5 Bookish memories


One thing about reading is that over time one builds up certain memories of books that they have read. There are times when the circumstances are perfect and through some weird alignment everything falls into place and that simple reading experience becomes special. here’s 5 of the ones which have stuck out for me.

Philip Roth – Goodby Columbus

Back in summer of 1999, I had A LOT of time on my hands and one of my little joys was to hop on a bus, go to the bookstore, buy a novel, read it in two days and then repeat. No TBR stacks, nothing. Just one book after another. It has to be noted that every book was chosen by whim. That how Philip Roth’s Goodby Columbus was bought.

On the whole. the collection is okish but the title story/novella is a masterpiece and I read it on the bus ride home. Literally one of those moments when time stops and the novella absorbed me. Yes I did miss my stop but I didn’t mind as I read more on my way back.

John Fowles – The Collector & Ian McEwan – The Cement Garden.


A double whammy here. This time it was spring 2003 and I was working at the bookstore. However I did have a day off and went to the used bookstore and bought The Collector and Cement Garden. When I returned, I just sat down and read them back to back. An afternoon disappeared but it was an amazing one. To date I’ve never read two complementing books in succession.

Salman Rushdie – The Satanic Verses


I read The Satanic Verses under the worst circumstances possible: I was running a fever, puking my guts out and bedbound. Commonsense dictates that I should have chosen an easier novel but I lacked energy to move and that was the only novel close to me.

I was so engrossed with the story that I could not put the book down. In fact I would delve into the novel as much as I possibly could so that I would be able to forget my predicament. Strangely enough that has happened only a second time, last week when I had a mild case of influenza and I managed to read Bulgakov’s The Master & Margartia in a short space of time.

Elif Shafak – The Bastard of Istanbul

The perfect book for winter doldrums. Right book, right time, right year, right everything.

Aldous Huxley – Brave New World

Christmas 1994. Term one just finished and our teacher handed out copies of Brave New World saying that this was our set textbook for the next two years. I just stuffed it in my bag and that was it.

By the time the festivities ended I was home alone in the evening and decided to pick up the book, quite sceptical.

Talk about perfect timing. Here was a book which conveyed a lot of thoughts I had about the world at the time and it was written in the 1930’s. There was symbolism, humor and a plot I thought was weird. I finished the book in the early morning and read it again. Brave new World not only gave me my first big bookish memory but also opened the gates to, what is called, literary fiction and after that moment I decided to seek out authors who would provide the same type of experience.



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Kazuo Ishiguro – Come Rain or Come Shine

I never saw Ishiguro as an author who could make me laugh but with this short story I did and loudly.

As with every Ishiguro novel memory is an integral part of his plots. Here the focus is on Ray, whose best friend in college, Jonathan, married another good friend, Emily. Occasionally Ray visits the couple and sleeps over.

After a long time Jonathan contacts Ray and asks him to stay over the reason is that their marriage is slowly falling apart and Jonathan wants Emily to realise that Jonathan is not stuck in a time warp like Ray, who has been teaching English to foreigners ever since he was 17 (he’s now 47) Ray accepts.

Ray then accidentally destroys Emily’s diary and comes up with a ridiculous ruse to disguise it, only to be approached by Emily and he tells her that Jonathan only loves her and wants to have the happy marriage of the past.

As I said there are some truly funny moments and some tender ones as well. The title of the story comes from a Ray Charles song, which is apt as Ray and Emily share similar musical tastes and it is this factor which makes Emily realise her feelings towards both Ray and Jonathan. As a story it’s not as predictable as I make it seem and it does have a lovable quirkiness to it.

The story itself can be bought separately as part of the Faber Stories collection but it’s also found in Ishiguro’s short story anthology Nocturnes. Which I will be checking out.

Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master & Margarita

How does one talk about a book like The Master & Margarita?? Bulgakov’s masterpiece is a heady mixture of satire, braininess and giddy fun, not to mention the occasional terrifying passage. The book works on many levels but at this point it’s best to summarise the plot, or due to the many layers and subplots, give a basic outline.

The Devil has come to Earth, specifically Moscow, one that is filled with liars, cheats, materialistic, atheistic people, mostly scum. Along with his henchmen, the cartoonish Korviev, the thuggish Azazello, the witch Hella and the hedonistic giant cat, Behemoth, the devil aka Woland (a nod to Faust here) tries to expose the Muscovites for who they really are. Chaos reigns

There’s more

An author called The Master has written a book about Pontius Pilate’s trial of Christ, which has been rejected and ridiculed publicly. The Master is so torn that he burns his half finished manuscript, leaves his lover Margarita and checks into an asylum (incidentally where a lot of Woland’s victims are now residing)

More? yes!

Margarita is despairing over the loss of the Master but comes across Azazello, who says that Woland needs her to welcome guests at his annual gala ball. Margarita accepts, is transformed into a witch and does her duties.

As thanks Woland grants her a wish, after a couple of false starts she wishes to reunite with the Master. This happens but it is discovered that the story of Pontius Pilate is still dangling and in order to seal the relationship the Master has to finish it, thus closing a chapter in history.

On a deeper level there are a lot of savage jabs to Russian society. The famous seance is attacks upper class Russians, the MASSOLIT scenes are swipes at the artistic crowd and the Master’s troubles with his novel clearly reflect the problems Bulgakov encountered with his works. elswhere communal apartments, secret police, forced atheism and wariness of foreigners are all mentioned. Those are the points I noticed, I bet there’s much more.

However none of this is heavy handed. In fact the book is surreal romp that functions as one long looney tunes episode. The pace is fast and consists of explosions, slapsticky violence, comedic emotional outbursts and general wackiness; the centrepiece being the gala ball. Every character acts in a larger than life way and it makes the book fun reading. Especially Koroviev, who is a mixture of Daffy Duck, the Tex Avery wolf and some Bugs Bunny as well.

I last read M & M in 1997 and I had mixed reactions. Maybe because I was only 17 at the time, I don’t know but I got a TON more out of this reread. Although no one needs me to say this but this novel is an undisputed classic and it’s probably the most boisterous and bawdy one you’ll ever read.

Sarah Winman – Tin Man

Tin Man made me shed a couple of tears. Something which is rare and it even took me by surprise but it happened.

Winman has a knack of writing about sensitive subjects in a way that just drills into your feelings. Think of a more sensitive David Nicholls or even Sally Rooney but without the use of excessive detail. Scene after scene of heartwarming tenderness and Winman never goes overboard. Tin Man is neither a sobfest or a gloopy romantic novel.

The Tin Man of the title is Ellis, who actually works in a tin yard, however unlike the Frank L. Baum character, he does somewhat have a heart but that is for Michael, an openly gay man and the two do start a relationship together.

Over time and under the influence of his no nonsense father, Ellis begins to doubt his sexuality and begins to date Annie, who fully accepts Michael and the three bond closely.

Michael finally accepts that he will never be able to have Ellis, separates from the couple and tries to strike up some relationships but never manages. At this juncture he’s the Tin Man of Wizard of Oz fame as he hasn’t the heart to love other people. The question lies if Michael is able to to move on.

And everything is linked to a copy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Trust me it’s the greatest Macguffin ever.

Lots of quotes on this book use the words tender, touching, beautiful and so on and it is. Winman writes with a simplicity that neither insults or bores the reader. Each scene is described realistically, with an almost cinematic (well in a Ken Loach way) quality. You will feel for these characters.

In addition to that it is cleverly structured past and present jump around a bit and us readers fill in the pieces of all the character’s lives in an incidental way. For example we find out about Michael’s lost years when Ellis discovers some writing on an old sketchbook. These are things which differentiate Tin Man from an average novel about complex relationships.

Multi layered, relatable and with a big beating heart (Tin Man reference)wedged in the centre. Read it but make sure there’s a tissue handy.



Akhil Sharma – Cosmopolitan

Faber and Faber turn 90 this year and as part of the celebrations, f & f are reissuing 20 short stories from authors on their rosters. At this point I’m not sure if I’ll review all of them but Cosmopolitan definitely deserves a mention.

Gopal’s wife and daughter have left him and after sometime alone he starts to fancy his next door neighbour. Armed with Cosmopolitan as his guide, Gopal tries his hardest to woo his neighbor.

Cosmopolitan is gently funny. I smiled a few times at Gopal recalling some Cosmo articles, with them actually working. Other than that the development of the relationship is serious and Sharma does a fantastic job of going into the politics of trying to date someone who has a passing interest in the other person. There’s also some descriptions of suburbia, a literary trope I like. Not to mention that cover!

So far I’ve read two stories in this collection and I’m impressed. I cannot wait for the remaining ones.

Sally Rooney – Mr. Salary

Legendary publisher Faber and Faber are celebrating their 90th anniversary with quite a few reissues. Part of the campaign includes publishing 20 short stories from their roster. The first 10 are out, while the rest comes out in March. As a side note, all these stories have been previously published in anthologies or magazines.

ANYWAY

Mr. Salary is an early work by Rooney and it already displays all the traits which would dominate her two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People. By this I mean a seemingly average situation which is scrutinized and actually appears to be more interesting.

Suki, when not attending college in Boston, is living with Nathan, who knew her from birth. This relationship is completely platonic. It’s more like a father/daughter relationship. At the same time Suki’s father is dying. As she is suffering from fear Suki’s interest in Nathan develops and the barriers of their relationship are broken.

That’s all.

Despite the mundane plot, Rooney makes it so interesting. I was hooked to this brief 35 page story, mainly because I wanted to see how Suki and Nathan’s relationship would develop. I personally never knew that so many complex thoughts can go through a person in Suki’s situation but that’s how Rooney works. I also think that the short story format suits Rooney a bit more than in novel form but I still am a big fan of her work.



Elif Shafak – The Bastard of Istanbul

The Bastard of Istanbul is the third book out of the four I received this Christmas and the one that’s most within my comfort zone. I have been dying to read Shafak for a long time and I’m glad I did. (I guess you know what I think of the book)

I think the hardest thing about reviewing this novel is where to start. This is a multi-layered book which tackles some serious issues but in a different way.

First of all there’s the character Asya, the bastard of the book’s title. She’s rebellious, impulsive and as a person who thinks she has no past, she tries her hardest to look ahead.

One day an American Armanoush comes over to visit Asya. The reason is that Armanoush wants to discover her roots. Her backstory is a bit different as she is Armenian. Furthermore she is an American Armenian, which means that her grandparents were part of the violent diaspora which took place in 1915. Apparently Turks deny this era of history saying that it was before Ataturk’s modernisation of Turkey. Armanoush wants to dig deeper into these misconceptions.

When the two meet, past and present start to creep out and family secrets emerge, which prove that Asya and Armanoush’s bond maybe be deeper than they thought.

The essential thought behind The Bastard of Istanbul is national identity. Both characters explore their place in society and in history. Due to the fact that Armanoush is American there’s also some chapters dedicated to how Armenians had to cope with being exiled from their homeland and creating a new cultural identity.

Like Allende, Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, Shafak also employs magical realist techniques to get her message through, unlike the authors mentioned above, Shafak’s uses it sparingly and it works.

I also liked the fact that Shafak incorporates Turkish culture without being condescending to the reader. There are A LOT of Turkish and Armenian food mentioned and in the original language. Being a foodie I enjoyed using Google to discover what Shafak was talking about.

Aside form the food there’s historical aspect. I was totally ignorant about Turkish history (except for the great reform) so the events mentioned in Bastard… took me by surprise. Shafak cleverly manages to mesh her characters personal history with real events and the end effect is dazzling.

The Bastard of Istanbul is a fantastic book. It is smart and beautifully written. There are certain books which will stay with you for a long time. I will proudly declare that this is one of them.