The Clothing of Books, by Jhumpa Lahiri

“I write not only to avoid the question, but also to seek the answer.”

31019618In this personal and meditative collection of essays, Jhumpa Lahiri talks about the love-hate relationship she shares with book covers – of her own books, of the books that surrounded her as she wrote these essays, and of the books she grew up with – many of which were jacketless.

She shares with the reader how she does not like the covers of some of the editions of a particular book of hers. She, of course, has not mentioned which book or which edition, but that isn’t necessary. A book, to employ the cliche of all cliches, is like an author’s child. If you find someone else dressing up your child, in ideas that clash your own, in a way that they seem to have misunderstood the soul of it, you will be rightfully upset.

Being a published author myself, even if I do not have Lahiri’s calibre (or fame), I can somewhat understand her chagrin. Two of my books are self-published, whose covers I designed myself (on my phone, no less!) using a simple photo editing tool called Fantasia Painter (which is by far the best photo editing tool I’ve used, but is, unfortunately, available only on Windows phones (yet another reason to miss my old phone)) Simple as they are, they were still designed by me. As for the other books I’ve contributed to, there is one cover I absolutely dislike and another that I personally felt did not do justice to the theme of the book. Now if I, with my rather insignificant mark in the world of literature, could feel so strongly about the covers that relate to me, it is only natural that someone of Lahiri’s talent and brilliance would feel the same. It’s about your love for your work, your passion for the art. And I, like her, hate the word “blurb” (and its concept).

Another topic she touches upon is that of plagiarism – covers sometimes get copied. I was at a souvenir shop in a hotel I stayed at recently, and I saw a book whose cover was an exact replica of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions. I reached for the book thinking it is the Mahabharat saga that Divakaruni wrote, but it wasn’t. I was shocked! I don’t remember which book it was, but I think it was a travelogue of some kind. How much ever Lahiri may hate book covers, the truth is sometimes we remember books by their covers. And some covers are so familiar that seeing different text on it almost unnerves us!

Lahiri’s tone in these essays made me feel she was writing for herself alone, and yet, she was writing for someone to read these words. She was venting out for herself, but she wanted someone to know how she felt. In a way it was like sneaking into someone’s diary and getting to know them a little bit. Her language is simple, a little unlike the luxuriant prose with which she writes fiction, but a pleasure to read nonetheless – the difference between the two could be compared to spending a night in PJs at home, vs., going out partying in heels. A poor example, but I hope it conveys my meaning.

Do you judge a book by its jacket? How important do you think is the jacket and the blurb?

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Note: I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley/Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. My review is honest and unbiased.

How To Be Good, by Nick Hornby

“What you don’t catch a glimpse of on your wedding day- because how could you?- is that some days you will hate your spouse, that you will look at him and regret ever exchanging a word with him, let alone a ring and bodily fluids.”

8577083How To Be Good begins with Dr Katie Carr in a parking lot asking her husband David for a divorce over the phone. She thinks this scenario would be highly unlikely if her life were a movie. But then she has had enough. David is selfish, whiny, and even his newspaper column is called The Angriest Man in Holloway. Katie has spent her life living carefully, trying to be a good doctor, a good person, a good mother. But now she’s gone and had an affair with Stephen, and she’s here in a parking lot asking David for a divorce. Over the phone.

For a lot of reasons, I loved this book. Acutely observant and precise, How To Be Good paints a very credible picture. Hornby’s writing is witty and even depressing scenes have been written in a darkly comic style. The splendid intricacy lies in how the characters seem deceptively simple, but are so realistic in their own way. As a reader, you want to take sides because that’s the kind of characters we’re used to. But you can’t, in this case. I was a little disappointed by Katie’s ultimate choice, but can’t say I was surprised. It only added to the story’s credibility.

My one issue with the book though (and this is a big one for me) is the ending. I hate open endings. I just hate them. I’ve read this far, at least give me closure, but no! Why do authors do this? Why do people like this? I know a lot of people who love open endings (please spare me the “but you can interpret it in so many ways, isn’t that bril?” No.) But they’re not for me. When I get to the end and it’s an “Open-for-all”, I know that the author probably had something in mind; no one decides to leave a story hanging that way, and I don’t want to form my own ideas – I want to know what that particular thought was in the author’s mind they wrote that particular ending. And not knowing drives me mad. Just mad.

What do you think of open endings? Yay/Nay?

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The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison

22435466Um, no.
Just, no.
I should explain.

We start with a group of schoolboys making handwritten copies of the book of the unnamed midwife. Their teacher is old and pregnant, too old to be pregnant in fact. She tells them the book may cause them to fall sick because the contents are horribly disturbing, but they must perform the task assigned to them. Quite a lot of years have passed since the book was originally written. The boys excitedly start.

That was the prologue and that, honestly, was the most interesting part of this book. I really, really wanted to read more about that school and the era it was set in.

We then move to the actual story. It appears to be our time, give or take a few years. A disease of some kind has struck the population and it has wiped out 98% or so of it. It mainly affects women, more specifically pregnant women. Neither the mothers, nor the children survive this deadly disease. Our narrator, the unnamed midwife, gets affected too, and when she wakes up, she sees she’s the only one in the hospital. She doesn’t know how many days or months have passed. Stepping out of the place, she realizes the world has become very dangerous for women, given that the ratio of male to female is now 10:1, and in a world that’s descended to lawlessness, men have turned savage. In order to protect herself, she dresses up as a man and goes around the country trying to protect the women she finds.

TBOTUM, originally published in 2014, is a winner of the Philip K. Dick award. That aside, there were quite a few things about this book that bothered me. Why did the disease affect women more than men? It is described as an extinction event, so is it some “survival of the fittest” thing? If so, are women unfit to survive? Moving on. Let’s see now, this isn’t an original plot, is it? There have been several post apocalyptic stories – both books and movies – where either one group survives, or one woman survives (thereby battling the savage men) or one man survives (who battles zombies or some such). There are some themes in this book that most definitely should have been explored further. The bit in the prologue being one of them. Alas, the reader doesn’t get much. It’s a shame, really. Each of the chapters starts of with a journal entry written in a horrible font, followed by the story narrated in 3rd person. I would mark this book down for that font alone, to tell you the truth!

And now all of that aside, what bothered me most was the pedestrian language. When I said the prologue was the most interesting part for me, what I meant is, that’s the one part that’s actually written well. It sets an atmosphere: a school (I imagined something like a monastery), a group of boys, books so old that their pages disintegrate if sunlight falls on them, a silver-haired pregnant teacher. The atmosphere this scene set was just superb. You enter the book with the expectations set by the beauty of the prologue. What you get, instead, is writing that makes you believe this was written for teens, by a teen. In fact, had it not been for all the violence and the gore, I would’ve called it post-apocalyptic YA. Talking about the violence itself, it’s presented like it’s merely there for shock value: “Oh the horror! Oh these men! Oh these rapes and these womb trades!” (If this reminds you of Mad Max, then let me tell you, me too, me too!) I don’t feel subjects as these should be utilized for shock value.

I read this book while in bed with a raging fever. At one point I had one of those fever-induced delirious dreams, in which I saw a few scenes from the book. I think I was the unnamed midwife in that dream, though I’m not entirely sure. That was, now that I think about it, kinda fun. Lesson: Fevers make overdone plotlines interesting!

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Note: I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley/47North. My review is honest and unbiased.

The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon

Local Teen Trapped in Parental Vortex of Expectation and Disappointment

28763485Natasha Kingsley is about to be deported. Daniel is on his way to attend an interview to get into Yale, pursue medical studies and become a doctor. Their paths cross thanks to a series of coincidences. Although, no two people could be less alike – one is a science geek, who believes love is just chemicals in the brain and nothing more; the other is a dreamer and a poet (who has absolutely no interest in becoming a doctor). But now that their paths have crossed, how do they spend the one day they have got with each other? Is it just one day, or does Natasha somehow manage to stay in the country? Told from alternating POVs of the main characters, and punctuated by the histories of the sub-characters, we watch this light-hearted story unfold.

My interest in The Sun is Also a Star was piqued because it gave off a distinctly Eleanor & Park vibe when I read the blurb on Goodreads. Now that I’ve read it, I know I was wrong. Aside from the simple fact that both the male protagonists are Korean American, the two stories don’t have anything in common. I’m choosy about YA – either I enjoy the books tremendously or I’m left utterly cold. TSIAAS lies somewhere in between. Of course there were things that I would normally call out as issues – such as the instalove between the two characters, Daniel’s conviction that everything is rosy and poetic (it’s VERY unrealistic – he’s always dreaming!), the fact that despite being blatant opposites, in their individual narratives their voices are strikingly similar. I have to admit though that it’s a cute story. It’s not badly written; by that I mean, while I don’t believe anyone could fall in love with anyone in a day (love is a big word), I didn’t feel as cynical as to not enjoy the book either. It allowed me to suspend my disbelief and as far as books go, that’s not a terrible thing. It’s not a terrible thing at all. So I forgave the instalove and the dreaminess, and I closed my eyes and enjoyed it. Maybe you will too.

Mind you though, it is no Eleanor & Park. It’s a book that’ll get rid of reality for a few hours, in a complacently pleasant way (if that makes sense).

Note: I received an ARC from Netgalley/Penguin Random House Children’s Publisher. My review is honest and unbiased.

Faithful, by Alice Hoffman

Never is a long time.

29432767Faithful is the story of once-popular, now-self-destructive Shelby Richmond. One fateful night, when she was seventeen, she and her best friend Helene go out for a drive. Their car crashes; Shelby survives with minor injuries, but Helene goes into a vegetative state. Traumatized and guilty, Shelby has a nervous breakdown and stops speaking altogether. She’s admitted to a psych ward, where she is raped by an orderly. This is when she gets the first of many postcards. It says, Say Something. And she does. She tells her mother about what’s happening and her mother gets her released from the hospital immediately.
Helene, on the other hand, is being revered as some sort of saint. Those who visit her claim they get cured of all illnesses and misfortunes if they touch her hand. Shelby does not believe in these miracles, but she is still suffering from guilt. Helene and Shelby both once had dreams and bright futures ahead of them. Helene’s lost hers, and Shelby gives up hers, choosing instead to waste her life away in her parents’ basement. She shaves her head, smokes pot, and watches TV shows she claims to hate. Her drug dealer is her old classmate, Ben Mink, with whom she walks to Helene’s house one night. Ben reveals to her that he’s going to the city to become a pharmacist and asks her to go with him. Two years have passed since the accident and Shelby decides to finally leave her hometown. She moves to the city with Ben, gets a job in a pet store, unexpectedly makes friends, and, most importantly, begins to save dogs in need of saving.

Admittedly, this book got off to a very slow and depressing start. It wasn’t just grim, because of the accident – it was very bleak. I disliked this bit of the story, but did not, at any point, feel like putting the book down. I might have, had it continued in that vein, but after Shelby decides to do something with her life, the story was, if not instantly, uplifted. I loved the characters in this book – especially Maravelle, Shelby’s friend from the pet store. I’m not a dog person, but the way Shelby rescues ill-treated dogs was heartwarming, and I found myself falling in love with all her dogs.

When Shelby starts receiving the postcards (Say Something, See Something, Save Something, etc.), I was reminded of Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger. But the main difference between the two is, Ed Kennedy receives aces in the mail to save other people; Shelby receives them to save herself. Her guilt and self pity nearly killed her, and even towards the end of the book, her self pity is highly palpable. On the night of the accident, Shelby believes she saw an angel and she believes it is the angel who is sending her the postcards. At other times, she is convinced it is Helene – though Helene is now incapable of doing any such thing.

Speaking of Helene, I felt the whole “miracle” angle was unnecessary. It contributed nothing to the story, and felt like it was forced into it to add a bit of magical realism to it. It was unconvincing, and a little annoying.

Aside from that one grouse, I thought that Faithful was a beautiful story of redemption and growth and forgiving oneself. I have wanted to read Alice Hoffman for a long time, but unfortunately, because of where I live perhaps, her books would either never be in stock or be ridiculously expensive because of import charges attached to them (the number of years I’ve been trying to get a copy of Practical Magic, I tell you!). Since I have never read her, I cannot compare Faithful to any other work of hers. But as someone who’s finally ventured into her world of literature, I felt warmly welcomed and left knowing for sure that I would return someday.

Goodreads

Note: I received an ARC from Netgalley. My review is honest and unbiased.

The Universe of Us, by Lang Leav

We existed in a time before love.

41uk183zjdl-_sx310_bo1204203200_So, I’m back with the review of Lang Leav’s new book, as promised yesterday. I could have written this yesterday, in fact, just chose not to. The page count says 200+, but 1) every alternate page is blank or has an image, 2) every page has only one or two lines. I read it in breaks, but when I finished, I realized I took up approx 55 minutes (give or take 10 minutes) to read it. Let that sink in.

Yesterday, in my review of Faudet’s book, Bitter Sweet Love, I mentioned how his work is rather juvenile and Leav’s work is something that in the past I have considered high school-ish. Given that I read The Universe of Us right after the poorly written Bitter Sweet Love, by comparison, Leav’s book seemed more sophisticated. By comparison.

This is true of the first half. By the second half, the book plunges into all that I feared going in – the childishness, the dullness, the half-bakedness. I know Leav is extremely popular, but what is worrisome is that her audience is mostly young and very impressionable; some of her poetry can be construed as dangerously terrible advice. Her poetry isn’t layered; it doesn’t have a lot of depth – it is all too easy to take it literally. Consider this one for instance: I think love is about being your darkest, most destructive self. To be loved, not in spite of this but because of it. My dear, that is abuse, not love.

Speaking of abuse, Leav’s obsession with love seems almost unhealthy. I have read excerpts of her poetry before, if not the whole books (although, a lot of her poetry in this volume had me thinking “I’ve read this before”. There is, after all, only so many times that stars can collide). The number of metaphors for “love” and “heartbreak” make you drowsy, not like your bored, but more like you’re drugged. There is no variety, no casual observation thrown in to break the monotony, nothing. It’s love all around. So syrupy.

While the book was all right for a quick read, while a lot of her words rhymed and everything, while her “poetry” is certainly better than Faudet’s, if someone asked me to recommend a poetry book, I wouldn’t be jumping up with pompoms for Lang Leav.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley. This review is honest and unbiased.

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Bitter Sweet Love, by Michael Faudet

A memory picked from a flower wilted, its petals faded all color crushed. How can I forget such fragrant perfume? The lingering regret of a love long lost.

30227846

I noticed this book because of its cover – so strikingly similar to Faudet’s first book, Dirty Pretty Things. I used to follow Faudet’s poetry on Facebook. I felt some of his works were good, if not the stuff of classics. But Bitter Sweet Love just did not work for me.

It was either Isabel Allande or Anais Nin, I can’t remember who now, who said Erotica is a feather, but pornography is the whole hen. Faudet seems to have missed that memo. There were some of his earlier works (not in this volume) that fit better into the erotica bracket. Those were lovely poems, and the reason why I was interested in his poetry in the first place. But after reading Bitter Sweet Love, I can’t seem to quell this niggling feeling that his work is, on the whole, extremely juvenile.

All the so-called poems in this volume probably fit within 140 characters. They’re just broken into

sentences,

phrases

that may go on

or not

then end

period.

See what I mean? Just because it rhymes, it can’t be called poetry, now, can it? Although this is what seems to pass for poetry amongst the contemporary crowd, or the tumblr crowd, as they are called. Now don’t get me wrong. There are several tumblr poets who’ve produced works of exceptional beauty (Christopher Poindexter comes to mind). But Faudet’s book reads more like a Penthouse. And it was not fun either; just saturated (migraine-inducingly) with a lot of love and fucking (because (and I quote), “this is no weather for making love”). Oh, and vodka.

Bitter Sweet Love is dedicated to Lang Leav, another contemporary poet whose works I’ve called high-schoolish in the past. Interestingly, along with this book, I got a copy of her latest, The Universe of Us. Pretentious title aside, I think it fares much better than this one. I’m only halfway done, so more on that in my next review.

Goodreads | Amazon (pre-order)

Note: I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley. This review is honest and unbiased.