of Literature, and to correct it I started with “Missing Person”. It’s one of those books you finish in one go, as it’s really difficult to put it down once you open it. “Missing Person” is a story of a man on the quest of discovering his past which he can’t remember. Although I wouldn’t call it a detective, it has this air of mystery that makes you look forward to opening the next page.

18467802“Euphoria” by Lily King

“Euphoria”, is loosely based on the lives of three social anthropologists, Margaret Mead, her second husband, Reo Fortune, and her third husband, Gregory Bateson. Social anthropology and a possibility to get a little closer to Margaret Mead, even though fictional, were the factors that attracted me to “Euphoria” in the first place, especially because I studied social anthropology and Mead’s works myself in my university years. Continue…

 

“Toby’s Room” by Pat Barker

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13330599“Toby’s Room” is probably the seventh book by Pat Barker I have read. I must admit that I was so impressed and affected by her “Regenaration” trilogy when I had read it a couple of years ago, that Barker became one of my favourite writers, and I have been coming back for more of her writing ever since. “Toby’s Room” is a sequel to “Life Class”, although it can be read as a separate book as well. And, together with “Life Class” it’s another disturbing and vivid account of life before, during and after the WWI.

I liked “Toby’s Room” more than “Life Class”, even if it could not touch me in the same way as the “Regeneration” trilogy. The two books in the series follow the lives of a few art students in The Slade, a renowned art school in London, and their inevitable transformation by war. Barker masterly analyzes the place of art in war: does it make sense to keep making art? Can you still be impartial? If you keep making art during the war, does it convert you into a conchie? Can art become part of a war machine? All these questions torment the characters while sooner or later they all get drawn in by the devastating and omnivorous beast of war.

One of the aspects of Barker’s historical novels that I really love and admire is her capacity to mix real historical characters with invented ones so naturally. I always end up guessing which of them really existed, looking them up, reading their biographies, and learning a lot of historical details which are not directly presented in the book. It awakens my curiosity for history, and I finish her books, hopefully, a little less ignorant than I was before opening them.

In “Toby’s Room” we meet at least a couple of these characters. One of them is Henry Tonks, a surgeon and a strict and formidable art teacher at The Slade, who introduces anatomy classes to art students, so that they can get to know a human body in all its aspects. Elinor, an art student and one of the main characters of the book, attends anatomy class together with medical students, and studies it by slowly dissecting a body of an unknown man during a period of a few months, until there is nothing left of it but bones. After the war Tonks works as an illustrator in Queens Hospital, where facial injuries are treated, in order to depict the faces of the soldiers before and after the surgeries. Here he works with Harold Gillies, a surgeon and another historical character, who is now considered the father of plastic surgery. Barker’s vivid description of the atmosphere in the hospital, together with Tonks’ paintings and Gillies’ plastic surgery methods, illustrations of which you can easily find online, is powerful and disturbing. Both through the scenes of the dissected man in the anatomy class, and through the injuries of the patients in Queen’s Hospital, which involve the protagonists as well, Barker studies the relation between face and identity.

I could not truly connect to the characters of the book and found them a little distant, especially in comparison to other books of Barker, and that must be the reason of why they are mostly absent in my review. However, my four stars go to the incredibly complicated topics analyzed by the author, to introducing me once again to the horrors of war, seen from different angles which I had been incapable of imagining before opening this book, to disturbing me once again, and to never failing to shake me out of my comfortable numbness.

July, 2015

“Euphoria” by Lily King

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18467802It’s been a long time since I got so emotionally affected by a book. My first Lily King’s book, “Euphoria”, is loosely based on the lives of three social anthropologists, Margaret Mead, her second husband, Reo Fortune, and her third husband, Gregory Bateson. Social anthropology and a possibility to get a little closer to Margaret Mead, even though fictional, were the factors that attracted me to “Euphoria” in the first place, especially because I studied social anthropology and Mead’s works myself in my university years.

Nell (Mead’s equivalent in the book) is an already famous American anthropologist, married to a New Zealander Fen. Together they are studying little known tribes of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. After a year and a half they are joined by a British anthropologist Bankson, who has been studying one of the tribes there for two years already.

The author masterly analyzes the psychology of three people from three different cultures, united by the quest for understanding and discovery, enclosed in a small, claustrophobic space for a long period of time. There is brilliance, ambition, joy of discovery, camaraderie, but there is also envy, friction, tension and, inevitably, attraction between the characters.

I loved the historical context of the book, the rise of cultural relativism in the history of social anthropology, which questioned the universality of the Western civilization. But what I loved even more is the subtlety of the psychology of King’s characters and her sensitivity to almost invisible nuances that rendered these characters real.

My five stars go to these unforgettable characters this time. A really enjoyable and emotional journey it was!

February, 2015

“If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” by John McGregor

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103345There is nothing remarkable about the characters of this book. They are ordinary neighbors of a run-down neighborhood, living their ordinary lives, going through their ordinary routines, talking about ordinary things. Yet Jon McGregor, the author of “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” subtly shows us that the ordinary can be and is remarkable. He traces the lives of a group of people living in the same street, connected only by this fact, during a period of one day. We also get to know one of them, a girl with short blonde hair and square glasses, deeper, meeting her a few years later, and often jumping back to that ordinary remarkable day in her old neighborhood.

McGregor only presents us with tiny bits of a day-long fragment of the lives of the characters, and still it is enough to begin caring for them, to be drawn deep into their worlds, to learn of their personal dramas, so important to each of them, and of which the rest of the characters are totally oblivious.

I think I couldn’t have loved this book more. The way the author presented the mundane as something so special and the fragility of our lives in such a subtle and poetic way, must have touched a sensitive spot in me. Simply beautiful.


August, 2015