Battle for Bittora | Anuja Chauhan

Battle for Bittora,
by Anuja Chauhan,
Rating: **** 

This year, I’ve sought to read books I would not ordinarily have read. Largely, this is an attempt to broaden my horizons in terms of the material that I give time to. The Indian authors I read during my teenage years always felt Chetan Bhagat inspired. After I read my first Chetan Bhagat novel, I was certain that his books were written for the big screen. This was a notion that was confirmed really quickly – with movies inspired by his novels becoming box-office blockbusters.

Reading Anuja Chauhan made me feel the same thing. That her book is destined for the big screen. To categorize her with Chetan Bhagat, however, would be misleading. Her brand of humour is unique and far more witty than Bhagat’s, and her characters do not have a comparable level of pretense.

At the book’s center is 25 year old Jinni (Sarojini) who lives and works in Mumbai is perfectly happy with her carefree and happy existence. This is till her grandmother, a veteran politician herself, informs Jinni to drop everything and contest from their hometown Bittora. As a result of this bullying, Jinni’s life turns upside down, moving from Mumbai to campaigning as the Pragati party MP Candidate in Bittora. The book takes us through her campaign trail, as she slowly understands the nuances of politics – right from how her friends become her enemies, to how her campaign is actually funded.

The book gets more fun when her main rival is introduced: a childhood friend Zain Altaf Khan. An ex-Royal of Bittora, Zain is a candidate of IJP, a largely pro-Hindu, extreme party, which by fielding a Muslim candidate is trying to signal a change of its party ideologies. As is predictable, the love story which develops between these two protagonists is what drives the book, around the political drama which transpires as well.

As a light-hearted read, the book is phenomenal. There’s a tinge of political commentary, but that’s not the main feature here. Chauhan is liberal with her use of Hinglish, making the book extremely relatable. The slang is hilarious, with words like “Saakshaat fart” to describe people, and “kitaanu animator” to describe Jinni’s job profile. The jokes are terrible and will inspire a laugh riot, with characters like “our Pappu” being developed purely through jokes. And of course, as with every Indian family, there’s an aunty who tries to get in the way of things – which just adds to the masala.

I’d recommend this book to everybody. I gave it 4-stars because I thought it got a little dry in parts, in terms of the writing. But it’s worth the read, especially if you need some laughter therapy.

The Red-Haired Woman | Orhan Pamuk

The Red-Haired Woman,
by Orhan Pamuk,
Published by Knopf (2017)
Rating: ****

I had a hard time getting into this book. But when I did, I found that I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed reading other novels Pamuk has written. The book’s appeal probably also lies in the fact that it is one of his shorter works.

The story falls into three parts, each of which is quite distinct.

The first part is both the simplest and the easiest to like. The narrator Cem tells of a job he took after his father, who was involved in a left wing group, had disappeared and before his university entrance exams. This involved working as an apprentice to a traditional well-digger. The story describes the process of well-digging and Cem’s relationship with his master, a father figure who tells him stories. Cem becomes obsessed with the red-haired woman of the title, and eventually discovers that she works in a travelling theatre with her husband. This part comes to a dramatic conclusion.

In the second part ,the older narrator continues the story and describes his progression, first in marrying, then by running a company that invests in developing new suburbs of Istanbul, one of which is the town in which the first part is set. The company becomes very successful, Cem discovers that his master survived and succeeded in finding water and completing the well, and that the red-haired woman was a former lover of his father, and the son of the red-haired woman claims that Cem is his father. This story also builds to a dramatic confrontation in which Cem is led by a man claiming to be his son’s friend to see the well, eventually revealing himself as the son, leading to a fight in which Cem’s gun is fired. So if the first part paralleled Oedipus, this is closer to Rostam and Sohrab.

The third part is related by the red-haired woman, which made for an interesting change of perspective. The son is in prison accused of Cem’s murder, and she visits him and tells him her story and Cem’s. She encourages him to write his father’s story, which explains how the first two parts came to be written.

This is a book meant for an introduction into the world of Orhan Pamuk. It is reflective of everything associated with his writing: a depth of plot, complex characters, intriguing perspectives, and so much more. It’s also reflective of my biggest criticism of Pamuk – that he tries to do too much. There are parts here which feel forced, and unnecessary, as with several other works of his. As a result, it’s a perfect introduction, and good material to assess whether or not you’ll enjoy reading Orhan Pamuk.

Silent House | Orhan Pamuk

Silent House,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Robert Finn
Published by Knopf (2012)
Rating: ****

Perhaps one of Pamuk’s most politically-charged works, Silent House is a really, really good read. The novel takes place against the backdrop of the military coup of 1980, and provides an opportunity to understand the relationship between Turkey’s political and military establishment through the experience of the common-man.

The plot is this. The Darvinoglu family gathers for its annual reunion at the crumbling ancestral mansion in the resort town of Cennethisar, near Istanbul. Into the mix of clashing personalities, gossip, plans and barely buried grudges that are usually part of such reunions, this book adds debates over religion, Turkey’s divided feelings about belonging to Europe or the Middle East, and hints of the looming coup. The national schism is dramatically personified in Hasan, the illegitimate teenage grandson of the family patriarch, Selahattin. Frustrated by his poverty and flunking out of school, Hasan tries to curry favour with an ultra-nationalist vigilante group, while at the same time stalking Nilgün, the beautiful, cheerful, communist-leaning granddaughter.

The book explores Turkey like none of Pamuk’s other works do – by providing insight into how families operate in such a confusing atmosphere. It provides explanations to thought patterns of the right-wing and the extremists, as well as to the understanding of Turkish culture that the centrists and the left-wing holds.

What is particularly enjoyable is the writing style, with each of the characters in the Darvinoglu family getting their own first-person perspective, which allows you to shift between the experiences of each of them individually, and the family as a collective.

This is a good book. There’s no more commentary I would like to offer. It is insightful, engaging, and fast – and worth reading.

The Museum of Innocence | Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of Innocence,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Knopf (2009)
Rating: *** 

This is a love story about an engaged man who has an affair with a girl he meets. Over the course of the novel, he deals with detachment from the affair – since his lover flees, reconnecting with his lover, and then detachment once more, as they get separated forever. It’s a really simple plot, woven together with an intensity of prose that only Pamuk is capable of. As I set the book down, it felt like I had finished reading the diary of one of my closest friends. This is the overwhelming nature of Pamuk’s writing. He makes you feel like you’ve just understood everything about another person – his protagonist.

It’s setting is very different from his other books. Several of Pamuk’s previous attempts concentrate on understanding and depicting Turkey by providing the perspective of an outsider, or rather, an individual navigating through its various faces. Here, Pamuk sticks to representing the Turkish experience through upper-class Istanbul in the 1970s and 1980s – an image that he has previously not written much about. There is no religious element, no identity conflict that Turkey experiences in this book, making this the least Pamuk-esque book (if you want to pigeon-hole authors) that he has written.

As a result, it is a phenomenal opportunity to appreciate his craft and his ability to weave a story together. Much like The White Castle, there is a power to the narrator, which continues through to the end of the novel. Additionally, the unexpected twists – and the uncertainty of all relationships built in the book, makes this an enjoyable read.

However, I thought that the book was far too long for the plot it was explaining. While the length of texts usually never bothers me, it was really startling how stretched out the book ended up becoming. Conversation got very dry in the middle, as a result of Pamuk’s deliberate choice to spend time on each individual moment his narrator experiences. As a consequence, I lost interest in the characters at various moments of time.

Additionally, the romantic plot got creepy in various parts, with an obsessiveness that wasn’t enjoyable. It’s very possible that the translation leads to this heightened creepiness, but if the book is this creepy in the original Turkish, it is a cause for concern.

In conclusion, I’d recommend reading it if you are a literature enthusiast. This isn’t a light read, even though the plot summary makes it sound like it.

My Name Is Red | Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Erdağ M. Göknar
Published by Vintage (2002)
Rating: ***** 

I’m not sure I will be able to do justice to the plot of My Name Is Red. It’s difficult to put into words. In essence, it is a murder mystery. An individual, Elegant has been murdered, and his corpse lies undiscovered at the bottom of a well. Speaking from the afterlife, he hopes that his body is found soon and that the murderer is captured.

However, Elegant is not the sole narrator through the book. Each fresh chapter introduces a new character to the story, and ends up explaining their backstory, alongwith how much they know about the murder of Elegant. As we learn more about the motives for murder, so we learn about the motives behind art, and the possibilities of its interpretation.

Pamuk’s consistency with exploring the blurring of lines in the confluence between the East and the West continues here as well. Each narrator, though modernist, has an intriguing take on the value and role of art in a person’s life. So too, does each narrator have a perspective on whom the likely murderer is. Pamuk unravels the plot slowly, allowing for these philosophical discussions and beliefs to be exposed in as nuanced a manner as possible. Pamuk manages to portray the 16th century world, full of its own contradictions, and capture it in a manner that is wholesome and enjoyable.

However, if you are reading Pamuk purely for the murder mystery – this might not live up to your expectations. There’s barely any distinction drawn in the likelihood that one of the narrators may have murdered elegant, which leaves room for a lot of doubt, and a lot of tension, one that Pamuk diffuses in a manner that isn’t all that appreciable. The narratives is skewed and feels heavily-strung together.

As a result, Pamuk’s novel gets 5-stars on its value as a text and its contribution to my understanding of ideas that it presents – lucid, simplistic, and detailed. However, as a pure literary text, my jury will have to wait for a re-read. Or multiple re-reads.

The New Life | Orhan Pamuk

The New Life,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Guneli Gun
Published by Faber and Faber (1997)
Rating: ***

Reading Orhan Pamuk is an exercise in learning and unlearning. This book was the third in my journey of understanding the author.

The New Life follows the journey of individuals who, captivated by a book they read, seek to implement its principles, and achieve its conclusion – the prospect of a new life. The protagonist, Osman, notices the book as his friend, Janan sets it down – buying his own copy shortly thereafter. Subsequently, Janan introduces Osman to her boyfriend, Mehmet – who is shortly gunned down at a bus stop. As Mehmet is untraceable, Janan and Osman end up taking bus journeys – which are violent, and surreal, in an attempt to find Mehmet. Ultimately, they find Mehmet’s father, Dr. Fine, who – as the antagonist in the story, has attempted to curb the readership of the book, by murdering individuals who follow its teachings using a network of spies. The book concludes with a revelation of the book’s actual author – who is related to Osman.

This is a summary of the plot. The nuance involved, along with Pamuk’s writing style, makes this an extremely heavy, complex read. As a result, unlike his other works, I don’t think this is his most accessible novel. It left me feeling several mixed feelings. Before we get to criticisms however, Pamuk deserves appreciation.

As always, his storytelling will leave you with a sense of wonder and bewilderment. There’s a lot of depth, and while sometimes difficult to follow, Pamuk’s imagination is a credit to mankind’s thinking. Technically, Pamuk achieves Inception-level writing in the 90’s – something that only took to the screens much later.  Again, quintessentially true to style, there are scathing observations on Turkey’s complex, confused character, and remarks on the West. Further, the existentialism Osman faces – which leaves him in quest for a New Life, and his eventual succumbing to that quest, is something that is relatable across generations.

While the ideas and layering is grand, the writing here lacks a lot of precision. The prose here is heavy. Descriptions, for example, are over-done. Sentences are lengthy, and complicated. As a result, Osman’s introspection is overly complicated, rather than simplistically presented. Additionally, Pamuk appears to have a thing for disappearing acts. Reading this after The Black Book made them seem far too similar, and expectations were heightened.

Further, Pamuk doesn’t develop his characters as much as he usually does. There’s too much similarity between Osman and Janan. Their chemistry is far too quickly created, and progresses only as a result of their commonalities. Their friendship, and unrequited romance, is not organic, insofar as their personalities do not show any progression – aside from their sole focus being to find Mehmet.

Finally, I think what the book could have done with, is some exposition of the book that Osman, Janan and Mehmet all read. I understand that the crowd is split on this, but Pamuk tries to leave it to the reader to figure out what the book was about, and what the “new life” the book propagated actually is. In a sense, this is fantastic – it’s so subjective, and open to interpretation, that it allows the reader to soak in all this information and formulate an opinion. On the other hand, the motivation of these characters is so grey, and difficult to  pinpoint. Some excerpts – perhaps two lines, even, at the start of chapters, would have been fantastic.

In short, this is a more of a case of “what could have been” rather than “what is”. If you’re intrigued by Pamuk, it’s worth the shot, but shouldn’t be your first pick.

The Black Book | Orhan Pamuk

The Black Book
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Vintage (2006)
Rating: ****

As an exposition of Turkish culture, only the Turkish or individuals with intricate knowledge of the Mediterranean nation’s history can comment on the accuracy of The Black Book. I do not claim to be an expert in this field. As a result, my comments on Turkishness are restricted to plot points which stood out to me. Nonetheless, it is impossible to read Pamuk, even the translated version, and miss his identity and the influence of his surroundings on the book.

The Black Book opens with rhe protagonist, Galip, finding that his wife/first cousin Rüya has left him. Over the course of the novel, he attempts to hunt her down in Istanbul  – suspecting that she has taken off with her half-brother, Celal, a columnist. The book weaves in reprints of Celal’s columns with Galip’s hunt for his wife. Eventually, Galip attempts living as Celal – trying to think like Celal, and understand where they could have possibly disappeared. Eventually, trying to fuse his identity with Celal’s has consequences he was unprepared for – including life-threatening circumstances, which arrive from Celal’s own past. The book ends with a death, and a revelation built-up too, but unpredictable, which is typical of Pamuk’s writing.

As with The White Castle, Pamuk’s craft of storytelling is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure. His prose is smooth, and fluid – with a sustained build-up to a conclusion that sparks the imagination. True to style, Pamuk is able to invoke post-modern elements including a reveal that introduces the narrator’s role in the entire story, startling, yet masterfully constructed.

Noticeably, The Black Book builds on a lot of Pamuk’s revelations about identity in the White Castle. There are multiple levels on which a deep level of confusion about identity dominates the narrative. First, we see Galip’s own confusion and dissatisfaction with who he is. He slowly comes to understand his own unhappiness and causative factors for the same. This plot intertwines with Istanbul’s own identity as a city – which is split between an attempt to be secular, and an attempt to proudly accept and celebrate it’s Muslim and Christian roots. Finally, the book asks several questions about Turkey’s identity as a nation – and how people choose to confront the westernization of the nation.

None of this feels forced upon the reader, which I think is Pamuk’s biggest achievement with this book. It is entirely possible to enjoy the mystery of Rüya’s disappearance without viewing the plot as a commentary on Turkey. I thought the book could do with greater depth of character for Rüya, who is painted exclusively through one lens. Additionally, Pamuk’s choice of focusing on Istanbul and Turkey separately is intriguing, and perhaps, overdone in parts.

Nonetheless, this is a book I would thoroughly recommend. Pamuk is an author I’ve been aching to read, and I’m glad 2019 is the year I read him.

The Astonishing Colour of After | Emily X.R. Pan

The Astonishing Colour of After,
by Emily X.R. Pan
Published by Little, Brown Books (2018)
Rating: ***** 

Don’t let the number of chapters or pages in this book fool you. It’s a fast-read. Page-turning, emotionally engaging, and gripping, you’ll find yourself wondering where the time went as you finish. If you’re looking to get out of a reading slump, and fall in love with good writing again, this is a great starting point.

The story follows Leigh Sanders, a half-Taiwanese, half-American girl, as she struggles to cope with loss. On the same day she kisses the boy she’s pined over for years, her mother, Dory, commits suicide. At first the grief is overwhelming. She feels trapped in her childhood home with her distant father and the bloodstain marking her mother’s demise haunting her thoughts. Then, the night before the funeral, Leigh is roused from her nightmares by a huge crimson bird calling her name. She knows immediately the bird is her mother, the whys and hows brushed aside in the face a daughter’s longing for her mom. The plot then takes us to Leigh’s discovery of family she never knew, and her journey of “moving on” from an event she struggles to talk about or understand. All the while, her desperation to make contact with her mother once more drives her between the fantastical and the real, making this a journey unlike any other.

There’s a lot of plot depth to the book, which deserves a bit of analysis.

The first is the theme of identity. Leigh’s identity is clearly complex – she’s half-Asian and half-white, and Pan brings this out by describing how society views her. The Americans call her “exotic”, while the Taiwanese call her “hunxie”/”mixed blood”. Through these individual instances, Pan is able to portray the otherization that mixed-race people usually feel, without a strong connection to either cultural group. This conflict is also given a new layer by the presence of Axel, who is half-Filipino, and half-Puerto Rican. Their friendship and understanding, and their journey of family discovery points to the fact that both characters find comfort in each other – because there’s no other place they fit in.

The second, is how Pan tackles mental health. Now, the conversation on mental health has improved drastically – people are now more comfortable to discuss it in society, but Asian countries are notorious for their inability to accept diagnosed mental health illnesses as being real. There’s an ignorance in Asian society, which Pan is able to describe very realistically. Leigh struggles to use the word “depression”, unable to admit to herself that her mother suffers from the same. The suicide that takes place is without a note, and is committed by OD-ing on antidepressants, and several episodes are described in great detail in the novel. Pan is able to explain depression as it really is – difficult to understand, tough to explain and articulate. The biggest thing Pan achieves is that she doesn’t display “continuous sadness” as equal to depression, something I admired after I finished the book. Another achievement lies in steering away from psychonalysis or patient-blaming/patient-shaming. There’s no sugarcoating of the condition, or of death. It’s difficult, but the truth of depression is just that, and Pan’s judicious use of words deserves credit.

The third is art. Now, I wasn’t sure whether to highlight this as a theme within the book, but there’s layers to this which deserves some amount of description. Leigh, Axel, Caro, and Dory, are all artists. Each, unique, and each, with a different connection to their art. Leigh’s father, is an American academic. Stereotypes lead us to believe that strict Asian parents undermine art, viewing it as being a gateway to University, or a skill that deserves mastering purely for the purpose of mastery. What Pan does is flip the stereotype, by showing a large majority of Leigh’s social circle being pleased with art as a career choice, while Leigh’s father attempts to track her to become more “serious” and asks her questions about her future. That narrative was one I found incredibly interesting to read. It creates a tension in the familial relationship that persists throughout the novel, right until the very end. Why I believe art is a theme is also because of how well Pan is able to use colour throughout the entire book. Just like shades on a palette, I learnt about emotions I didn’t know I could ever feel – and the correlation between colour and emotion will strike a chord with any reader. It’s use as a device for me was not distracting, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Finally, the fantastic imagery and fantasy elements deserve a lot of praise. The plot is very tight, and the fantasy weaves very smoothly with plot developments taking place in reality. Pan’s conclusion hits the heart hard, describing the truth of experience and memory unlike anyone else I’ve read. Reading the book reminded me a lot of the Disney movie Coco. It incited similar emotions in me, I guess.

My only qualm with the book was the romantic side of the story. Romance sells, but in parts, the romantic uneasiness felt out of place. The conclusion to the romantic arc within the book was predictable and well built-up. It’s pace at the end, however, was rushed, and artificial. No natural love story progresses like that. There’s a lot more conversation – one that I would have loved to see the protagonists engage in. The book leaves a few things unsaid, which might annoy some readers.

All in all, a must-read, quick-read. Will make you feel things. Would recommend.

Sadie | Courtney Summers

Sadie
by Courtney Summers
Published by Wednesday Books (2018)
Rating: **** 

This is an atypical read for me largely because it isn’t a book that I would buy off of shelves if I merely read the blurb. The reason I chose to read this book is that one of my friends absolutely loved it, and recommended that I give it a try, which is never something I’m averse to. This is a fast-read, but there’s a couple of warnings I’d like to put at the start of my review, so you can stop reading in case you get triggered. The book isn’t happy in any sense. It is not a book that builds up to a happy ending, and there is no moment where I caught myself smiling while reading it. It’s an incredibly serious read. It discusses several themes that are difficult to speak about in society. Rather, it highlights experiences that contain social stigma attached to them, and lead to victim-shaming culture. My trigger warnings include: murder, suicide, child prostitution, paedophilia, sexual abuse, and drug abuse.

With that being said, let’s examine the text.

Sadie follows the story of one dead girl, one missing girl, and a quest for revenge. Nineteen-year-old Sadie is determined to find who she believes to be her younger sister Maddie’s killer. With few clues to go on, she decides to embark on a journey to find him and make him pay for what he did. This is what the overarching plot is.

It seems pretty straightforward, and perhaps a story that could simply be described as a mystery – with Sadie acting as detective. But Summers manages to achieve a lot more with her writing. The novel is told in two distinct time-periods, and distinct points of view, which help with how the plot is built. The first is Sadie’s point of view, told in the past tense, with her tracking down her sister’s killer – a man who knows how to disappear better than most. The second is West McCray’s true crime radio show transcript called The Girls, where he attempts to find Sadie by following the little information the police offer him. These are very, very unique points of view, which help draw a very human connection to everything that transpires – something that stuck with me at the end of the book. Society reports events like these very narrative-like and with a victim-blaming angle to most of the reportage around it. By choosing to give the “victim” here a voice, and providing the voice of somebody trying to find her, desperately, Summers is able to portray nuances in emotion, and engage the reader in a way that makes you question every character’s motive and motivation. This sense of anticipation and suspense is really heightened in the last 20 pages, which I think could have been published separately – they’re the most logical (albeit dreadful) conclusion to a story of this kind.

The conclusion of the book is worth the read because of how realistic it is. It’s the only thing that makes sense in a world like ours. And you’ll hate yourself for knowing how Sadie’s story ends, but Summers’ manages to draw you in, page after page.

What I’m most impressed by is Summers’ ability to write a podcast transcript. I like true crime podcasts and shows as much as anybody – and most media houses seem to thrive on the market. Very few are any good. Writing a podcast transcript is an art that this author really nails down. The idea of a podcast like narrative really set the tone for West McCray’s voice. I often found myself reading the narrative the way I’d narrate a true crime podcast – which added a new layer of engagement to the reading experience. McCray is an underappreciated character on Goodreads – and I would’ve appreciated a bit more about him in the book. I also docked a star because in places, Summers’ writing style can lead to a frustratingly slow pace and a lot of artificially manufactured tension.

Overall, I think it’s worth reading because it forces you to think about society. It’s also a book that’ll make you pray that we become better as a world – because it seems ridiculous that we’ve got so much nonsense going down. The book is raw, which means that it forces you to accept the truth – no matter how uncomfortable that may make you feel.