Posted in 4.5 stars, Book reviews

At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches by Susan Sontag

903115.jpgGenre: Essays

Date Published: March 6, 2007

Pages: 235

Source: Library

Goodreads Synopsis: “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world,” Susan Sontag said in her 2003 acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, and no one exemplified this definition more than she. Sontag’s incisive intelligence, expressive brilliance, and deep curiosity about art, politics, and the writer’s responsibility to bear witness have secured her place as one of the most important thinkers and writers of the twentieth century. At the Same Time gathers sixteen essays and addresses written in the last years of Sontag’s life, when her work was being honored on the international stage, that reflect on the personally liberating nature of literature, her deepest commitment, and on political activism and resistance to injustice as an ethical duty. She considers the works of writers from the little-known Soviet novelist Leonid Tsypkin, who struggled and eventually succeeded in publishing his only book days before his death; to the greats, such as Nadine Gordimer, who enlarge our capacity for moral judgment. Sontag also fearlessly addresses the dilemmas of post-9/11 America, from the degradation of our political rhetoric to the appalling torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

At the Same Time, which includes a foreword by her son, David Rieff, is a passionate, compelling work from an American writer at the height of her powers, who always saw literature “as a passport to enter a larger life, the zone of freedom.”

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My View:  I don’t really remember how I heard about Susan Sontag except it was in one of my bookish whatsapp groups (umm yeah, they exist, I am a part of two). And I tucked it away in the back of my mind. On my visit to the library a couple of months back, I stumbled upon ‘In America’ by her but the title didn’t interest me much. What did I have to do with America anyhow? And I put it back on the shelf.

And then I came across this book by Sontag on my recent library visit. I contemplated keeping it back. I wasn’t sure if I was in the mood for essays (I usually never am. Those were things written and memorized in school and never read again.) but I decided to bring it home. It sat beside my bed while I read fictional works I had issued. And finally I decided to atleast get a flavor of what it was about. The introduction by Sontag’s son, Davie Rieff piqued my curiosity. And thereafter I didn’t look back, turning page upon page until I devoured it, albeit a bit slow in the beginning and faster at the end.

It was a brilliant read. I think I am in love with Sontag. And I deeply mourn her loss. I wish she was alive now. I am sure she would have so much to say about Trump’s win and the state of America now. She seems very vocal and unfazed by critics and people in the power. I admire her tenacity and bravado. We need more people like her.

My favorite essay in this book was on Pasternak, Tsvetayeva and Rilke. How she talks about their personal and professional lives giving us a peek into their private lives. Mesmerizing!

I deeply appreciate her insights into books, the lives of authors, political situations and almost everything under the sun. She’s well read, thorough in her research, and her writing just pulls you in and keeps you focused. I could feel the time she has taken in penning down each and every word. I totally am with her when she says not many writers today are knowledgeable. They don’t know about the world they reside in. I agree when she says it’s important as a writer to know what’s happening around.

Ah. The feeling. The aftertaste this book leaves in your mouth. You feel like just sitting for a while, letting it all sink in. To not let that get murky by reading another book. *Sigh*

I need to pick up another book by her. I am gravitating towards ‘Regarding the pain of others’. Have you read Sontag? Which book of hers do you recommend?

4.5/5 stars – Somewhere between ‘I really liked it’ and ‘I loved it’.
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Author Bio:

Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the College of the University of Chicago and did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford.

Her books, all published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, include four novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover, and In America; a collection of short stories, I, etcetera; several plays, including Alice in Bed and Lady from the Sea; and nine works of nonfiction, starting with Against Interpretation and including On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, Where the Stress Falls, Regarding the Pain of Others, and At the Same Time. In 1982, FSG published A Susan Sontag Reader.

Ms. Sontag wrote and directed four feature-length films: Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971), both in Sweden; Promised Lands (1974), made in Israel during the war of October 1973; and Unguided Tour (1983), from her short story of the same name, made in Italy. Her play Alice in Bed has had productions in the United States, Mexico, Germany, and Holland. Another play, Lady from the Sea, has been produced in Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Korea.

Ms. Sontag also directed plays in the United States and Europe, including a staging of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the summer of 1993 in besieged Sarajevo, where she spent much of the time between early 1993 and 1996 and was made an honorary citizen of the city.

A human rights activist for more than two decades, Ms. Sontag served from 1987 to 1989 as president of the American Center of PEN, the international writers’ organization dedicated to freedom of expression and the advancement of literature, from which platform she led a number of campaigns on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers.

Her stories and essays appeared in newspapers, magazines, and literary publications all over the world, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Art in America, Antaeus, Parnassus, The Threepenny Review, The Nation, and Granta. Her books have been translated into thirty-two languages.

Among Ms. Sontag’s many honors are the 2003 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the 2003 Prince of Asturias Prize, the 2001 Jerusalem Prize, the National Book Award for In America (2000), and the National Book Critics Circle Award forOn Photography (1978). In 1992 she received the Malaparte Prize in Italy, and in 1999 she was named a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government (she had been named an Officier in the same order in 1984). Between 1990 and 1995 she was a MacArthur Fellow.

Ms. Sontag died in New York City on December 28, 2004.

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Posted in 4 stars, Book reviews

Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid

Date Published: November 27, 2014
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 252
Source: Review Copy provided by Random House India
Format: Paperback

Goodreads SynopsisFrom “one of his generation’s most inventive and gifted writers” (The New York Times) , intimate and sharply observed commentary on life, art, politics, and “the war on terror.”

Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant, moving, and extraordinarily clever novels have not only made him an international bestseller, they have earned him a reputation as a “master critic of the modern global condition” (Foreign Policy). His stories are at once timeless and of-the-moment, and his themes are universal: love, language, ambition, power, corruption, religion, family, identity. Here he explores this terrain from a different angle in essays that deftly counterpoise the personal and the political, and are shot through with the same passion, imagination, and breathtaking shifts of perspective that gives his fiction its unmistakable electric charge.

A “water lily” who has called three countries on three continents his home—Pakistan, the birthplace to which he returned as a young father; the United States, where he spent his childhood and young adulthood; and Britain, where he married and became a citizen—Hamid writes about overlapping worlds with fluidity and penetrating insight. Whether he is discussing courtship rituals or pop culture, drones or the rhythms of daily life in an extended family compound, he transports us beyond the scarifying headlines of an anxious West and a volatile East, beyond stereotype and assumption, and helps to bring a dazzling diverse global culture within emotional and intellectual reach.

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My View: To tell the truth, the only reason I picked up this book in the first place was because the author was famous for having written The Reluctant Fundamentalist which went on to become a major motion picture. Otherwise, a book with a title like that would have been easily glossed over.

The book has been divided by essays into three parts – Life, Art and Politics. It’s difficult to choose which part I liked the most. But yes, I found the first two parts more easy to read and interesting while the final one was heavy and dry on the palate.

I liked the way the essays have been structured. It starts with giving us a glimpse into the author’s life which makes it easier to appreciate what comes later on. We see the world through his eyes and experiences and it lends itself a different voice than the world might see from their side of the spider’s web.

The author’s journey through his career changes, his personal life and travel within the three countries makes for an interesting narrative. In seeing the world-view through his eyes, one finds oneself wondering at the objectivity and its absence in all things meaningful.

The essays in the Art section also made for a gripping read. With my interest in all things related to books, I could identify where the author was coming from. His essays about rereading books, likeable characters, Murakami, great American novel and the change of reading experience through ebooks found a resonance within me. They made for a page turning read.

Let me now talk about the Politics section. Frankly, I have zero knowledge and/or interest in politics. But every so often, with the help of books like these, I try to keep myself abreast of the goings-on in the world. And that’s precisely where this section stepped in. The essays give a plethora of events to think about, to reflect upon. Looking at the drones and war from an insider’s perspective lends it an air of honesty and raw brutalism that makes one shudder. It’s easy to read about it in the news than to hear someone who has been through it and knows the ins and outs. It would be easier to side with the US on its drones and air strikes when its labelled as a fight with terrorism but when you hear it from the horse’s mouth do you realise it carries within it so much more than just that. The essays give a refreshing albeit heart rending stance to the whole situation. Frankly, it was difficult to go through it. It was unsettling and as is easier, one tends to pass by what is uncomfortable or evokes disturbing emotions. But I needed to know the bird’s eye view of things and not just what the newspapers tell me and hence I read it, every single word of it. It didn’t help settle my perturbed emotions but surely helped me realize that one can never see the panorama from just one side. And now that I have touched on the philosophical, let me give it a rest. And you go read the book.

Highly influential and well-written. Would definitely be trying the author again.

4/5 stars – I liked it. 4 stars

(All opinions expressed are my own and in no way influenced.)

Huge thanks to Random House India for providing the review copy.