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Expanding the Black Canon

“She got off the train, thinking that she never felt really human until she reached Harlem and thus got away from the hostility in the eyes of the white women who started at her on the downtown streets and in the subway. Escaped from the openly appraising looks of the white men whose eyes seemed to go through her clothing to her long brown legs.”

– Ann Petry, The Street

I first heard of Ann Petry’s The Street this winter. A single copy arrived among the deliveries at the bookstore where I worked, and I was drawn immediately to the cover and to the synopsis on the back. It advertised The Street as “…the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies” and I was hooked because I’d never heard of the book or of Petry herself. The syllabi of Black literature curricula I’ve studied tend to go from enslaved people’s narratives to the men of the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison. Sometimes there’s a little Zora Neale Hurston (always Their Eyes Were Watching God, even though she had short stories and nonfiction essays about Black culture) and Nella Larsen. I think Petry deserves a place on more reading lists. The Street was published in 1946 and it discusses domestic service culture, sexual harassment and assault, inequality in predominantly Black schools, the draft for World War Two, and the effects of social immobility and racism on Black marriage.

The Street is a thriller about a single mother, Lutie, and her son, Bub, trying to make it in Harlem. I mention the genre because I wish I’d known it before I read the book—this is not a heartwarming tale about overcoming the odds. That doesn’t make it any less worth reading. The plot is sometimes sensational, but the entire novel is grounded by very real descriptions of the Black American experience. I fold the bottom corner of pages when I find a sentence I find moving, and there are more than twenty folded corners in my copy. The 2020 edition also has a fantastic introduction by Tayari Jones that discusses the history around the publishing of this book, which I highly recommend reading after you finish to avoid spoilers.

What I find remarkable about The Street is how much time Petry gives to each character. Lutie and her son are the protagonists, and they’re surrounded by sinister characters: a creepy landlord, a madam eager for more recruits, a white nightclub owner and his dashing right-hand man. Even with clear bad guys, The Street gives its questionable characters a chance to tell their own stories. A character who seems unimportant from one perspective, like the live-in girlfriend of Lutie’s landlord, becomes fascinating when she has her own chapter. This also keeps the novel from slipping into anti-Black stereotypes (Black men are lazy and violent, Black women are only good if they’re pure), as some works by people of color do. I most appreciated the perspective on Lutie’s ex-husband Jim, whom she left after she discovered his infidelity. Jim’s character has the potential for stereotypes: he doesn’t stay faithful to his wife, and he doesn’t work. At the end of the novel, though, Lutie reflects on the path laid out for poor Black Americans:

“The women work because for years now the white folks haven’t liked to give black men jobs that paid enough for them to support their families. And finally it gets to be too late for some of them. […] The men get out of the habit of working and the houses are old and gloomy and the walls press in.”

Lutie feels like she’s at her lowest point at this point in the novel, and she doesn’t blame Jim for the fact that she’s had to raise her son alone. She blames the racist system that kept him out of work and caused his depression. The Street works slowly on its readers to immerse them in the realities of racism. It wins sympathy with a hardworking single mother and her young son, then explains the motivations behind less charming characters. Once you have been exposed to the breadth of humanity living on a particular street in Harlem in the early 40s, Petry reveals the truth: these characters have stilted futures because racism prevents them from standing up for each other against the white people who have power.

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Neighborhood Stories

“But the neighborhood’s changed. With our not-legals shuffling in, people who don’t have time for violence, people whose only reason for bouncing was to get away from the violence, we’ve mellowed out, found our rhythm. Slowed down. You can raise a kid in the complex. Start a garden or some shit.”

-Bryan Washington, “Alief”

I read Bryan Washington’s short story collection, Lot, in the spring when one of my advisors assigned it to me. I loved it so much that I bought the book for myself this summer, and I’ve already reread it once. These are stories that stand up to rereading–Washington has created a portal to Black and Latinex neighborhoods in Houston, and you won’t want to leave. I saw Alexander Chee speak to my graduate program this summer, and he cited this book as proof that you no longer need to be queer or a person of color in the publishing industry anymore. You can be everything. For a collection that’s less than 250 pages, Washington leaves no stone unturned. His characters are biracial, queer, Black, Latinex, immigrants, children, women, men, and sex workers. The stories are so inherently intersectional that they are now one of the standards I hold my and other’s writing to.

Several of Lot‘s stories are narrated by the same character, a young gay man who is half Black and half Latino. I loved this technique in Grace Paley’s stories and I loved it in Washington’s, as well. The stories show this narrator and his family at various points from his early adolescence to his twenties, but Washington moves through time in every story. You learn in a paragraph that someone will leave, or get married, long before you read the scene of them leaving or visiting with their spouse and children. This allows the reader to appreciate the stories for their language and imagery, rather than rush through to find out what happens to people–in fact, even for stories that don’t feature this main character, linear plot is made secondary. Washington often begins with the expected ending or “twist”. The first sentence of “Alief”, which I quote at the beginning of this post, starts with: “Just before they slept together for the final time and before Aja’s lover was tossed by her husband, our neighborhood diplomat, onto the concrete curb outside their apartment complex…” and “Peggy Park” a four-page story about a pickup baseball team, begins: “Micah turned pro and the rest of us went regular”. The strength of Washington’s writing allows him to reveal characters’ pasts and futures as he shows a specific moment in scene.

After the stories that follow Lot‘s unnamed narrator, my favorites are “Bayou”, a strange story that is at once about heartbreak, the importance of male friendship, and a mystical creature, and “Waugh”, a forty-page story about the fear and illness unprotected sex workers are forced to endure. They show the range of the collection, and of Houston itself, by travelling further across the city and showing scenes outside of domestic and family life. Lot is a fantastic collection because Washington captures people how they live. In my last post, I wrote about N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became because her portrayal of gentrification and bigotry as personified evil is a lesson than many people need right now. Lot shows how much there is in American cities–what should be celebrated and what should be improved–and the choices that cast their lives in relief. The title story, “Lot” is about the narrator fighting to keep his family’s restaurant, which is left to him and his mother after his father and siblings leave, one by one. Gentrification can be an unstoppable force, but Washington stakes a claim for unrepresented communities in Houston and everywhere in America in his collection.

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The Science Fiction We All Should Read

“Maybe the Dutch smiled like that when they gave trinkets to people of the Carnarsee—a band of the Lenape—and laid sole claim to what all others had shared for millenia. Probably every ethnic group he meets thinks he’s one of theirs, at least partially. It’s a subtle, manipulative bit of magic, and Bronca resents the fuck out of it as soon as she figures it out.”

-N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became

I’ll be focusing this blog on books by Black authors for the next while, and I’m so excited to write about N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became. I’ve been excited for this book since I read the story it was based on, “The City Born Great”, in 2017’s Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Before I wrote this post, I was convinced that Jemisin’s story was the first in the collection. I went back and checked the table of contents to find it was fifteenth—Jemisin’s story is just the only one that I remembered from that collection. It was that good, and I recommend it as well as this novel. “The City Born Great” is about a nonbinary person who embodies the spirit of New York, looking out at the city from the streets and the rooftops. In The City We Became, Jemisin takes this further. In the novel’s universe, every great city is born once it has incubated for long enough, and it is protected by an avatar who embodies its spirit. When New York reaches its time to be born, something goes wrong, and it’s up to the avatars to figure out how to save their city.

I read this book last month, and it was the perfect escape for me without ignoring social justice issues in America. Jemisin has created a fantastically diverse world whose characters address queerness and queerphobia, racism, gentrification, the erasure of indigenous culture, and the toxicity of white immigrant culture. I loved every page. It’s the first book I’ve read in a while that I read slowly because I didn’t want it to end—I’m so glad that it’s already been slated as a trilogy. I don’t want to describe the plot because the joy of reading this book for the first time was going on an adventure with the characters. I will say that Jemisin knows how to write a villain. What’s always great about a fantasy series where the protagonists are also new to the fantasy is that every complexity of the universe is explained. It didn’t feel forced to me, because it was explained so gradually. There are several protagonists, and they each learn at different paces throughout the novel, so the reader experiences multiple perspectives on the magic and on the villain.

Most of what I’ve read recently was written (and set) several years to several decades ago. It’s easy to imagine those worlds without the pandemic because I never lived in them. Jemisin’s New York in The City We Became is a New York I’ve spent time in, the New York my mother grew up in, and the escapism this book provided was for a world where everyone roamed without the fear of disease. Strangers interact and jump into the same cab. Friends crash at each other’s houses. People move to New York City. This book did not allow escapism from the current Black Lives Matter movement because so many of the protagonists are Black and aware of systemic oppression and police brutality. I didn’t want an escape from Black Lives Matter–no one should try to escape from it. What I loved about this book was that it allowed for BIPOC people to fight against their oppressors without the added strain of a pandemic. That’s a luxury we do not have right now, but for four hundred pages, I could imagine it was.

Jemisin is aware that she writes in a genre that has been occupied by racist white men, and she specifically calls out H.P. Lovecraft for portraying immigrants and people of color in cities as evil and frightening. She doesn’t only keep close tabs on the white writers who preceded her, though. She holds herself to the same standards. In her acknowledgements at the end of the book, Jemisin thanks her sensitivity readers for analyzing how she portrayed the non-Black people of color in the novel—indigenous, East Asian, and South Asian characters. I’ve never seen that in a book before, but I loved it. It should definitely be the standard. Just because we have gone through one experience doesn’t mean we know how to write about every form of oppression, even if we do intend to be empathetic. Jemisin’s awareness of how non-Black people of color would read her book touched me because it was a gesture I didn’t even know I could expect. I hope anyone else who reads the acknowledgements is more aware of how they portray cultures other than their own—it’s definitely made me think.

Everyone should read this book. I really can’t stress that enough. It’s fun, fast-paced, and easy to read, and it discusses issues in New York (and American) society that we should think about every day if we’re lucky enough to be able to ignore them. Jemisin is not a shy writer. Her antagonists are human embodiments of ignorant white privilege. If that sounds uncomfortable to you, then you should definitely read this book. It explains why the perpetuation of ignorance hurts all society and it does so in such a fascinating, wonderful story.

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The Art of the Short Story

“What’s your field?” I asked.

“Daisies,” he said. “I happen to be in the field of daisies.” What an answer! How often does one meet, in this black place, a man, woman, or child who can think up a pastoral reply like that?

Grace Paley, “Faith in a Tree”

I’ve been working on short stories to procrastinate on the novel, so I decided to read some short story collections that have been sitting on my shelf for a while: George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Grace Paley’s Collected Stories. I read Saunders’ only novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, my third year of university and I absolutely loved it–it’s a novel in dialogue, where all the characters are spirits in the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie has just been laid to rest. I knew that Saunders was pretty out there, but his stories were even stranger than the novel, and they were clearly the work of a master. I picked up Grace Paley’s book a year ago on one of my periodic bookstore hauls. I hadn’t heard of her–I picked it up because I liked the jacket–but I’m so glad that I decided to read her work. The edition I have also has an introduction by George Saunders, which made a perfect bridge between the books.

I’ve heard George Saunders described more than once as the current master of the short story, and now that I’ve read this collection, I respect the title. I’ve never read anything like these stories. They’re vaguely futuristic, often dark, and so, so vivid. I haven’t lost myself in the world of a short story in a while. Saunders really knows how to create a world through characters’ thoughts, which is definitely something I’ve struggled with. It’s easy to describe what’s happening, but Saunders shows us how people feel. The first story in this collection, “Victory Lap”, begins in the head of a teenage girl named Alison Pope. I fell in love with the energy of the paragraphs in Alison’s voice:

“Was she special? Did she consider herself special? Oh, gosh, she didn’t know. In the history of the world, many had been more special than her. Hellen Keller had been awesome; Mother Teresa was amazing; Mrs. Roosevelt was quite chipper in spite of her husband, who was handicapped, which, in addition, she had been gay, with those big old teeth, long before such time as being gay and First Lady was even conceptual. She, Alison, could not hope to compete in the category of those ladies. Not yet, anyway.”

Saunders’ sentences are gorgeous, but what makes these stories special is how characters interact with each other, and where they lead themselves. I don’t think there was a single story in this collection where I wasn’t dying to know what happened. Everything is recognizable, and most of it could happen today, but in every story things are a little (or a lot) off. For me, it was the perfect escape from anxiety about work and returning to my apartment and my friends. Saunders’ stories provide the opportunity to be someone else for a while. I didn’t feel like I was watching these people’s lives unfold; I felt like I was one of them, reacting to everything they reacted to and waiting for the resolution.

While Saunders’ stories are set in an indeterminate future in nonspecific American communities, Grace Paley writes of a specific place and time: New York City, particularly Brooklyn, in the mid-twentieth century. They follow women in mainly Jewish communities as they navigate their teenage years, motherhood, and ageing. Men tend to be unreliable. Husbands leave, boyfriends cheat, and fathers and sons alike are condescending. Paley is funny, which is a wonderful skill, and she represents multiple generations of Jewish Americans, with all their varying attitudes towards religion, the Yiddish language, and Europe. These stories are enjoyable as a collection because Paley focuses on the same buildings over many stories. She returns to several characters, and a woman named Faith narrates many of her later stories. I’ve always found these connections satisfying, and in Paley’s stories, they help to create the repetition of the domestic sphere in which her female protagonists live. Paley imposes this same claustrophobia on herself; in one story her narrator admits that she can’t write another story about the Yiddish theater, because she exhausted all her knowledge in an earlier story.

There are stories about children which feel fable-like in the characters’ distance from the narrator, and first-person stories which feel much more autobiographical. The Faith stories are by far my favorites in the collection. While many stories are set in single apartments or apartment buildings, Faith moves around the city. She is always defined by her status as a woman, a mother, and a daughter (when she visits her parents in their retirement home), but she finds small ways to rebel. She goes for a run one day and doesn’t come back for weeks; she insults men who approach her in the park; she ignores her parents’ career advice. Paley shows us that a woman’s, and a writer’s, life is difficult. Her intricate characterization shows us all the complexities within people in seemingly average domestic roles.

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If you want to read Tenth of December and The Collected Stories, you can buy them here and support independent bookstores through my Bookshop account!

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Postwar Classics

“They are stripping from me, she said subvocally — feeling like a fluttering curtain in a very high window, moving up then out over the abyss — they are stripping away, one by one, my men.”

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Both Franny and Zooey and The Crying of Lot 49 have been on my list for a while. Salinger and Pynchon are two of my favorite writers, and since I’ve been having trouble concentrating on longer books, I thought it was the perfect time to read on these two. They’re both reasonable lengths–I read the Salinger in one day and the Pynchon in two–but there’s so much in each of them to think about. 

Franny and Zooey was, honestly, a heavy read. I hadn’t read Salinger since high school, and I forgot how dark his work is. The book opens with Franny Glass being met by her boyfriend at Union Station in New Haven, so they can attend the Yale-Harvard football game that weekend. The setting was familiar to me, as was the character of the boyfriend–he’s a Yale student who thinks he’s the smartest man in any room, and he name-drops Russian novels frequently. It seemed like a Fitzgeraldesque satire of college culture. Then the tone shifts: Franny is not only bored with her boyfriend, she is clearly mentally and physically unwell. The rest of the novel is about her relationship with her family, and one brother in particular, Zooey. The book is very philosophical because the characters are very philosophical. (Franny, Zooey, and their four older siblings were all child prodigies, which makes Franny’s boyfriend’s condescension even more ridiculous.) I think the strength of this book is in Salinger’s description. The second half of the novel takes place in the Glass family’s apartment, and as the characters moved from the bathroom to the living room to the bedrooms, I could see every room so clearly. The domestic drama of this book is compelling. The characters are recognizable and believable; they fight and make up like real siblings, and by the end, I wished I could spend more time with them. This book is also satisfying to read if you’ve read Salinger’s Nine Stories, as some of Franny and Zooey’s older siblings are characters in those stories.

The Crying of Lot 49 is about as strange as most of Pynchon’s books. I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow, Inherent Vice, and Mason & Dixon, and I absolutely loved both of them. What impressed me about The Crying of Lot 49 was that Pynchon managed to create as complex a world as exists in his longer novels, in a book less than 150 pages long. I don’t want to reveal too much of the novel (the conspiracies are fascinating), but the protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49 is Oedipa Maas, a woman and housewife in her late 20s. At the beginning of the novel, she finds out that her last serious boyfriend, a millionaire named Pierce Inverarity, has passed away and made her executrix of his will. If you’ve read Inherent Vice, this book has a similar vibe: it’s set in and around Southern California, and involves a protagonist who wants to unearth a deep-set conspiracy. Oedipa is a more reliable narrator than Doc Sportello, though. She grounds this novel through each of its classically-Pynchon stops (a motel run by the lead singer in a Beatles cover band, an abandoned amusement park, a used bookstore, and right-wing costume store) because she’s as agitated as any of us would be in the same situation. All she wants is to discover the truth, but as her search becomes more complicated, the people who help her fall to harm and she must decide if it’s worth pursuing at all. I highly recommend this book. Reading a famous writer’s first book can go a couple of ways–sometimes it’s very clear that they haven’t hit their stride yet. This book doesn’t feel like a first novel, though. It has all of Pynchon’s perfectly written trippiness and humor, and the plot is genuinely exciting.

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Diary of a Fellow Writer

“I spend much of the night thinking over the whole question of running the house successfully, and tell myself–not by any means for the first time–that my abilities are very, very deficient in this direction.”

-E.M. Delafield. Diary of A Provincial Lady

I bought Diary of A Provincial Lady at a used bookshop in Scotland over a year ago, and it’s been sitting on my to-read pile since. I was intrigued because it was written by a woman, and I hadn’t heard of the author. I’m glad I picked it up. It’s actually a collection of four novels about the same character, a woman who lives in Southwestern England in the early 1930s. She’s an aspiring writer, but she’s hampered by her drab husband, her children, and various money and housekeeping issues that come up over the course of a year.

What makes this book stand out is the humor. The voice of this character is hilarious. She’s self-critical and critical of the hypocrisy of English society, especially of the people she knows who have more money and land than her family does. I kept smiling and chuckling to myself as I read this, and that doesn’t happen often. The humor ranges from situational: “Barbara calls. Can she, she says, speak to me in confidence? I assure her that she can, and at once put [the cat] and kittens out of the window to establish a confidential atmosphere.”, to conversational: “She enquires once if I have ever succeeded in making the dear blue Grandiflora Magnifica Superbinsis–(or something like that)–feel really happy and at home in this climate? to which I am able to reply with absolute truth by a simple negative, at which I fancy she looks rather relieved. Is her own life perhaps one long struggle to acclimatise the G.M.S.? and what would she have replied if I said that, in my garden, the dear thing grew like a weed?”.

As the quoted passages make clear, the narrator of this diary is a very posh woman. That did take me out of the book at times–I couldn’t help but compare her to some of the more unpleasant customers in the bookstore, especially in the passages where she described shopping experiences or critiquing books. For the most part, though, I really empathized with her. She creates such a vivid portrait of life in very simple, brief sentences. There’s a lot of scenework, even though it’s a diary. Delafield balances the scenes with ungrammatical, notelike sentences to give the book a feeling of a diary, and I really enjoyed that. It created the right atmosphere and it made the book read really quickly. (I’ve only read the first book in this anthology, which tracks one year in the life of the Provincial Lady. The rest follow her as a more successful writer and as a fundraiser for the war effort.)

There are heavier tones to the book, which balance it out and make it more realistic. The Provincial Lady worries that she’s wasting her life, as she socializes with a many more successful writers than herself. At one point, someone at a dinner party tells her that she seems unfulfilled, and she’s stung by the realization that she often thinks that herself. It doesn’t make it any easier to hear from someone else. She also has to deal with the (very relatable) problems of submitting to magazines. One literary magazine, Time and Tide, is repeatedly referenced because that’s where Delafield wrote this book in serial in the 1930s. The Provincial Lady reads Time and Tide and submits to the contests, only to find that someone else has won. When she wins, she’s often tied for first. She also reads the Literary Review at one point near the end of the novel and reflects that it seems like a lot of published authors are talking about each other, which is what it often feels like when you’re an unpublished author trying to enter the literary world. Overall, I recommend this book. It’s a quick, fun read. The posh voice may take getting used to if you don’t read a lot of literature about the English upper classes, but the Provincial Lady has a voice that transcends her class, and is a pleasure to read.

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Borrowed Books

“He knew that it was just that he was a man with bits of himself broken. That’s all it fucking was.”

-Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way

My goal for my time at home is to get through as many of the unread books in my room as possible. I decided to start with three books I borrowed from a friend over the summer: The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor, A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, and My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. All three are very different, and with the exception of the O’Connor (I’ve read her short stories and her other novel) I probably wouldn’t have picked them up unless they’d been lent to me.

Flannery O’Connor is a very unique woman. I’m not sure if it’s because FSG has created such gorgeous, distinct covers for all of her books, or if it’s the sentences themselves, but I always know I’m in an O’Connor story from the first page. This novel is about a teenage boy named Francis Tarwater. He was orphaned and raised by his great-uncle, an eccentric self-proclaimed prophet who lived on an isolated farm. After Francis’s great-uncle passes away, he goes to live with his cousin Rayber, a schoolteacher who was once briefly indoctrinated into the prophet uncle’s beliefs. Rayber is determined to convince Francis of a modern, atheist worldview, but Francis’s great-uncle declared him a prophet, and made him promise to baptize Rayber’s only son. This is a very strange book. It has gorgeous, creepy passages about Francis’s struggles to choose his faith. I also loved the view of the town where Rayber lives from Francis’s point of view–he’s a country person at heart, and he can’t reconcile himself to restaurants or busy streets. The ending is very violent and a little rushed, as a warning, but I think it fit with the rest of the novel. I would recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of the Southern Gothic tradition or of books about faith.

Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way is a gorgeous book. I loved it so much–I read it in two days, and I wished it had been longer. It’s about Willie Dunn, a young man from Dublin who enlists in the British Army at the beginning of World War One. He becomes increasingly disillusioned with the war, not only because of the violence in the trenches. As he receives letters from home and visits Dublin on his leaves, he learns of the Irish independence movement, and wonders if he should be fighting for Queen and Country. I loved the way that Barry wrote Willie’s voice–it has Irish phrases every few paragraph, often enough that I could hear him speaking in an Irish accent. Barry also handles time fantastically in this novel. It begins when Willie is 18, in 1914, and ends shortly after the Americans enter the war in 1917. I never felt like the book was moving too quickly, and Barry includes details about Willie’s birthdays and the time of year to ensure readers won’t be confused about the time setting. You grow up with Willie in this novel–I loved that even though he’s in the middle of the trenches, he’s still excited about turning 21. You also become invested in his regiment, and as men die and are replaced, you understand the scale of death during this war. I highly recommend this book to everyone!

Last and certainly not least, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. It’s very philosophical, so it’s not a right-before-bed kind of book. It’s about miniaturists, the artists who paint illustrations in manuscripts, in Istanbul in the sixteenth century. Certain patrons in the city, including the Sultan, are influenced by the more realistic art of the European Renaissance, but lifelike portraits are considered heresy according to the Koran. After one artist who worked the Sultan’s European-style book is murdered, the others must figure out who killed them, and the investigation exposes how dangerous the book is to their society. I know very little about Islamic society, so I loved all the descriptions of the manuscript illustrations and the religious texts which inspired them. The murder mystery aspect of the plot is definitely secondary to long-winded descriptions of painting technique, so it’s not a quick read. The pace picks up in the last hundred pages, which are dedicated to the action of the murder plot. My favorite part of this book was that every chapter is told from a different character’s point of view–the main characters recur, but others are standalone. For example, someone will paint a horse, and then the horse gets its own chapter. These sections are more whimsical than philosophical, and they have some of the novel’s most beautiful passages. Pamuk’s sentences were translated by Erdağ Göknar, and the book flows really well. Some translated books have strangely klunky language, but I thought Göknar did a great job of creating a specific style for this book. I could see all the characters vividly. I recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in sixteenth-century Islamic society, and to anyone who wants something sweeping to get stuck into.

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Seeking Amnesty

“No Aussie saw this line, which followed Danny around the world; but anyone who grew up in Sri Lanka in the 1990s knows this black line, what it loudly commands of one, what it quietly permits.”

-Aravind Adiga, Amnesty

Amnesty by Aravind Adiga is the second (and last!) proof I snagged from the bookstore before I moved back home. I started it on the plane, and finished it in the first strange days of self-isolation. I absolutely loved it. This novel is about Danny, a Sri Lankan immigrant in Australia who let his student visa expire and has been living in fear of the Australian government for four years. He works as a cleaner, and one morning he learns that an old client of his has been murdered–and he’s the only one who knew she was having an affair. Over the course of the day, he travels around Sydney as he decides whether or not to call the police with the information he knows, and risk his own position in Australia.

I love murder mysteries, so I was excited about this when I read the blurb. I had no idea how stressful it would be! Adiga writes suspense with incredible skill, and the entire novel I was worried about Danny’s safety, his future, and the outcome of the murder investigation. Adiga also manages to work in a lot of backstory, however, so I felt like I knew Danny really well by the end of the novel. Certain flashbacks have titles, so I always knew where in Danny’s life I was when I was reading, and the novel’s sections are marked out by what time it is on the day of the murder investigation. Knowing what time it was in Danny’s day was useful to me as a sign post, and it also helped to increase the tension. When he was running late for an appointment at someone’s house, for example, I knew that it had already been an hour since he last called the person. I felt like I was right there, running late with him.

Amnesty also makes great use of repetition. Danny can’t get a new phone because the phone company requires identification to write a new contract, and one recurring paragraph in the novel is the text message he gets from his carrier: “As we continue to build a mobile network for the future, we will have to say goodbye to older forms of technology. That means the phone you appear to be using, a 2G phone, will no longer work from next week.” The constant reminders that Danny’s phone will shut off shows how helpless he is in a country that doesn’t acknowledge his right to exist. The novel also provides a fantastic map of Sydney. Like Ulysses and other novels that are set in one city over one day, Amnesty crisscrosses Sydney as Danny travels back and forth between his apartment (a room behind a grocery store) and his clients. Adiga shows us everything from the wealthy neighborhoods to the haunts of other undocumented immigrants like Danny, and by the end of the novel, I really wanted to visit Sydney and see all these streets in person.

Danny is not only an undocumented immigrant, he’s an undocumented immigrant from Sri Lanka. One of my favorite aspects of the novel was the detail about the difference between Sri Lankans and Indians. The client who was murdered and the man she was having an affair with were both Indian, and Danny’s recollections of his time with them show how differently he was treated because he wasn’t from India like them. His memories of life before he arrived in Australia also show how he was profiled: as a terrorist, as a useless son, as an immigrant not quite worthy of legal entry but not worthy of asylum, either. The only thing I didn’t love about this novel was the end. It’s narrated rather than shown in scenes, and I would have loved to be with Danny when he made his decision at the end of the day. I recommend Amnesty to anyone who likes murder mysteries, who cares about undocumented immigrants, and who’s interested in a unique tour of Sydney.

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Escaping into Austen

I had to write a few drafts of this post before I liked it. It’s too hard to concentrate on writing right now; a week ago I had a job and I lived in London, and now I’m unemployed and I’m staying with my parents in America until all of this calms down. Regardless, I’ve found that I’m still able to disappear into books to distract myself for a few hours at a time. I got Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen as a proof from the bookstore because we still had a few hardbacks from before Christmas to sell. I can’t sell them now, of course, so I read it on the plane back to my parents’ house. Any book that can hold my attention on a long-haul flight during a pandemic is clearly well-written, and this novel was helped by its connection to the Austen family. I’m not alone in my obsession with all things Jane Austen, from her novels to adaptations to films about Jane Austen fans. If you’ve just seen the new Emma film and you need more of Austen’s world, this is the book for you.

I found Miss Austen slow to get into, but I loved it by the end. It’s about Cassandra Austen, Jane Austen’s older sister. In the 1840s, Cassandra visits an old family friend’s house to retrieve letters from Jane as she undertakes the task of cleaning the Austen’s history for future Jane Austen scholars. She knows the fascination with her sister is growing, and she wants to make sure that no trace of scandal will be reported. The book is much more about her own scandals than Jane’s, though, which is why I found the novel slow to start. Once I accepted that Cassandra was the more interesting character in this novel, I was much more invested in the story.

This is an entertaining, and moving, story for anyone who loves Jane Austen or period literature. It feels a little corny at times, especially during flashbacks to family dinners with the Austens, as Jane and Cassandra’s parents are characterized as the obvious inspiration for Mr. and Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. The book is written in the third person from Cassandra’s perspective, and since she thought and spoke in Regency-era English, some of the narration is a little old-fashioned, as well. Hornby handles the flashbacks well. All the chapters are preceded by the year in which they are set, or flashback chapters follow directly from a letter written about the events. This helps to keep time clear in a novel that’s entirely in the past tense.

I finished the book with a real sense of how difficult life was for women in the Regency Era. Without the right to property, women were completely dependent on marriage or individual legacies. After Reverend Austen retires and gives up the rectory to his oldest son, the Austens and their unmarried daughters are left homeless. They have to spend years travelling around England, renting new homes seasonally, until one of their brothers gifts them a cottage as a permanent residence. Miss Austen discusses the toll of this on Jane and Cassandra’s mental health.

Marriage is one way to escape the nomadic lifestyle that’s forced upon the Austens, and Cassandra’s romantic life is a feature in the novel. She flirts with marriage twice, but like Jane, remains single her whole life. The effect of marriage on a women’s independence varies, depending on which characters in the novel you ask. Cassandra believes that a house of women is the ultimate utopia, but there are women who view marriage as freedom, and the discussion of these two lifestyles at the end of the novel is fascinating. Miss Austen is an enjoyable read. It moves quickly, and though it takes a few chapters before you can see the characters clearly, you feel close to Cassandra and her family by the end.

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Struggling Marriages

“To her husband she was understanding, even affectionate, though they slept as if there were an agreement between them; not so much as a foot ever touched. There was an agreement, it was marriage.”

-James Salter, Light Years

I read Light Years by James Salter and Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue for my writing course. (I’ve already returned Light Years to the library, so only Behold the Dreamers is pictured.) These are, on paper, very different novels. Light Years is about an upper-class Jewish-American family in the 1950s and 1960s, and Behold the Dreamers is about a family from Cameroon who emigrate to New York in the years before the 2008 crash. Both novels are about marriage, though, and offer great insight into the ways in which tensions rise, and are aggravated or appeased, between two people.

Light Years might be one of the most technically perfect books that I’ve ever read. Salter moves across decades and between characters, his dialogue is clear and sparse, his sentences are complex and understandable. I’ve never been so jealous of someone’s pacing. This book is clearly written by someone who knew how to create a novel. I’d recommend it just for that, for anyone interested in the craft of writing, but it’s also a moving look at ageing and growing apart from people. The couple at the center of Light Years, Nedra and Viri, do not stay together; they both have affairs during the marriage, and they divorce amicably, almost expectantly. Salter writes really entertaining summations of characters in a sentence or two. This one is about Nedra: “She used the figure forty, in truth she was forty-one. She was miserable. She was content. She would do her yoga, read, calm herself as one calms a cat.” This one is about Viri’s second wife: “She had a small car, many pairs of shoes, she said wistfully, some money in Switzerland; she was like a meal all prepared.” Light Years has some quite funny passages about dinner parties, as well. He writes fantastic dialogue, and I could picture all of his scenes very clearly. As the novel progresses and the characters age, there are fewer funny scenes are more passages about death, and while this was sad, it also felt very real. I recommend this to anyone who wants to read a well-written story about family, marriage, and ageing.

In Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, the husband Jende works as a chauffeur for a high-up banker at Lehman Brothers, and his wife Neni is a pharmacology student who ends up working as a temporary housekeeper for the banker’s wife. It shows that the immigrant experience in New York City in the 2010s is intense, sometimes unrewarding. Jende and Neni depend on a (frankly, highly suspicious) immigration lawyer’s plan to grant Jende asylum to remain in the country, and their anxiety about deportation affects their marriage and their careers. Mbue has created very vivid characters. I felt like I knew Jende and Neni well by the end of the novel, and I understood why both of them make potentially poor choices. Mbue also writes chapters from the point of view of the Edwards’, the couple whom Jende and Neni work for, and I was less convinced by those. It felt a little like the chapters near the end of The Female Persuasion; they were well written, but they weren’t about the characters I had invested in. The only thing I didn’t like about the book was the way the 2008 crash was handled. Mbue’s narration of it involved a lot of stressed conversations that Jende overhears while driving Clark around, and since I knew what would happen, I didn’t find it as suspenseful as I felt I should have. This is a great story about immigration in twenty-first century America, though, and I recommend it to anyone interested in that or in stories about POC in America in general. The central question is about what you’re willing to sacrifice to say you live in America, and I loved how Mbue resolved the story.

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Indigenous Stories

“The stories were of people and whanaungatanga, of the plaiting that gives strength to the basket, the weaving that gives the basket beauty, and of koha that makes the basket full.”

-Patricia Grace, Potiki

I grew up in the United States, and our education in Native American culture was pathetic at best. What happened to indigenous people in every colonized country (so, most countries) is heartbreaking. My introduction to the violence of colonization was a book I found in the library in elementary school about an indigenous community that encounters European invaders. In the indigenous community, everyone had a sacred name that could only be invoked a few times during their lifetime. The main character’s sacred name was used when they were introduced to the Europeans, and the Europeans abused it throughout the novel until the main character lost their spirit. This was one of the few books I read as a child with an unhappy ending, and it stuck with me.

I’m always eager to learn more about indigenous cultures, and I found a book of Australian aboriginal fables by A.W. Reed at a secondhand store. I’m 90% positive that the author is not aboriginal himself (the back says that Wells was interested in aboriginal culture, which always brings to mind the kind of white person that collects tribal masks), so I wanted to pair this with a book written by an indigenous author. Fortunately Potiki, Patricia Grace’s novel about a Maōri community threatened by commercial development, has just come into print in the UK.

Despite the questionable authorship of the Australian aboriginal fables, I found them very entertaining to read. The underlying idea behind all of the stories in this book is that all animals were once humans, and they turned into animals when they acted in poor judgement or were faced with difficult choices. Reed organized this book by animal, which I found really interesting, because there were multiple origin stories for each animal. Several of the stories encouraged women to accept their role as wives and mothers; in one fable, two sisters who attempt to live independently of their tribe are frightened back into a traditional role by the end. The sentences in this book were unremarkable, since everything was meant to be informative and moralistic, but I was intrigued by the shift in narration at the end of the collection. Most of the fables are written in the third person, beginning with phrases like, “Long, long ago”. The last story, however, is entirely in dialogue, and it has a scene: a grandmother is gathered around a fire with a group of children in her community, and she is warning them to behave themselves. The grandmother uses the children’s uncle as an example, as he fell prey to the evil Yara-ma-yha-who, and she is characterized vividly. She has “high-pitched laughter”, and she looks “mournfully” away when she is asked why she couldn’t protect her relative. Whatever Reed’s motivations were, he chose a moving way to end the book, since the image of young children around the fire reminds the reader that these fables not just stories from “long, long ago”; they are part of an existing culture.

Patricia Grace’s novel Potiki is a beautifully written and very satisfying account of victory against white corporate culture. It’s hard to accept that it was written almost forty years ago, because indigenous groups have still received so little compensation. The novel is about a farming community near the coast in New Zealand, and their land is threatened when the local government wants to open a resort with access to the coast. Grace writes chapters from different members of a family. The mother, Roimata, worked as a teacher elsewhere in New Zealand before she returned to marry her childhood sweetheart and live and work off of the ancestral land. The father, Hemi, decided to dedicate his life to farming after he is laid off at the factory where he worked. They have three children, and one adopted son, Toko, who is physically disabled and spiritually gifted; he foresees the onslaught of environmental carnage. Grace’s short and lyrical novel covers environmentalism, cultural genocide, the effects of world wars on indigenous communities, mental illness, and physical disability. It works in Maōri mythology as well, and begins with a beautiful passage of carving the people’s ancestors for their meeting-house. The ending is bittersweet and uplifting. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about Maōri culture, or who wants to read a story in which the indigenous community is not destroyed.

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The Female Persuasion

Faith was one of those people, Greer had started to see, who was seductive to almost everyone.

-Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion

I read The Female Persuasion out of curiosity. It’s been on a table in the bookstore for a while, and I wanted to know if it was worth recommending. I don’t think it is. 

From the early pages, the book appears to be about a young woman from Massachussetts, Greer, and the influence of a prominent feminist named Faith Frank on her life. Wolitzer had several tics that annoyed me in this book, and the first was her tendency to move forward to the future. Sentences like this are frequent in the book: “Above them, Darren Tinzler strode down the wide, majestic stairway. He hadn’t been identified as Darren Tinzler yet, hadn’t been given significance.” This tactic can be useful occasionally, to emphasize the irony of a moment in the present if a character will change dramatically or hilariously. I’m sure I’ve read sentences like this before and enjoyed them. They were constant in Wolitzer’s book, though, and they took away from the coming-of-age structure of the book. I knew from the first few chapters in that Greer would split unamicably from Faith and that she would one day be famous. The references to Greer’s fame annoyed me because they’re presented as a given. The novel shows her fall, when she quits working for Faith and has to start her life over, and the last chapter flashes forward to Greer on a successful book tour, with enough money to buy an apartment in New York. I wasn’t as moved by the change at the end because I’d known it was going to happen. If Wolitzer had kept us with Greer in real time during the novel, the start of her life after Faith would have felt more frightening, and the news of her successful book would be more rewarding. 

The Female Persuasion tracks Greer’s life from the start of college, where she meets Faith at a lecture, through her late twenties, while she works at a foundation for women led by Faith until their aforementioned split. Wolitzer refuses to allow Greer to have any queer feelings for Faith, despite the fact that she admires Faith’s body and her appearance and felt such a strong love for Faith that the older woman is described as her reason for existing. Wolitzer goes so far to describe Greer’s feelings as “not sexual” to cover up any chance of queerness, which I thought was pretty unnecessary. Let it be heard: women have crushes on women all the time! It wouldn’t have changed the book at for this to be explicit, except that Greer’s obsession would have made a little more sense.

There are queer characters in the book. Greer’s best friend from college and afterwards, Zee, is a queer woman. She even gets a section to herself, near the end, and while I enjoyed learning about her life after college I didn’t really know why it was in this book, which was meant to be about Greer. As the book goes on, Wolitzer writes chapters about characters who make appearances in Greer’s story. Greer’s boyfriend, Cory, made sense to me as he had a chapter early on in the book and his chapters recurred. Zee’s lone section near the end confused me, as I’ve said. There was a chapter in the head of Faith Frank herself, which narrated her life and her rise to feminist activism, but didn’t, in my opinion, add much insight to her character. When I began a chapter from the point of view of Emmett Shrader, a millionaire who holds a longtime torch for Faith and who funds her women’s foundation, I felt that the book wasn’t about Greer anymore at all. The Female Persuasion tries to cover too much. If Wolitzer wanted the book to be about a range of people, the different characters’ chapters should have been split up more evenly, and the book should not have emphasized only Greer and Faith so heavily in the beginning. Every time I came across a new characters’ section I was confused, and annoyed, because I didn’t know what was going on with Greer. The structure of this book doesn’t give deep insight into any one character, and left me feeling like I’d read a bunch of short biographies. 

The saving grace of this book was, surprisingly enough, the relationship between Greer and her high school sweetheart, Cory. They stay together through college and for a few years afterward. Wolitzer’s descriptions of long distance were a little painfully true, but well written. I was really compelled by Cory’s character arc. I enjoyed his chapters most of all, even though his life includes the most soap-operary sections of the plot, including murder and heroin use. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of Greer’s first months working at the women’s foundation. She’s essentially an assistant, and she’s isolated from her colleagues, and I felt more in her head during this section than in any other part of the book. Perhaps if I’d been with her instead of Cory during some of the more intense moments of the book, I’d feel closer to her. As it was, I wasn’t moved by the climax, when Greer is heartbroken by the questionable morals behind the scenes at Faith’s women’s foundation. 

I wanted this book to be a better coming-of-age story. It addressed sexual harassment and the wide definitions of feminism, and it touched on intersectionality, but it was largely about idealizing an older, wealthy, white feminist. For anyone seeking a book that accurately and compellingly describes growing up in recent decades, I say keep looking—I’m looking, too. 

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Queer Stories

“Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.”

-Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy

Ali Smith and Christopher Isherwood are both classic queer writers. I know I never stop talking about Smith, and I read Isherwood’s Berlin Novels for the first time last year. They were fantastic, very funny and, by the end, moving in their portrait of a Berlin that was changing before the Second World War. I found these Ali Smith books and Isherwood’s A Single Man in my room when I went back to my parents’ for Christmas, and I got around to reading them last week. 

Girl Meets Boy is Smith’s adaptation of the Iphis myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For those of you who weren’t so socially isolated during uni that you read every last book on the reading list, the Iphis myth is about a family who can’t afford to give birth to a daughter. When they do have a daughter, the mother prays for her child to survive, and the gods allow her to raise her child as a boy; his name is Iphis, and he’s raised as a trans man. Iphis falls in love with a girl whom he grows up with and they are betrothed, but he worries that his marriage will fail when his wife figures out that he can never bear her children. He prays to become a man biologically, and his wish is granted. He marries his love and they live happily. Smith’s novel is set in 21st century Scotland, and it’s about two sisters, one straight and one gay. The queer sister starts dating a genderfluid person who inspires discussion of the Iphis myth. There are also public demonstrations against a large company, sexism and harassment in the workplace, and absolutely gorgeous moments of sisterly bonding. This book was short enough to read in a morning, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a beautiful, lyrical story about queer people and women standing up to male corporate authorities. 

Public Library is one of Smith’s several short stories connections. I thought I was getting used to the strangeness of her style, and she suprised me again. Public Library‘s stories are interspersed with quotes and short essays by literary figures about the importance of public libraries to them. There are also frightening statistics. Smith writes that from the time she began the book to the date of its publication, over a thousand libraries closed in the UK. The quotes Smith gathered reminded me how much I went to the library as a child and through high school, and I signed up for two library cards within days of finishing the book. The stories in this collection are largely in the first person, and largely read like autofiction. I didn’t like the first person as much as I liked the stories in Smith’s Free Love collection. These stories are also very literary; there’s one about a woman who’s dating a woman obsessed with Katherine Mansfield, and another about someone reading about D.H. Lawrence. Smith is a fantastic writer, but I would recommend the collection more for the memories of libraries than for the stories themselves. They’re so touching, and they brought back so many memories of all the libraries I’ve lived near and worked in through my life.

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is written in a very different tone than Ali Smith’s stories. It’s a short novel about George, a late-middle-aged gay professor living in L.A. in the 1960s. It follows him from waking up to falling asleep, and it’s written pretty distantly. Several passages separate George’s mind from his body, and his real persona from the person he presents to his neighbors and his students and colleagues at his university. He’s very depressed because his younger lover recently passed away, and over the course of the day you learn that their relationship wasn’t going well by the end. I loved how frank this book is. It describes the most mundane aspects of existence in an engaging way, simply because they’re rarely focused on in literature. There are also great passages about how L.A. has changed over the decades. There’s a description of the streets that still look like they did in the 1930s, and another great passage about how George’s favorite bar evolved from the end of the Second World War to the mid 1960s. Isherwood writes about gentrification in a very modern way; he distrusts suburban living for its heteronormative structures, and a lot of the things that frustrate George about L.A. continue to frustrate people who live in American cities. 

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Exploring Nonfiction

“Grief is not a whodunnit story, or a puzzle to solve, but an active and vibrant enterprise. It is hard, honest work. It can break your back.”

Hisham Matar, The Return

Books covered: Hisham Matar’s The Return and A Month in Siena

I almost never read nonfiction, partially because I write fiction and I want to learn more about the craft, and partially because I assume it won’t be interesting. That’s not true, of course. One of the few nonfiction books I have read over the years is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It’s about the woman whose cancer cells led to the first breakthroughs in cancer treatment, and I read it on a plane more than five years ago. There was a sentence about the red polish on Henrietta’s nails that I think about periodically, even though I can’t remember most of the book. 

I decided to read both of Hisham Matar’s memoirs because I’d read part of his most recent one, A Month in Siena, when I was fact-checking reviews at an internship in September. I thought it was so beautiful then that I kept reading past the quotes I was meant to be checking. I wanted to start with Matar’s memoir about his father to learn more about him. It was definitely the right choice–there were certain moments in A Month in Siena that wouldn’t have been as meaningful if I hadn’t read The Return.

The Return is about Matar’s search for his father, Jaballa, after he is kidnapped by the Libyan government for protesting against the Qaddafi regime. There is a lot of distressing material in the book, and Matar handles it fantastically. He doesn’t have any gratuitous descriptions because he doesn’t need them; the statistics are horrifying enough. Most of the male members of his family have spent ten years in prison, and it has changed everything about how they conduct themselves. Matar writes with such empathy of his uncles and cousins, and I have such a clear sense of his family. He also writes of the frustration and the subterfuge that comes with communicating with an uncooperative government, and of the strain he felt from childhood knowing that his father was a wanted man. I think what is valuable about memoir is the writer’s (assumed, at least) candor. Even though so much of Matar’s searching in The Return leads to dead ends, or to more questions, I felt like I was with him the whole time, through his fear and love and resentment. He has created an excellent voice for himself on paper. 

After The Return, A Month in Siena felt like a visit with an old friend–shorter than you’d like, but still lovely. It’s about the time Matar took to visit paintings by the Sienese school, which he’d discovered as 19-year-old living in London, still reeling from his father’s recent disappearance. I had read a few excerpts in September, and I realized when I read the whole book that it’s much more analytical about art than I expected. I liked that. Matar’s passages on the history of the paintings and the significance of certain images felt like a gentle, very personal lesson. He reads so much into the emotions of figures in the paintings. One of my favorite passages was about a dark-skinned figure among the crowd of a large painting; Matar wonders what the man’s origins are, and if he feels isolated in the Italian city where he’s been observed. The book itself was also beautiful. I don’t normally notice details beyond the font, but everything about A Month in Siena was gorgeous: the weight of the paper, the color photographs of paintings Matar disscussed, and the tall but narrow shape of the book. I didn’t let myself get food anywhere near it, which is unusual. (I don’t go out of my way to stain books, but if I do, I feel a little proud. I like to prove I was there, on that page, eating soup.)

Matar’s memoirs are important politically, of course. He combines statistics with community reactions in a way that taught me so much about the complexity of patriotism for a country affected first by imperialism and then undemocratic governments. Matar also writes about families in general, how parents and children relate to each other and how we express love. His books reminded me that nonfiction leads to connections with real people in a way that fiction can do a little, but not as completely. 

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Recommended Books

Catherine stared out into the drizzle. ‘The 80s are going on for ever.’

-Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty

Books covered: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty

I like to try books that people recommend to me because I’d never pick them out myself. These two were recommended by one of my managers at the bookstore. I’d never heard of Claire Messud, and I’d heard of Alan Hollinghurst, but he wasn’t high up on my list of authors to try. 

The Emporer’s Children is about a three friends in their late twenties in New York City in the months leading up to 9/11. I was cautious about the premise because I think events like 9/11 are often used as unnecessary plot points. When I started this book I realized I also didn’t like Messud’s sentences. They didn’t flow well for me, and I actually put the book aside for a few weeks before I realized that I missed the characters. That’s why my manager had recommended it, for the vivid characterization, and that’s what brought me over to be a fan of this book. Messud does a fantastic job of showing us the personal lives of these three people, and the way they respond to the culture of the early 2000s (one’s a filmmaker, and two are writers). What I loved by the end was how secure they all thought they had been, and how much their attitudes towards work and romance changed in the months after the act of terror. No one in the book is entirely likeable, and Messud’s tone is largely satirical, but the last chapters are moving in a way I hadn’t expected. 

The Line of Beauty is a big, impressive book–it won the Man Booker in 2004 and it’s about a gay English man coming of age in 1980s Conservative society. Hollinghurst is a great writer, and the book moves really quickly. He manages to capture the confidence of upper-class society so well that even though I knew all of the ramifications of unprotected sex before AIDS awareness, I was still surprised when the disease started to affect the main character’s immediate circle. The book’s protagonist is an aspiring writer and an academic. While Messud was distanced from her characters’ pretensions, Hollinghurst leans into it. I had trouble relating to detailed descriptions of classical compositions and Henry James novels, and I didn’t understand some of the comparisons between say, a tennis serve and the way a certain movement was played on piano. Despite this, though, I was very moved by the book. Great coming-of-age books make us wistful for the more innocent days, and while the increasing danger of illness is an obvious reason for nostalgia, Hollinghurst has his character grow for many more reasons than AIDS. By the end of The Line of Beauty, I missed the younger, sweeter world of the first one hundred pages. 

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Library Chat: Burner Phone Books 1

Repressed White Men

Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?

— Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Books covered: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and John Cheever’s Journals

I said that I would focus on writers of color, but this first post will be all about the world’s Favored Demographic. I was finishing up a deadline for my masters when my phone was stolen, so these first few books are from my reading list.

It’s important to acknowledge that Ishiguro is not a white man. His narrator is, though, which makes me a little sad the same way that Ondaatje’s white protagonists make me a little sad. I wish their most popular novels were more focused on people of color, and I asked Ondaatje about that when I saw him speak a few years ago. He seemed offended that I’d written him off because of his characters when he’s still a man of color, getting published and winning prizes. It’s a tough call. I’ve been trying to feature more Indian-Irish characters because (correct me if I’m wrong! I would love to be proven wrong!) there are no Indian-Irish-American characters in literature. When that’s no longer the case, I’ll write about more varied demographics.

On to The Remains of the Day. This is a novel about a butler named Stevens, who works in a house that was owned by English nobility, Lord Darlington, through the Second World War. It’s currently owned by an American man–Stevens stays on after Lord Darlington’s death to work for the new family. On a vacation to visit the house’s former housekeeper, Stevens recalls the house before the war and his relationship with the housekeeper. It took me a few chapters to get into this book. I was annoyed by Stevens. I didn’t care about his tangents on the history of butlering, and I thought it was incredibly weird that he didn’t understand aspects of human interaction like humor. I couldn’t believe that anyone could be that disconnected from other people. Once I accepted that his repression was the point of the novel, I started to love it. If you haven’t read it or seen the film, go into it cold. I watched the film years ago with my family, and though I didn’t remember any details, I remembered one crucial aspect of the plot which is revealed much more subtly in the novel. As for the writing: Ishiguro structures the frame narrative flawlessly. The novel tracks Stevens’ progress from Oxfordshire to Cornwall, and the sections dip in and out of the past as though you’re chatting with him, or reading his diary. He apologizes for dwelling on events in the 1930s when he was meant to describe his drive that day. This keeps readers from forgetting when the novel is really set: in the 1950s, when Stevens is an older and sadder man. Part of Stevens’ repression is that he never acknowledges his emotions in his narration. We only discover that he looks upset when someone asks him if he’s okay, or offers him a tissue. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the narrator revealed so little–I found it fascinating. It’s a testament to Ishiguro’s characterization that Stevens’ inability to process humor, which was so odd in the beginning of the novel, becomes endearing at the end. Just before he sets off to return to Oxfordshire, he decides to “pleasantly surprise” his American employer by finally learning how to tell jokes. He hasn’t learned to live for himself, and only we know enough to worry about him.

Speaking of people we should be worried about: John Cheever. I haven’t read any of his fiction, but I’m curious about it now. A lot of the journal entries describe how he revises his stories, and I’d love to read them and track how they got to their published format. (If you’re interested in that: I highly recommend Fitzgerald’s I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories. A lot of these were either never published or heavily, heavily revised before publishing. Each story is prefaced with background about how it was rejected by various editors and the feedback Fitzgerald was given, and there are also photos of his original drafts, which I’m very into.) The back of the Vintage edition I have describes Cheever’s journals as “startling”, and I have to say I only got about a hundred pages in before I had to stop. He is very depressed. I wouldn’t advise reading these if you aren’t doing well–nearly every entry involves alarming quantities of alcohol and detached descriptions of pain and illness. But beyond all of that, he writes gorgeously. These aren’t choppy, inarticulate sentences: “The contemptible smallness, the mediocrity of my work, the disorder of my days, these are the things that make it, to say the least, difficult for me to get up in the morning. When I talk with people, when I ride on trains, life seems to have some apparent, surface goodness that does not need questioning.” His journal flows. It’s a great study of stream-of-consciousness, description, and brevity. In one entry he writes: “I feel the way I used to feel as a soldier.” He doesn’t need to expand on that with specific emotions, because we know that being a soldier in war is a shitty, anxious, endangered state of being. You can open any page of the journals to find a beautiful sentence about unhealthy living. He is fascinating, but I’ll leave you with a more lighthearted quote, because Cheever was bi and several entries are quite sexy: “You could drive a Jeep down the shadowy division of the ladies’ breasts.” As much as I want to question this, I can picture guys from my high school saying this. Cheever is very Repressed New England.

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