Archives for category: Book Review

When future Nobel laureate Saul Bellow published Seize the Day in 1956, it was immediately greeted by critics to be a book that proved Bellow’s artistic maturity. Seize the Day is a sobering book about a man and his struggle with inner demons and his efforts to recognize his existence in the world. Indeed, the odds are against Tommy Wilhelm who is going through an onerous middle life crisis; he is estranged from his wife and children, is at odds with his successful father, had a failed Hollywood career and unemployed with his finances in a mess. In fact, a Hollywood agent once described him as “The type that loses the girl”. As his life comes crashing down, we follow Wilhelm through the course of one day in which he tries to connect with his insular father and take one last shot at financial stability. Seize the Day is a grim, existentialist portrayal of a man who no longer connects with anybody around him and lives in the bitterest form of isolation. Bellow’s characterization of Wilhelm will serve to his readers as a warning about the failure to make mature decisions and a critique of the ruthless nature of modern society.

Bellows repeatedly stresses the fact that majority of the characters in Seize the Day judge Wilhelm by his financial state and ignore him as a human being and thus this book also serves as a critic of a society obsessed with money. A major portion of the early parts of the book focuses on the interactions between Wilhelm and his vain, successful father who had been living in an upscale hotel called the Gloriana Hotel in New York. Their relationship is odd with Wilhelm trying to reach out to his father while his fathers tries to distance himself from the troubles that his son is facing. Wilhelm’s frustration which stem from his inability to connect with his father are evident when he confesses to his father, “You have no sympathy. All you do is to shift the blame to me!” But his father rejects his every plea of help as he thinks that Wilhelm will become nothing but a burden to him. This is seen when he tells Wilhelm, “And I want nobody on my back. Get off! And I give you the same advice too. Carry nobody on your back.” Furthermore, Wilhelm’s state of affair leaves his father thinking that he is incompetent as seen in the moment where he remarks that, “I don’t understand your problems. I never had any like them.” Despite being estranged, his wife still holds him responsible for supporting her financially. In fact, Wilhelm’s wife views him nothing more than a distant bread winner as was seen during their conversation at the end of the book where she remarks, “I hate it when I have to ask you for the money that you owe us. I hate it!” Then comes the character of Tamkin who plays a pivotal role in the book. Tamkin claims to be a “Psychologist” and makes dubious claims at being a speculator. Tamkin is his last hope and his final desperate bid to reestablish himself, financially. The only reason that he would trust such an untrustworthy person is because he isn’t getting any sort of support from his family which judges him too harshly.

The more that Wilhelm defends himself throughout the book, the more he realizes that his immature nature is the cause of his suffering and not “luck” as he would like to keep it, in Sieze the Day, Saul Bellow tries to show that we are more responsible for our action more than luck or chance. This is reflected in his abrupt decision to drop out of college and pursue a career to Hollywood but never goes beyond being lost in a crowd full of extras. He had trusted the wrong talent scout. Despite repeated objections from his parents and friends he still went on to gamble his life away in a bid to become a star in Hollywood. Another realization of Wilhelm’s immaturity is the fact that it was he who left his wife and children and not the other way around. He fails to asserts himself over his vengeful wife and to fight over the guardianship of his children. Despite being far away from his family, he manages to comfort himself superficially by thinking that he is still supporting his children by sending them money. This incomplete withdrawal from family life is one of the reasons for his intense loneliness.

The rest of Seize the Day is an introspective journey where Wilhelm realizes his mistakes and his inability to change them is common to all of us. His attempts at restoring his life to normalcy are ruined after Tamkin cheats him out of his last savings. This is the turning point of the book in which Wilhelm performs the deepest type of soul searching. He accepts the blame for all the hurt he has given to people and no longer blames “luck” for his failings. This is reflected in the ending in which he confesses in an internal monologue, “What’ll I do? I’m stripped and kicked out…Oh Father! What do I ask of you ? What’ll I do about the kids – Tommy, Paul?” With these words, he ultimately accepts responsibility for his actions and his fate which he had been otherwise been placing it on other external factors.

All in all, Seize the Day is a haunting existentialist fable about a flawed man and the gradual acceptance of his flaws. It is a manifestation of our greatest fears; social alienation and inescapable loneliness. And it also acts as a bitter, although indirect, criticism of modern life and all its pressures. Even after more than fifty years since its publication, the themes of Seize the Day still resound strongly when I read it.






Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face,

tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

– Rudyard Kipling

Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish novelist who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. He belongs to the so called “Postmodernist” group of writers which includes Columbia’s Gabria Garcia Marquez, Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges, Italy’s Umberto Eco and America’s Don DeLillo. “Postmodernist” is just a tag for the unclassifiable. In similar fashion, Orhan Pamuk’s most successful novel “My Name is Red” has been called “Postmodern”

If you consider the details of this book, then you’d realize that “My Name is Red” is a serious challenge of classification. Here are some aspects of the book:

1. The book consists of 59 chapter, each a monologue by a different character. Thus you have a story told with multiple perspectives with many narrators.

2. The main thread of the novel is a murder mystery involving the death of a renowned miniaturist illustrating a top secret book.

3. The novel is a period piece in 16th century Ottoman Empire

4. There is a built in love story in the book

The first chapter in the novel is a woeful monologue by a corpse. The corpse is that of Elegant Effendi, a renowned miniaturist. While the plot device of most thrillers involve something in the lines of a potential nuclear disaster or an insidious homicidal maniac, My Name is Red involves something more subtle: an agent of cultural change. The Ottoman Empire in the 16th century was at the time at the height of its power and influence, yet remained an insular empire. This was reflected in the Ottoman Miniatures (Illustrated Books) which complied to strict Islamic conventions which included flat faces and no perspective. At the same time, Europe was undergoing its Renaissance period of artistic and cultural reinvention when Da Vinci and Michelangelo were the rage of town. So the Sultan decides to commission a book illustrated in the “New Venetian Style” in order to compete with the Venetian luminaries. But there are those who resist and cling to the status quo. The old style of miniature painting was justified with Islamic theology so naturally adjusting to the “new venetian style” would require a crisis of faith. As a result one of the miniaturists ends up murdered and puts the project which would unite the Eastern and Western styles for the first time in trouble. This is when the main character, Black (what a horrible name) is caught in the web of events in order to win his love interest. Or at least that is the main thread of the novel.

In literary terms, My Name is Red is a stylish book with unusual literary techniques. The mode of narration of events in this novel is amusing: each chapter has a different narrator. This gives an organic reading experience as Pamuk constructs his world of art and politics in 16th century Turkey. The monologues consists of the main characters lamenting about the problems of their life. But then there are also unconventional monologues which include those from the color red, Satan, a dog, etc. They add flavor and originality to the book and at times even comic relief.

The language is fluid and full of long expressive sentences that are masterfully translated. Pamuk shows dedicated artists or miniaturists who have a fervent devotion towards art and liken art to god or religion. However, during the course of the book we also witness the staining of art due to the old, tasteless politics of the “East vs. West”. We get a peek into how extremism and fundamentalism develop when politicians take advantage of poverty, illiteracy and xenophobia of the masses and the exaggeration of certain ideals (think Taliban). And we see Pamuk, a secular Muslim, testify his love for divine nature of art and his frustration towards an increasingly radical Muslim world.

Although a difficult and demanding book, I was enthralled by Pamuk’s foray into the darker side of faith and the timelessness of art itself. My Name is Red is a book that will stay with me as I grow as a writer.


"The new Venetian style"

An Ottoman Miniaturist at Work (Drawn in the Typical Minature Style)

Your Typical Miniature Illustration (Note the Chinese Influence)

A Typical Minature Scenery (Note the Lack of Perspective)

A Miniature Supreme (This Illustration Depicts Muhammad, whose Face is Veiled for Dogmatic Reasons, in his Trip to Heaven. This Visit of Heaven is Known as Miraj)


The plan was to drink till the pain’s over

But what’s worse the pain or the hangover?

– Kanye West

New Nepal that has dawned upon us disappoints everybody with its synthesis of depravity and ignorance. In these dark times of urbanization and self annihilation, I take refuge in the far and distant coves of literature that we have forgotten. In the old and worn out copies of Sajha Publication, I found the embryo of Nepali Literature. Most of the Nepali Literature is political and burns with a furious rage directed towards the mistakes made by men who failed to build this country and displays frustration towards the futility of the efforts of ordinary citizens. The trend is to write endlessly about ineffectual politics.

The alternative to the endless torrent of politics is Shirish Ko Phool, a novel by Bishnu Kumari Waiba who goes by the pseudonym of Parijat. Like little man Marradona, this book is only 60 pages long but its impact will leave you with a crater in your heart. Every word, line and page of this remarkable novel sings painfully and its bitter irony will stick with you even long after you have finished reading the book. The strength of Shirish Ko Phool is that it is a book with a heart and its characters are people that we can easily identify with. But the thing that sets this book apart as an unparalleled piece of art is its bitter and melancholy narrative and, its foray into the deepest thoughts of the main character which have a universal characteristic.

The main thread of the novel is the mid-life crisis of the narrator of the book, Suyog Bir Singh, a former World War soldier. Suyog lives in a vacuum, i.e. Shunya. His life is unremarkable and uncelebrated. He has no family and no friends and lives a lonely life. He pours all of his bitterness into alcohol. He often goes to the bar and finds a younger drinking partner named Shivaraj. Shivaraj takes Suyog to his home where he meets Sakambari. Suyog soon develops a strong infatuation for Sakambari, a woman 16 years younger than him.

Sakambari is the shirish that the title alludes to. Just like the flower, she blooms giving the cold world some warmth. She is everything that poor Suyog feels that he has lost in his empty life. Suyog is afflicted by a venomous mixture of  strong love for Sakambari and a grim sense of self-hatred. The foundation of Suyog’s frame of consciousness is shaken to its core by that acrid mixture, he finds love and life to be excruciatingly painful. And in the end, like the flower, due to an unidentified disease, she gives up and withers and vanishes into the Earth.

Shirish Ko Phool is not a story of victory; it is a story about an empty and meaningless life and a toxic love for a cold woman.

At the crux of the story is Sakambari, a thoroughly bewitching character. The conversations between Suyog and Sakambari which occur periodically throughout the novel crack with electricity. Suyog is a man wounded from fighting himself and the struggle to recognize his existence. Then, Sakambari makes cold and precise comments on Suyog’s life that cut through Suyog’s frail consciousness. Like the time she criticizes Suyog’s bachelor life by saying that he is old and there is nobody to cook for him.

Sakambari is a strong independent, spiteful woman with atheistic attitudes. Her attitude and her caustic criticism show her inner frustration at being a woman and having a limited role in society. She resents looking weak in front of her male counterparts like her brother Shivaraj or Suyog.

Suyog on the other hand admits to being a lowly mortal and sees Sakambari being stronger than him. His fascination with Sakambari is derived from his admiration of her strong will. But in the end, the reader realizes that Sakambari is as frail as Suyog himself and her ultimate demise makes a sorrowful ending for a bitter and tortured book.

Of course, Shirish ko phool isn’t a book that is easily stomached by all. Its bitterness may bug you but it’s humanity will touch you. Shirish ko phool is intensely lyrical but it’s language is easy to follow. It is only 60 pages long but you will find an entire universe encapsulated in it. In other words, if you can read and write the Nepali language, then this book is a must-read.