Francoise Frenkel was born to be a bookseller. Books were her favorite gifts right from childhood. Such was her love for books that the bookshelf that she had custom made for her sixteenth birthday had glass walls on all four sides and was promptly placed in the middle of her bedroom.
Born in Poland, life took her to Paris, “for long years of study and work.’ For someone who spent every spare moment of hers “along the riverbanks in front of the bouquinistes’ old, damp cases of books,” it was only natural that she started working in a bookshop.
The First World War left its aftermath on her homeland and home. Returning to Poland she finds her home almost bare and with no trace of her beloved books and her dream bookshelf. However, when the time came to chose a profession, she didn’t have to think twice, selling books it was. The Francophile that she had turned into, her first choice was to open a French bookshop in Poland. Fate led her to Berlin instead. In no time ‘La Maison du Livre’ became a haven for intellectuals and artists alike, it was frequented by diplomats and celebrities.
She started facing difficulties in 1935 as Jews were becoming targets of suspicion. Importing books became a challenge with innumerable bureaucratic hurdles to be faced. Confiscation of newspapers and books of blacklisted authors became the order of the day. Then came the forms that asked details of her race, generations of her family. Her narration here was eerily familiar to what we see and hear in India these days.
“Are you Frau So-and-So? Father’s name? Mother’s name? Race? Age? Date and place of birth? Identity papers! You are accused of having left at Easter for an unknown destination and of crossing the border illegally.”
Then came Kristallnach – the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938.
“The city burned like Nero’s Rome that day, engulfed in an atmosphere of destruction.
Goods and wares which had been hurled out of windows were carried off by the mob. Whoever tried to defend himself or to save his property was manhandled and abused.
This time, there were bloody, murderous encounters. Everything took place under the very noses of an uninterested police force.
Right next door to these scenes of looting, officers were directing traffic.”
Her bookshop was spared, but the time had come to move on, or literally flee to Paris. And from there starts her saga in search of refuge. From Paris to Avignon to Vichy, Clermont-Ferrand, Nice and Annecy, she is helped by a series of French people most of whom are ashamed of the happenings in their country and what their country men are forced to do. In the end, she literally throws herself over a fence of barbed wire into Switzerland.
It’s a tale of persecution, of unimaginable horror as we all know by now. But Frenkel’s story focuses mostly on the goodness of the people who helped her in spite of the grave risks they themselves would have faced. She gets arrested, is thrown into prison, faces some dark characters, however it’s light that pervades her narrative. Particularly moving for me was how she finds joy in nature even as she is waiting for one of the two – capture or escape, chances of capture being higher.
“A water fountain murmuring in the middle of a square. Nearby, a little bridge from ancient times, looking toylike with its delicate balustrade.
A footbridge seemingly lifted straight out of a theater set; the lively rushing stream and pervasive smell of watery plant life the only things to remind you that it was real. On the street corner, an old church surrounded by dilapidated buildings.”
‘The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape From the Nazis’ says the red stamp on the cover of the book. The book was originally published in 1945, and went largely unnoticed I guess. It was then apparently rediscovered in a jumble sale in Nice and republished in 2015. Originally written in French, the English translation is by Stephanie Smee.
All through the book I couldn’t help but think of Anne Frank. In spite of all they had to go through, it is hope, light and the goodness of people that shines through. Frank broke free through her words, Frenkel, physically too. One is left thinking why we as a race never learn from what happened to others. How patterns keep repeating over the years, how a false sense of superiority or having been persecuted paves the way to persecuting another race, some other religion. Hope prevails, in spite of all the blood and gore.
These words sent a chill down the spine, though. Eerily familiar.
“Oh, the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness, or pity …
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”
I am a faithful infidel. In my relationship with books, that is. At any point in time, there are at least 4-5 books in various stages of reading. Some are left behind on the way, to be forgotten completely. Others are picked up depending on the time of the day and the level of lucidity or exhaustion of the mind, as the case maybe. Interesting fiction gathers pace while engrossing non fiction is taken one or two chapters a day. The list on my e-reader keeps expanding almost daily. And half of them recede into a place so far down that sometimes it is lost for ever. However, some others are dragged back to the top as another list appears and the said book have to be read, just then.
So it was with this one. Downloaded some time ago, picked up for reading after an appearance somewhere in December. One chapter at a time, over a couple of months.
The premise was interesting enough, a psychotherapist, four patients of hers, and her therapist. I didn’t have any expectations, honestly. Maybe because I was not sure what to expect. Lori Gottlieb is an American writer and psychotherapist who writes the Dear Therapist in The Atlantic, said Wikipedia. Whatever, I was ready to take a chance.
Her patients – a self absorbed Hollywood producer, a thirty five old, recently married terminally ill woman, an almost seventy year old who is planning to kill herself if something really good did not happen to her soon enough, and a twenty something girl who flits from one relationship to another. Then catastrophe strikes the therapist. Her boyfriend who she was planning to get married to, drops a bombshell that he wants to opt out. The reason? He doesn’t think he can bring up another kid, that too someone as young as the author’s son. Her whole world comes crashing down and her search for healing brings her to another therapist’s couch, that of the inimitable Wendell. Of course, it’s a pseudo name. But that’s besides the point.
Reading through the first few chapters was like browsing through some magazine articles at random. The author was slowly building the confidence of her patients in her, while she herself was struggling to face her issues. Under the age old guise of finding a therapist ‘for a friend,’ she lands up on Wendell’s couch. Literally and of course figuratively. She is no different from her patients, talking about everything under the sun except what needed to be talked about.
Slowly, each story grows on you. What seems obvious are not the real issues. The roots of each case go deep, planted long ago, watered by others and nourished by themselves. The insecurities, deep rooted fears and in almost all cases, the never ending guilt that makes them stop on their tracks, stunting their emotional growth and affecting their relationships.
Even in the Western world where you can find more therapists than pediatricians, it is still a stigma. One of Lori’s patients even pays her in cash, not to leave any trails. Going to therapy is equated with being crazy, having a mental illness, that needs ‘treatment.’ Lori’s stories bring out how therapy is much more than that, how it is more about emotional growth, crossing the deep chasm of guilt, taking responsibility for our selves even when we might be scared to death.
The meaning of the book took a turn for better for me somewhere midway when the author quoted Viktor Frankl. Something that I keep reminding myself from time to time, to live by. If you haven’t yet, read his ‘A Man’s Search for Meaning.’ It will stay with you, for life.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
As the author starts confronting her demons, there is a marked change in her patient’s lives too. Slow, but sure. Yes, a young woman is inching closer to death, however in acceptance and thankful for the short and happy life she has had. With an obituary that could be the aim of all our lives,
“For every single day of her thirty-five years,” she wanted it to read, “Julie Callahan Blue was loved.”
The producer finds acceptance about a catastrophe that has turned his life upside down, the guilt laden old woman reaches out to the dear ones whom she had hurt deeply, the young woman learns to stand her ground in relationships and her smoking habit too. It’s miraculous how their attitudes and their lives itself change once acceptance is made.
“At some point, being a fulfilled adult means taking responsibility for the course of your own life and accepting the fact that now you’re in charge of your choices.”
As Lori and her patients cross their hurdles something unwinds in us too. So much dust and cobwebs swept under the carpet that our minds are. And the carpet growing mustier and thicker as years go by. How our behaviors are shaped by unresolved happenings and thoughts. How guilt overpowers us. That the uncertainties, the questions, the doubts, the angst is all necessary before we take that leap of faith.
“Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and experience something before its meaning becomes apparent.”
So, here I am. Ready to leap.
Maybe I will find my own Wendell. And maybe I will talk to her.
It took me a couple of years to go past a few pages the first of Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels. Once that threshold was crossed, there was no looking back. In two weeks, all four was done and I was totally blown away.
This one took a similar turn, if I may say so. The difference though was each sentence of the Neapolitan four were devoured in detail. The Abandonment was a fast forward in contrast. One fine day, Mario tells his wife Olga that he no longer wants to have a life with her. In the fifteen years they were together, he had given some hints of unusual behavior maybe twice and Olga had believed that all those were behind them. What goes through her and her life in the ensuing days is what Ferrante portrays in this very short book.
The various phases that Olga goes through, the total disbelief, the difficulty to accept, the sheer bewilderment as to what went wrong, the cycle of guilt, the all consuming anger, the feeling of losing her mind, the changing relationship with her children, and finally the acceptance is described in graphic detail.
There is no shying away from the honesty of the protagonist’s emotions. She hates everything and everyone including her children. However, she has no choice but to go ahead with taking care of the home. While the man walks away with a younger woman, without even a thought of how his family will manage, the woman is left to pick up the pieces.
Rooting for Olga right from the beginning, almost shouting at her to get on with her life, I skipped sentences and whole paragraphs even. Ferrante doesn’t disappoint with the depth of her character portrayals. You get angry and depressed in turns, at a point I was wondering why I was going through such torture in the first place. That is where Ferrante’s magic is. She has you in her spell and it cannot be broken until you have turned the last page.
Journaling as a means of coming to terms with her father’s illness and her relationship with her father is what started it all, says Emilie Pine, an Associate Professor Of Drama at the University Of Dublin. An alcoholic father who could never be relied upon, needing his daughters when he is almost on his deathbed. How does one deal with it? The author tries to be as honest as possible, including her dilemma on whether to be even there for him or not. This sense of absolute truth sets the tone for the rest of the essays.
The pain of infertility, the stigma of menstrual bleeding, the difficulty in speaking about separation especially that of your parents, the wild years of her youth, alcoholism, sexual assaults that she experienced and finally on being female in a world that is still predominantly male, she doesn’t spare herself even a bit. To paraphrase her own words, “I wrote a book that I needed to read.”
What does another memoir do? Why read something so visceral? Why was I not able to put it down? What made my heart race through certain pages? As a dear friend once told me, we need to tell our stories so that others don’t feel lonely. That they realize there are others who have gone through the same. And came out strong. That the ones that seem to have it all are the ones that were once beaten up by life. That each of us have a million stories among us. Telling it aloud builds us, as one and as many.
Each page, every word in here is our story. Our thoughts, our angst. We are not alone.
Four women, three generations. Fardeen, Isra, Sarah and Deya. The first two, immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. Sarah and Deya, two generations of women born and brought up in Arab Brooklyn, forced to conform, waiting to break free.
At seventeen, Deya is forced to ‘sit with suitors.’ College is not for well brought up girls of Palestinian origin. She is torn apart between duty to her grandparents on one side and the urge to break free and be her own person on the other. She and her three younger sisters have only faint memories of their parents, who ‘died in a car accident.’ She seem to be on the brink of falling into a repeating pattern. Her mother, Isra was married off to a man almost twice her age and had to move to the land of dreams, America, almost overnight. All that Deya remembers is a mother who was almost always sad. She has some happy memories though, mostly of her mother reading aloud to her.
Isra had already followed the path of most Palestinian women, she was handed over a dose of reality by her mother before the wedding,
“Isra cleared her throat. “But Mama, what about love?”
Mama glared at her through the steam. “What about it?”
“I’ve always wanted to fall in love.”
“Fall in love? What are you saying? Did I raise a sharmouta?”
“No . . . no . . .” Isra hesitated. “But what if the suitor and I don’t love each other?”
“Love each other? What does love have to do with marriage? You think your father and I love each other?”
Isra’s eyes shifted to the ground. “I thought you must, a little.”
“Mama sighed. “Soon you’ll learn that there’s no room for love in a woman’s life. There’s only one thing you’ll need, and that’s sabr, patience.”
All that Fardeen, her mother in law wants from her is a set of grandsons. Her only respite is Sarah, her twelve year old sister in law. The spark of rebellious fire in Sarah is what sustains Isra through the few years of marriage and four daughters.
As Deya goes through the process of being shown to a prospective groom, she is also struggling to come to terms with questions that has haunted her throughout. As she is succumbing to pressure, a mysterious woman appears at their door step and drops a letter for her. What follows forces her to finally confront the truth about her parents and her own choices.
In the background is the story of women almost everywhere. Of being there for their men, cooking, cleaning, bringing up kids, toiling till the end of their lives. Especially of Arab women irrespective of where in the world they are. Being beaten up is taken in their stride. Most of them who are brought up in traditional manner cannot even find anything wrong with it. The conditioning is to believe that they must have done something to welcome it. For a man can never be wrong. And a woman can never question him because ‘a woman is no man.’
The author, Etaf Rum is Palestinian American. Having grown up in Brooklyn herself, what she must have seen around her must have been something very similar. In her interview here, she mentions how she had to write about the abuse in spite of the knowledge that she might be opening up a can of worms among her community. She was married after high school, had her daughter at eighteen and a son two years later. Maybe it is autobiographical in nature in that the feelings, the angst, the inner struggles of each woman is brought out so poignantly, at times it is gut wrenching. Our hearts go out to each of them, even Fardeena. What she has gone through is what makes her behave so, and she doesn’t even for a moment believe that this is a cycle that can be broken.
The most beautiful part of the story is the love for books shared by Isra, Sarah and then Deya. ‘Thousand and One Nights,’ ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘Bell Jar,’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ even ‘Dr.Seuss,’ gives them joy, solace, an escape from reality, and maybe redemption itself. The choice is theirs to make and each of them do it in their own way.
The women / girls are sure to tug at the string of your hearts which in all probability might still be roaming around between the kitchen and basement of that Brooklyn apartment.
The only resolution at the beginning of the year was to keep a tab on the books that I read in 2020. Let’s say I’ve accepted the meaninglessness of making up my mind to do something from the first of a particular year, when you could actually do that any time of the year. Reading, or keeping count of the books you read is however different. You need a timeframe and when else but the start of an year to do so. No targets, though. Will read when I feel like it and what fancies my mood and my mind.
The first one was ‘A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea’ by Dina Nayeri. Of growing up in Iran post the coup. Of a lost twin and a disappeared mother, of love, friendship, sisterhood, motherhood. Of patriarchy, betrayal , survival.
The second one came through Twitter. The place has become a treasure trove of book recommendations of all kinds. The author, Sarah Ladipo Manyika seem to have transferred her nostalgia and longing for Lagos and Jos where she grew up, into her protagonist, Dr. Morayo.
Nigerian by birth, having lived in several places across the world with her once husband, who was a diplomat, she is soon turning seventy five. After separation, she had lived her life as an English professor and she currently resides in her rent controlled apartment in San Francisco. She lives life on her own terms which means totally uncharacteristic of a woman of her age, or as the world would expect her to. A characteristic pirouette in the bathroom results in a broken hip and she finds herself in a rehabilitation home.
More of a novella, than a novel, the story introduces us to some of the people who walks in and out of her life. You might feel nothing much happens, but in very few words, the author takes us through the lives of a number of characters. And that exactly is the charm of this short read. Each character stays with you, who they are is brought out in very few words. And the thread that runs through each of them is the doctor who influences their life one way or the other. No one can escape her charm and no one can stop her from what she wants to do.
A thoroughly captivating read, and a character that I would love to evolve into, in real life.
It is 1945. 14 year old Nathaniel and his 16 year old sister Rachel find themselves abandoned by their parents. As it is both of them were secretive about their war time work. The kids are flabbergasted by yet anoththey were told of the departure, no further details were given. The confusion turns into a sense of betrayal when they find their mother’s luggage that should have been with her, in their basement. They are left in the care of a character they call ‘The Moth’ , a strange man who had been inhabiting the upper floor of their house.
The first half of the story weaves itself around the strange characters that float in and out of their home, The Moth’s friends. The Darter, Olive, the ethnologist, the Russian woman that was Darter’s girlfriend and so on. Each of them include one or the other of the kids in their strange occupations and influence them in their growing up years one way or the other. Meanwhile, Nathaniel starts working in the kitchen of a restaurant where he strikes up a friendship with a girl called Agnes. They meet up at night in houses put up for sale, letting themselves in with keys borrowed from Agnes’s real estate agent brother. The life that has now become normal comes to an abrupt halt with an almost catastrophic event that turns fatal to one of the characters.
The second half finds us years later with Nathaniel trying to piece together the years of his uncertainty as well his mother’s life, from her childhood, youth and marriage, the war years and post that and her professional and personal relationship with the suave and enigmatic Felon Marsh. Each earlier character’s role is revealed slowly. The story ends with an extremely unexpected twist that reminds us of Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’.
That Michael Ondaatje is a writer unparalleled is a given fact. He doesn’t let the reader down, yet again. Lives entwine each other, threads that were unraveled once get caught up with each other again and there is vengeance, but with a cause. Every act has a reason for the actors, but do they know the consequences fully? Once they come to know of it, are they penitent or do they accept it and go on with their lives? The ongoing thread seem to be how your acts are never left dangling in the air, that there are always after effects.
The language as expected is exquisite. It caresses you as you feel for each of the characters. And the final twist is something you would never imagine.
If you love well etched characters, a story that flows gently like a calm river (who said war stories have to be violent?) and an ending that makes you gasp at first and then accept it and go on without upsetting the applecart as Nathaniel did, do not miss it.
Unassuming, charming and an excellent sense of humor , that was enough for me to fall for Chhimi Tenduf-la and pick up his collection of short stories at BLF 2017. It was a huge leap of faith for someone who seldom read short stories and probably never that of an author previously unheard of. He didn’t disappoint. In fact, I was actually blown away by the slices of life in Sri Lanka and how he connected one story to another, almost imperceptibly. That was ‘Loyal Stalkers’.
Didn’t have to think twice when I came up on this novel of his that was published in 2015 – ‘The Amazing Racist’. Set in Sri Lanka, the story revolves around Eddie Trusted, anEnglishman who landed there to teach Economics, the whirlwind, elusive beauty Renuka Rupasinghe and her terror of a father, Thilak Rupasinghe.
The story starts with Eddie waiting outside Thilak’s office door to ask his daughter’s hand in marriage. Thilak has an apparent hatred to anyone other than pure bred Sinhalese and he has no plans to forgive the English as a race who looted all his mother land’s riches. So you can guess how Eddie would have been received.
How the relationship between the father and the prospective son-in-law develops in spite of the daughter and probably because of the grand daughter is what the story is all about. Said in a poignant manner coated in generous doses of humor that makes you break out in laughter many a time, this is one book and author you shouldn’t miss. The tough exterior of a man that is used to having his way, the convenient lie that he has hidden all his life, the knowledge that it is his pride and the fear of losing his daughter’s love that has made him so, is brought out in a way that you feel nothing but love for the old rascal.
His characters are human with their own petty weaknesses, but they are not apologetic about it. There are moral dilemmas which of them faces in their own way. You understand and even empathize with all of them. It emphasizes the fact the it is not always blood that makes a family, that your race or the color of your skin have nothing to do with how you may come to care for a person. And love doesn’t always come in sweet words and gestures, it might even be disguised in veiled insults and curses.
A breezy read, I started this while waiting for an appointment at the tax service center and almost finished it by the time I was done three hours later. And then couldn’t wait to finish the last few pages after reaching home.
A heart warming, witty read, you will not regret taking this up. Made me feel good about life and the people that are a part of it.
p.s. the author is half English, studied Economics at Durham University, currently manages Elizabeth Moir school in Sri Lanka and teaches Economics there. Wonder whether there are any autobiographic elements there 🙂