Tag: Non-fiction

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li

“A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic word. In Chinese, a language less grammatically strict, one can construct a sentence with an implied subject pronoun and skip that embarrassing I, or else replace it with we. Living is not an original business.”

30211990I have had limited exposure to Chinese literature (or English literature about China, to be more accurate) but I’m sure I’ve read something in another book that conveys a similar sentiment about the letter “I”. I find truth in that statement. It startles me, as a realization, and yet, brings clarity at the same time.

Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life is a memoir in which Yiyun Li tries to decode life. She talks about her childhood in China, her mentally ill mother, and more. She wrote this memoir while battling suicidal depression and throughout, you feel, she is examining, sentence by rich sentence, about the point of life.

This is a complex narrative. I quite enjoyed the beginning, but in the later parts, although the prose was worth savouring, I found my mind wandering. This is essentially my problem and should not stop you from enjoying the book. Perhaps I felt she was going off tangent in certain places; I may be wrong about this though. There were several parts of it where I could not bring myself to agree with the author (much like Laura Esquivel’s memoir) but I still could see things from her point of view (unlike Laura Esquivel’s memoir, which I just gave up halfway)

Read it for the prose, read it for the quiet contemplation and wisdom, read it if, you too, are wondering what life is and where it’s going. She may not give you answers, but you will form your own.

Note: I received an ARC from Penguin UK/Netalley for review. My review is honest and unbiased.

Goodreads | Amazon

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?

Goodreads | Amazon

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

Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

7989831So! Prison sounds like fun! Wait, what? No, that can’t be right. It’s prison; it’s not supposed to be fun.

Before I go any further, let me confess that I have not watched the popular TV series of the same name. Not one episode. But I have reason to believe (because I know people who are fans) that the plot of the show deviates sharply from the source material. So, if you are a fan of the show or are planning to watch it, I suggest you skip the book, because the book is such a let down.

At first, I thought the title was an attempt at being ironic or funny. But if Piper Kerman has a sense of humour, it doesn’t really come through and then the title starts to look shallow and unintelligent. We are not talking about a ramp show or color of the year. It’s prison, FFS.

It’s surprising how Piper Kerman describes a place that we assume (and more or less know) to be grim and gruesome in a way that it sounds like summer camp. You actually think, “So, it’s cool, then? Like, a dorm at college?” I understand that this is a memoir, and Kerman has every right to write the way she saw things happen, from her perspective alone and all that. But “her perspective alone” is so near-sighted and self-centred that I can’t believe this girl’s even being real. She has been arrested for smuggling drugs in her early twenties (something she seems to feel no guilt or remorse for anywhere in the book, by the way). The trial goes on for a decade because there are so many others involved (such as Kerman’s ex girlfriend because of whom she got caught in all of this), after which she goes into the Danbury prison. Everyone welcomes her with open arms because she’s (as she repeatedly reminds the reader) white, blond, upper middle class. All the wardens keep telling her how surprised they are that a nice white girl like her is in a “place like this”. If she was trying to make a statement against the racist attitudes inside the prison, she does not come off as convincing – she comes off sounding like a snooty, racist person herself. The other prisoners often stick to their own racial groups, but everyone is friends with Kerman, because, oh, so lovable blond Barbie.

Now, I know families can be deadly supportive. Hell, they’re there even when you don’t need them. But I find it hard to believe that all her family members were so supportive and loving when they came to know of her crime. Like they’re almost proud to have someone go to jail. Wait, that’s an actual statement, in fact. Paraphrasing from the chapter Mothers and Daughters, “My mother was proud, despite the fact that I was in prison, because the other inmates thought we were sisters.” I need a moment.

By the way, did you know that they made crafts and celebrated Valentine’s Day in prison, with homemade cards and all? Yeah, me neither. Sounds like fun though. In one chapter, Kerman refers to prison as a “rotten” place. I was, quite frankly, taken aback. So far, nothing she had written gave me the slightest indication that it is such a rotten place (apart from my own common sense regarding prisons). I am shocked! Maybe your writing should’ve reflected that more, instead of telling me how many lovely items and books you regularly get in the mail from people you barely know, and how much people envy your love life.

And may I offer some advice for your next book (although, I hope there isn’t a next book) – EDITING! I don’t think any editor saw a draft of this. In fact, I think this may well be the first draft!

And the worst, worst thing about this book – I swear to the heavens, it is SO boring. This is one of the most boring books I have ever read. It’s torture how boring this is!

Quite frankly, reading the book makes me want to watch the show. How could the creators take something so poorly written and turn it into something that’s become so popular. My curiosity is thoroughly piqued.

Goodreads | Amazon

Wages of Love, by Kamala Das

“Like other women writers of my class, I am expected to tame my talent to suit the comfort of my family.”

rain-and-book-kamala-das-wages-of-love

I remember reading a poem by Kamala Das in school. It was part of the English literature syllabus. I had heard Kamala Das’ name whispered conspiratorially between my parents, but I never knew why. (I had also heard Arundhati Roy and Neena Gupta’s names mentioned in those very same tones, on different occasions). So when I found a poem by her, I was wildly curious. I hoped to find a glimpse into the adult world of literary gossip. I found nothing; I did not even like the poem very much. I was perhaps too young to appreciate Das’ direct way of expressing thoughts, being more used to as we were back then to rhyming poetry about sunflowers and daffodils and such.

When they saw me read a poem by Kamala Das, my parents casually remarked how she wasn’t very good. I was easily influenced (still am) and so I nodded my head in agreement. Similar casual (snide) remarks followed, with my mother going rather ad hominem and colouring Kamala Das as an example of what a writer – and more importantly, what a woman – must not be. I did not press for details, but I smelled a scandal.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when someone (who intensely dislikes me) read my blog and commented that I write like Madhavikutty (Das’ pen name). I felt proud, humbled, and insulted all at the same time! The childhood bias was still present, I suppose; however, being compared to a splendid writer such as herself did wonders for my ego, even though I knew I was nowhere near as good. The sad thing was, I had never read any of her works, apart from that one poem.

Fast forward again to last week, when Amazon Kindle decided to treat us all with some cash to buy any ebook of our choice. As to why I chose a Kamala Das book, I’ll never guess (given that I have several other books on my TBR, and hers is one name that never really crossed my mind), but that is, as you can see, what I chose. Sometimes, our instincts know.

Wages of Love is a collection of short stories, plays, poems and essays compiled by Suresh Kohli. It starts with the short piece “The Fair-Skinned Babu”, the story of a contract killer. Its ending gave me goosebumps. And with that, I was hooked. Das’ writing is as raw as it gets. Poignant and melancholy, set against a sepia tinted background. Stories such as Neipayasam will tug at your heartstrings and leave a cloud of sorrow over you. There are other stories and plays that question traditional notions of morality and holds a mirror over society’s rigid and frigid laws.

It’s the non-fiction section of the book that I absolutely loved above all else. If there’s one thing you must read, it is Das’ thoughts on religion. She wanted to get the fields “Religion” and “Caste” removed from all government forms, a view I completely agree with. Every time I go to a hospital, and their registration form has a “religion” field (most do), I make sure that my displeasure is obvious. Another essay worth noting is Shattering Misery’s Silence. It talks about how the matriarchal and matrilinear society of Kerala went on to become a patriarchal one, and how the bold women of previous centuries gave way to meek, submissive ones. She talks about how clothing is used to judge people. The slightly sardonic tone in which Das writes is quite gut wrenching.

“If wrappings of cloth can impart respectability, the most respectable persons are the Egyptian mummies, all wrapped in layers and layers of gauze.”

Finishing this book has filled me with a quiet restlessness. Why had I not read her books for so long? Why was I advised against reading her, when of all the writers I’ve read, she seems to be one of the fearless ones that need to be read. Yes, her work NEEDS to be mandatory reading. She spoke her mind; how many of us do? What holds us back?

For far too long, I have placed Sylvia Plath and Anais Nin on the pedestal of honest and bold writers. For far too long, I have revered Anita Nair’s skills as a writer. Today, I place Kamala Das on that pedestal. Or perhaps on an even higher one.

Amazon | Goodreads

We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Twitter4838603I was ten years old w23301805hen one evening during dinner, I asked why was it that my mother ate after everyone else. Why was it that she did not eat with us? Why was it that when she did eat, no one asked her if she’d like more gravy, like she always asked us? Simple questions that only a ten year old could ask. My brother, then twenty three, responded with a smirk, “You sound like a feminist.” I asked him what that meant and he told me it was someone who asked such questions. A vague explanation, and a tone that taunted more than appreciated. My mother chimed in saying how feminism is wrong and shouldn’t have a place in the world, because it was a woman’s place to compromise, to see her family was well fed, with selfless devotion. It was a woman’s place to eat last.

I can’t say why but even at that age, this caused a lot of rage within me. This went beyond something I could accept or even comprehend or make peace with. But so much of social conditioning and internalizing goes on within that far too many times, I accepted certain injustices because I thought that was normal. That normal must not be questioned.

A couple of years ago, a good friend told me that while he respected women very much (I can say for a fact, he did, and more than most men I know) he wished women would just stay at home. He did not mean this in a sexist or malicious way; at least, that was not his intent. He said men with their fragile egos get only more riled up and feel threatened when women compete with them at the workplace. This leads them to turn more violent in order to keep women “in their rightful places”. In short, the way to curb sexual politics was to go back in time when men hunted and women cooked. Cos men, it seemed to my resigned friend, were reluctant to change.

We keep hearing about this: men and their fragile egos. Men almost seem proud of it. I don’t see why anything described as “fragile” should be cause for pride, but whatever. Around the same time as the above conversation happened, I came across the quote I’ve shared at the beginning of this post. And I thought, “Holy shit this is so true!” I did not know the quote was from a book. I had not even heard of Purple Hibiscus or Half of a Yellow Sun at the time, so even the author’s name did not ring a bell. I was just struck by the simple, stark truth of the statement. Which is of course why I still have that image on my phone, though I have changed three phones since I first saved it.

But enough about me. We should be talking about this wonderful book. Originally a Tedx talk given by Adichie, it was later published as a book. Short as it is, it covers all the right topics, and may I begin with this first:

“Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that. ‘Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a human being?’ This type of question is a way of silencing a person’s specific experiences. There are particular things that happen to me because I am a woman.”

The number of times I have had this argument (interestingly, almost always with other women who think feminism is something other than what it really is) has sapped me of all my energy. At this point, it’s like I’ve given up trying to explain to these women that standing up to that sexist boss is also feminism, standing up against the man who groped you on the street is also adding to the feminist dialogue. I mean, come ON! What is so difficult to understand?

As for the fragile egos, she says how men are pressurized into believing they have to be a certain way, and the stronger they’re told to be, the more “masculine”, the more pressure there is, and the weaker their ego becomes. Sad, really. Equality takes that pressure off of men. Equality means a happier world, just simply stated.

Adichie describes how she is never greeted by waiters at restaurants, but they always greet the man she is with. Something similar always happens to us at the supermarket. At the exit gate, quite a few guys rush to the Mr. imploring him to fill out credit card applications. They ignore me completely. Like I’m invisible. When I pointed this out to the Mr. one day, he asked, “Do you even want a credit card? I thought you hated credit cards.” I told him that was not the point. The point was, they assumed I need not be asked, cos as a “woman” what use would I have of anything like a credit card or money, when there’s clearly a man with me. Adichie says, “Does it occur to you to ask the waiter, ‘Why have you not greeted her?’ Men need to speak out in all of these ostensibly small situations. These are little things, but sometimes it is the little things that sting the most.”

Sometimes when I see anti-feminist slogans, I sulk for whole days. I slowly begin to understand why Sylvia Plath killed herself. I go through the same emotions – an intense desire to put my head in the oven. Then every once in a rare while, a Trudeau or an Adichie come along to lift up my spirits. Adichie says in the book that at first she believed her talk would not be appreciated, but the standing ovation she received gave her hope. Essays like this one give me hope. I wish it was longer. And I wish people who currently have no clue about feminism picked this up.

May we all read this book. May we all be feminists. ūüôā

Goodreads | Amazon

 

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh, was the only blog I used to follow back in the day when I was still a baby allie-brosh-hyperbole-and-half-sreesha-divakaran-rain-and-bookin the blogosphere. I stopped following it around the time I stopped blogging (2010-2011) and when I returned to the scene, I realized Hyperbole and a Half was not being updated as frequently as it used to be. Some of you know that I returned to blogging to help cure me of my depression (which it has, in large part) Around the time I had been away, Allie had shared her depression story, in her unique, trademark style accompanied by colourful MS Paint comics. Later, in the year 2013, she shared the story Depression Part Two, which really resonated with me. It gave words to that which I had been struggling with for so long, especially the following:

“I¬†had always wanted to not give a fuck about anything. I viewed feelings as a weakness ‚ÄĒ annoying obstacles on my quest for total power over myself.¬†And I finally didn’t have to feel them anymore.¬†But my experiences slowly flattened and blended together until it became obvious that there’s a huge difference between not giving a fuck and not being able to give a fuck.”

Hyperbole and a Half – the book – is a collection of a few of the stories from the blog, with all the pictures. It is a hilarious take on life and – as Allie puts it – unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem and other things that happened. It has several laugh-out-loud moments, although the stories follow no particular order. Exactly in the style of the blog, they are non sequential. The best part about this colourful book is that it reaches a wider audience, to those who had not heard of the blog before this. And it is something that all of us would enjoy reading.

I was hoping to find some of my favourite stories from the blog that have not been included – such as the famous Alot, How A Sandwich Makes You Its Bitch, and The Year The Easter Bunny Died. But I am glad I have this beautiful, funny book in my collection. I do hope Allie returns to blogging soon. I miss reading her!

It’s a really quick read – I finished it in just under 3 hours, which is I think the fastest I have ever read a book – given my limited reading time and everything.

Get the book here: Amazon

I hope you like it as much as I did.