book review · books · shanti

I Live At the Edge of An Island (like everyone else)

hello Virtually Readers! It has been A WHILE and it will probably continue to be A While between posts. Shar and I have made our peace with this, and for the time being this lovely blog holds years of effort and memories, while we keep reading and finding life in other places. So it goes, and I’m not going to apologise. But I’m currently indoors (because I can’t go outside, because virus), and I’m drinking tea, and it is rainy and I do not have any university work or journalism to do…so I thought I’d review a book I read yesterday.

AllWhoLiveOnIslandsLu

All Who Live on Islands introduces a bold new voice in New Zealand literature. In these intimate and entertaining essays, Rose Lu takes us through personal history – a shopping trip with her Shanghai-born grandparents, her career in the Wellington tech industry, an epic hike through the Himalayas – to explore friendship, the weight of stories told and not told about diverse cultures, and the reverberations of our parents’ and grandparents’ choices. Frank and compassionate, Rose Lu’s stories illuminate the cultural and linguistic questions that migrants face, as well as what it is to be a young person living in 21st-century Aotearoa New Zealand.

buy|goodreads

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blogging · books · discussions · shanti · writing

I used to know what my favourite books were

For about five years, I knew what my favourite books were. Each represented a series which I loved, but was my favourite of the series. I haven’t stopped reading but, it’s the end of the year, and I have realised that I can no longer tell you my favourite books, just the books I have read and enjoyed recently, perhaps. I feel like I’ve lost my gauge, that books still ground me, but for the moment it is books in general, and not any books in particular. 

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books · discussions · features · not books · shanti · writing

on absorbed capacity

hi virtually readers! it has been a long time, and this post is going to explain that a little bit. I miss writing about books. I’m still on Twitter far too often, and I have still been reading, although I seem to have ditched goodreads altogether. I’ve been a book blogger for almost five years, and now starting to wonder if that’s sustainable, or what it looks like in the future. As Shar has intimated, it’s definitely something we are going to keep talking and thinking about. in the meantime, though, we still have this space, and I plan to use it.

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books · discussions · Uncategorized

LitCrawl Recap!

I went to a literature festival a few weeks ago, and I thought that it would be fun to do a whole recap on Virtually Read! This was the first proper book festival I’ve been to—at school we used to have a writing and mountain festival which was cool but a bit random, and I’ve obviously gone to some bookish events, but this was a proper festival. I was going to do lots of things anyway, but then I won some competition on their facebook page and got four tickets to the paid events which was cool. It was sort of at a terrible time (the weekend before I had two exams) but I was pretty over studying at that point anyway, so it was okay.

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book review · books · shanti

America for Beginners

America for Beginners is, I think, the best book I have read this year. It is about the many forms of loneliness. It is about things which hurt. It is about forgiving people. It is about being a stranger in a strange land, and being a stranger in a familiar land, and what to do when you are both at once. It is about characters who ask questions which hurt.

40729271Sometimes you have to go a long way to find what you’re looking for. And sometimes a little beginner’s luck is all you need…

• Welcome to the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company•
• One fixed itinerary, one fixed price•
• All levels catered for•
• No refunds•

Beginner
Recently widowed Pival Sengupta has never travelled alone before and her first trip to this strange country masks a secret agenda: to find out the truth about her long-estranged son.

Intermediate
Satya, her guileless and resourceful tour guide, has been in America for less than a year – and has never actually left the five boroughs of New York.

Advanced
An aspiring/failing actress, Rebecca signed up for the role of Pival’s modesty companion; it might not be her big break but surely it’ll break her out of the rut she’s stuck in.

As their preconceptions about each other and about America are challenged, with a little beginner’s luck, these unlikely companions might learn how to live again.

A big-hearted, hilarious tale of forgiveness, hope, and acceptance, reminding us that there is no roadmap to life. (blurb, as always, from goodreads)

Pival is asking: Who am I when I am without the context of my family and my home?
Rachel is asking: Who am I if I am not what I have always dreamed of becoming?
Satya is asking: Who am I as I become a person my friends would not recognise?
These are all questions of identity, something that the human race is “desperately curious” about when we manage to pay attention to other people in their relentless existence. Identity is something that is fraught for me, as it is to a lesser or greater extent, to all people. I have never been to America; I know it only throught the fragments I have collected from books and movies and friends. But I know India, and I know what it is to belong in India and love it wildly and also be from somewhere else, and find that these facts are, to some extent, irreconcilable. Leah Franqui knows about the layers of identity and belonging too, and manages them magnificently in her novel.
I am sick of ‘immigrant narrative’ stories, written by middle class immigrants from some country that was once a colony, with families that cling hard to tradition because it is all that anchors them in a new land, and children who rebel wildly, wanting to redefine their parent’s parameters of success. These novels are important, but America for Beginners is not one of them. For one thing, Pival, the main character, is not an immigrant. She is a visitor. Rebecca is not an immigant either: she has never needed to question her belonging in America. And while Satya is an immigrant, he is not educated (whatever that means), he is not a doctor or lawyer. He has gathered the crumbs that America has left in its greasy corners and hoards them carefully.
America for Beginners is not a novel of simplistic identity. I appreciated Franqui’s examination of what it means to be Bengali, and how a border has fractured that identity. The interaction of religion worked very well too: Rebecca is Jewish, Pival and Satya are Hindu, but there are Muslims in the story too. The complexities of sexuality, and what Rahi’s upbringing did to his understanding of who and how he loved, was painful, but so well done (and I thought that the lens of Jake, his lover, made that so much better). The way that language dictates identity in context, the difference between North Indian and Bengali food: wherever Franqui writes, she adds nuance. I appreciated, for instance, Satya’s thought that

“Sideways had been the only way to approach anything.”

when he has washed ashore in the land of the brash and direct, prices, like other things, fixed and inflexible It is exquisite. As someone who has spent most of her life in India, I find that immigrant stories do not satisfy me, because I do not share any of that experience. But this felt like it really reflected my understanding of a country I can sometimes call my own.
Leah Franqui is the best kind of writer. She uses frequent figurative language. Her prose is beautiful without being vain, which is honestly so hard to do (it’s something I struggle with so much in my own writing!). All of the sentences make sense, the writing is never distracting, but it does evoke that sense of awareness that good writing does, where it makes you want to notice things in new and surprising ways.

“Everything was fine, everything was great, everything was so light it could crush you.”

“Pival wondered if that’s how ghosts were made, angry spirits whose bodies had been destroyed by time rather than fire.”

“The dirty fading glory of Kolkata crumbling under the weight of modern life.”

Franqui writes gracefully, using third person past tense, the best way to deal with multiple perspectives. The shifting from person to person never feels wrong, which it has in essentially every other novel like this I have read. Only once does she end a chapter with an opening door and an expansive unknown. Usually, I find this a cheap trick; but the use was so restrained as to be all the more compelling for it. The writing has moments of humour, too, like

“The man could find rice in a pasta store.”

I cannot recommend this novel enough, and I could write much more about it, but I have already stayed up late for this book once. I plan to buy it (I got it from the library) and reread it, and cherish it in every way. Being Indian is complex, and so is travelling, and so is death. America for Beginners is a book that deals tragedy as liberally as comedy, and it ended in the best way: with a river as dense as America, characters who were able to move on, but not without me caring a whole lot more in the process of their doing so.

[tiny disclaimer: one of the reasons I picked this up is that I had a Skype conversation with the author a few years ago for unrelated reasons, and she was amazing to talk to and I thought that she was fantastically cool and so I vaguely followed her online since then and she is kinda #goals to be honest and so smart and funny and I love that she sews her own clothes (and probably a mess on the inside just like all other human beings, but wow I would like to be her friend), so you could say that I’m a bit of a fangirl. But even if you know nothing about Leah Franqui, her writing speaks for itself.]

What is the best book you have read this year? and if you’ve been to America, or even if you just know it from books, what advice would you give to beginners there?

blogging · discussions · shanti · writing

Book Bloggers Responsibilities

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about whether it is a book bloggers responsibility to promote reading, and if you want to know my thoughts on that, go read the post! but I also promised to write a post about book bloggers responsibilities in general, and this is that post. What are a book blogger’s responsibilities? After all, this is something we do by choice; not just reading, but reading and then making things out of it. Do we have any obligations? And what does that mean for me?

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books · shanti

awkward situations books have gotten me into

Hi Virtually Readers! As a book lover, I  have a bigger brain have a wide variety of experiences, some of which have actually happened to characters and not to me. Whoops. I have all sorts of associations and memories which have to do with books, and this has gotten me into some troublesome situations in the past.

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books · discussions · shanti · Shar

When I need books

Hi Virtually Readers! A few days ago, I finished reading Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills (I will post a review eventually, so you have that to look forward to). I immediately started reading it again, because it was just that good (to be clear, I was reading like three other books as well, because that’s how I roll. This meant that I could make a personal record and finish four books in one day). Anyway, I think part of the reason I liked Foolish Hearts so much is that I read it when I needed it. Many of the books I like most I appreciate because I read them when I needed them.

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