Just the Plague by Ludmila Ulitskaya is set in 1930s Russia. Stalin is at the helm. And in a small town, Maier, a microbiologist, is slogging away developing a plague vaccine. Nothing particularly dramatic happens until he is summoned to Moscow to give a progress update to the powers that be. As Maier struggles with what to actually report, things take a darker turn.
A plague like disease suddenly begins to spread, leaked from a lab. Little by little, it transpires that more people are affected. The primary way to contain the disease is to quarantine anyone who catches it, which stops the virus from spreading to others. State machinery kicks in, aggressively tracing contacts of patients displaying symptoms, and taking them into quarantine. To guard against panic, State officials are only giving basic information to those being rounded up.
For the citizens’ greater good, the State puts controls in place. But do people really want their State officials to turn up at their door at any hour, demanding that they drop everything immediately and accompany them? What are the limits of personal freedom vs the boundary of the State? Where do we draw the line? These and other themes, in this novella, far ahead of its times and uniquely prescient, is Ulitskaya’s masterpiece written in the 1980s. Must read.
CW: Child Abuse
I have been meaning to read this book for years. I acquired a copy and finally got round to it. It felt like it would be in a similar frame of reference to my previous read. And I wasn’t wrong! Maya Angelou’s autobiography is powerful, riveting, and devastating all at once.
In the account that spans her childhood and teenage years, she describes, uniquely and fully, what it meant to be a black girl growing up in America in the 1930s. Themes of identity, gender, and race come together in the mind of this young girl, striving to thrive in the world. She and her brother are being raised by their grandmother and at every point in the story, the choices available to them are limited. Limited because the cycle of rasicm and poverty means that doors shut on their faces, the chance of an honest life snatched away.
Particularly hard hitting, is the account of Angelou’s sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s new partner. It is difficult to read, but at the same time, has to be read. It forms a determining part of her life and her identity, how can it not! And just like the reality of millions of girls & women worldwide, the consequences to bear are always for the abused than the abuser.
Anyway, this is a classic of American literature. And I do highly recommend you read this – it is beautifully written, has some funny interludes and is no wonder so famous!
During the height of the pandemic last year, I went through a phase of watching book talks, interviews and opera that was all put online through the generosity of arts organisations. It was during this time that I watched Evaristo being interviewed by Sturgeon at the Edinburgh Book Festival. By this point, this book had already won the Booker, George Floyd’s dying words had brought systemic rasicm to the forefront, and people were starting to understand ‘intersectionality.’
This book deals with the lives of 12 black women and the stories of their lives. Some of them are related to another, while others are not. But regardless, each woman’s story completes a full arc. We start somewhere in the middle, getting acquainted to them only in the throes of their lives, and then a backstory unfolds. Evaristo’s prose gives these women depth and layers, and the readers are invited to partake in their most intimate thoughts.
Personally, there have been more Booker-winning-books that I have disliked than liked. However, I have to say, I really enjoyed this one. The characters felt both distant and familiar. And the combination of their identities, sexualities, ambitions and religions made for a heady concoction that never bored.
As with all books that have a plethora of characters, it is natural to side with one. And for me that was Penelope. For some reason, her story intrigued me, and I sympathised with her poor life choices and the suffering that resulted from it. You’ll have to read the book to really find your own favourite character, and until then, I’d recommend you watch the interview video too.
Scottish-American Douglas Stuart’s debut novel won the Booker Prize last year. In Scotland, it was all over the news. The Glasgow boy had brought it home. I received the beautiful Picador hardback copy in my Christmas pile last year, and have just finished reading it. The novel is set in 1980s Glasgow, and though the protagonist is the ‘no’ quite right‘ young Shuggie, the heroine really is his mother, Agnes Bain.
Living and existing at the intersection of poverty, violence, and alcoholism, there is no hope for Agnes from the very beginning. It is this finality that looms like a dark shadow throughout the book. Agnes moves from man to man, with her three children in tow behind her. She cannot keep a steady relationship, has no regular income, and goes from the squalor of council flats to her parents and back to flats again. No matter what she will do and what choices she will make, her addiction will not go away and leave her in peace.
There is something to be said about book like these, where the suffering seems interminable and unending. Agnes has no agency, and little Shuggie, is left to pick up the pieces as his siblings leave. I have been volunteering with a UK charity called ‘Our Time,’ which provides support to children acting as carers for parents who live with mental health issues. And through their work, I have realised that there are 3 million children like Shuggie, who live in a cycle of hopelessness and pressure. This is poignant when he says, ‘It was clear now: nobody would get to be made brand new.’
Stuart’s prose is as you’d expect from an international prize winner, it is unapologetic, deliberate and authentic. He states the situation as is, he depicts the violence and addiction as is. And although it makes for really difficult reading, it holds a mirror up to society to reflect on the lives of the ‘have-nots.’ My close friend M worked all her life in social care in Glasgow council and some of the things she’s witnessed are not for the faint of stomach. There is nothing poetic about this rawness. And if you are moved, perhaps you’ll consider donating to ‘Our Time.‘ They are a wonderful team who do great work.
As for the book, I do recommend it. Read it at your own peril in this already trying times. And remember to pause where you need to come up for air.
My friend sent me this book because she thought I’d enjoy it. I really did. I haven’t read a Turkish author since Pamuk, and this book by Elif Shafak thoroughly hit the spot. This novel is the story of Tequila Leila, and how she came to be dying in a dumpster in Istanbul. The circumstances that led her there form her final memories that last 10 minutes and 38 seconds while her mind processes the highlights of her life before shutting down.
It takes courageous storytelling to give readers the ending upfront. In the first couple of pages, we know our protagonist dies at the end. This hook then leads into the whole flashback. As Shafak weaves the parable of Leila’s life, we are taken on a journey of discovery. Turkish culture, foods, families come to life. But more universal emotions are drawn out too, unrequited love, friendships and society’s treatment of the ‘unmentionables’. Shafak’s writing is deliberate and has no excesses. Her words are free-flowing, but at the same time, there is thorough discipline and structure in her chapters. Take, for instance, the beauty of this quote
Grief is a swallow,” he said. “One day you wake up and you think it’s gone, but it’s only migrated to some other place, warming its feathers. Sooner or later, it will return and perch in your heart again.
The latter is probably the backbone of this book. When Leila eventually rebels against her family and becomes a sex worker (no spoilers here, we find this out pretty quickly), readers see how she navigates life. She collects a motley crowd of people around her, including a trans lady, a gay man, and a Communist. This group of her people band together to protect themselves from the treatment that the ‘mainstream’ metes out to them. This book holds a mirror to society, unabashedly.
Turns out Shafak is a fantastic speaker too. I watched this TED Talk of hers and was thoroughly mesmerised. There is a special place in my heart for intelligent women who use their positions to raise awareness and make a difference to the causes they support. I will be reading more of her books for sure, and this one might just be the find of the quarter for me.
I’d heard so much about this book for a long time. But I’d never come across it. Last year, however, it was being talked about a lot when the BBC drama was released. Eventually, I got round to reading it. At 1544 pages, it is one of the longest books I’ve read, and it took me well over 2 months to finish it.
Set in 1950s newly independent India, this novel by Vikram Seth centres around young Lata, and her mother’s ambition to find her a suitable boy to marry. Longer novels tend to begin slow, as there is a lot of time to set situations up. Not so with this book. Seth uses the first 200 pages to introduce the reader to a raft of characters – Lata’s family, their extended relations, and all of her suitors and their families too. The result is a complex and intricate set of lives in the towns of Brahmpur, Cawnpore, Calcutta and others. Normally, I find such books hard to read, but this one draws the reader in with its wonderful detailing of events, places and things.
There was one overarching concept that bothered me. I found it difficult to stomach how ‘modern-day’ the behaviours of the women were. My grandmother grew up in the most progressive state of India in the 1950s. And in those days, young unmarried women could not dream of travelling 1500km by train alone, going on boat rides with boys, and walking back home after ‘tawaiaff’ performances alone. All this and more in Lata’s life, and that too in the most regressive and conservative region of India. One could argue that it is because her father is dead, and she is free from familial patriarchy. But she has her grandfather, brother-in-law etc in the same town. So that level of freedom is just made up.
Apart from this, the book is wonderfully written and the story told beautifully. Jane Austen could have learnt a million lessons from Rupa Mehra before she wrote her Mrs Bennett, but I’ll let that slide for now. Anyway, I’d recommend this book as a lingering long lockdown read. Enjoy!
I am reading ‘A Suitable Boy’. At 1500 pages, it is a veritable tome of a book and I don’t think I have read anything since LOTR that’s as long. Anyway, I had to take a break at about halfway point, to read something else. And I picked this book up from our shared shelf downstairs.
It is set in Deia, a village on the Isle of Majorca, which I have visited and I love. A couple holidays there every year, but this time, they are accompanied by their daughter and her partner. For some reason, this boy doesn’t sit very well with the parents; in particular, the mother. As the ‘plot’ moves on, this turn more edgy and eventually the daughter disappears.
This book is meant to be a holiday read. But I doubt it’s even worth reading then. There is a lot of sexual tension between the mother and the teenage-boyfriend but it just feels unnecessary. The woman is happily married and there is no real motivation for her to stray. And there wasn’t enough written about Deia for it to be a nice trip down memory lane for me.
I certainly got my break from the other book. But I wouldn’t recommend this one. There is also no lemon grove, in case you were wondering why it was called that.
I had really enjoyed reading Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and so I turned to this book. I have been a long-time subscriber of my library’s digital subscription, but it had been years since I used it. And so, this book broke that chain.
A Life Apart is the story of a young Bengali man Ritwik, who travels from Calcutta to England to study at Oxford University. Ritwik is from a humble background, and this is the 60s, so the chasm between his life in India and life in England is huge. A parallel storyline is one set in early 1900s, that of Miss Gilby, who’s an Englishwoman in British Calcutta. Ritwik is writing her story, so she’s actually a book within a book, which was very interesting. Mukherjee has picked up Miss Gilby from a small character in a Tagore novel, and drawn it out through Ritwik’s pen.
This is definitely a debut novel. It doesn’t have the smoothness of writing of Mukherjee’s later novel, or the tautness of structure. However, it is an enduring debut, with character-driven storytelling. Perhaps this would be very impressive if this is the first of his books you read. I enjoyed the complexities of Ritwik’s life, his strugges with his identity and Miss Gilby’s adventures. A fine read.
This book is a collection of stories about the female lived experience of Tamil people. Yeah, let that sink in for a bit. It’s not a short read, rather, it took me quite a while to get through it. The book charts the lives of Tamil women, across class, caste, religion and socio-economic strata. I read it as an e-book because Archipelago were offering it for free but I might pick a copy up at some point. It’s the sort of book you keep.
The book is written by Ambai, which is the pseudonym of feminist author C. S. Lakshmi and was published in 1988. I found that in some ways it was representative of its time, but the wider themes of being a woman are timeless and universal. The translation is high quality, as an example, consider this
“Of course a woman reads Camus too. She reads Sartre. She also reads the Tirumandiram, Akka Mahadevi, and the Sufi poets. But when the entire family is engaged in creating the head of the household, a man, she has to find the nooks and crannies where she can create herself out of the evidence of her own being. It is because she continually asks herself philosophical questions concerning Being that she is able to redeem herself and come outside from the grave-pit of daily living. She lives in a world full of symbols. “Why are you at the window?” is the question underlying her life. The window is the symbol of the world outside. Her freedom lies outside the window.”
And so, you can see, it’s a book you go slow with, and savour. There are some elements which are foreign if you (like me) don’t know much about Tamil people and cultures. But if you are interested, let this be the book that guides you through the customs of one of the ancient groups of people in the world.
I picked up this book coincidentally at the same time as the BLM protests kicked off worldwide. Just as well, it added to my quest of trying to understand the black experience more deeply. This book is about the bond between a white girl, and her black nanny. Being brought up in a privileged land and slave-owning family in 1800s Virginia, Lisbeth is unduly attached to her nurse Mattie.
The family of slaves lives on their estate and so Lisbeth has the opportunity to interact with them quite closely. Over time the girl begins to see that these people are not so different to her after all. And they have the same hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations for themselves and their family. What I thought interesting was that the author herself is white, but she does portray the life of black slaves very well. Perhaps this is because she is part of a non-visible minority as well. Through her own personal experiences, she can channel the discrimination faced regularly by those perceived by the majority as ‘the other.’
As Lisbeth approaches her late teens and is encouraged to make herself attractive to a potential suitor, her own moral compass comes in the way of her decision. What will Lisbeth do? Will Mattie ever find the freedom she seeks for her family? What will happen a result of the Abolishionist movement? A fine book, not too hard going, and a toe-dipping exercise into understanding the contibution of slaves to the building of the so-called greatest nation in the world.