After hearing plenty of reviews about this book, I was curious as to how this one will turn out. I don't generally read short stories, but I was all fAfter hearing plenty of reviews about this book, I was curious as to how this one will turn out. I don't generally read short stories, but I was all for giving this one a try!
I didn't enjoy it much. Not that the stories aren't poignant, because that would be an understatement. It is the way the stories are told that disagreed with me and my interest quotient.
My opinion I listened to the 3 short stories, An Ex-mas Feast, What Language Is That?, and My Parents' Bedroom on the audio book. It took me quite a while to get a hang of the accents, and I did have to restart once I got synced. I liked the narrators of this audio book, because I felt they captured the essence of the plot and the book theme really well with their various tones and inflections.
The first story I listened to was My Parents' Bedroom. This was my favorite story of the book, and probably the most tragic of all, if ever that could be measured. The story chronicles the thoughts of Monique, who is trying to make sense of the violence around her, why people she trusted suddenly appeared to be angry and hostile. She and her brother Jean were told to stay home by their mother, who left them home alone for a night. The terror felt by the children was very well captured in this story, as they tried to keep safe from some attackers who barged in at night. Monique's impressions of her parents and her various uncles and other relatives were well described. At the same time, I strongly felt her confusion and angst as matters go from bad to worse. Her increasing distrust in people she once connected with was very palpable and poignant. I found this a very tragic story, and the experience that Monique and Jean go through very sad.
The next was An Ex-mas Feast. This story recounts the happenings of one night, the Christmas evening, in the lives of a family of eight living in a shack. The father rarely worked and was in debt, the elder daughters made money as street girls, the infant was occasionally sent with the children to beg, and the whole family tried to save money for Jigana's school education. An impending decision by Maisha, the eldest daughter, is threatening to upset the status quo of the family. I felt this story a bit slow for my tastes, since most part of it was background build-up. It was still a good story, and the climax almost made me sad. Almost. The detached story-telling ruined that effect for me. By the time, the story started building up, I couldn't really connect with the characters. The circumstances were definitely painful, the story was definitely sad, but it was not moving enough.
The 3rd story, What Language Is That? is a very short story, only 40 minutes on audio, or 12 pages. Being very short, I identified the least with this. But I liked it for two reasons, it described the unconditional friendship between two girls in a very satisfying manner. They couldn't care less for the Muslim-Christian rivalry. But this story is written in second person, and it took me some time to get used to that. I didn't feel that this mode of story-telling worked for this story. It was very distracting to hear 'you' instead of 'she' or 'I'. I was surprised when it ended as well, I couldn't decide what to draw out of that.
The two novellas, Fattening for Gabon and Luxurious Hearses, were about 140 pages each, and definitely long. Fattening for Gabon was about the second saddest story I read in this book. The two siblings, Kotchikpa and Yewa were being taken care of by their uncle, who made a living by helping people cross the border without the needed papers. At the beginning of this novella, the uncle is getting ready to give the two kids up for adoption. Most of the story then proceeds to show their preparation, how they try to learn about their new life and their new family. Although this story was very long, it was written well, nicely showing the increasing suspicions of Kotchikpa, and focusing on his and his sister's fears. The progress of the story evoked a lot of sadness in me, considering the tragedies that befell the trio.
The last novella was Luxurious Hearses. Jubril is trying to escape to the south, to his father's place, away from all the violence in the north. He is the lone Muslim in a bus, occupied by only Christians. His arm is also amputated, after having been caught stealing by his community members, much before the incidents of this story. His deepest fear is about being found out, especially through his accent, and he tries desperately to hide it by covering his mouth. During the travel, Jubril tries to fight his various demons, such as his reluctance to watch women, or watch the TV. I felt the book did a good job capturing his change of opinions and beliefs, as he came to know his co-passengers better. It also did a good job in showing how much he was willing to let go of his faith and be the Christian he was baptized as. But I didn't enjoy the narration of this story, and regrettably, found myself losing my focus many a time.
Overall, this book was a mixed bag. The stories are all tragic and stuck a chord within me. The narration felt a bit detached in some stories, failing to make me connect with the characters. A couple of them were longer than they needed to be....more
Charlotte Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper is a work I have seen on and off on many blogs and websites but never really got to read until now. Mental illCharlotte Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper is a work I have seen on and off on many blogs and websites but never really got to read until now. Mental illness is a topic that I tend to gravitate towards reading about, so when I finally finished reading this short story, I wasn't disappointed. The woman in the story is suffering from a mental illness that her physician husband has diagnosed as temporary nervous depression. He doesn't listen to her suggestions or wishes but instead forces his opinions on her. She believed that working, socializing and writing would help her recover faster, but her husband worried that those activities would stimulate and excite her condition unfavorably. He therefore takes her to a summer mansion and keeps her in an airy upstairs room, and persuades her to stick to a rest treatment, in hopes of curing her. Over the next three months, we get to see the effect of this treatment on her, through her journal entries that she writes in secret.
The protagonist is oddly fascinated by the sickly yellow wallpaper in that upstairs bedroom. Initially repelled by its appearance, she asks her husband to remove it or let her move to another room, but her husband insists that she not cave into such fancies and not let the wallpaper bother her. Even though she is still creeped by it, she cannot look away from it and keeps obsessing over the patterns. She begins to imagine that she can see eyes and heads and even a woman in the wallpaper patterns.
I loved the multiple issues that were highlighted in this story. The unreliability of the narrators adds a powerful punch to the story. Most of the time, I wasn't even sure what to believe, but that didn't matter. It was very evident that she was suffering. She was obsessed by the woman in the wallpaper, and the climax was strangely disturbing.
In addition to the insight in to the mind of an ill person, we also see the imbalance of the household. John, the husband, doesn't believe his wife deserves to do anything she wished. He believes her only temporarily ill and coaxes her to listen to him. When she gives into her emotions (anger, irritation, sadness), he asks her to rein them in and to exercise self-control over her emotions. He even makes her feel that she is ungrateful for not valuing his help enough. While I don't think that he was acting out of malice in wanting to care for his wife, I do feel that he lacked respect for her as a person and a patient, and believed her weak and wanting.
I loved Charlotte's writing! Who knew you could write so much about something so boring as wallpapers. Here's a passage I kept reading because it felt lively and colorful to me, almost as if describing a vibrant personality. The "it" refers to the wallpaper pattern.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide--plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
I'm glad that I finally read this really short work. This epistolary work is available in the public domain, and I actually read it via DailyLit, in under an hour. I only have one complaint and that is that occasionally the writing was so archaic and missing pronouns that I felt compelled to fill them in. On researching about this book after reading it, I learned that The Yellow Wallpaper is actually based on the author's own depression and the rest treatment that she was subjected to. In some respects, it reminded me of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar....more
Even before Tessa Hadley's The London Train got on to the Orange Prize longlist, I told Trish of TLC Book Tours that I simply had to read it. And as IEven before Tessa Hadley's The London Train got on to the Orange Prize longlist, I told Trish of TLC Book Tours that I simply had to read it. And as I sat here waiting for my copy, I found that made it to the longlist and even though I hadn't yet read it, was hoping to see it on the shortlist as well. That didn't happen, but I was still glad to finally start reading this very literary book last week.
The London Train is actually two short stories in one book. Or as is the trend now with short stories - two seemingly unconnected stories which are irrevocably connected. Getting into this book, I wasn't aware that there were two distinct stories. When I did know of it, I would have been a tad disappointed had they not been linked. We start off reading about our first protagonist - Paul, and the trip he makes to Birmingham, where his mother has just passed away at an assisted living facility. He is clearly unhinged by her death, even though it was probably unsurprising. The next day, he gets a call from his first wife who tells him that their 20-year old daughter, Pia is missing. When he finally finds Pia in London, he finds her staying in the most unexpected environment - pregnant with a Polish lover who was several years elder to her in a cramped untidy apartment that belonged to the Polish guy's sister. He is completely entranced by what he sees that he moves in with them.
In the other story, Cora separates from her husband, Robert, a civil servant who is facing an inquiry at work. She also leaves her career and moves back to Wales, where she chooses to work in a library. Robert and his sister, Frankie, who is also Cora's best friend want her to reconsider, to return back to Robert, but Cora has decided - there is no other lover, she just wants her solitude. The guarded manner in which she holds herself, not letting a single weak emotion betray her shows that she is hiding something, but it isn't until a third of the story in that we really find out.
The London Train is a very literary work - one of the best I've read in that category. It took me a while to realize that this is not a book to be rushed. Rather, each word, sentence and phrase has to be savored. There is really very little that happens in this book. If I had to summarize the stories, I probably won't need more than a few sentences to tell you what happens from the first to the last page. But none of that would make much sense without actually living the novel. The feelings of despair, loneliness, anxiety, and confusion that the characters feel literally jump out of the page. I ended up feeling the same as the characters as I was reading the book. Paul was clearly very unlikeable. He did have some good attributes, but his annoying characteristics were more dominant. Rather than bring Pia home or leave her free to do as she wished, as any self-respecting father would do, Paul gets enchanted with her decision and wants to live life in the unsafe lane. Maybe that's his mid-life crisis. Besides, even with a supporting wife and two wonderful kids at home, and the recent death of his mother haunting him, he was disillusioned with his life - enough to let go of himself and allow circumstances to take over.
Cora, on the other hand, is too guarded. After her parents' deaths, she revamps their home intending to sell it, but eventually moving into it. The care she puts into maintaining the house's facade and the worry that festers in her mind about anything getting disturbed pretty much mimics the state of her mind. She puts the same energy into masking herself, so much so that she is not able to connect with her best friend at all. For the first many pages, the reader gets the impression that Cora's husband, Robert is just too predictable, too formulaic a person for Cora to handle and so she leaves him. Which is partly true. I found it interesting how the rest of the story tumbled out. I got the sensation that the author was probably teasing the reader, hinting that appearances are deceptive.
The stories are clearly only about Paul and Cora. As with most literary novels, the book left me wondering about the arcs of some of the other characters. As opposed to general fiction, where all characters are usually accounted for by the last page, literary fiction such as this stress more on the mystery and continuity of life. Paul and Cora are clearly very flawed human beings. And reading from the perspective of such characters makes for an interesting experience. Most of the narration happens from Paul's and Cora's perspectives. Though sometimes we get a hint of what the others are thinking, to round up the picture. I won't spill out any details of the time when their stories intersect, but I did feel that that event had more of a bearing on Cora's life than on Paul's. I see something of this sort in many of the books I read - the woman gets even more strongly impacted than the man. You could also see that while Cora tries to set her life in order, Paul tries to upset the status quo. I do think married couples need their own moments of privacy often, but I found it disappointing that Paul found it convenient to just disappear for weeks.
The London Train is however not without its demerits. While the author's writing made the characters' feelings very personal to me, I found it very detached as well. The hyphenated form of conversation was distracting (- You're joking, Paul said. - Your dad's crazy, he's really crazy.). For a book of this type, I would never suggest the double-quotes as a suitable alternative, because that might lend it a sentiment of triviality - more focus will end up being stressed on the conversations themselves as opposed to what the conversations were meant to evoke in the characters and the reader. I do feel that's a fine and necessary line. But I would have preferred a better way of printing those conversations - sometimes I just wasn't sure if it was a conversation or not. Maybe it doesn't matter - the whole stories were probably meant to happen in my head.
I took my own time to rate this book. Halfway through this book, I felt it was a mixed bag for me, but I've been thinking of the book ever since. Which usually means it's pretty thought-provoking. Besides, I absolutely love the title of the book - mainly because once I realized where it came from, it felt smart, succinct and with a world of secrets in that title. This is not a preachy kind of book, in the sense that there are no messages or lessons that you could garner out of it. But it left me thinking about the characters, wondering about their fallibility and their unique responses. How their actions are not just a result of their desires and impulses but also some specific triggers in their lives that make them want to escape. And how most importantly, an action can be judged right or wrong in isolation, but it's not that simple when looked at in context....more
Having recently lost his wife in a horrible accident, Zhang Feng-qi tries to bring up his sons as best as he can, but he is not his wife - he cannot mHaving recently lost his wife in a horrible accident, Zhang Feng-qi tries to bring up his sons as best as he can, but he is not his wife - he cannot maintain his condo as well as his wife did, nor can he properly answer his two sons, Simon and Wesley, when they insist that their mother will come back. He wonders if his new girlfriend can step in, but knows it is too early to introduce her to the family. He asks his American mother-in-law to help, but she was never supportive of her daughter's marriage so her response isn't that forthcoming. Eventually, he asks his father for help. While the Zhang household is dealing with its own situation, their neighbors are having their own problems - a painter mourns the absence of his love lives and the non-popularity of his paintings, a sculptor isn't sure what to do with the knowledge that he has a son by one of his muses, an insecure woman grapples with her distaste of her long-time boyfriend and his abusive bedroom games.
What the Zhang Boys Know is my favorite kind of book - multiple interlinked narrators, who all talk of their lives and problems and occasionally share opinions on other characters. What I love of this book is how very "I" and "me" each story tends to be, while the protagonist of that story makes other characters feel one-dimensional. And in the next story, one of those one-dimensional characters is now the protagonist - suddenly the reader gets this whole bedroom closet view of a new character and learn things you never guessed about that character. I find these kind of books to be the most realistic among fictional works. The narrators aren't bogged with the same plot, so there is no feeling of too many characters. They all have their troubles, desires, losses and achievements - no one is a pawn to move another person's story forward, which is how real life is.
The one thing that ties all these people together is that they all stay in the same building called the Nanking Mansion. Nobody likes their digs or their neighborhood. The alleys are trashy and the streets dangerous. Almost everyone in the building has financial troubles. They all, however, know each other, and sometimes help each other out when needed. But mostly, they deal with their problems on their own.
With 11 different narrators, there are as many different voices and obsessions in the book. Some are insecure, some depressed, one arrogant and proud, and another one innocent. Among all these narrators with their myriad problems, the Zhang boys appear everywhere. They see more than anyone gives them credit, and it's fascinating reading the same incident from the two perspectives. At the same time, even when they are not accepting enough of their father's new girlfriend, they aren't being unreasonable, they are simply afraid that their mother will never come back if there's another woman in the house.
Some stories were clearly more enjoyable than others; some narrators more understandable than others. There is a woman, Claudia, who loses her husband and her job at the same time, and what follows is many long months of trying, at first, to find a respectable job, and later on, any kind of job. A sister helps her a bit but eventually accuses her of being too irresponsible. Even though the sister is right, and anyone would do exactly what the sister did, it is hard to not empathize with Claudia, after spending pages with her, and seeing how much she really is trying and just how close she is to even contemplating suicide.
What the Zhang Boys Know is a wonderful short story collection, although it's more than just a short story collection. The characters are connected enough for one to feel a sense of continuity and familiarity. The prose is very quick-paced and highly readable and I could probably have finished the book in a day, but there was a sense of comfort in reading just a story or two a day and then subconsciously pondering about them. The writing was also very beautiful, and the different voices across the stories didn't jar my concentration but instead felt sufficiently seamless and distinct. This one is definitely one of my favorite short story collections....more