Monthly Archives: March 2014

‘How to Bake a Perfect Life’ by Barbara O’Neal

“Out of such simple ingredients – only flour and salt and wild yeast and fresh water – comes the miraculous holiness of bread”

Friends and family know what an absolute foodie I am.  Baking has become not just a passion but an obsession in the past few years. Forget about others, even I was shocked that the cakes, cookies and breads that come out of my kitchen these days are at par to those you get from your patisseries. Yes, you guessed it right, modesty is one of my biggest virtues, indeed 😉

Have you ever been enticed into a shop by that most heavenly of all smells, that of baking bread? It was with trepidation that I started my first bread a year or so ago. As expected, the first few were near disasters. Then the dough started responding to the love that my palms were beating into it. There’s been no looking back since then. The process is one of the best therapeutic sessions you could think of and the smell of freshly baked bread is the most inviting of all. It was little wonder then that seconds after reading through the blurb, the book was on my Kindle.

breadRamona Gallagher is expecting her first grandchild. A single mother at 15, her daughter Sofia is the center of her life along with the boulangerie that she runs out of a Victorian house that was her grandmother’s. With Sofia’s soldier husband fighting for his life and her business under threat of closing down, her life seem to be on the verge of breaking down, again. If that was not enough, Katie, her daughter Sofia’s step daughter has come to stay with her.

An unexpected teenage pregnancy alienated Ramona from almost everyone in her family. Bread making comes to her rescue first as she is banished to her aunt Poppy’s house to give birth to her child.  As the yeast  ferments, loosens up  and raises the dough to a delicious, soft and fluffy bread, she comes to term with the restless and rioting emotions that was raging within her. As the author quotes from ‘The Art of Eating’ by M.F.K. Fisher, Ramona learns something that will keep her steady through life’s twists and turns.

“Breadmaking is one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells…there is no chiropractic treatment…no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

She goes back to her family with her baby who captures their hearts instantly. After a divorce that further shatters her relationship with her already embittered family, Ramona finds herself in her grandmother’s house that was bequeathed to her.  Struggling to keep her business afloat, she now finds herself with the additional responsibility of an emotionally crushed teenager and her dog. As she tries to sort out Katie’s life, Ramona also comes to terms with her life – past and present – and her family.

A delightful read, I would say. The author has excelled in portraying the details, you get the essence of the places and people quite clearly, you can almost smell the bread baking in the ovens, the early morning busy feeling in the kitchen, the bread on the shelves that are brown, soft and inviting, it is as if you are an invisible presence there.

What pulled me back was the almost predictable storyline, it was as if I was reading an evolved and sophisticated Mills & Boon story. Like a perfect dough, all the ingredients for a happy life are thrown in the right proportions, with some failures in between to churn out the perfect piece of bread. Hence the title, maybe. The pieces fit too perfectly, including a perfect boy friend 🙂

Verdict : A must read, if you love baking bread. If you are someone who loves warm stories with good people and happy endings, go for it. In case you normally read serious stuff and need a break in between, pick it up…. only if you love the art of baking or even eating

3.5/5

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‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions’ by P.G. Tenzing

blokeMany of us go through the existential pangs of life from time to time, especially when we are in a place that we don’t want to be or working with people whom we hate. Rarely does anyone show the courage to say out loud, “to hell with it” and walk the talk. Here is one guy who did just that and if that was not enough, went on a 25,000 km bike ride across the country.

P.G. Tenzing, an IAS officer from Sikkim, who spent almost 20 years in Kerala did just that when he was 43. This is his account of that journey, told in a no nonsense manner, in an inimitable style. Along with observations about his friends and people whom he meets along the way, he also writes about his disillusionment about the system and his helplessness about many a thing political as well.

His sense of humor is brilliant and is evident throughout the narration. Particularly enticing to me was his love for food,

” Food in Kerala is to die for. Fish, chicken, pork, beef, whatever, all cooked in delectable coconut oil. Except ‘putte’ – a rice based cylindrical piece of poison which can choke you during breakfast.”

Starting from Varkala beach near Trivandrum, he rides up north, spending a minimum of 6-7 hours on the bike as he traverses the length and breadth of the country.

What makes his story more interesting in retrospect is his thoughts on death. Having survived it twice – once from an illness and the from an accident, he seems almost casual in his observation,

” my father tried to prepare us for death. He used to talk about its certainty, it’s inevitability. So when I started my search for life’s meaning, death was a significant part of the equation. I am nowhere near understanding anything, but am nowhere near understanding anything, but am at this point comfortable with the idea of death. It happens. Shit happens. Be prepared. Prepare your family, friends and all who will listen.”

Premonition? Definitely so. Not much later after his book was published, he passes on after a brief illness.

The story makes you want to just go and do whatever it is that you have always wanted to. It reminds us that life can sometimes to be too short. The friends along the way, in almost every town and village, give us glimpses of a man who was loved by many. And that makes us realize what a life well lived means. The tale ends with a thought that is so relevant to all of us ,

“I may have issues with my life, and I have been buffeted about a bit, but those are nothing compared to the daily battering taken by Mohan and his ilk. Living with them has made me rethink many established idiocies and realize that all those high-sounding spiritual, psychological and emotional arguments we have the luxury to engage in, in our temperature-controlled drawing rooms, take a very low backseat indeed when you are existing – subsisting- day to day.”

Verdict – A must read, I would say.

4/5

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

donna

Disclaimer – a long post. But then, how can you expect anything less when the book itself is close to 800 pages?

‘An Object of Beauty’ by Steve Martin was one of the first books that I would have read about art. Then came Susan Vreeland’s ‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue‘ that taught me the subtle nuances that made a classic,

“Look at the direction of the brush’s stroke, those tiny grooves of the brush hairs. They have their lighted and their shaded side. Look elsewhere. You’ll find overlapping layers of paint no thicker than silk thread that give a minute difference in shade. That’s what makes it a Vermeer.”

‘The Goldfinch’ reminded me of the second one in that a single painting is at the core of the story. Young Theo Decker is scared that he is going to be suspended from school, the headmaster has asked for a meeting with his mother.  A shifty father, who has walked in and out of their lives, seem to have abandoned them for good finally. On that fateful morning his mother, who is ardent lover of art, decides to talk a look at one of her favorite paintings in the museum. Something in the painting catches Theo’s eyes as well, as small as the painting is. While dragging behind his mother , he notices a lovely girl with a violin, accompanied by a man who might be her grandfather. All hell breaks lose as there is an explosion, that almost shatters the whole place. Theo finds himself holding the hands of the old man, who utters some cryptic sounding words and thrusts an antique ring into his hand and urges him to get out. Something pulls the little boy back and makes him take the small painting off the hook as he walks out of the rubble. To repeat a cliche – life is never going to be the same for him again.

His mother killed in the explosion, a father who cannot be traced and a pair of indifferent grandparents, Theo finds himself in his friend Andy Barbour’s home – a typical high end New York house. The ring and an address that the old man had given him, leads him to the dusty but awe inspiring antique shop, to Hobie the genial owner and the girl in the museum, Pippa. He is drawn back to the place day after day, slowly starts helping out Hobie in restoring antique furniture and one gets a feeling he might find solace there. The feelings lasts until his father turns up at a most inopportune moment with his girl friend.

What follows is years of drugs, decadence,  a new friend who seem to be a little more than crazy, coincidences, connections, more drugs and decadence, the high and low of New York and the underbelly of Amsterdam.  The painting remains at the core of it all. I will leave the rest of the story for you to read, be surprised, turn sad and happy and  finally to ponder over some thoughts in the end.

It is said that the author took more than ten years to complete this book and I am not surprised. The canvas is vast and filled with details. And therein lies the beauty. The language is exquisite, mostly. The little boy’s angst and insecurities and his dilemma over what could have been and should have been, and his longing for his mother is transferred to the reader subtly and surely. Sample this,

“I dreamed of her constantly, only as absence, not presence: a breeze blowing through a just-vacated house,her handwriting on a notepad, the smell of her perfume, streets in strange lost towns where I knew she’d been walking only a moment before but had just vanished, a shadow moving away against a sunstruck wall.”

Are you someone who has ever wondered what is it that attracts people to a masterpiece, make some to go to any lengths to own one and to hold on to it? You might understand the feeling,

“The painting made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up.”

I loved how the characters were portrayed, there is no one who is absolutely good or bad, the author doesn’t pass judgement on any of them and as a reader you are also gently persuaded to follow suit. There is a reason to what each of them says and does, there is an underlying resignation to life in each of them. The message, if that is so, of the whole story is captured in Theo’s words in the last chapter as he philosophizes about life as he has known it and in general. It does provoke some strong thoughts in your mind as well, at least, it did for me.

“Isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture—? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster ?”

The book also left me with a feeling that in the ten years that it took to bring it out, some editing could have been done. But then, it could also be that, the author did it on purpose. I skipped more than a few pages where it felt like long ramblings. Thinking back, maybe it makes sense, because the long-winding verses happen when at least one of the characters were in a delirious mood. The last chapter also seemed to go on and on, without any end in sight.

Verdict – Characters with depth, and excellent story line that does not let you keep it down despite the length, language that captures you in most parts and an endearing protagonist who asks some piercing questions – you love the sound of this? Go ahead, pick it up. If it is the paper version, you might develop some muscles also in the bargain.

4/5

‘The Goldfinch’ is an oil painting by the 17th century Dutch master Carel Fabritius. It is one of the few of his works that has survived en explosion that killed the artist.