Frida Folk: Gaby Franger (translated by Gita Wolf)

Review by Sadhana Ramchander

Frida Folk celebrates, in an unusual manner, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and her many ‘avatars’.

This is indeed a fascinating book! It documents an unbelievable variety of interpretations of Frida­—the woman and the artist—by crafts-people and artists from all over the world. From murals to traditional tin shrines to hand bags and cushion covers to T-shirts and clay figurines, this book features them all. In the process, it entices you to read more about Frida, and also to see and understand her own paintings, which by the way, are NOT featured in this book.

I found the chapter on the art of the Aguilar Sisters very interesting. Their folk figures are original and unique. One of the sisters makes a Frida figurine with a child, even though Frida never had a child. This artist says, “maybe she didn’t have one when she was alive, but now that she’s dead, she gets one in my work.” It takes courage to say this, and only another artist can muster this courage!

The chapters are short, the writing lucid, and the book well laid out, bright and cheerful. The last part of the book titled, “Frida waits at every corner” is a collection of Fridamania photographs by Rafael Doniz.

Frida Folk is not a book you read and put away. It is a book you want to keep re-reading and looking at. And at the end of it, it makes you want to start your own collection of Frida memorabilia. The book reiterates Frida’s cult status and the fact that it is indeed very rare for an artist to be as popular as her, anywhere in the world.

Frida’s sister, Christina Kahlo, is a guest author. The chief photographer is Rafael Doniz. Published by Tara Books, Chennai, India, the book has been designed by Ragini Siruguri and production supervised by C. Arumugam. The German version is titled Frida Pop.

Exit West: Mohsin Hamid

A man and a woman meet in a city in what is probably Syria and fall in love. Civil war is initially just a distant presence in their lives. But then it all starts to fall apart, and strange doors start opening up, leading out of the country.

Nadia and Saeed meet at a class. He is a little intimidated by her wearing a full black robe—which she uses to keep men at bay—but asks her out to coffee. They start to see each other, meeting at Nadia’s apartment, sometimes smoking a joint on her balcony.

The differences between them are clear from the start. Nadia is fiercely independent and lives in her own apartment, having fought with her family who did not approve and wanted her to get married. Saeed lives with his parents, both academics, and is very close to them both.

But the unrest in the city, which is getting closer to the couple every day, affects their lives. People talk in hushed tones about doors opening up in the city that lead to other countries, doors that are carefully guarded by the militia. These are like wormholes in time and space, and are completely unpredictable: any door “could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all”.

Things become unbearable, and it is important that the couple leave while they still can. They pay a man to guide them to a door and walk out into Greece and then to London. But uprooted from their city and living in another where they are not accepted strains their relationship. They draw apart: Nadia integrating with the fellow refugees who are from other parts of the world, and Saeed looking to those from his own country.

Mohsin Hamid is good at describing the slow creep of civil unrest and war. At first, it’s just the small things that happen in other parts of the city, then there is curfew, and the banality of living in conflict: the bombed-out tank that becomes part of the landscape and the way people adapt to living in an impossible situation.

This is a timely book about what makes people leave and what it means to be a refugee—not just the physical hardships and compromises they make but also what it does to relationships. Using the doors is clever—it avoids recounting the journey so that Hamid can focus on the conflict and the displacement: the guilt at leaving loved ones behind and trying to make sense of, and fit into, a new culture.

At this time of hostility towards the other, of fortresses and walls, and of opposition in many countries to the UN Global Compact on Migration, this book goes a long way in humanizing refugees—essentially, people like us caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Writing that sentence, I feel that I am stating the obvious, but reading the news from various parts of the world, it is something that we have forgotten.

Best books of 2018

My request for the best books you read this year had an overwhelming response! Thank you to those of you who sent in their lists.  

The lists below not only cover  a wide range of subjects, but also span centuries, from 2018 to those published hundreds of years ago. Fiction includes fantasy, crime and family sagas. The non-fiction books range from an account of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, problems with the Indian judicial system, to history, autobiography, politics, science and travel. We also have poetry, so there is something for everyone. I was delighted to find so many books in translation. Some are in French or Spanish and have not been translated (yet).

And I am proud to say that Achala Upendran’s first book made the cut—it’s incredible to see someone I have known since she was a child mature into a talented and successful writer.  

There is plenty for you to explore. Links are to reviews on this site (or to reviews on Women on the Road). Blurbs in quotes are from contributors.

Contributors: Caroline Dommen, Dalip Mehta, David Dunkley, Deborah Eade, Jenifer Freedman, Jo Grin-Yates, Kamakshi Balasubramanian, Kristine Goulding, Leslie Jones, Leyla Alyanak, Mariana Duarte Mutzenberg, Marie-Graziella Nguini, Sajid Mahmood, Sally-Anne Sader, Sergio Sandoval, Sophia Murphy, Stara Amidouch, Suroor Alikhan, Susie Partridge, Thomas Fitzsimons, Tom Peak, Usha Raman and Will Ramsay.

If you are not among the contributors, do share your list with us. We would love to hear from you. And here’s to another year of fantastic books!

Photo: Hackley Public Library (CC BY 2.0)

FICTION

General fiction

  • Ocean-Rimmed World: Joe D’Cruz (2005, translated from Tamil into English in 2018)
    The struggles and changing fortunes of the Parathavars of the Tuticorin coast—a community of seafarers and fisherfolk.
  • Go, Went, Gone: Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, translated from German into English in 2018)
    A retired professor gets to know some African refugees in Berlin. A scathing indictment of Western policy toward the European refugee crisis.
  • Des ailes au loin: Jadd Hilal (2018)
    A story of four generations of Palestinian-Lebanese women for whom migration becomes a way of life.
  • Qui a tué mon père: Edouard Louis (2018)
    “Especially in these times of gilets jaunes,[1] this is a very powerful and personal account of what we call la France d’en-bas.”
  • Les prénoms épicènes: Amélie Nothomb (2018)
    The relationship between a father and daughter.
  • The Overstory: Richard Powers (2018)
    Nine Americans come together to fight the destruction of forests. “A compelling book.”
  • Flights: Olga Tokarczuk (2018)
    Interweaves reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body. “At times uneven, but I liked her language.”
  • The Labyrinth of the Spirits: Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2016, translated from Spanish into English in 2018)
    The last in the Cemetry of Forgotten Books series. Alicia uncovers murders tied to the Franco regime.
  • Stay with Me: Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (2017)
    A Nigerian couple’s unsuccessful attempts to have children tells on their marriage.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo: George Saunders (2017)
    “An unusual book—a sort of fragmented Spoon River Anthology.”
  • Behold the Dreamers: Imbolo Mbue (2016)
    A Cameroonian couple try to stay in New York—a story of migrants trying to make a life for themselves.
  • A Gentleman in Moscow: Amor Towles (2016)
    About a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel.
  • The Sellout: Paul Beatty (2015)
    Subversive look at race in the US.
  • Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee (2015)
    The sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Optic Nerve: Maria Gainza (2014, to be translated from Spanish into English in 2019)
    The story of a woman’s life told through artists and paintings.
  • Americanah: Chimananda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
    The experiences of a young Nigerian in the US and in Nigeria. Raises questions of race and belonging.
  • A Man called Ove: Fredrik Backman (2012, translated from Swedish into English in 2013)
    A curmudgeon finds his world turned around when a chatty family moves in next door. “It made me laugh out loud, and I love books that do that.”
  • The Sound of Things Falling: Juan Gabriel Vásquez (2011, translated from Spanish into English in 2013)
    How the drug trade in Colombia impacted on the lives of people.
  • Nazi Literature in the Americas: Roberto Bolaño (1996, translated from Spanish into English in 2008)
    A biographical dictionary of fictional right-wing Pan-American writers and Nazi sympathizers. Black humour.
  • Disobedience: Naomi Alderman (2006)
    A young photographer living in New York goes back to her orthodox Jewish community in London when her father dies and has to confront her past.
  • A Way through the Woods: Aminuddin Khan (1997)
    “Made me nostalgic for the people and stories of India I remembered hearing about when I first went to Hyderabad in the 1980s.”
  • Stoner: John Willams (1965)
    Follows William Stoner’s undistinguished academic career and his marriage and affair.

Classics

  • The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck (1939)
    A family of tenant farmers migrates during the Great Depression.
  • War and Peace: Leo Tolstoy (1869, first translated from Russian into English in 1898)
    “I glazed over some of the war bits, and the epilogue is overwrought. But these are minor in the broad sweep of the novel (partly written by Tolstoy’s wife).”
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Anne Brontë (1848)
    “A classic I had never managed to get to and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and admired both the writing and the characters.”
  • The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus: Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (1668, first translated from German into English in 1912. This entry refers to a 2018 translation.)
    “The account of the life of an odd vagrant named Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim.” (from the subtitle)

Crime

  • The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton (2018)
    “The most unusual whodunit I’ve read. Takes the idea of a murder in a country house and puts a completely different spin on it.”     
  • IQ (2016), Righteous (2017) and Wrecked (2018): Joe Ide
    Joe Ide is a Japanese-American crime fiction writer.
  • Inspector Armande Gamache series: Louise Penny
    Set in Quebec.

Humour

  • Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Presents a Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo: Jill Twiss, illustrated by Gerald Kelly (2018)
    A story about a gay bunny who belongs to US Vice President Mike Pence. “Something that rounds off the crazy year.”

Fantasy/Futuristic

  • The Sultanpur Chronicles: The Shadowed City: Achala Upendran (2018)
    Peace reigns in Sultanpur until a spell releases a rakshasi[2]and threatens to plunge the empire into chaos.
  • The Power: Naomi Alderman (2016)
    What happens when teenage girls have immense physical power to cause pain. 
  • Laurus: Evgeniy Vodolazkin (2013, translated from Russian into English in 2015)
    A healer sets out on a voyage of redemption that spans ages and countries.
  • Kafka on the Shore: Haruki Murakami (2002, translated from Japanese into English in 2005)
    “A weird and wonderful book about a young runaway and a man damaged by an accident trying to untangle their pasts.”
  • The Master and Margarita: Mikhail Bulgakov (1967, first translated from Russian into English in 1967)
    The devil pays a visit to Moscow. Subversive with lots of black humour.

Historical fiction

  • Homecoming: Yaa Gyasi (2017)
    The story of two half-sisters from a village in Ghana in the 18th century. One marries an Englishman and the other is sold into slavery.
  • Pachinko: Min Jin Lee (2017)
    Set in Japan in the early 1900s, it is about Sunja, a pregnant teenager and how her decisions impact on her life.  
  • L’Art de Perdre: Alice Zeniter (2017)
    “The consequences of being on the wrong side of history and not really belonging anywhere, this is about the Harkis[3] in France. Zeniter raises issues that French society does not really want to deal with and that individuals are still struggling with.
  • Burial Rites: Hannah Kent (2013)
    The final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.
  • Les naufragés de l’île Tromelin: Irene Frain (2009)
    In 1761, a ship carrying slaves is wrecked on an unknown island in the Indian Ocean.  Fifteen years later, there are only eight survivors. What happened on the island?
  • The Book of Night Women: Marlon James (2009)
    “A haunting book about slavery in Jamaica in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.”
  • The Jewel of Medina: Sherry Jones (2008)
    A fictional biography of Aisha, the favourite wife of Prophet Muhammed.
  • Pompeii: Robert Harris (2003)
    A recreation of Pompeii in the days before Vesuvius erupted.
  • The Known World: Edward P. Jones (2003)
    About black slave owners in the US.
  • The World My Wilderness: Rose Macauley (1950)
    “A story of post-war Italy and London and the casual neglect of children by adults who were too busy with the aftermath of war to pay much attention to their children’s needs.”

Retellings

  • Circe: Madeline Miller (2018)
    A reworking of the story of Circe, the Greek goddess.
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad: Ahmed Saadawi (2013, translated from Arabic into English in 2018)
    Frankenstein in present-day Baghdad.
  • Norse Mythology: Neil Gaiman (2017)
    An enjoyable retelling of the Norse myths.
  • Hag-Seed: Margaret Atwood (2016)
    Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest.
  • Home Fires: Kamila Shamsie (2017)
    The story of a Pakistani immigrant family in Britain, and about being Muslim in the UK. Based on Sophocles’s Antigone.

NON-FICTION

Autobiography/Biography/Memoirs

  • Le Lambeau: Philippe Lançon (2018)
    “An account by one of the surviving journalists of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack.”
  • Becoming: Michelle Obama (2018)
  • What Happened: Hillary Rodham Clinton (2017)
    “Political analysis of the shocker vote that saw Donald trump rise to the US presidency, as well as an honest introspection for Hillary – her life, career, mistakes, regrets and unfaltering sense of hope.”

History

  • The British in India: David Gilmour (2018)
    “Excellent and a marvellous compilation of the subject matter.”
  • Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China: Paul French (2011)
  • Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond: William Dalrymple (2017)

Science and living

  • Darwin Comes to Town: Menno Schilthuizen (2018)
    “Linking two of my favourite things: cities and biology.”
  • Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City: Richard Sennett (2018)
  • I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life:  Ed Yong (2015)

Travel

Writing and reading

  • First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing … and Life: Joe Moran (2018)
  • The Library Book: Susan Orlean (2018)
  • Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction: Brian Dillon (2017)

Philosophy

  • The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual: David R. Godine (2018)
  • Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are: John Kaag (2018)
    “He made Nietzsche a personal experience beyond the philosophy and linked to Nietzsche’s time in the Engadine.”

Current affairs

  • The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities: John J. Mearsheimer (2018)
  • Anita Gets Bail: What Are Our Courts Doing? What Should We Do About Them?: Arun Shourie (2018)
  • Fear: Trump in the White House: Bob Woodward (2018)
    “Absolutely terrifying—this man has the nuclear codes! I developed an unexpected respect for Tillerson, Mattis, Porter and Kelly as I read.”
  • Women and Power: Mary Beard (2017)
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City: Matthew Desmond (2016)
  • Indian Muslim Spring: Why is No One Talking About It?: Hassan Suroor (2014)

Poetry and reflections

  • Kumukanda: Kayo Chingonyi (2017)
  • Benedictus: A Book of Blessings: John O’Donohue (2007)
    “A mixture of poems and reflections on blessing different events from Beginnings to Endings to Callings.”
  • The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos: Anne Carson (2001)

[1] Yellow jackets, the symbol of the popular protest in France in 2018.

[2] A female demon.

[3] The generic term for native Muslim Algerians who served as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962.

[4] Scroll down the page on Asia to find the review.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton

Stuart Turton takes the traditional English setting for a whodunit—a country house thrumming with secrets, tensions and fears—and turns it into something completely unexpected. I have read a lot of crime fiction, and this is one of the most original books I’ve come across.

Take the way it begins.

“I forget everything between footsteps.
‘Anna!’ I finish shouting, snapping my mouth shut in surprise.
My mind has gone blank. I don’t know who Anna is or why I’m calling her name. …
‘How did—’ I’m cut short by the sight of my own hands. They’re bony, ugly. A stranger’s hands. I don’t recognize them at all.”

No, it’s not just a case of severe amnesia—the narrator, whose name we are told only halfway through the book because he has forgotten it—wakes up in a different body every morning (well, sometimes more often than that). Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the host, is going to kill herself that evening. But the suicide is actually a murder, and the narrator has to find the killer if he is to get out of the house. His advantage is that time is on a loop, and the day keeps repeating itself. Endlessly.

The narrator (who eventually finds out that he is called Adrian) has eight hosts. He can only exist in these, never as himself. Each of these eight men is in some way involved in the murder, whether directly or indirectly. All of these are guests at the house or work there. But who are the others? The Footman, whose very mention terrifies Adrian but he doesn’t know why. Then there is the man in the mask with the beaked nose, who keeps appearing and seems to know far more than he is letting on. And finally, who is Anna? Is she a friend, a murderer or a victim whom Adrian has to save?

Each time Adrian wakes up in another body, he has to contend not just with the physical reality of his host but also his mental makeup, trying to use any skills or knowledge the man has without letting him overwhelm Adrian. And because time is on a loop, Adrian can build the day’s events from several points of view. He might even be able to save Evelyn.

It sounds a little too clever but somehow Turton keeps all the balls in the air. I honestly don’t know how he does it, but the timelines all add up. It was complicated enough to keep me hooked but not convoluted enough to make me give up. The way he describes Adrian inhabiting his hosts was brilliantly done—you are in their head but you are also observing them. It is a world of smoke and mirrors and as a reader, you find yourself trying to help Adrian solve the mystery, not just of the murder, but the way this world works.

Absolutely brilliant. Read this—I guarantee it will keep you up into the early hours of the morning.

Einstein’s Dreams: Alan Lightman

This is the first of the reviews of some of my favourite books (see Revisiting Old Favourites).

What if time flowed in a different way from the one we know and we are used to? What if it circled in on itself, so we relived our lives endlessly without ever knowing it? What if it moved in fits and starts? What if you could travel back into the past or make three different decisions, each one simultaneously in different worlds?

In this book, Alan Lightman imagines the way a young Einstein would see time. He uses as foundation Einstein’s early years, when he was a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, and where he wrote some of his most ground-breaking papers.

But the bulk of this book is about the different permutations that time can take and the worlds they create. It makes you really think about how time works. We know that it is relative: it rushes by when you are late for a train, moves like molasses when you’re waiting to meet your lover; when you were a child, five minutes was long and summers went on forever, but as you get older, the years fly past.

The worlds Lightman creates here are myriad: time travellers to the past lurk in corners, afraid to affect events in case they change the future. A man decides not see a woman again because she is too manipulative; in another world, he goes back to her; and in a third, he goes to see her but nothing comes of it. All of these events take place simultaneously. (Reminds me of an episode of Red Dwarf, where Rimmer meets another version of himself from another dimension.)

There is the world where time moves fitfully and people get occasional glimpses into the future, which guides their actions. A woman sees where her son will live and moves there. In another world, time moves slowly for those who move quickly, everyone rushes from place to place, dodging buildings that are on wheels. No one sits and reads book anymore. In yet another, time flows slower the higher you live so people build houses on the top of mountains on stilts and look down on those living in the valleys. Or the one where people only live for a day, so they never see the change of seasons and are bewildered by the change from day to night or night to day. A lifetime of 24 hours means you never get to know anyone. An old man looks back at his past. “His life is scattered in fragments of conversation, forgotten by fragments of people. His life is divided into hasty episodes, witnessed by few.”

This is a dreamlike book, and Lightman’s writing is lyrical. Take this description of day breaking in the patent office where Einstein is working:

“All that can be seen at this moment are the shadowy shapes of the desks and the hunched form of the young man. … Minute by minute, new objects gain form.Here, a brass wastebasket appears. There, a calendar on the wall. Here, a family photograph, a box of paperclips, an inkwell, a pen. There a typewriter,a jacket folded on a chair. … Outside, the tops of the Alps glow in the sun. It is late June. A boatman on the Aare unties his skiff and pushes off, letting the current take him along Aarstrasse to Gerbenstrasse, where he will deliver his apples and berries.” 

Or this passage, set in a world where time goes backwards. A man scatters dust on his friend’s grave, but he is not sad. He looks forward to his friend becoming stronger. “He waits longingly for a particular day he remembers in the future when he and his friend will have sandwiches on a low flat table, when he will describe his fear of growing old and unloved and his friend will nod gently, and the rain will slide down the glass of the window.”

Hag-Seed: Magaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood never disappoints, and this reworking of The Tempest (as part of a series commissioned by Hogarth Press) is no exception.

Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival in Canada, has been working on what he believes is his masterpiece, an over-the-top production of The Tempest. The play was meant to be a tribute to Miranda, the three-year-old daughter he lost to meningitis. The day before it opens, Felix loses his post in a coup orchestrated by his assistant, Tony, with the help of Sal O’Nally, the Heritage Minister. Felix is devastated: he has not only lost his career but his social standing.

He retreats to a shack to lick his wounds, accompanied only by the ghost of Miranda, who grows as the years go by. He is aware that she is only a figment of his imagination, but he can’t let her go, and spends his time talking to her and stalking Tony and Sal on the internet.

Nine years go by and worried he is losing his mind, he decides to go back into the world. Calling himself Mr. Duke, he gets a job as a theatre director at a prison, the Fletcher County Correctional Institute, as part of an experimental programme called Literacy through Literature. Felix decides that the men will put on only Shakespeare plays, “wizardry in the slammer”, as he calls it. The job seems to bring out his innate talent as director: he earns the prisoners’ respect and encourages them to engage with the play. He is open to the prisoners’ interpretations and changes, insists that the only swear words allowed in his classes are to be taken from the play, and as a final assignment, asks them to imagine the future lives of their characters. To avoid stage fright and unforeseen situations, the final play is recorded and is played to the entire prison on TV screens. The programme is a big success.

But Felix has not forgotten the two men who deposed him. While he retreated from the world, Tony has been clambering up the greasy pole, and is now Heritage Minister. Sal is campaigning to be elected the leader of the federal party. Between them, they have decided to shut down Literacy through Literature but for form’s sake, will be at the prison to see the prisoners’ new play. So far, they’ve been out of Felix’s reach, but now they are walking into his kingdom, unaware that Mr. Duke is really Felix. It is an irresistible opportunity. “How to grasp them, how to enclose them, how to ambush them? Suddenly revenge is so close he can almost taste it. It tastes like steak, rare. Oh, to watch their two faces! Oh, to twist the wire! He wants to see pain. ‘We’re doing The Tempest,’ he says.”

The result is wickedly funny. Getting hardened criminals interested in The Tempest is a challenge, and Felix rises to it. He even manages to persuade one of them to play Ariel, who is transformed from a fairy with wings to an alien creature in a blue raincoat and shower cap. With a bit of help from a couple of his criminal disciples, Felix puts together a cunning plan to get his back on the two men, and Atwood keeps you guessing until the end whether it will work or go horribly wrong.

The book is brilliantly put together. The entire structure is based on The Tempest, with Felix as Prospero, thrown out of his kingdom by Tony and Sal (Antonio and Alonso). His island kingdom is the prison. There is another Tempest within this larger story: the re-enactment of the play, which is actually two re-enactments: one that the rest of the prison sees and the other entirely for the benefit of Sal and Tony. All these layers come together in the grand finale.

Hag-Seed is an absolute delight and one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. Felix carries the story: he is manipulative, self-centred and obsessive, but utterly engaging. You don’t have to like Shakespeare to enjoy it, but if you’re interested or need to be reminded—and it does add to the enjoyment of the book—there is a helpful summary of the play at the end. I hope that the other books in the series are as good.

Lincoln in the Bardo: George Saunders

While the American Civil War was raging, Abraham Lincoln lost his 11-year-old son, Willie to typhoid. It is said that for a few nights after Willie’s death, Lincoln, grief-stricken, used to go to the crypt to hold his son’s body.

George Saunders takes this sliver of history and builds a multi-faceted, multi-voiced story around it. The entire book is constructed of fragments—some are extracts from existing material but the bulk of it made up of voices of the dead in the cemetery, dead who are still in Bardo, the Tibetan term for a place of transition after death. It reminded me of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, where the dead rise up to tell their stories.

Our guides for most of the book are two of the ghosts: Hans Vollman, a printer who left behind a young wife; and Roger Bevins III, a gay man who committed suicide when his lover rejected him. They are joined by the Reverend Everly Thomas, who had crossed over into the afterlife but fled to the Bardo when he realized he was being sent to hell. He never got over the horror of what was awaiting him.

Although Willie, being a child, should move on, he stays so he can be with his father. However, the children who stay end up by being attacked by vile beings who bind them down with tentacles, so the three men decide to try to persuade Lincoln to let his son go. Given the obstacles in communicating with the living, this is not an easy task.

This is an incredible work of imagination—not just the premise but the way it is written. The dead in the cemetery cannot wander too far from their bodies and don’t seem to realize they are dead. Coffins are called “sick boxes” and graves “sick mounds”. Their manifestations emphasize the way they lived their lives: a miser with several properties worries constantly about their state and has to float horizontally, pointing like a compass to whichever property he was thinking of; a young black woman brutalized and raped is voiceless; and Everly Thomas has protruding eyes and hair standing on end from the time he glimpsed the horrors of the “diamond tent”.

The style took a while to get used to but once I did, I was hooked. There are, as I mentioned earlier, two kinds of chapters: the historical ones, which are composed of extracts of a couple of lines or so from books or contemporary accounts and often contradict each other. But for me, the richness of the book lies in the other chapters, where the dead come alive, so to speak, and tell us their stories. And it brings home the fact that we all have stories to tell.

My Name is Leon: Kit de Waal

My name is LeonWhen we first meet him, Leon is 8 years old, going on 9. He is in the hospital with his mother Carol, holding his baby brother, Jake, for the first time. This first scene sets up the way things are going to be: Leon holding his new brother with care, Carol going off for a cigarette before feeding Jake, and eventually the nurse leaving Leon to look after his baby brother alone.

And so it goes. Carol is unstable, dependent on prescription drugs and barely able to look after herself, never mind her two sons. Leon steps in and takes care of Jake, feeding him and changing his nappies. Eventually Carol goes into a drug-induced coma, and the neighbour calls in an ambulance and social services.

The boys are taken in by Maureen, an older woman who has fostered more than 20 children over her career. She is obviously good with children and creates a sense of security for Leon. But the boys have different fathers and therefore different fates: Leon is mixed race with a Caribbean father, and Jake is white. Jake is adopted quite quickly but social services cannot find a family to take Leon. Maureen realizes the devastating effect that breaking up the brothers is going to have on Leon but is powerless to stop it.

When Maureen has a stroke and has to go to hospital, Leon has to move again, this time to Maureen’s sister, Sylvia. He has lost so much: his mother, whom he hardly sees now, his brother and then Maureen. He develops behavioural problems: he has no friends in school, he steals and acts out his anger. The one plus he has going for him is that although Sylvia is not the maternal figure that Maureen has been, she genuinely cares about him.

Leon’s world widens when one of the social workers gives him a bike. Riding around Sylvia’s neighbourhood, he discovers an allotment near Sylvia’s house. He becomes friendly with two men there: Tufty, a Caribbean man, who introduces him to racial politics and Mr. Devlin, an Irishman, who seems a little suspect. The two men cannot stand each other but have a lot to teach him (including how to grow beans).

As you can tell from the title, Leon is the centre of the book. It is told from his point of view and he feels so real: a child trying to be an adult, dealing with abandonment and grown-ups who are not always there for him. He feels it is up to him to bring his family back together because no one else seems to want to. It’s heart-wrenching: he is so convinced he can do it, but as the reader you are aware that the world doesn’t work that way.

I spent a lot of the book dreading what was going to happen to Leon, but Kit de Waal never lets things get too fraught. Characters are drawn with a lot of empathy—none of them are saints but nor are they horrible. They’re just people, trying to do the best they can.

De Wall has advised social services on adoption and mother was a foster mother, so she obviously knows her subject. Although social services don’t always come off well, this book is not an exposé of the things can go wrong. It is a warm, empathetic book, and it’s good to be reminded of the humanity of ordinary people, especially in the current climate.

Not So Stories, edited by David Thomas Moore

Not-so-storiesWhen I was a child, I loved Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, tales of how animals became what they are: how the leopard got its spots, the camel its hump and the rhinoceros its skin. But it’s a book that doesn’t age well. Kipling, after all, was part of the British Empire and believed that colonization was a force for good that helped to improve the lot of the “natives”.

So if you’re looking for an alternative version, here it is. Although I’m not sure that you could read all of these to your children, it’s a book whose time has come. Nikesh Shukla begins his foreword with a quote from Junot Diaz: “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

To me, this quote not only sums up the thinking behind Not So Stories, but the way it subverts conventional thinking. The collection that David Thomas Anderson has put together is diverse, both in terms of the background of the authors—which include Australian Aborigine, Malaysian, Philippines, Iranian and Indian (disclosure: Achala Upendran, one of the authors, is the daughter of a friend, Usha Raman, who writes for this blog)—but also in terms of genre: folk tales, fantasy, horror and realism.

There is a lot to enjoy here: Cassandra Khaw’s sly tale of how Spider persuaded Man to give her venom, which he did without thinking because she was such a small harmless thing (he was in for a surprise!); Joseph E. Coles’s angry account of panther who is kidnapped and made to fight in the Roman arenas; and Achala Upendran’s upending of the traditional account about First Woman and First Man: not woman as temptress but man as oppressor. There are those who lose their roots and find them again: Wayne Santos’s Yuan Ching, whose job is to keep the ghosts of the dead from entering the city but is distracted by her English boyfriend; and Georgina Kamsike’s Nina, who rediscovers her Indian identity after her grandmother dies. And the colonizer is definitely not a force for the good—quite the opposite.

That’s just a sample. I look forward to more retold tales, to diverse voices. We all need ourselves reflected.

The Sellout: Paul Beatty

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. … I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. … But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”

The narrator is Me, son of F.U. Me, a psychologist who home-schooled him, reading him academic papers instead of bedtime stories. The Mes are descended from the Kentucky Mees, one of the first black families to settle in southwest Los Angeles (his father dropped the second “e” from the name). Me is in court is because he has tried to reintroduce segregation to Dickens, the majority black-Latino agrarian ghetto he calls home. Dickens is so run-down that, to save Los Angeles embarrassment, it has been wiped off the map. Segregation is Me’s way of trying to put Dickens back on the map.

It starts with a sign posted in the local bus driven by Marpessa, the unrequited love of Me’s life. The sign says PRIORITY SEATING FOR SENIORS, DISABLED AND WHITES and is a birthday present from Me to his good friend Hominy. Finding that people start behaving better on the bus, Me follows it up with a billboard opposite the local school announcing a new academy for whites only, which results in higher test scores in the school.

This is a delightfully subversive book that turns racism in the US on its head. I found myself squirming and laughing out loud at the same time. Paul Beatty has a wicked sense of humour, and everything—and everyone—is fair game. Me describes his trip to Washington: “Yesterday afternoon, like some sandal-shoed Ethiop from the sticks of the darkest of the Los Angeles jungle, I ventured from the hotel and joined the hajj of blue-jeaned yokels that paraded slowly and patriotically past the empire’s historic landmarks.” When the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals—a group of black intellectuals established by his father—suggest that Me take his father’s place as leader of the group, Me mocks it as “The Kim Jong-un of ghetto conceptualism”. And there is the delightful reworking of The Charge of the Light Brigade: “The Charge of the Light-Skinned Spade”.

But there is so much here that I feel I have only skimmed the surface. Like the best comedy, Beatty uses the humour to make some serious points, including about the mass appeal of racial stereotypes in entertainment. Hominy was once a child actor in Little Rascals, the popular TV series about a group of kids of different ethnicities. Hominy is proud of his work, in spite of the fact that the show used racial stereotypes for humour.

The Sellout, by subverting racism, raises questions about the civil rights movement, the US Constitution and racial equality. I can see why it won the Man Booker Prize—it is original and thought-provoking.